Book4 118:3/Text

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Getting through the broken portal and tailing Claud and Ivan had been Tondelayo's own idea.

Nobody had really been sure it could be done, but it turned out to be stupidly simple. All it took was a veiled Archon poking her hand through at ground level and feeling around. If there was warm air and grass, it was topside. If cold air and stone, a portal piece. Grab the wall and pull yourself through. If you fit, you fit. If not, try again. Once one Archon squeezed through, they could hold hands in a chain and get as many as they wanted into the bedrock tunnel.

Leading the incursion herself had also been Tondelayo's idea, but Charlie had been a lot less thrilled with that one. "Please…I can't looh— lose you, too. Noddafter Fifi. And Belle."

"No, if we're doing it, it has to be a Foxer," she'd told him stubbornly. "You trusted a triple-A and what happened? Where's Bonnie now, Charlie? No, I can do this. I want it."

He had cried again, but he gave her his permission.

Of course, the "this" in "I can do this" had meant something a little different to her from what it meant right now.

She understood his plan to get the treasury back, plus both obtainable Arkentools, even though it meant changing everything about the side and the mission. Brilliance like this was what made Charlie Charlie. Either Charlescomm would win the war here and now, or they would pay fifteen million Shmuckers to shoot an attuned wielder and capture the two casters they needed.

Possibly, they would attempt to shoot the attuned wielder, and Fate would intervene at enormous cost. There was also an outside chance that all Decrypted units everywhere would de-pop (or perhaps go barbarian) when Wanda croaked, and a very tiny chance that the Signamancy of the contract would penalize Charlescomm for every single lost unit of Gobwin Knob. If so, that would be bad. The treasury would evaporate, but not the side. Much of the gem hoard would remain. They'd simply have a very rich and very angry enemy to face. Still, the Decrypted problem would be solved.

Now, though, as the Croakamancer's greedy eyes met her own, Tondelayo was seeing an outcome worse than any of the above. She could become like Lilith. She was on the table now, a chip to be bought or bargained for.

Being a product for sale was any Archon's lot, and they all accepted it willingly. But if there was any price that Charlie would theoretically accept for her, then it had been a long time since Tondelayo had thought there was anyone in the world who could afford to pay it.

Could he…could he actually do it? Yes, we do what we have to do for Charlescomm. That was true of Charlie more than most. But…Chickpea.

It was one thing to know that Chickpea might be croaked at any moment, if an enemy invaded whatever farm he was bravely guarding. But the thought of ordering him to turn? To say, "go be a unit of Faq now, Chickpea. You're not mine anymore…" She would almost rather disband herself.

Didn't he feel the same way about her?

Charlie had been silent for a long time now, after Wanda's final demand. What the other Archons in the tunnel were thinking, Tondelayo could probably guess. They held their positions, though. They held their faces professionally neutral. They held their breath.

"Dotty, Betty," he sent at last, saying the name of the two double-As who remained veiled, with their rifles trained on the cart, "close to point blank range and eliminate the primary. She overplayed her hand."