“Bellhine!” bellowed Maxine Hester, chief scientist of the RedHill Electrical Institute. “Bellhine! I need you!”
Sophie Bellhine hurried to the main laboratory, the largest of the institute's three principal electrical workrooms, shouldering her way past two lab workers who couldn't get out of the way fast enough. One of them, her arm bumped by the assistant scientist, dropped a handful of ceramic spacers and cursed violently as several of them shattered on the painted brick floor. Bellhine ignored her and hurried on, turning the corner with a high pitched slipping of her leather boots and grabbing hold of the door frame to stop herself.
“You called?” she said nervously. When her master was in this kind of mood, it generally didn’t bode well. This time, though, the chief scientist seemed to be in a good mood. Her urgency was coming from excitement, not anger.
“Bellhine!” she said happily, brushing a few stray strands of straggly grey hair out of her eyes. “Take the contact of the second circuit! I've got it, Bellhine! I've finally cracked it!”
“You've achieved high frequency alternation?” said her assistant in surprise. She went to the area of the bench to which her master was pointing. The scorched and pitted wood was covered with a tangle of cloth covered wires linking a number of copper and ceramic components, some of which were smoking gently. She ran her eyes across it, trying to see where she'd made the alteration, but everything looked just the same as the last time she’d been there, when one of the parallel resistors had unexpectedly burst into flames. The same resistor was still there, she saw. Apparently none the worse for its experience.
The Tyne Cell powering the second circuit, it’s zinc and platinum contacts pitted and eroded by corrosion, bubbled as it released nitric and nitrous oxide fumes into the air. Bellhine coughed as her lungs gave their usual protest to the toxic gases, then took hold of the contact, a small lever that would be thrown in place to complete the circuit.
“I've achieved high frequency alternation!” Hester confirmed excitedly. “I'll show you! Get ready to close the circuit!” She made some careful adjustments to the huge structure that formed the centrepiece of the experiment. A tower of copper coils from which the smell of ozone and tree sap exuded. Wires were draped across it, the cloth covering worn away in places to reveal the rubber that protected the bare copper inside, and small lead pipes carried cooling water, pumped by another assistant, Sydney Brown, as he turned a small hand pump. Behind him, a small window stood open, a threadbare curtain barely twitching as the very faintest of breezes struggled to force its way through.
Hester stepped carefully past the bucket of sand standing on the floor and checked the connections to the Master Cell, the large tank that supplied the bulk of the apparatus’ electricity. The three foot tall glass cylinder contained a number of metal and ceramic vessels, one within another, each containing a different powerful acid. Hester clicked her tongue thoughtfully as she examined it, then went to one of the storage jars that stood against the wall. Bellhine winced nervously as her master removed the stopper and topped up the innermost of the vessels by hand, a small dribble of acid running a hairswidth past her bare fingers. Hester leaned forward to examine the acid level, ignoring the acrid fumes that rose from it, then nodded in satisfaction and stoppered the bottle again.
“You're supposed to wear gauntlets when you do that!” protested Bellhine as her master replaced the bottle against the wall.
“I’m quite capable of pouring a little liquid. Now, get ready!” She threw the contacts of the primary circuit and a large electric arc burst into life behind a glass window at the heart of the apparatus, sandwiched between the upper and lower coils. The arc crackled and hummed as it threw a beam of shimmering light across the gloomy room.
“Now, close the secondary circuit!”
Bellhine threw the small lever, then snatched her hand back as a fat spark of electricity jumped across to sting her finger. At the heart of the central apparatus, the Arc Oscillator, the arc intensified and grew brighter.
“I'd almost given up!” cried Hester in jubilation. “I tried one combination after another, nothing worked. Then inspiration hit me! It just came to me, just like that! I was right all along, the tuned circuit was the key! The secret to reliable and sustainable high frequency alternating current! Listen to this!”
