“We've lost two brigades of Carrow's army,” said Field Marshall Amberley, his back straight, his face expressionless. He looked like a doctor pronouncing a death sentence.
“Lost?” asked King Leothan.
“Two brigades worth of men, I should say. A few hundred from here, a few hundred from there. About ten thousand men in all. I suspect they’re creating two new brigades, possibly an entirely new division, and keeping them hidden somewhere. It means they’re up to something. They're plotting a military action of some kind against us.”
“So soon?” asked General Kinley. “I thought we'd won ourselves a breathing space.” He looked across the table at the Minister of Intelligence, who nodded. “Our agents report that their armed forces are in a state of complete reorganisation,” he said. “They won't be doing anything major for several months at least.”
“Well, they’re doing something.” The look on Amberley's face said that he had a very good idea what.
“The POW camps!” said General Pavok, still looking flustered from having been called to the emergency meeting at such short notice. “They're going to attack the POW camps and free all their men!”
The other members of the War Council nodded their agreement. It was by far the most likely possibility. Minister Daerden cleared his throat nervously and Minister Huffer’s eyes darted wildly around the room as if desperately looking for a way out. Princess Ardria regarded at her father with calm confidence, trusting that this was something he'd foreseen and was ready for.
“How many men do we have guarding them?” asked the King.
“Not enough to resist an attack from two full brigades,” replied Amberley. “They must be planning to sneak them across the border, past the Steel Curtain. They may even have done so already. I've taken the liberty of putting all our forces, including the POW camps, on full alert and sending all the home defence forces within a hundred miles to reinforce them.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Kinley, though. “We're not their only enemy. They could be planning something against Woland, Crammock, Erestin...”
“With just two brigades? Not likely. Besides, they won't make the mistake of making another enemy while we’re still breathing.”
“Could they have found out that one of those countries is planning to attack them?” asked the Princess hesitantly. Her father wanted her to take an active part in these meetings, as part of her training to be Queen one day, and so she felt obliged to offer the occasional suggestion, but she always felt that she was the least experienced and knowledgeable person in the room and would much rather have just listened. “Perhaps wanting to take advantage of Carrow’s temporarily weakened state?”
Every eye turned to the King, none of them wanting to be the one to shoot her down. “If Carrow sensed a threat from Woland or Crammock, or even the Empire, they wouldn’t move men around in secret,” replied Leothan. “They'd make a big show of being prepared to meet the threat. No, this has to be against us, and I think Amberley's right. It has to be the POW camps.”
“I don't see how that would be possible,“ said Kinley, though. “We've always known they might try this, and we’re watching the whole border. Every inch of it. Not a sparrow can move there without us knowing about it. We're even watching the border with Erestin in case they go through their territory, go around the Steel Curtain. I know that Erestin is rigorously neutral, and that such a move would be resisted by their armed forces...”
“Unless they've made a deal with them,” said Amberley. “A share of the spoils after our defeat. With the Empire no longer watching our backs, it’s open season on us.”
“There's no way ten thousand men can march two hundred miles through the Helberion countryside without our knowing about it!” said Kinley. “It's not just men, remember. They'll need artillery, supply trains...”
“No, they don't!” said Minister Larren, though. “All they need are guns! Ten thousand men, dressed in civilian clothes, wandering in twos and threes through the countryside, each with six firearms hidden in their clothing. They attack one side of each camp, overwhelm the defences on one side just long enough to arm the prisoners... With sixty thousand armed men, they won't need artillery, cavalry or anything else. They'll have enough infantry to fight their way back to the border!”
Pavok was sitting up straight, his eyes wide with alarm. “If the regular Carrow army hits the Steel Curtain in one spot, and the armed prisoners attack the same spot from behind...”
“They'll break through!” agreed Larren. “If even half of them make it back to Carrow, they’ll be able to launch a full scale conventional invasion within six months!”
“No, no, wait, let's think about this!” said General Glowen, his fists clenched on the table before him. “Every town and city is on the lookout for spies and saboteurs, has been for fifty years! Any stranger suddenly showing up, wandering around, would be noticed. Two hundred miles is too far to go without stopping at a town somewhere for food, water. No matter how unobtrusive they tried to be, they’d be noticed! Ten thousand of them... It's just not possible that they wouldn't have been noticed! You just couldn’t do a thing like that! It's just not possible!”
