CHAPTER 26: Darrex Palace
It was gratifying to find that while princes might be ten-a-penny, Highest Princes and Princesses still attracted a good deal of notice and respect. One of each of these dropped in for breakfast, and were fawned upon while they looked down their noses at everyone. Their clothes were of a black which managed to be the deepest possible midnight while still looking attractive.
‘No; not now!’ Dengana whispered urgently to Lusi when he saw her getting a gleam in her eye. Sulkily, she caused the Highest imitation she had started experimenting with to settle back into her sooty look.
All three of them combined merging into the background with keeping ears wide open, but nothing of any interest came from the Highests throughout the meal – in fact, all they uttered was to give orders.
When Hugh and the other two set out after breakfast, they found themselves to be just one group of a great number headed for Darrex Palace. It seemed to have become a magnet of attraction, particularly for princely ranks and above.
‘That could be such an impressive building,’ Hugh called to his companions, ‘if it had a spot of colour here and there. The shapes and balance – breathtaking! Yet it is left to look miserable and morbid. So stupid!’
‘Is big-big-big,’ observed Lusi.
Dengana considered this statement, decided that he couldn’t think of an improvement, and so repeated it.
All of them continued to experience the just-before-thunderstorm feeling about the place that the very first sight had given them. It was oppressive and forbidding, and the closer they came the stronger this feeling became.
The palace was surrounded by elaborate-in-shape but depressed-in-colour gardens, and these were inside a high wall with a large gateway. Highest (and only) King Darrex obviously did not favour casual arrivals. Everyone who approached was waved down by flying guards to land in front of the gateway, and then had to walk into the palace grounds. Not that they were able to land at all close to the entrance – the crowd waiting to get in was considerable, and growing by the minute.
The three obediently joined the queue and gradually moved forward towards the gateway. Everyone was silent – not even any of the automatic greetings were given to new arrivals until barked by guards at the gate. These were holding long poles with an axe-like blade topped by a spike at the end, which Hugh thought he remembered having read were called halberds. As they drew closer they could hear that these guards – all High Princes – were demanding names.
All the others were jostled too close for them to confer, and when they reached the gate Hugh, in the lead, still hadn’t decided whether to try and invent other names or give the Dallent Island ones. After responding to the ‘Triumph the Cause’, he stuttered, ‘We are from the south, come in response to the message …’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ snapped the guard, What names, though … Hoy!’
At that moment, the Highest Prince and Princess they had seen at the inn arrived, obviously having taken their time about the flight. They simply ignored the frantically waving guard in the air, causing him to drop his halberd and nearly skewer a prince below, and then they flew straight over the gateway and towards the entrance to the palace.
‘You can’t do that!’ yelled the gate guard. ‘Not even you Highest … Hoy, you lot! Come back here!’ The last part was addressed to Hugh, Dengana and Lusi, who had used the diversion to walk through. Then they simply went on walking. Fortunately, some others behind them decided to try the same thing, and it was all the guards could do to get them back. By that time the three had caught up and mingled with some of those ahead. One guard did fly across and try to pick them out, but gave up when things started becoming chaotic back at the gate and returned to his post to do a little pointed prodding.
The crowd they were following were being shepherded towards a doorway less imposing than the main one, part way along the palace wall to the right. Another High Prince was standing inside, directing the prince traffic, while a High Princess was shepherding all princesses in another direction. Before they could blink, Lusi was vanishing out of sight down one corridor while they were directed into another.
‘We should have foreseen that,’ Hugh muttered to Dengana, ‘but then, what could we have done about it?’
‘Maybe we should think to be Highest,’ Dengana muttered back.
‘Too soon …’ Hugh started to say, but the High Prince now leading in front snapped, ‘No talking back there,’ so he stopped.
They were filed into a room which had a lectern at one end and nothing much else. The floor was bare. Apart from some marks on the walls the shapes of pictures or tapestries, those were bare too. Everyone simply stood in lines facing the front while more filed slowly into the room. The High Prince stood behind the lectern, and for some time did nothing except yell if anyone made a sound.
