On shaking ground

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The fluttering of wings did nothing to calm her mood, as they always had done in the past. The aviary felt instead like a trap, for both the birds and Kirya's mind. It was a diversion, a way to distract her mind from what lay all around, seeped into every street of the valley.

Beyond the glass and the palace roof she could see distant, rolling hills and the encircling mountain ring in the far distance, shrouded in cloud. Below the mesa, out of sight, the city lay poised, tensions filling every quarter and winding alleyway; guards and King's Eyes roamed, hunting in numbers not seen for decades, seeking those who had wronged the king. It had been her city, a sanctuary that represented the best that Lagonian society had to offer, despite its problems and challenges.

The events of the previous night had taken her city away and put in its place a seething hive of suspicion and fear and hatred, with people who regarded each other not as neighbours but as threats. She had always been apart as a consequence of her birth but had nevertheless always felt welcome; she had understood the barrier between her and the people of Treydolain as one of inheritance and privilege and fortune, rather than of disdain and disrespect. Life went on, people were fed, and housed, and happy, and the Tellador family ruled with a kind gesture instead of an iron fist. Lagonia had always been far from perfect but it had been comfortable, with promise for the future.

Most heartbreaking of all was the revelation that this had never been the case; that she had never understood the city, the valley, its people or her place among them. A self-imposed illusion, willed into existence by her family and the nobility to convince themselves of their wisdom and righteous decisions, had dispersed like a morning mist to reveal the sodden, filthy underpinnings of their society. It had never been as she had perceived.

Her Lagonia did not exist. In her Lagonia, revolution was not possible. In her Lagonia, disobedience happened only around diplomatic dinners or in polite courtly debate, and always led to greater insight and achievements. It did not result in street battles and open insurrection and threats on the royal family's lives. In less than a day, her world had ceased to exist. The shock reverberated in retrospect, echoing back through her memory, erasing her perception of the past and prompting her to review her life through a lens of cynicism and despair.

She had read about war in the library, from the muddled accounts of the great war as well as histories of the ensuing civil war and semi-legendary fables of conflict beyond the mountains. It had seemed distant: something that happened to other people, and other civilisations. It could not happen to Lagonia, for the valley had since risen above such barbarism and ignorance.

The King's Eyes hunted for the perpetrators of the attack. Her father had put out death warrants on anybody associated with the incident and anybody found to be harbouring fugitives or withholding information. Such an edict had not been issued in over a hundred years: there had been no need, and it was inconceivable that there would be anything to demand such an extreme response. The streets had been aflame overnight, as the city guard spread from street to street, beginning at the site of the attack and closing the net on the poor quarter, triggering counter-attacks from criminal gangs which may or may not have been involved in the festival disruption.

Kirya didn't want them dead. She wanted to understand them, to know what made them engage in such horrific action. In a land of prosperity and stability, what would drive people to hate so completely? She could not conceive of it, which made her wary of her own lack of knowledge. Stamping it out with a hard boot would get them no closer to identifying how it had happened in the first place. People did not attack the king's convoy without planning and strong intent - it could not be explained through drunken idiocy or a misunderstanding or fear of Tranton Seldon's arrival.

Tranton Seldon. Another mystery, also proving elusive. He had not been sighted since the street battle and varying theories had already emerged, from kidnappings to thinking him drowned, or dead in an alleyway as an unaccounted for victim of the battle. Kirya thought otherwise, for she had found herself to know him better than most, through coincidence and fate. Seldon was a man who refused to be chained or paraded about as a trophy. He had left of his own accord, disappearing into the night, she was sure of it.

Standing from the bench upon which she had been sat, she composed herself, forcing her confusion and anger at the world to the back of her mind, then she left the aviary, as an afterthought wedging open the door with a stone.

The air was calm even atop the palace, the heat of the day hanging heavy in the still air and no doubt contributing to the tensions in the streets. While others loyal to her father scoured the city for signs of Seldon or the attackers, she had been ordered to remain in the palace in case of further violence. Although his vanishing was excruciatingly inconvenient and destabilising, she admired Seldon's resolve and single-mindedness. She had often wished to be free of the shackles of being the heir to the throne, though had never wanted to disappoint her father or abandon the valley to an unknown future.

That future was gone, regardless of her actions. A dark heart had been revealed at the centre of the valley, the arteries spreading out from Treydolain to infect all else. Though she had no evidence, Kirya was convinced that the incident was not an isolated quirk, or representative only of the city. It was as if a veil had fallen from her eyes and she was seeing the world for the first time. Perhaps it was time for her to forge a new future, rather than assuming one would be made for her.

Her feet took her to her chambers, where she undressed and changed into nondescript clothes that would draw little attention in the city, being carefully balanced to appear respectable without being evidently luxurious. By simply unlacing, removing and creasing particular elements of the outfit she could easily pass for either a poor noble or a fortunate pauper, as the circumstances demanded. She filled hidden pockets with a little food and other supplies, then took a deep breath before exhaling noisily.

She would not be stopped this time. Perhaps she would even be the one to find Tranton Seldon, given that only she fully understood his need to be rid of his fame. A servant had obediently acquired the guard rota as well as Fenris' agenda, giving Kirya all the information she needed to be able to sneak out of the palace entirely unseen. The events of the previous evening had introduced an element of chaos, to be sure, but it would mean a stronger guard presence at the main entrances and a busier schedule for Fenris and his staff. She would be invisible, gliding like a phantom from the mesa to the city, where she would begin her own hunt.

Following her usual route across the balconies to the adjoining bedrooms, she slipped into the corridor and stepped softly and swiftly, moving into a servant passageway that she knew would be empty. She clicked the door to the main corridor shut just as she heard a guard climbing the staircase and held her breath as they passed. Carrying on down the undecorated servant passage, she paused at the door to an upper kitchen, listening for cooks at work, then darted across and down a short flight of bare stairs. The servant passages were maze-like, threaded throughout the palace and allowing easy movement and delivery of refreshments, linen and other niceties without staff needing to be actually seen or heard. All she needed was to reach the spiralling staircase which led all the way to the ground floor, from where she could make her way into the gardens.

Reaching the wooden door to the staircase, she took a last look about her, then unlatched it and swung it slowly open, cautious to avoid overt creaking of hinges.

Too late, she heard footsteps descending from the spiralling steps above. Before she could close the door, feet and legs appeared, then the body and face of Fenris Silt.

He had found her, again, as he always did. She let out a long, deep, weary sigh and leant against the wall in resigned defeat.

"Kirya," he exclaimed, clearly startled, and it was only then that she noticed his face was cut just above the eyebrow, a thin rivulet of freshly dried blood running down past his eye. Not only that, but his clothes were unusually dishevelled and patched with dust and dirt, as if he had fallen.

She was about to ask if he was injured, and inquire as to whether he had fallen, when she realised that he was not alone. There was another figure on the staircase behind him. It was a boy, perhaps a little younger than her, or even a little older - it was difficult to tell in the gloomy light of the stairwell - and he was similarly ruffled, as if from a rough fight. The boy looked confused and not a little scared.

"Fenris," she said, standing away from the wall and looking him over again with undisguised consternation. "Won't you introduce me to your friend?"

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