“They're planning something,” said Matron Darniss. “Something big.”
They were in their usual box in the opera house. Mandeville was wearing a bright red cape over a yellow jumpsuit, and had replaced his pink face powder with powder that was a bright, shining white. The result was that everyone in neighbouring boxes and in the stalls below were staring at them. The attention made Darniss feel rather nervous, but she understood the reason for it. She was being watched. Every member of the palace staff was being watched by agents of the Helberion intelligence services searching for the Carrow agent. She could see the man now, in the box three places to her left, from which he could see her and the stage by barely turning his head. He had to be wondering whether the man with her was connected with the Carrow spy agencies, but by dressing so extravagantly Mandeville was making himself look less suspicious. Surely, a spy would try to blend in, wouldn’t he? Dress much the same as all the other patrons of the opera house? They watched him nonetheless, but without much suspicion.
“Yes, we got the letters you left for us. All the meetings of the War Council. I'm not sure there’s much to worry about, though. They know war is coming. They're planning how they’re going to resist the inevitable invasion.”
Darniss looked doubtful, though, and shook her head. “There’s an atmosphere in the palace,’ she said. “Everyone's tense, wound up tight as a watch spring. It's coming from the King himself and his ministers, transmitting itself to everyone around them. I feel it myself. A feeling, as if everyone’s holding their breath...” Mandeville stared at her as she searched for the right words, but she’d never been good at expressing subtle concepts, at communicating the finer nuances of meaning. She shook her head in frustration. “The closest I can... I walked out with Minister Kier's undersecretary once. I thought he might be a good source of information. He was a heavy gambler, you see. I thought that he might get into debt, that we might be able to use that.” Mandeville nodded. He remembered.
“He wasn't, in the end. He knew nothing that would have been worth the risk and the effort, but that’s not important. He took me to a gambling den once. He liked the wheel most of all. I watched him losing one spin after another, and then he got frustrated and put all the money he had left on one last spin. Over a thousand crowns. I remember him watching as the wheel turned and turned, as the ball bounced its way from one slot to the next, close to the one he'd put his money on, then away from it. I remember how tense he was, how he stared at the wheel, fixed all his attention on it. His whole body was shaking, quivering with nervous energy.” She turned to stare at Mandeville. “That's how the King is at the moment. Just the same. As if he's put everything on some great gamble. The biggest gamble of his life.”
Mandeville considered her words. He still thought it was the preparations to resist an invasion that had them so worked up, but he'd learned to trust her instincts over the years. If she thought there was something more happening, he ought to consider the possibility. “Were you able to get any idea what sort of thing it might be?”
She shook her head. “Nothing definite. I've tried to find out what they’re talking about in their war councils...”
“Don’t take any risks!” he warned her though. “We can't afford to lose you.”
She nodded. “Do you think there's any chance that they might be planning to attack us?”
“That would be suicide. The slightest provocative move would give us the excuse we need to invade them, without having to worry about reprisals from the Empire.”
“But if they know they’re going to lose the Empire's protection anyway, sooner or later...”
Mandeville sat there in silence for a long while, considering her words. The bulk of Helberion's army was camped along the border with Carrow, but that meant nothing. They'd need to be there whether they were attacking or defending. Most of Carrow’s army was camped in four large garrison cities, though. They had to be. They couldn’t deploy along the border without betraying their intentions to the Empire. That made them potentially vulnerable, but Helberion simply didn't have the military force to attack all four simultaneously, which they would have to do. “I'll pass on your concerns to Lord Krell,” he said finally. “He's already put our forces on alert, on the basis of your previous warnings. I'll try to persuade them to put them on full alert, just to be safe. I really don't think there's any chance they’re going to try something, though, unless they've decided to go out in a blaze of glory. From what I know of the King, though, he's not the type to just throw away lives uselessly.”
“Maybe he doesn't think it would be uselessly,” suggested Darniss. “Maybe he thinks they’ve got a chance.”
“What chance? I'll pass on your concerns, though. There's no point in having someone in the palace if you don't listen to her.” She nodded gratefully.
