Balhern took one look at the entrance to the dungeons and immediately gave up any idea of going down there. A huge crack ran across the solid rock of the ceiling, visibly widening and narrowing as vast stresses deep in the earth continued to release themselves. Large holes had been left in the rock where lumps of stone had already fallen, and the staircase was covered with a treacherous layer of rubble.
“If we’re down there and the ceiling collapses, we’ll be trapped,” he muttered. “The dungeons are big, but not that big. Wouldn’t take long for the air to run out.”
“So what do we do?” asked the Princess. Some of the gunfire sounded awfully close. She looked back at the wide staircase that led up to ground level, wondering what would be first to come down it. Loyal troops, or enemies?
“We stay here,” said the head guard. “We're in the basement level. There's solid rock all around us, and there’re no external windows to worry about. We're probably as safe here as anywhere at the moment.”
The sound of footsteps on the stairs came up to them, and Balhern drew his pistol. A man came into sight, dressed in rags, his pale face and hands covered in grime. Ardria drew back in fear. A prisoner!
“Go right back where you came from!” said Balhern, pointing his gun at him.
“It's flooding down there! The river's broken in!” The man ran past, ignoring both the people in his path, and disappeared up the staircase to the ground level. Balhern aimed his gun at him, but then lowered it again. He might need every round of ammunition later. No sense wasting any on a man who just wanted to get away.
“How many more prisoners are down there?” asked the Princess. “Still trapped in their cells, faced with drowning...”
“We don’t dare go down there. If the ceiling collapses...”
“We can't just leave them!”
“They're traitors and killers. They're not worth risking our lives to save.”
The Princess stared at him in disbelief, but then looked at the huge crack over the doorway again. They'd have to shore it up before it was safe to descend, but that would take manpower and specialist equipment. Until then, it would be madness. Balhern was right. Voices came floating up from the darkness, crying, begging, and now that she knew to listen to it, she could hear the sound of running water. “Shouldn’t there be a guard down there?”
“He ran for it when the earthquake struck, if he's got any sense.”
More gunfire came from somewhere nearby, and another sound. Piping, like an army of lunatics with flutes. Then the corridor to the right, the corridor leading to the storage cellars, began to glow with a greenish light. Ardria tensed up with fright. “A Radiant! There's a Radiant coming!” The earthquake must have destroyed the doors to the loading bays, she thought, and the creature just crawled in unopposed.
“This way!” said Balhern. He gestured for the Princess to precede him to the steps leading up to the palace kitchens, but they both froze as dangling tentacles came into view at the top of the staircase. They were trapped!
“Okay, no choice,” said the head guard, going back to the stairs down to the dungeons. “You first!” The Princess ran down the stairs, nimbly avoiding the blocks of rubble scattered across them, and Balhern followed. At the bottom, the water was waist high and icy cold. It swirled around the great steel door, ripped off its hinges by the violence of the earthquake, and the body of a guard floated in it, his head crushed by a falling lump of stone from the ceiling. She swallowed past a lump in her throat and stepped gingerly past it, the cold water numbing her legs. Balhern, meanwhile reached down and took the pistol and knife from the corpse, thanking Those Above that the escaping prisoner hadn't thought to do it. He handed them to the Princess, who took them without comment. All ammunition in Helberion was coated with grease to make it waterproof. There was a good chance that the pistol would still fire.
She looked up, and saw more cracks in the solid bedrock of the walls and ceiling, some of them weeping river water. As she watched, the violence of the water loosened another great boulder, which fell into the water a few feet away, drenching her with the splash. More water flooded through the gap it left in the ceiling, and the level rose even faster.
It was dark in the dungeons, but it grew lighter as one of the Radiants followed them down. Beside her, a man screamed at her, clutching at the bars of his cell with hands white with panic. “Let me out! Please, for the sake of Those Above, let me out!”
“We haven't got the keys!” said Balhern behind her. “And we wouldn’t even if we had them. Everyone down here is under sentence of death. What does it matter whether you die from drowning or firing squad? Besides,” he added, looking back the way they'd come where the huge bulk of the Radiant was blocking the corridor. “We've got bigger problems right now.”
The creature had reached the foot of the stairs but seemed reluctant to enter the water. It dipped a tentacle into the water, then withdrew it as if stung. Its eyes fixed on the Princess, though, and Ardria was suddenly certain that it knew exactly who she was and had come here specifically to get her. She shrank back, but the Radiant remained where it was while the water continued to rise. “It's going to keep us here ‘til we drown!” She cried.
“Then we’ve got to get past it!” Balhern aimed his pistol and fired several shots, but the creature merely twitched as each bullet tore through its luminous, gelatinous skin. He looked around, searching for anything else that might be used as a weapon, then cursed himself for a fool. This was a dungeon! It had been designed to have nothing that an escaping prisoner might be able to use against the guards.