She made an adjustment to the tuned circuit, a little way apart from the main circuit, and the electric arc began to emit a pure musical note. “You hear that, Bellhine? That's one hundred oscillations a second! The current feeding that arc is reversing itself one hundred times a second!” The note wavered, and the scientist glared at the arc, as if daring it to misbehave, but a moment later it settled down again and she relaxed.
She made another adjustment and the musical tone moved fractionally higher. “One hundred and ten oscillations a second! One hundred and twenty!” She laughed as she continued playing with the oscillator, and Clarke realised with a shock of amusement that her master was trying to play the national anthem on her equipment. “Perhaps we should do that for the King’s next declaration day celebration! Should make quite an impression, don't you think? Ha! Take that, Andrea McCrea and your alternating current generator! I bet your generator can't reverse the current more than a dozen times a second! My apparatus can, in principle, reverse the current any number of times a second as one requires!”
“She will be green with envy when she finds out.”
“She will! She will! With this breakthrough, practical power distribution is at last possible! Imagine it, Bellhine! A single power generator, producing thousands of watts, alternating with a frequency of fifty or a hundred times a second. with copper wires to carry the power for miles to where it is needed with virtually no loss! This will transform the world, Bellhine! A new era of electricity is upon us!”
“You will be renowned as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived!”
“Undoubtedly! Not that we do it for such mundane considerations, of course. Call the others! Call everyone! Let's show them the future!”
Bellhine went off to obey, and soon there were a dozen people in the room listening as Hester gradually perfected her rendition of “Land of Freedom!” The assistants and junior scientists clapped and cheered, and a casual observer might have thought that they were being frivolous as they called out requests for their favourite tunes. The Master Scientist was happy to oblige, though, until the Tyne Cell finally began to run out of power and the electric arc began to dim. Even the most junior of them understood the momentousness of the occasion, though, and Hester knew fully well that it was the scientific achievement they were celebrating, not the laughably crude musical renditions.
One man who missed the performance, though, was Geoffrey Barlowe, the institute's bookkeeper. “Where is he?” wondered Bellhine, looking from one familiar face to the next in an attempt to find him.
“Tiger man? Probably fixing his makeup,” replied Sydney Brown with a chuckle.
Tiger man, as the others called him, only half in jest, was currently sitting at the base of a large oak tree, sobbing in misery and massaging his head as he waited in dread to see whether the unbearable pain that had driven him there would return. He had been in his study, doing the accounts, when the pain had come suddenly, all the more terrible for being so unexpected. If he hadn’t been warned that such a thing might happen, he might have just screamed and whimpered until the torment either stopped on its own or killed him, but the possibility that this might happen was the very reason he’d been assigned to this post by his true masters.
He knew straight away what was causing it, therefore, and knew that he could lessen it by putting distance between himself and the main laboratory. He'd fled his office, therefore, and run through the fields of farmland surrounding the institute buildings, his hands pressed to the sides of his head and his teeth clenched in agonising pain. He had to travel more than a mile before the pain gradually grew less, and he was finally able to stagger to a halt by the oak tree, which he had collapsed against as if it were his lifelong comrade in arms on a battlefield. The pain was still there, a lancing pain as if someone was driving a nail into his head, but at this distance it was manageable and he was able to contemplate it with something less than total despair as it rose and fell in strangely discrete steps, as if his torturer was experimenting with nails of different sizes.
*Master! Master! Can you hear me?*
There was no reply. He looked up, and saw only one Radiant in the area. It was travelling much faster than they normally did, its dangling tentacles trailing behind it as it vented flotation gases from its siphon in order to speed across the countryside towards the river. No, not towards the river, Barlowe realised with shock. Away from the Institute! His master was in as much pain as he was!
