The men were glum and in low spirits as they continued on their way south. Their force had been reduced by four men, one of them permanently, and the remainder felt the loss keenly. What banter there was, when they stopped to sleep and eat their meals, was reduced almost to nothing, and they made their way through the trackless hills and valleys in an uncomfortable silence that was broken only by the sighing of the wind and the lonely cries of solitary wild animals.
It was with great relief that they eventually left Radiant territory, five days after their encounter with the demon, and shortly after that they came across a road with signposts in the language of Arago, a country few of them were familiar with. They took a detour to the north to avoid the most densely populated region of the country, in the hopes of avoiding notice by the authorities who might have detained them for an unknown length of time while they quizzed the foreign soldiers about their business in their land, but although they did see the occasional small Aragon patrol they weren’t bothered by them. Arago had generally good relations with Halberion, mainly due to the fact that they lacked a common border, and the only contact they had with each other were the merchant caravans that carried trade between them along the Spice Road.
The climate was warmer here, several hundred miles south and west of their homelands, and the land was considerably drier as well. The hills were brown with dead grass, and the shrubs that lined the roads bore wicked spines to deter whatever grazing animals might have been tempted by their waxy leaves. The people wore brightly coloured clothes and were surrounded by an exotic, spicy smell that seemed to rise up out of the very ground. The men grumbled and complained as they ate the foreign food and drank the syrupy sweet local beverages, but the Brigadier was pleased by the progress they were making. If not for the losses they had taken, their short cut through Radiant territory would have been an unqualified success.
On the southern horizon, a line of mountainous peaks were just visible in the dusty haze, and the Brigadier told them that they were the northernmost extremities of the Uttermost Range, the mighty mountain range that marked the southern edge of human knowledge. The sight of it cheered the men, even the Brigadier himself, even though their destination still lay many hundreds of miles further to the west, and their conversation had returned almost to normal when they stopped for their midday meal by the banks of a huge, nameless river whose far bank was almost too far away to see.
“Have you ever been this far from home before?” Malone asked the Brigadier as the carcass of a large river herbivore turned on a spit above their camp fire.
“Never,“ replied the Brigadier without looking up from polishing the buckles of his uniform. “I know this region by reputation only. I once travelled with a group of traders who came from Mekrol, they told me everything I know of this place, so I can only hope they were telling me the truth, not simply spinning tales for the gullible northerner. It was they who first told me of Parcellius, the great sage and master of ancient knowledge, although I later heard of him from other sources, so we can have some hope that he, at least, is based on truth. He is said to live in the great city of Barag Tull, where he is the court wizard to the Empress Jaxia himself.”
“I’ve heard of Barag Tull,” said Harper nervously. “They say it’s a city of cannibals and demon worshippers, that those who enter are never seen again except for their skulls that adorn the city walls.”
“And I heard that the Empress was adopted by Radiants and lived among them long enough to gain their powers before returning to retake her throne, and that she now uses her Radiant powers to enforce a reign of terror over the city.”
“Fanciful tales always grow up around little known, far off places,” said the Brigadier, putting his jacket aside and turning to the brass adorning the raised peak of his cap. “I expect they have equally imaginative tales regarding Helberion, if they’ve even heard of the place. They’ll just be people, little different from us. With their own customs and traditions doubtless, but with the same hopes and ambitions as anyone else.”
“We’ll find out soon enough, if we find a way to cross this river,” said Malone, regarding the sluggishly flowing water doubtfully. Far out, away from the shore, the glistening, leathery backs of some large river creatures occasionally broke the surface before sinking lazily again. They looked easily large enough to destroy any water vessel they took a dislike to.
“The people of the last town we passed through spoke of a ferry across the river,” replied the Brigadier, applying a dab of polish to his cloth and scowling as he rubbed the brass briskly and energetically. “If we follow the riverbank, hopefully we’ll come across it before we’ve gone too far.”
Malone jabbed the carcass with his knife and smiled with satisfaction at the clear juices that flowed from it. “Reckon this thing's done,” he said, and began carving off bits of meat.
“You ever wonder what would’ve happened to this creature if we hadn't killed and eaten It?” said Harper. “Someone might have adopted it one day. It might have been a person one day.”
