The King had never actually been down into the dungeons before. Now that he thought about it, there were probably many parts of the palace he'd never been in. The servants quarters for instance, and the laundry room, so it probably wasn't all that strange, but he still stared around in wonder as he descended the damp, stone stairs accompanied by a pair of guards, his private secretary and a pair of runners. Was it supposed to be this damp and clammy? he wondered. Was it designed to be that way in order to demoralize the prisoners and make them confess, or was it just an unavoidable result of being below ground level? They were only a hundred yards or so away from the river. They were probably well below the water table here. Maybe the wonder was that the dungeons weren't completely flooded.
Lon-Fidell’s words came back to him, and he entertained a dark fantasy of having lost the war and being confined in one of the cells down here, still in his fine royal clothes which had become stained with mould and damp. He imagined himself sitting on the hard, freezing stone floor, shivering in misery, listening to the celebrations of victorious Carrow troops upstairs. Maybe Lon-Fidell would come down to gloat at him, remind him of the conversation they'd had just a few minutes ago in real life. Maybe he would have a pair of Carrow guards hold him while he punched him in the face, paying him back for the blow the King had dealt him. Maybe he should get a team of workmen to build a secret escape tunnel out of the cell while he was still in charge here, so he could escape and rally his loyal troops for an uprising...
Where were his wife and children in this dark fantasy? He shut the thought out of his head before it could fully form itself and returned his mind to the matter at hand. If Darniss really had been the traitor, what had she known? What vital information could she have passed on? She hadn't known about the attack on the Carrow garrison cities, that was a blessing, but she knew plenty about the personal lives and habits of his ministers and generals, information that could be valuable to kidnappers and assassins. He would have to warn them, get them to take precautions. She knew about palace routine and security precautions. Could there be Carrow assassins walking the corridors of the palace even now? Balhern would be seeing to that, he reassured himself. The man knows his job, so trust him to do it.
Matron Darniss rose to her feet with infinite dignity as she saw the King approaching through the black iron bars. She was still wearing her opera clothes, he saw. A billowing dress with a top that hugged her narrow chest and left her arms bare. She was still good looking despite her age, he realised. It was something that had never occurred to him in all the times he’d seen her in her palace uniform. There were smudges of slime on her pale skin where she’d brushed against the stone walls, he saw. She wore them like campaign medals, showing them off as testament to the undeserved treatment she’d suffered at the hands of the guards. The effect would have been better if she’d had a bruise or two, but the guards had been treating her gently, it seemed. Physically, at least.
“Does she know about her boyfriend being a wizard?” Leothan whispered to the nearest guard while they were still too far away for her to overhear.
“We haven’t told her,” he replied. “We also haven't told her what happened to the man following him. We're waiting for the Questioners to arrive. They'll want to observe her reaction when they tell her.”
The King nodded, then continued towards the cell.
“Your Majesty!” said Darniss, bowing respectfully. “This is a surprise, and an honour. Please forgive my present appearance...”
“Don't,” said Leothan. “Just don’t.
The King held up a hand to silence her. “I came here so that I could ask you one question. Was it you who put the blessing on my daughter?”
“No! Of course not, I could never do such a thing! Majesty, I assure you that I am not the traitor! I am loyal to you, I would give my life for you! I have no idea why they would think it was me!”
“They know it was you. They've shown me the proof.” He came closer, his face growing red with rage. “I trusted you! I trusted you with the life of my daughter, and you repaid that trust by, by doing this thing to her! How could you? What crime did I ever do to you?”
“No crime! You have never done me any harm, just as I would never do you any harm, or any member of your family! If anyone wished them harm I would put my body between them and theirs, I would protect them with my very life!”
“I have seen the proof, Darniss. The facts speak for themselves. You are guilty. You are a traitor.”
Darniss fell to her knees, reached through the bars towards him, her eyes filling with tears. “Your Majesty, please believe me! I would never betray you! I love you as all the Kingdom loves you! I would give my life for you!”
