The betrayer

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The long skulk back to Treydolain took days, as Pienya was forced to move only in shadows, only at night, away from the roads. It was never more dangerous than when escaping Bruckin, after the King decided to turn his army against her. As Treydolain's force had eaten itself, Pienya had withdrawn into the narrow side streets, from where she'd vaulted up to the rooftops. After considering her options and deciding that the fight was lost, she'd made for the wall. Fighting both the King and the Bruckin forces did not appeal, so she had abandoned her unit and been one of the first of the Treydolain army to fall into retreat, before Bruckin had been able to react and close off routes. Hers had been an orderly and precise manoeuvre, unlike the disarray of the regular troops in the streets below, who crashed into each other in a panic, those behind the front line having no conception of the confusion awaiting them at the front.

Avoiding the smashed gates, she'd instead made for the wall itself, leaping from a building onto the top of the wall before scaling down the outside. The ground beyond was a slurry of mud and wreckage and corpses, even though she had tried to take a wide berth around the main path of the assault. The army camp was in an even worse state, their troops scattered and dispersed into the fields, some standing and wandering in a daze, others sat around extinguished fires, murmuring to themselves about monsters from the sky. She had initially considered seeking out the generals and trying to sway them to her side before word reached them from the battle, until she saw the remains of their blasted tent, flames still licking the charred frame. Something had happened here which they had not anticipated. Even as surviving soldiers cried out to her for guidance and leadership, she'd instead commandeered a horse and had ridden as fast as it could manage through the remains of the camp until she was out the far side, riding south towards the capital. Soldiers littered the roadside, confused and despairing.

Pienya had become more cautious then, one eye always on the sky, fearing that one of the attacking ships from Bruckin would swoop down and capture her. That's when she'd left the main roads and moved only at night, staying away from towns and witnesses, finding food in remote fields where no trace would be left. It meant a longer journey but it kept her safe and invisible. All the while she ran over the events of the battle of Bruckin, trying to fathom how it could have gone so utterly wrong. Every scenario she ran resulted in only one logical conclusion: King Guijus was the problem. His arrival had destroyed their strategy, and it was his betrayal that finally undid their efforts. So blinded was he to the perfect vision of his daughter that he'd been unable to accept that she was working with the enemy, even while witnessing her issuing orders from the enemy command vessel. Pienya had taken the shot that any responsible soldier should have taken; it had been unfortunate only in that the King had interfered. Even at that late stage, without Guijus' interruption, she might have been able to secure a victory for Treydolain.

Instead, they had been utterly routed. Pienya's mind raced as she considered what to say to the Queen - to Kraisa - upon her return. She didn't imagine that Kraisa would have any difficulty believing her husband's capacity for ineptitude, but Pienya's primary concern was how to escape being tarred with the man's failure. She had been there, after all, on Kraisa's specific orders.

There was an odd hush over Treydolain when she arrived at the city. It sat in its usual splendour, crouched around the lake and the river, the twin mesas towering up, but the streets were quiet, the markets empty, the always-animated facades and fountains and automata inert. Even by the standards of recent months the city seemed cowed. Word had clearly reached it of the defeat; the assumption could only be that the next step would be for Bruckin to retaliate. The King's army was broken, dispersed and captured; only the city guard remained to lend their protection.

She abandoned her horse at the base of the southern mesa and rode the cable car up to the top, its vertical ascent revealing the valley sprawled out below. In the far distance were the mountains: Bruckin was too distant to make out, but she thought she could nevertheless perceive dark smoke on the horizon; a darkening of the skies.

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