Malone and the Brigadier had learned that they were at war soon after crossing the border back into Helberion. The first villages they passed through were wild with gossip, with everyone wondering whether Carrow soldiers were about to come pouring into town, massacring everyone and setting fire to their homes. The Brigadier had gone straight to the guard house to get the full story, and had heard that a royal herald had ridden through the town the day before, blowing a trumpet to get everyone's attention and then issuing the proclamation in his loud, penetrating voice. All reserve soldiers, except those with parent bonded animals, were to report for duty at their local mustering stations, he'd said, on penalty of being declared deserters, a crime that carried the penalty of death.
There were seven reserve infantrymen in town, milling around outside the police station while loved ones kissed them and bade them farewell. The Brigadier took charge of them and told them to follow him to Miller's Crossing, the local garrison town, which was on the direct route to the capital. The reservists made the two hour journey seem achingly familiar to Malone. It was almost like having their old company back, if he ignored their faded, ill fitting uniforms and the fact that they were on foot. It was easy to imagine that all his old friends were with him again. Blane and Harper and Crane and Quill. Only the absence of light hearted banter spoiled the illusion, except for one man who kept making idiotic jokes to hide his fear that he might be marching to his death.
Arriving at the garrison town, the Brigadier reported in to the garrison commander and received a more detailed account of how matters stood. No military action had yet taken place, he was told. He had no idea why the King had chosen to declare war, but he was hoping that it was just a bluff to achieve a concession of some kind from the Carrowmen. “The King knows we cannot win a war against Carrow without help from the Empire,” he told the Brigadier. “The King is threatening Nilon with the Empire, wielding it like a sword. I can't imagine that it's anything else. Give it a day or two and we'll get word from Marboll that a peaceful solution's been found. I'd bet my pension on it.”
The Brigadier was inclined to doubt that, though. He knew the King better than almost anyone else in the kingdom, and he knew that he wasn't the type to use the threat of war in that way. He would have had to be truly desperate to do such a thing, it must have been the only alternative to complete disaster, and so, after spending the night there, he and Malone left the town at a full gallop before sunrise, eager to reach the palace before noon.
Arriving at the gates of Marboll, they made straight for the palace where the guards, recognising the Brigadier and knowing what his mission had been, let him through into the courtyard. Men came to take care of their horses, and they were shown to the main body of the palace and into the reception room. A runner was sent to fetch the King, and Malone and the Brigadier were left to admire the expensive ornamental pottery and the paintings mounted on the walls while feeling a little uncomfortable about walking on the plush carpet with their dusty boots. Malone, feeling achy and tired, went to sit on one of the expensively padded and decorated chairs that stood around the room, but stopped when the footman who'd been left with them couldn't prevent himself from reacting with anxiety to his dirty, grimy uniform.
“Maybe we should have gone to the barracks first,” he said. “Get cleaned up, get a change of uniform.”
“You go if you want,” replied the Brigadier. “Doesn’t take two of us to give a report.”
“No way, Sir! When am I going to get another chance to meet the King? I just thought we should both have gotten cleaned up first, that's all.”
“The King will want our report immediately. He's not the type to faint at the sight of a dirty face.”
Malone nodded, but wondered how long it would be before he could rest his aching spine, unable to sit in case he got the furniture dirty. Riding a horse was tiring no matter how many years practice you'd had, especially when your backbone wasn't quite fully adapted to an upright posture. Fortunately, the King arrived before five minutes had passed, and Malone was surprised, no shocked, to see that he'd come almost at a run and was panting with the unaccustomed exercise. We've been gone weeks! He thought. What difference would an extra few minutes have made? The Brigadier saw the expression on his face and gave him a warning glare. He knew what it was like to have a child, but even he could scarcely comprehend what the King had been going through for the past couple of months.
“Brigadier!” said the King, with a visible effort to retain his dignity. He have Malone a momentary glance, then dismissed him from his attention. “Was your mission a success?”
