Act I: Court's Five Devils
Chapter V: Breaking Fast
Johan opened his eyes and half expected a courtier to be there already, hurrying him to wake up and get dressed so he could arrive in time for his meeting with his father. Just like old times.
But there were no courtiers nor warlords nor any kind of servant to scold him. Unlike old times. But he didn't expect many things to be the same. He couldn't even remember how were things back then. More than two thousand turns had passed since he had slept in the bedroom of the palace for the last time. He couldn't even remember how were things back then.
He stood up and left his royal bed behind. Most of the walls in Johan's bedroom were filled with bookcases, in which laid tomes of ancient battles, and about some other stuff most warlords thought was useless: about magic, philosophy and Duty. He even had a book that explained Loyalty and is implications in modern warfare and improvised tactics. Damn. And they were all useful, too, one way or another. By reading a book about biology Johan discovered how to make more frequent critical hits. After his brothers and sisters found out, they started borrowing books from Johan's shelves.
He loved his books, and he had popped with the desire of reading and knowing more and more. He couldn't help notice a gap between his books in the magic section.
By elimination he discovered the missing tome from his archive: Erfworld's Bestiawy. It was, by appearance only, the oldest book of all of his possessions, growing every day each time Court or one of its allies encountered a new unit. He couldn't think why it was missing, as he himself hadn't read it in at least a hundred turns. Every other turn he would ask a member of his personal reaper guard to bring him a book from his room, so he could spend a good night reading good literature. This ritual had remained unchanged during Johan's lifetime. Even during war time he would spend some time reading. And yet, he hadn't read them all in his more than seven thousand turns of living. Each time he finished reading a book and returned it to its place in its bookcase, another one would pop in its place. That was, of course, if Johan didn't think it was worth keeping. Some of the books, like the Bestiawy, had been in his room since his time of popping, as he considered them too useful or interesting to be depopped.
A knocking sound coming from the door startled him. Johan turned around and opened the door completely.
"Oh, Brother! That's not the proper raiment for a meeting with the King."
Johan looked confused at Anna, who was standing next to Andrew, both of them wearing their royal suits, looking at him. Then he understood, that he was still in in his sleeping clothes. He sighed and with a sign told them to wait.
Once he had changed into the clothes he normally used to dealing with diplomatic situations with Father, he walked with them to the King's throne room, which brought up some interesting memories about last night. They didn't talk about it, though, and avoided anything even remotely related to his father's shocking announcement. Instead, they talked about the weather, the status of their current jobs, and their assessment on Court's military.
"Wavens? WAVENS?" Cried Johan after hearing his brother speak about probably spending the next few turns popping nothing more than wavens in their cities of Godot and Fey. "Why don't you pop some bloody crows or courtiers, while you're at it?"
A couple of courtiers in their gowns passing by overheard it and glared at him with hatred, but he didn't give a piece of Titan's mucus about their opinion.
"Brother, please" said Andrew, noting the sarcasm on Johan's voice, "wavens are strong and steady flyers. We'll need them in the upcoming battles with NBC if we want to keep them from taking those cities."
"Sure, the Nation of the Badlands Congress lacks in flying units, but our current stock of gigawavens in those cities can take care of them with ease. Popping some reapers might as well prove more useful" commented Anna, "and I hope Charles II is thinking like that. It would be by far a better investment."
"May I remind you, Sister, that a single reaper takes 9 turns to pop. If Godot, for example, popped wavens, we would already have 3 of them in that amount of time."
"But they wouldn't be such an effective assault unit" said Johan. Andrew nodded thoughtfully, considering their opinion on the matter. After all, both of them were older than him, and supposedly wiser.
"Although we already have a good amount of reapers around" added Andrew.
"It's still better than wavens. And much more than crows. Titans know we don't need more scouts, and our gigawaven fleet is large as it is" pointed out Johan.
"Besides, they get a better bonus from our artifacts" added Anna. Indeed, their reapers got double the bonus from the Artifacts of the Kings, unlike their other units.
"Looks like we should leave our discussion for later" said Andrew. They had arrived at the throne room, where two reapers were stationed. One of them saluted them and opened the door.
The room was completely empty, with the exception of King Charles and Mia the Mastermind sitting in a large rectangular table. The King welcomed them and invited them to join him. Someone (probably a couple of reapers) had placed the dinner table in from of the King's throne and five chairs around it.
They took their place in the table along with the King. Johan sat on the side of the table opposite from where his father was sitting, while Anna seated to his right. This seemed odd, for some reason. Then Johan understood that it was the Chief Warlord's seat. Anna looked uncomfortable sitting there.
The King was talking with the King of the Mark via thinkagram, from what Johan could hear from the conversation. His brother and sister waited silently until their rations popped. An they did, as stunning as they always were.
Johan looked at his plate: a large silk worm on goatee sauce. He made a disgust face.
"What does it remind you of?" Asked Andrew in a low voice.
