“You summoned me,” said Arwin Tsocco stiffly. “Here I am.”
They were in King Leothan's private audience chamber. The King had risen from his chair and come around from behind his desk to greet the ambassador, holding his hand out, but the ambassador made no move to take it. He stared at the King as if resentful at having been dragged all the way from the Kelvon embassy, even though this was the hour at which he would normally have come for their weekly game of Glory. He was wearing his full ambassadorial regalia, as if he was there on official business, rather than the casual dress he normally wore to their social meetings, and he had brought his attaché, a small, fussy looking man with oiled hair that stuck tightly to his scalp and a shirt that was buttoned so tightly against his throat that it must have been rather uncomfortable. Leothan thought his name was Benlow or something. He wasn't sure because Arwin had never brought him before.
“I didn't summon you,” the King said. “I invited you. I want to know what’s bothering you.”
“There's nothing bothering me, Majesty. Everything's just fine.”
“You missed our last Glory night. That's not unusual, I know. We both have duties that get in the way of our social lives, but you normally send a message, explaining why you can't come. When no message came, I assumed you'd just forgotten, or that an underling had neglected to deliver it. Something like that. But then, yesterday, you again missed our evening together, again without explanation.”
“I’ve begun to feel that it’s inappropriate for the two of us to have a social relationship. It affects our objectivity.”
“That's a load of crap! It's perfectly normal for ambassadors to socialise with the heads of the states in which they're stationed!”
“Really? Which other ambassadors do you play Glory with?”
“You never used to feel this way! What happened?”
“Nothing's happened, Majesty. I simply want to do my job as effectively as possible.”
“Has the Emperor been putting pressure on you? You said some people in court were uncomfortable with the two of us being such good friends.”
“No-one has been putting pressure on me.”
“I would have thought he'd welcome our close friendship. It means you can keep a closer eye on me.” He smiled as he said it, but there was no answering smile from the ambassador. “Dammit, Arwin! What’s wrong?”
“I assure you, Majesty, there is nothing wrong.”
“Is it about that Carrow business? Does the Emperor still think we’re trying to steal his export markets?”
“It is no easy matter to pull the wool over his eyes, Majesty. Nor mine. I am no fool.”
“No-one said you were...” There was the slightest flicker in the ambassador’s eyes and the King tensed up at the sight of It. “Someone said you were a fool for believing my protestations of innocence,” he said.
Arwin was unable to keep the look from his face that confirmed his guess, but there was more. The set of the ambassador’s body signalled anger and resentment. Anger directed at him, the King! And embarrassment, as if he'd just discovered that he’d been fooled and didn't like it. “You've discovered more evidence pointing to our guilt,” he guessed. “Evidence planted by Carrow agents, no doubt.”
“How easy it is to blame Carrow for everything!”
“Do you mean to say that you’re starting to believe it? That you think we would actually...”
“Stop it, Bill! For the sake of Those Above, stop it! How stupid do you think I am? No, you're right, I am stupid, to have believed you all this time, to have trusted you...”
Leothan stared in astonishment and horror, and Benlow stared at the floor as if embarrassed to see the King humiliated like this. “What happened?” asked Leothan. “What happened to make you think this?”
Arwin just looked at him for a moment, then reached into a pouch and produced a crumpled scrap of paper that he placed on the table. “The last time we played Glory, this was lying on the floor. Notes from your last meeting.” He watched as the King picked it up, smoothed it out and read it.
“Arwin, this is a forgery.” The ambassador started to speak but Leothan waved him quiet. “This looks like my handwriting, but I never wrote this, I swear it! We've known for some time that Carrow has an agent right here in the palace...”
“Carrow, Carrow, Carrow!” snapped the ambassador. “How long do you think you can keep spouting that line...” He froze in shock as he realised what he was saying. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. I forgot myself.”