“We found Parcellius. He told us of a mushroom that grows in the area that might be able to help.” He reached into a pouch and produced a bag of crushed and wilted toadstools. “They apparently have a similar effect to a curse on anyone who eats them.”
“We tried cursing her,” said the King in devastating disappointment. “It didn't work.”
“These may work in a different way. It's worth trying, your Majesty.”
“Yes, yes, of course. We must try it. Is there a... a recipe you have to follow, or do you just...”
“I was led to believe that you just eat them, Sire.”
“Then let's do it! If they work, how long do they take to work? Curses take effect instantly, I understand.”
“As I said, Majesty, these may work differently. We won't know until we try.”
“Indeed. Yes. Let's go then.” He went to the doorway, looked back to make sure they were following him, then strode off at his fastest walking pace to the Princess’ quarters.
The King's suggestion that the mushrooms might work instantly disturbed the Brigadier, though. “Majesty, there is another matter we must discuss, and we must do so before we cure the Princess.”
“What?” Leothan looked back, confused. “We cure the Princess first. Nothing is more important.”
“With respect, Majesty, it has been nearly ten weeks since the Princess was afflicted. If I'm right, we need her in her present condition for one more day.”
Leothan stopped and glared at him. “Explain yourself!” he commanded.
Malone went pale as he glanced back and forth between the two men, and the Brigadier spared him a glance of sympathy before turning his full attention back to the King. “Your Majesty, during the course of our mission, we became aware that there may be a threat to the Kingdom. A grave threat...”
“We are at war, Brigadier. The threat is already upon us.”
“There is another threat, Sire. Or there may not be. The Princess may be able to tell us, but only so long as she is in her present condition.”
“We cure her first. You can tell me about possible other threats after.”
“Majesty, I beg you! You must trust me on this! May we go to a place where we can talk in privacy?” He looked back at Darnell and the runners, ever ready to carry out the King’s will and spread the King’s commands.
“The Princess can wait a little longer, Sire! I would not ask this if I didn't believe it to be of the very greatest urgency!”
The King stared at him, torn in doubt. He trusted the Brigadier, he knew he wouldn't ask such a thing lightly, but his daughter... I am a father, he told himself, but I am also a King. I have a duty to the whole kingdom, not just my own family. “The committee rooms,” he said, therefore. He beckoned his Private Secretary forward. “Find a committee room that’s not in use. Seal off all surrounding rooms and corridors.” Darnell nodded and sent a runner to do it.
Ten minutes later, they were in committee room six, one of the smaller ones that was almost filled by a table and four chairs. None of them were sitting, though, even though Malone gazed longingly as the bare wooden chairs. Leothan waited until the door was closed and the three men were alone, then said, “Very well, Brigadier. Speak.”
The Brigadier told him what they'd learned about the Radiants and the Hetin folk. “The Radiants destroyed a civilisation,” be concluded. “They destroyed the town of Tollbine, two thousand people, to hide that fact, then caused a volcano to erupt, killing more people, to destroy all evidence of this additional crime. They are willing to kill humans in vast numbers when it suits them to do so, and I suspect that our entire civilisation may be at risk. Not just Helberion, but all human civiisation.”
“Why do you think that?” And what has this to do with my daughter?”
“Sire, Parcellius is not the only archaeologist investigating the Hetin folk. There are scholars digging up ruins all over the world. Granted, not all sites are as well preserved as the one Parcellius found, but if all those archaeologists keep digging long enough, they're going to piece together the truth. The Radiants won't be able to keep us from finding out what they did to the Hetin folk.”
“Why should they care what we find out? If they can cause volcanoes to erupt, if they changed the climate of the whole planet to suit themselves, what can we do against them?”
“Sire, they would not have tried to cover up their crime unless they feared retribution from us. Clearly, there is a way we can hurt them, even if we don't yet know what it is. I fear that they may move against us before we can find out. It is probably our recent scientific advances that they fear. Gunpowder, steam engines, the telegraph. They may decide to rid us of these things by throwing our civilisation back to a more primitive state. Destroy our cities with storm and fire, kill the bulk of our population. Keep just a small seed population to provide humans for them to adopt. Carefully watched over, all scientific advance crushed before it can take hold. That is what I fear, Majesty.”
