Fault lines

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The royal house was adrift.

King Guijus Tellador paced the room with the fury of caged animal, clenching and releasing his fists over and over, eyes darting this way and that as if in search of a solution, any solution, to the myriad problems by which he had found himself enveloped.

"You should release the baron before matters escalate," Anja said, standing cautiously by the sun-streaked window, her voice quiet but firm. "This is folly and will not help us."

"Do you not see?" Guijus shouted, raising his arms in frustration. "The moment Theodus Lief's airship docked these problems began! He is a cancerous wart on this valley and always has been. No sooner had he arrived that the city rose up against us, Seldon vanished and our daughter disappeared. To say the least of that cowardly Fenris Silt." The words spat from his mouth like a snake' venom.

"These are trying times," Anja soothed, "but railing against the unknown will get us nowhere. If there is treason, we must pick it out with a surgeon's precision. We will not find Kirya by burning the city to the ground. She may yet return of her own accord - we are in the dark and must not make assumptions."

"I am the King of Lagonia! I am never in the dark!" He pointed at himself and then at the queen. "We rule this valley and our eyes are everywhere - everywhere except in the north. Lief's stench is all over this - Fenris suspected they were involved in trying to acquire the prison boy. Even if Lief is not directly responsible for Seldon or Kirya's disappearance, he undoubtedly has information about it."

"And Fenris Silt? Your most trusted adviser?"

She was right, of course. Fenris had been at his side since he was a young boy; a king-in-waiting. It was inconceivable that he would do anything to cause harm to the royal family, especially to Kirya. But there was no denying the facts: the man had disappeared just as suddenly as Seldon, seemingly at the same time as Kirya. There was conspiracy at work, Guijus knew, though understanding its intricacies was proving taxing in the utmost.

Why would Fenris defect to the north, if that was indeed what he had done? Guijus grimaced, turning away from his wife. He had spoken harshly to the old adviser, he knew, and perhaps those words had intimated greater threat than he had intended.

He shook his head. Regardless of the reasons, Fenris was gone. The facts were all that mattered.

Guijus took a deep breath. "I will speak with Lief," he said, speaking slowly, fighting his way back to calm. He raised a hand before Anja could speak. "Do not worry," he said, "I will talk to him man to man, as his king. I will treat him with the respect he rarely affords me, and find out what he knows."

Anja looked unconvinced. "And if he knows nothing? The valley cannot tolerate this level of instability."

"Baron Lief, knowing nothing?" Guijus snorted. "That seems unlikely. But I will tread cautiously."

He kissed his wife on her forehead, and put his arms around her gently. "I will find our daughter," he promised.

Anja held the small vial of source crystal that hung around her neck on a silver necklace, as she often did when worried. "I have no doubt," she said. "I will also do what I can."

Baron Lief had been confined to his quarters, which was an especially luxurious form of incarceration. Guijus moved through the palace, blind to courtiers and servants and guards, striding the floors of the palace like a storm thundering between the mesas, until he reached the doors. They were flanked by two guards, with more posted at either end of the corridor.

At a nod from the king, the guards swung the doors open. "Stay here," Guijus ordered to them as he entered.

The doors clicked shut behind him.

Baron Theodus Lief stood on the balcony, looking out over the mesas and the valley. A soft breeze drifted in, sending the drapes fluttering. The room was ornate, with fantastically coloured cushions festooning low banquettes around its edge. Under other circumstances, it would be considered a great privilege to be a guest.

"Not planning on escaping, I hope, Lief?" Guijus said as he crossed the room and emerged onto the balcony.

The baron did not turn his head or greet his king. "Did you put me on the southern wing deliberately?" he asked.

Guijus bristled at the insolence but subdued the urge to toss the man over the railing. They weren't above the cliff edge but the height of the palace provided enough disincentive to anyone thinking of escaping that way. He had promised Anja that he would keep his temper under control and he would hold to that promise as best he could. After all, he knew, of course, that she was right: the balance of power stood on the edge of a sword - the incident in the city the previous night had torn a seam in the fabric of the valley's political status quo; Seldon's disappearance so soon after his announcement was an embarrassment waiting to be uncovered, and they would not be able to excuse his absence for long; Kirya's vanishing would instill further panic and uncertainty even among Guijus' most fervent supporters. To inflame relations with the northern guilds would be suicidal, and Guijus knew it.

Diplomacy, as ever, had to be the way forward. He would do things the right way, and let Lief hang himself with his own guilt, should that be necessary. Even in such perilous times, the valley had to come first.

Gripping the balcony's railing, Guijus inhaled deeply and opened his mouth to speak.

"This is an outrage," Lief said, speaking first, and still not turning to look at Guijus. His voice was low, deliberate, as if he had been rehearsing. "Never before has a baron of one of the outlying territories been incarcerated forcibly, dragged from his ship at the point of a sword." Now he turned to face Guijus, who stared open-mouthed at the outburst. "You have made a mistake, my king. It does not matter what happens to me. I am not the only Lief in the valley, and my guild is stronger than any one man or woman. You have brought about your own end, and the end of the line of Tellador."

Guijus' fingers tightened around the railing for just a second, then his arm flung out in an explosion of movement and rage, catching Lief across the face and sending him sprawling onto the balcony's floor.

"You ungrateful little boy," Guijus bellowed, reaching down and grabbing hold of Lief's shirt. He hauled him back onto his feet, whirling him around and pinning him to the railing. Blood coursed down the side of Lief's face and he winced at the impact. "You dare to speak to me as if you would have claim on these lands?" Guijus adjusted his hold then pushed hard, tipping Lief halfway over the railing. "You're not half the man your mother was," Guijus continued, "and you know it. She had the balls to know what had to be done. You're still the upstart child who has delusions of grandeur."

Lief whimpered, eyes darting between the ground five storeys below and Guijus' enraged, spittle-flecked face.

"Understand," Guijus snarled, tilting Lief further over the balcony's edge, "that you have power in your little principality only because I allow it. Everything you have is mine, and I allow your guild to exist only because it is in the best interests of the valley. If you wish to change that arrangement then I will gladly oblige!"

Uttering an anguished cry, Guijus pulled the other man back from the brink, and tossed him into the room, where he collided with a wooden chair and slumped onto the floor in a heap.

At the noise, the doors to the chamber burst open and the guards entered, weapons half-drawn. Seeing Lief on the floor and the king standing against the bright window, they surrounded the fallen man.

"Take him to a cell," Guijus ordered. "Set him in chains."

The guards grabbed Lief and dragged him backwards. "This is war, Guijus!" screamed Lief. "You hear me? You've started a war!"

A sudden silence descended, as Guijus was left alone in the room. Unsure of what else to do, he leaned down and picked up the wooden chair, setting it back on all four of its legs. His hand lingered on the chair's back and he stared at his fingers as they rubbed gently over the dark, varnished wood, a tension gripping his insides as tightly as if he had swallowed poison.

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