“Arwin, you have to believe that I did not write this! This is exactly what they want, to drive a wedge between us! Think about it! How can gaining a few of Kelvon’s export markets possibly benefit us more than the friendship of the Empire?”
“It is clearly only a small part of some larger scheme that we have yet to uncover...”
“There is no larger scheme!”
“...but uncover it we will, you can be sure. What is more, you can expect the Empire to take punitive economic measures against your country in retribution.”
“Arwin, this note is a forgery! I never called you a fool! But if you believe all this then you are a fool! You are doing exactly what Carrow wants you to do!”
“Am I excused, Your Majesty?” He turned to go.
“Arwin! I predict that Carrow will very soon declare war against us! As soon as they can be confident that you will not come to our aid. They will declare war, Arwin, and when they do you will see that I was telling the truth!”
“Perhaps you should seek a diplomatic settlement with them. Was there anything else, your Majesty?” The King shook his head miserably and the ambassador left, his aide close on his heels.
Leothan watched the door close behind them, and he stood there quivering with rage, his mind a whirling confusion of frustration and bafflement. How could Arwin believe that of him? Had their friendship been so shallow all along, so fragile, that it could be destroyed so easily? Had he been fooling himself that a friendship like that was possible? His advisors had been warning him for years that kings and politicians didn't have friends. They had contacts. People they thought were useful to them in their careers and ambitions and who were cast off as the tides of political fortune turned. Was it he, the King, who'd been a fool to think that his and Arwin’s friendship had been different? That it had been real, rising above politics? The possibility left him feeling lost and lonely. And afraid.
He stared down at the scrap of paper Arwin had left behind, holding it in a trembling hand, then he turned and stormed out through the room's other door, into the corridor that led to the administration wing. Minister Falow, the head of internal security, had come to the palace that morning to meet with Minister Carr, the trade secretary. If he was lucky the man would still be there.
There were voices coming from committee room one and he went in to see the two men sitting in the padded green armchairs with glasses of wine in their hands. They stood abruptly. “Your Majesty!” They said together.
“A moment of your time, Minister Falow?” Minister Carr bowed low and left the room, leaving the two other men together.
Leothan quickly told the other man about his meeting with Arwin Tsocco, and the minister frowned. “This is bad,” he said.
“You have a knack for understatement. Has there been any progress in identifying the Carrow agent in the palace?”
“I'm afraid not. We’ve replaced everyone who’s worked here for less than three years, swapped them with staff from other ministry buildings and stately homes with no prejudice to their careers...”
“Yes, that was weeks ago. What about since?”
“I'm afraid that, so long as he or she just goes about his duties, we have no way to catch him. We have to wait until he does something and hope that he makes a mistake.”
“He has done something.” He tossed the scrap of notepaper onto the minister’s desk. “This was planted in the Glory room two weeks ago. You can narrow down your search to everyone who has access to that room.”
“Everyone who has official access. Someone else could still have sneaked in...”
“No, I don't think so. Too much risk of being caught. This person is clever and careful. It has to be someone who has a legitimate reason to be there if someone else goes in at the wrong moment. Someone who's been serving here for more than three years.”
“Maybe we should think about swapping out all the staff, including the long termers. We'll know we’ve gotten rid of the agent if we get rid of everyone.”
The King shook his head. “People with that kind of experience have long histories. Younger staff members, we can pick people who've been under observation every day since they were adopted, but older people might have friendships and loyalties we know nothing about. We run the risk of bringing in new Carrow agents with the new staff. Instead of just one, we could end up with a dozen! No, we keep the long termers, but we redouble our attempts to catch the agent. Increase the frequency of random searches and questionings. Examine their backgrounds in more detail, and the people who adopted them. I want him caught! Perhaps a full confession will be enough to persuade the Empire.”
“I'll have Balhern tell the staff to do everything in pairs from now on. The agent won't dare get up to any more mischief if he has someone right there by his side everywhere he goes. Unfortunately, it won't help us catch him.”