“They wouldn't need to travel across country in secret,” pointed out Amberley. “They'd only have to get across the border in secret! They assemble somewhere, a patch of woodland or the Mallern Hills, somewhere they can't be seen from very far away, and then they strike out at the POW camps in full uniform. Take the supplies by force from every town they pass through.”
“Our cavalry would catch them!” insisted Glowen.
“Only if they know what’s going on. We took four Carrow garrison cities, one at a time, without the others knowing there was anything happening. What if they're planning something similar? Capture a town, keep anyone from getting away and carrying a warning, take the supplies they need to take them to the next town...”
“I want riders constantly going from town to town, making sure all's well with them,” ordered the King. If any rider goes missing, a full brigade of cavalry goes to the town where he was last seen!”
Amberley waved to an aide, who nodded and left the room to carry the order. “If a rider comes to grief for some innocent reason,” the General then said, “his horse throws a shoe or something, the cavalry could be distracted, sent far away from where they’re needed!”
“What do you advise?” asked the King.
Amberley could only shake his head, though. “I can't think of anything better. Maybe we’re panicking over nothing. We've had not a hint of anything amiss at the border. Ten thousand men crossing in secret... there would have been something! A farmer’s sheep being disturbed, a gate left open, a guard going missing because he saw one of them, something! I've had no word of anything amiss!”
“Nothing in the past twenty four hours,” pointed out Larren. “That's how long it takes word to get here from there. If they've breached the Steel Curtain since then, how long would it take them to get to the POW camps?”
“Five days on foot, maybe six,” replied Amberley. “Holding that many prisoners was always problematic. It's a pity our civilised mores require us to keep them alive.”
“We have to be fighting for something,” replied the King. “If we stoop to their level, what exactly are we fighting for?”
“Survival is enough.”
“Not so long as I'm King! I will not sanction the murder of unarmed prisoners! If there’s an attempt to free them, though, then we show them no mercy!” Amberley nodded, his face grim.
“There’ve been a lot of Radiants seen over the POW camps,” said Larren. “As many over Togfield Camp as over the whole of Marboll. I don't know if that’s significant...”
“You think the Radiants might help the Carrowmen break the prisoners out?” said Glowen with an amused smile.
“No, of course not! I just thought it was worth mentioning, just because it was unusual. Probably they’re just curious, wondering what the purpose of the camps could possibly be.”
Leothan and Ardria exchanged a brief glance, the same thought in both their heads. A sudden earthquake to take down the perimeter fence in the middle of Carrow’s attack... No, that would betray their involvement in human affairs, something they wanted to keep secret for as long as possible. They could be gathering intelligence, though. Recording the number and positions of the guards, reporting that information to their agents in Carrow. “Tell the guards to keep them away,” said the King. “Shoot at them if necessary!”
“Why?” asked Glowen in puzzlement. “If they adopt some, that’s less for us to guard!”
The King looked at him, then nodded. He'd spoken without thinking, he realised. If they took action against the Radiants, the creatures might realise that they were on to them. “You're right,” he said, raising a hand to his brow. “Forgive me. Too tired, too much to think about.” He stood, and everyone around the table stood as well. “The prisoners must not be allowed to escape!” he said. “Do whatever it takes to prevent it. Amberley, I hereby grant you Loco Regis in this matter.” He then turned and left the room, followed by Ardria and his Private Secretary, while the others stared at each other in amazement.
“In place of the King!” said Daerden to the Field Marshall. “No-one's been granted Loco Regis since before I was appointed a Minister! A high honour!”
“Not an honour,” said Amberley, though. “A burden. It means I can't pass the buck any more. It's all on me.” He then went to the map hanging on the far wall of the room, and the others gathered around him as he began devising plans to counter Carrow's latest move.
“Loco Regis?” said Ardria as they walked away from the conference room, Darnell and his runners a few steps behind.
“Field Marshall Amberley can handle the matter much better when I'm not there asking questions and needing to have everything explained to me,” replied Leothan. “If there's a way to stop the Carrowmen, he'll find it, and if he can’t, I won't be able to help him.”
“Do you really think we could lose the prisoners?”
“Carrow is apparently willing to gamble ten thousand men on the attempt, if that is indeed what they’re doing.”
“You think they’re doing something else?”
“I don't know, but freeing the prisoners is the way to hurt us the most, so we make the assumption that that’s what they’re doing. If they're doing something else, it'll be a pleasant surprise.”
“Unless they’re doing something we haven't thought of.”
“Have you got an idea?” her father asked, turning his head to look at her.