Barlowe left the tree and staggered across the ploughed field, doing his best to appear casual and unconcerned to anyone who might happen to see him, but the pain was lessening on its own, and suddenly it went completely, as abruptly as if someone had thrown a switch. He gasped in relief and raised his arm to wipe the sweat from his brow, only stopping himself when he realised that it would wipe away the pink powder covering his face and hands. A farmworker mighty happen by at any moment. He couldn't allow his luminous skin to be seen, he’d be hard pressed to dispose of a witness in his current state.
When he had fully regained his composure, he tried once again to contact his master, and this time there was a reply. *I felt it too,* the Radiant replied. *What we feared has happened, sooner than we expected.*
*They must be killed!* Barlowe replied, the memory of the pain still making him shake a little.
*Yes, but it must look like an accident. They must not know that it was us. Start a fire. Tonight, while they are all asleep. Make it look as if the equipment overheated. None of them must survive.*
*They shall not. I promise.* He began to make his way back towards the institute. He had to be back in his office before anyone realised he was missing.
Matron Darniss stood as she heard her visitors approaching. She smoothed down the prison smock she was wearing and examined the smudges of slime and small tears that marred it with approval. It made her look like a victim, especially if she stood there with a hurt, rather bewildered look on her face, a look that said I have no idea why this is happening me. People responded to that. The first impulse of most people was to protect an innocent victim, and it was so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that it still operated even when they knew that the person before them was guilty as hell. Darniss knew how to manipulate the people around her. She was very good at it. She would present herself as the person who had been wronged by history, driven to desperate measures to regain what rightfully belonged to her. It might elicit enough sympathy from her captors to delay her execution. The armies of Carrow were coming, she knew. Their victory was certain, and if she was still alive when the palace fell she might still be given what she’d been promised for her service. It was the only hope she had left.
It'll be the Questioners again, she thought. She’d already told them everything she knew, in between exquisitely genuine sounding pleas for forgiveness. She had held nothing back, given them no excuse to use their terrible methods on her, and the result was that she was still fully human, still in possession of all her cunning and intelligence. They kept coming back, though. Making her repeat it all over and over, and if she changed any slight detail they accused her of lying and threatened her with curses until her begging and pleading was earnest and piteous enough to convince them that she was telling the truth.
She wasn't worried about betraying Mandeville or Carrow. She didn't know anything that could be a threat to them, and so she felt no guilt or shame about telling the Questioners everything. Her true masters would understand, she knew, and one day, soon now, she would be mistress of this palace and able to punish her tormentors as they deserved.
Usually, the Questioners came in pairs, but this time there were three people coming. She could tell from the footsteps echoing from the damp stone walls. One set of footsteps was lighter than the others. A woman, then, accompanied by two guards. Her heart beat faster as a possibility occurred to her. Could it be...
She smiled. It was Princess Ardria, come to see the woman who had inflicted so much misery and terror on her. No doubt expecting her to be fawning and apologetic, to beg for mercy and forgiveness. She gave an inward sneer of contempt. As if she would lower herself like that for that little twit of a girl. In her mind, she dressed herself in her most magnificent gown, crimson trimmed with gold and with all her best pearls about her body. She imagined that the guards worked for her, and that they'd brought the Princess at her command, so that she, Darniss, could pass judgement on her. Her smile widened as she imagined what that judgement would be when the glorious day came.
She was careful to make sure that none of that showed on her face, though. She also had to be careful not to try to plead innocence. Her guilt was too well established, not least because she had confessed to the King himself in a moment of fury. If she tried to deny it now, she would lose all the sympathy she’d gained. No, she would be honest about her guilt, but try to paint a noble face on it. That way, she might at least gain their respect.
She sat on the edge of her cot, therefore, and as soon as the Princess appeared around the last bend in the corridor she leapt to her feet and ran forward, holding the bars so tightly that her hands were white with the effort. “Princess!” She cried. “Princess Ardria! I heard you'd been cured! I am overjoyed to see you restored to your natural beauty! I rejoice, as the whole kingdom must be rejoicing!”
