“She was such a beautiful kestrel.”
The Brigadier followed the King’s gaze down into the courtyard, where a handmaiden was running a brush through the Princess’ long, golden hair. His eyes narrowed as he saw how the change was already beginning to manifest. A radiance around the girl. Still faint, barely noticeable in the lantern light but enough to light up the handmaiden’s face as if she were standing in a shaft of silver moonlight.
He and his men had arrived back in the great city of Marboll just a few hours before, having travelled the last few miles in tremendous haste in response to the summons delivered by the King’s messenger. So great had been the urgency of the summons that he had gone straight to the palace, not even stopping at his estate to clean himself up and change clothes, so that he was still wearing his travel stained uniform and carrying the distinct aroma of horse and stale sweat. The King hadn’t cared, though, and had ushered him into his private quarters, the wing of the palace where the royal family enjoyed their private moments, away from affairs of state. The Brigadier had gathered that something had happened to the Princess and had feared the worse, but the truth was an even greater shock than anything he could have imagined.
The first clues had come the day before, while still miles from the city. Every town they'd passed through had been hushed and downcast, with hardly anyone out in the streets despite the bright spring sunshine. The owner of the inn at which the Brigadier and his small group of rangers had stayed for the night had said he had no idea what the trouble was, but that a sense of desperate disquiet had been issuing from the capital city for weeks now, and that it had affected every town and village within fifty miles. People would go to the city happy and cheerful, the innkeeper had said, but when they returned they had been troubled and silent, as if they had been infected by some darkness of the soul, some malaise of the spirit that had spread to afflict everyone else they'd come in contact with. No-one could say what the trouble was, but something terrible had clearly struck in the Palace, the very heart of the Kingdom. When the messenger arrived at dawn the next day, therefore, the Brigadier had already decided to make all speed for the city, but when he heard that it concerned the Princess he and his men had driven their horses almost to death in their haste to get there as soon as humanly possible.
They had arrived at the city to find crowds of people lining the streets, staring at them in desperate hope as they galloped past as if only they could drive away the darkness. Here, where they knew more of what had happened, the air was full of conversation as the people talked to each other and cried out to the rangers themselves. “Save her!” they cried. “Say you can save her!” The Brigadier had not paused to reply, though, had not even looked at them as they galloped past, their horses lathered and gasping, and they had arrived at the palace to find the King himself waiting at the gate for them, an unprecedented and utterly unthinkable breach of protocol. Leaving Sergeant Blane to see to the horses and take the rest of the men back to the barracks, therefore, he had followed the King inside almost as a run, as if just a few saved minutes might make the difference between salvation and damnation.
“I remember the moment we first saw her,” the King continued whimsically, his eyes unfocused as the memory drifted back. “She belonged to the Count of Amberley, one of his finest birds. We’d stopped at his castle on our way back from a state visit to Vennerol and the Count was putting on a display of falconry for us. Just showing off, I know, but entertaining just the same. We watched for a time, watching him put them through their paces, and then he unhooded a kestrel. The moment we saw her... The glossy feathers, the bright eyes... The Queen and I looked at each other, both of us knowing the same thing. We’d found our daughter.”
The Brigadier nodded. He’d heard the story before, of course, and in much greater detail. He remembered his first sight of the royal heir, how excited and overjoyed the parents had been. Every time he’d been in the city, the King had insisted that he come visit, so he could see for himself how the transformation was progressing, and the Brigadier had attended with stoic patience as his King and long time friend pointed out the latest human characteristics the kestrel was displaying. He remembered how delighted and excited the King had been when his daughter spoke her first recognisable words and, a few years later, the celebrations all across the Kingdom when the palace ontomancer had finally declared her fully human. “How did it happen?” he asked.
The King shook his head. “There are so many people opposed to the truce with Carrow. So many people who would profit from war. Somehow an agent got Into the palace, through all our defences. We were so confident she was safe. So naive...”
“But surely there are wards in place to defeat any curse...”
“But that’s just it, don’t you see? Technically it’s not a curse, it’s a blessing. She’s being transformed into a Radiant, a higher being.”
“But without Radiant parents to raise her...”
The King nodded. “The transformation will be unguided, random. She’ll become...”
“There’s must be a way to stop it. Some cure...”
The King gave a bitter, sardonic laugh. “If it were a curse... The wizards know how to deal with curses. If the effects aren't too bad the victim can be raised back up. A blessing, though. Who would even think of using a blessing as a weapon? We simply have no experience with such a thing!”