“No, but Darniss is still alive in the dungeons. You said she'd be executed when the threat of invasion was over. Does that mean you think it’s not over?”
“I think that killing someone is irreversible. If you find out later that you need her alive, it’s far too late to do anything about it. Do you feel the need for vengeance so strongly, then?”
“I don't feel the need for vengeance at all. I like the idea of her rotting in a dungeon until she goes back into the ground. I like the idea of her spending every day wondering whether I'll go back to gloat over her, telling her she still has that power over me, and watching the sun set without me having turned up. I mean, I know she can't see the sun down there...”
Leothan smiled. “I feel sorry for any enemies you might make one day.” She smiled, and they walked the rest of the way back to the residential wing in silence.
Leothan had a meeting scheduled with the finance and industry ministers, during which he could forget about Carrow for a while and lose himself in the day to day running of the Kingdom, but before he could get there a footman appeared and bowed low before him. “Your Majesty, the first scientists have arrived for the annual award ceremony. You said you wanted to be notified.”
“Yes, thank you. Which scientists have arrived?”
“Mary Wellings and Kenneth Graham, plus their assistants. I've given them rooms in Telford House, as per your instructions, Sire.”
Leothan nodded. “I'm not familiar with either of them. What branches of science are they involved in?”
“Mary Wellings described herself as an audio-graphologist, Sire. I have no idea what that means, and Kenneth Graham is an opticologist. I believe that has something to do with light or vision, or something, Sire.”
“If you say so. Leeching, isn't it?”
The footman beamed with delight. “Yes, Sire. Edward Leeching, Sire.”
“How's your daughter, mister Leeching?”
“She's almost lost her last feathers, Sire. Our ontologist says she'll be ready to be declared fully human in less than a year. We adopted a kestrel, Sire. In your honour, Sire.” His eyes darted momentarily to the Princess and widened in fear as if he suddenly expected to be punished for his presumption.
“I am honoured, Mister Leeching. Thank you for telling us about the scientists.”
The man bowed low, the smile returning to his face, and then he scurried away, back to his normal duties.
“There must be thousands of adopted kestrels in the country by now,” said Ardria. “I had no idea we had that many of them! We probably don't any more. The species may be headed for extinction because of me.”
“I'm sure there'll still be kestrels in the sky long after you and I have been forgotten,” replied Leothan, putting an arm around her shoulder. “The people love you. Just enjoy it.”
Mention of the scientists reminded the King of the city of Magarri fire chief’s report on the RedHill fire and he went back to his private office to look at it again. “You don't have to come with me,” he told his daughter as they walked. “I'll send someone for you when the meeting starts. You can spend the time with your mother, if you like. See your brother and sister. Give her my apologies for not seeing her for so long. I've been so busy...”
“She knows that,” replied the Princess. “I'm seeing her for dinner tonight. Lady Dwen will be there too, the two of them seem to be inseparable these days. When Bowen and Stephanie are declared human, they’ll probably resemble the ambassador more than either of us.” The King gave a rueful smile of agreement. “In the meantime, I need to learn how to rule a country. I need to make up the time I lost while turning into a demon.”
“Okay then. They say two heads are better than one. We'll see what we can work out together.”
It was a thick file, the man had evidently taken seriously the King's instruction to investigate thoroughly. He’d even included physical descriptions of everyone who was, or conceivably might be, a suspect in what they'd conclusively decided was arson and murder. There was a separate file, attached with a paper clip, from a forensics expert regarding some human remains which he'd barely glanced at the first time.
The King made a hand gesture for his daughter to close the door, then picked up the report and leafed through it. “They'd just made some kind of breakthrough, apparently,” he said. “They were celebrating, and that very night they all died. My father always used to say there’s no such thing as a coincidence.” He turned a couple of pages. “The apparatus they were working on was disassembled before the fire. The parts scattered amongst all the other equipment in the building. There's no way to reconstruct what the invention was.”
“Someone wanted the invention quashed,” replied the Princess. “A rival scientist perhaps, or another country whose scientists are working on the same thing.” Then her brow furrowed as a thought came to her. “No, that doesn’t make sense. Any scientist who comes up with a new invention over the next few weeks or months is going to be the prime suspect in the murder investigation. They're all clever people, that's how they become scientists. They'll figure this out for themselves. Every scientist working on electricity is going to be scared to announce any new inventions for at least the next couple of years.”
“Right when we need scientific breakthroughs!” agreed the King.
“That's not what I meant,” said Ardria, though. “Why would a scientist kill another scientist to steal his invention if publishing that invention would send him to the gallows?”