“Well, it’s not a person,” replied Malone as he kept cutting. “It's dinner.”
“My sister became a vegetarian,” Harper continued. “Said she wouldn't eat something that might have been human one day. She said it was little better than cannibalism.”
“It's just a fad some people go through,” said Spencer. “Teenage rebellion. What was she before she was adopted?”
“A fallow deer.”
“Ah, there you are then. Herbivores sometimes have a hard time adapting to eating meat.”
Harper nodded. It was true enough. “Suppose this creature we’re carving up now had been human once, though “ he said. “Some guy who got cursed back to an animal, like what happened to Smithie...”
“The law says that if it’s cursed back far enough, then it's an animal and you can eat it,” said Quill. “Smithie was still human enough to be human, though, even before I blessed him back up a bit.”
“Suppose you're a human,” continued Harper, “And you are cursed all the way back to being an animal, and then someone adopts you and raises you back up to being human again. Would you be the same human, or a different human?”
“That has actually happened,” replied the wizard. “I actually knew a woman that happened to. Connie Mallaway her name was. Her father was a magistrate in the town of Bywell.”He accepted a plate of meat from Malone and popped a small strip into his mouth. “Anyway,” he said around the meat. “Her father was out to get a local witch who’d been hiring herself out to local villains. Cursing their enemies, helping them with their capers, that sort of thing. Justice Mallaway had made it his mission to get her and he did, but she knew he was coming and had taken steps to take revenge. She couldn’t strike back at him himself, so she cursed his daughter instead.”
“They say they can put curse power into a glass of water,” said Malone, handing carved meat to everyone around the camp while his eyes stared in fascination. “So long as it's got life in it. Pond life, like the really small creatures that live in pond water, too small to see. All they've got to do is find a way to get their victim to drink the water, and they can curse their victim without coming anywhere near them.”
Quill nodded. “Anyway, she cursed the woman, and it was a strong curse. She was knocked all the way back to being a crow. It's rare for a curse to be able to do that, but this woman was an exceptionally powerful witch. The parent bond was completely broken, the crow would have flown away and been gone for ever, but by chance she was in a room with all the windows closed when she drank the potion and she was trapped there. Even so, though, she almost escaped when her mother returned to the house. She had no way of knowing that the crow was her daughter, she thought her daughter had just gone out somewhere, and that the crow had flown in while the door was open.”
“That happened to us once,” chuckled Spencer. “Not the curse, a crow getting in the house. It ate all the...”
“Spence!” warned Harper. “We're listening to a story!” He gestured for the wizard to continue.
“Anyway,” continued Quill. “They figured out what happened, and they had the crow, so they adopted it again. They figured they'd get their daughter back again. It might take a few years...”
“But it wasn't her,” guessed Harper, when a couple of minutes had gone by without the wizard speaking.
“No. The new girl she became had none of the old girl's memories, none of her personality traits. She bore a physical resemblance to the old girl, because she was raised by the same parents, but it was a completely different person, like a sister. They had to give her a different name, as a permanent reminder to themselves, which was confusing for the girl because they'd been calling her Connie all the time they were raising her. In her mind, she was Connie. She couldn’t get used to the new name they had to give her.”
“Was that back around the late thirties, by any chance?” asked Blane. “They passed a new law around then, the Rehuman Act.”
Quill nodded. “Yes. If the same animal is raised to human twice, the second human is legally a different person from the first human. The second human can only inherit titles and property from the first human if the first human leaves it to him in his will. That's not what happened to Smithie, though. He was only partially thrown back. Legally, he's still human, and when he's been completely restored he’ll be the same person, as far as the law is concerned. I'm afraid there might be gaps in his memory, though. Possibly a change of personality, but that happens as we grow older anyway.”
“So, could you use that to escape a murder charge?” asked Malone as he took the last plate of meat for himself. “I mean, if you killed someone and were sentenced to hang, could you have yourself cursed back to animal, then be raised back to human by your parents and the law would have to let you go free because you're a different person now?”
“I suppose,” agreed the wizard. “You could achieve the same effect by throwing yourself off a cliff. When you go all the way back to animal, you're not just legally dead. You're actually dead, just as though you'd blown your brains out with a pistol. Everything that makes you you is gone. All your memories, your personality...” Malone nodded sombrely.
