“I understand why you did it,” said King Leothan later, when Ardria had told him about the meeting, “and you’re wrong. It did accomplish something. You showed her that you’re not afraid of her and, more importantly than that, you showed yourself that you’re not afraid of her.”
“But I am scared of her!” replied the Princess. “Even now I'm still scared of her! What she did to me...” She shuddered at the memory. “I tried so hard to be strong...”
“You were unbelievably strong. I was so proud of you! You proved yourself to be strong enough to rule a Kingdom. When the time comes for me to go back into the ground, I know I'll be leaving Helberion in good hands.”
“But I was so scared! I could feel my body changing! It wasn’t just my appearance, I could feel things changing inside me! And my mind! I could feel the person I was slipping away! I was so scared, and for weeks the person who did it to me was right there, by my side, every day! When I found out it was her...” She paused, searching for the right words, and her father waited patiently for her to continue. “It was as though all the fear I'd been feeling became fear of her! Even after they arrested her, I was terrified that I'd turn a corner and she’d be there, ready to do something even worse to me! I had nightmares about her! I had to confront her, to prove to myself that I could!”
“And how do you feel now?”
“Still scared. She has a way of, of getting inside your head. She knows what to say to hurt you the most. Or at least she knows me well enough. She’s known me since before I was human! She knows everything about me! What I'm afraid of, my weaknesses...”
“Everyone has fears. You showed that you can control them, that they don't control you. She has no power over you any more.” He hoped it was true, but sometimes just saying it made it true. Especially if it was something they wanted to be true. He looked at her and saw her nodding thoughtfully and then a smile appeared on her face. He felt a great weight lifting from his heart. She was going to be all right. His daughter was going to be all right. She might have been crushed by her ordeal. She might have been left crippled by it. Mentally crippled, unable to face the world without a perpetual terror of the dangers it held. People sometimes healed from that kind of damage, but it was a long process and the scars never really went away. But Ardria was going to be all right. He thanked Those Above as they continued along the corridor, and he thanked the Brigadier. Once again you have saved me, old friend, he thought. Once again I am in your debt.
Guards in dress uniform stood at attention and saluted as they passed them, and when they reached the War Room the door was opened for them, allowing them to walk right in. It was the Princess' first time at a high level government meeting, and she looked around at the ministers and high ranking military men as they bowed to her and her father. “Still cheating at cards, Amberley?” said Leothan with a smile to the man whose uniform was the most splendid and colourful of everyone in the room.
“They haven’t caught me yet, Sire!” The soldier replied with an answering smile, and everyone else in the room was smiling as well, although Ardria could see the nervousness hiding underneath. Today might be the day they learned that their country was doomed, and even the oldest warhorses were quivering like violin strings tightened to breaking point. Their fear was infectious, and the Princess found herself pacing up and down the room in an attempt to burn off the nervous energy that suddenly filled her. Her father caught her eye and gave the very slightest shake of his head. Ardria nodded back and made herself stand still, as the King was, and together they became a source of strength and confidence for the room.
As the others saw their rulers looking calm and unafraid, their fears lessened and gradually the tension in the room ebbed away. Ardria was astonished. To command a room so totally just by standing there and looking confident... For the first time she gained the tiniest glimpse of what it was to be a King, a real King. She'd said it to Darniss, just minutes before, but it had just been words then. Now, though, she saw it, began to really understand it. The way a King could lead not with fear, but by commanding the devotion and loyalty of his people. How did her father do it? she wondered. And would she one day have that same gift?
Ordinarily, protocol demanded that one did not speak to a member of the royal family unless they addressed you first or there was dire need, but that rule was broken that day as members of the War Council came forward one at a time to express their joy and delight at her recovery. She ignored the minor breach of etiquette, earning herself a pleased nod from Leothan, and thanked them as politely and gracefully as she could. “Darniss' execution will draw a big crowd,” Minister Larren assured her. “We'll show the whole world what happens to those who attack our beloved royal family.”
“She won't be going to the gallows anytime soon,” said the King, though. “Not until the war's over. There are political considerations. She may yet have her uses.”
“She can rot in that cell for a hundred years for all I care,” replied Ardria. “Death’s too good for her.”
“So, Amberley, how's the war going?” asked Leothan, returning the room's attention to the matter at hand.
“The battle of Kapperwell should be over by now,” replied the Field Marshall. “If the rider's been pushing his horse hard he should be getting here any time now.”
“What do we know?”
“Our engineers, the ones who cut the telegraph lines, have been intercepting warning messages from Dyrell and sending back false acknowledgements, while at the same time sending messages to Kapperwell telling them that all is well. That part of the operation has worked flawlessly, and I intend recommending those engineers for high honours, if they make it back safely. The first three garrison cities had no warning. They were caught totally unprepared and fell easily.”
