He ate supper that evening in the Main Hall, with Lady Chains and fifty or so expeditionary units. Their sortie hadn’t met any Numloch forces in the field today, but they’d found some good forage out there: carrots and greens, and fresh carp, now salted and fried up in lard. Some chestnuts were popping merrily in a cast iron cauldron hung up inside the fireplace.
The soldiers ate at long wooden tables. Hearthside, there were four comfortable-looking leather chairs for the leadership, but the Lady Chains ate at a table with her men, and the three other warlords followed suit. Digdoug sat on a bench across from her, gnawing on a raw carrot.
The Warlady chewed with her mouth open. “How long you here for?” she asked, gesturing at him with her fork.
He was sure he’d already told her his orders, but conversations have to start someplace. He swallowed his bite of carrot.
“King Posbrake said I could have five turns, maybe more if I need it.” He looked up at the square beams of the distant ceiling and spotted the glimmer of a falling water droplet, which landed in the hair of the soldier two seats down from him. He gestured at the ceiling and tried for a patching spell, but his juice for the day was truly all gone. “I think this place will probably need it.”
“You should simply raze it and rebuild,” muttered Duke Eften, a warlord to the Lady’s left. He was from Delkey, Homekey’s parent side and their only ally. About twenty of the troops in the hall were under his direct command, although he himself answered to the Warlady. Soldiers from both sides who were within earshot of his statement made grunts and cheers of agreement. One of them banged his tankard on the table a couple of times. To a man, they really hated this place.
Digdoug was about to say something about the potential cost of a rebuild or upgrade, but the Lady Chains growled out of the corner of her mouth. “We can’t afford it. It’s that or more soldiers.”
The man shrugged. “Honestly, I’d rather have a decent city.”
Lady Chains turned her head and gave Eften a look of pity for his stupidity. “Yeah? Is that what you want? When Numloch counters, you want a pretty palace to defend? Or an ugly fortress?”
“We can account for ourselves here,” said the Delkey warlord. He straightened his back and set down his fork. “Homekey is still a young side. It’s understandable that many of your cities look like this, ah, cesspit to which we’re all assigned.” There were some snickers, mostly among Delkey’s men. “Your farms and such. Your only caster’s a Dirtamancer,” He gestured vaguely at Digdoug. “I suppose you’re bound to live close to the soil. But when this war is over and we’ve conquered Numloch, then perhaps you’ll develop more civilized sensibilities.”
“Oh yeah! Maybe!” said the Warlady, with theatrical sarcasm. “Maybe we’ll all turn into velvet-coated dandies like Prince Creen!”
Creen was King Posbrake’s brother, the Chief Warlord of Delkey. Digdoug had seen him visiting the Court of Homekey a couple of times, and Lady Chains’ description wasn’t inaccurate. Even Eften had nothing to say on this point.
Lady Chains looked around at some of the faces, leaning in with her fork gripped in a hard fist. “You all want that? You wanna deck this city in stained glass windows and polka-dot spangled pennants? Do you? Should we make sure we have some shiny brass trumpets with embroidered banners on them to announce it when the enemy arrives? Is that what's important right now?”
A few of the Homekey soldiers grumbled or muttered a reluctant, “No.”
“This man,” she poked the fork again in Digdoug’s direction, “brought us seven golems. So which seven of you are they gonna croak in place of? Huh?” She made eye contact with several of her units and Delkey’s in turn. “More’n seven, prob’ly! And he’s gonna lay down anti-siege traps, too. So in this room, how many of your lives is he gonna save? Do you know how many?”
By this point all of the other tables had fallen silent. The Warlady did not stand up, or even look over her shoulder, but she commanded the respectful attention of everyone in the room, Eften and Digdoug included. She jabbed her fork into her last piece of fish and shoved it into her mouth.
“Awl of ‘em, if he keepsh thish shitty from fawling.” Setting down the fork, the Warlady swallowed and picked up the empty metal plate. She held it in front of her as she addressed the room from her bench, her eyes on Duke Eften. “Every one of us, maybe. So don’t tell him how to do his job.”
At this point, the Lady began licking the grease and fried crumbs from the face of the plate. Her sudden speech was just as suddenly over. Conversation slowly resumed in the hall. Eften shrugged and began talking to his captain.
Digdoug knitted his eyebrows and thought of what he had done in Weatherbug up to this point. The drains and the gutters and the eaves...those weren’t going to help them at all in a fight. He had misunderstood her first words to him, and spent all his efforts making this city repel water. But all that really mattered was repelling an attack.
He cleared his throat. “I don’t know, Lady Chains,” he said, trying to keep his voice low enough not to be overheard. “Maybe you should tell me how to do my job.”
She gave the plate a last lick and set it down, eying him speculatively. “Whyzzat?”
He shrugged, looking around. “I haven’t done anything yet. Not really. It’s all cosmetic so far. Just Signamancy, really.”
She frowned. “You got the water off the streets, right?”
“That’s not cosmetic. That helps. Cosmetic is statues and gold roofs and crap.”
She swept the plate and utensils to the side and put her elbows on the table. Her eyes were slate gray and serious. “You’re gonna do traps and defenses tomorrow, right? And for the next few turns?”
Digdoug nodded earnestly. All around him were men and women whose lives, he realized, might be riding on what kind of work he did here. Yes, he absolutely would.
“Then it’s all good, Dirty. It’s all peaches and cream.” She gave him a feline, snaggletoothed smile, and put one meaty hand on his wrist. She looked relaxed, even happy. A predator at home in her den. “I really don’t care what this place looks like.” Letting go of his wrist, she made a palm-up gesture at the dismal Numloch-style architecture all around them.
“But I’m as sick as anyone of gettin’ rained on. Good work today, Dirty. Good work. I’ll go around with you tomorrow and tell ya what we need for defense.”