Digdoug felt guilty for thinking it, but he was getting used to life in the capital. He liked the routine. Out in the field, for instance, you took your chances with what kinds of food might be on offer. But even breakfast here in the City of Homekey was pretty impressive. It always included ripe fruit, fresh juice, and an abundance of pastries. For the commanders, there was bacon (a privilege of his rank that he didn’t mind exercising). He was even starting to get accustomed to having a small cup of coffee every morning.
He carried that cup and its saucer out of the Feast Hall and through the carpeted corridors to the Key Board Room. Dawn had only just broken, so he was expecting to be the first to arrive. In fact, he was the last. As he squeezed through the doorway, he could see lights at the other end of the grand room. Both of Homekey’s Chiefs were huddled there with His Majesty at the far end of the Long Table. He hurried to join them.
“All I’m saying is that I’ve got little regard for the honor of mercenaries,” he heard Peck say. “And Your Majesty is asking me to take the word of one as she avers the trustworthiness of the other. I am sorry, Sire. I am not reassured.”
“Yes, that’s why we have a contract, Peck. Good morning, Digdoug,” said Posbrake. The King looked bright-eyed and relaxed.
“Good morning, Sire,” said the Dirtamancer, setting his coffee down on the ebony tabletop and grabbing the back of the chair next to Bucky. The Chief of Staff glanced at him, bleary-eyed and humorless. Her hair was pulled back as tight as the strings of a harp, as if she were attempting to keep her eyelids open via scalp retraction.
“I have little more faith in those,” grunted Peck, “but I suppose we should examine the thing, just to figure out what manner of betrayal we should most be expecting.”
The King laughed, but he laughed alone. “All right, Peck. It’s on this morning’s agenda. The three of us will re-examine the contract together, and look for loopholes. But now that we’re all here, why don’t we get to the topic at hand? Digdoug...”
“The tower. How many shots could it fire, given the spells that are on it right now?”
Digdoug knotted his brow. “I’m...not sure how to answer that question, Sire. Shots against what? Shots of what power?”
“Against Archons, of course,” said the King. “And at minimal power.”
“Minimal power,” he echoed. “There’s a maximal power, but... Well, less than that, it’s a matter of finesse for the caster. If you’re casting from a tower, you’d want to hit an enemy unit with the appropriate shock, or else you waste juice. I couldn’t really tell you about a minimum power, though.”
“I see, I see,” said Posbrake. The King picked up his coffee cup and sipped it in thought. “So I suppose it would be like asking Peck how lightly he could hit an enemy with his sword. Do you think you’d have the ‘finesse’ to strike an enemy for only a point or two, Peck?”
Peck tilted his head. “Aye. It could be done. I couldn’t guarantee you I wouldn’t do more damage than I intended. I couldn’t be sure to hit for exactly a single point. But I could intentionally strike with less than a full sword blow. Effectively apply some penalty to myself, by will.”
“That’s what I meant, Your Majesty,” said Digdoug, nodding.
“Good,” said Posbrake. “Because that’s what the plan requires. We will hit the attackers with a minimum of force, and they will use Foolamancy to feign taking more powerful blows and casualties. Likewise, they will strike us minimal blows that are veiled to look much stronger. You see? It’s all a show, for Delkey.”
A show. The plan was Dove’s idea, Digdoug knew. He supposed that putting on a show was how a Carnymancer would cheat Fate. Or a client...
After a moment, Peck said, “Majesty, why exchange fire at all? Why not conduct the entire fight with Foolamancy?”
“Two reasons,” said Posbrake, folding his hands on the table. “One is, it is easier this way. Archons aren’t Foolamancers. They need some real shots to veil, in order to create a convincing illusion. And second, let’s not forget that we are doing this to fulfill the Prediction. This must be a ‘massive attack by air on this city.’”
Peck nodded grimly. “All right. When do they attack? Is Charlescomm’s turn before or after our own?”
The King cleared his throat. “They attack at dawn.”
“Before Numloch, then,” said Peck.
“Charlescomm will attack on Numloch’s turn,” said Posbrake evenly, “as they will be allied with Numloch.”
Digdoug and his coffee both jumped a little as Chief Peck slammed the flat of his palm on the table. But the warlord said nothing at all. He simply stared at his Ruler with an expression like a drawn bow.