The King stared in astonishment. “You build a mighty edifice from a very small foundation,” he said. “Isn't it more likely that the eruption of the volcano was a purely natural event? The goat girl may have been lying or mistaken, the Radiants may have had nothing to do with it.”
“Sire, we brought some artefacts from the Hetin city back with us. Evidence that the Hetin folk procreated in a fundamentally different way from us, evidence that the Radiants did not exist in their day. They first appeared just before the Hetin civilisation fell...”
“The curator of the museum you visited may have been right,” interrupted Leothan. “The Hetin folk created the Radiants on purpose and unwittingly destroyed themselves.”
“The curator was careful not to show us any books. He said that no books survived from that time, which we now know was a lie.”
“Could they be ashamed that their creation led to the fall of the Hetin folk? They could be telling the truth, and have enough empathy to feel guilt and shame that their creation led to so much death and suffering.”
“They massacred the people of Tollbine...”
“If the goat girl didn't make up the whole story to get attention. You can't condemn the Radiants on the basis of one traumatised individual.”
“Sire, there may be a way to determine the truth. We learned during our visit to the Radiant city that adopted humans gain a telepathic connection to the Radiants very early in their transformation. If we could interview one such person, one whose loyalty is still to humanity and not to the Radiants, we may be able to discover how they feel they relate to us. What their intentions are toward us, whether we really have anything to fear from them.”
The King stared. “You want to use my daughter!” he said.
“The alternative would be to have a wizard cast a blessing on a volunteer, but it would take weeks for him to achieve a telepathic connection. The Princess is already here...”
“I should have you executed for treason! Suppose you are right, suppose the Radiants are our enemies. If we use my daughter to spy on them, they may become aware of it and, and take measures to, to cut off the flow of information! Who knows what they might do, what they might be capable of...”
“I would never ask such a thing unless I believed it was desperately necessary. If they fear us, our scientific advances, they may attack us whether we provoke them or not.” The King's face was still dark with anger, but he ploughed on nonetheless. “Sire, they would only have cause for anger if our suspicions about them are correct. And, with all due respect, what could they possibly do to her that is worse than what they are doing now? They could have adopted her, raised her to be a true Radiant, in which case the entire kingdom would be united in joy on her behalf. Instead, they left her to her fate. Doesn’t that tell us something of their true nature? The Radiants are no friends of humanity. Indeed, they may be our active enemy. We must learn more about them, and this is the only way!”
The King was silent for a long time. He rose from his seat and paced across the room, pausing before one of the windows to gaze out across the parade ground, two storeys below. Then he paced some more before finally coming back to stand before the Brigadier. “I will conduct the questioning myself,” he said.
“Of course, your Majesty,” replied the Brigadier.
The entire room was lit by the ruddy red light being emitted by the Princess. Her body, once so slender and graceful, was now swollen and gross, the flesh partially transparent so that the pulsing of arteries could be see through the skin. She had the same eyes, though, the Brigadier noted as he, the King, the Queen and a couple of attendants took their places around her. Kind, compassionate eyes, even though they remained closed in misery for the most part as she contemplated what was happening to her. Her body was covered by a heavy blanket of white velvet trimmed with gold, sewn to fit her new body by the palace seamstresses, who had to keep creating new blankets for her as her body continued to change and grow.
King Leothan took his daughter’s bloated, glowing hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Ardria,” he said gently. “Ardria. It’s your father. Can you hear me, Ardria?”
The huge fingers closed around his, and her eyes opened a little. The Brigadier’s heart broke at the smile that formed on her wide, distorted face. “Father,” she said weakly.
“How are you, Ardria? How are you feeling?”
“Feel strange, like always. I can feel myself changing. I can’t move any more. I used to be able to walk. Now my legs won’t move any more.”
“You’ll walk again,” the King promised. “You’ll walk through the forests again, like you always loved to do. You’ll ride Dancer again...”