The King noted the tone of uncertainty in his voice. “It was my decision to go for Kapperwell,” he reminded him. “My decision to push our luck.”
Amberley nodded gratefully. “By now, Kapperwell has had plenty of time to receive warning from Charnox the old fashioned way. Our pickets have intercepted some riders and massacred the local pigeon population, but there's no guarantee we got them all. If just one got through...”
“The scouts said there was no sign of any unusual activity in Kapperwell.”
“That's the last information we had, yes. A rider or a pigeon may have made it through after our messenger left to come here.”
“I understood that that was just minutes before the attack was due to begin. If a messenger did get through, how much time would they have had to prepare?”
“just a couple of minutes would have been enough. Time for the defenders to grab their weapons, run to their duty stations. That's all it would take to turn a victory for us into a disaster.”
“And Nilon would have been desperate to warn them. He wouldn't have sent just a handful of messengers. He would have sent every man he could find. How many did we intercept? You said some.”
“Nine, your Majesty. All travelling by slightly different routes, and our archers have killed hundreds of birds. Most of them were just birds, of course. It may take some time for the local pigeon population to recover.”
“How long did it take, after the attacks began on the other three cities, before we knew for certain that we'd been successful?”
“We were pretty certain two hours after the attack began, another couple of hours before we were completely certain. They were told to wait for absolute certainty before sending a rider back to inform us. This time, of course, we don't have to worry about enemy soldiers getting out to warn the next city on the list. This is the last of the four. That'll help us. They can commit their entire force to the attack without needing to put a picket around the city to catch escaping messengers.”
“And it's been four hours since the rider arrived to tell us the attack was about to begin.”
“Yes, Majesty. We can expect news any time now.”
Nobody was sitting, the Princess noticed. There was a table with a number of places set around it, each place with a folder containing facts and figures, maps and personality profiles, but each seat was empty. Every man was standing, most of them pacing back and forth, and some were chain smoking, trying to ease their strained nerves with tobacco despite the prohibition against doing any such thing in front of the King. She noticed that the minister for transport, the youngest and most recently appointed member of the War Council, was staring at the smokers with nervous trepidation, as if he thought that the King might take offense and threaten them with punishment and that this was a more terrifying prospect than the destruction of the Kingdom by victorious Carrow armies. She caught his eye and smiled reassuringly at him, but he looked hurriedly away and moved further from the smokers, as if afraid that anyone standing too close might become collateral damage of the King's wrath.
The King went to stand in front of the map hanging on the room's front wall, and some of the older, more confident members went to stand beside him. “Worst case scenario,” said Leothan. “Our army is massacred at Kapperwell. Killed or captured to the last man. What are our options then?”
Amberley sucked in through his teeth. “If we scrape together every man we have left, probably about forty thousand men, and bring them here, we can mount a robust defence of the capital. If it comes to that, I can promise you that Carrow will pay a high price in blood for every street, every building. I suggest that you, the Queen, the Princess and the other members of the Royal Family flee to Kelvon. You’ll be safe there, the Emperor will take you in, and you can rule in exile until we find a way to take back the Kingdom.”
“The end will be certain, then. What's left of the army will be fighting only to prolong the inevitable.”
“We’ll give them hell, Sire. I can promise you that.”
Leothan shook his head, though. “No. I won't have good men dying in a hopeless cause. So long as there is hope we’ll fight to the last breath in our bodies, but there's no point in fighting after hope is gone. We have to give thought to what happens after, and we’ll need all the good men we can find for that. Corpses in a military globularium are no good to anyone. You will escort the rest of my family to Kelvon, and then we will negotiate a surrender. I will hand myself over to them...”
“No, Majesty! I forbid it!”
Leothan smiled as he shook his head again. “If I run, they’ll execute dozens of people every day until I turn myself in. They may come up with trumped up charges, but they’ll make sure we know the real reason they're doing it. They may do it anyway to get the rest of my family, but I'm hoping that getting their hands on me will satisfy the bulk of their bloodlust.”
“It will not, Majesty. So long as one member of your family is alive and free, they're a focal point around which resistance will gather. They'll expend just as much energy getting them as they would you. Handing yourself over to them would be a pointless gesture. Also, they could use you as a hostage.” He turned to the Princess. “Suppose they threatened to execute him unless you turned yourself in. Suppose they promised you and the King a comfortable life in captivity if you came forward. What would you do?”
“My duty,” Ardria replied. “And my duty is to my people, not to the King. I would remain free and rally the people to rise up and take back their freedom, no matter what they did to my father. Bengoll Strake did it. We will repeat his victory, even if it is my child or grandchild who eventually takes back the throne.”