Johan smiled, but did not answer him. He knew that Signamancers thought every look, every word in this world had a meaning. Johan had the luck to meet a Signamancer once, thanks to Court's Foolamancer, Franziska. That Signamancer said that even rations' appearance had a meaning. Ever since that turn, Johan's food reminded him of something. Most of the time, on croaked people he once knew. Some other times, on some... intangible stuff.
"Do you remember that battle bear Joanna croaked once?" Asked Johan. Andrew nodded. "Well, it reminds me of what was left of that warlord when the big corpse fell on him."
Anna laughed at this, and Andrew simply frowned. Johan shrugged and waited for his King to finish the thinkagram. Their food didn't look so bad. Why did Johan always get the crappy rations? Well, they were delicious, but rather bad looking. Just that.
"I'm glad you're in high spirits today."
They all turned around and saw the King, who had just finished his call. He had this fake smile on his face. A crappy smile, too.
"Good" continued King Charles, "we'll need you in high spirits today."
"You've been nothing but smiles and happiness these past few turns, Father" commented sarcastically Johan. The King then frowned and looked at him with contempt. There. Now they all saw his real face.
"Son, the weight on my shoulders is far more than what you can understand. Of course, I hope Anna won't have as much trouble when she steps up and becomes... Queen."
Anna didn't say anything at all, and started stirring her soup with her spoon.
"Don't play with your food" ordered the King, and she obeyed.
The five of them ate quietly for a few moments, before Andrew unexpectedly broke the silence.
"Father, why did you call us here today?" The King stopped eating, but didn't answer back.
"Oh, why do we need a reason to eat in company of our family, Andrew? It may be just the pleasure of having us all in the capital" answered Johan.
"I hope it wasn't the main reason, though. Father, you know we have more important stuff to do in the kingdom. Please, if you are going to speak, do so now."
The King frowned and looked at his half-eaten plate. Then, he put it aside and joined his fists together.
"I'm sure you remember my announcement last night" said the King, looking at Anna. She nodded, while Mia just looked at them all with the same worried face she always had.
"Well, then you must be wondering why did I appoint Anna as the crown princess instead of keeping that weight on my homonimous son."
"Yes, we all do. Could you care to explain, Father?" Asked Andrew in the most polite manner he could. He was still shocked by that, Johan noticed. "And where are Charles II and Joanna, by the way?"
"What do you mean?" Asked both Anna and Johan at the same time. Johan thought they were still at Von Karma.
"Well, our brother and sister left early this turn. First thing I saw through the window in my room when I woke up was a flight of gigawavens taking to the skies, with both princes leading them, and a couple of warlords, too. Care to explain, Father?"
Now Johan understood why he hadn't seen the gigawavens take off. His and Anna's rooms were on the northern side of the castle, while Andrew's and Charles II's rooms were on the southern side of it. That would also explain...
"The crown" talked the King. Johan wasn't sure if he took notice on Andrew's claim, "is a very serious weight. And it requires a... special touch to handle. Not all of us could handle the pressure. Anna, my third daughter, possesses that innate quality. You can't teach that to every prince. You have to pop with it."
"But Father, what do I know about battle and kingdoms?" Asked Anna.
"You know about administration. That should do."
"Don't whine and yell like a little girl, Anna. You will soon rule this kingdom. And you have the aid of your brothers and sister. I think you could make this an even greater side with your abilities."
"May I remind you that Charles II was the perfect heir? An even then... I'm sure there are other princes more knowlodgeable and capable of doing the job" said Anna, touching Johan's shoulder while doing so.
"Charles... has other things in mind. Yes, he was looking forward to it, but I know you better than anyone. And not too long ago I realized he would never do a good King. As for what you're claiming of your brother..." answered the King as he looked violently to Johan. "He is smart, yes. Perhaps the smartest and wisest of all the people sitting in this table right now. And of war and kingdoms he knows, too. But I have never heard him speak of wanting the crown himself."
"And I do not want it. Too much responsibility, Father" said Johan when all the eyes looked at him. "And you know I fully support my older sister. She would make the perfect Queen of us all."
"What about Andrew, then?" Asked not Anna, but the King. He was clearly challenging them all.
"No, Father. I'm not experienced enough for that, and I bet you thought your decision well."
King Charles nodded. Something was bothering Johan, though...
"Father, why do you claim Anna will be ruling this side... soon? Do you expect to croak so quickly?"
Now it was the King's turn to feel all the gazes upon him. He laughed vigorously before replying.
"Johan, it isn't something I'm looking forward to, but you know it will be inevitable. I don't know the exact moment for sure, but my demise will arrive."
"How organized you sound, Father" said Andrew.
"Indeed. And that is why I took the other decision."
"Pop another prince?" Asked Anna.
"Or princess" clarified Andrew.
"Indeed. Five more turns remain, but soon you will all meet your new brother... or sister."
"What do you have in mind for this new member of the family, Father?"
"All in due time, Anna. You'll see very soon."
"Ah, we should party for a whole turn when he pops! To welcome this new... brother or sister" said Johan with fake joy. The King smiled.
"I'm afraid not, Johan. For a matter I've tried to keep hidden until now" all of the princes exchanged looks. What was the King talking about? "And it's the same reason why your elder brother and younger sister have left. We are at war."