The Brigadier nodded. The King looked old, he thought. He had never looked young, despite the fact that he'd been human less than thirty years. The worries and strain of ruling a mighty kingdom had long since taken its toll, but there were lines around his eyes now and a tired look that had never been there before. That, more than anything else, worried the Brigadier and made him rack his brains for any solution, no matter how hopeless or desperate. “There are any number of ontomancers in the Kingdom,” he said. “Maybe a curse will reverse the blessing. I know the idea of...”
“We approached Boll.” The Brigadier shot him a glance and the King nodded ruefully. “Yes, we had the same idea. A curse to reverse the blessing. All the court ontomancers tried, when we finally managed to convince them we weren't testing their loyalty. When they failed, we approached outsiders. The finest licensed wizards we could find. They cast curse upon curse on her, while the Queen and I just stood and watched. All to no avail. In the end, we turned to the most powerful wizard in the Kingdom, licensed or not. Lawful or villainous. We sent for Boll.”
The Brigadier stared back down at the Princess, trying to imagine the young woman sharing a room with possibly the most evil wizard in the human world. Trying to imagine her parents bringing the two of them together, on purpose. “The number of times I’ve tried to find that man,” he muttered to himself. “He was like a ghost. Always one step ahead of us. All we ever found were his victims and, occasionally, the scum of the earth ambitious or desperate enough to hire his services.”
The King nodded. “That's how desperate we were. We had him here, right in the castle, under a flag of truce and an offer of amnesty. We hired him to cast the most powerful curse he possibly could, a curse more powerful than any other human could possibly perform. A curse that, if cast on a normal, healthy person, would have knocked them not just one rung down, but two or even three. We paid him to do it. All for nothing. She still looks human, but the transformation has already progressed too far. She’s immune to all curses and ailments.”
“So we think of something else. We still have time, do we not?”
“It took her five years to change from Kestrel to human, It’ll take at least that long to fully change to Radiant. It is my hope that, somewhere in the world, there is someone with greater knowledge of such things than anyone we’ve ever heard of, someone who can help her. ”He turned to face the Brigadier. “That’s why I sent for you, old friend. Your experience out there, in the wild places of the world. I thought you might have heard of someone...”
The Brigadier shook his head thoughtfully. He was tired from many days riding. It had been a long, hard mission, he’d lost several men, suffered minor injuries himself, and he’d been looking forward to some time relaxing and recuperating in his family estate. He was beginning to suspect he would be leaving the city again without even glimpsing the walls of his family home. “Everywhere you go there are myths and legends,” he said. “Tales of lost cities of the Hetin folk, of sages and wise men hoarding secret knowledge, but whenever we go in search of them they turn out to be just that. Myths. We spent six months once searching for a man rumoured to possess the secret of immortality. We found no trace of him, nor any sign that he had ever existed.” He paused, staring ahead at nothing. “There was one man I heard of. He may be nothing but another legend, but I knew a man who claimed to have actually met him. A man whose word I’d come to trust, not prone to flights of fancy. Even if he did exist, though, he might now be dead. And if he does exist and is still alive, the stories say he lives in Mekrol. In the foothills of the Uttermost Range.”
The King stared at him, his eyes pleading. “You have done many things for me over the years. Saved my life time and again, saved my Kingdom more than once... I have no right to ask anything more from you...”
“You don‘t have to ask, my friend.” He looked over the balcony again, where the Princess was now strumming at a lyre, the music drifting up to where the two men were staring down at her in gut wrenching concern. She was scared too, he saw. She knew what was happening to her and was terrified, but somehow she was finding the courage and strength to remain calm and composed. To remain a princess. He returned his gaze to the King. “His name is Parcellius, and I will find him. No matter what it takes, no matter what I have to do, I will find him.”
“He looks very handsome,” said the handmaid, plucking a couple of strands of silky blonde hair from the brush before returning it for another long stroke. Even the hair was starting to shine, she saw, and for a moment she wondered whether she could find a way to hide the stray hairs about her person to sell as mementos. There were people out there who would pay handsomely for them, she knew. Not just souvenir hunters but witches and warlocks who would use them in their spells and potions. Hair from someone half transformed into a Radiant was rare and precious, because the creatures usually took their adopted humans back to their cities, and if they were ever seen again it wasn't until the transformation had been fully completed. This hair was twice as precious because it came from a princess. It was never more than a whimsical fancy, though. Partly because she loved the Princess so much and would never abuse her trust for financial gain, but mainly because if she were caught she would be instantly executed.