The King nodded. “Do it,” he said. “And make whatever preparations you need to prepare the country for economic sanctions from the Empire.”
“Those Above forbid that it comes to that! We're already tightening our belts preparing for war!”
“War is coming, Jack. I've done my level best to prevent it. Swallowed my pride, sacrificed my dignity, all for nothing. We'll just have to tighten our belts a little bit more.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Leaving the room, Leothan then shouted for Darnell, his Private Secretary, the man whose job required that he never, at any time of the day or night, be out of the King's earshot. Darnell normally tried to be discrete, though, and to remain just out of sight, and so he appeared from the doorway of the room in which he'd been standing while the King spoke to his ministers.
The man's uniform was more elaborate and colourful than anyone else in the palace except for the King himself. It was a uniform that told everyone who saw him that when he spoke, he was speaking on behalf of the King. When he spoke, it was as though the King himself was speaking. He was accompanied by two runners, also splendidly uniformed, who carried messages for him while the Secretary himself remained with the King.
“Assemble the War Council,” said Leothan. “Every member of the council in the city or not too far from it is to be in the War Room in one hour.”
Darnell bowed, then turned to his runners. “Malak, find Field Mashall Amberley, then return to me. Finn, send the rest of the runners to me. Then find General Glowen.” He then followed twenty paces behind the King as he returned to his Private quarters, glowering to himself and his hands clenched into fists.
“What's going on?” asked Matron Darniss, seeing two of the King's ministers and Field Marshall Amberley hurrying along the palace corridor towards the conference rooms. They were whispering to each other on low voices, but fell silent as they saw the two women watching them from the Green Room and watched them warily until they were well past. “There's no committee meeting scheduled for today.”
“It's not for the likes of us to poke our noses into,” said Jasmina, the airbrained maid who was currently polishing the brass ornaments, a task that stretched her intellectual capacity to its limits. What she lacked in brainpower, though, she made up for with her seemingly limitless capacity to perform mind numbingly boring tasks. Until just a few weeks ago, she had worked for the Duke of Duplaine in his mansion in the Pann Hills. She had been one of those swapped with a member of the palace staff in an attempt to get rid of the spy everyone was so scared of, and Darniss had taken an instant liking to her because of her habit of telling everything she saw and heard to everyone she met. For Darniss, it was like suddenly being given a second pair of eyes and ears. She had made friends with her, therefore, and made sure to talk to her at least once a day to see if she'd seen anything interesting.
She was currently humming a little tune as she rubbed a brass candlestick with a yellow rag, occasionally pausing to dip it into a little can of polish that stood on the table beside her. Darniss had heard from the stores clerk that they were having to buy twice as much polish as they had before Jasmina had come, the result being that the palace metalwork had never gleaned so brightly, but everyone except Darniss was far too preoccupied with their troubles to notice.
“Simple, honest folk like us just get on with our work,” she continued, running her rag around the inside of the tin to scrape up the last little bit of polish. “We don't trouble ourselves with the affairs of our betters.”
“As you say,” said Darniss, wondering how the little twit would react if she knew who she really was. Her ancestry. The glories behind her and ahead of her. “Still, one can’t help but be curious, and there's no harm in thinking about it.”
“Of course not!” agreed Jasmina, completely oblivious to the fact that Darniss had just directly contradicted her. “Those Above wouldn't have given us brains if they didn't expect us to use them.” She scrubbed away at a spot of the candlestick that didn't look any less bright than any other part of it to Darniss.
“Something's going on,” the Matron continued. “I expect the other maids have noticed things. I expect they tell you all about it, since you're so well liked and respected. I know they all value your opinion.”
“Well yes, of course they do. The runners have been sent out, all across the city. Summoning people for a big meeting. Nobody knows what it's all about, though.”
