Taking a breath

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The door slammed shut, throwing the room into a darkness broken only by dusty shafts of light, and Kirya wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or yet more anxious. The two men stood in the dark with her, also clearly conflicted in their reading of the situation, the silence pierced only by their breathing. The house was ramshackle and damp, its walls crooked and askew, with the floor sloping awkwardly down into a patch of sticky water which appeared to bubble out of the floorboards. It was impossible to see what the building would have once looked like, and it clearly hadn't been inhabited for decades.

"We'll be safe here until it is dark," Fenris said.

Kirya wrinkled her nose at the rank smell lifting from the puddle. "How did you find this place?"

"It is an investment I made long ago," Fenris responded simply, clearly unwilling to divulge more.

She didn't know where to start. Part of her wanted to wrench the door open and call for the city guard; another part wanted to follow Fenris' lead so she could find out more - either to better inform her father, or to join Fenris on whatever mission he was pursuing. Every minute she remained in his company she drifted further from her parents and the palace; by aiding their descent from the mesa (first clambering down from the position Tranton had identified, hand over hand, until entirely out of sight of anyone on the plateau; then traversing to intercept the delivery cable cars down to the unmanned depot at the mesa's base) she had immediately become an accomplice, even though she didn't yet understand even her own motivation, much less his.

Fenris Silt had never given her reason to not trust him. He had been a constant in her life, as her tutor and friend and guardian, often more present than either of her parents. He had shown the compassion sorely lacking in her mother and had dedicated the time and care her father was never able to afford. Kirya had never known her grandparents but Fenris had always been a more than satisfactory alternative.

Yet here he was, escorting an escaped prisoner. The kingdom's chief protector and security adviser, undermining his life's work. It made no sense.

"I imagine you have questions for me," Fenris said, peering out at the street through the slats on a boarded-up window.

"One or two."

"Understand, Kirya, that I would much rather be here without you. I did not intend for you to be caught up in this terrible affair."

"But here I am," she said. "So how about you start at the beginning. You should know that my cooperation is not assured, Fenris. Speak truthfully. I'll know if you don't."

He looked at her with a curiously unreadable expression, which seemed to veer between the warmth she was used to and an icy focus she didn't recognise. Gesturing to the boy, he spoke. "Tarn is a prisoner who escaped from the machine rooms just over a month ago. He was recaptured by King's Eyes and returned to the palace for questioning."

The boy ignored their conversation, choosing instead to run his hand along the rough beams of the house. He winced as a finger caught on a splinter. Kirya could sense something different about him but couldn't quite identify what it was; perhaps it was simply a result of being a criminal and a prisoner. Still, he didn't look dangerous.

"The machine rooms," she noted, rolling the idea around in her head. That was where the very worst criminals were left to rot. "It's a fitting punishment. It's how they repay their debt to society."

"To most people the machine rooms are a story told to children to frighten them into good behaviour," Fenris said, shaking his head despondently. "Most people receive their post and water and the rich travel by carriage and airship without questioning where the power comes from or how it is provided."

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