“I wonder if Radiants have a Reradiant act,” said Harper around a mouthful of half chewed meat. “If a Radiant were cursed back to human...”
“Radiants can't be cursed back to human,” Quill reminded him. “That's why we’re on this mission, remember? We wouldn't need to be searching for a cure if the Princess could be simply cursed back to normal health. They tried cursing her, anyway. They got Boll himself to do it, probably the most powerful ontomancer in Helberion.”
“I wonder how she is,” mused Malone. “The princess. Do you think we... that is... do we still have time, you think?”
“It’s only been a few weeks,” replied the wizard. “We've got plenty of time. Don't you worry.”
The batman nodded. “I wonder what's going on back home,” he said quietly.
King Leothan and Queen Lacurnia were in the palace banqueting hall, sitting at opposite ends of a long table stacked with food and exotic delicacies from across the known world. Also at the table were a dozen ambassadors and their spouses, all chatting animatedly with their neighbours and with whoever was sitting opposite them. Serving maids went from one to another, refilling wine glasses and carrying away empty plates, and the large open space that filled the rest of the room was occupied by a troup of acrobats doing cartwheels and balancing on top of each other while the guests applauded loudly. A large fire crackled in the fireplace behind the acrobats, stoked and tended by two men in soot stained uniforms, and the occasional drop of hot wax fell from the dozens of candles burning in the large, ornate chandelier that hung over the centre of the room.
We should get them replaced by electric candles, thought the King as he saw one of the acrobats slip and almost lose his balance of a patch of solidified wax that had formed under one particularly drippy candle. The royal palace really should be at the forefront of scientific progress, to set an example to the rest of the kingdom, and to show the world that Helberion is a world power, to be taken seriously. He found himself looking at the Kelvon ambassador, the representative of the most powerful human nation in the world. He knew that the palace of Emperor Tyron was lit throughout with electricity. Not just the imperial residence and the administrative areas, but the kitchens and the servants quarters too. Even the stables, if the stories were to be believed. What must he be thinking, to see the royal palace of Helberion still lit with candles?
There were so many other priorities, though. How could he justify spending money on what was basically his own vanity when there were hospitals and schools out there so badly in need of more funding? And then there was the army, of course. As the situation with Carrow continued to worsen, he had no choice but to give more money and resources to the armed forces, to build up their preparations for the war that was beginning to seem inevitable. It had already meant having to delay work on the Seaton canal, which meant that hundreds of engineers and labourers were looking for other work, and the redevelopment of the Highton area of Castapol had also had to be put on hold. Maybe I should just press all the navvies into the army, he thought whimsically. Put them in uniform, arm them and send them to the western border to await the invasion. His mood darkened as he realised that he might have to actually do just that, in which case, if, by some miracle, they managed to win the war, they'd have no skilled engineers left to rebuild the country.
His gaze returned to the Kelvon ambassador. Arwin Tsocco. So much depended on that man. Fear of Kelvon sanctions and reprisals was the only thing holding Carrow back. They couldn’t be seen as the aggressors. Kelvon had a great deal at stake in this part of the world. A war would cost them dearly in exports and reduced world influence. If Carrow just invaded, Kelvon would likely enter the war on Helberion's side. What Carrow needed was an excuse to declare war, something that Kelvon couldn't argue with, and the cancelling of the royal marriage had gone a long way towards securing that. The King knew that the Carrow Ambassador to Kelvon was telling everyone who'd listen that King Leothan had poisoned his own daughter in order to prevent the wedding, because he wanted a war, and the fact that Helberion had used military force fifty years before to help the Tweenlands to defect from Carrow and join Helberion made the accusation almost plausible.
Helberion's own ambassador to Kelvon was busy telling their own version of things, of course, and sensible people with common sense knew who to believe, but political expediency pulled in all directions, and there were people in Kelvon who would profit from a war. They were adding their voices to the Carrow version of events, and Helberion agents in the Empire were reporting back that Emperor Tyron was gradually being swayed by them. Fortunately, the Emperor still seemed to be listening to Arwin Tsocco’s periodic reports back to his own country, and so King Leothan had made it his business to ensure that the Ambassador told the Emperor what the King wanted him to tell him. That Helberion was desperate to avoid a war, and that Carrow wanted to seize back the lands they had lost fifty years before.