This was pointless, the King realised. The only way to break her out of her protestations of innocence would be to confront her with the proof, and he couldn't do that because the Questioners wanted to do it. He laughed at himself. Who's the King? he thought. Me or them? He stepped closer to the bars, therefore, close enough for the woman to grasp at the hem of his robe. His guards stepped nervously closer, but the King waved them back.
“Mandeville has betrayed you,” he said, and was pleased by the way her eyes widened with shock. “We know he was a wizard. He cursed one of my men. Why would he do that if he had nothing to hide?” She could only stare, and he could see that she'd had no idea he'd been a wizard. “Were you infatuated with him? Was that the reason you did it?”
“What? No! We were only friends! If he has committed crimes against the Kingdom, I know nothing about them! Majesty, you cannot condemn me because someone I knew is a criminal!”
“Not just a criminal, a wizard! Just the sort of person you'd need to put a blessing on an innocent girl! He prepared a potion for you, and you gave it to my daughter! You, whom we trusted above all others!”
She was weeping openly now, her whole body trembling. “Sire, the only thing I am guilty of is a poor choice of friends. Please believe that I knew nothing of his true nature!”
“He has abandoned you, Darniss. The moment he cursed my man, he abandoned all hope of being able to save you. It was an admission of his own guilt, and thereby an admission of yours! We have his description now. If he remains in the city, it is only a matter of time before we pick him up. He will be forced to flee the country, abandoning you. You are alone, Darniss. Alone with your guilt!”
“The Questioners are coming, Darniss. It will go easier on you if you confess now. If you make a full confession...”
“If I make a full confession, what? I'll be spared the hangman’s noose? You'll let me retire to a quiet little cottage in the country?”
“I think we both know that won't be happening. You've earned the noose for your actions, the only question is how much, unpleasantness you have to go through first. The Questioners are wizards. They will take away your humanity one little bit at a time, and along with it will go your strength of personality and your loyalty to your true masters. You will regain the naive innocence of the animal you once were and you will tell them everything, no longer understanding the consequences to yourself. Depending on how long you hold out, there may be virtually no human left in you at all by then. If you have to die, wouldn't it be better to go with the dignity of still being fully human?”
She rose back to her feet, and to his alarm and surprise her face twisted into a snarl of hatred. “You fool!” she said, and Leothan's guards took him by the elbow to pull him back, out of reach of her clawed hands. “You will hang before I do! This is my palace, not yours, and I will live to see our places reversed! It is you who will hang, and I will be there to see it happen!”
“What do you mean, your palace?”
“Know my true name, Leothan! I am Darniss Pardew, granddaughter of Thelmia and Theobald Pardew, fifteenth duke of Marbolia! This is rightfully my palace, and when Carrow is victorious it will be mine again! You can lock me in a dungeon today, but very soon now my titles and properties will be restored. If you are lucky, you may live long enough to see it!”
The King stared at her for a moment, digesting this. “Then it was you who put the blessing on my daughter,” he said, his face once again growing grim.
“Yes, it was. A simple phial of pond water containing microscopic animal life. Microscopic, but able to hold the blessing put on them by a wizard. I told the truth, by the way, when I said I didn't know Mandeville was a wizard. The phial was given to me by someone else...”
“Thurley,” guessed the King. “Who, in turn, was given it by Pettiwell. So it was you who killed him.”
“Yes. I would have preferred to have killed your daughter the same way. I am not a cruel person, I would have preferred a quick, merciful death for Ardria, but my masters wanted her to suffer for months, to be a distraction for you. So you would make bad decisions.”
The King felt genuine hatred welling up inside him, an emotion that was normally completely foreign to him. He wanted to tear open the door of the cell and strangle her with his bare hands. He stopped himself with an effort. If she was Carrow nobility, then she was too valuable as a hostage to harm. They might need her at some stage in the war as a bargaining chip. He turned to his guards instead. “Those clothes she's wearing won't long survive the harsh environment of a dungeon. See that they're replaced with something more durable. Sackcloth will do nicely, I think.”