“We found a cure that will work!” said the Queen, giving the Brigadier a look that told him it had better. “You’ll dance again at your declaration day ball! You’ll be the envy of every other woman! The young men will queue up to dance with you! You’ll be magnificent and beautiful, just like you always were!”
The Princess’s smile widened, but tears appeared at the corners of her eyes and the Queen began crying in turn, taking a silk handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her eyes. “Perhaps it would be best if you waited outside,” suggested the King. “You can talk to her on your own afterwards. You can spend the rest of the day with her.” The Queen nodded and weaved her way towards the door, helped by one of her Ladies in Waiting.
When the door had closed, Leothan looked at the Brigadier, who nodded his encouragement. The King signed and turned back to the Princess. “Ardria, darling,” he said. “We have to ask you to do something.” The girls eyes turned back to her father. “It’s important. Do you understand?”
“I can’t do anything,” replied the Princess tearfully. “I can’t even stand up any more!”
“You don’t have to stand up. I just need you to listen to something. Do you understand?”
“There are Radiants in the city. Floating above the city, looking for people to adopt.”
“Radiants,” said the girl, smiling. “Beautiful! So beautiful!”
“Yes,” agreed the King, glancing sideways at the Brigadier. “Beautiful. They talk to each other. Up in the sky, they talk to each other.”
“Yes, and if you listen carefully you can hear them. Can you do that? Can you hear them?”
The Princess closed her eyes, as if listening. Then she opened them again, smiling in delight. “Yes!” she cried. “I can hear them! They’re talking!”
“What are they saying?” asked the King. “Can you tell us what they’re saying?”
“They’re talking about people, us. They’re talking about who would make the best Radiants. One of them thinks that men are best. As big and strong as possible. It’s looking at a blacksmith. The other one says women are best. It’s above the Henderson estate, looking at one of the cooks, collecting herbs in the garden, but there’s a nurse there as well, looking after the Baron’s adopted bear. It can’t decide which one to take.”
“Are they talking about anything else?” asked the King.
“No. They just came looking for someone to adopt. That’s all they’re thinking about.”
The Brigadier leaned forward. “Your Majesty,” he said. “May I ask her something?”
“I just want to try something.” The King looked at him, searching his face suspiciously, but then nodded. The Brigadier turned to the Princess. “Your Highness,” he said. “Are there more Radiants in the city?”
“Yes. There’s another three above the market, and another above the stables. It's looking at the stablemaster.”
“When one of them says something, can the others tell which one is talking?”
“Only if it’s the closest.”
“So if you said something to them, they wouldn’t be able to tell it was you talking?”
“Can I do that? Talk to them?”
“I hope so. I want you to ask them something, but I don’t want them to know it was you who said it. Can you do that?”
The Princess looked at the King, who nodded. “I’ll try,” she said. “What do you want me to ask them?”
“I want you to ask them about the volcano they made erupt in the west. Say, isn’t it a pity about all the humans who died down there. Some of them might have made good Radiants. Just stay that, and no more. Can you do that?”
“I’ll try.” She was silent for a few moments, and the King and the Brigadier looked at each other nervously. “I did it!” said the Princess at last. “They say...” She fell silent, and a look of horror came over her face. “Oh no!” she said, her massive, bloated body shaking with shock. “No!”
“What did they say?” asked the Brigadier.
“They said yes it was a shame, but they couldn’t take any chances. They said... You have to understand. The way they talk, with their minds, they can say a lot in a small time.”
“I understand, “ said the Brigadier. “What did they say?”
“They’re scared of us. Not of us individually. They’re scared of our civilisation. Our armies, our science. We could wipe them out if we all decided to. They’re scared we’ll try to kill them all if we discover what they did.”
“What they did?” said the King.
“How they came and took over. Killed all the first people, changed the whole world, so they could turn it into a nursery, a place to create new Radiants. They think we’ll be angry if we find out.”
“They’re right about that,” said the Brigadier grimly.
“There are some of them who think they should control us more. They call us free range. Some of them think we should be factory farmed. Kept in cages like prisoners. All of us. The entire human race.”