Some of the Ambassador’s favourite foods had been discretely added to the banquet, therefore. Not too many, or it would have been too obvious what they were trying to do, but every course contained something that the King knew the ambassador liked, and the King was pleased to see him tucking in with gusto. He was currently holding a thick slice of spiced Harrol sausage in one hand and using it to emphasise a point he was making to the Aragon ambassador, a massively moustached man with a bulbous red nose. Both men then burst out in laughter while Lon-Fidell, the Carrow Ambassador, watched with a scowl.
A messenger entered the room and walked across to where the King was sitting. “Your pardon, Majesty,” he said, bending low so that he would be heard by the King alone. “Field Marshall Banwell sends word of an incident in Grantley. A troop of Carrow foot soldiers crossed the border, attacked the Grantley garrison and then withdrew when our men counterattacked. We pursued them back to the border, but failed to prevent them from returning to their own country.”
The King nodded. “Send this message back,” he said. “My standing orders remain unchanged. On no account is any Helberion soldier to set foot on Carrow land.” The messenger nodded and withdrew. The King took a moment to curse under his breath, then returned his attention to his guests. Carrow was trying to lure his men into crossing the border, of course. Then they could claim that Helberion was invading them and declare war with righteous indignation, and Kelvon would be able to do nothing but sit back and watch. It was the fifth time they'd tried it in the past month. Each time they sent a larger force, killed more of his men, then retreated slowly back across the border, hoping that the enraged Helborion soldiers would follow them. So far, his men had had the discipline to resist the temptation, but what about next time?
Across the table, he saw Lon-Fidell smirking at him, and he turned his gaze away with an effort. The Carrow ambassador, enjoying his hospitality while taking amusement from the deaths of his men. If only there'd been some way to exclude him from the ambassadorial banquet! He longed to have the man thrown in the dungeons! It would be so good to see him dragged out of the room by the palace guards! That would be playing right into his hands, though. Carrow would make sure that the whole world knew about it, and when they invaded Helberion Emperor Tyron would be more likely to believe whatever justification they gave for it.
No, if Carrow wanted him to react, then the way to beat them was to not react, to just pretend that the incident hadn't happened. Sooner or later the Carrow troops raiding across the border would make a mistake. His men would capture them, and the they'd have prisoners to parade before the assembled ambassadors. He smiled across as Lon-Fidell, therefore, and was greatly pleased to see the smirk replaced by a scowl of anger. The King pointedly ignored him after that, and turned his attention back to Arwin Tsocco, who was busy sharing an amusing anecdote with Winn Teenol, the wife of the ambassador from Alaria. When Arwin saw that the King was listening he turned to nod at him, then began the anecdote from the beginning, including his host in the joke.
The King laughed politely when he got to the punchline. “Very amusing, ambassador!” he said. “Now I remember why we always invite you to state banquets!”
“There are plenty of other stories I could tell, but not in front of the ladies, perhaps,” replied Arwin Tsocco with a broad wink to Winn Teenol, who pretended to look shocked. “Perhaps when we are alone, eh, your Majesty?”
“I have a few of my own that I dare say would shock even you!” replied the King.
“Oho! Is that a challenge, your Majesty? Perhaps we should place a small wager upon it. The one who tells the most scandalous, or humorous, or both, story gets a three pawn advantage at our next game of Glory. Only true stories, mind! Anyone who tells a whopper forfeits the wager!”
“You are on, my friend!” replied the King. “Unfortunately, I won't be able to use my best stories because they're about you!”
Laughter erupted around the table. “I am glad and relieved to see the two of you in such high spirits,” said Jack Dabra, the Starlan ambassador.
“Relieved?” said Arwin Tsocco. “Why relieved, my friend?”
“Why, because of all the rumours, of course. Baseless, undoubtedly, but the rumour is that Helberion is trying to move into the Empire's weapons markets.”