“I suppose,” replied Princess Ardria, finding she had no heart for music at the moment and putting the lyre aside. She knew what the Brigadier looked like, her father the King insisted that he join them for a banquet in the palace every time he was in the city. She would stare at him across the table as they ate, remembering the stories she'd heard about his adventures, adventures that he himself refused to discuss except to dismiss them as nothing more than routine missions and exaggerations. Somehow, though, his very refusal to talk about his exploits only added to the mystique of the man, made him even more mysterious and exciting, and as everyone else talked about him his actions and victories grew with each retelling.
“Funny how handsome he looks, even though he never smiles,” said the handmaid, still brushing the Princess’ hair. “Do you think he's handsome, your Highness?”
“I suppose.” Then she grimaced as something moved inside her. Something twisting, shifting into a new position. The transformation was affecting her insides as well as her external appearance. Most of the time she could try to ignore it, turn her mind to other things, but then something that had been slowly growing inside her for days before would move abruptly, finding a more comfortable position for itself, and the feel of it would bring her predicament back to the forefront of her mind and bring the sick feeling of terror back to full force.
“As you all right, your Highness?” asked the Handmaid, seeing her expression faltering for a moment.
“Fine,” replied the Princess, forcing a smile back to her face. She looked up to see that her father and the Brigadier had gone. Cooking up some desperate, pointless plan to save her, no doubt. She knew full well that was happening to her, though. All the ontomancers, laying their cold hands on her bare skin while they cast their curses on her, had left her in absolutely no doubt. She knew there was no stopping it, and she knew what her father would do when he also finally accepted that there was no hope. She refused to allow any of this to appear on her face, though. She was a Princess. She had a duty to her people. A duty to be strong and thereby be a source of strength for everyone else.
“Bring me my harp, please, Teena.” She said. “Maybe that will ease my mind.”
“At once, Highness!” replied the Handmaid, and rose gracefully to her feet before trotting off to obey.
“You should not be alone.” The Princess turned to see Matron Darniss emerging from one of the doorways that ringed the courtyard. “Those Above only know what you're going through right now.”
Princess Ardria rose to her feet with a smile of pleasure and smoothed down her dress. “Soonia! You're back! How is your mother? Is she better?”
“She has gone back to the earth,” said the Matron, and the Princess ran forward to take her hands. “Oh Soonia! I'm so sorry!”
“It comes to us all, unless the Radiants take us. She is at peace now, and may he human again one day. My thoughts are with you now in these trying times. How are you, my sweetness?”
“Very much the same. The change is slow, and the Brigadier is here. He will find an answer. My father trusts him completely.”
“Yea, I heard. The whole city is talking of his arrival. It must be so good to have hope again. Have your parents been to see you today?”
“Father was just here. They come as often as they can, and stay as long as they can.” She looked at her hand, at the silvery radiance of her skin. “I can hurt them now, just by being close to them. You too, or anyone. No-one dares be in my presence for too long.”
“I am too old to be worried about such things.” Matron Darniss took her hand and squeezed it. “Besides, the Brigadier will find a cure, and then you can be with your parents all day if you want to. You just have to be patient. It may take months.”
“But who knows how much of me will be left when he gets back.” Her self control buckled under the emotional turmoil and her body began shaking. The Matron took her in her arms and held her tight, saying nothing, but thoughts were racing through her head. The Brigadier, yes. Something will have to be done about him...
The morose atmosphere of anger and fear still permeated the whole palace. The chatter and gossip that had filled the marble corridors during every one of the Brigadier's previous visits was absent, and the silence with which servants and courtiers went about their duties hung over everything like a shroud. It was as if the Princess had already died. The King had no doubt tried to keep his daughter’s condition secret for as long as possible, not just from the general population but from most of the palace staff as well, but someone must have spoken. Maybe just a whispered comment between two of the girl's personal attendants that had been accidentally overheard. Even if that had not happened, though, the truth would have gotten out sooner or later as her public appearances ceased. As her condition progressed, even a glimpse of her from a distance would have revealed the truth. The King would eventually have had to make a public statement to put a stop to gossip and speculation.
Snatches of half heard conversation did occasionally come to the two men as they made their way back to the main building, but it was never anything cheerful. People offered words of condolence to each other in sniffly voices, vain attempts to ease each other's grief. It was in their eyes as the King and the Brigadier walked past, and only the universal protocol of never speaking to royalty unless spoken to first kept them from saying the same things to him.
