Lighting the fuse

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"I sent him to you!" screamed Pienya Martoc, removing a piece of her armour and flinging it across the room, scattering intelligence officers and most of their paperwork. She jabbed a finger towards Roldan. "I separated them and it was your job to engage and capture the Outsider!" She kicked out violently, knocking a desk onto its side and sending tankards smashing to the floor.

"The Bruckin forces got there sooner than we expected," Roldan said, observing her unbridled rage with his usual implacable calm. "The plan was too hurried."

"No! The plan was perfect! You failed in your part." She pointed at other King's Eyes, nursing wounds while sat in chairs or lying on benches. "All of you should be ashamed of yourselves!"

Roldan had seen officers react like this to a failed mission more times than he'd care to recount. It was always the same. "I don't see Fenris Silt lying in chains, Captain Martoc."

She glared at him, as if willing her eyes to leap from their sockets, fly across the room and tear holes through his body. "I had no support! Fenris Silt is the most highly trained hand-to-hand combatant in the valley."

"I know that," Roldan said, making a show of checking the straps on his bracers. "He trained all of you, didn't he? He knows what you can do. That's why we needed a better plan."

"I'm leading this mission, Stryke," she snapped, teeth bared. "You're the muscle."

"If you're the leader, then claim some responsibility, girl! Your queen would be disappointed." Roldan didn't often raise his voice, which made it all the more effective when he did.

Martoc let out another piercing scream, drew her sword and plunged it into a stack of folders.

"Very well," Michels said, venturing forward from the side of the room, from where he'd been quietly watching, "you have defeated our filing system. Captain Martoc, you must restrain yourself."

She pointed a finger towards him. "Do not anger me further, Michels."

"You forget yourself, Captain. You may outrank me, but this is my jurisdiction and your operation is one of many. Your escapade this evening will have cost us and the king greatly. Our presence in Bruckin is now known. Our agents have been compromised."

"They were compromised the moment you failed to notice the arrival of Fenris Silt, Tranton Seldon and Princess Kirya Tellador, Michels. Do not test me."

There was a malevolent silence in the room, as all parties stared from one to another, waiting to see who would give way first. Roldan grimaced: he never much cared for pissing contests.

"Listen," he said, speaking first, "we're all here for the same reason. Tonight didn't go as planned, we all know that. So what's our next move?"

Michels and Martoc looked at him, all too aware that by capitulating first he had managed to present himself as the only adult in the room. The officers and Eyes around the room waited quietly, hoping for peace.

"The Bruckin forces took Seldon and Silt," said Michels, pointing at a large map on a wall. "They'll have moved them uptown to the prison for questioning. There's no way for us to infiltrate: it's a fortress within the city."

Roldan nodded. "What of the princess? She was not seen."

"My guess is that they already have her," Michaels said, shrugging slightly. "We should assume that any knowledge they have is compromised, and report back to the court immediately."

Martoc put two hands around her sword's hilt, planted her foot on the impaled documents and pulled the blade free. "You're both missing the point," she said, her voice still full of venom. "You're assuming they were captured. Are you so sure that they weren't, in fact, rescued?"

Michels pursed his lips and appeared nonplussed - the expression of an intelligence expert being told what to think.

"The destabilising effects of Seldon's arrival and subsequent disappearance, combined with Silt's treachery, has provoked the greatest crisis the valley has seen for a century. This is not coincidence. It is not by chance that they ran to hide within the walls of Bruckin."

Roldan Stryke did not specialise in espionage, or politics, or even idle conversation, but he had his instincts: and they heard no truth in Pienya Martoc's words. There was mischief at play, for sure, but he couldn't bring himself to think of his friend and former comrade as being a traitor. As for Seldon being a Bruckin agent; well, that made no sense whatsoever - his heritage, his accent, his actions were not those of a deliberate political player. If there was one type of person he knew, it was the apolitical. Seldon had spent years trying to evade responsibility and whatever demons he'd left beyond the mountains; there was no likelihood of him becoming deliberately embroiled in a valley plot.

"What of the princess?" he asked instead. "Where does she fit into this theory of yours?"

"Fenris Silt has always had her ear," Martoc said, almost spitting. "I always said he had undue influence over her. Their relationship was never a healthy one."

Tranton's words rang in Roldan's ears. Think about those orders. Yet, he couldn't counter Pienya's points with anything more than his own instincts, especially given her less than considered mood.

"None of this matters," Michels said. "They have them. There is nothing we can do about that, now."

"No, but these are direct acts of aggression," Martoc argued, "which means we are both obliged and authorised to respond." She crossed the room to where the blueprints remained pinned to the wall. "The Mountain Breaker must be broken."

"A schedule is being designed for delaying the construction of the ship," Michels said. "Information from Roldan has enabled us to identify multiple weaknesses—"

"This is war, Michels. We do not have time for slow and subtle. We must be decisive. Prepare your stockpiles of explosive. Roldan - you will light a fire tomorrow which will tell of Bruckin that the valley is not theirs for the taking."

"I agree we need to do something about the warship," Roldan said, a knot tightening in his stomach, "but this isn't the time to rush into another half-formed plan."

"See it done," she said. "I need to prepare a message to send to the queen on the next mailship." With that, she turned and stormed from the briefing room.

She had the authority to do it, as the usual hierarchies and procedures were made moot by her acting as proxy for the queen. Pienya Martoc strutted with royal power, wielding it like an infant child with a knife.

Roldan felt adrift, unable to rely on those around him, as reason and clarity crumbled to make way for accusation and fear. He wished for one thing only: to stand on the bridge between the mesas and have a quiet conversation with his friend Fenris, who had always found ways to help make sense of the world.

Alas, the time for talk was long past.

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