Age of impossibility

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War made a mockery of all plans; it always had done, and this brewing civil strife was no exception. There had been no open conflict yet but there was a pressure building within the valley which would likely be to the ruin of all, rather than any faction emerging victorious.

Anja Tellador was well aware of this and yet saw no opportunity to correct the course they had stumbled into. The path was steep and slippery and they were all of them on it together, Guijus and Lief and the northerners and Fenris Silt and that damned outsider; all tumbling towards an abyss from which none would emerge. Hundreds of years from now other explorers would cross the mountains and find bones and ash.

They had been so close. All of her long-gestating hopes had been on the verge of blossoming into reality, lifting her out of the drudgery of ruling a kingdom with no prospects. That was before the outsider arrived, before the man Tranton Seldon fell into the valley and crushed their society under the weight of his own significance. A weakening of the southern mountain passes might have once brought her a cautious excitement but the timing was off, and Seldon's interference had coloured her husband's mind. Already fractured by the whispers of his daughter, Guijus had been searching for another way for decades. Kirya's promises and Seldon's hope were too much for him to contend with, and they'd driven him mad.

Anja stood on a balcony overlooking the city. To the north she could see the tips of mountains and knew that the northerners' city, Bruckin, was out there somewhere, nestled in its rocky throne, its towers determined to stretch higher than Treydolain's mesas. Somewhere out there was her daughter, she knew, though the trail had gone cold after Pienya had failed to locate her at the arena. Anja was sure that she had been correct, and that they had been there: Kirya, Fenris and an unidentified boy. She couldn't risk reaching out again, not so soon, and so had sent Pienya and Roldan Stryke out of the city in pursuit. Losing Pienya's presence in the court was a risk, but a calculated one.

Her husband was somewhere within the palace, stewing in his own rage, descending into self-pity and alcohol as he attempted to make sense of his crumbling kingdom. All he'd needed to do was carry on calmly, maintaining the valley's balance of power. But now they had Theodus Lief locked in a dungeon, and Lagonia was going to war.

Looking east across the mesas, she could see the garrisons mobilised, the barracks heaving with activity. Soldiers lined up for training, a line of eager recruits stretched down the winding slope to the city, and the factories nestled along the riverbanks in the gulf between the mesas had turned their attention to manufacturing mechanised weaponry instead of fountains and animated statues and pleasure boats.

Treydolain had the resources, of that there was no doubt. But the north had pride and a vision of a better future, which could prove to be far more powerful than any anti-airship catapult or mobile tank. Anja feared for the city's morale. They could count on the support of the farms and distilleries of the south, as well as the larger towns to the west, but all they could practically contribute was money - welcome, of course, but it would only take them so far.

It had all started with Tranton Seldon. Why now? Centuries of perfect isolation, punctuated by his arrival at precisely the wrong moment. Anja couldn't help but be suspicious - not of the man, who was evidently a simpleton lacking the ability to see the bigger picture, and could not possibly have engineered safe passage across those cursed peaks.

There were other forces at work.

His disappearance had been similarly inconvenient, unravelling the fabric of Tellador strength and stability in the most public way imaginable. She suspected he'd made an impromptu decision, having left with only the clothes on his back and that telescopic sword of which Guijus had been so enamoured and Seldon so unworthy. His room had been searched but left otherwise alone since his vanishing.

A soft breeze blew down from above and Anja's eyes narrowed against the sudden chill. Then a thought struck her and she went inside, pulling the balcony doors closed behind her.

With increasing urgency she strode through the palace, holding the pleats of her dress, ignoring the courtiers who bowed as she passed.

"Open it," she snapped at the guard still stationed outside Seldon's room. He dutifully unlocked it and she entered, eyes roving over every surface. The King's Eyes had been here and looked for any indication of his intentions or destination and had found nothing. Perhaps they had missed something.

Moving slowly around the room, she scanned shelves and pulled open drawers and wardrobes. The man's clothes still hung here, not that he had owned many. On a table beside the bed lay an old canvas bag.

She tugged the bag open and tipped its contents onto the bed. Most of it looked like junk that would only be of interested to archaeologists and historians but in amongst them were three decidedly more eye-catching items.

A shiver of recognition rippled down Anja's back; a flicker of the past. She crossed to the door and ordered the guard to patrol the corridor, then locked it shut.

Returning to the bed, she picked up an oval-shaped object approximately the size of a clenched fist and turned it over in her hands, examining the filigree etched into its side. It was the ornamental markings of old Hollanhead, which made sense given Seldon's recounting of where he had found the relics and his acquired sword. The overlaid decoration may have been from the coast but the object was not of Headland design.

Anja smiled. The origins of this device were far more distant. She stroked a finger over a slim depression in its surface. There was a series of clicks and a whirring thrum, then the depression lifted out of the surface to present a handle of sorts. The mechanism was intact.

Carefully placing it back onto the bedding, she reached behind her and hurriedly began pulling at the strings of dress, glancing irritably over her shoulder at the long mirror in the corner of the room. After a couple of minutes she had managed to undo the dress, which dropped to the floor as she stepped out of it. She similarly removed her underskirt and shoes, observing that time had not been entirely unkind on Anja Tellador's body.

Grasping the device once again by the handle she turned it over so that its underside was facing her. For a moment her memory faltered, then she tentatively touched two fingers of her other hand to smaller indents. A circle of small claws flicked out from around the outer edge, and using the protruding handle she held it in place against her hand. The claws extended then snapped down around her hand, gripping around her palm and wrist. There was no pain.

She pulled at the handle and the device separated into two parts, one still wrapped around her right hand. From the based of the handle on the other half more claws revealed themselves, locking around her left hand. The two halves started to shift, metal plates undulating and moving with such rapidity that the surface took on the appearance of water. The technology was not unlike the extending of Seldon's sword.

Anja examined the devices calmly as they began to reshape and expand, spreading up her bare forearms, then up to her shoulders. She felt it clad her skin with cool metal plates, but even as it was undergoing its transformation she was still able to move her arms and flex the joints.

She stepped slowly towards the mirror as the plates continued, moving down her chest, past her waist and down both legs. Finally, from the neck, up rose larger metal plates, interlocking to form a firm, armoured helmet which left her face clear but protected the back and top of her head. The armour glinted oddly in the daylight, the sun's rays seeming to slide straight off.

Queen Anja Tellador seemed taller now.

Turning once in front of the mirror, she took in her appearance. Her reflection stared back. "It's been a very, very long time," she said, and laughed.

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