Ten

Her Serene Highness Princess Holly Blue thought something was amiss when she stepped from her bedchamber to find a priest running down the palace corridor outside. Priests never ran anywhere, even technician priests. They processed in a dignified fashion at a stately pace and, if you wanted one in a hurry, you damn well had to wait. But this one was running, the skirts of his ceremonial robes flying up to show his hairy shanks. He made a screeching turn around the corner and seconds later she heard his footfalls on the main staircase.

Blue stepped back into her chamber and walked over to the window. The running priest emerged from a doorway below, scattering a group of servants, and careered across the courtyard to disappear through an archway on the other side. He might be heading for the chapel or the kitchens or even the main entrance to the palace. But why was he running?

Blue chewed her lower lip. There was far too much going on she didn’t know about just now. It had taken her days to find Pyrgus and heaven only knew what might have happened if someone else had found him first. Not that she entirely blamed herself – Pyrgus was unbelievably stupid sometimes and this bee in his bonnet about living as a commoner was about as thick as it got. A commoner. She shuddered. It took lifetimes of self-sacrifice to get born a prince and Pyrgus was prepared to throw it all away. Besides, he wasn’t just a prince. He was Crown Prince. He should be learning how to rule instead of mixing with hoi polloi. Luckily he’d have her to advise him when he became Emperor, but even so…

Except it wasn’t just Pyrgus. There was something going on between her father and the Faeries of the Night. Not just the recent discussions. There was something else. She could smell it. Too many comings and goings. Too many little chats in shadows. Too many strange faces at the palace. The other thing was that her father had stopped talking to her. Well, not stopped exactly. But if she tried to discuss politics, he changed the subject. If she so much as mentioned Faeries of the Night, he almost ran for cover. Even when she told him Black Hairstreak had it in for Pyrgus, he’d seemed more embarrassed than grateful. But at least he’d taken action, which was something.

Blue walked slowly back from the window and sat down at her dressing table. She stared at the ornate jewel case for a long moment. She’d never done this to her father before. But then she’d never had to. She reached out and fingered the clasp. Perhaps it was going a bit far. But then again, wasn’t it going a bit far that her father had stopped confiding in her? What was a girl supposed to do? She flicked the clasp, but didn’t open the lid.

Where was the harm? It wasn’t as if she couldn’t be trusted. It wasn’t as if she was some sort of spy for the Nighters. She had Father’s best interests at heart.

Everybody knew that. Even he knew that, if he cared to admit it. Besides, she was a Princess of House Iris. Third in line for the throne. Didn’t that count for anything? Didn’t that mean she should never be kept in the dark?

Blue stood up abruptly, walked across the room and locked her door. Princess of House Iris or not, what she was about to do was illegal and she would be in truly gigantic trouble if her father ever found out. Fortunately that wasn’t very likely.

She walked back to the dressing table and opened the casket. After a moment, the psychotronic spider crawled out, its great eyes blinking in the light. The creature had a rainbow back, like a skim of oil reflecting sunlight. It crawled aimlessly around the dressing table for a moment, examining her brush and comb, lurking near her perfume bottles. Then it moved purposefully towards her, halted at the edge of the table and waited.

Blue reached for her little wicker sewing box. She hated this bit, but it had to be done. She took out a silver needle, licked her lips nervously, then pricked the tip of her finger. She wiped the needle clean and dropped it back into the sewing box. The spider seemed to quiver in anticipation.

Ignoring the pain, Blue squeezed the finger until a single drop of bright red blood welled up and dropped beside the insect on the table top. The spider turned towards it at once and began to feed. In a moment, the table top was clean again. Blue sat back and waited, willing her slim body to relax. Impatient minutes passed before – at last! – she felt the familiar scratching on the edges of her mind. The blood was the link, of course. Her blood, her mind. It was a small enough sacrifice, she supposed, but without it the spider was no more useful than an ordinary bug.

Blue closed her eyes and opened her mind. She felt the alien presence of the psychotronic spider at once, alert, cautious and strangely familiar. She reached out a mental tendril and stroked it gently. The spider wriggled and trilled like a kitten. It was ready to accept her. In her mind, she touched it, held it, felt it blend with her.