“Very soon now,” he told her. “A few weeks at most and you will be mistress of the palace, not a servant in it. I look forward to the day when you can host a visit from myself and my wife.”
“I look forward to it,” replied Darniss. “Oh, there was one other thing. The Brigadier apparently ran into some trouble on his way to find a cure for the Princess. Two of his men returned to Marboll with a third who'd been cursed half way back to his animal form. Apparently they ran into a demon while taking a shortcut through Radiant territory. This happened some time ago, but news only just got back to the palace.”
“Doesn’t matter,” replied Mandeville. “The Princess will be executed, along with her parents and siblings. Makes no difference to us whether she's human or half demon when it happens. Her condition is distracting the King, and it got the Brigadier out of Helberion for a few weeks, but other than that it doesn't matter. The Brigadier and the rest of his men are probably dead now, in any case.”
“She contingency plan you mentioned.”
“Yes.” He looked down at the performers on the stage. “They are rather good,” he said. “I think we might hire them to perform for our victory celebrations.”
King Leothan stood at the courtyard balcony, looking down at his daughter below. The Princess rarely spoke any more, and when she did it was with difficulty as her vocal chords changed, becoming less human. The glow of her skin had intensified, which was a blessing as it helped to obscure the growing changes to her body. The swelling of her head, the reduced facial features, the strange alterations to her limbs. Worst of all, the strange asymmetry to the changes, testifying to what she would eventually become. Not a Radiant, with a place waiting for her in another civilisation where she would be welcomed and made to feel at home, but a demon. Reviled and feared everywhere.
The King's hands whitened as they clutched the wooden railing, and the maid who was talking to her, keeping her company, looked up anxiously. He forced himself to smile down at her, to put her at ease, and the maid smiled nervously back before returning her attention to the stricken princess. She had been trying to play the lyre, something she had once done with considerable skill, but now it was sitting abandoned by her side. Her fingers were no longer able to pluck the strings correctly, and the activity she had once found so soothing was now one more reminder of what was happening to her. The King's heart swelled with sorrow and pride at the way she sat erect, calm and composed. Still totally in control of her emotions. She must have been in turmoil inside, terrified and confused, but on the outside she was still every inch a Princess, despite the awful transformation that continued to rob her of her grace and beauty.
Balhern entered the room, nodded politely to Darnell who was standing discretely by the door, and went over to stand beside the King. “Your pardon, Majesty, but a messenger has arrived from Fastyke. The War Council is gathering to hear his report.”
The King nodded distractedly. “Look at her, Balhern. Look at what’s happening to her. What did she ever do to deserve this?”
“They will pay, your Majesty.”
“Yes, they will. She deserves so much more. She will be Queen one day. No-one was ever better suited or qualified to rule a kingdom. Even so young, she already possesses a wisdom superior to that possessed by most other monarchs. She will still inherit this Kingdom, Balhern. I swear it. We will find a cure for her condition, and she will inherit the peaceful, prosperous kingdom she deserves.”
“The whole Kingdom still has faith that the Brigadier will return, Majesty, and that we will have the cure.”
“It's been so long since he left. I'd hoped to hear something by now.”
“The Uttermost Range is a long way from here, Majesty, and when he gets there he has to search a whole kingdom for the man he wants, but if any man can do it, he can.”
“Yes you're right. We must still have hope.” He looked back down at the Princess, then turned. He couldn't spend all day agonising over his daughter. His kingdom needed him. “Let's see what our messenger has to report.”
The entire War Council was waiting for him when he arrived. The messenger, still wearing his dusty, travelstained uniform, was standing beside the map on the far wall. He bowed low, along with the others, when the King entered the room, and remained that way until the King reached his seat at the head of the table. Leothan gestured with his hand, and the members of the War Council took their seats, leaving only the messenger standing. “You have a report,” he stated flatly.
“Yes, Your Majesty. General Gommery sends word that the combined army stands ready to attack Fastyke. If everything is going according to plan, the telegraph cables linking the Callow garrison cities have been cut, and the engineers are sending false test messages in both directions to prevent the enemy from becoming aware of it.”
