Between the metal trees

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It had been made perfectly clear to Kirya that she was not to explore the city or even leave the inn, so as to avoid being recognised. The princess of the valley had a face known to all, which was something of an inconvenience in her newfound status as a fugitive. Kirya Tellador had never been one to do as she was told, and even as he'd been instructing her Fenris had spoken with a tone of resigned defeat, knowing that his words would do little more than encourage.

She wasn't a fool, though, and understood that he was absolutely right about the risks. It was necessary for her to make same changes. Her long, dark, perfectly straight hair slipped through her fingers as she ran them along it one last time. There was a time when she had considered not cutting it until she had inherited the throne. As it was, it ran down to the small of her back. Sitting before the room's dirty, mottled, warped mirror, she took a breath.

"Do it," she said.

Tarn gathered a fistful of hair and lifted it, then slid the knife carefully in and made a fast, slicing movement. The hair fell away from her head, and he held it for a moment, turning it over in his hand, before dropping it to the floor. She tilted her head in the mirror, observing the odd, spiky, short patch.

"Shall I keep going?" Tarn asked.

"Stopping now isn't really an option," she said. "Take it all."

He continued to slice, pulling clumps of hair away. It took time and the air in the room filled with drifting strands of her past, covering everything in a dark blanket. Each cut took her further from the palace, further from the court and the throne, as if her hair had been a rope tying her to a destiny that was now beyond reach.

Then, it was done.

Kirya Tellador looked at her new self, observing the slightly uneven shape of her head, and how her ears seemed to stick out a little now that they were no longer hidden. Her hair was now a couple of inches long at most and stuck out like spikes in all directions like thousands of slender thorns. She couldn't see a princess in the mirror, not in the sense that society expected; but Kirya the woman was still there, perhaps more so than ever, her determination undimmed. Perhaps this was closer to who she was supposed to be.

"You look like a boy," Tarn said.

"So do you." Kirya stood, brushing loose hair from her shoulders and wondering how best to collect up the room's new, dark carpet. "I'm going out," she announced.

"Fenris told us to stay here until he got back."

"If he's allowed to go out, then so am I," Kirya said. "He might be older, but that doesn't automatically make him our leader. We can make our own decisions."

Tarn nodded. "Then I'll stay here."

She sighed and smiled. "Then that's your decision," she said, slinging a thick coat over her shoulders. "And this is mine."

The air was frigid. Cold in Bruckin was entirely unlike that of the south, where a drop in temperature meant rain and damp and sneezing; here at the foot of the mountains the air was dry and crisp, albeit tarnished somewhat by outpourings from factories and. Many of the streets had a layer of ash covered in frost, trodden into sludge through the day but continually replenished from the towering chimneys. No wonder there was an aspiration to live higher, atop the interlinked towers, lifted out of the dirt. For all the city's talk of unity and common purpose, she couldn't help but notice the similarities between the raised upper walkways of Bruckin and the ostentatious luxuries of the Treydolain mesas. Everywhere people were pulling themselves up to ever-greater success, but only at the expense of those left below. Perhaps success and power could only ever be measured and valued when juxtaposed against those without.

Kirya Tellador now balanced somewhere in-between. She was certainly not powerless and Fenris still had his resources, apparently squirrelled away over the years for this very eventuality, but she no longer enjoyed royal privilege. There were no servants and she could assume no authority over others. It left her feeling adrift and vulnerable - as if she had arrived at court with no clothes on. Part of her had always fantasised about abdicating and living a common and more honest life; now she's had a chance to sample such a reality and it had left her decidedly unnerved.

There was nothing common or honest about her actions, so it was hardly the clean break she'd imagined. Instead, she'd ran, leaving her parents at a critical time. Those initial intentions to help the hunt for Tranton Seldon on the streets of Treydolain had escalated to a point of no return. She was sure her father was handling the situation with the north and the dissent in the capital but her disappearance couldn't have helped. He would feel her disapperance the keenest; chances were good that her mother would rejoice in her absence.

The thought soured her mood yet further. Queen Anja and Princess Kirya, always together at formal events, always smiling and presenting the Tellador family as the epitome of stability and power, when behind closed doors her mother would speak only to disagree or scold her. It was an open secret in the palace that the queen spent more of each day with Pienya Martoc than with her own blood daughter. Kirya had never been able to pierce her mother's shield: that cold facade which kept all at bay. Kirya had been nursed by others as a baby, raised by palace servants and taught by Fenris Silt. As fond as she was for her father, it was no great revelation that she had ultimately chosen to tie her future that of her old teacher.

Guards rode horses slowly through the street, the animals quite content to walk past open furnaces and windows belching flame into the street. She wondered what drove the people here to work so hard and with such intensive industry. Few of those pushing wheelbarrows of raw materials and pulling carts of forged metalwork would ever rise above the streets, to enjoy the clearer air of the high walkways. The only other option was to leave and go south but it seemed that most northerners would rather remain and work, even as their skin hardened and was sloughed away by the sharpening of blades and shaping of metal and hammering of bolts. They would remain northerners above all, even if the rest of the world held its own promise.

All except for Baron Lief and his family, who had always sought to control and harness the natural world with their airships. They would spread their way of life across the valley and beyond, making all the world the north. Lief was the fuel that kept this place going, far more than source itself. He had imbued his city was a sense of common purpose, even if the rewards would never be shared equally.

Lief and her father had never been able to hold a conversation without it involving shouting. She wondered what could have been achieved if they had only worked together. The Telladors had spent so much energy aiming for stability that they had never risked trying to forge better relations. The assumed alternative to the status quo had been disaster, but perhaps there might have been a brighter future if they'd only had the courage to reach for it.

Fenris had a plan, of sorts, though he was reluctant to share all of it with her. It involved travelling north, to a fabled land that might-or-might-not exist, where he was convinced that they'd find the living embodiment of an old god called Aera. She knew the stories and myths of the founding of the valley but they had always been confused and conflicting, never able to decide whether Aera was a saviour or corrupting figure. In Lagonia's civilisation she had been reduced to an exclamatory footnote, used only as a figure of speech. Those who still practised or believed, either literally or as a matter of faith, were few.

Her plan had been to find Tranton Seldon, which she had done, albeit in an unexpected and most unsatisfying manner. The obtuse man refused to do the right thing and return to Treydolain, preferring instead to sully himself in bloody arena fights.

She bought a hot mug of tea from a merchant and sat on a step observing the inhabitants of Bruckin go about their business. Tranton, Tarn and Fenris. She disliked that her life was being dictated by three contrary men, all of them with their own agendas and hubris. Princess Kirya Tellador, reduced to following them around like an assistant! It would not do: she needed her own strategy.

If Fenris was right about there being a threat within the court, one unknown to her parents, which had been there for decades, undetected, then that had to be her priority. Her father would be more distracted now than ever, her mother would be distant and unconcerned by the realities of life and the city's protector - Fenris Silt - was a fugitive. If anybody was to protect the throne and the light upon the mesas, it would be her.

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