The tavern stood askew, its doorways and windows at odd angles and the entire building leaning alarmingly in one direction, such that staring at it for too long began to make the world feel off-kilter. It nestled between a row of other terraced buildings, which were the only things keeping it standing. A long child played in the puddles outside, while a raggedy dog ran in and out of an alleyway senselessly, as if it had lost its memory.
Pienya stood across the street with her hands deep in her pockets and the grey collar of her coat pulled up around her neck. The owner of the arena pit had given her the address; she'd given him little choice and had been at her most persuasive. Visiting the arena had been convenient rather than calculated - it had been on the route to what she had expected to be a more fruitful lead. Still, the reports of an unidentified 'outsider' had been too intriguing to pass up and it would have taken only an hour to meet the stranger and cross that possibility from the list.
Instead, the stranger had fled, disappearing across the rooftops and confirming his guilt. She assumed it was a he, for she knew the stranger to be Tranton Seldon. There would be no other explanation for the head-to-toe disguise - an outfit more likely to draw attention than anything else, which would only be adopted out of complete necessity. The dark outsider had somehow made his way to Bruckin, where he'd carved out an unlikely new career. It made a certain sense - he couldn't stay on the road forever and there wasn't much in the way of available employment which would tolerate him hiding his face. The theatricality of the arena was his only option, as unlikely as that sounded.
Thus she found herself on another filthy, cold, ash-strewn street in this city-scale smithy. She had been dreaming of Treydolain's lake and artful, flower-festooned streets and market stalls, of the sunsets from the mesas and her room in the palace. It would not take long for her to catch a ride back to the capital but there was no place for her there until her mission was complete. Finding Kirya was the priority - the ungrateful brat - but returning with Tranton Seldon in chains would most definitely be appreciated by the queen.
The initial shock at Kirya's disappearance, so soon after Tranton's, had quickly subsided, replaced with an excitement and anticipation of a new courtly reality in which the princess was no longer present to drive a wedge between Pienya and Queen Anja. With Kirya's jealous tendencies no longer a consideration, Anja would at last see Pienya's true potential. Fenris Silt vacating his post on the same day made for a memorable forty-eight hours.
Pienya crossed the street and entered the tavern. The Gamesmaster - he'd insisted upon that being his actual name - had claimed to know the location of Seldon's accommodation only via subterfuge, having followed his star attraction after successive games, building a picture of his movements over several weeks, despite Seldon having tried to keep his precise location a secret.
Ignoring the innkeeper, she moved through the dim, smoke-filled bar, eyes roving for any sign of Seldon, and ascended the stairs to the second floor, where she located the room. No sound came from within. Glancing back towards the staircase, she waited until the sound of raucous laughter emanated up the stairwell and then kicked the door from its hinges.
Empty, of course. There had been little chance of Seldon returning here. The man was a brute but he wasn't a fool. She picked up the door and propped it against the frame, giving her a semblance of privacy. It was a pathetic, dirty little room, with a sunken bed and small table. She pulled the mattress up, leaning it against the wall, in the process scattering the contents of a concealed envelope to the floor. A not inconsiderable number of coins clattered onto the floorboards, enough for almost a year's salary of any one of her city guards. The arena paid better than she had appreciated and Seldon had clearly been saving for something. Perhaps a ticket to another city, or even weapons.
She turned the room inside out, pulling the drawers from the desk and checking behind the window blinds. There were no personal belongings to speak of, beyond some food and changes of clothes. The man had been living frugally, as evidenced by all his money being stored unused beneath the bed. Upending the desk, she flipped it onto it top so that its legs were pointing towards the ceiling. Underneath, slipped into the crack between one of the legs and the desktop, could be seen a small piece of paper. She carefully unscrewed the leg of the desk, keeping her anticipation in check, and withdrew the paper from its hiding place.
It was another address, in a different part of town, immediately suggesting accomplices. More striking than the location was the script itself, with the ink strokes unmistakably revealing the handwriting of Princess Kirya Tellador.
Replacing the mattress on the bed frame, Pienya sat and pushed her fingers together to form a steeple shape. Her investigation had gone from hopeless to solved in the space of less than a day. She would need to recall Roldan Stryke from his infiltration of the Mountain Breakers shipyard so that they could form a plan for capturing the fugitives - all of them, at once!
Staring at the address, she pursed her lips and recalled all the years of working in the shadow of Fenris Silt, a man long past his prime who had been barely capable of fulfilling his duties come the end. She had no need now to wait for the advice and assistance of yet another old man. The King's Eyes were hers to command and she resolved to do so before the day was out - the retrieval of the princess and the outside, as well as the capture of the fugitive Fenris Silt. It would be a day long remembered. She would be recognised at last and could arise to become royal protector, the role she had been preparing for her entire life.
She could rely on Michels and his team, she knew, though they had to do it right. There could be no mistakes, no fumbles. There would not be a better chance.
Silt, the outsider and the princess, in league together. It stank of conspiracy, the tendrils of fact and assumption weaving through Pienya's imagination as she formed connections and rationalised the events of the past months. All three disappearing from the palace in the space of two days can't have been a coincidence - it must have been planned. Fenris Silt was the likely instigator, perhaps having tired of being in service to the crown and wishing to wear it himself before his years wore out. The arrival of Seldon from across the mountains no doubt had introduced a wildcard that Silt sought to play, destablising the throne and weakening the king's position. Silt would have known the optimum moment for Seldon to vanish, maximising the king's embarrassment - there was no way for Seldon to have such a fine grasp on Lagonian politics otherwise.
As for Kirya, she had undoubtedly been groomed from her childhood years. Her proximity to Fenris Silt had left her open to corruption and dangerous ideas. He'd had years to soften her mind to his plans, ensuring that her loyalty was to him rather than her own family. Pienya almost felt sorry for her, as from a certain point of view it wasn't even her fault. If an adult wants to manipulate a child's mind, there's little they can do about it, making her a victim in all the chaos. Pienya considered even putting a good word in for her once they were all returned to Treydolain: that magnanimity would cost her nothing and would further demonstrate her superiority to Queen Anja.
If Silt was indeed playing for the crown, then he had come to the right place. Bruckin was a hive of latent insurrection, waiting only for a signal to unleash its classist prejudices upon the rest of the valley. The northerners always blamed others for their problems, never observing their own flaws. Silt and the Lief brothers had likely been in communication for months, or even years - Silt would have had access whenever Baron Lief had visited the palace. Lief being arrested had probably delayed their plans, but Silt had come to Bruckin regardless - there was no shortage of Liefs to deal with, alas.
She looked down at the money on the floor. It was making increasing sense - Seldon had been here for longer, building up additional funds to help recruit and buy weapons. A thought struck her - perhaps Seldon's unlikely passage across the Barrier Mountains had only been possible due to inside help, with Silt providing assistance from within the valley? If true, it indicated that Bruckin was the last of their problems, as Seldon's involvement could be the precursors to a large invasion from the south.
It would be the great war all over again, except Lagonia wasn't prepared and there would be no saviour from across the mountains this time. The Headland would rush up from the coast like a tidal wave, and Lagonian society would be no more.
Except that none of it would happen. Pienya Martoc, royal protector-in-waiting, had uncovered the plot and would kill it dead. It's what her queen would expect.
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...