The hippo-crate dumped out one leather satchel and one mangled mess of a Dirtamancer at the entrance to the Royal palace, then flapped its feathery wings and leapt away skyward for parts unknown.
Digdoug immediately fell to his knees and plopped over onto his stomach, lying still on the cool gray granite of the palace steps. Despite the explicit urgency of his orders, he rested his chin on the stone, laid his palms on the solid ground, and felt his way down through the great building’s foundation. Far below, reaching as far down as he could sense, he found the fires of the world. For a few blessed moments, he warmed his numb brain there.
They had never landed. He’d just spent three days and two nights in the belly of that bumping, reeking thing, and they never once touched ground. Twice he’d ordered it to land, but it was following orders from a higher authority. Other than the scroll he had made yesterday, there was nothing to do, nothing to see from his perch inside it, and nothing to think about except what had happened (or almost happened) in Weatherbug.
He picked up his satchel and stood, taking a moment as he always did in this city to look up and wonder at the architecture. Sleek lines, bold supporting structures, and a cunningly functional layout. The rounded facades of granite and glass stood in harmony with rows of vegetable gardens and fruit trees. The apples and plums were both blooming this turn, and applebees darted through the sunlit bands between towers. The City of Homekey had been created directly from the mind of King Posbrake when he’d founded this side, and it said something about the man.
Digdoug was never sure what, though. He secretly hoped it meant that his Ruler had the soul of a Dirtamancer. Why else would he have traded away his own son for one? But then, he found the King a strange and difficult man to talk to, not like a Dirtamancer at all (although Digdoug had admittedly never met another one).
He had no idea why the King would order him back here. It must be serious. He took in few breaths of blossom-scented air, then sighed and climbed the steps to find His Majesty.
Inside, the palace had a certain unorthodox logic to it as well. The floors followed a standardized plan. Chromium number plaques adorned the carpeted hallways, almost like street signs. The central atrium was sunlit and warm, roofed with a long archway of glass and wrought iron.
The walkway through this area was lined with dirt and cabbages, the King's own indoor specialty garden. He’d heard a Delkey warlord make fun of it once, but Digdoug really couldn’t see why. These cabbages were scrumptious. The larder staff served them stuffed with rice and ground lamb.
Courtiers occasionally hailed him with “hulloa” and a smile as they hurried through the halls. Some of them gave him an “Ah, good” expression, as if they’d been expecting his arrival and could now check it off their list. There weren’t a lot of people at the palace, but the ones who were assigned here had a lot to do.
Follywood had used courtiers as servants and entertainment, as was traditional. But King Posbrake used most of his courtiers as advisors—on political, logistical, and even minor military matters. He expected them to know things, not merely do as they were told and stand idly by.
There was even a “Chief” of staff here, a woman (not a Lady) named Bucky Bits, and it was to her office that Digdoug finally reported. Without any other casters to command, he himself didn't even qualify for the title of Chief yet, but that was how the King wanted Bucky to be addressed.
Digdoug didn't really mind it. Bucky had her job and he had his, and they were both good at what they did. She knew everything and everybody; nobody would know better than her where King Posbrake was, or when and where he wanted to meet with his lone Caster.
“He doesn’t, actually,” said Chief Bits. “He’s prepared some written orders for you.”
Digdoug took the scroll from her hand and glanced at the seal: six little squares in two rows of three, five of them imprinted downward and the center-top one embossed, the Royal seal of Homekey. He broke it gingerly and unwrapped the white ribbon, thinking that at least the message inside it would explain everything.
He handed it back to the Chief even more confused than before.
“That can’t be right,” said Digdoug. “I don’t understand this.”
Chief Bits, who was dressed in a black frock with a light gray bodice that made her look like a seagoing bird of some kind, fixed her intense brown eyes on him. “You don’t understand the wording of the order? Or its purpose?”
“Its intent, I suppose. I can’t—”
“Follow it, regardless, Dirtamancer.”
“I...” Digdoug struggled to get his words together. Three days without talking or seeing anyone had taken a toll. “Could I...ask His Majesty about it? We usually meet over things like...this.”
“No,” said the Chief. “You may meet with King Posbrake tomorrow at Court. At that time, we will be entertaining Prince Creen. Until then, he is taking no visitors.” She turned smoothly around and stepped around a large desk stacked with papers and books, then disappeared into a back room where he couldn’t see her.
After nearly a minute, he heard her add, “Good day!”
Digdoug climbed the tower without really looking at it, which was a bit sloppy, since he’d have to be going over every brick of the thing soon. But he couldn’t spare much thought for the particulars of his order when he was so baffled by the reasons for them.
“Air defense?” he said aloud, to the breeze. His feet dangled over the side of the respectable eight-story structure. He could see most of the city from right here, and even spot the cabbages through the atrium roof. “Here?!”
He looked at the ground far below and had a weird, intrusive thought. If he jumped off the tower and began tunneling straight down, how much farther than ground level would he fall before impact? Could a master-class Dirtamancer tunnel fast enough to use all of his juice up first? If he did leap or fall, could he create a water trap or something below him that would deaden his impact and mitigate the fall damage?
Water traps. Weatherbug. Allison. Oh, they’d pulled him off the front lines for this? Whyeee?!
It made no sense at all. Numloch was their only enemy, and Allison said Numloch was not a threat by air. Even if they were, the capital was Homekey’s farthest city from the front. This tower right under his butt was already the strongest air defense in the kingdom, by far. (He guessed Weatherbug was now second, actually, since he’d spent his juice on the tower upgrade before getting into the transport unit.)
So who was he supposed to be fortifying this tower against? The only other sides Homekey even bordered were Delkey and Paige Downs. Paige didn’t really have an army. It was a rinky-dink little domain that could barely afford the upkeep on its garrison units, and it was keeping to a strict treaty-enforced policy of neutrality in the war between its neighbors to the northwest and northeast. Probably they were praying not to be conquered by the winner.
And Delkey was not just a close ally but family, the parent land. Certainly there was always some tension between Posbrake and Creen’s sensibilities, but as Digdoug understood it, that’s why the side was spun off, to give Posbrake some space. He’d done very well with it, too. Delkey was much safer than before, with Homekey protecting its eastern flank. No, warring with them was more or less unthinkable.
He gripped the block of stone beside his shoulder and felt his way into the tower. His Caster’s mind was already starting to get interested in the problem of boosting spell defense on a tower this big.
He fought the urge, though. He wasn’t usually one to question orders, but this was ludicrous. Such a waste of time. He could have been done in Weatherbug by now.
Hm, okay. Fifteen granite columns supporting...repeating archway pattern for weight reduction, reinforced with iron, nice...
Whatever it was, was it this urgent? What if Weatherbug got overrun while he was back here goofing around with homeland security? He hadn’t finished his traps! It wasn’t fair to...to the soldiers.
He liked the foundation of this thing, though. It reached to bedrock and squatted there. If he wanted to add some height and girth, this tower would not complain...
Oh, and, while you’re at it, make sure the Dirtamancer doesn’t even know what he’s doing here. Don’t even meet with him. “Air defense” isn’t just one monolithic idea, you know. Are we fighting dwagons? Thunderbirds? Airbiscuits? What?
But then he began to see the magical sense-and-respond lattice within the tower’s pattern of arches, and it was really elegant. He could do a lot with that. He’d have to give it his undivided attention, though.
On the battlefield of his mind, his love for Dirtamancy met and conquered his exasperation with his orders. His Majesty would explain all of this nonsense tomorrow. Today, Digdoug would just have to get to work.