The reluctant catalyst

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After the sound and fury there was frantic scrabbling; a hasty, unplanned withdrawal from the city. Bruckin was aflame, or at the very least its beating industrial heart, and the security forces were closing the gates. Michels had sealed all routes to the Eyes' hideouts and safe houses, leaving Roldan Stryke to fend for himself, arsonist and saboteur and architect of the valley's doom. He'd fled the shipyards, long before the timed first explosion, feeling the detonation quake through the ground even as he moved swiftly through the streets. Layers of ice had been dislodged from windowsills and rooftops, producing a fine, tumbling spray of white, as if a child had picked up the city and turned it over in their hand; nothing more than a bauble.

Roldan had nodded at the other workers as he'd left the dry dock, tipping his hat and calling them by name, while a rotten sickness festered in his belly. He had been asked to do a foul, disdainful thing, and he'd done it as ordered.

He'd broken into a run, pushing through crowds flocking in the opposite direction, and reached the docks in less then fifteen minutes. To his surprise Pienya Martoc was waiting for him, holding the Zephyr despite the protests of Captain Calen. It had been coincidence that the Zephyr had returned to the city the night before, a fact that Martoc had taken to be a good omen. She had gone to the docks to ready the ship for their departure, while Roldan had visited the shipyard. A part of him wished that the ship had already departed, leaving him stranded and prey to the Bruckin security forces. He deserved no less, and it would have given him some form of reconciliation with his own conscience.

Instead, he climbed aboard, the ropes were unwound and the Zephyr had powered away from the dock, even as security personnel poured into the station, waving frantically at the port officers who were too late to stop them.

As the dawn broke over the valley, the Zephyr rose on the morning currents, the towers of Bruckin diminishing as the breadth of Lagonia opened its arms. They were returning to the capital, leaving the elevated frosts of the north to await their ultimate fate.

Roldan leaned heavily on the edge of the ship, his bag dropped unceremoniously on the deck. The ground drifted by languorously far below, as they passed beneath light, dispersed clouds. He watched the shadows on the surface, trying to spy the ship's, but the sun's angle was still too oblique.

It had been an official order, but that didn't help to make it any more palatable. Roldan's loyalty had always been to the valley, and to the men and women he served with. Treydolain was his base, Guijus was his king, but it was the valley that he'd always fought to protect, in all its contradictions and idiosyncrasies. As long as he could remember, there had been a fear that Bruckin would secede, or otherwise cause trouble, and Treydolain had always suffered from thinking it was the world entire, with all else a potential threat. There was Lagonia and there was Treydolain, a country within a country. And yet, when it came to it, the first blow had been struck by Treydolain, by a King's Eye, deep into Bruckin's soul.

"It was a military target," Martoc said, climbing the steps from below deck and approaching. "The order was legitimate."

"It was a civilian shipyard."

"That was their choice," Martoc said, joining him at the side of the ship. "They put their people in harm's way the moment they began building that monster."

Roldan shook his head. "Bruckin is still in the accord: we've struck against our own."

"Nonsense," Martoc said. "Bruckin has never been part of Lagonia - they've always been looking for their chance to strike out on their own, or mount a coup."

"But they didn't. We took the first action."

"Roldan," Martoc said, her voice uncharacteristically soft and sympathetic, "you said yourself that the Mountain Breaker was our priority. You're the one that identified it as a warship. If it wasn't for you, a month from now it would have been knocking down the palace walls and pouring hot tar into the streets of Treydolain."

Roldan sighed and raised his eyes to the sky, losing himself for a moment in the blue and white. "A pre-emptive strike, then. To prevent something worse."

"History will remember this as a decisive moment, Roldan."

A laugh rumbled up and Roldan looked at Martoc, still a terribly young girl to his eyes. "I've been around long enough to know that depends on who gets to write it." He wasn't one to contradict or complain about orders: it was unseemly for a soldier, or a King's Eye, to undermine the royal authority. It wasn't that he couldn't question motives and consequences - just that he shouldn't do it in front of others. "What next, then?"

Martoc stretched, her elbows popping audibly as she did so. "I will report back upon our return. Queen Anja will be most eager to receive an update."

"And the king."

"The king first, of course," she said, a little too quickly. "It is regrettable that we were unable to arrest Tranton Seldon and Fenris Silt. They will be most displeased. But at least we have proof that they are in league with the Liefs."

"Do we? It is circumstantial at best. I've left Bruckin with more questions than I had when I arrived."

"Leave it to the rest of us to interpret what we learned, Roldan." She turned away to return below. "You have acquitted yourself admirably on this mission. I will be be sure to commend your impressive efforts to the queen."

Some of Calen's crew remained topside, adjusting the ballast and heading of the small mail ship, but Roldan felt decidedly alone. His mind replayed not Martoc's words, nor the shattering explosion, but the encounter with Tranton Seldon in a dirty, cold Bruckin alleyway.

Think about those orders. That had been shouted before Roldan had been asked to destroy the shipyard. Before they'd had to flee the city having carried out an act of terror upon its streets. Roldan Stryke had done terrible things in the name of the crown before, but he'd never had cause to question them, or worry about the long term motivation. It had always been in service of the valley and its continuing stability. Small sacrifices to save many.

The Mountain Breaker was different. Something had shifted, somewhere, almost imperceptibly. All eyes were on Bruckin and Garrus Lief: fears were targeted at the stonebreakers and their warship. Insurrection from the mountain ring kept the King's Eyes looking out, towards the edge of the valley.

Perhaps they were looking the wrong way. He had assumed that Tranton Seldon's arrival in the valley had been the cause of all the chaos, but the problems had only arisen once Seldon had reached Treydolain.

Roldan stood straight and walked the length of the ship to the prow, where he climbed some steps and looked out at their destination: the twin mesas of Treydolain, already rising in the far distance.

Fenris Silt never did anything without good reason. He was a master of order and careful planning. Believing that he was an enemy of the crown, of the valley, was an impossibility. Seldon, also, could not be seen as a threat. A destabilising factor, for certain, but an accidental one. Seldon had no interest in politics or power - in point of fact, he seemed to go to utmost efforts to run from both. Kirya Tellador was assured hereditary power and already had the ear of her father; abdicating and fleeing to Bruckin made no sense and gained her nothing. There had to be other players on the board, hidden, acting unseen.

Somewhere below, inside the Zephyr's hull, prowled Pienya Martoc, right hand of the queen. The hairs on his back prickled. As Roldan stood at the head of the ship, he found himself caught between watching the capital city growing in size on the horizon and an increasing urge to turn and look over his shoulder. In that moment, he was unable to identify where he would find the greater threat.

CREEPY. Next time we'll be back up in the mountains, so don't miss that one. Question of the week: what do YOU think is really going on in the story??

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