“I'll see to it, Majesty.”
The King then turned and marched out towards the stairs back up to the palace, his entourage falling into place behind him. Darniss watched him go with a sneer on her face and then, under orders from the guard, began stripping off her clothes.
The next few days were frustrating ones for the King as they waited for news from the Carrow garrison cities. Leothan paced the corridors of the palace in a fever of nervous energy, glowering and irritable, having to constantly watch everything he said in case he snapped at someone whose only crime was to have had the misfortune to cross his path. He was determined not to be the sort of person who vented his frustration on underlings, people who couldn't defend themselves, and his being King meant that there were no other kinds of people in the whole Kingdom. There was literally no limit to his power and authority. Before the attack on his daughter, the Queen had kept tight reins on him, but now she could only agonize over Ardria to the exclusion of all other duties and responsibilities, which meant that the only thing that could keep him in check, keep him from excesses and abuses of power, was himself.
I need to appoint a conscience, he told himself. Someone whose only job was to follow him around and tell him the things that no-one else would dare to. Someone who was constitutionally immune to punishment, someone that other people could go to when there was something on their mind, some issue that they feared to broach with the King themselves. Someone who had no vested interests they might want to promote, no agendas of their own, which ruled out most of the aristocracy and government ministers. It would have to be a commoner, he thought. Perhaps he could organise a lottery, the winner to be... No, that was a stupid idea. Most commoners lacked the training, the education, most importantly the intelligence for such a role. Also, they would have no idea how to conduct themselves amongst royalty and nobility. He would become a laughing stock amongst the other royal families of the world. A military man, perhaps. High ranking, because the junior ranks were trained to obey and wouldn’t have the nerve to speak up to him. Someone whose loyalty and grounded common sense he could trust, someone with the courage to speak up when needed. Someone like the Brigadier, perhaps. He stopped in mid step, making his Private Secretary almost bump into him. Now there was an idea...
He was jolted out of his train of thought when a runner appeared and trotted up to him. “Majesty! News from Fastyke! Victory, Sire! The army has won a glorious victory!” Leothan's heart leapt with joy and he strode off towards the War Room, almost at a run.
Most of the War Council was already there, and a cheer of relief went up as the King entered. “Victory, Sire,” said General Pavok, grinning with delight and relief. “The operation went exactly as planned.” He beckoned over the messenger, who bowed low.
“They had no warning,” the messenger said. ”They were at a low level of alert, but it didn't pose a problem. The engineers blew holes in the city wall, the army went in and caught them unprepared.”
“Prisoners?” Asked the King.
“Thousands, Sire, but many fewer than there might have been. The enemy chose to fight, as soon as they were over their initial shock. There are rumours that the enemy commanders ordered their men to surrender when they saw their position was hopeless. General Grogen speculated that they were thinking to burden us with prisoners, having guessed our strategy, but if so their subordinates chose to disobey them.”
“How many men did we lose?”
“Five hundred dead or incapacitated, about three thousand walking wounded. Another thousand needed to guard the prisoners and bring them back across the border.”
“So the army’s down by nearly ten percent,” said General Glowen. “And three more cities to hit yet. And the men will be tired. Barely any time to rest before they have to match again. The next city will be harder, the one after that harder still, even if they get no warning. If everything goes perfectly, we have to count on losing half the army before this is over.”
“But they’ll have lost half their army,” pointed out General Pavok.
“Meaning they'll still outnumber us by the same proportion.”
“True,” said the King, “but most of our losses will be temporary. Injured men returning to health, guards able to return to front line duty when the prisoners are properly housed. Our objective isn't to invade and conquer Carrow. It's to stop them from invading and conquering us. If we can achieve similar victories against the other three cities, they'll no longer have the manpower to do that. This is a good start, gentlemen. A very encouraging start.” He beckoned the messenger over to the cork board that covered most of the far wall, where the map of the tweenlands had been joined by a large, detailed map of Fastyke. “Now, tell me exactly how it went.”