“You see, Majesty?” said Amberley. “Your daughter knows her duty, and yours is the same. To remain free and serve your people. I know how hard it will be to hide like a fox in a hole while your people are put to death in your name, but nobody ever said that being a King was easy.”
The other members of the War Council were divided in their reactions. Some were shocked that Amberley could take such a tone with the King, while others nodded their agreement. The King’s face became expressionless. “We're being premature, speaking of such things,” he said. “Even now, news of a glorious victory might be racing on its way from Kapperwell.”
“I am confident that that is the case,” replied Amberley. Every eye turned to the door, as if a travel stained messenger might walk through at that very moment to deliver his report. A few moments passed, though, and the door remained closed. Then someone cleared their throat and everyone spun around to stare at him. The unfortunate man apologised in embarrassment and the others have him one last annoyed glare before dismissing him from their attention.
“If we have to go into exile,” said Ardria timidly, “what will happen to Darniss?”
“That depends on the Carrowmen,” replied the King. “Nilon will want someone to occupy this palace, to rule Marboll in his name. Darniss’ ancestors lived here, so they can say that she has legitimate claim to the palace, and her loyalties are firmly with Carrow. She would be a good choice for them. We could use that. Gain concessions from Carrow for her safe return.”
“So she could end up getting everything she wants! She taunted me with that possibility. I told her it would never happen!”
“Those Above grant that it won't, but the fact remains that she's too important to just execute right now. Even if we’re triumphant at Kapperwell, we’ll still be in the same position. We have to keep her alive in case the war goes against us.”
“And she knows that! The bitch knows it!”
“When we've won the war, or at least secured peace, we can give her an execution the whole Kingdom will remember, but for the moment she's too important. Sometimes, ruling a Kingdom is about compromise. Not even a monarch can just do what he or she wants. In fact, a monarch often has less freedom than anyone else in the Kingdom! You will learn this in time. That's the reason you have to attend these meetings now, to learn how to govern a Kingdom.”
“Assuming I have a Kingdom to govern.”
The solemn comment fell flat in the War Room. Nobody could think of a good reply to it, not even the King, and so a gloomy silence fell as everyone waited and the door obstinately refused to open.
Arwin Tsocco examined the small nude statuette curiously as the carriage clattered and bounced its way along the country road. “This is what the Hetin folk actually looked like?” he asked.
“We believe so,” replied the Brigadier, sitting opposite. He was dressed in civilian clothes, the garb of a high ranking Helberion aristocrat. It made him look splendid and important, but Malone, also dressed in civilian clothes, couldn’t quite get used to the sight of him not in a military uniform. It was as if it was a different man sitting there. Almost a stranger. “Every nude we've ever found, whether a statuette, a painting or an engraving in stone and metal, has the same anatomical differences. Nowhere do we see someone with the same physical form as ourselves.”
“And is this a man or a woman?”
“A man. Their women were fairly similar to ourselves in the lower part of their bodies. There were differences, but their main difference was in the chest.” He reached into the chest that sat on the seat beside him and produced the statuette of the breast feeding woman. Arwin took it and examined it with interest.
“She is monstrous and deformed compared to modern women,” he said, “And yet there is something about those chest swellings that I find quite magnetic. I find it hard to drag my eyes away from them.”
“Every man who’s seen it feels the same way,” agreed the Brigadier, “while women feel something similar regarding the male nude. We now know that we are not descended from these people. We are descended from the creatures that destroyed their civilisation. We are modelled physically upon them, though. They adopted creatures raised from globs, and those creatures became the first modern humans. I have a theory that our minds are also modelled upon theirs, that we like and dislike the same things that they liked and disliked. I suspect that each gender enjoyed the sight of the other gender unclothed, that they celebrated the anatomical differences between the two sexes, and that what we feel when we see these nude statuettes is the result of that modelling.”
“But why were they different?” asked Malone, sitting beside the former ambassador. “Today, men and women are almost identical, physically. A newly declared human can decide whether he wants to be a man or a woman. I remember when I decided that I wanted to be a man. The idea of staying home all day, looking after the house, doing the bulk of the work of raising a child, just had no attraction for me. Nor did brain work like being an architect or a scientist, assuming I had a good enough brain for that. No, I wanted to see the world, test my strength against what the world had to offer. That's what makes me a man. Not some anatomical feature. I mean, suppose I was Hetin and I was born with those chest swellings.”
“Breasts,” said the Brigadier. “That's what Alfornus called them. The curator of the Hetin museum.”
“Right. If I'd been born with breasts, would that mean that I had to be a woman? That I had no choice in the matter?”
“Further research will be needed to answer that question. There's so much we don't know about them.”