The King cursed softly. “How many of them think that?” he asked.
“About half, I think. There’s a lot of debate about it. The ones who think we should be left alone think that free range humans make better Radiants. The others, like I said, think we’re just too dangerous. Up until now, the free rangers have always won the argument, but they were all scared by what that man found in the west. The factory farmers are beginning to take control.”
“You mustn’t talk to them any more!” said the King. “They don’t know it was you who spoke, right? They must never find out! If what Parcellius found out scared them, then what you just told us will scare them even more! Who knows what they might do!”
“We need more information,” said the Brigadier, though. “We need to know...”
“We will not risk my daughter again!” said the King, though. “Find another way!”
“We don’t have any other...”
“Find one!” said the King firmly. “Forget about Ardria! We don’t use her again! That’s a royal command.” He glared at the Brigadier, who stared back in a silent protest, but then he nodded. “As you command,” he said.
“I want to help...” said the Princess, but the Brigadier shook his head. “No, the King is right,” he said. “We cannot risk you again. You must never again try to talk to the Radiants. Understood?”
“Understood?” added the King. “The Radiants can command the forces of nature. If they find out what you just did, they could bring destruction upon this entire city. Thousands could die. For the sake of our people, you must obey me!”
The Princess nodded. “I will obey your command, father. I’ll keep listening, though. I might hear them saying something, although I can’t hear them as well as I could just now.” She closed her eyes in concentration. “It’s getting hard to hear them. I think they're moving away.”
“Can you tell how far away they are?” asked the Brigadier. “Knowing the range of their telepathy could be useful.”
“The one I spoke to was over Cotton Street. I think it's over the west gate stables now. It's very hard to hear it. It's saying...” Her brow furrowed in concentration. “It wants to go see the war. The war they started. It’s excited. It wants to see the action. Another Radiant made it come here, it wants to go watch the battle.”
“The war they started?” said Leothan. “Are you sure that's what it said?”
“It's how they're going to destroy our civilisation, by making us fight each other!” Ardria's face was contorted with shock. Leothan wanted to take her in his arms, tell her it was all right, but Helberion needed him to be the King right now. He could be a father later, when he had the information he needed.
“How did they start the war?” he asked, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “Ardria? How did they start the war?”
“I don't know! It's gone now, it's too far away. I can't hear it any more. Please, I don't want to do this any more! Please father!”
“You don't have to. It's over now, all over.” The Brigadier went to the door, asked the Queen to come back in, and she flew to her daughter, hugging her and glaring accusingly at the two men. The Brigadier pulled the bag of mushrooms from his pocket. “We can give this to her now, I think.”
The Queen snatched them from his hand and opened the bag to look inside. “This?” she said. “Are they safe to eat? Some toadstools are poisonous!”
“We were reliably told that they're safe to eat, that they just act like a curse, but with much greater potency. We could sweeten them with honey, perhaps...”
Queen Lacurnia was already offering one to the Princess, though, who took it with a grimace of distaste. “Eat it!” she said, pressing it to her daughter's lips. “Just one. Try just one. Don't worry if it tastes bad...”
The Princess obediently put it in her mouth and chewed, and her face brightened with delight. “It tastes lovely...” she said. “Can I have another?”
A dreamy expression came over her face as she ate one after another of the shrivelled brown toadstools. Both her parents watched carefully, but there was no physical change. No evidence of a curse taking hold. “It may take a while,” said the Brigadier. “We're pinning all our hopes on it not working quite the same as a curse, after all...”
The Princess giggled and started swaying from side to side. “What’s wrong with her?” demanded the Queen. “What have you done to her?”
“Some toadstools have a, er, hallucinatory effect,” said the King. All the strength seemed to flow out of his body. He seemed to age before the Brigadier’s eyes, and he almost collapsed into a chair to hold his head in his hands. This had been their last hope, and it had failed. The only result of the Brigadier’s expedition had been to give the Princess a mushroom high.