“They've had a day to recover from the battle,” Leothan said later as he and General Pavok walked slowly along the corridor back towards the residential wing. “Patch up minor cuts and burns, search the city for any intelligence regarding the other garrison cities, let the men rest. That means they'll be marching on Salford now. Right?”
“Yes, Sire. They'll be sending out advance parties to circle the city, prevent any news of what’s happened to Fastyke from getting in.”
“But people must be entering and leaving the city all the time!”
“Anyone leaving will be allowed to go, and anyone approaching from the west or south will be allowed in. Only people approaching from the north will be apprehended. We want things to seem as normal as possible for as long as possible.”
“And they’ll attack tomorrow?” The General nodded. “And it'll take a full day for a rider to bring news back here. That means it'll be two days before we know anything more.”
“It’s going to be a long two days,” agreed the General. “And the operation will still be only half over. King Nilon will have guessed what we're doing, he'll be desperate to warn the garrison cities. He'll be sending his fastest riders. There's a chance they might reach Kapperwell before we do.”
“Meaning we might have to content ourselves with three cities.” The King nodded. “Kapperwell contains fifteen thousand Carrow soldiers. Reducing them by that many would really help our chances.”
“If we overreach ourselves we might lose everything.”
“Fortune favours the bold. How many times have you told me that?”
“There’s boldness, and the there’s...”
“Over confidence. If we take the first three cities with the losses we project, we'll have reduced Carrow’s army by fifty thousand men, over a third of their total armed forces, for the loss of only ten thousand of ours. And most of our losses will be injuries, not deaths. They'll be able to return to active duty when they've recovered.”
“Weeks from now. The war may well be over by then. Until then, they'll still outnumber us by over two to one. Once they’ve recovered from the initial surprise it'll be a standard war in which we'll be on the back foot the whole time. We have to make the most of our advantage while we've got it. We have to go for all four cities!” They walked in silence for a few paces, deep in thought.
“We're too far from the action here,” the King then said. ”It takes too long for messengers to travel here and back, and there’s no time to set up a telegraph line.”
“If you're thinking of going there and taking personal charge of the campaign, I would advise against it. You're not experienced in battle. Your Generals know their business. Leave it to them.”
“The situation can change so quickly! Grogen may have to make a snap decision on his own, without being able to confer with me!”
“That's what we Generals get paid the big money for. With respect, Sire, if you went there, you’d only be in the way. Men would have to be diverted from the battle to protect you. Grogen is a good man. The best. He knows what you want, and he's got enough good sense to get the army out of there if things go south. Trust him to do his job.”
The King nodded reluctantly. “I just feel so... Helpless. Everything's happening way out there. I'm stuck here, waiting for news. All I can do is sit and wait.”
“Welcome to my world. Do you know how often I regret accepting a government post? Minister for War. Sounds so grand, doesn't it? Turns out I spend most of my time doing requisitions for boots. Attending meetings with contractors trying to persuade me that the boots they make are better than their competitors’, reviewing complaints from Captains who say the boots wear out too fast or that they’re not waterproof or don't give sufficient protection from the cold, and that’s just boots! My life has been overtaken with meetings and paperwork! I miss the old days when I was out there, in the action. I always thought I would die in battle, you know?”
“There'll be a statue of you in Freedom Square one day, I promise.”
“A statue of me up to my neck in requisition orders probably.” He sighed. “Listen to me. Here I am complaining about paperwork when our boys are out there dying their hundreds to keep my head off a spike on the palace gates.”
The King nodded. “If that happens, we'll enjoy the view together. In the meantime, I have to meet with the Council of Guilds. They want to renegotiate the terms of the Trade Charter. I have to try to concentrate on a bunch of old men whining about tariffs and monopolies while my mind will be out there, in Salford. How did it come to this, Jeff? Why didn’t we see this coming? Carrow must have been planning this for years! We have people in their government, right in their palace, just like they had people in ours. Why didn't we get word of this in time to head it off at the pass?”