“Looks like you're in a bit of a fix, your Highness!” said a familiar voice. Ardria spun around, searching for the woman who had spoken, and spotted her in a cell further along the corridor. Soonia Darniss! Once Matron Darniss, the traitor. She moved through the freezing water towards her, her teeth chattering, her whole body turning blue.
Darniss was in even worse shape. Shivering from the cold water and weak and thin from prison rations. Why waste good food on someone destined for the gallows? She was standing, though, and doing her best to look proud and dignified. Despite herself, Ardria found herself admiring the woman. “What have you done to piss them off?” Darniss asked.
“You played me for a fool once, Darniss,” replied the Princess. “Never again.”
Darniss looked confused. “You expect me to know why that thing’s out to get you? For your information, your Highness, I've been a bit out of touch with current events lately.”
“We know that your masters in Carrow have been conspiring with the Radiants to destroy Helberion,” said Ardria. “We've known for some time. What you don’t know is that the Radiants want to destroy all human civilisation. Including Carrow. This palace will never be yours. If you survive, the Radiants will put you in a cage, along with the entire human race!”
Darniss stared as if she were mad. “Are you sure you're fully recovered from the blessing, Highness? Or perhaps your current dire situation has addled your mind.”
“You expect us to believe you didn't know the Radiants were behind Carrow? Your handler, what was his name? Mandeville. He wore powder on his face and hands to hide his glowing skin. He was an adoptee! Half Radiant himself! You expect us to believe you didn't know that?”
“He wore powder because he had striped skin! He was raised from a tiger!”
“There are more of them, working for the Radiants against humanity all over the world! They're trying to throw Kelvon into civil war, stirring up the workers and the authorities against each other. They're probably stirring up trouble in every human nation! And you helped them! You're not just an enemy of Helberion, you're a traitor to all humanity!”
“I don’t believe you! And even if you're right, I knew nothing about it! I just wanted my titles and properties restored, unjustly taken from me by your ancestors!”
“I think your palace is a lost cause,” said Ardria, looking around at the half ruined dungeon. Even as she spoke, another chunk of rock from the ceiling fell into the water with a heavy splash. She wrapped her arms around herself in a desperate attempt to keep warm. The water was up to her shoulders now, and the rocky ceiling was only a couple of feet above her head. Unless a miracle happened, they were minutes away from drowning. “Even if the upper levels are still standing, the surveyors will probably insist we abandon it as structurally unstable.” And what about the rest of the city? she wondered. How many innocent people are buried under collapsed buildings out there?
That struck home, she saw. Darniss was visibly shaken as she looked around the dungeon as if only now realising what must have happened to the rest of the building. “My palace!” she cried, clinging to the bars of her cell as if she were holding onto the whole building, keeping it from slipping away from her. All her hopes and dreams! All her ambitions and aspirations of restored nobility! All gone! Even if she could get her titles restored now, what use was being a Duchess without having a mansion and an estate to be mistress over? She stared at the Radiant guarding the exit with hatred, and if she'd had a suitable weapon she would have ignored the Princess to get the Radiant instead, because what was she now but a lost and lonely old woman dreaming of the lost glory of her ancestors?
The sound of gunfire came from somewhere close, giving Ardria hope. Help was coming! She moved away from Darniss’ cell, almost swimming now as her feet barely touched the floor. “Why did they do it?” cried Darniss in despair. “What did you do to make them do this?”
“We discovered their plans for us,” the Princess called back. “We took steps to defend ourselves. They found out, though. One of their adoptee spies told them. They're trying to take us out before we can unite the whole human world against them.”
She saw Darniss trying to disbelieve her, but then the woman looked at the Radiant still guarding the exit, backing away as the water continued to rise. This was unheard of behaviour for a Radiant! If Ardria was lying, what was the real reason for the creature’s behaviour? She was floating in the cell now, her head brushing the ceiling. The rise of the water seemed to have slowed, though. Perhaps there was an air pocket just under the roof. Even if that were true, though, it wouldn’t give them much more time. The oxygen would run out very quickly...
Suddenly there was a burst of light from behind the Radiant. Bright yellow light, not the greenish radiance the creature emitted, and the whoomth of an explosion. The Radiant lurched upwards and spun around, whipping its tentacles around to face the new threat, but there was more gunfire and suddenly the creature exploded in a mass of yellow flame. Voices came from somewhere beyond. “Is Princess Ardria down there?”
“Yes, she's here!” called back Balhern. “She's safe, if she hasn't succumbed to the cold...”
“No, I’m okay!” called out Ardria, hoping it was true. She was so cold she could barely move! There was heat from the burning Radiant on her face, though, and it drew her onward. “I'm okay!”
“Can you get past the Radiant? If you’re wet, that should give you some protection from the fire.”
