The final stage of the wine’s power over Digdoug was a dark and painful one. Apparently, the joy it had given him needed to be repaid immediately, in the currency of headaches, nausea, and exhaustion.
An hour or so before dawn, he escorted Chief Bucky to her quarters so she could catch the briefest of naps before the morning’s meeting. But he couldn’t face the stairs back to his own bed, knowing he’d just have to climb them again so soon. So he hunted down a cup of coffee, and opted to watch the rising sun instead.
Digdoug sat alone on the palace steps and sipped, seeing the sky turn pink, then golden, and then a pale, pale blue.
“You contend that I always make demands of you, brother,” said Prince Creen, “but that simply isn’t true. When—hhrnn—from time to time, I come to you with a request, then I am only ever asking what is necessary for the good of both our realms.”
King Posbrake scowled. “The last time you called upon me, you demanded to examine our finances. And—
“Requested,” interjected Creen.
“...and repeated Father’s demand that I pop an heir. Now you’re demanding nothing short of supreme command over my forces?” Posbrake placed both of his palms flat on the tabletop and looked Creen in the eye. “If you ever came to visit and did not demand something of me, I’d have cause to question your identity.”
Digdoug watched the Prince of Delkey blow out a long, thin stream of air through his lips, like a silent whistle. He caught a whiff of anise on his breath. Even this man’s sighs were strange.
As with the last time Creen had come here, the white-wigged, crimson-coated Prince was seated on the opposite side of the Long Table from Bucky, Peck and Digdoug. Unlike the last time, however, he had a pair of Delkey captains seated beside him. They were brawny, mustachioed men in enameled plate armor that gouged up the furniture. They said very little, but watched everyone.
“For all intents, Delkey grants Homekey’s every request. This one,” Creen indicated Chief Peck with the briefest wave of his fingers, “requested Delkey archery units for an offensive he was planning. Not ‘demanded,’ you see? I know the difference. And as it was a reasonable request, beneficial to both of our sides, I was more than happy to grant it. That,” he kept his eyelids half closed as he regarded King Posbrake, “is how things are meant to be done. I simply wanted to see the plan for myself, before committing our forces to the field.” Creen turned his head and made a snide, accusatory face at Peck. “And there turned out not to be a plan.”
“There is a plan,” snarled Peck. Bucky said Chief Peck and Prince (also incidentally Chief) Creen had nearly come to blows at the King’s audience here last night. They didn’t look any friendlier this morning.
“Hhrnn. Yes, I’m sure that you think so,” said Creen, turning his face to the King, “but that is the essential problem, isn’t it? This one can’t tell the difference between a proper battle plan, and dumping a crate of wooden figures onto a map.”
Digdoug tried not to grimace, but he could picture Peck hastily doing just that, when Creen showed up. The “offensive” was just a pretense to get the archers; he didn’t think Chief Peck had even bothered to come up with a battle plan to corroborate his claim.
“Not that he can be blamed, really,” continued Creen airily. “He’s been promoted beyond his station and degree of competence. That is not his fault, but his Ruler’s.”
Posbrake stiffened. “Chief Peck has my full confidence. And you tread on dangerous terrain.”
“Well. Hhrnn. Perhaps I misspoke,” said Creen. “As it would seem that is the essential problem, after all...not that your warlords cannot tell what makes a good battle plan, but that you cannot tell what makes a good warlord.”
“As if you would know!” snapped Peck. “When is the last time you even fought?”
Creen closed his eyes and squeezed out one small chuckle, which escaped through his nose.
“You see?” He held out a lily white hand, dextrous and dainty, to indicate Chief Peck as he spoke to Posbrake. “This one is a footsoldier, a field warrior at best. It is how he thinks. The Titans popped him thus, and it can’t be helped. He’s to be commended for what he is, not promoted in pretense of what he is not—and cannot—become. Your latest such...experiment all too predictably fell, trying to lead a battle beyond his ken. The replacement is no better, and I shall not have Delkey troops following another such person’s command. No. You will grant Delkey field supremacy within your borders, until such time as you pop a proper warlord to lead your army. An heir to the,” he waved his hand like a wounded bird in a contemptuous gesture aimed at Posbrake’s chair, “throne.”
In the silence that followed, it was Chief Peck’s face that Digdoug watched. Peck’s lips were parted, as if a word had gotten stuck in his throat. But his eyes were slowly narrowing. It was pretty clear what he must be thinking:
Lord Hunt was right.
Creen was a Royalist snob, after all. He had no use for any warlord who’d been promoted up from infantry. Delkey had been putting up with Posbrake’s meritocratic sensibility up until this point. But now they were putting a foot down and demanding a Royal unit be popped and put in charge.
More than once, Peck had defended Prince Creen against that charge of snobbery. Digdoug saw him shake his head just slightly, still staring speechlessly at his counterpart across the ebon table. He looked...wounded.
“No,” said King Posbrake at last.
Prince Creen drew in a very deep breath through his nose, then let it out again though pinched lips. “You may force Delkey to take actions which do not benefit both our realms,” he said. “Withdrawing our forces to our own territory, for example.”
“That’s a cornerstone of our terms of alliance,” said Posbrake acidly, “supremacy of command within our own territory. I won’t cede that right, even temporarily. Especially not to placate your bigotry. Or Father’s. I’ve told you; we are not Delkey’s colony.”
“Revising the terms of alliance,” said Prince Creen coolly, “would be another example of an action we might be forced to take, if—”
Three horns, muffled by distance and stonework, sounded a high alarm in urgent harmony. Enemy units in the airspace.
