“So that’s him,” said Matron Darniss.
“That's what they say,” said Balhern, the head of the palace guard. “The man who killed the Princess.”
“She's not dead yet!” snapped Darniss, here eyes flashing angrily. The Matron could flay the soul of the strongest man with that voice and those eyes, but the head guard met her gaze impassively.
“It's only a matter of time,” he said. “Soon it'll be more than just a physical change. She'll start to manifest demon powers. When that happens, it’ll be just too dangerous to let her live any longer. The King will have no choice but to have her put to death.” He turned his gaze back to the man in the cell. “This is the safest place for him. Anywhere else, people would tear him limb from limb.”
Pettiwell was slumped miserably in the corner of the cell, wearing only a grimy prison smock. The marks of torture and abuse were visible on his face and the visible parts of his arms and legs. He'd lost a few teeth by the looks of him, and one eye was almost closed by a black, puffy swelling. A movement on the opposite corner of the cell caught Darniss's attention and made the prisoner jump in alarm. It was a rat, plump and well fed, and now that she knew to look Darniss saw that Pettiwell's hands and bare feet were covered with bites, swollen and red with infection.
Serves the bloody fool right, she thought. The idiot brought this on himself. Flashing the payment for his part in the affair all around the city, he’d have become a suspect for any crime committed anywhere over the previous couple of weeks. If he'd only lain low, enjoyed his payment discretely... But some people were just incapable of that kind of common sense, she knew. The man who'd chosen him to deliver the wizard's potion to the palace would no doubt be explaining himself to King Nilon in person, if he could frame any words at all with a throat that bled from screaming.
“Has he confessed?” she asked.
“Not yet,” replied the head guard. “We have to be careful. We don't really have anything on him except gossip and rumours. He had money that he can't explain having come by legitimately, but that could have come from burgling the Besswell house. It's possible that the man really responsible for the Princess is still out there somewhere, that he might get away because we're fixated on this chap. The Questioners will get the truth out of him, sooner or later.”
That was what Darniss was afraid of. “Has he said anything?” she asked. “Anything at all?”
Pettiwell looked up at this, and Darniss realised she had to be careful what she said that he could overhear. Pettiwell had information that could lead to her being uncovered, but he didn't himself know that she was a Carrow agent. If she said the wrong thing while he could hear, though, he might guess, and then the Questioners would soon have it out of him.
“Just general pleading of innocence. He claims to have never done anything wrong, anywhere. Said he got the money gambling on horses.”
“Is it possible he's telling the truth?”
Balhern looked at her. “I've been guarding prisoners for thirty years,” he said. “Some proven innocent, others found guilty. I've come to develop an instinct for it and I'm almost never wrong. This guy’s a bad’un. He's done something bad. Maybe it wasn't what happened to the Princess, but he’s done something bad, he's led a bad life. I'd gamble my pension on it.”
Darniss nodded. “I just wanted to see him,” she said. “See the kind of man who could do a thing like that.”
“You're not the only one. Half the palace has been down here.” Something in the tone of his voice made her look at him, and she was surprised to see a burning fury hiding behind his calm, implacable exterior. The attack on the Princess had infuriated him more than anyone else except the King himself, she now saw, and it was easy to guess why. Balhern was responsible for the security of the palace, entrusted with the task by the King himself. Entrusted with the safety of the Queen, the Princess and his other children. Balhern had failed in that duty. He had failed that trust and he was furious with whoever it was who had gotten past his guard.
Matron Darniss suddenly felt a tremor of fear at the power of the man's anger. If he ever discovered her part in the affair, He would throw her in a filthy cell like the one that currently contained Pettiwell. Stripped naked, given nothing but a smock to cover herself and left to the rats. He would watch while the Questioners did their work on her, and when she was found guilty he would execute her himself, swinging the axe with a hard anger alloyed only by a savage satisfaction that she was getting what she deserved. She felt the fear trying to widen her eyes, tremble her mouth, and she forced herself to remain calm, to give no outward sign of what she was feeling. She made herself look at Pettiwell again. “I was expecting a monster. Someone huge and terrifying. He just looks...”