“There are other things we can try,” said the Brigadier. “There are other scientists and wise men out in the world. We can seek them out...”
“She doesn’t have much longer,” said the King, though. “If your next mission takes as long as the last one, there'll be nothing left of her by the time you get back...”
“Bill!” said the Queen, and some quality of her voice made the King’s head snap up again. “Bill, look!”
It was getting darker in the room. Leothan looked through the window, thinking that the sun had gone behind a cloud, but the sky was heavily overcast. The sun had never been out. Then he noticed that the light had been coming from inside the room. From the Princess! The glow of her skin was dying!
He leaped from the chair and bounded over to the Princess's side. Her body was shrinking, the excess flesh melting away as she shrank back to her original form! The Queen cried in delight, tears streaming down her face as the transformation reversed itself, weeks of change vanishing in just a few seconds. The King hugged the Queen and she hugged him back, both of them laughing and crying as their daughter was restored. The Brigadier, standing a few feet away, watched with concern, though. Would the reversal stop when she reached her original humanity, or would it continue, taking her all the way back to Kestrel, or even beyond...
The Princess disappeared from sight momentarily, tangled up in her voluminous robes, made for a creature twice the size she was now. The Queen reached inside, found her daughter and carefully pulled her out. She laughed with joy to find her completely restored, as graceful and beautiful as she'd ever been. The skin of her naked body was smooth and unmarked, flowing smoothly over bones and muscles. The faint rippling of her ribs were the only features of her flat chest, and her pubic folds were tiny, little more than an opening for the passage of urine, as befitting a woman of the nobility. The Princess twittered happily and swayed unsteadily on her feet as the Queen wrapped the gown around her, and as no further change manifested itself the Brigadier at last allowed himself to relax.
“Ardy, Precious!” said the Queen, beaming with delight, holding her at arms length by the shoulders so she could look at her. She examined her face, her hands and feet, finding everything completely human. “How do you feel, my sweetness?”
“Funny!” giggled the Princess. She tottered on her feet, and only the Queen’s hands on her arms enabled her to remain standing. “There are colours everywhere! Such pretty colours!”
“Hopefully, the, er, side effects of the mushrooms should wear off in time,” said the Brigadier. He was summoning all his willpower to stop the happiness and relief from showing on his face. He had to remind himself that he was in the presence of the King, and that a certain level of decorum was expected of him.
Leothan was under no such restriction, though, and grabbed the Brigadier’s hand, pumping it joyfully. “My friend, once again you have proven your worth! My friend! My very greatest and most noble friend!”
The Brigadier returned the handshake stoically. “With your permission, Majesty, I will take my leave. You will want to spend some time alone with your daughter...”
At that moment there was a knock on the door, which Darnell opened. A runner was standing there. “Your pardon, Sire, but the...” He fell silent and his face lit up with joy when he saw the Princess, still swaying and giggling in the Queen’s grasp. “The Princess!” he cried. “Restored! Majesty, this is wonderful!”
“Spread the word, let the whole Kingdom know!” ordered the King happily. “Let there be a week of celebrations! Let there be fairs and banquets and tournaments and, and everything! Let the whole Kingdom celebrate!”
“Your Majesty,” said the Brigadier gently. “We are at war. Even now we wait for news...”
The King came down to earth with a heavy bump. A stricken look came over his face. “Yes, yes,” he said guiltily. “Men are dying. The fate of the Kingdom hangs in the balance. What am I thinking?” He looked at his wife and daughter one last time, still blind to all else in their joy and happiness, then led the men out of the room. “Spread the word that the Princess has been restored,” he told Darnell soberly. “Tell the Kingdom that the Brigadier’s mission was successful, but be tactful. Three hundred families will soon learn that their loved ones died in battle. We must never forget that.” The Private Secretary bowed and sent a runner off to obey.
“In the meantime, the business of the Kingdom must continue,” said the King. He turned to the newly arrived runner. “You came to deliver a message,” he said.
“Yes, Sire. The Kelvon ambassador has come, as you commanded.”
“Ah, yes. Let us go and see him, then.”