“Baseless, indeed,” said the King, with a sideways glance at the Kelvon ambassador, whose face was carefully neutral. “We and Kelvon are partners in the arms and machinery business. We benefit immensely from the friendship and support of the Empire. It would be foolish of us to endanger that.”
“Of course,” said Jack Dabra. “But Kelvon arms manufacturing facilities have been suffering a number of unfortunate mishaps lately...”
“Nothing more than accidents,” replied Arwin Tsocco. “Such incidents are inevitable when handling explosives and hazardous chemicals. We have never suspected foul play from our Helberion friends.” He took hold of his wine glass and raised it to the King, who raised his own in return, but the King thought there was just the trace of a frown on the ambassador's face. He looked over at Lon-Fidell, who was trying to look disinterested in the conversation. Starla was almost a vassal state of Carrow, and its ambassador was no doubt playing a part that had been written for him by King Nilon. Arwin Tsocco knew that as well as he did, and the frown disappeared from his face as he passed some more friendly words with Winn Teenol, but mud sticks, as the saying went, and there had to be some small part of his mind that wondered whether the rumours were true. And in the mind of the Emperor as well. One more thing to worry about...
At the other end of the table, Queen Lacurnia picked at her food while Lady Dimitriss, the wife of the Tench ambassador, prattled endlessly about her children, seemingly blind to the effect the subject was having upon her. “Little Anthony said his first words yesterday!” she said excitedly. “I was feeding him, trying to get him to eat his mice, only the finest white mice of course. Especially bred in the mansion for the children. I feel so sorry for the common folk who have to catch all kinds of dirty rats for their children. Did I mention that everyone in Tench is raised from cats?”
“Only about a thousand times,” said Lady Dwen, the Gildon ambassador, the only female ambassador present today, although there were plenty of other countries represented by women. None of them important enough to be invited to this banquet, though.
Lady Dimitriss gave a shrill laugh that had the same effect on the Queen as fingernails on a blackboard. “Oh how you do exaggerate! What was I saying? Oh yes, he said his first words yesterday. He was playing with his dinner, chasing the poor mouse all over the room. Oh how we laughed! The maids like to place bets on how long he'll play before finally eating it, sometimes it's hours! I don’t normally approve of gambling as you know, but it wasn't for money, just a bit of fun, and whoever wins gets the rest of the day off! I think it's good for morale, keeps the staff entertained...”
“And how are things in Tench at the moment, Alburnia?” asked the Queen, desperately trying not to think of her own daughter in case the need to be with her overrode her duties as hostess. The urge to run from the room was already almost overwhelming. “Is the weather clement at this time of year?”
“The weather?” said Lady Dimitriss, her face creased up in confusion as if the Queen had asked her a difficult mathematical problem. “We’ll, yes, yes, the weather is probably nice there,” she replied tentatively, as if worried it might not be the right answer. “It's been some years since we were last there, of course. Little Anthony was still almost pure cat the last time we were there. It is strange to think that he might be declared fully human before he gets his first glimpse of his homeland. We were thinking of training him in the ways of diplomacy, you know. He might be the Tench ambassador to Helberion one day! Imagine that! I still can't believe how fast he's changing! The parent bond particularly strong in our family, of course. I sometimes wonder if we might be part wizard! Anyway, he was playing with his mouse and just as he...”
“I'm sorry, Alburnia,” said the Queen with a fixed smile on her face. “I've just remembered something I've got to ask Lady Dwen.” She put a gentle hand on the woman's sleeve as a gesture of apology, then turned to face the female ambassador, desperately trying to think of something important to say. To her horror nothing came, but the ambassador could guess the reason for her distress and came to her rescue. “His Majesty hopes that the Queen’s gentle manner might persuade us to reconsider the matter of trade tariffs,” she said to Lady Dimitriss in a mock whisper that had to pass right in front of the Queen in order to reach its target. “She doesn't realise that I take such matters seriously, though, and that I am immune to such underhand tactics.”
Queen Lacurnia felt a warmth of gratitude wash over her as she turned to the Gildon ambassador. “Then I shall have to be especially charming and persuasive,” she said. “By the time I’m finished, you'll be begging us to sell you all our food and wool.”