It was as if a shutter opened and light flooded through. Her perceptions suddenly expanded. She caught her breath and fought down the sudden excitement as she became aware of not just her room, but the whole upper storey of the palace, then the palace itself, then the island, then- Rein back! she told herself. This was the most dangerous time. If her perceptions continued to expand, she would be insane within minutes. Yet even knowing that, she wanted the expansion to continue. The feeling that went with it was like nothing else she’d ever experienced, an exhilaration that bordered on ecstasy. This was precisely why the use of psychotronic spiders was outlawed, even in the Imperial Espionage Service. Too many good operatives had ended up as cabbages, happily crooning to themselves as their minds examined distant reaches of the universe.

Rein back! She had a talent for it. Her curiosity, her need to know., had always been far stronger than the pull of pleasure. Now she imposed a focus that drew her attention away from the all and everything, back to the palace, back to her room. With a curious flicker, she saw the room through the eyes of the spider itself, all distorted planes and angles filled with giant furniture and sweeps of patterned textures. She released her mental grip a little and expanded again, but not too much. Now it felt only that she had escaped from her body and was rushing through a windswept tunnel to her goal.

An instant later she was standing in the private quarters of her father, Apatura Iris, the Purple Emperor.

There were two men in the book-lined chamber, her father himself and Gatekeeper Tithonus. Both were informally dressed and held brandy balloons, but the expressions on their faces showed this was no casual meeting.

‘ – did lose his temper. Both of us did,’ her father was saying. ‘But at least he listened. I think I may have you to thank for that.’

Tithonus shrugged. ‘He’s safe now. It’s all that matters.’

‘Indeed,’ the Emperor nodded. ‘But unfortunately that doesn’t solve our problems.’

‘No, sire, but it does simplify them a little,’ Tithonus said smoothly. He set down his glass and turned to look directly at Blue.

The illusion was so real she felt she should duck behind a screen and hide. But she knew she didn’t need to. However much it felt like she was here, her physical body was still in her bedroom. Only her consciousness was visiting and that was quite invisible.

‘Any further intelligence on the troop movements?’ her father asked.

Blue was instantly alert. Troop movements? She hadn’t heard anything about troop movements. Who was moving troops? Her father? She’d have known. She was sure she’d have known. Besides, he wouldn’t have used the word intelligence if he was talking about his own soldiers. Intelligence meant information collected by the Imperial Espionage Service. Information on somebody else’s troop movements.

Even without her body, she felt a chill. There was something going on between her father and Black Hairstreak, negotiations that were supposed to heal the ancient rift between Faeries of the Light and Faeries of the Night. They’d been under way for months so far as she could gather. Until now she’d assumed it was the usual horse-trading, each side jostling for the best position possible, after which things would settle down for a few years. But troop movements meant something far more serious. Troop movements meant war. Or at least the threat of war. No wonder her father looked worried.

Tithonus said, ‘Lord Hairstreak continues to insist it’s just manoeuvres, nothing to do with the current negotiations. But the build-up’s very large for a routine exercise and reinforcements are still coming in.’

‘Sabre-rattling?’ the Emperor asked. ‘His way of wringing a few more concessions out of the negotiations?’

‘Possibly,’ Tithonus said. ‘I have, however, taken the precaution of placing our own forces on alert.’

‘You really think he would risk an all-out attack?’

Tithonus frowned. ‘I find it hard to believe. But whatever he has in mind may be part of some larger scheme. Don’t forget he was planning to murder Pyrgus.’

Murder? Blue blinked phantom eyes. She hadn’t known that! Why would he want to kill her brother? It would gain him a lot less than simply taking Pyrgus prisoner. That way he could use him to bargain.

‘I still don’t understand what it would have gained him,’ her father said, echoing her own thought.

‘Neither do I,’ said Tithonus, ‘but there’s no doubt it’s what he was planning.’

‘Perhaps – ‘ The Emperor stopped, interrupted by a sharp knocking on his door. He glanced at Tithonus.

Tithonus said nothing, but opened the door a crack, then murmured something to someone outside. Blue moved to eavesdrop on the exchange, but before she reached the door, Tithonus stepped back and a chapel priest entered. He moved forward nervously and knelt before the Emperor. ‘Majesty, grave news.’ Blue wasn’t absolutely certain, but she thought this was the same priest she’d seen running in the corridor.

Her father waited, face impassive.

‘Majesty, I -‘

‘Come on, man,’ said the Emperor mildly. ‘Spit it out!’

