The King held formal audience with his brother Creen and his two Chiefs that evening. “Your attendance is optional,” Bucky informed Digdoug, looking darkly jealous. “I’d suggest making the most of your good fortune.”
“I’ll be at The Space,” nodded the Dirtamancer thankfully. “Should I save you a bottle?”
The thought of the battle tomorrow never left Digdoug’s mind, but his feelings about it shifted constantly. He found he was only afraid when he imagined it going well, if Charlescomm didn’t betray Homekey.
In that case, he was going to have to stand up on the tower and perform.
His part in this “show” was all-important, especially with Prince Creen watching. But how could he do that? Dirtamancy was only Stuffamancy, not Stagemancy or Eyemancy. As a Caster, he had been badly miscast.
When he imagined things going badly, with treachery and violence and the ending of his own life in a bright blast of magic, it only made him feel sad. He really liked his life here. It wasn’t something he was ready to part with.
So he chose to go to The Space, precisely because it might be his last night. There were happy, drunk Homekey folks there who didn’t know what was to come. He wanted to be among them. From the Feast Hall, Digdoug grabbed a basket of muffins and sweets, and a jar of dill pickles in brine. Then he went down many long flights of steps and boldly swiped three bottles of the wine cellar’s best riesling, plus one fat, squat bottle of King Posbrake’s personal cognac.
It was his fondest hope that he would live long enough to ask His Majesty’s forgiveness.
Wine has its own kind of Stagemancy.
In the first stage of the winemancy spell, Digdoug shared his pastries and a bit of the riesling—he kept the cognac hidden in the basket—with courtiers whose names he learned, then instantly forgot again. They gulped their mead and ale, and downed little cups of aqua vitae. He listened in smiling silence to their stories, which were mostly about who had shared a bed with whom among the staff. He could hardly follow a word of it without knowing the people they were talking about, but it didn’t matter. When everyone laughed, the wine laughed for him.
In the second stage of the wine’s magic, he found his voice. Someone mentioned his former side, and suddenly Digdoug had a hundred stories about a place he normally prefered not to even think about.
He described Follywood for them: a coastal empire with an impressive navy. Having never left the capital, he had to embellish a bit in his descriptions, but they hung on his every detail. These people never left their capital, either. He told them about the strange and suspicious Chief Thinkamancer Willis Circle, and the rotund, bossy Luckamancer Monty Casino. In Follywood, someone was always trying to get Digdoug involved in the intrigues of court, to play him as some kind of pawn in games he couldn’t begin to fathom. Until now, he had forgotten all of the scandals and outrages, punctuated by the occasional disbanding. He had to admit those stories were a lot juicier than the gossip around Homekey.
“Do you ever miss that place?” asked one curly-haired man, a recordkeeper of some kind.
“No! Are you incapacitated?” Digdoug clopped the two-thirds empty bottle down on the table for emphasis. He had given his glass away at some point, but he wasn’t letting that keep him from enjoying his wine. “Not a little. Not one bit! Homekey is where I belong. I should have popped here at home. Home, home, Homekey. Serving His Most Honored Majesty, King Posbrake the Wise.”
Several cups and steins were already in the air at the mention of the King’s name. He raised the bottle in toast with them, and took another deep swig of the sunny-tasting riesling. “No. Titans no. I wish Follywood well, but they deserve each other. I have you all now,” he said, raising his eyes to the dozen or so jovial staffers huddled in this hole in the wall. Tomorrow, he would have to stand and defend all of these lives, even if only by play-acting. “I can only hope to deser—deserve you...”
The tears that suddenly blurred the room marked the beginning of the third stage of the winemancy.
He couldn’t have said just how many stages there were in all. They became increasingly difficult to remember, and at least one of them involved a nap.
Or...perhaps more than a nap. Chief Bucky was shaking his shoulder. “Dirtamancer, come on!”
With a nagging pain at the base of his skull, Digdoug sat up and looked around. Whether everyone had left or Bucky had shooed them all away, The Space was empty again.
