The twin mesas welcomed the Zephyr home, rising over the horizon like twin horns. Pienya had often thought that it was the mesas, not the mechanical crown itself, which signified power in the valley. The concave curve of the valley led down from the mountains, before rising up slightly as the land neared the centre, with the sudden emergence of the mesas marking a clear statement of intent: it is from here that we rule. The crown was worn by one man, but the mesas represented something greater: the combined skills and strength of soldiers, diplomats, King's Eyes, city guard, artificers - the best minds and bodies Lagonia had to offer, filtered down to the best of the best.
She stepped from the Zephyr's ramp onto the hard ground of the mesa dock, allowing every aspect of the plateau to sink into her senses: the plateau itself, obscured somewhat by the docking machinery and delivery warehouses; the abrupt drop into space at the edge, leading vertically down to the city below; the palace, standing tall and proud at the far end, its towers gleaming in the sun. Bird wheeled through the air, swooping below the edge of the cliffs to find their nests somewhere out of sight. Ships came and went, though the docks were quieter than she last remembered seeing them.
Speaking barely a word to Roldan Stryke, who was on his way to report to the King's Eyes contingent, Pienya instead made her way across the mesa, following the path away from the docks, then through the fences and security checks into the palace grounds proper. The guards recognised her, of course, and let her pass. She knew all their names. Atop the mesas, even the foliage was subtly different from what was found below, being hardier and lower to the ground. She'd always found a satisfaction that the plant life itself reflected the superiority of those who lived atop the mesas. If only the rest of the valley kept to such high standards.
She passed into the palace by the main entrance, then climbed the central staircase to the upper levels, where she then climbed up to the roof. Pushing open the door, she stepped out onto the very top of the world, where very few were permitted to walk. So often she would arrive here, summoned by the queen, to discover Kirya already present, sat by her mother, speaking softly into her ears, assured of the rapt attention that only a parent can give. Kirya Tellador, free to do as she pleased, without responsibility or consequence, born into a life of ease and frivolity. Pienya had always been pushed harder by the queen, after she'd lost her parents, and had always felt a need to somehow, impossibly, catch up with the royal-born.
That was no longer a consideration. Kirya would not return to the palace or be welcome in the aviary: she had chosen the enemy. For how long had she been working secretly against the crown, even while pushing Pienya away from Anja's attention?
Irritated by her own musings, Pienya shook the indulgences from her mind and entered the aviary. The greenhouse heat was momentarily overwhelming and she paused, swaying by the entrance.
"Come and sit with me, Captain Martoc," came the queen's voice, from somewhere beyond the huge leaves and fronds.
The queen sat on the bench in the centre of the aviary. There was a weary tiredness to her bearing, as if she had diminished in the time Pienya had been away. "Have you seen your king, Pienya?" she asked, gesturing to the bench.
She felt a knot in her stomach. Already, the testing. "I was on my way to see him, my lady," she said, not entirely untruthfully, while taking a seat, "but it can take some time to acquire and audience with his majesty."
"This is true," said Anja. She indicated back along the path through the aviary. "For you, Pienya, my door is always open."
"I am grateful, my queen. Though my mission was not a success."
"Indeed it was not. Even now, the traitors escape into the Avian Mountains, taking my daughter with them."
Pienya looked sideways at the queen. "You know this already?"
"I am always very well informed, as you know. I am disappointed, of course, but it is ultimately of little consequence. Kirya will come to her senses in time, I am sure. My sources also tell me of a not insignificant industrial accident in Bruckin."
"They were building a weapon. A dreadnaught. Its destruction seemed prudent."
The queen stood, walked a few paces. "You are probably correct. But your actions have accelerated matters. Timing is now more critical then ever."
"I'm sure King Guijus is well prepared."
Anja stood still, facing away from Pienya. Her head tilted up towards the chattering birds, sat on branches high above near the glass ceiling. "There are difficult times ahead, Pienya," she said at last, "difficult times and difficult decisions, which will make your actions in Bruckin seem as the simplest of gestures."
"I am ready."
The queen's laughter filled the aviary and still she did not turn. "There is no being ready for what is ahead, child. It does not matter how wise, or strong, or powerful we are: there is always something that can break us. It is already there, waiting to be stumbled upon." She trailed off into silence.
"What of your daughter? I suspect she may be voluntarily accompanying the traitors."
"As I say, leave her to me. She'll do as she is told when the time is right, I am sure." She turned at last, the gaze from her cold blue eyes boring into Pienya. "What of Roldan Stryke and his cohort?"
"Stryke performed well in Bruckin. The escape of the traitors was both our responsibility. The mistake was shared. His actions at the shipyard were exemplary."
A thin smile spread across the queen's face. "You speak highly of a man you despise," she said. "Pienya, do not feel trapped by power, or the power others appear to wield. Roldan Stryke is a soldier playing at being a spy, as with all the King's Eyes. He wields no authority over you."
Pienya bowed her head, ashamed of the truth. For all her belittling of the man, he had been a constant in her life, always favoured by Fenris and the king.
"Fenris Silt is no longer here," the queen said, "and I have grave concerns about the King's Eyes. They were all trained by Silt. He had their loyalty, just as he gained the trust of our king. Silt may be gone but his organisation remains. All hand-picked by the traitor. All following his creed and ideology."
"You think the King's Eyes cannot be trusted?"
"I think we would be foolish to trust them, given the circumstances. Be wary, Pienya."
It felt as if another piece of the puzzle was falling into place: the conspirator's net was was becoming increasingly visible, in the process losing its potency. "The king sees them as his personal guard," Simply by them being aware of the threat, Pienya felt that there was renewed hope.
"Yes. That is why we must be cautious, and be the king's new eyes and ears. The King's Eyes are close to him. Who knows what orders Fenris Silt gave before his departure." The queen stepped close, leaned down towards Pienya and took one of her hands. "In the weeks to come, we may be the only true allies my husband can rely upon."
Good job everyone in this chapter is totally honest and trustworthy. Thanks for reading, as ever - votes and especially COMMENTS gratefully received. Behind-the-scenes notes are posted over at patreon.com/simonkjones.
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The Mechanical Crown (complete novel!)Fantasy
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...