The priest could not meet his eye. He swallowed loudly, hesitated, then said all of a rush, ‘Majesty, Crown Prince Pyrgus has not reached his destination.’

For a moment, the only expression on the Emperor’s face was puzzlement. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Sire, the translation appeared to be routine. As you saw. We had no reason to – No reason to – ‘ He looked up at the Emperor imploringly. ‘Sire, we have made routine contact with Lulworth and Ringlet. Prince Pyrgus has not joined them.’

‘What?’ the Emperor exploded.

Tithonus said sharply, ‘I saw him enter the portal myself.’

The priest glanced at him miserably. ‘We all did, Gatekeeper.’

‘Then where has he gone?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where could he have gone?’ Tithonus asked insistently.

The priest dropped his eyes again. ‘Anywhere,’ he murmured.

Blue withdrew her consciousness so violently her body went into spasm in the bedroom. She gasped, then stretched to unlock her muscles. Her heart was racing. Pyrgus had vanished! She grabbed the psychotronic spider and dropped it back into the jewel box. Then she ran from her room.

The chapel was in chaos. Dozens of technician priests seemed to be running here and there to no purpose whatsoever. Blue’s eyes went at once to the portal. The space between the twin pillars was devoid of the familiar flames. In their place hung a dirty grey fog, all that was left of the natural portal owned by House Iris. To one side, part buried in the chapel floor, were the great machines that maintained it now and gave it life. But their metallic covers had been stripped away and component parts were strewn about.

She stepped forward to find her way barred by a near-hysterical priest. ‘No admittance!’ he screamed wildly. ‘Nobody is permitted – ‘ He recognised her belatedly and stepped aside. ‘I’m sorry, Your Highness. Forgive me.’

Blue swept past him without a word. She was fighting to control her emotions. Pyrgus would be fine. Pyrgus was fine. This was just a glitch, just some silly mistake or misunderstanding. Whatever had gone wrong could be corrected. Pyrgus was still safe. She looked around until she spotted Peacock, the Chief Portal Engineer, and marched directly up to him. He was a man she’d spoken to before and liked. Although technically a priest, he cared very little for the ceremonial aspect of his profession. It was the mechanics of portal transportation that fascinated him. He was just the man she needed at this moment. ‘What’s happened?’ Blue asked.

Peacock looked worried and distracted. ‘Your brother is missing. He never reached the portal destination.’

‘I know that,’ Blue told him. ‘I want to know what happened.’

‘That’s what we’re trying to find out.’ He nodded towards the scattered components.

‘Was there a fault in the equipment?’

Peacock hesitated, bit his lip, then said, ‘Could be, but my money’s on sabotage.’

She fought down a growing panic and managed to hold her voice steady. ‘What makes you think so?’

‘Well, we know the portal’s not working properly since it didn’t send him where he was supposed to go. But the filter’s not working properly either. I’ve just stripped it down myself. It looks OK on the outside, even tests OK so long as you only run a routine check. But it’s not doing its job. The filter and the portal mechanism are different things – they work quite independently of each other. Chances against two major faults like that developing at the same time are far too high for my liking. I think somebody’s been up to something.’

Blue said, ‘Isn’t the filter working at all?’

‘Only up to a point, Your Highness.’

‘What’s that mean?’

‘When he went through, he’d have translated into the small winged analogue, just like going through a natural portal,’ Peacock told her soberly. He caught her expression and added quickly, ‘But it wouldn’t last. There was enough of a charge in the filter to pull him back to his natural size and shape sooner or later.’

Blue stared at him. ‘How long?’

‘Difficult to say.’

‘Then guess!’ Blue snapped.

‘Few days… week or two. Month at most. Hard to say.’

‘Days? Weeks? A month?’ Blue echoed. ‘He could be killed by anything. A mouse could kill him. A dragonfly could kill him!’

‘Yes, but they probably won’t.’

It was an empty reassurance and she ignored it. ‘Do you know – ‘ She stopped because her father had entered the chapel, trailed by Tithonus. They spotted the Chief Portal Engineer and headed towards him. Around them, the scurrying priests froze in place, apprehension showing on their faces.

‘Holly Blue,’ her father said, ‘I’d like you to go to your room. I need to speak to the Chief Portal Engineer on a – ‘

‘I know what’s happened, Father,’ Blue told him. ‘And I’d like to stay.’