“Larren’s a good man. Used to be military himself. We kept our operation secret from them, they kept their from us. We're all good at keeping secrets these days.”
Leothan paused at a window, looked out at the gardens spread out below. He saw pools of sparkling water with fountains reaching a dozen feet into the sky, hedges trimmed as straight as a ruler and large topiaries pruned into a variety of exotic shapes. Two gardeners were busy trimming a bush that had been shaped into a green peacock. They were hacking delicately at it with shears, cutting off green shoots no more than an inch long which they then raked up and piled in a wheelbarrow. They had no idea what was happening out in the tweenlands. He had made a pronouncement a few days before, informing the people of his Kingdom that they were now at war, but so far as the common people knew no military action had yet taken place. Leothan found himself envying those gardeners with a desperate longing. How good it would be to live a simple life, to not have the fate of a whole Kingdom resting on his shoulders. To be able to sleep the whole night without being woken by worries and anxieties that he could do nothing about... He put the thought out of his head with a surge of self disgust. He was the King! The whole Kingdom was depending on him to keep them safe, and here he was wallowing in self pity!
Had his father gone through these agonies during the last war with Carrow? he wondered. He, Leothan, had only just been declared human the last time Carrow troops had poured across the border, only the hastily negotiated treaty with the Kelvon Empire had enabled them to push them back. Had his father wished he could swap places with the gardeners while waiting to hear whether the threat of Empire involvement would be enough to make Carrow back down? King Goswen was an almost legendary figure these days, despite only having died ten years before. What would he have thought about arranging to marry their daughter to the Carrow crown prince? Would it even have worked? Could he and King Nilon really have ruled the unified Kingdom together, or would he have suffered an ‘accident', leaving Nilon to rule Helberion without the need for all the bother of conquering it?
The thought brought him up short. Nilon could have become sole ruler of a unified kingdom without the need for war! Allow the marriage to take place, kill Leothan, Ardria takes his place on the double throne, but she would have been far too young and inexperienced to stop Nilon doing what he wanted, and by the time she'd grown into the role Nilon would have consolidated his position as sole ruler. Nilon could have had everything he wanted without a single shot being fired in anger! He remembered his advisors making that very argument, trying to convince him that the marriage was madness. He remembered trying to reassure them that killing him would not be easy, that his bodyguards and food tasters would always be there, watching over him. The ease with which the Princess had been blessed proved the falsehood of those reassurances, though, which left the question. If they could get at the Princess so easily, why not take him out the same way? Poison rather than a blessing, but otherwise the same?
Nilon wanted a war, he realised. He didn't want to share power with anyone, not even for the brief time it would have taken to dispose of him. But wars were risky. Even with a three to one advantage in manpower, luck played a huge role in war. A day of bad weather, a message going astray... History was full of examples of a small army defeating a larger one because of sheer, dumb luck. Nilon was either supremely confident of victory or he wanted a war for some other reason. But what reason?
Leothan stared out over the gardens, General Pavok standing beside him in silence, not wanting to interrupt the King's train of thought. He had the sudden very strong feeling that he was missing something. Could there be more to this war than Carrow just wanting to win back lost territories? Could this all be part of something bigger? Arwin Tsocco thought there was something bigger going on. He had believed that Helberion was trying to steal Kelvon export markets, something that would only make sense if it was part of a larger scheme. What did the Empire know that he didn't?
He turned to where Darnell and a pair of runners were standing a discrete distance away, and beckoned them over. “I need to speak to the Kelvon ambassador. Summon him to the palace immediately.” Darnell nodded and gestured to one of the runners, who trotted off down the corridor.
On the way he passed another runner, coming in the other direction. “Majesty!” he said, puffing, half out of breath. “Majesty, the Brigadier has returned! He's waiting in the east reception room!”
King Leothan stared, then hurried down the corridor at a full run, all regal dignity forgotten.