She was rewarded by a look of puzzlement and uncertainty on the Princess’ face. “Are you going to tell me that you regret what you did?” She asked. She stood with her back close to the empty cells behind her, as if afraid to come too close to the caged woman. Darniss felt warm pleasure flowing through her. It might be her in the cell, but it was she who was in control here.
“I know better than that, your Highness, but I never bore you any ill will. I did what I did in order to achieve a political purpose, to prevent your marriage to Prince George. You might want to thank me for that, by the way. I know him, and he is thoroughly vile.” She watched the Princess for a reaction, but there was none. “Anyway, that purpose has been achieved, and I am delighted that my actions did you no lasting harm.”
“But if it had done me lasting harm, you wouldn’t have shed any tears about it.”
“I won't insult you by denying that, Highness. You are a victim of history, as am I, but the fact remains that I am the rightful owner of this palace. I am the direct descendant of the last Duchess to rule from here, my claim to this palace is undeniable.”
“The crimes committed by the Pardews render your claim null and void...”
“They were the lawful rulers of this land! Theobald Pardew was the rightful Duke, he had the right to rule as he saw fit! Your grandfather stole this land, stole this palace! All I want is what rightfully belongs to me! If a thief steals from me, am I wrong to try to get it back?”
“True power arises as a mandate from the people. The people your ancestors abused rose up and threw them down! My great grandfather was the champion of the people, he fought for their right to keep their own wealth, to protect their families from arbitrary accusation and murder!”
“He saw an opportunity to seize power and he took it! He used the people, used their grievances, for his own gain! In the days before the uprising he oppressed them more cruelly than any Pardew ever did. He used his position as Sheriff to grind them down, make them hurt, all the time pretending to be on their side and blaming everything on my grandfather...”
“That is a lie!” Ardria took a step closer to Darniss and her guards stepped closer to protect her, aware that a trained killer could kill with a jab to the throat with outthrust fingers. One took her gently by the arm and urged her to step back, to her original position.
“Is it? Didn't you ever wonder how Bengoll Strake became Theobald Pardew’s Sheriff in the first place? They were friends, they served in Carrow’s army together, and they were very similar in temperament and ambition. I'm well aware that my grandfather’s methods may have seemed excessive to some, but Strake earned his place at his side by being every bit as hard and unflinching as he was. And then he betrayed him.”
Ardria laughed. “You speak of treachery! You!”
“I was always loyal to my true masters. I'm not a traitor, I was an undercover agent. Your grandfather, though...”
“I don't know what my great grandfather was like in his youth. Maybe you’re right, maybe he was as you describe him. I don’t believe it, but I wasn't there. People change, though. The histories all agree that by the time the uprising happened he'd become a true champion of the people.”
“Histories written by your people.”
The Princess sighed. “I didn't come to discuss history with you,” she said. “I just wanted to see you, look into your eyes one last time. All my life, you seemed such a kind person. Loving, compassionate. Was that bitter, treacherous streak there all along and I just didn't see it? Was I that blind? I thought maybe you'd been coerced into it. Threats to you or your family maybe. I thought maybe you regretted what you'd done, that the Darniss I thought I knew might still be in there somewhere.”
“I am the same Darniss I always was. You weren't blind, just innocent. Far too innocent to rule a kingdom. A ruler must be paranoid and cynical, must always suspect everyone around them. If, somehow, you did find yourself Queen of this land, you would make a bad one.”
“Thanks to you, I'm less innocent than I was.”
“And yet you still came here looking to find a loyal follower. Someone who would beg forgiveness and plead for mercy. I am not the sort to beg and plead. I am a ruler. I was destined to control the fates of many, and when the armies of Carrow are victorious our positions on either side of these bars will be reversed. Will you cope with this prison cell as well as I have? You are strong. You had to be, to survive your recent ordeal, but are you strong enough to survive this?” She waved an arm at the bare cell.
“Your Highness,” said one of the guards, “We are doing no good here. Let us go...”
