Crush didn’t see Dunkin for two more turns. Scrofula paid one cursory visit to the library in that time, but Crush followed the fool’s advice and didn’t hit the King with the stack of books (“figuratively or literally, however tempting that is.”)
He’d gathered enough evidence to show that the King had made a huge mistake. But doing that would only lose Crush whatever portion of the Royal esteem he currently enjoyed. If he planned to scare Scrofula with a dose of historical truths, then he’d better be ready to show him an attractive way out, too. For that, he needed a fully formed battle plan. A real one. A good one.
On his lone visit, the King displayed none of his earlier trust. He stood in the doorway, stacked with four heavy knights, all wielding poleaxes. “I’ve been exchanging correspondence with every side. Queen Post sends her regards. And I’ve gotten some interest in a truce arrangement from both Tapwater and Protip, you know,” he told Crush gravely. “My offer to you stands, but it may not stand for long.”
Crush shook his head somberly. “I won’t turn, Your Majesty.”
Scrofula looked at him in a narrow-eyed pout, chin jutting out. “What if that were not a condition?”
“Suppose I would let you return home freely, in exchange for Firstpost leaving the Union and signing a non-engagement pact with Squashcourt and Bullyclub?”
The Chief paused a moment to consider it. Strategically, abandoning the Union now would guarantee that Tapwater and Protip would fall, but it would keep his own army out of the fight and buy them time for a military buildup.
But then they’d end up surrounded by an alliance of enemies. That was not a tenable situation. There’d be no talking or fighting their way out of it from there.
Crush looked at the King, appraising him. Coming down here and offering to negotiate softer terms was a sign that Scrofula’s diplomatic bids probably weren’t going as well as he implied. If he’d made this same proposal to Queen Post, Crush could imagine what she’d told him to do with it. Sounded like the rest of the Union was hanging together.
“Have you already made that offer to my mother?” he asked.
The King glanced away. “Yes.”
“What did she say?”
Scrofula’s eyes narrowed. “She...left it up to you.”
“Well. I’d like to send her a communique,” said Crush, picking up a page he’d written on. He handed it to the King. “Restoring our diplomatic channels would be one good step toward reaching an agreement.”
The King unfolded the parchment and looked at it (Crush lacked any sealing wax here). On the page, he saw only a grid of numbers and blank spaces.
“This is in code. I won’t allow it.”
Crush shrugged. “Well, I can’t make promises for Firstpost without consulting with my Ruler.” He held out his hand, asking for the letter back.
King Scrofula only glared. “I should be—” he said, then quickly shut his mouth and turned around. He stalked out the library door with his knights in tow, and the letter still held in his hand.
In the predawn hours of the fifth day of Crush’s captivity, the fool returned. The Chief Prisoner was asleep on an officer’s camp bed in a darkened row between bookshelves, when he became aware of papers being quietly shuffled. There was a light source bobbing around, too. He rose to investigate, trailing an iron chain along the marble floor behind his shackled ankles.
“I ain’t teasin’, for no good reason, I brought you these ’n now it’s treason season!” whisper-sang Dunkin McClown, as Crush emerged from behind the shelf. The fool had laid some unfolded hexical maps on the big table. There were no markers, but the maps had been drawn on in great detail, in fine graphite.
Crush stepped up to have a look. “I was starting to doubt you,” he said, moving the floating powerball closer. “How did you manage it?”
“With my usual flair,” said Dunkin casually. “Guards will look the other way when distracted by shiny things. And Scrofula’s best whiskey comes in veeeeery shiny bottles.”
Crush squinted at the map, trying to place the landmarks and parse the notations, to get it to resolve into a tactical picture in his head. He leaned down. “Dunkin, what are these spiral notations?”
“Our guys. Squashcourt units. Stars are warlords with the level number. Otherwise I did rough stack numbers by unit type. Plus-signs are extra unit levels.”
Squashcourt had moved a lot of its forces to the three borders with Union sides, but it hadn’t yet committed to any one front, and there’d been no major incursions either way. Union units were marked in small skirmishes, and he proudly noted some Firstpost cavalry that looked like they had won a dust-up in the desert.
But Squashcourt hadn’t gained or lost any cities yet, and Axe and his knights were still stationed here in the capital. They must be waiting for the war to break one way or another, via a diplomatic move or an enemy gambit. He could see why they needed one Union side to break and go neutral, so they could concentrate their attack. But even without that, they couldn’t wait for long. Time was an ally of the So-be-it Union. Each turn, they’d be popping more fighters and getting stronger. Squashcourt would have to pick a border and commit to a fight soon.