Everyone in the room could hear the exhaustion in his voice. The man had ridden hard all day and all the previous night to bring his report. The King had considered having a telegraph cable laid between the palace and their forward command post so that they could communicate instantly with the western battlefront, but his advisors had warned that Carrow spies couldn’t help but learn of it, and would be alerted that something was about to happen. Messengers on horseback were routine, though, and would attract no special attention.
“General Gommery says that he intends to launch his attack at dawn tomorrow. If you wish to reconsider this action, a messenger on horseback must be sent immediately, if it is to reach him in time.”
“Thank you. Now go clean yourself up and get some rest.” The messenger bowed again and left.
The King waited until the door had closed behind him. “Do we have any reason to reconsider this action?” He then asked, looking around the room. Nobody replied. He gave them a good few moments to speak up, then nodded. “We will allow the attack to proceed,” he said. “That's it, then. The die is cast. It'll be two days before we know whether we've taken the first step towards saving our country, or committed national suicide. I think I speak for us all when I say that it's going to be a long two days.”
Nervous heads nodded around the room. “So, now we officially declare war,” said General Pavok.
“Yes. Darnell, please summon the Carrow Ambassador to the palace, and send telegraph messages to all our ambassadors around the world, telling them to inform the heads of state of the countries in which they're stationed.”
“Carrow will, of course, put all their armed forces on high alert,” said Minister Lanier. “If news of our declaration of war reaches their garrison cities before our armies can attack them...”
The King nodded. “Geography is our friend there. The garrison cities are much closer to Marboll than they are to Charnox. Carrow is a large kingdom, sparsely populated for the most part, while Helberion is smaller and more crowded. Besides, we have no choice. We have to issue a formal declaration of war, or be denounced by every human nation. This is a risk we simply have to take.”
“Then let's hope that it's not our civilised values that doom us,” the chief of the defence staff said sourly. “That would be rather ironic, would it not?”
“The irony would be if we won the war, while having sacrificed the very values that we stand for.” He stood, and everyone around the table stood as well. “And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting with the Carrow Ambassador that I'm going to enjoy rather a lot.”
As Matron Darniss and Mandeville exited the opera house, their tail followed them at a discrete distance. The two Carrow agents paused in the street for a few moments, exchanging pleasantries, playing the role of a courting couple for the benefit of the intelligence officer and anyone else who might be paying attention to them, and then they leaned close for a chaste kiss before waving down a cab. “Thank you for another truly wonderful evening,” said Mandeville as the horse drawn carriage came to a halt beside them and the footman opened the door. “Same again, next week?”
“I look forward to it,” replied Darniss, smiling demurely. “Until then.” She got into the cab and the footman closed the door before taking his place on the tailboard. The driver then slapped the reins and the cab clattered off down the road.
Darniss couldn't resist looking back at the intelligence officer who'd followed her from the palace. It amused her to think that the man had been paid by the state to spend an evening at the opera, and then there were all the other agents being paid to follow all the other members of the palace staff, all of whom, she knew, were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. This hunt for her must be costing Helberion a tidy sum of money. Money that could have been spent on a few more palace guards, or a few more pieces of artillery for the army. It warmed her heart to think that she was damaging Helberion just by going to the opera, never mind the valuable intelligence she'd passed on over the years.
It took her a few moments to find him. He should have been waving down another cab to follow her, but instead he was walking along Greentemple Street, away from her. Why would he be going that way? She thought in confusion. That was the way Mandeville had gone...
She sat up in alarm. The man was following Mandeville! No, no, no! This was wrong! “Stop the cab!” she cried, rapping on the wall with her knuckles. “Driver! Stop at once!”
The cab did stop, but only so that the footman could jump in. He grabbed her by the shoulder as she tried to jump out of the other door and pushed her back into her seat. The cab then moved on, turning into Greymantle street. The wrong way to the main palace entrance, the entrance she was accustomed to using, but the right way if you wanted to use the Beggars entrance, the entrance used by junior staff and the guardsmen. It was also the entrance closest to the damp, stone stairs that led down to the cells.