Arwin put down the woman and picked up the man again. “Do we have any idea what these organs were for?” he asked.
“He seems to lack a groinal slit,” said the Brigadier, “although, in the pose he's in, it's hard to be sure. The passage of urine was probably one of its functions, but it seems an overly elaborate design for such a simple task. Alfornus said he thought they were used for procreation, although he had no idea how they did this. Only that it somehow involved the production of small humans who grew bigger until they reached full size. What we need is an anatomy textbook. Something for children that explains how blood circulates, how food is digested and so forth. Presumably it would explain how they procreated as well.”
“Maybe it was similar to the way plants reproduce. The male plant produces pollen, it fertilises the seeds of the female plant.”
“Hetin males produced pollen?” said Malone is disbelief.
“I don't know. I'm just throwing ideas into the air here. What we do know, though, is that we are descended from invaders to this world, while both plants and the Hetin folk are native. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that they propagated themselves in a similar way?”
“We can speculate until the cows come home, but it won't produce any new knowledge,” replied the Brigadier, scratching at his neatly trimmed grey beard. “When we see the Emperor, we have to focus on what we know, the threat posed by the Radiants. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by speculation, he may think that it's all speculation. That would be disastrous. To us, to all of mankind.”
Arwin nodded. He handed the statuette back, and the Brigadier put it safely back in the chest that contained the selection of books and artefacts they'd chosen to take with them, to show the Emperor. Outside, one of the Kelvon guards accompanying the coach glanced in at the passengers as he rode past, then geed his horse to a faster gait, to take up position at the head of the column. Must be his turn to scout ahead, Malone thought.
The sight of a member of their armed escort reminded him of the dangerous territory they were passing through. The quickest route to Kelvon took them through Carrow territory. As guests of a Kelvon official they should be safe, the Empire took a dim view of anyone molesting people under their protection, but if the Carrowmen learned that a Helberion aristocrat was passing through their territory, none other than the Brigadier himself, they might not be able to resist the temptation. Accidents happened, after all. These roads were plagued by bandits and highwaymen, and it would be easy to blame the deaths of everyone in the coach on a gang of criminals.
He reached a hand to his belt to touch the reassuring bulk of his pistol, and Arwin Tsocco, guessing his thoughts, smiled. “We've got twenty of Kelvon’s best looking after us,” he said. “Relax. Nothing's going to happen.” Malone smiled nervously, folded his hands in his lap and made himself look out the window at the sparsely populated Carrow countryside.
“I wonder how the war's going,” he said, just to make conversation. Neither of the other two men would have any more idea than he did. They probably wouldn't have any reliable news until they reached Farwell and were able to communicate with Marboll by telegraph. He sighed. It was going to be a long, anxious journey.
“Suppose we get there and learn that... That...”
“The fate of Helberion is out of our hands,” replied the Brigadier, not without sympathy. “There are far bigger issues at stake. We might defeat Carrow, and then fall victim to the Radiants as they destroy us with storm and earthquake. King Leothan has his job, we have ours.”
“So after all these years of defending the Kingdom, of fighting the enemies of the King, all of a sudden we're supposed to just not care?”
“I didn't say I didn't care, but we must care about the right things. If Helberion falls and is occupied by Carrow, it might be free again one day. Other countries have been conquered and later threw out the invaders. In some case it took generations. Look at Telmartin, for instance. Helberion itself was once part of Carrow and gained independence despite having no history as an independent country. If we did it once we can do it again. If the Radiants move against us, though...”
“Millions would die,” agreed Arwin. “And the survivors might face a future of being nothing more than farm animals. Kept in pens, denied any form of technology. A life of just growing food and eating until one of them decides to adopt us. No life at all, in other words.”
The Brigadier nodded, feeling great relief that the former ambassador now believed them so completely. He was aware that they had very little actual proof and that it was mainly his reputation that had convinced him. His exploits were legendary, even to his enemies. His victories and accomplishments too many to count. He had earned the right to be believed, even when making such as extraordinary claim, and if he could convince Arwin Tsocco there was at least the chance that they could convince the Emperor himself.
He looked at Malone, who nodded reluctantly. “But if Helberion is conquered, and if we find a way to beat the Radiants, I'm going to see the country free again if it's the last thing I do! The Radiants first, then Carrow, and Those Above help them when I get them in my sights!”
“You speak for us both, Malone,” said the Brigadier, his eyes cold and hard. Arwin heard nothing but total sincerity in their voices, and it went a chill up his spine. Those Above forbid that I ever find myself on the opposite side of something from them, he thought. If all Helberians were like them, then Carrow has made a grave mistake in making them their enemies. And, maybe, just maybe, so have the Radiants.