Finally the doors to the room were closed, and the High Prince addressed them. Inevitably he began with the slogan, and everyone chorused it back, after which he said, ‘I am High Prince Dorin. You are now going to start advanced training of various kinds so that you may truly immerse your insignificant selves into the glory of The Cause and our glorious destiny as Darxem.’ Then he somehow managed to carry on for at least half an hour saying what amounted to exactly the same things as those, but in various different wordings.
At the end of this, he leaned forward across his lectern and his voice took on even greater fervour. ‘Now let me tell you what has been accomplished to date, and what your parts in the next steps are likely to be.’ He gave a long and dramatic pause.
’As you know, we have been provoked disgracefully again and again by the stupid women who have so foolishly been permitted to rule over the Breena Rings. We are left with no alternative but to bring them to a realisation that they are unfit to be in control, and that they must in future fall under our His Highest Majesty King Darrex, as so wonderfully guided by His Greatestness.
’We have been sending ultimatums out in the past few days, and Ring after Ring has expressed defiance. They must all be brought to heel, and this is where some of you come in. You will train more forces to add to those we have waiting at the Interfaces to each Ring, and when we reopen them you will go straight to the palaces of these so-called queens and do away with them and any who try to oppose you. His Greatestness has determined that not one of these queens is suitable for being brought to the marvellous truths of The Cause, so it follows that their lives must be forfeit. In a manner, of course, which will act as a suitable example to their misguided subjects.
‘It is probable, however, that their princesses up to Higher may, through being humbled and with such suffering as shall be necessary, be forged into proper tools of the Cause. This will be the prime responsibility of certain of our own Paramount and Highest Princesses, but they will probably call upon you for some assistance.’
Hugh could see from the faces of those visible to him that the thought of rendering such assistance greatly appealed to them.
One of the princes raised a hand and was nodded at by the High Prince. ‘What is this Paramount?’ he asked nervously.
‘I wondered if anyone would be awake enough to ask that,’ High Prince Dorin said, glaring round the room. ‘Not a “Paramount”; but “Paramount Princesses”. His Greatestness has just decreed that Paramount Princesses are now what suitably deserving Highest Princesses, who were formerly queens in Darx, are to be called, such as Tergina, the sister of King Darrex, and others who have been appointed to direct the operations of Highest Princesses in the conflicts to come. We cannot question this decision, strange though it may seem.’ His expression and a sniff added on, ‘and however much we might want to.’
’At any rate, this part of our destiny is still a small thing as compared with that of bringing the world now occupied by humans, cleansed of all such vermin, back to our own control and condition. Many solutions have been tried there with sending in destructive organisms, but the humans have been remarkably resistant to them. The majority survive, even where conditions are ideal for our creations to wipe them out.
‘It has therefore become clear that what is needed is a multi-pronged approach. We are training crecords to cause such wide varieties of creatures to destroy human beings that they will have no chance whatsoever of surviving against all of them.’
‘When do we …’ one of those near the back started calling out eagerly.
‘Did I invite questions?’ snapped the High Prince, and then started repeating all he had said before in different ways yet again until most of his audience were asleep on their feet. The announcement of a break for the midday meal was met with an audible sigh of relief.
The food in a bare communal dining room, which also showed many signs of removed ornamentation, was served at long tables with benches on either side by silent Darxtas. The food was quite tasty, but Hugh and Dengana gobbled theirs and then left the room. Others were doing the same for calls of nature, but they were the only ones who went on going until they reached the outside.
In the part of the gardens outside the door they had entered by, they found Lusi with a small group of other girls who had also escaped. She drifted away from these, and then all three drifted further to behind a pretty summerhouse. Nothing could have been done to make this un-pretty short of breaking it down, and it could be assumed that the process of making everything equal hadn’t quite come to that yet.
‘High Princess Torpa she speak-speak-speak but say nothing,’ Lusi complained. ‘She say we must teach teachers but now maybe not if Greatestness he make new orders about something.’
