A frayed plan

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Desperation and pride don't mix well. Fenris Silt had plenty of the former and precious little remaining of the other, now that he'd lowered himself to begging in every unsavoury corner of Bruckin in the hope of locating a pass for the north gate. Despite being prepared to pay or work for the exchange he had encountered little sense, having been turned away by the multitude of underworld organisations and gangs, found no luck in betting shops and discovered black markets closed and deserted. The city had shut its doors to him, wary of an outsider hunting for passage north.

Although passes were available through official channels they were not granted often and not without considerable investment and paperwork. The mountains were considered a suicidal or deeply suspicious venture: anyone attempting to travel was either mad or working an ulterior motive. Bruckin had always used the mountains defensively, using their immensity as guaranteed protection from attack from any direction other than directly south, where the approach was funnelled into a high-walled ravine and easily monitored. Besides, approaching the authorities was not an option for fugitives.

Fenris had not yet reconciled his new situation in his mind. He was perfectly capable of adapting to the new dangers and altering his behaviour appropriately: he had been a King's Eye for many years, before becoming chief protector, and knew how to be subtle when needed. But he was tricking himself into thinking this another mission for the crown, couching his actions in a blanket of long-term patriotism, insisting through internal conversations that he was still serving the king, in his own way, by operating on a higher level of loyalty.

The facade was beginning to slip, having been chipped away by every rough night on the road, every cold sleep in the tavern and every disappointment in the hunt for the elusive gate pass - and still there was no obvious route to success. They could remain out of sight of the king's men for a time but there was no point in exerting such effort should their journey stall in the furnace-blasted streets of Bruckin.

And so, he returned to the tavern, body aching even if his mind was sharp as ever and scanning every dark doorway and alleyway for telltale signs of surveillance or pursuit. He knew how to cover his tracks and how to set up a weaving trail of proxies and diversions, though, and thus remained unobserved. The tavern nestled on the corner of a square that once had hosted a market but was now home to a line of brothels, each attempting to attracting more custom than the others through increasingly absurd and extreme promises of pleasure or pain. The tavern was exactly the right level of unsavoury, enough to be forgotten and dismissed without tipping over into outright criminality and attracting the attention of the city guards. The sun had already dipped below the towers but was still casting shafts of orange light through gaps in the cityscape, extending its glowing fingers across the square and hitting the edge of the tavern.

He pushed the doors open and entered, eyes adjusting quickly to the gloom. There was the usual sparse and unfriendly clientele, lingering around the bar or occupying tables at the edge of the room. A dishevelled dog with uneven, tufted fur lay asleep next to an open fire. He nodded a greeting to the barman, then climbed the staircase to the first floor rooms. The wooden walls dripped with condensation.

Their security knock prompted no responses and he tried again, rapping out the sequence. There were no sounds from within, even if he pressed his ear against the lock. All he could hear was a familiar rhythmic thumping from another room down the hallway. Using his own key, he turned the lock and entered cautiously, a tension already building in his stomach. He tensed, ready to respond to an attack, but there was nobody in the room. Tarn and Kirya were not there.

Closing the door behind him, he scoured the room for any sign of there whereabouts, hoping to find at least a note from Kirya. It was not surprising that they had disobeyed his request to stay inside and hidden but he would have expected her to leave some clue as to their intent. The room itself was orderly and there were no signs of struggle, though that did not necessarily indicate that they had not been taken by force. He retraced his movements over the previous days, attempting to isolate any potential mistakes which might have led their pursuers to the tavern.

A rising tide of panic threatened to overwhelm him, as he thought of his two young wards being seized by King's Eyes, or by a local gang looking for leverage. They were both in the city because of him and he considered them his responsibility, just as he always had done when Kirya was a child. He'd always been proud of his ability to teach and care for her, despite having no experience of having his own children. Not for the first time, he cursed the sequence of events that had led them to this foolish escapade and increasingly perilous situation. He should go out into the city and find them - check every street for any sign. He had a vision of their bodies bumping against a sluice gate in one of the waterways leading down from the mountains, swirling round and round with the city's detritus.

Forcing such morose and unhelpful thoughts from his mind, he calmed himself and concentrated on the facts, of which there were few. Lacking a sensible path of action, he took the only remaining sensible route: he waited. There was no way he would be able to find them in a city of this size, but if they returned and he wasn't here that could lead to greater calamity.

An hour passed as Fenris sat on the edge of the bed and the afternoon turned to evening.

Then, there was a knock. Not the carefully rehearsed sequence of knocks that signalled safety, but a couple of tentative knocks from a strange.

Fenris rose, padding silently across the floor, until he reached the door. Pressing his ear to the wood, he listened carefully. On the other side he could hear the breathing of an adult man - a lone individual, it would seem.

Positioning himself so that the doorframe would provide partial shielding and not risk him being battered by the opening door, he unlocked it and swung it open.

Standing in the hallway was a tall man wrapped from head to foot in scarves and a heavy cloak, with only his eyes showing. The man reaches up with one hand, upon which a finger was missing, and pulled down part of his head scarf.

"Hello," said Tranton Seldon. "I'm not very happy about it, but turns out I need your help after all."

"You're not the only one in need of assistance," Fenris said, both pleased to see the explorer and rapidly remembering how abrasive he found his personality.

"If you want me to join your little team," Seldon said, "I'm going to need one thing from you."

Fenris almost laughed at the absurd idea that he might have anything of value to offer, in his current predicament. He had lost even his companions. "What is it, Mr Seldon?"

"I want you to explain what exactly is going on," Seldon said. "All of it. I want to know where you're going, what really got you so scared that you ran away from the court, and how exactly that boy fits into things. Tell me everything."

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