The King and Chief Peck leapt to their feet, and Digdoug scrambled to get out of his high-backed chair without impeding anyone else’s path to the door.
“Follow!” ordered Peck, charging up the carpet beside the Long Table.
Digdoug did as ordered. Halfway to the door, he glanced back to see King Posbrake trailing behind, shepherding Creen and his captains up the aisle. The Prince was hovering over the tabletop, floating along expressionlessly. Bucky was still seated, gathering up her papers.
A quick dash down two corridors and up one flight of steps brought them all out into the morning sunshine by the base of the tower. Ground level troops had mostly deployed themselves to the walls, but two stacks of stabbers were now screening the Ruler, the Chief, and the Caster.
Digdoug squinted up into the blue, and there they all were. Dozens of Archons in small formations of two and three dotted the sky.
“Signal for parley!” shouted Peck. It was a part of the plan that the Archons would refuse to parley. A lone, inquiring horn blew.
Creen floated lightly to the ground, then walked out into the sun, looking up. “Not Numloch. But Numloch allies, as it’s their turn. What’s that livery?” he said, squinting up.
“Charlescomm. Mercenary side,” said Peck, looking up as well. The Archons were moving in a gradually coalescing spiral around the tower. Homekey’s few flyers hovered directly overhead, in a single stack. “Take your archers to the garrison walls and stand alert!” Peck ordered. “We’ll be in the tower!”
Creen kept looking up, without uttering a word or making any movement.
“Do it!” Peck snapped.
Creen glanced at him with disdain, then looked over to Posbrake, who had just drawn his sword and was glaring at his brother. The Prince put his hands on his hips and sighed.
A bright bolt of Shockmancy struck the ground between Creen and Peck. Digdoug jumped at the sheer power of it. The cobblestones were smoking and scorched. There were shouts from all around, as more bolts zapped at the walls and tower.
Creen reached up and adjusted his wig.
“Yes, very well,” he said. Still holding the wig to his head, he turned on his heel and sprinted for the wall. His two captains followed in immediate tow.
“Come on,” ordered Peck.
The troops turned en masse and marched for the tower steps, sweeping up Digdoug and King Posbrake with them. Just before he ducked inside, Digdoug tried to glance at the ambush hole he’d built for Dove. Was that a hint of orange light inside? He couldn’t actually tell.
All the way up the winding stairs, as he hustled along between sweating, stomping soldiers, Digdoug thought about that Shockmancy blast. It hadn’t hit anyone, but it sounded and felt like a full power bolt. If he had thrown his own hardest hoboken shot, it wouldn’t have sounded as loud as that.
By the time they reached the blockhouse and saw the commotion at the top of the tower, he was fairly certain this fight was for keeps. Even within the little patch of sky he could see, there were Archons throwing heavy blasts around. Intermittent sounds of explosions rang in his ears.
“Halt!” shouted Peck. “Caster, call your golems!”
Before Digdoug could even formulate an order, he saw the three stony golems shuffling into the sunlit doorway. Peck’s own order had sufficed to summon them. One of them bore a large black wound on its hip from a Shockmancy hit.
“Stack up,” said Peck. Digdoug and the King had already been stacked with Peck since before the meeting began, but the golems now fell in line with them. Two high-level stabbers joined them as well. A blast rattled the walls of the bunker. “Are you ready?”
Digdoug nodded. The tower was full of juice, even if he wasn’t. His head still hurt, but this was his fight to lead.
"Sire?" asked Peck.
The King had been looking out the doorway and into the distance, his face frozen and his sword held close at hand. He blinked, and motioned forward with his chin. "On with it," he said.
Staying close to Posbrake and shielded by the stone posterior of his second largest golem, Digdoug advanced with the stack. The eight of them passed through the wide open doors and stepped outside.
It was louder and brighter out here. Archons zoomed by, many of them making actual zooming noises as they buzzed the tower. The Homekey archers were loosing no volleys, just taking random potshots and ducking a lot. A few of them were down, but Digdoug couldn’t see if they were croaked or incapacitated. The tower top was littered with broken arrows and scored by blasts. The hippo-crates screeched overhead, as the Archons harried them.
Time to shoot back.
He peeked through the gap between rock bodies and picked a target. She was one of a pair that was flying a little slower, a fair-skinned figure in blue like all the rest, but with distinctive auburn hair that made her easy to stay focused on. With his casting senses, he reached into the tower and found the spells that he had inlaid within its iron superstructure. Without taking his physical eyes off the target, he unbound one and released it, clamping down hard to regulate the power to the minimum possible, for those were his orders.
The blast, if you could call it that, leapt from the tower like a magical wad of spit, barely visible. It was headed toward the Archon he had selected, but he might as well have thrown a pebble at her.
Then his bolt instantaneously grew bright. It flashed like a piece of the sun, and connected with his target in a fury of yellow lightning and a bone-rattling rip of sound.
She screamed. You could have heard her horrifying shriek for three hexes in any direction. A black, scorched hole had been cut through her lower body.
She fell away, and her flying partner dove down after her, trying to catch her body before it reached the rooftops. But a trailing arrow struck the partner as well. Then they fell below his vantage, and Digdoug couldn’t see what became of them.
He had seen something else, though; nobody had actually shot that arrow. He’d watched it appear in the air and arc toward the diving unit, in an absolutely glorious piece of Foolamancy.
Curiously, he touched the wound on his hard rock golem’s waist. Where there should have been a hole, he felt solid stone.
Casters wore no armor, but the iron of a contract with Charlescomm suddenly felt solid upon his chest.
Digdoug smiled, and unbound another spell.