The Brigadier sensed the King growing more tense and angry as they made their way along the gold and white corridor, past the house plants on their pedestals and the beautifully painted landscapes that hung on the walls. The need to maintain appearances prevented the sovereign from saying what he was thinking, the thoughts that made his hands clench to fists by his sides and set his face in an expressionless mask, but when they passed a chambermaid who was actually in tears the Brigadier decided to say what the King could not. “The princess is not dead,” he told her sternly. “She has an illness from which she will recover. Your grief is premature, and is an insult to those searching for a cure for her condition.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” the woman said, her eyes darting fearfully to the King. “She has the prayers of everyone in the palace.”
“Make sure you tell everyone you meet,” the Brigadier continued. “The Princess will make a full recovery. I will personally see to it. Now go about your business.” The woman bobbed her head to the two men and scurried off down the corridor.
“Thank you,” said the King. “Sometimes my duties feel like an iron collar about my neck. People think a King can do things they cannot, but more often it is the other way around.”
The Brigadier nodded back. “It is only that they love you so much,” he said. “You and the whole royal family. The whole kingdom recognises your devotion to them and knows there is no other land in the world so fortunate in their leadership. How fares the Queen, if I may be so bold as to ask?”
“She seems to age a year for every day that passes. She spends every moment the healers allow by her side, and then longer besides. She has to be torn from her side. She would be there now if I hadn't ordered her go take some rest...”
As if being mentioned had summoned her, the Queen suddenly appeared from around a corner, dressed in a nightgown and pursued by a handmaid wringing her hands at her failure to keep her in her bed. The Brigadier’s eyes widened with alarm at the lines that had appeared around her eyes and the grey hairs on her head as she hurried towards them, and she grasped the Brigadier's arms tightly as she stared pleadingly up into his eyes. “Is it true?” she said. “You can save our daughter?”
“I’m sorry, your Majesty!” said the handmaid in terror. “She heard people talking in the corridor!”
“It's alright, Brigitte,” said the King. “You can go.” The Handmaid glanced between the Queen and the Brigadier, and her face shone with relief and gratitude. Then she turned and hurried back towards the Queen's private chambers.
“Yes, It’s true,” the King then said. “The Brigadier says there is hope.”
“I do not wish to give you false hope, though,” said the Brigadier. “Hope is all it is. There is a chance, though, and I will pursue it the length and breadth of the world if necessary. There is no length to which I will not go to save Her Highness.”
“I know you will,” she said, her cold hands clutching tightly as his. “You have no idea how my heart leapt with joy and relief just knowing you are here. You will save my daughter, I know you will. Thank Those Above for you!” She lifted her hand to touch his cheek, then hurried off down the corridor. Not back to her chambers, as the King would have preferred, but to the courtyard to see the Princess and look upon her for the first time in weeks with something other than despair.
“We’re leaving again? So soon?” Malone stared up at the Brigadier’s face as he trotted beside him, struggling to keep up with his long strides. “The men are tired. They were looking forward to spending some time with their families.”
“Can’t be helped,” replied the Brigadier. He hurriedly explained the situation, and the younger man cursed softly. The Princess was loved by the entire kingdom. “Yes, of course,” he said, a set look of determination appearing on his face. “The Princess... I saw her once, you know, at her declaration parade. I was just a few feet away from her as her carriage went past. I didn’t really have colour vision yet, but I could still see how beautiful she was. I can’t imagine someone wanting to hurt her.”
“Politics,” said the Brigadier gruffly, and there was a whole conversation in that one word. He was a simple man really, Malone thought, allowing himself to fall back a step or two behind his superior officer. The world he lived in was an uncomplicated one. There were his superiors, whom he obeyed and to whom he gave his unconditional loyalty, there were the men under his command, from whom he expected the same, there were criminals and the enemies of the kingdom, whom he hunted ruthlessly and tirelessly, and there was everyone else, whom he mainly ignored. That was his whole world. There was no room in it for complexities like politics, or even friendship. Malone himself was, he suspected, the closest thing the Brigadier had to an actual friend. Even family relationships seemed alien to him.
“Have you ever thought about having a child?” he asked.