At the one edge of the territory which didn’t border the Union—the Bullyclub border—there were units and numbers that didn’t make immediate sense. “What are the double-strike symbols?” he asked, pointing.
The fool raised an eyebrow. “Bullyclub’s guys.”
Crush stared at the numbers. “Same notation?”
“That’s, um...” He’d been thinking about this battle in the abstract for two days, trying to be pessimistic about the strength of the enemy’s forces. “That’s more than twice as big an army as I thought they’d have. Even in my worst case.”
“Yeah. That’s why I also brought you this.”
The fool reached down into the side pocket of the comically oversized overcoat he was wearing, and pulled out a clear bottle of amber liquid. In the harsh, magical glow of the powerball, it was indeed very shiny.
Crush thought Dunkin would leave him, slink away to safety and deny everything if caught. But the fool stayed in the library with him, and even kept his mouth closed most of the time so he could work. “I bet my keister on you, Warlord. Either you’re a genius and you save the Kingdom, or the joke’s on Scrofula and I get to see his face.”
The battle problem was hard, the hardest Crush had ever been up against. He had to think like the Chief Warlord of Squashcourt, not his own side. The goal was to come up with a plan that left Squashcourt better off than they were before they’d started this mess, and that was a tough potato to swallow.
Still, that’s how he tackled the scenario. If Scrofula could be convinced to double-cross Bullyclub, then the plan should revolve around that. (A “sucker punch” was what Dunkin called it, quite accurately.) It was a trick they could only pull once, so everything needed to be set up so that it happened at a maximally effective point in the battle.
He pulled at his thin hair every time he saw the size of Bullyclub’s army, though. Even if the whole of Squashcourt’s forces could turn on them at once, it would still be a losing fight. Their lone army might well be bigger than Squashcourt’s and the Union’s combined.
So he had to finesse this. That could mean magic. It could mean diplomacy. He’d prefer it to mean tactics and subterfuge. The Union sides were notoriously caster-poor, with only a Hat Magician in Tapwater and a Mathamancer in Protip. Diplomacy was a mess right now, and nobody was going to trust Squashcourt. He couldn’t even get a message home...
He put down his graphite stylus. “Hey Dunkin.”
The fool looked up. “You got something, genius?”
“No not yet. I just thought you might like to know something funny. A joke.”
Dunkin’s eyes went wide and he sat up straight. “A joke? A funny joke? From you? This I gotta hear.”
“When I first popped,” said Crush, turning to face the fool, “we used to have a Mathamancer named Sudoku. He invented a little numbers puzzle that the Queen likes very much. Before we traded him, he taught me how to make them. A couple days ago, I gave one to Scrofula and told him I wanted to send a message home, and he took it away from me.” Crush smiled wryly. “He’s probably been trying to decode it ever since.”
Dunkin’s jaw opened and he shook his head in amazement. “Nah, but he’d give up in five minutes. He doesn’t like anything that makes him feel stupid, which is why he hates me so much, heheh. But you know who he probably gave it to? Probably ordered him to solve it?”
Crush shook his head. “Mm.”
“Prince Axe,” Dunkin grinned, his eyes gleaming, “and that is disbanded funny!”
From a pile of disjointed, over-analyzed fragments, the plan assembled itself in Lord Crush’s mind in a single, miraculous thought. One moment he was mucking along through the same details he had studied all morning, and in the next he could envision the entire gambit, and see that it was solid.
This was the definitive plan. Each piece of it was well understood, fairly predictable, and within their own power to control (not even “allied” power, but Firstpost and Squashcourt’s power—no diplomacy required). The ruse was simple and plausible. The enemy would bite on the bait, because it would sound like exactly what they wanted to hear.
“I’ve got it,” said Crush. He looked over at Dunkin, who lifted his head and sleepily removed the book he’d been using as an eyeshade against the afternoon sun streaming in over the bookshelves. “I’ve got it. Go get him.”
“And each of these books tells the same story, Your Majesty,” Crush continued. He put the volume back on the tall stack and patted it. “When one side of a stable alliance breaks to join with an outsider, that side always meets a bad end. I’ve yet to find even one clear counterexample. But all of these books represent some side that did what Squashcourt has done.” He looked the scowling monarch in the eye. “They all met their demise. Some fell swiftly, some were devoured well after their patron side had digested their former allies and went looking for another meal. All of them were rudely surprised.”