"What?! With who?" Asked Andrew. Anna and Johan exchanged looks. Johan had a clear guess on who it might be.
"The Mezons?" Asked Johan nervously. The King nodded.
"Not. Possible" said Anna. "Why? They're our allies."
"Not any more. A couple of turns ago they broke alliance and took Phoenix by force. Wright, the warlord taking care of the city, croaked after telling me of their treason."
"We must take our city back!" Said Andrew, standing up with determination. Johan and Anna, along with the King, stared at him. Without any response, the prince sat back down.
"Johan, I belive you know more about tactics than your brothers. Can you tell me what our move should be next?" Asked the King. Johan thought about it for a second, and then spoke.
"Phoeniz is lost. It's easily our most unguarded city. Although being a level 4. It's loss shouldn't represent such a big strike to our forces, still. And I believe... there were only a dozen archers guarding it, along with a couple of wavens and some reapers? No, it's an easy catch. If they know our battle tactics--and they do, because we've fought many wars with them--they will gather most of their ground forces and flyers there, awaiting for our attack. If we strike to recapture the city, we may win... but it will cripple our military. No, we must do something unexpected... like... massing a small army at White and wait for them to attack. Don't forget we also know their battle tactics. A small group of reapers and a fleet of..." then it hit him. "A fleet of gigawavens should do. So THAT's where you sent our Chief Warlord!"
"Indeed" said the King, nodding with pleasure. Johan's tactical assessment never failed to provide the best councel available. And he was proud when he saw the King's smile. "Your brother wanted to take Phoenix back by rushing there, just like Andrew here. But I thought... what would Johan do?"
Johan smiled at the compliment, but it didn't make the matter easier.
"Father. As much as I'm... pleased with your compliment, you have failed to see one thing."
"And what would that be?"
"The Mezons don't rely on luck. They know we are a strong side. If they are truly keen on invading us, they will do more than just attack one city at a time. They might as well go on a full-scale attack. Maybe hit Galactica as well. If they haven't done that yet, of course."
"No, that's not possible. I talked with Max this morning, once our turn began" said Anna, finally speaking. "He didn't mention any changes in the turn order. And we all know that Court's turn comes very late. Later than most other sides nearby."
"So the Mezon's haven't entered Galactica's battlespace yet. Very well, then" said the King, standing up as he spoke. Mia stood up as well. "I have made a decision."
"Will we fight, Father?" Asked Andrew with excitement. The King nodded, and a smile crossed his face.
"Yes. Anna..." Johan's sister stood up. Johan and Andrew did so as well. "Take a group of flyers. wavens and gigawavens as well. And some reapers, too. You'll need the magic."
"What for?" Asked Anna, although she already knew the answer.
"You'll lead the defense of Galactica. I want you to leave right away."
The three princes were confused as hell. What was going on with King Charles?
"Father, I'm not a warrior! I don't know about military! Well... definitely not as much as any of my brothers here. And they're higher level, too. I'm a diplomat! How can you ask me to command this battle?" Yelled Anna, losing her grip on the situation. She was afraid, Johan could see.
"But you are a warlord! And it is your Duty! Although I... I understand. That's why Johan is going with you."
"Me?" Asked Johan, partly confused, partly excited. He hadn't seen action in a long time.
"Yes. You're our tactical advisor. Remember? I want your sister to talk to these traitors and find some sense into this war. And I want you to help her with the troops. You're familiar with reapers, aren't you? You use them on all your campaigns."
"Then start movilizing our top reapers. You'll depart immediately."
"And me, Father? What is my Duty?" Asked Andrew, the only one that the King hadn't taken into consideration.
"You stay here. You're the regent warlord, son. And here is your place. Not in the front lines."
"Father, Andrew's bonus is quite--"
"I'm sorry, Anna. But no. Only the two of you will leave for battle" interrupted the King. Anna closed her mouth and sighed. The King was stubborn like this.
"Okay, Father. But I have one condition" said Johan finally. It was something that might cheer up his sister a little.
"You're in no condition to negotiate, Johan, as my orders are your will. But speak, and I'll see."
"The top reapers are quite competent, yes. But if the Mezons are attacking us in a full-scale conflict, I expect a lot of enemies. And we'll need some help."
"I already told you Andrew cannot leave."
"Yes, I know. That's why I want Judge to come with us."
The King thought about it for a few seconds, and then shook his head.
"No. Judge left with your brothers earlier this turn. They'll need him to defend White. However..." thought the King. Hah. Johan already knew the Shockmancer had left, as they hadn't seen him at the library on the way to the throne room, where he would always hang out. Now he was manipulating him. They don't teach you that in Royal Etiquette 101. "You can take Franziska."
"Good enough" answered Johan with a smile. He knew his sister realized what he just did there, and she smiled as well. Heck, maybe Father knew that, too, and just wanted to please his son. Who knew?
"Fine. Now leave. I have matters to attend" said the King, kicking them out of the room. Yeah, King Charles could be like that. Pretty much like a kick in the groin.