‘We waste time now, maybe?’ Dengana expressed a view Hugh had also started to form.
‘Maybe we do need to take advantage of this new influx of Highests and become those ourselves,’ he said. ‘Or, was it Higher in your case, Lusi? That’s what you arrived as?’
‘You try go higher than Higher?’ Dengana asked.
Lusi shook her head. ‘Silly, that,’ she said. ‘What I am as soon as I Adapt must be what I am, and that already one more than in Rings.’
‘Well,’ said Hugh. ‘maybe you hadn’t finished Adapting when you tried it?’
Lusi looked around her carefully. Nobody was in sight. ‘This wasting time,’ she said, becoming a High Princess. Then she went to Higher, and stopped there with a ‘told you so’ expression. This became one of slight puzzlement, then of surprise, then of effort – and, suddenly, she was uttering any number of squeaks at having become, quite unmistakably, Highest.
‘Somebody come!’ hissed Dengana, and Lusi demoted herself in an instant. A prince came in view moving towards the palace, and gave a start when he saw them. ‘You’re also in Crecord Training Intro, aren’t you?’ he said, ignoring Lusi. ‘We’d better hurry, or we’ll be late.’
Hugh and Dengana exchanged glances, nodded at one another, and followed him. Lusi shrugged resignedly, and made her way back towards her Training-Training-But-Maybe-Something-Else class.
To their alarm, the boys found themselves in a different room to the previous one – and with a different set of princes. It had Dorin again, though. He must have handed the previous class over to another.
Dorin went through the whole Crow show to start off with, and then continued for some time on the lines of, ‘We must all constantly be on the guard that Self does not intrude to make us less effective in carrying out our responsibilities to The Cause and to endanger the glory that all of us are shown in the pattern as being able to inherit…’
Hugh and Dengana were just considering how they could slip out unnoticed when he said, ‘Now, to an outline of the course you will be receiving. All of those you teach will, of course, have been tested for more than the usual communication skills with insects, birds or animals which we use to carry out our normal duties, both here and in the world at present overrun with the human vermin. They must develop far beyond that, though, into group control.’
He glared at a prince in the front row. ‘You, there, looking half-asleep. Tell us what the basis of such control would be.’
‘Th…th…the group id,’ replied the prince.
‘And what is this id – you!’ He picked on another unfortunate.
‘A sort of mind, formed by the whole group of creatures,’ this one turned himself into a fortunate by responding promptly.
‘Just so. The id which exists, or may be formed, which links and unifies a number of creatures of the same kind. Now, as you should know, in communal creatures like ants or bees or nesting wasps this id remains fairly well formed at all times. It simply needs to be strengthened and focussed. In others, however, it needs to be brought into being and maintained by the coordinator. For solitary creatures like spiders, in fact, one needs one crecord to maintain the id, and another to control the actions of the group.’
‘Wow!’ said Hugh. A startling extension of the implications of all of this had just come to mind, and he couldn’t help himself.
High Prince Dorin did not look put out by this interjection, but gave a thin smile. ‘Indeed, this is a most useful skill for specialist pairs, who must have good accord with one another. The ones who have these abilities are among the cream of our crecords.’
Lusi was becoming so bored that she wanted to scream. She had reached the stage where she was seriously considering promoting herself and then having a Tye-type tantrum, when a welcome diversion occurred. Another High Princess was admitted to the room, and had a whispered conference with their lecturer, High Princess Torpa. Then the other one flew out again.
‘I hate interruptions,’ Torpa said crossly, ‘but anyway … show hands everyone here who has been to the Breena Rings and had some contact with the Daoine.’
There was a lot of shuffling and nervous looking-about. A few arms twitched, but remained at sides.
Torpa gave a sigh. ‘Look, all we want are a few volunteers to go to Drail Palace, where as you know the prisoners are being housed, to assist there. It will stand to your credit on your records.’ She paused to let this sink in, and then yelled, ’Now, show hands!’
