Desperate measures

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His breath turned to steam as it hit the air beyond the window and was carried away on the wind. Garrus Lief wondered idly at all the intermingled breaths floating together, indistinguishable from one another.

"Explain," he said slowly, picking at peeling paint on the window frame.

There was nervous shuffling behind him. "There's nothing in the official reports," said the aide, "but we know two things for certain. One, the Black Scree is no longer docked on the mesa. And two, there has been no update from the court on the Baron's wellbeing for several days."

"You said you feared the worst?"

"There are unconfirmed reports from our agents in the capital, sir. Reports of a ship going down in flames. That there couldn't have been any survivors."

Garrus clenched his jaw, closed his eyes and listened to the thrum of the city. The beat of the industrial drum continued as ever, as thousands of hands continued building a future for the north. Theodus had always said that what they were doing was bigger than any one man. He'd been the one with the vision and the anger to drive everyone towards it, even if Garrus had held the reins and carefully adjusted course. It had never been what their mother had wanted but, then, she was dead and in the ground. Theodus had wasted no time in pursuing his own path, though he had always seemed to have one eye on the earth in case she should ever rise again to scold him.

He became aware that he was already thinking of Theodus in the past tense, as if all hope was lost. "Send word for the agents to find and search the crash site," he said.

"The ship broke up in mid-air--"

"Find the site," Garrus shouted, pointing a finger at the aide, "and bring me a body. Until there is a body, Baron Lief still lives, do you hear me?"

"Yes, yes, sir."

Softening his temper, Garrus pulled the window shut and latched it against the cold. He placed a reassuring hand on the the aide's shoulder. "Cyrus, is it not? I remember your father."

"Thank you?"

"I assume they sent you because nobody else had the courage to deliver it themselves?" The aide's startled stare was confirmation enough. "I should thank you, then, Cyrus. Difficult information is information nonetheless, and one can never have too much of it."

"I am very sorry, sir."

Garrus smiled. "Yes, I'm sure you are. Now, listen." Garrus picked up a quill from his desk and began to write. "You will take this to the foreman at the shipyard. Give it only to him, he will know what to do."

Sealing the letter, he handed it over and the boy made a swift exit. Garrus had no doubt that the instructions would reach the shipyard safely within the half hour. The Mountain Breaker was still several months from completion, which would not suffice; not if Treydolain was mobilising for war, as was now unavoidable. They needed to not only be ready but to make the first strike, sending a signal to all of the valley that the time for change had arrived.

Adjusting plans to suit another's schedule left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. Loosening the worker permits to accelerate construction was a potentially risky decision but there was no other choice.

He crossed the room and opened a sliding door to an adjoining area, inside of which was a table displaying a large, elaborate model of the valley. The major cities and towns were marked, as well as the forests and lakes and, of course, the mountains. It was a lovingly crafted diorama, with intricate detail displayed on the towers of Bruckin and the mesas of Treydolain, where the city spilled down to the water. The model ended at the edges of the table, as did their own knowledge of the world.

The squad he had sent into the mountains had not returned. The intrusion by the sharaban creature into the Bruckin outskirts had unsettled him, not least in its timing. All of their planning over the years had been on the assumption of the valley's stability and King Guijus' atrophying power, yet as they found themselves only months from being ready an uncanny number of random factors had been introduced. First the rumours of an escaped prisoner, such a promising piece of anti-Tellador propaganda, even if they turned out to be false or misunderstood. Garrus had a suspicion they had never fully got to the crux of that matter. Then there was the arrival of the southerner and his subsequent disappearance. Incursions into the valley were becoming almost commonplace, after centuries of pure, uninterrupted isolation.

It was not possible to live by the Aviarette Mountains without feeling a crushing sense of awe at their immensity and refusal to be known. They surrounded and protected Bruckin on its northern side, turning the city into a proto-fortress and offering it the kind of impregnability that would otherwise be enjoyed only by the twin mesas of Treydolain, yet there was no avoiding the creeping sense that the mountain slopes also represented a threat of sorts: enigmatic and indistinct, looming and terrible.

Garrus and Theodus had always squabbled over where to go first, if they ever cracked the technology required to pass over the mountain ring. Theodus would go south, to the coast, for no other reason than it was also Guijus Tellador's ambition and Theodus wanted to claim it first. Garrus' eye was always closer to home, thinking to the legends of what lay beyond the northern peaks: the glistening city-state, more advanced and full of promise than anywhere else on Evinden. Northern fables spoke of how the power had leaked out of the valley, abandoning it and passing over the mountains to the north, leaving behind only the source deposits - the raw residue of what glories had once been. That's why Bruckin had been founded, on the edge of the valley, clawing at the outside, its towers reaching up to peek over the wall.

They had never built or flown high enough. The city remained dwarfed by the world and they remained ants on a hillside.

The squad had not returned and he was now loathe to send a part to investigate, for he knew they would not return either. They never came back. The mountains swallowed all who entered. More acutely than ever, Garrus Lief felt trapped, pressured on all sides - from the royal aggression to the south and the sublime threat of the rock to the north.

Above all else, he wished his brother was standing beside him.

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