The fire was going out as the creature collapsed into the water, though. She reached the steps, but then paused as a thought came to her and went back to where the dead guard was floating. Bracing herself for the grisly sight, she made herself search his belt until she found the ring of keys and pulled them free. Then she swam back up to the stairs, where she found Balhern staring at her in concern.
“Free the prisoners!” She commanded, holding out the keys.
“Forget them! They're traitors and killers, and I'm responsible for your safety.”
“We can't just leave them to drown! Those poor wretches are half starved and half drowned! How much of a threat are they, really?”
“Any threat is too much of a threat. They're staying locked up.”
“Unlock the cells, Balhern! Do it now!”
“Now, Balhern! I command you to do it now!”
The head guard hesitated, clearly unhappy about it, but he’d taken an oath of loyalty and obedience that left no room for argument. He swam through the water to the nearest cell, therefore, and dove under the water to unlock it. Ardria watched him just long enough to make sure he really was obeying her orders, then squeezed her way past the smouldering corpse of the Radiant to where guards were waiting to wrap a towel around her and lead her up to the surface. “How bad is it out there?” she asked.
“We're still assessing the situation. These were the last two Radiants, we think. Why would they just attack like that? What came over them?” His bafflement was easy to understand. Radiants were such a familiar sight over all large cities, like clouds or birds, that people barely noticed them. For them to suddenly turn on them was almost as shocking as the earthquake itself.
Even the briefest answer would have taken too long, so she ignored the question. “Where is the King?” she asked. “Is he safe?”
“I'm safe,” replied Leothan, emerging from another corridor. “Thank Those Above you're safe too!” They hugged each other, the King ignoring the Princess' wet clothes, and Ardria buried her face in her father's chest. “So, what do we do now?” she asked.
Leothan pushed his daughter gently away and turned to the nearest guard. “Find the Queen!” he said. “She should be in the nursery.” The man bowed and trotted off to obey. “Where's Balhern?” The King them said. “I ordered him to look after you!”
“He's still down there. I told him to..” The first prisoner appeared, bedraggled and shivering, and the guards immediately manacled him. “The dungeons are flooded. They would have drowned!”
The King nodded, but then his eyes widened as the next prisoner to emerge was Soonia Darniss. “Your Majesty!” she said, dropping in a curtsy.
“Don’t Majesty me!” snapped the King. “Get her out of here!”
The guards jumped to obey, but Darniss threw herself at the King's feet. “No, please, Sire! I want to help! The Princess told me about the Radiants! I can help you!”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
“I know things, Majesty. I know King Nilon and his ministers! I can help you...”
“How can you know them?” demanded Ardria. “You've been a servant in this palace for the past thirty years! Have you ever even been to Carrow?”
“My grandmother was taken in by King Maylorth, the present King's father. He granted us sanctuary and we lived in the palace with him. I knew Nilon personally when we were both only half raised animals, we became good friends. He’s a good man...” Ardria snorted her disbelief, but Leothan frowned at her. “Continue,” he said.
“He's a good man. He's your enemy because he genuinely believes that Helberion acted dishonourably when it annexed the tweenlands.”
“That's a matter for the historians to argue over, generations from now,” said Leothan. “If there are still historians then. I am content to accept the verdict of posterity.”
“The point I’m making is, if he’s accepting help from the Radiants, it’s because he believes they want to help him right a historic wrong. I cannot believe he’d be complicit in the enslavement of the human race. He would never do anything that would harm Carrow!”
The King nodded, “Okay, I can believe that,” he said. “But how does that help us?”
“If he could be persuaded of the truth, he might join you in fighting the Radiants! If he knew that they’re as great a threat to him as to us, he’d turn against them! I know he would!”
“So you want us to let you go, so you can go talk to him?”
“He would never believe me, your Majesty. But if a sufficiently senior person were to go with me, someone senior enough that he would believe we're telling the truth, or at least that we believe it's the truth...”
“And who did you have in mind?”
Darniss’ eyes turned to the Princess. Leothan’s eyes widened in disbelief, and then he threw his head back in a great roaring laugh. “You want us to let you go, and take the Princess as a hostage? What have they been feeding you down there?”
Ardria was looking thoughtful, though. “Maybe we should at least consider the idea...”
“No! It's preposterous!” He gestured for the guards to take Darniss away. “Your heart's in the right place, Ardy, but he’d just lock you in a dungeon and demand my surrender in return for your life. We'll talk to him. We can use the telegraph...”
Darnell came forward and cleared his throat discretely. “Pardon, your Majesty, but all the telegraph lines in the city are down. I don’t know whether the backup station in Manilton is still connected...”
“Even if it is,” said the Princess, “He’d never believe us unless we made some kind of gesture, something to convince him of our sincerity. You were going to marry me off to Prince George not long ago...”
