The King's Eyes were a deliberately ephemeral concept, always shifting and existing in the peripheral, never quite in focus. They were a scattered group, strategically positioned around the valley and providing a net of situational awareness to the king in Treydolain. As an extension of the king, they gave him the power to rule over the edges of the valley, into the foothills and glacial feet of the mountains, across the fields and forests and dusty plains; their influence in the villages and towns and guilds and families, nothing happening without their knowledge. Some were passive observers, others active conspirators and manipulators.
Theirs was a long tradition and they reported directly to King Guijus, though often those reports were sifted through and summarised by the royal protector or other staff. The King's Eyes were the monarch's conduit to understanding his realm, though he rarely returned communication directly, instead relying on the head of the order to manage their activites. When that relationship had collapsed upon Fenris Silt's unexpected departure, a gap had emerged between the Eyes and their king. Silt had done more than simply issue orders: he had served as translator between King Guijus and all the Eyes dispersed around the valley. Silt had made sense of the wealth of information and presented it in such a way that enabled the king to make practical decisions; with him gone, so had that connecting layer of trust.
Elia Shinn had never seen so many King's Eyes in one place. The gathering at the palace was unprecedented, certainly in her lifetime, and didn't seem like something that Fenris Silt would have sanctioned. Being a relatively new Eye, only having completed her training mere weeks before Silt's disappearance, being in the presence of so many renowned - infamous, in some cases - agents was a thrill and a privilege. She wished she had more time to talk to every single one, but instead found herself moving through the cavernous hall in silence, observing and shyly avoiding eye contact. King's Eyes usually wanted to blend in and operate invisibly, so being exposed in the hall had set nerves on edge.
The great hall was a two-tiered, oblong room, with a gallery balcony running around its entire edge. The walls were covered with gilded carvings, paintings and tapestries. It was ordinarily used for formal dinners but had been largely cleared of furniture for their meeting.
The operatives huddled in small groups, representative of where they'd been working: teams from the Marsh Approach between Treydolain and the Barrier Mountains, identifiable by their practical clothing which was decidedly out of place in the capital; others from Bilderbury Forest to the north-west, or the Gilgrafen Expanse to the south-east. Notably few representatives from the Tillen Steppes, leading up to Bruckin. Some had been unable to break cover, or the journey had been too perilous given the political climate; others had steadfastly refused to abandon their assignments, even at a formal summons from the king. There was dissent and disagreement spreading through the Eyes. They all lived and worked and fought for the king of Lagonia, but Fenris Silt had been their leader.
She wished that Roldan Stryke had come. He had always been close to Silt and would have been able to pull them all back together again. He'd been close to Silt but had also been sent with Pienya Martoc on the mission to the north, so was clearly still trusted with major operations.
Elia had not had a chance to embark on any assignments yet, as she had been due to receive her orders with some of her fellow classmates the week after the festival announcing Tranton Seldon's arrival. Events, alas, had overtaken them. That was presumably why the king had brought them all back: to re-organise, and to assert his authority. They would leave with a renewed sense of purpose.
Moving past her reticence, she joined a group deep in conversation. There were three young Eyes, only slightly older than her, and an older woman who had evidently spent many a year on the road. "The problem," she was saying, "is that he listens to his advisers and stewards more than he reads our reports. I've not found anybody who has had a proper audience with him since Fenris left."
The others looked about them, eyes darting, and they spoke in hushed tones. "Why do you think that is? What can we do to fix it? To convince the king that we're loyal?"
The older Eye curled her lip and frowned. "If he doesn't trust his own intelligence personnel, all of us, who swore and oath and have always been his eyes and ears, then we may already be too late." She turned towards Elia. "You're Elia Shinn, yes? I've heard about you. Best in class, apparently?"
Elia beamed and tried to hide her pride. "I did well, thank you."
"I am Lyann," she said. "It's good to know that we have so many skilled newcomers joining our ranks. You've been in the capital for some time. Tell me, have you seen Pienya Martoc?"
"She was here earlier," Elia said, "but I saw her leave. It looked like she received a message."
"Pity," Lyann said. "I would very much have liked to speak with her."
At once, a series of bangs drew their attention to the gallery floor above, where doors all around the room had been flung open. As all eyes looked to the balcony, soldiers entered through the doorways and took up positions at intervals. They lined the entire room, surrounding the King's Eyes, who were gathered on the lower, main floor of the hall.
Each soldier held a crossbow. Silently, without any orders being given, they pulled bolts from somewhere out of sight below the balcony rail, and loaded.
Even with a group of people as highly trained as the King's Eyes, events which would have been impossible to comprehend even weeks earlier were still difficult to process in time to react appropriately. The first volley of bolts tore into the crowd, knocking at least thirty to the floor.
Blood began to spread from their pierced bodies, the hall continuing to fill with screams and death as the soldiers silently reloaded, aimed and fired again, and again, and again.
Those still standing came to their senses, pushing past the stupefying, nonsensical violence. Their training took over, and they moved to the edges of the room, reducing the potential number of attackers, lifting dead and half-dead bodies to use as shields as the bolts continued to rain down.
Elia tried one of the heavy doors leading out of the hall but it refused to open. She ducked into the stairwell the led up to the gallery, joined by Lyann.
"Stay close," the more experienced Eye ordered.
They raced up the steps, two at a time, only to encounter a black, metal gate barring their way. Two soldiers were waiting on the other side of the gate with loaded crossbows, which they unloaded into the women's bodies.
Elia felt the thudding impact and tipped backwards, falling onto the stone steps and rolling uncontrollably back to the floor of the hall. The bolt was in her, and shifted uncomfortably.
Gasping for air, she coughed up blood. Looking back into the hall, she saw a sea of bodies, some moving, a few still standing at the edges, but being picked off one-by-one, unable to escape. Somebody tried to climb up a tapestry, but was shot down.
She didn't understand any of it. Couldn't comprehend why it had happened.
Thoughts turned back to Roldan Stryke, and his invitation to join him on his investigations. She'd chosen to stay, wanting to meet all of her new comrades.
As she bled out onto the cold, stone floor, she wondered whether Stryke had escaped, and where he was. She wondered what he'd do when he found out what had happened here, in the palace upon the mesas.
And that was her last thought.
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...