“Settle down please, miss,” said the footman. “No sense making a scene, is there?”
“What is going on? I demand that you release me!”
The footman reached into a pocket and produced a tin badge. “Sergeant Jugg, miss, of the intelligence services. My associate at the reins is Constable Booth. I'm afraid we know about the letter you left at the orphan house two days ago. You were followed there.” He fixed her with a hard stare. “We know everything.”
“I've been giving donations to the orphanage for years now, you stupid man! And I leave notes for the orphans if I don't have time to speak to them in person. If you've read them you know there’s nothing treasonous in them.”
“Code words, miss. The letters contain code words that have meaning for the person that reads them. We picked up the young man who opened the letter, brought him in for questioning. He's told us everything, and the gentleman you just spent the evening with will tell us a good deal more, I'm sure. You'd be wise to be completely honest with us, miss. It'll be easier for you in the long run.”
They know nothing, she told herself, trying to calm her hammering heart. Her story was plausible. She had indeed been spending time at the orphanage, making donations, talking to the half formed wretches whose parents had died before they'd become fully human. Leaving encouraging letters for the orphans. These men were fishing, picking senior members of the palace staff up at random, accusing them, trying to scare them into a confession. They were lying about the man in the orphanage having confessed. Lying to suspects was a common practice, and she refused to believe it. All she had to do was remain calm.
“I am not the traitor,” she said, therefore, looking him straight in the eye. “I understand you have a job to do and I bear you no Ill will. You might want to give some thought to the wording of the apology you'll be giving me in a day or two.”
“You just tried to run,” he reminded her. “You tried to jump out of the cab...”
“Because I thought you were kidnapping me! I am matron of the Queens staff! I’m sure she would pay quite a sum to get me back from a gang of ruffians! Use your head, man!”
The sergeant looked at her, his eyes firm and hard, but was there also just a trace of doubt in them? It was enough to give her hope, which in turn gave her the strength to sit calmly in her seat, radiating confidence, as they took her to an interrogation room in the palace holding area.
The smile on Ambassador Lon-Fidell's face did nothing to improve his appearance. To look at him you might think that the armies of Carrow had already won, and that it was he, rather than the King, who held the power in this room. Leothan smiled internally. He'd been waiting for years to wipe that smirk from his face! His life had been an endless succession of heartbreak and worry for so long now, he had to make the most of moments like this, and so he said nothing for a few moments while the ambassador’s smile slowly wavered.
“Majesty?” He said at last. “You summoned me, Majesty.”
“Yes, I did. I summoned you here to inform you that the Kingdom of Helberion is declaring war upon the Kingdom of Carrow. Effective immediately. We are now at war, Lon-Fidell.”
It took the man a moment or two to process the information. “You?” he said, staring in astonishment. “Are declaring war on us?” He stared at the King, and the King stared back. “Your Majesty is famous for possessing a certain, shall we say, light hearted attitude to international affairs...”
“Your country put a blessing on my daughter which is slowly robbing her of her humanity,” said the King, his eyes cold and hard. He took half a pace forward and the ambassador took half a step back, his eyes widening in sudden fear. “You have blackened the reputation of this country, you have sabotaged our friendship with the Kelvon Empire and you have done harm to my daughter! Did you think you could do these things with impunity? Did you think we wouldn't know that it was you?”
“Your Majesty, I assure you...”
“If you thought you could get away with it, you were sadly mistaken! We are going to teach you what it means to cross Helberion, and in particular it is going to give me a great deal of pleasure to teach you what it means to harm my daughter! Our armies are even now poised to strike. They will race across your country like a wildfire! They will destroy anyone who tries to oppose them and when they reach the palace where your King is hiding like a toad in a hole they will drag him out and throw him into his own dungeon, where he will be left to rot while he contemplates the virtues of civilised behaviour!”
