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."

"I know what the machine rooms are, Fenris," she snapped. "I'm not most people. I'm the daughter of the king. I know how my kingdom operates." The boy paused in his exploration of the dreary space, tilting his head towards them like a dog hearing a far-off sound.

The old man pierced her pride with a single glare. "And how many prisoners do you think Treydolain produces per year? How many does the entire valley? Have you visited the machine rooms, and the mines? Do you know the true scale of the operation?"

"I have read reports and seen the number—"

"There has never been a large enough workforce to provide for the valley," Fenris interrupted, "and so one had to be created, and maintained." He pointed a finger at Tarn. "This boy," he said, "has committed no crime. He was born into service. He was raised to work. That is how your kingdom operates, Kirya Tellador."

None of it made any sense. "I don't believe you."

"This is not your doing," Fenris said, his voice softening, "nor even that of your father. This was in place long before he took the throne. It is a long-held secret, one which evolved over time, worsening with each passing year. It is now so awful that it can never be told."

Kirya paced the room, her feet sinking into the rotten floor with a squelch. "My father would have stopped it."

"And done what? Condemned his heritage? It would have been the end of your family's rule, and most probably led to civil war."

"You knew about this?"

"I have been privy to this information for decades, Kirya. Your father wanted you to be kept free of the burden for as long as possible, and so you were never told."

"If what you say is true - and I don't believe it can be - then how did it ever start? Whose idea was it?"

Fenris sighed. "Most of it is struck from official historical records, but I've pieced together what I can. The potential of the source fuel was identified quite soon after the valley was discovered, which is what led to the great war. Every country wanted the valley's resources and could not allow them to fall into another's hands.

"After the war ended and the mountain ring closed around the valley, the mines and machine rooms began to expand rapidly. At first, prisoners of war were put to work, and their known associates. Later, anyone perceived to be connected to the Hollanhead invasion was implicated as being a threat to the valley's stability, and they were rounded up and sent underground. If you've paused to wonder why it is that Tranton Seldon's skin is so unusual in the valley, you need only look to this part of our history. Except, of course, it is no longer written anywhere."

Kirya wanted to sit but there was no available surface which wasn't covered in filth, damp or tiny, crawling insects. Instead, she put her hands on her hips and breathed deeply, trying to calm herself, but instead only succeeding at inhaling the unpleasant air.

"Darker men and women such as Seldon are notable in the valley only by their absence," Fenris continued, "and most people have forgotten they were ever here. But they were here, long ago. They were taken, and extracted from Lagonian society."

"You've seen this with your own eyes?"

"Some of it, yes. The historical account, though, is piecemeal and incomplete. Some of it is my own intuition, I admit."

"I think I'm going to be sick."

Fenris took a few steps and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I am sorry to pass this knowledge on to you," he said. "I would have had you enjoy your life in ignorance for a little longer, but fate has forced my hand."

She straightened up and brushed his hand away. "Ignorance is no excuse," she said. "If this is happening I should have known about it. And now that I do know, I'll put a stop to it."

He smiled sympathetically. "I have no doubt you would try," he said, "but they would stop you. Nobody would believe you."

"But I am the heir to the throne!"

"Mad kings and queens are not unprecedented," Fenris said. "You could be ruler in name only, while the court processes carried on regardless."

"Then I'll find another way," she said resolutely.

"Perhaps," Fenris offered, "we can find a way together." He looked to the boy. "Tarn may well have the answer we need."

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