Book 3/Page 263/Transcript

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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."

---

Chickpea lived on a farm, somewhere. It was probably not the farm where she "broke" chickens, but it didn't really matter.

Dollamancy had come late in Tondelayo's career. She'd hit level 8 while leading the Battle for Yeagerbom, and she remembered being depressed for a tenturn that she hadn't gotten a third point of leadership instead. She danced at two, fooled at three, led at two…and now, stitched at one? How useless.

When Charlie had bumped her to triple-A after her big win, it only numbed her spirits further. The promotion had come with a long, dull stint on 40. She spent her turns selling drinks to casters and plying them for intel, and trying (unsuccessfully) to stay out of tower politics. Only desperate boredom and a need to be away from Bonnie and that crowd had led her into making etsies in her quarters at night.

As it turned out, she had a knack for it. But only for the useless crafting part. An etsie was really a juice sink. To make one, you had to spend a full turn's worth of juice stitching it together, and then you only got one chance to turn it into a unit. Once in all of twenty tries would the thing actually spring to life (or more properly, Motion). The rest of the time, you'd be left with a worthless little decorative yam totem. (It was tradition to save your failures until you got home. There were shelves full of about thirty thousand of them in the outer walls of the city.)

So you only got the chance to make an etsie if you could stitch, and you hadn't spent your juice on anything productive for the side that day. Even then, Archons with Dollamancy often made nonmagical raiment and accessories instead. At least if you fabricated yourself some new panties, you were guaranteed to have a new pair of panties.

Tondelayo went for etsies because at least they had a function for the side. They could not deal damage, they took only one point of damage to destroy, they had no specials and no move, yet Charlescomm had accumulated more than twelve hundred of them, each costing the treasury a single Shmucker per turn in upkeep.

That was because the one thing they could do—that any unit could do—was croak. Unled non-scout units that encountered an etsie in the field would auto-attack it. Archons were too expensive to patrol all of the vast, empty lands of Charlescomm territory for ground units, especially up in the mountains. And even with the gobwins and hobgobwins out there now, they couldn't watch all possible tunnel threats. So etsies were located in all kinds of inaccessible spots, a network of early-warning sentries.

Plus, it was a badge of honor in the sisterhood to have at least one of yours out there in the field. She hadn't realized it until her Dollamancy special came, but any other stitcher you met would quickly find a way to ask how many "kids" you had. Saying you didn't have any got you tsked at.

So she made a new failure every night. She made yarn Archons that looked like friends she missed. She made beast units like elephinos and no-eye deer. One night, she made an adorable little bumbleboar, with a snow white beard. The whole time she was crafting it, she talked to it.

"Aldus," she told it. "Your name will be Aldus. You are magic. You will come to life. You will buzz and grunt and fly around the room."

But when she cast the last of her juice, Aldus did not fly around the room. Or buzz. Or grunt. It joined the other lifeless knots of string on the shelf in Tondelayo's quarters.

One evening, at the end of a brain-numbing shift, after another dash with that disbandedly dense double-A Bonnie over something petty, Tondy almost went to bed without trying again. She couldn't think of an idea. She wanted to curl up on her bunk and cry.

Well, maybe she'd crochet herself a little crying teardrop of infinite pathetic sadness, then. But she was one of Charlie's Archons, and she couldn't sleep if she wasted a turn's worth of her juice. The guilt would do her in. Just like when she'd thrown that egg, as a Level 1.

So, lacking any other bright ideas tonight, she'd made an egg. She made that egg, the one that was going to hatch in the morning if she hadn't chucked it across the coop. She crocheted herself a figure of a hatching white egg, with the chick's legs poking out the bottom, and its yellow face staring out at the world. It wore the top part of the egg as a hat.

And when she was done with it, it simply came to life and peeped at her. She fell in love with it at once.

"I paid it back," she said softly to herself. "Charlie, I paid for the egg."

---

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."