Another figure strode past. General William Lanier. One of Helberion's most senior soldiers, looking splendid in his uniform complete with a whole chest full of medals. He gave the two women the briefest of sideways glances as he passed them, then put them out of his mind as he strode on. Darniss felt a surge of anger rising within her, and promised herself that he would pay dearly, one day, for such casual disregard.
“It's the War Council!” she realised. “The King has summoned the War Council!”
Jasmina's eyes widened in fear. “Has Carrow declared war, then?” she asked. “Are they invading us?”
“Possibly,” mused Darniss. She'd thought they were going to wait for the Empire to lodge a formal complaint against Helberion, which would make it very difficult, politically, for them to intervene in the war, but perhaps there’d been a change of plans. She felt a surge of excitement and looked around at the wooden carvings adorning the ceiling, the paintings hanging on the walls and the deep, luxurious carpets on the floor. Maybe all this would be hers very soon now! Mandeville had told her once that, once the war was started, it might all be over in just a few weeks! She imagined herself mistress of the palace, all the palace staff grovelling before her. She imagined herself watching the executions of all the great generals and ministers who paid her so little regard at the moment. She would wear her best pearls at their executions, she decided, and would stand right at the front of the crowd where they'd see her. Would their eyes widen in recognition at the last moment before the axe fell?
“What do they have against us anyway? Why do they want to conquer us?”
“They remember when this was all part of Carrow,” replied Darniss. “Everything north of the Grantens. This palace used to belong to the Nacrell family, and they ruled pretty much everything that’s now Helberion. The only person they had to answer to was the King of Carrow. Then there was an uprising. This part of the country rebelled against King Vordan, broke away, became its own country. The Nacrells were forced into exile.”
“Why did they rebel?” asked Jasmina, her eyes wide with fascination as she fished another tin of polish from a pocket of her maid’s uniform. She twisted the lid off with her strong, stubby fingers and dabbed her polishing rag into the waxy contents.
Darniss had to stop herself from using words like treachery, greed and malcontent. She knew that Jasmina would repeat this conversation to everyone she met, so she made herself stick to the official Helberion version of the story, or at least close to it. “They say the King was cruel and unjust, that he treated the people badly. Bengoll Strake, King Leothan's ancestor, led the people in rebellion and started a war in which thousands of people died.”
“Bengoll the Golden!” said Jasmina, smiling. “Bengoll the Liberator! The one they tell all the stories about!”
“In Carrow they call him Bengoll the Bloody,” said Darniss. “Or so I heard. He originally wanted to overthrow the King of Carrow, but in the end all they managed to do was take control of the easternmost province. That was bad enough, but then, fifty years ago, Goswen grabbed another big chunk of Carrow. The Tweenlands. They sent troops across the border to seize it by force.”
“I know that bit!” said Jasmina, brightening. “The King of Carrow was a tyrant who oppressed them. The people of the Tweenlands wanted to become part of Helberion. We just helped them escape from Carrow rule.”
“Yes, of course,” agreed Darniss. She wanted to slap the stupid maid. Slap some sense into her stupid head. She thought about ordering her to polish every single bit of brass in the palace until her fingers fell off, then realised that she was already doing just that and enjoying it. She spent a moment pondering the amazing fact that her incredible stupidity made her almost immune to punishment. She'd have to be inventive when she was mistress of the palace, but she’d think of something.
She wondered whether there was a way to find out more of what was going on. Security was airtight now, with everyone afraid of the Carrow agent, but she thought there might be a way to at least confirm what kind of meeting was taking place. If it was indeed the War Council, and Carrow hadn't yet declared war, that would mean that Leothan was thinking of doing something, and that was information that Mandeville would find very interesting.
She stepped out into the corridor, heading in the direction the Generals had gone, but Jasmina grabbed her arm. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “You can’t go that way, not if there’s a meeting!”
“The brass in the morning room is filthy!” Darniss said. “Go polish it before I tell the Queen how lazy you are!” Jasmina gave a squeal of fear and scurried off down the corridor, the candlestick still in her hand. Darniss smiled in amusement, then turned and headed in the opposite direction.