The Brigadier gave no sign of having heard, staring thoughtfully ahead along the crowded street and glaring at the occasional passers-by who jostled them with their elbows. His mind was already out in the wild, thinking ahead to all the challenges that faced them. This was a mission that might well take years of his life, and good preparation was essential. Malone repeated the question, this time louder, and the taller man looked down at him. “Hmm? Not really. Raising a child properly takes two people. I mean, look at you. I’ve done my best by you, but in the five years since your parents died you’re barely more human now than you were then.”
“I’m not sure I want to be fully human. I’d miss my sense of smell too much. Right now, for instance, I can tell that a herd of garbage pigs passed this way just a couple of hours ago, and that one of them was still half rat. Has anyone ever adopted a pig, do you think?”
“I dare say someone has, sometime. Possibly a pig farmer who spent too long in close proximity with them until they began to show human traits. The law says you can’t eat them then, so his options would have been rather limited.” A small man with a grimy face and tousled hair bumped into him and the Brigadier grabbed his wrist before he could escape Into the crowd. He retrieved his pouch from the pickpocket and sent him on his way with a clout to the head. “Bloody cities. I’ll be glad to be out of here.”
Malone checked his own pockets and was relieved to find everything where it was supposed to be. “Once, I would have smelled a crook a mile off. My nose isn’t what it once was, you must be having some effect on me. I remember once I could put my nose in the air and find a bell flower in a field of turnips from a mile away. I miss that.”
“If you want to keep what’s left of it you’ll have to avoid prolonged contact with any single human. Especially me, since I became parent bonded to you. You'd have to keep moving around, avoid spending too long with any single person in case you form a new parent bond. It would mean retiring from the army. You could become a merchant perhaps. Moving from town to town.”
Malone laughed. “Tempting though that is, I think I’ll pass. You need me too much. No, I’ll accept the loss of my nose. I get colour vision anyway, as compensation. I still find myself staring up into a cloudless blue sky, trying to remember what it was like before I could see blue. And fire! All those yellows and reds! That’s about all I do remember, though. Most of my life from before I was adopted is just gone, like it never happened.” Then he frowned. “There is one thing I remember. A chain, around my neck. I was chained to something. I think I’m glad I don’t remember more than that.”
“It’s the same for everyone. Animals don’t have the same range of cognitive capacity as humans. They don’t have autobiographical memory, certainly.”
“I’ve heard apes do, to an extent. That’s one of the reason people hardly ever adopt them. It’s too traumatic, the clash of memories from before and after. Imagine being able to remember not being a person. Remembering not just being treated as an animal but actually being an animal.” He looked up, where a pair of Radiants were drifting slowly across the sky like small luminous clouds. “Do you think they remember being human?” he mused. “They can’t, or they’d surely feel an attachment to the family they once belonged to, go back and visit and so forth. So does that mean that being taken by the Radiants is like dying? Everything you once were, all your accomplishments and experiences, wiped out as if you never were?”
“They don’t think so,” replied the Brigadier, looking at a rooftop where people had climbed up and we’re now waving at the Radiants, trying to get their attention. The creatures ignored them, through, and changed direction, heading for the noble district. They wanted healthy humans, strong and well fed, not half starved wretches bent and crippled by a lifetime of manual labour. The Brigadier spent a moment wondering what he would do if one of them tried to take Malone. Would he let him go, glad that he would soon be a higher being, free of all the petty concerns of humanity? Or would he try to fight them off? The Radiants always backed off if their chosen adoptee, or a group of friends and relatives, put up too much of a fight. There were too many others all too glad for the honour.
A thought struck him. Could they be persuaded to take the princess? With Radiant parents to guide her development she wouldn’t have to fear aberrancy. She would develop normally, become a normal Radiant. He shook his head ruefully. Not only would the Radiants almost certainly not take her, seeing her as already damaged goods, but the King would never let her go and enough musket fire would kill even a Radiant eventually. And, of course, there was the matter of the arranged marriage. Helberion needed a royal heir to marry to Prince George of Carrow, to put an end to almost a century of distrust, confrontation and occasional outright warfare, and the rest of the royal children were still much too young, years away from being declared human.
No, the Radiants were not the answer, he thought. They had to find another, and they had to hope that Parcellius had one. If he didn’t...
“Here we are, Sir,” said Malone, and the Brigadier was jerked out of his thoughts to find himself standing outside the guardhouse, where his men had been making preparations for their two week leave of absence. Sounds of merriment came from within, and the Brigadier paused a moment outside the heavy gates before entering to break the bad news to them.