“Pathetic,” agreed Balhern. “Everyone does, when they've been down here for a while, but I suspect this guy looked pathetic well before the city guard got their hands on him. Probably turned to a life of crime because he was incapable of any kind of honest life.”
“You are probably right. Thank you for indulging my curiosity, Captain. I have to go now, I’ve been away from my duties for too long.”
“You are always welcome down here, My Lady.”
Darniss bowed her head to him in farewell, then turned and headed back to the stairs. Her heart was pounding, she realised. She felt as though she'd just escaped from a den of tigers! She stopped as soon as she was out of sight of the head guard and stood with her back to the damp stone wall, breathing heavily until she'd regained her composure. What she was doing was dangerous, and the head guard had made the danger seem real to her for the first time in all the years she’d been there. It’s worth the risk! she told herself. The return of my family’s title, fortune and lands. Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without risk.
Thurley had done his job well, but there was nothing else he could do. He was probably half way back to Carrow by now, eager to receive the rewards that awaited him there. That meant that dealing with Pettiwell was down to her. Busting him out of prison was impossible, of course, and even if it hadn't been she was damned if she was going to risk here life for someone whose stupidity had cost her a valuable accomplice. No, she would have to kill him. It was the only way. Pettiwell had to know that the unknown agent in the palace might be plotting his death. In between bouts of interrogation he had nothing to do except think, but hope would stay with him for a while yet, she thought. She had time to arrange something.
Poison would be easiest. She had access to the kitchens, it would be the simplest thing in the world to poison his food. The problem was that all the prisoners were fed at the same time. Unless the man who delivered the food to the prisoners could be persuaded to help her, there was no way to tell which plate of bread and beans would be given to Pettiwell, and approaching another member of staff would be far too great a risk. There was only one thing to do, she thought, smiling. She would have to kill all the prisoners. A few drops of tachel venom in the beans. Fast acting. He would have no time for any dying confessions.
She made her way back to her room, and the small chest under her bed where she kept her supplies from Carrow.
Every time King Leothan met the Carrow Ambassador, he had to overcome an almost irresistible impulse to punch him in the face.
He was an ugly man, but that wasn't the reason he didn’t like him. He had a waxy, sallow complexion to his skin, as if it would feel slimy to the touch, and his eyebrows met in the middle in the way his grandmother had said signified a man not fully raised from a wolf. He also had pockmarks covering his face, some with black hairs sprouting from them, and his teeth were yellow and jutting out at odd angles. The King didn’t care about any of that, though. There were many men in his service who weren't exactly oil paintings, and he didn't care so long as they did their jobs competently. He might have been lifetime best friends with this hideous lump of a man if he’d been a decent person, but he wasn’t a decent person, not by a long mile. The stories told of his personal habits would have made anyone shudder, let alone someone raised in the royal court.
The thing that always made the King want to punch him in the face was the invariably superior attitude he took with him. An ambassador, thinking he was superior to a King! Ambassador Lon-Fidell always had a patronising tone in his voice, as if he were going out of his way to mollify a minor tribal chieftain, someone utterly undeserving of that kind of honour but whom he had to appease just for the sake of a quiet life. It wasn't anything he actually said, but it was there in his voice and his body language. The unspoken implication that Helberion was little more than a cluster of huts in a swamp and its King some naked, mud smeared oaf claiming titles and privileges that were far beyond his background and upbringing. The King would have sent him packing years ago, if he hadn't known that he would only be replaced by someone even worse, and diplomatic relations had to be maintained at all costs. Carrow wanted war. All they needed was an excuse, in order to appease the other great powers of the world.
“I do hope the Princess recovers soon from her illness,” the ambassador said with his infuriating smirk. “The whole city, probably the whole kingdom, prays daily for her recovery. You cannot walk anywhere without hearing the people weeping over her, and I'm sure the people of my country would wish me to extend their own good wishes and earnest prayers.”
“Thank you for your kind words,” relied the King, struggling to keep the distaste from showing on his face. The ambassador had very probably had a hand in what had been done to her, or at least knew about it. He could very probably tell them some interesting things if encouraged by the palace interrogators.