She was stopped by two guards. “I'm sorry, Matron,” one of them said. “This area is closed for a meeting. Come back tomorrow.”
“I forgot to tell the maids to set the furniture!” she said trying to look distressed. “The War Council will have nothing to sit on! If all those important men have to get their own chairs out of storage...”
“I'm sure they'll be fine,” said the guard reassuringly. “The meeting was called at the last minute. I'm sure they'll understand.”
“It's my reputation at stake! If they have to search about for chairs before declaring war on Carrow...”
“Don't worry about it. Be on your war now.”
Darniss turned and hurried away. It was confirmed, then. It was indeed the War Council. The King was making plans for war, but what kind of plans? Was he preparing to counter a Carrow invasion or planning a move of his own? No way of knowing, but the very fact that he was planning something would be useful information. She headed back to her quarters, composing in her head the message she would leave in the dead letter drop.
The War Council had eight principal members. Five military and three Ministers of State. In addition, they all had assistants and several had brought their seconds in command. There could be over twenty people gathered in the War Room, therefore, but unless a meeting was scheduled several weeks in advance many of them would be out and about in the Kingdom, or beyond. Even so, though, the King was pleased to see over a dozen people sitting at the round table, with half a dozen assistants, two messengers, the King's private secretary and two runners standing discretely by the wall. A secretary sat at another, nearby table, ready to take notes, and an operator sat by the telegraph machine switchboard, ready to send and receive messages from the seventeen other such machines scattered at strategic points around the Kingdom and in neighbouring countries. “What's this about, Bill?” asked Field Marshall Amberley, the Commander of the Joint Forces Command. The most important person present beside the King himself.
The King took a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts. “You know that Carrow wants war and that I do not. You know that Carrow believes that they can win a war with us so long as the Empire doesn't intervene. You know that Carrow agents have been waging a systematic campaign to convince Emperor Tyron that we are trying to steal export markets from him, thereby making them withdraw their promises of military support.” He looked at the faces sitting around the table. “Today I learned from the Kelvon ambassador that they have succeeded. Not only can we no longer count on their support, but we face the possibility of active hostility in the form of economic sanctions.”
Curses came from around the table. “So we can expect Carrow to declare war very soon,” said Richell Daerdon, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
“We should declare war on them first!” said General William Lanier, Chief of the Defence Staff. “Catch them off guard!” Several voices rose in agreement, nodding vigorously.
“I have reluctantly come to believe that you are right,” said Leothan, and the military men all leaned forward in their seats eagerly. “A strong first strike to wipe out their military superiority over us. What would you choose as our first target, Amberley? Something they won't expect and which will put us in a good enough position that they'll maybe think twice before crapping on us again.”
“Dyrell,” replied the Field Marshall without hesitation. He'd evidently been giving it a great deal of thought. “It's the regional hub of their telegraph network, connecting nine telegraph stations along their eastern frontier. Their army is three times the size of ours, but it's poorly led and poorly trained with inferior equipment. They're going to rely on instant communications across the battlefront to counter us. If we deny them that, we’ve got a chance.”
“I assume you're talking about a small task force, three or four men, armed with explosives,” said Peter Pavok, the Minister for War, and Amberley nodded. “Dyrell is three hundred miles inside Carrow territory. That's a long way to go undetected. They're going to expect us to try something like that, they’re going to be on their guard against saboteurs.”
“And telegraph equipment is, fundamentally, very simple,” added General Lanier. “Even if we destroyed it, they'd have it up and running again in just a few days.”
“Yes, but a few days is all we need,” replied Amberley. “The moment we get confirmation that the hub's been destroyed we launch a full scale attack on Fastyke, the northernmost of their forward army bases. We commit the bulk of our army to the operation, wipe the place out. Kill or capture every single enemy soldier.”