The King had been steadily advancing on the ambassador, who had been backing away, and now he felt the wall at his back. His hand reached to his belt, where he normally wore his pistol, but weapons weren't permitted in the presence of the King. What was more, Leothan was a large, physically imposing man who, like most heads of state, had been trained in several forms of combat by the best teachers in the human world. He could probably batter the ambassador to death with his bare hands if his rage got the better of him, and if he didn't want to dirty his own hands there were two palace guards standing right behind him who would probably have been all too happy to do it for him.
“Majesty, this is madness! First to think that we are responsible for the current state of affairs between you and the Empire...”
“Do not insult our intelligence services with pointless denials!”
“And secondly to think that you can win a war with us! Our armed forces exist only to defend our homeland, but they are many times the size of yours! If you declare war with us, it is you that will be crushed!”
“War has already been declared. Our ambassador to your country is even now informing your King. A state of war now exists between us. Your status as ambassador is hereby revoked. You and your staff have twenty four hours to leave the country. If you are still on Helberion soil one second after that you will be arrested as spies and executed.”
Lon-Fidell stared, but then a smile crept over his face. “Very well, Majesty,” he said. “War it is, but it is a war we will win, and when it is over it is you who will be imprisoned in his own dungeon. I go now, but I will return at the head of an army! This is Carrow land, and this is a Carrow palace, illegally seized by your grandfather. You should have given it back to us when we first asked for it. If you had, you could probably have held onto your throne, in the name of peace, as governor of this region, subservient to King Nilon. Now, though, the most you can hope for is that your neck snaps cleanly when you are hung!”
“I imagine it feels good to finally be able to say those things openly,” said Leothan.
“You have no idea, Majesty.”
Leothan nodded. “And you have no idea how good it feels to do this!” His fist swung, slamming solidly into the former ambassador’s face, throwing him back against the wall. Blood flew from his nose and lip, but he managed to remain standing as the guards ran forward. Leothan waved them back. “Now get the hell out of my palace!” Lon-Fidell glared his hatred back at him, then opened the door and left, trying to maintain his dignity as he held a handkerchief to his face.
The King massaged his knuckles as Darnell came forward. “Well, that's that,” he said.
“Yes,” agreed the King. “The die is well and truly cast. What happens next is in the lap of Those Above. All we can do is wait for news from the Carrow garrison cities.”
“Do you really think we have a chance, Majesty?”
‘I know we had no chance at all if we hadn't done this. We're upsetting all of King Nilon’s carefully drawn up plans, but that may be all we end up doing.” He followed after the former ambassador, and was amused to see tiny drops of blood on the varnished wooden floor. He thought briefly about having an extra layer of varnish added to the floor when the blood had dried, to preserve them, but was distracted by the sight of Balhern hurrying along the corridor towards them.
“Your pardon, Majesty,” he said, bowing low. “We may have caught the spy. The spy in the palace.”
“Who?” demanded the King.
“Matron Darniss, Sire. Some men from the intelligence service went to pick her up for a shakedown. We had no reason to suspect her, we were getting nowhere with the investigation. We'd reached the point where we decided to just pull people in for questioning, scare them, tell them we knew everything, that sort of thing. Try to scare them into making a mistake. Well, Darniss made no mistake. She stayed cool as a cucumber no matter what we did, but the man she was with...”
“She's been going to the opera with a man, we don't know who he is. We decided it was time we did, so we had a man follow him. See where he lived, who he associates with, that sort of thing. Our man missed his check in, so we went out looking for him. We found his clothes in an alley. All his clothes, and nearby we found a large dog howling in misery. Our man, Tomsk his name was, he was raised from a dog, Sire.”
The King stared. “The man was a wizard!”
“So it seems, Sire. A wizard with something to hide. It has to be her, Majesty. It has to be Darniss.”
“The wizard must have known that his background wouldn’t bear scrutiny,” said Leothan. “There's no other reason for him to have betrayed himself like that. Darniss is in the cells?”
“Let's go talk to her, then.” The King strode off down the corridor, leading the way to the palace dungeon.