“That was different, and you know it! We're at war now!”
“I could take a whole company of soldiers for protection...”
“You could take the whole army and it wouldn’t make any difference. Now forget the idea.” He beckoned Darnell forward. “Assemble the War Council. And tell Amberley to get all the incendiary ammunition he can get his hands on distributed to the guards as soon as possible. This was just an opportunistic first strike. We can expect a full blown assault by hundreds of Radiants very soon.” The Private Secretary nodded and sent a runner off to obey.
Ardria was still considering Darniss’ proposal, though. “What if they weren't Helberion troops?” she asked. “The soldiers who came with me and Darniss. What if they were Kelvon soldiers?”
“Kelvon? Why on earth...” He paused, a strange look on his face. “Carrow wouldn't dare touch Kelvon soldiers. It would mean war with the Empire!” He shook his head. “Nice idea, but why would Tyron agree to any such thing?”
“Because he doesn't want a war between Carrow and Helberion! Look how much money the Empire's losing from interrupted trade? Plus, they've lost all political influence over the world east of Carrow! Just a year ago, Kelvon pretty much ruled the world. Look at the situation now! They've got an immense amount to gain from stopping the war! If we're willing to take the risk, he'd jump at it!”
“Kelvon needs all their troops to keep peace in the provinces. They'd be extremely reluctant to divert soldiers from the peacekeeping efforts.”
“There are nearly a hundred Kelvon troops in the Kelvon embassy right now! Just kicking their heels, doing nothing! They could easily spare a dozen or so! Just one soldier would be enough! Tyron’s said often enough that the killing of a single Kelvon soldier means war with the Empire!”
The King shook his head, but he looked torn. “If it were anyone else...” he said. “Anyone other than my daughter...”
“You said once that you're the King first, a father second,” the Princess reminded him. “The good of the Kingdom comes before our own selfish desires. I have to do this. You know it!”
The King shook his head again, but Ardria could see that he was wavering, even though it broke his heart and tore at his soul. “We'll present the idea to the War Council,” he said at last. “They may have a better idea.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then I'll consider it. Just consider, mind! And if we do do it, there would be conditions. The Brigadier goes with you, with a troop of Helberion rangers.”
“Agreed!” said the Princess, her face beaming with delight.
“I just said I'd consider it! Now go get changed into some dry clothes.” He beckoned some of the guards to accompany her to her rooms, in case any villains had entered the palace through one of the holes in the walls or broken open doors.
Then he stood there for a few moments, staring at the wall, his mind in turmoil. “Not my daughter!” he muttered to himself. “Anyone but her!” Her words kept echoing in his head, though. Words that he himself had taught her, had drummed into her all through the long years of her upbringing. You will be queen one day, he’d told her, and if that means one thing, it’s that you must frequently put aside your own desires for the sake of what the Kingdom needs, for the good of the Kingdom comes first. Those words were coming back to bite him now. He would give his life for Ardria, immediately and without a moment’s regret. How was he supposed to send her into danger? How could he do that?
Darniss had to go back to Carrow, she was right about that. If there was the slightest chance that King Nilon could be persuaded of the truth, then Darniss had to go to him, and someone important had to go with her, to give weight to the message she would be delivering. Perhaps he himself could go! He shook his head reluctantly. Although he would sacrifice himself for the Kingdom if necessary, his capture by the enemy would be a crippling blow to Helberion. The blow to the nation's morale might be fatal. No matter what orders he left behind, his government and his armies would make it their priority to rescue him, no matter what the cost. No, the good of the Kingdom demanded that he remain at home, that he keep himself safe.
Perhaps a minister, then. Daerden maybe, or Larren. Perhaps a General. Not Amberley, he'd need him too much, but there was Glowen or Lanier... He shook his head. He sacrificed Generals without hesitation when necessary. Ministers too. The Carrowmen would know that they weren't important enough to him. But Ardria, his daughter... No! He couldn’t do it! He wouldn’t allow it! She was his world, she was the future of the kingdom!
Whist meant that she was the only one the Carrowmen would accept as a great enough statement of fidelity. If he sent her, they would know, beyond all doubt, that he was serious. For the good of the Kingdom it would have to be her. For the good of the damned kingdom! At that moment he hated the kingdom, for what good was it to have a kingdom if it cost him his beloved daughter?
But he was King! He was the King and he could never forget that! He sagged as if the full weight of the Kingdom were settling on his shoulders, crushing him, driving him to his knees. He was the King and that was a responsibility from which there was no escape!
He ran a trembling hand through his hair and then, with an effort, he made himself stand tall and straight again. He beckoned Darnell forward. “See that no harm comes to Soonia Darniss,” he said with a calm, steady voice. “It seems we may have need of her.”
Did you enjoy my ongoing story so far? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Ian ReeveWrite a Review