The fabric of the valley was unravelling; all the threads coming loose and threatening to tear off in the winds of change. There was no putting it back together, though the disintegration could perhaps still be slowed down, or even halted in its tracks.
Tranton Seldon was gone.
Fenris Silt had abandoned his post.
Princess Kirya Tellador had vanished.
An insurgent, previously unknown, gang had attacked the royal convoy.
Pienya Martoc had never felt more alive. This was her moment: it was the crisis she had waited for her whole life. It confirmed all her worst fears about people's true natures, and finally granted her the power and freedom to do something about it.
As she sat in the back of a large carriage supervising the deployment of the city guard in a strategic search pattern across the city, Pienya considered the new reality. Everyone thought the king had Seldon under warps somewhere but he was entirely gone, without a trace. It didn't surprise her, as he'd clearly desired to leave from the moment he stepped foot on the mesa. Seldon had only ever been a visitor, even if his sudden departure was sooner than she'd anticipated. It also didn't overly concern her - he had demonstrated that traversal of the Barrier Mountains was possible, so Lagonians could now take the lead. If one lone man from the south could manage it, then it would prove no bother for valley-born.
Her operations carriage was stationed outside the Verase residence, which she had searched earlier that afternoon. The old man of the house hadn't been happy about it, pointing out that only the previous night he had hosted the king and his guests in unrestrained splendour, but Pienya was leaving no stone unturned. Checking every corner of a house like Verase's wasn't a simple matter, with its automata and animated walls and courtyards providing a fluid, shifting notion of layout and architecture. Truthfully, she had not expected to find Fenris or Kirya here - even if the Verases had anything to do with it, they would not be so stupid as to leave evidence on their own estate - but it had been a useful demonstration of power and a reminder to Eddard Verase that King Guijus Tellador still ruled the valley.
She knocked on the ceiling and a moment later the carriage began to move, taking her away from the waterfront estates and back towards the mesas. A map of the city was spread out on a small table before her and she gazed at it blindly, unable to form any useful notions of how to progress. Three people to find in a city of thousands. Seldon should have been easy, given his unique appearance, but there had been no sightings. Fenris and Kirya were more troublesome still: they knew the city, and Fenris knew the movements and tactics of the city guard. It wasn't even known if they were together or working individually. She sat back in her seat and sighed, her body rocking with the movement of the wheels over cobbles.
Disembarking at the southern mesa, she walked the rest of the way through the barracks, noting with satisfaction that almost all the city guard was deployed into the city. There had not been a mobilisation of royal power like this for centuries. It was the long stretch after a too-long sleep.
Walking over the footbridge, she remembered meeting Fenris here on that evening several weeks prior, as he'd been staring out over the city and the valley below. For months she had suspected he was considering retiring and passing his baton to her - a long overdue decision - but the moment had never come. Yet now he was gone, and she was acting head of royal security, appointed immediately by Queen Anja upon Fenris' apparent disappearance. Pienya stopped at the circular viewing platform at the midpoint and leaned on the thick stone wall. This was where she had informed Fenris of the rumours of an escaped prisoner, and where he had put her on the hunt for the snotty little boy she'd hunted down in the slums of the theatre district. It felt like years ago.
The memory triggered a thought, which knocked into a hunch and provoked her legs to move her in the direction of the palace with accelerating urgency. She made straight for the lower levels, entering the security warren and passing the guards stationed at the entrance. Fenris' office was here but she had already searched it, producing no useful leads. This time she ventured further below ground, through the security doors and into the old jail. This had always been Fenris' personal zoo, where he'd bring prisoners whom he'd decided to convert back to a productive life. If she'd been in charge they'd have all been sent to the real prison, buried deep below the mesa, but Fenris had always retained a naive optimism about humans' capacity for change.
The boy's cell was empty, the cell door unlocked. It was as she suspected.
Spinning on her heel she moved back down the corridor, considering the implications. She was so consumed by her thoughts that she almost missed movement from one of the other cells. Pausing and retracing her steps, she peered into the dim filth. A tattooed man was curled up in one corner, knees drawn up to his chin.
"How long have you been here, prisoner?"
He gazed up at her, eyes of glass, and blinked. "I've got lots of room in here," he said, patting the ground next to where he sat, "won't you come join me?"
"You disgust me," she said plainly, and without malice. "Answer my question or you won't eat for a day."
The man shifted about, a stench wafting up from each movement. "Don't know," he said, his sigh turning to a wracking cough. "Days, weeks? It's all the same down here."
"Have you seen other prisoners transferred through here in the last day?"
"Describe what you saw."
He eyed her gleefully, pupils roving. "Was a young'un. Just a boy, really. I remember being a boy. It's fun being a boy." He smiled toothily. "You're still a girl, aren't you?"
"The boy, was he with anybody?"
"Oh yes," the prisoner said, nodding profusely. "He was with the master. Master Silt. He's making all of us into better men, hadn't you heard?"
Striding from the jail cells, Pienya stopped at the security office and threw open the transfer log, flicking the pages to the latest entry. It was dated from three weeks prior. The boy's leaving had not been logged.
There was a knock at the door and she looked up to see a guard standing awkwardly to attention. "What is it?" she asked, not wanting to be interrupted.
"You presence has been requested—"
"I am acting on critical matters, guardsman."
"It is the queen, Captain Martoc. She awaits you in the throne room."
Pienya closed the ledger, then picked it up and tucked it beneath her arm. "Well, then," she said. "See to it that the prisoner in cell fourteen is not provided with his meal this evening."
She made her way via the most direct route to the mid-levels of the palace, where she approached the ornate main doors to the throne room. Seeing her approach, the guards unlocked one of the doors and it swung slowly, heavily open.
The queen sat on the throne, alone.
Pienya approached and bowed courteously.
"Pienya," Queen Anja said, her face dour and tired, "I have a task for you. I have reason to believe that my daughter is in perilous danger and has been kidnapped by one whom we previously held close to our hearts."
"Yes." Anja pushed herself up from the throne and stepped down to the polished floor. "That man has betrayed us. It is only you in whom I now place my trust."
"Thank you, my queen."
"I have reason to believe that Silt is attempting to smuggle my daughter out of the city by way of a trade caravan."
Pienya raised her eyes to meet the queen's. "From where did you source this information?"
"That is of no matter," the queen said, waving a hand dismissively. "I need you to intercept and detain. Take Roldan Stryke. He is a capable man, and together you should be able to handle Silt."
"Yes, my queen."
"Pienya," Anja said, standing close and speaking quietly. "Bring me back my daughter, and the head of the man who would have a claim on her life."
YOU ARE READING
The Mechanical CrownFantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...