Lanier nodded. “Then we go south to Salford, do the same there,” he said. “Without their telegraph network they won't have had any warning, so long as we’re careful not to let any enemy cavalry escape. Then Tibre, and if Those Above are with us we might be able to get Kapperwell as well.”
“If we can take out those four bases, or even three of them, we’ll have levelled the playing field,” continued Amberley. “We'll still have a long, hard struggle ahead of us, but at least we’ll have a fighting chance.”
“Shit, that's a hell of a gamble!” said Pavok. “If any of those places manages to mount a decent defence, they could cut the very heart out of our army! Instead of saving Helberion, we’ll be handing it to them on a silver platter! That's assuming we can take out the hub successfully!”
“Dyrell sends and receives test messages from every telegraph station connected to it every hour,” pointed out Adlan Larren, the Minister for Intelligence. “The moment any of them fails to receive a test message, they'll know something's up. All their army bases will be on full alert.”
“What if we capture the hub instead of destroying it?” asked the King. “Our people keep sending the test messages. Keep the army bases unsuspecting.”
“Can't be done,” said General Glowen, Head of the General Staff, shaking his head. “Dyrell is a major military headquarters. Thousands of troops. They'll know the hub’s been infiltrated within the hour, and even if they don't, what do we do when the change of shift arrives?” Leothan nodded his head ruefully. It had been a stupid idea, and if it had been suggested by anyone else the General would have laughed out loud.
“Suppose, instead of Dyrell, we focus on the telegraph cables themselves,” said Larren. “We isolate the hub instead of destroying it. Some time ago, we succeeded in learning the precise routes the telegraph cables take across the country. We can send small teams to each cable where it passes through a remote location, cut the cables and install our own telegraph equipment to send fake test signals in one direction to the army bases and in the other direction back to Dyrell. We simply ignore any real signals they try to send.”
“Would that work?” asked the King, staring at Amberley hopefully.
The Field Marshall looked thoughtful. “It might,” he said. “We'd have to get a couple of engineers in, get their view of it. Our field agents would need to be able to send us confirmation that they'd successfully installed themselves. A rider on a fast horse would need a full day to get back to us. Then they'd need to be able to remain in place, undiscovered, for at least a week. I expect the Carrowmen inspect the cables regularly, to make sure they haven't been compromised.”
“Teams of engineers on horseback ride the length of the cables once a week,” agreed Larren. “Ironically, this is how we learned the route of the cables.”
“Do they check all the cables simultaneously?” asked Glowen. “If we timed the operation for just after the engineers have passed...”
“No,” said Larren. “They're staggered. We'd have to count on the engineers finding our men.”
“Then we capture them,” said Amberley. “No problem.”
“They'll be missed!”
“Not immediately. We’ll have a few days before Carrow knows there's something up.”
“Do a full feasability study,” ordered the King. “Find out if it can be done with a reasonable chance of success. Assuming it can be, what are the chances we can successfully take out all four army bases?”
“We're talking about three or four pitched battles one after the other, with a day of fast marching between each one and the next,” said Glowen. “By the time they get to Kapperwell the men will be dead on their feet. Even with the numerical advantage we’ll have, pitting our entire army against a small part of theirs, victory isn't guaranteed even with a fresh, rested army. So much depends on dumb luck. One enemy guard who sees us coming and raises the alarm could spell doom for all Helberion.”
“We’re already facing doom,” pointed out the King. “Carrow already has a plan in place to invade and conquer us. If we allow them to start the war at a time and in a manner of their own choosing, we're dead. We'll call this Operation Kestrel. Does anyone have any other ideas? A way of eliminating Carrow as a threat?”
The people around the table looked at each other but none of them spoke. “Okay,” said the King. He stood, and everyone around the table stood as well. “Do a full study, find out whether we can actually do this. You've got twenty four hours. We'll meet back here this time tomorrow.”