Hoping she wasn’t being an idiot, Lusi raised her hand as did some thirty others. Torpa nodded, and pointed to the door. ‘You will be met,’ she said. ‘Now, perhaps we can get on with what we are here for …’
At the door, a princess waiting there simply said, ‘Follow me,’ and headed for a doorway leading to a balcony on the third floor – the level of Torpa’s lecture room. From there, she flew higher, towards another balcony, this time on one of the towers. They flocked obediently behind her.
This balcony led to a spacious antechamber with chairs and settees. Here, joy of joys, they were all invited to be seated while, one by one, they were conducted to an inner room.
A couple of those who went in before Lusi came out looking unhappy – indeed, one was sobbing – and they flew back in the direction of the first balcony. Others came out looking excited, but with buttoned lips.
Then came Lusi’s turn. A Higher Prince who was sitting at a desk with a window behind him looked at her drab dress with some approval before motioning her to stand before him, blinking at his outline. Then he snapped, ‘Name some of the Breena Rings.’
‘Honour, Glit, Flut, Bear, Ding, Tya, Glim, Boar, Safah, Dong, Clear, Glim, Clat…’
‘Enough! Now, tell me the names of some of the’ he gave a sneer, ‘so-called queens.’
This time Lusi was stopped after only getting out, ‘Aiennea, Glorianne …’
‘Where would you expect to find an inn, there?’ he barked.
‘Up a tree, mostly,’ Lusi replied.
‘How much time have you spent in the Rings?’
‘Many years, altogether.’
‘Even to you, sorry, not in a position to say.’
He nodded approvingly. ‘On one of the Highest King’s missions, I can tell. Right, you’ll do particularly well. Your name?’
‘Tuza,’ said Lusi.
‘Go back, Tuza, sit down, keep quiet, and wait for my further instructions.’
A couple more were sent fluttering off sadly; many more re-seated themselves triumphantly; and then the Higher Prince came and sat down with them. ‘I am Drail,’ he introduced himself. ’Yes, that’s right, it is my palace which has been commandeered to house all the Rings rabble, so I am naturally eager to get rid of them.
‘It has finally been agreed that they should be done away with, but our too-kind-hearted Highest Majesty has decreed that we should first look for any who may be useful as spies back in The Rings in the short term, and as loyal subjects in the longer term. My people there have started with this, but they need more help. They have found that only Darxem who know The Rings are able to get anywhere with them; even with the ones with strong potential. Also, that with their foolish culture,’ his lip curled,’ ‘they are more forthcoming with women than with men, Understood, so far?’
He waited for each princess to nod before going on.
‘You will need to speak to as many as possible, making a list of all those you come across who may qualify. Obviously, apparel will be a particularly good initial guide. Despite strong lessons we have tried to give, the majority insist on maintaining their disgusting outward show of selfishness, demonstrating thereby their unsuitability for The Cause … and for living,’ he tacked on casually.
The group set off almost immediately, led by Drail himself, and there was no opportunity for Lusi to entrust anyone with a message – not that she would have known what names to leave it in, nor where to tell the messenger to find the recipients, anyway.
In the next break, Hugh and Dengana first waited at the summerhouse, and then searched in vain for Lusi. Finally, Hugh thought of looking for any of the girls she had been with earlier. This time there were two groups who had come outside, and the first turned out blank.
They were luckier with the second, though. ‘Oh yes, she was one of those chosen to go to Drail Palace to help keep those horrible queen-loving prisoners in order. They should just do away with them, is what I say,’ one of the prettier princesses said brightly.
‘Now, we have a dilemma,’ Hugh sighed. ‘Do we sneak out of the palace and go tracking Lusi down at this Drail place in order to see if there is any way of releasing the prisoners, or do we try to get closer to the inner circle here? Either way, we need out of here, first. Let’s look for the least-overlooked bit of wall.’
Before they began an inspection, in little bursts of walking and flying both, Dengana said, ‘My thought is Lusi she can get ideas there. We join her later. For now, we go, then come back Highest Princes.’
‘I think you’re right,’ said Hugh. ‘Look over there. That could be a good stretch of wall, well-hidden by trees … yes it looks ideal’