He hesitated for less than a second, then turned to Peacock. ‘Do we know if he’s alive?’

‘No, sire.’

‘Assuming he is, do we know where he’s gone?’

‘Not yet, sire. But we’re working to find out.’

‘How long will it take?’

‘About a week, sire.’

‘A week!’ the Emperor flared. ‘I can’t wait a week to find out if my son is alive or dead!’

‘Sire, we have to strip down and analyse every component in the machinery. After that, we have to run tests. We might be lucky and get an answer sooner, but…’ His face said clearly that he wouldn’t bank on it.

‘Someone’s tampered with the filter,’ Blue said.

‘Tampered?’ The Emperor rounded on the Chief Portal Engineer. ‘You mean this wasn’t just an accident?’

‘It may not have been an accident,’ Peacock said carefully.

‘I’m afraid it’s certainly no accident,’ a new voice put in. They turned to find the Senior Medical Priest had joined them. He was a smoothly handsome grey-haired man, but his eyes were bloodshot now and his face showed strain. ‘Your Majesty, may I speak to you in private?’

Blue moved to follow her father as the two stepped away, but he waved her back. She watched their huddled conversation with increasing frustration. She could read nothing from their faces. After a moment they broke apart and her father returned, his features like a mask. ‘Holly Blue, please come with me. Tithonus, I’d like you to find Comma, then bring him to join us in my apartments.’

‘Yes, sire,’ said Tithonus, and left without another word.

Blue knew better than to push her father at a time like this, but in the event she didn’t have very long to wait.

Tithonus entered after a discreet knock and announced formally, ‘Prince Comma, Your Majesty.’ Comma came in looking distinctly shifty, as if he expected to be accused of something; but since he had a nose for trouble, this was much his usual attitude around his father.

‘I’d like you to stay, Tithonus,’ the Emperor said. ‘Please sit.’ He looked gravely from one to the other. ‘Comma, I asked you here because you are next in line to the throne after the Crown Prince. Holly Blue, you are a blood member of House Iris, so what I have to say concerns you too.’ He drew a deep breath and sighed. ‘Tithonus, you are my Gatekeeper and in the present circumstances I shall need your counsel more than ever before – there is a possibility we may be facing a covert act of war.’

Blue’s jaw dropped and she looked at Comma, but he was staring sullenly at his shoes. Tithonus seemed impassive as ever.

The Emperor went on, ‘Blue, I know how close you are to Pyrgus and if I knew any way to break this gently I would. I’m afraid your brother, the Crown Prince, may soon – ‘ he stopped, then corrected himself ‘ – will soon be dead.’

T know about the filter,’ Blue cut in quickly. ‘The portal may have shrunk him, but he’s clever. I know some people get killed, but Pyrgus can look after himself, no matter what size he is. And it won’t last for ever – the Chief Portal Engineer told me himself he’d come back to his normal size and he can always hide until – ‘

Her father gestured her to silence. ‘It’s not the filter, although clearly that was part of a broadly based assassination attempt. But the critical factor was never the portal. I believe that was tampered with as back-up to make sure Pyrgus could get no help when he discovered he’d been poisoned.’

‘Poisoned?’ Blue exclaimed, eyes wide. Comma looked up from his shoe inspection and even Tithonus seemed stunned.

The Emperor said tightly, ‘The Senior Medical Priest has just informed me that the vaccine ampule used on Pyrgus was tampered with. There are traces of triptium on the syringe.’

‘What’s triptium?’ asked Comma, speaking for the first time.

The distress was evident on the Emperor’s face. Tithonus put in softly, ‘It is a drug sometimes used by Darkside assassins.’

The Emperor said, ‘Thank you, Tithonus, but they deserve to hear the whole truth.’ He turned back towards Blue and Comma. ‘Your brother has been injected with a slow-acting toxin. The substance reacts with natural agents in the bloodstream and spreads almost like a bacterium. There are no symptoms at first, but after a period of time – it can vary from a few days to about two weeks – the triptium collects in the brain and begins to ferment. As the pressure builds, the person experiences nausea and increasingly severe headaches. Eventually – ‘ He swallowed.’ – eventually – ‘ He stopped, unable to go on.

‘What?’ Blue demanded, terrified. ‘You must tell us what!’

The Emperor closed his eyes. ‘Eventually his head explodes,’ he said.

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