“It would be a tragedy if she were forced to withdraw from the marriage,” continued the ambassador. “After all the hard work put in by the diplomats to arrange a peaceful solution to our differences.”
“I would hope that a peaceful solution can still be found, even if her condition makes the wedding impossible,” replied the King. In fact, he had already decided that he would be damned if he allowed his daughter to marry any Carrowmen, let alone Prince George. “If we could allow the diplomats to continue their good work...”
“Alas, things are coming to a head in my country,” said Lon-Fidell, spreading his hands in a parody of regret. “The people cry out for a resolution to the ancient injustices that brought us here. A wedding to join our royal family to yours was the very least they would have stood for. They wish for the lands upon which we stand at this very moment to be returned to its rightful owners.”
The King restrained himself from correcting the ambassador on his knowledge of history. “Every square inch of this planet was once owned by someone other than the man who owns it now,” he pointed out. “We have to put the past behind us and look to the future, create a peaceful and prosperous world for our children. I know that your King feels the same way.”
“Of course he does,” agreed the ambassador with a grin that said the exact opposite and that acknowledged that both he and the King knew it. “However, we are going through a period of economic hardship. Our population is struggling to feed itself, we need new lands to farm, and our people look west to fertile but scarcely populated lands that their ancestors used to own. In the end, events may move out of the King’s control.”
“Your economy might be healthier if you didn’t have such a large military budget. My ministers wonder why you need such a large army, and growing larger all the time.”
“We must defend ourselves. We live in uncertain times. King Nilon's advisors tell him that you are also recruiting heavily. Of course, it takes time to train men and build equipment. You will be pleased to hear that King Nikon does not see your military growth as a provocation, or a threat.” His smile broadened and King Leothan felt his hands clenching into fists of their own accord. Behind him, he sensed his bodyguards tensing up and he forced himself to relax. “I am glad to hear it,” he made himself say.
“His Majesty, King Nilon, has asked me to put a proposition to you. in order to ease tensions between out two great countries, and as a gesture of contrition for past crimes, His Majesty asks that you voluntarily cede all lands east of the River Tacwell to Carrow rule...”
“Out of the question!” snapped the King. His bodyguards surged forward, hands on their weapons, and the King waved them back. He brought himself back under control with an effort. “That is Helberion land, and it will remain Helberion land! We will defend every inch of it to our last breath!”
“Your Majesty!” exclaimed the ambassador in mock horror. “You sound as though I were threatening you! I was just advancing a reasonable solution offered by King Nilon...”
“Which I reject utterly! Please thank King Nikon for his generous offer, and please ask him not to make any more such offers in future.”
“In that case, I fear that tensions will only escalate.”
“Then let us hope that your King is not too weak to keep his people under control.”
The ambassador’s grin froze on his face. “I assure you, your Majesty, that every man of the Glorious Army of Carrow army will do precisely what King Nilon orders him to do. I shall pray that you reconsider your position.” He then turned and left without waiting to be dismissed, a deliberate violation of protocol and a final gesture of the contempt with which he held the King. One of the bodyguards moved to intercept him, but the King waved him back. Nothing would be gained from pressing the issue. He was just glad that the meeting had ended without a formal declaration of war.
He beckoned for his Private Secretary to come forward. “Summon Field Marshall Haines,” he said. “Tell him I want a report on our military preparedness before the end of the day.” The Private Secretary nodded and sent one of his runners to obey.
“Dead!” exclaimed Minister Falow furiously. “How?”
“Poison, Minister,” replied Balhern, forcing himself to remain calm while fury and shame raged inside him. ”Not just him but all the prisoners. Minister, I have failed you again. I have failed you twice. I hereby submit myself for...”
“Oh shut up!” replied the Minister for Internal Security. “Our enemies surround us and are closing in. This is not the time for me to discard my best people. You will remain as head of the palace guard and you will use your anger to find the traitor.”
“Yes, Minister. Minister, the fact that all the prisoners were killed tells us something important. None of the guards did it, they all had access to Pettiwell. Any of them could have killed just him.”
“So who did do It?” demanded Falow. “I want a list of everyone who's been to see him since he was brought here!”
