Book4 118:1/Text

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Tondelayo held Charlie in her hands.

It wasn't as nice as handling him and helping him physically—the only time Charlie could feel any part of his body was when a Foxer was feeling it for him—but projecting him carried a different kind of intimacy. They shared senses. She could feel his attention shifting, his ideas forming before he spoke. Her fingers tingled when he talked. The big man felt like a little living doll in her hands.

He reminded her of Chickpea, her first etsie.

Etsies had been on Tondelayo's mind since the middle of last night, when Charlie had broken his biggest promise. Ever since he had let Claud and Ivan turn to Charlescomm, she'd been thinking about the implications of having non-Archon units on the side. Not just units, speaking units, casters. Commanders. They'd be able to issue orders, even to her.

This had never come up before, never happened in her lifetime. Sometimes a client side would offer alternative forms of payment, but on the rare times when Charlie accepted a unit in trade, he took only golems. Those, he usually kept far afield. The only "real" units of Charlescomm were Archons and their etsies (which were barely units at all).

When Ivan and Claud had been slain immediately after turning, she'd tried to hide her relief, even as Charlie went into Condition Brown over it. She understood why he'd made that call. He had to; the unpowered tower alone had gutted his capabilities with the 'dish. She'd even agreed with it.

But "only Archons, ever" was Charlie's biggest promise. Even having two casters who were under constant scrutiny and never left the capital would have destroyed the team culture. It would have ruined an awful lot of what made Charlescomm Charlescomm.

So then, how devastating would it be if Wanda Firebaugh defected? With her Decrypted units of all types…with her Arkentool…with her "conditions?"

Tondelayo loved him. But what the 'dish was he doing?

"I imagined you might!" Charlie burbled between her fingers. "Well, let's get those right out on the table, Wanda. Let's see what I can do for you here."

"You are what you are," said the Croakamancer, as stone-faced as ever. "I would not place myself or my charges under your power, unless you first relinquish your ability to disband us."

Charlie became a shining gold shield in Tondelayo's projection. "Ahaha, yes! In your position, I have to admit, that would be the first thing I'd worry about," he said. "It's not out of the question, by any means. But let's hear the rest of it."

"Charlescomm must retain all of Gobwin Knob's cities after they are awarded to you," said Wanda Firebaugh. "You may not raze them or barter them away."

Phrasing it this way meant she understood the offer. This was not about turning, but turning coat. It wouldn't be easy for her to do. She would have to overcome her Duty repeatedly, striking enough non-fatal blows to the Archons standing around her to award all of Gobwin Knob's assets (including both Arkentools) to Charlescomm. And she'd have to do it quickly, before Stanley could figure out what was happening and disband her.

"Why do I get the feeling you've thought this through, before today?" Something like prison bars descended in front of the shield.

"Your power is too concentrated. You must conquer," she continued. "I will lead your armies across the face of the world. We will defeat, Decrypt, and hold whatever territories we can reach."

The bars became a grid pattern, which broke into hexes. Scattered over the map of hexes were little battle crests: Transylvito, Jitterati, Jetstone, Hyatt, Dogfort… These were rapidly replaced by golden wings and flower skulls. "You know… Olive tried to get me to do the same thing. You don't want to be like Olive, right?"

It was a little startling, because Charlie almost never mentioned Olive. But Tondelayo certainly knew who she was.

"Perhaps," said Wanda, narrowing her eyes. "Yes, in certain ways, perhaps I do."

For once, Charlie's silence didn't seem calculated. He went sort of cold and limp in Tondelayo's hands. The hex map faded away, leaving behind the outline of a pale pink flower. It wasn't stylized, like on the Decrypted crest. Its petals had distinct shapes, little spots, drops of dew with sparkles of sunlight in them.

"I went to a lot of trouble to make you this offer, Wanda," said Charlie. His voice remained at a base posture of two: still a disguise, but flat, without any tonal affect. "Seems like you want to make me sorry I did."

The barest hint of a smile appeared on the Croakamancer's lips. "No," she said. "I wish to make you miserable. I have one other condition."

"Only one?" asked Charlie, his voice regaining a little of its life again. "Must be a doozy."

The Croakamancer glanced around the minecart at the Archons she could see. When she returned to the projection, her gaze seemed to be aimed past Tondelayo's fingers, locked on her eyes.

"I would not act as your subject," said Wanda. "We would have a partnership, you and I. You would view me as co-ruler of Charlescomm. We would keep no secrets from one another."

Tondelayo managed not to even let the image waver. But she was the only Archon in the tunnel who didn't at least twitch. A couple of them gasped aloud.

"Mm-kayyy…" said Charlie. The flower flattened to a horizontal line, dividing the projection in two.

"In order to ensure an equal balance of power," said the Croakamancer, still looking through the projection at Tondelayo, "exactly one half of the side's Archons will be Decrypted, including the most senior. And the side will maintain that ratio at all times."