She waved him away, then took a half step back towards Darniss. “The real you is slipping out,” she warned. “You speak of historic claims to this palace. How long did your family live here?”
Darniss lifted her head proudly. “Five generations. Nearly two hundred years.”
“And before that? Who occupied this palace before that?”
Darniss looked at her, her face carefully expressionless, but said nothing.
“It was the Utrells, wasn't it? It was the Utrells who originally built this place, back when Marboll was a tiny, independent kingdom of its own. What happened to the Utrells? Do you remember?”
Darniss didn't bother arguing the point. “Land and property belongs to whoever can defend it. You...”
“We will defend it!” The violence with which she said it drove Darniss half a step back, her eyes widening in surprise. “We will defend it because we have something that you never had and cannot even understand! The support of the people! You and all Carrowmen rule with fear! You think you only have to fill the streets with soldiers and the people will fall into line! Pay their taxes, even though they’re left starving. Do nothing but wring their hands when neighbours and loved ones are thrown into the dungeons for daring to protest! We in Helberion have taught our people that there is another way. To get the support of the people! To rule with them, not over them! I have been told how the people wept and prayed for me during my affliction. Do you think the people of Carrow would react the same way if Prince George were similarly afflicted?”
“Your people occupy the best, most fertile lands. Lands that always deliver a good crop. People with full bellies are always happy.”
“The people of those lands chose to become part of Helberion. Eastern Helberion, the lands that Bengoll Strake liberated, is not especially fertile. Before the transition of the Tweenlands they struggled to feed themselves, but they loved King Bengoll's rule nonetheless. The armies of Carrow are fighting for money. It's just a job to them, an escape from a life on the farm, but the armies of Helberion are fighting to defend a country that they love! That is why we will win! You are not going to be freed from your cell by a victorious Carrow army. When you leave this cell, you will be escorted by guards working for King Leothan, and they will be taking you to your execution!”
“I can see that you truly believe that,” replied Darniss, “And it is a terrible pity that your sweet innocence must soon be destroyed by cruel, callous reality. The armies of Carrow outnumber yours three to one. When they come, your armies will forget their love for you, throw down their weapons and plead for mercy.”
“Is that a tone of doubt I hear in your voice, Darniss? Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?”
“I have no doubt as to the outcome of this war, Ardria. The Empire has abandoned you. Your country stands alone. Enjoy your lifestyle while you can. Enjoy your fine dresses and your luxurious bedchamber. Fix it all in your memory so that when you are in the place that I currently occupy, you can close your eyes and try to imagine that it is nothing but a terrible nightmare.”
“A nightmare, is it?” She looked at Darniss as if seeing her for the first time. She was struggling to seem strong and implacable, but the truth was that the cold, damp cell was taking its toll. Her composure had cracked, just for a moment, and suddenly the Princess saw nothing but a small, frightened woman dressed only in a prison smock. Her pale skin grimy and pocked with flea bites, her hair lank and greasy. Darniss regained control of herself, stood tall and confident again, but what the Princess had seen could not be forgotten. “Then I leave you to it. Farewell, Darniss. I shaln't be coming down here again. The next time I see you, you will be climbing the scaffold.”
“One of us will,” replied Darniss, but there was no longer any conviction to it. It was as if she only had the energy to go through the motions, to give the expected response. Nevertheless, as Princess Ardria turned and walked back towards the exit from the dungeons, followed by her guards, she couldn't help but feel as if she’d lost the confrontation, as if the former matron had scored more points than she had. She'd hoped that meeting and speaking to her former friend would give her a sense of closure, but the sense of shock and betrayal was just as strong as ever. I shouldn’t have come, she thought. The guard was right. What did I think I was going to accomplish? And the worst part was that Darniss was right. The most important battle of the war was just about to start, and if the armies of Helberion lost, the nightmare Darniss had promised her would very likely come true...