“Everyone’s been to see him. Pretty much everyone in the palace. Minister, this wasn’t done by someone visiting him in person.”
Minister Falow nodded his reluctant agreement. “Who had access to the food the prisoners were given?”
“Also a long list, Minister. The food prepared for the King and the other members of the royal family is carefully watched, only carefully selected people are allowed to take part in its preparation and delivery. Food for the prisoners, though, less so.”
“There is a traitor in the palace, Balhern! Someone in the pay of Carrow!”
“With respect, Minister, we already knew that. The attack on the Princess...”
“I want him caught, Balhern! Find the traitor, before he or she strikes again! You are responsible for security in this palace! Find him!” The Minister then spun on his heel and marched out of the room, a black cloud of fury hovering around him.
Balhern stood there for several minutes while he allowed the Minister’s fury, and his own, to boil within him. He had been humiliated twice. He had failed the King twice. There would not be a third time. He felt the traitor’s actions to be a personal insult against him, and that insult would be answered and avenged. He would catch the traitor, or traitors, if it was the last thing he did!
The possibility that there might be more than one traitor haunted him. Surely he couldn’t be that incompetent as to allow more than one fox into his henhouse! Of course, it was possible that the traitor had been in the palace for many years, that the mistake was not his but that of his predecessor...
He shut off that train of thought with a snarl of self contempt. It would be so easy to blame others, but he was the current captain of the palace guard. The responsibility was his, both for the hiring of new staff and the scrutiny of veteran staff members, even those whose families had been serving the King for generations. Nobody was beyond suspicion. Not even his own men. Killing all the prisoners might have been a deliberate distraction to draw suspicion away from the guards, who could have slipped a knife between his ribs any time they wanted. Yes, he realised, a sour taste rising in his throat. Any of his men could have done it. Anyone except Thurley, of course, who'd been down with a throat infection for the past few days.
He paused as a memory came to him. It had been Thurley who had originally pointed the finger at Pettiwell, claiming to have heard incriminating gossip in the tavern he frequented when off duty. Councidence? He thought further. Pettiwell had been arrested by the city guard on suspicion of buargling the Besswell house. He'd been seen flashing money around town, money that he couldn’t explain having. There was no concrete evidence to link him to the Besswell burglary, though. The idea that he was a traitor, that his money was payment for helping attack the Princess, had been, and still was, entirely plausible. If that was so, he had been killed to prevent him from naming his co-conspirators. In the cells of the city watch, though, he had been out of reach. His murderer would have had to arrange for his transfer to a place where he could get at him. And it had been Thurley who had accomplished this...
But Thurley had been down with a throat infection, or so he had claimed. If he was the traitor, why not just stay on duty and wait for his chance to kill him? Could it be because Pettiwell would have recognised him? If so, and if Pettiwell realised Thurley was going to kill him, all be would have had to do was shout “Thurley is a traitor!” as loudly as he could before he died. Killing a man instantly was difficult. Unless you arranged things very carefully, there was always a chance for the victim to shout out a few final incriminating words, and there were all the other prisoners in neighbouring cells, separated only by iron bars. Watching, listening... Maybe Thurley had just decided that it was too risky, and that poison was the only answer.
Thurley would have needed access to the kitchens, in order to poison the prisoners’ food. If he’d been seen there though, his claim to having a throat infection would have been blown. He stiffened as his thoughts reached their conclusion. There would have to have been a second traitor, one who had access to the kitchens. If his suspicions regarding Thurley were correct, that is, and he had to admit that his suspicions were based on pure speculation. Even If he was wrong about the guard, though, the fact that this chain of suspicion pointed to him left him no choice. He turned and marched out of the room, towards the palace guard house.
There were three off duty guards there, playing cards on the small wooden table. “You three, with me!” he snapped, then left, knowing without having to look behind to see that they would be scrambling for their weapons and hurrying after him. He stopped by the palace records office to look up Thurley’s home address, then led the men out of the palace and to the stables where they hitched up a pair of horses to the jail wagon.
“We're going to arrest Thurley?” said one of the guards in disbelief. “He's one of the longest serving of us all!”