“He tried to make it look like an accident. He had no way of knowing the fire chief would figure out the truth.” He looked back at the front page of the report. “Jorn Tellern. That's his name. Magarri's fire chief.”
The Princess looked at the report over her father's shoulder and Leothan held it so she could read it easier. “He says someone paid the caretaker to start the fire. The caretaker's not a genius, I assume. The person who hired him may have been, and he may have given him some tips on how to make it look like an accident, but the caretaker's still just a caretaker. He made mistakes. If it was a rival scientist who wanted to steal the invention, wouldn't he have set the fire himself, to make sure there were no mistakes?”
“We don't know for certain it was the caretaker, but I take the point. There are problems with the idea that it was a rival scientist, and a rival country also looks unlikely. A rival country might not have tried so hard to make it look like an accident. A government wouldn't have to worry about us knowing what they'd done. No matter how much proof we had, they'd just keep on denying it and we'd be left with the choice of either declaring war or just letting it drop.”
Ardria nodded. “So, neither rival scientist nor a rival country, or are we over thinking this? A rival scientist might be a genius in his chosen field and still be a complete idiot in all other aspects of life.” She sighed. “When it comes right down to it, we can't make any firm conclusions at all. It might be a rival scientist, it might be a rival country, and it might be what made you take an interest in this matter in the first place.”
The King looked at her, and she looked back. “You know, I never really thought it was Radiants,” he said. “It was just the timing of it. The Brigadier brings warning of the Radiant threat, we find out that the Radiants are afraid of our science, and just a few days later a bunch of world class scientists die in a fire. Radiants were on my mind, and it seemed like one hell of a coincidence.”
“What do you think now?” asked Ardria.
“In all likelihood, RedHill was just an act of human stupidity. I don’t know whether it was one man or a government, but it almost certainly had nothing to do with Radiants. What the Brigadier told us, it's so outrageous, so ridiculous, I’d just dismiss it, the Brigadier's reputation or not, if not for your own testimony. What you told me, what you learned from the Radiants while you were telepathically linked to them... And if we told anyone else they'd say that your experiences made you delusional.”
The Princess turned to look her father full in the face. “Do you ever... I mean... Do you ever wonder...”
“Do I ever wonder whether you dreamed up the whole thing? You were half demon, your body was a mess. Maybe your mind was a mess too. Maybe you only imagined you were talking to a Radiant telepathically. Is that what you mean?” The Princess nodded, her eyes wide with fear and doubt.
“You told us the number and positions of all the Radiants in the city. You were in the Red Room, no windows. No way to see what was going on outside. The only way you could know where the Radiants were was by telepathy. After we gave you the cure, I had a footman go up on the roof and verify what you said. He confirmed everything. There were exactly the number of Radiants you said there were, and they were just where you said they would be. You were genuinely in telepathic communication with them, so no, you didn't dream it up. They really are plotting to put us all in cages. The threat is real.”
Ardria felt vast relief flooding through her, and an idiotic grin appeared on her face. “You begin to doubt yourself, you know? You think about it again and again, wondering whether you really did hear what you think you heard...”
“You really did.” Her father assured her.
“Funny how that makes me feel better and worse at the same time.”
Leothan chuckled. “What it does mean, of course, is that if the Radiants weren’t responsible for RedHill, then they've done nothing against us yet.”
“That we know of.”
“Granted. Even so, though, I'm not going to attribute RedHill to the Radiants just because we think they ought to have done something bad by now. It probably was just us stupid humans doing stupid things to each other.”
“But we have to act as though they were responsible,” said the Princess. “We have to push ahead with the search for a weapon we can use against them, we have to bring other governments on board so that all of humanity can unite in the effort, and we have to do it all without the Radiants finding out, so that they don't declare war on us before we're ready.”
Leothan grinned. “sometimes, I think you're ready to become Queen of Helberion right now!”
“Thirty years from now will be fine. You don't get to kick back on your heels just yet!”
Leothan closed the report and dropped it back on his desk with a loud slap. “I think the finance and industry ministers have been waiting long enough, we can go and be fashionably late. When you're the boss, always be the last person to the meeting. Don't wait for them, make them wait for you. Keeps them on their toes.”
Ardria beamed with amusement. “See? You've still got lots to teach me!”
“So come learn how to keep your ministers from bankrupting the country with all their little pet projects.” He gestured for her to precede him out of the room, then followed, closing the door behind him.