LIAB Text 48
The minutes were precious now, Slately knew. He was disobeying...what a thought disobeying... his Chief Warlord's command. How many times in his life had he had to obey anyone? It did not seem like something he could expect himself to be particularly good at.
In the empty side room, he sat holding his crown in his lap, pauper-like, while time ticked away and his units perished in the dungeons below. He saw their lights in his mind, being extinguished in twos and threes. No-one was leveling. It was clearly an awful rout.
The King could not guess why the enemy had chosen that avenue of attack instead of the tower, but it did at least buy him a few vital moments. And in that small bit of extra time, his dear friend Don would give him the means to pass the side to his last son.
He felt a tinge of fear at the thought, but much more powerfully, a stirring in his blood. It would happen. His destiny was before him now, and for the first time this day he knew with certainty what he must do.
He stared down at the crown, waiting for it to rumble, so that he could conjure the borrowed gem.
He stared into the velvet interior.
When the call came, Don was apologetic to the point of nearly weeping. But Slately had no time for it. He knew that his friend had tried. And if there had really been a mass refusal by Transylvito's commanders, then the trying had cost Don King a great measure at home.
He couldn't spare a thought for it, nor many words beyond "goodbye." The King of Jetstone ended the call and stood up. He would simply need another plan. A better plan. What, exactly? What...?
What, what, what?
"Gah!" he shouted, and kicked the table. The wheels in his mind were locked and would not turn.
He hurried to the door, placing the cursed, empty crown upon his cursed, empty head.
Upon the veranda of the tower top, his Casters were gathered, still engaged in some kind of argument.
"What is a better plan?" Slately demanded.
Ace swallowed, and bowed. "Highness, it's..." He looked pained, struggling with something within. "...nothing. We should get you into the city now. Prince Tramennis has sent several frantic messages."
The King stared at the man, narrow-eyed. He truly disliked this Caster, this...joke or punishment of the Titans. Once he had been careless with the life of someone he loved, and so the Titans gave him this jar-headed jackass to "replace" her. He barely tolerated the man at the best of times. But now?
"Dollamancer," he said, between clenched teeth, "Each second costs the life of a Jetstone unit. Lie to me again, and the next will be your own. What is a better plan?"
Ace glanced frantically at the stone-faced Chief Healomancer, who gave him a "well, go on" shrug. The Hat Magician took a step closer to the Dollamancer, looking up at him, while the Dittomancer blinked twice, and scowled.
"I think—" The words came out chalky and he cleared his throat. "I think you should leave the city by air, Your Majesty..."
Slately straightened, and glanced around the sky. He was not a strong tactician, but he knew certain doom when he looked upon it, and all those Archons were still in his airspace. And Ossomer, to grant them leadership.
"How would I manage that?" asked Slately.
"You wouldn't," said Pierce. "You'd be the target of choice. Whatever we did, we wouldn't stand a chance."
"There is a chance!" shouted Ace, pounding his fist into his palm. "And it's at least worth considering, Pierce!" He turned to Slately, "Highness, this is what I'm thinking. We work on our own target of choice."
"Yeah, he wants to hit your son first," interrupted Pierce, "But I'm saying, even supposing that works, we're still outnumbered up there. We just don't have the flyers for a fight like that."
Slately's eyes darted between the two men, who were arguing with one another more than they were addressing him. The Dollamancer pointed at the Dittomancer.
The Dittomancer nodded, looking agitated. "Yeah, that's true. That is true."
"Yeah and what are we going to do for leadership, come on," said Pierce. He stared at Ace for a long moment, but Ace had no immediate answer. "And without decent leadership, you're really so eager to fly against Ossomer? I think you're about fourteen crates full of mixed nuts." Pierce took a sip of his healing elixir, from a glass which always seemed half-full.
Ace leaned forward toward Slately. "Highness, we have options. We have juice, and a few arrows, and I've got some other surprises. If we can take their leadership out of the equation, then return to the tower and pick off some or most of the Archons, then I think you can fly—pshew—right out of the city without a scratch."
Slately had the strangest, dissociated feeling, listening to the argument. His hearing felt cottony, and his teeth tingled. His heart pounded in his chest, but his face was slack, a slab of cold clay.
He wanted to fight.
More than anything, he wanted to engage the enemy and do them harm. Personally. He stared off to the edge of the veranda where the Ossomer puppet lingered, and locked eyes with it. Yes. Starting with that one. Only his other enemy son would have provided a better starting target for him to swing his scepter. Well, or that witch at the center of it all. Or Stanley...
"What surprises?" said the King to the Dollamancer. His eyes never left the railing, though Ossomer turned his head away.
"Equipment," said Ace eagerly. "Accessories, to make our units tougher in a fight. Like I've been telling you all along, Highness. Dollamancy is for action!"
Slately nodded. "I think I know that now."
"And knowing is half the battle," said Ace.
"Ay yi yi," said the Dittomancer, under his breath.
"I will consider your plan," said Slately. His beard bristled as his jaw jutted out sternly.
Pierce stepped toward the King. "Your Majesty, I would really advise against it."
"Consider it!" snapped Slately, sending the Healomancer back on his heels. "What do you have to make me tougher?" he said to the Dollamancer.
"You?" Ace seemed taken aback by the question, but only for a moment. "Um, lots of stuff, Your Highness. And I can make things special for you. Kings should have special accessories. Are you really serious?"
"I am serious about leading a battle," said Slately, drawing himself up. "Somehow. It may not be the battle you propose, but in any event I want to be as prepared as I can be. What can you do?"
Ace stroked his chin, contemplating the King's potential as a combatant. "Start with your weapon, I guess. May I?"
Slately put the Royal Scepter of Jetstone in the hands of a non-Royal caster without a moment's hesitation. It was a mark of his seriousness of purpose. But he did cringe as Ace began to take it apart.
Slately looked around at the other three casters. "The reason I would consider this plan," he said sternly, pointing out at the sky, "is that there is a bounty upon each of those enemy flying units. It is, at the moment, the only possible means of raising the funds I would need to promote Prince Tramennis to heir. He does not know that I plan to do so, but I consider it vital for the preservation of the realm."
Cubbins and Lloyd looked at one another and nodded. They both seemed relieved to know that the King had the bigger picture in mind, which was just what he was meant to think about.
But Pierce looked more annoyed than ever. "Your Highness, the Prince is right. Nothing's more important to preserving the realm than keeping you alive. And he is the Chief Warlord, so it's his call. Let's just go down and join him, and you can decide from there."
"Hang on, almost got it..." said Ace, fiddling.
"Healomancer," said Slately. But his voice softened. This was a loyal Caster with his side's interests at heart, after all. As, he supposed, was the Dollamancer. "Pierce. I may do just that. But first let me see what—"
The entire tower shook with a massive, crunching boom.