“He’s got the Medal of Valour!” pointed out another. Balhern ignored them both and climbed into the driver’s seat while the men took their places on the back seats. Balhern then drove the wagon out of the palace yard, past the guards on duty at the gates and out into the streets of the city.
Life in the city had returned more or less to normal since the Brigadier had left. The people had had time to process the news of what had happened to the Princess. They were still outraged, but they couldn't stand around wailing in grief and horror for ever. They had lives to get on with. Hundreds of pink ribbons were hung around trees and sign posts, though. All signifying support for the Princess, and Balhern’s heart warned at the sight of them.
The people of other countries couldn’t understand the genuine love that the people of Helberion had for their royal family. The rulers of most countries ruled harshly and cynically, with little concern for the lives of the common people. When a royal house was overthrown by a rival family, the people of those countries would scarcely notice, and would only really care if it meant taxes going up. King Leothan truly cared for his people, though, as had his father and grandfather before him. They had proved this time and again over the past half century, and the people loved them for it. When the Princess had been attacked, therefore, everyone in the country felt the shock personally, as if she were a member of their own family. Balhern wondered whether the traitors had any idea what a keg of gunpowder they had set alight when they'd attacked the royal family, and what would happen to them when they were caught.
Thurley lived alone in a nondescript house in New Bridge Street and Balhern stopped the wagon fifty yards up the road, so as not to alert him. “Mastell, Bowen, go round the back of the house,” he said. “Stop him if he tries to run. Upon no account is he to be killed, though. Understood?”
“Because he's probably innocent of any wrongdoing and we don't want to lose a loyal and valuable colleague?”
“Yes, of course,” replied the Captain. “Now go and do it. Make sure you’re not seen from the house.”
The two guards glanced uncertainty at each other, then slipped between two houses to reach the almost weed choked alleyway that ran between the houses lining New Bridge Street and the backs of the houses lining the next street along. Balhern gave them five minutes to get into position, then drove the wagon to the front of the house, pulling up right beside the front door.
There were grimy children kicking a leather ball around in the street and Balhern chased them away in case there was a gunfight. He saw curtains twitching as the occupants of neighbouring houses looked to see what was going on, and the Captain marched swiftly up to Thurley’s front door before the suspected traitor also saw them and prepared his defence. Balhern gave the door a solid kick, and it crashed open with a spray of wooden splinters to bang loudly against the inside wall.
“Palace guard!” he shouted as he and Private Virgil rushed in, pistols in their hands. “You're under arrest! Give yourself up!” From the back of the house he heard another crash as Privates Mastell and Bowen entered through the back door. Virgil stayed by the door as Balhern went further in, and at the back the Captain knew that another of his men was remaining at the back door while the other entered the house. Every palace guardsmen had started out as a member of the city guard and was trained in how to search a house without letting the suspects escape. That training remained with them even after several years of a completely different kind of service in the palace.
The training turned out to be unnecessary, though. The house was empty, everything neat and tidy as if Thurley had had time to clean up after himself and then gone off on holiday. Balhern and Bowen ended up at the base of the stairs after having checked the entire ground floor. They both looked up the stairs, searching for possible traps and ambushes, and then Balhern went up first, Bowen close behind. The house had been built for a whole family and two of the three bedrooms were empty, without even carpets to cover the bare floorboards. The third contained a neatly made bed and a wardrobe containing all three of Thurley’s palace guard uniforms, as well as several sets of civilian clothes. There were a few ornaments but no money or valuables. Thurley was gone.
They questioned the neighbours and learned that he had last been seen early the previous morning. He had set out from the house in a smart set of civilian clothes and carrying a small case. He had flagged down a cab, which had taken him eastwards, towards the edge of the city. “That was just after Pettiwell was taken to the palace,” said Virgil.
“Yes,” said Balhern through gritted teeth. “He'll have taken a carriage back to Carrow, We'll check their records see if someone of his description took a carriage east, but I'm in no doubt. Thurley was a traitor. His job was to get Pettiwell away from the city guard, to where his accomplice could kill him.”
“Yes,” replied the Captain. “There’s still a traitor in the palace.”