“It is necessary to the story,” said Posbrake. “Delkey must believe that Numloch has hired Charlescomm to eliminate me, in a desperate attempt to keep them from losing the war.”
“And a mighty convincing story that is, Sire!” shouted Peck, “Truly, I believe it myself! Your Majesty is aware there’s a bounty on his life? I would say you’ve hired the very mercenary who’s coming to collect it!”
Seeing Peck’s temper flare up—seeing anyone yell at a King—shocked Digdoug. He froze in his chair, eyes darting between the King and Chief Warlord. Peck looked livid, but King Posbrake held his composure. “I am aware,” said Posbrake.
“Then why would you think—”
“I’m sorry,” Digdoug interjected, wanting to say anything he could to break up this argument, “but I’m not. What about a bounty?”
Peck turned to Digdoug without losing a bit of his ire, but his voice went low and accusatory. “By some accounts, Numloch is offering three hundred thousand for the end of Homekey by regicide.”
Posbrake waved his hand in dismissal. “It’s a common gambit,” he said to Digdoug. “A strong side, fighting a troublesome war... Offering an open bounty costs them nothing. I might do it to Numloch, myself, if we had the Shmuckers.”
Digdoug shook his head, trying to see both sides here, but only Peck’s view made any sense. His Majesty didn’t think the bounty was important? Why not?
“That’s a lot of money,” was all he actually managed to say about it.
Posbrake leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. “Look, I’ve discussed this with Charlie,” he said. “Numloch will ally because they think he is trying for the bounty, but he’s not interested in that. He likes the low-risk aspect of this mission, one where he’s certain to lose no units. He will even get paid by Numloch just for making the attempt. It is a no-lose proposition for him.”
Peck stared at the King incredulously. “The mercenary is not interested in three hundred thousand Shmuckers.”
“No. And even if he were,” said Posbrake, gesturing at the parchment in front of Bucky, “our contract with him is ironclad. He is bound to use minimal force, and to withdraw from our airspace at the end of the fight. If he breaks the contract, then not only does he not get paid, but we do. There are penalties totaling one hundred thirty-five thousand Shmuckers, plus a thousand each for croaking so much as a stabber of ours.”
Still angry-eyed, but thinking, Chief Peck stared down at the papers.
“I’ve read it five hundred times now,” said Chief Bucky. Her voice was low and bleak. “The contract’s pretty solid.”
“That is moot,” said Peck, “if he croaks you and ends the side. He’d pay the penalty and take our treasury and the city.”
“Charlie does not conquer cities,” said Posbrake. “He has a reputation for reliability in these matters.”
Peck gave the King a look which summed up his regard for reputations. Digdoug wondered what, if anything, Chief Peck did have a strong regard for. “I cannot condone this plan, Sire,” he said, raising his chin sternly and crossing his arms. “No. Relieve me. Or even disband me. But do not ask me to lead Homekey to its doom.”
Posbrake’s composure finally broke. His expression went sour with annoyance. “We’re not going to our doom, Peck! But if we want to avoid doom, then we have to brush very close to it. Do you think I haven’t seriously considered the risk to my person and my side?”
“I don’t know, Sire,” said Peck, arms still folded, “have you?”
Posbrake leaned very far forward now, staring his Chief in the eyes. “When Charlie’s Archons arrive, I will go and face them. I shall be standing on the tower, sword drawn, stacked with my Chief Warlord and screened by a Dirtamancer and his golems. The protection bonuses on me will be unmatched.”
Peck rolled his eyes. “All well and good if they land, Sire. But one crit from one of those flying—”
“And I shall have one spell upon me,” said Posbrake, with intense conviction. “A Carnymancy spell. A spell that breaks the rules. A spell that says, ‘this unit, for this turn, cannot be hit by any ranged attack.”
Peck’s eyes went wide, and his mouth slowly opened.
Posbrake straightened in his throne, regaining a measure of his regal serenity. “Perhaps the Predicted attack shall be a real one after all. I don’t believe so, but if Charlie is indeed coming to break his contract and cheat us, then I will cheat him in return.
“I will stand in full view, daring those ranged flyers of his to take a shot at collecting Numloch’s bounty. If they do, then the Prediction is still fulfilled, and our financial worries are over.” The King picked up his coffee cup and sipped it. “So I sincerely hope he tries. He may indeed be a treacherous schemer, but he has no idea what a little Carnymancy can do to one’s best-laid plans.”