“Time is it?” he asked groggily.
“Late,” she said. She pulled out one of the wooden chairs at the table he’d been resting his head on. It scraped obnoxiously on the stone floor. “About that bottle?”
“Mmf.” Digdoug poked his head under the table, which gave the dark room a bit of side-to-side rotation, and found the basket near his feet. He pulled out the cognac, and sat back up with some difficulty. He pushed the upright bottle over the tabletop toward her.
Bucky looked at the label and then at Digdoug, a respectful “well, well” pout on her face. “Interesting choice,” she said, producing a corkscrew from her handbag. “Our Dirtamancer has some stones.”
“It’s all yours,” said Digdoug, with a hand wave. “I’ve had enough.”
“Oh no. I’ll want an accomplice in this.”
“You are the accomplice,” he said, leaning back in his chair. If he stayed slumped on the table, he’d be asleep again in seconds. “I took it. You can drink it. How was the meeting?”
“Long.” She popped the cork and grimaced. “Tense. To be continued in the morning.” Several glasses and cups were scattered on this and the surrounding tables. Bucky held up a brandy snifter and examined it in the dim light. She drained it of its aqua vitae dregs in one healthy swig, and set it on the table. Then she poured an aggressive amount of His Majesty’s best into it.
“They’re attacking in the morning,” said Digdoug.
“Which will be a relief,” said Chief Bucky. “Any excuse to adjourn will do.” She swirled and sniffed as a formality, then put the glass to her lips and set herself to the serious task of catching up to Digdoug’s state of inebriation. Four deep swallows in quick succession, she took.
Digdoug sat in his chair like a half-formed crap golem and looked up at the grand columns overhead. They shouldered the weight of this whole side of the palace, and did not feel the slightest bit sorry for themselves for that burden. They did not need to get drunk and cry about it. He should be more like that, but he knew he really couldn’t.
“What do you think is going to happen tomorrow?” he asked Bucky after a long silence. He continued staring up into space, feeling the columns with his Dirtamancy sense, bracing his mind up against them.
He could hear her drain her first glass before she answered. “I couldn’t say. Peck thinks they’ll attack, but I don’t see how. That contract...you read it, too. It’s iron. His Majesty hopes they’ll break it, but he’s...you know.”
Digdoug lifted his head and looked at her. “He’s what? In love?”
Bucky made a disgusted face as she refilled her glass. “He’s Posbrake. He’s a visionary. He sees things about tomorrow that none of us can see, I presume.” She set upon the second glass and took four more determined gulps. “As regards the matter of his being in love...if she ends up as one of us, and she makes him happy, then who am I to complain about it? That’s all I want: for His Majesty to be happy. I just wish...”
She paused for a moment, looking down into the glass. Her head twitched slightly, involuntarily. She picked up and drained the rest of glass number two with a vengeance.
“You wish what?” he asked softly. Moments passed. A fully sober Digdoug might have known better than to ask her to continue, but he pressed. “...Bucky? What do you wish?”
She gripped the neck of the bottle and gave Digdoug a narrow-eyed, bitter look. “I wish that I had been up to that task,” she said, enunciating each word precisely. “I wish he hadn’t needed someone else to please him. Especially not someone like that.”
He looked at her, and even through the dimness of the room and the dimness of the winemancy and his general, chronic dimness about people, he understood why she didn’t seem to care whether Charlescomm’s attack tomorrow would be real or fake. However things went, she had already lost. She'd lost King Posbrake.
He forced a smile. “Y’know, I’ve never actually tasted cognac,” he said. “So, uh, I guess...how about we do one toast?”
She nodded gratefully and filled her snifter a third time, then pushed the bottle back across the table to him. An empty wineglass sat on the table right next to where he’d been laying his head. He poured a splash into it, then retrieved the cork with a long reach and respectfully recorked the stolen bottle.
“To the Lady Allison Chains,” said Digdoug, holding the amber liquid up to the light and keeping it steady by force of will, “and to Chief Carl, and to, um...well, to everyone else we’ve lost.”