“Machine parts,” said Lady Dwen with a smile. “Your country furnishes us with machine parts and fuel oil, especially since the supplies from Kelvon have dried up. We have plenty of food of our own.”
Lady Dimitriss laughed again, the Queen ignored her. “I can be very persuasive!” she said, and this time Lady Dwen laughed. She had a much more pleasant laugh, full of genuine warmth and amusement, and the Queen found herself liking her immensely. She wondered whether they could be friends. She desperately needed a friend, a real friend. She knew that she was emotionally fragile at the moment, sometimes it felt as if it was taking all her strength just to hold herself together. The King gave her as much time as he could, but he had the whole kingdom to worry about. The maids and handmaidens were too deferential, and even if they hadn’t been it wouldn't have been right to cultivate friendships with the hired staff, not even Matron Darniss, the head of the household staff. Lady Dwen, though, was a full ambassador. A woman of status and dignity. She had a high enough status in society that she could be friends with her without causing a public scandal.
“Tell me about your Helberion foods, then,” Lady Dwen said. She looked up and down the table. “Very little here seems to come from your own country. Why do you not feed us your excellent Helberion cuisine?”
“Because we keep the best for ourselves,” replied the Queen, and the smile on her face felt unnatural after having been absent for so long. “We're selfish like that. Very rarely, though, we allow the occasional very special foreigner to sample it.” Lady Dimitriss's shrill laugh set her teeth on edge again, but when she looked around the woman was talking to the Kelvon ambassador, no doubt treating him to an interminable description of her son's feeding habits. The Queen turned her attention back to Lady Dwen with relief.
“Could I persuade you to accept an invitation to a private dinner one day?” she asked. “Just you, me and our husbands.” She wondered how her husband would react to her making such an invitation of her own initiative. If Helberion was thought to be showing special friendship to Gildonia, that might cause problems with other countries whose friendship and cooperation they were trying to win. Private dinners between Kings and ambassadors weren't that uncommon, though, and her husband would probably issue similar invitations to other ambassadors in an attempt to balance things out. Whatever he thought about it, though, the King would have to give her this. She needed a friend so badly!
“We'd be delighted!” Lady Dwen replied with a broad smile. “Soon, I hope. We would consider it a high honour!” Then she leaned towards her so that she could speak without anyone else at the table being able to overhear. “My dear, you mustn't worry. Brigadier Weyland James visited our country once, before I took my current post here. I had a chance to get to know him a little, but even in that brief time he made a great impression on me. If anyone can find a cure for Princess Ardria, he can. You must be strong until then. Be strong for her.”
Queen Lacurnia nodded with infinite gratitude, and struggled to overcome an impulse to hug the other woman. She felt tears coming to her eyes and fought them back. She had to appear strong in front of the other ambassadors. Particularly in front of the hateful Lon-Fidell. “Then it's decided,” she said. “I look forward for the chance to get to know you better.”
Lon-Fidell's scowl deepened at this display of friendship between the two women. It wasn't that he had any particular reason to wish unhappiness on the Queen, but the general popularity that the Helberion royal family enjoyed, in their own country and abroad, meant that any move that Carrow made against their country would almost certainly be opposed by the Kelvon Empire. The rest of the human world would insist upon it, and Kelvon wasn't so overwhelmingly powerful that they could ignore them. Still, things were beginning to move. Slowly, it was true, but King Nilon’s strategies were beginning to pay off.
He wondered whether they dared push things along a little. Dangerous, but then their whole campaign against Helberion was dangerous. Perhaps just a little push. A tiny nudge in the right direction to sow a little more doubt in the minds of the Empire, and the great thing about tiny doubts were that they had a tendency to grow with great speed, given the right encouragement.
He nodded to himself. Yes, a tiny nudge. He would arrange a meeting with Mandeville. His agents would have to be given new instructions. His agent in the palace, in particular. He, or she, would have the most delicate job, but Mandeville had spoken of him, or her, in the most glowing terms during their most recent meetings. If he was right about him, he would be up to the assignment, and the friendship between Helberion and the Empire would be dealt another blow.
He picked up his wine glass and took a long, delicious drink from it, then smiled across at the King, who smiled back diplomatically. It took every ounce of his self control not to laugh.