Crush pointed up and down the spines of the stack. “They’re gone now, Your Majesty. And unless you alter course, there will be a book like this titled ‘Squashcourt,’ sooner than you’d imagine possible. There’s a reason that Bullyclub has raised such a large army, larger than all the Union sides at the start of this war. They fully intend to conquer all four of us. They just want us to fight one another first, to soften us up. Especially their immediate neighbor, Squashcourt!”
He folded his shackled hands together and stood, resting his case for the moment. He liked being backed up by all the books behind him. The presence of history. A monument to all the uncountable lessons, learned at the cost of uncountable lives.
Dunkin stood back there, too. The little fool was silent now, but he had dragged his King down here almost bodily, calling him every foul name in the book and ducking his half-hearted swipes and smacks. The relationship between a fool and his monarch couldn’t be stranger, but if he ever took the throne, Crush resolved to keep one at court. This little man was about to save his side.
King Scrofula faced off against Crush and Dunkin from across the library floor. Rather than books, he was backed by his polearm knights. Eight, this time. Crush and the King locked eyes, and Crush could see a desperate, smoldering rage there. But Scrofula stood almost unnaturally still.
Crush imagined he must be digesting what he’d heard, coming to terms with the reality of his situation. This was the part where he should be afraid for the survival of his side, just before Crush would offer him the lifeline of his battle plan, the way out of this mess.
When at last King Scrofula talked, his voice was low and dangerous. “How do you know the size of Bullyclub’s army, prisoner?”
Crush swallowed. “I have a plan, Majesty. I have a better way forward for Squashcourt. Let me show you.” He bent over the table and pulled his folded set of maps and notes out of the cover of a book.
“Answer the question, prisoner.”
Lord Crush looked up, holding the maps in his manacled hands. The King was advancing across the marble floor. He wasn’t sure what to say, but he knew he didn’t want to directly answer that question. Not just yet.
“I told him, ya pathetic pansy,” blurted Dunkin, suddenly becoming animated. “What is it? You bring a brain in here...because every Titan knows there ain’t a brain left around this place since you ‘lost’ Racket,” (here, the fool wiggled two fingers on each hand, in a gesture Crush did not recognize, though it seemed accusatory) “but then you won’t even listen to him? I did! I listened. And now you better clean the cow crap outa your Royal ears and listen, too. Or we’re all croaked!”
King Scrofula had not stopped walking forward as the fool talked, and Dunkin had also stepped closer to Crush. The three of them stood together in a little huddle now, beside the big table. The King took the map from Crush’s hands, and unfolded it. On it, turn by turn notations of troop movements were laid out in detail.
The King looked Dunkin straight in the eyes.
“Majesty, we can beat Bullyclub,” said Crush quickly. “We can. I know they’re huge, but we can trip them up. Just take a look at what I’ve—”
“A fool,” interrupted Scrofula, “enjoys certain privileges at court. You are free to abuse the King in many ways, and the King must tolerate it. Scripture indicates that there is no lower act than for a King to disband his knave.” He sounded strangely formal, despite a rasp of tightly-controlled anger in his tone. “You have performed your duties all too well. You have vexed and belittled me, and made me despise you.”
“Thank you,” said Dunkin. His voice, too, was weirdly formal. Too quiet, for him. His face was pale and blank.
“However. Scripture also says that no King has to tolerate dis-Loyalty from any unit. So you’ve given me what I’ve always wanted, fool,” and here, a malevolent grin spread across the Ruler’s face, “cause to be rid of you.”
“Yeah?! That’s more’n Racket gave you!” screeched the fool, pointing an accusing finger.
The sound of his high voice rang in Crush’s ears. The scene that was playing out in front of him turned his blood ice cold. The King dropped his battle map to the floor. “Wait...” Crush said.
“You are hereby disbanded!” proclaimed Scrofula, clapping his hands together once.
Crush had never actually watched a unit disband. For a moment, the fool continued to stand there as normal, then he began to fold inward into space. He had time to know it was happening, even to look down and see it.
“The comedy is finished,” said Dunkin McClown faintly, then he folded in on himself and vanished with only a little thump: the sound of the room’s air rushing together to fill the void.
The King turned around, stepping on the map, and walked back to his knights. “Throw this prisoner in the lowest, slimiest cell in the dungeon,” he said, with deep satisfaction. “Banquet tonight. Let’s make it quail.”