IPTSF Text 25
In his new, more lushly appointed reception, Lord Firebaugh called his Chiefs to war council.
Seventeen turns had passed since the air battle. Nine since they'd pulled out of Coolminton and razed it for Shmuckers, leaving their side only the city of Goodminton itself. Scouts reported that Haffaton had claimed the city site and rebuilt it as a Level 1 outpost, and that they were massing there for a final strike.
They were being eerily patient about it, though. Scouts by air and ground had been spotted, but no enemy forces had taken to the road or flown through the capital's airspace. Frenemy and Quisling, perhaps by agreement, had left the area completely and would not respond to Father's diplomatic communiques.
"Rotting is precisely right," said Firebaugh, seated in his high-backed suede chair before a new pearl-inlaid teak desk. Some part of Wanda's mind must have been giving a great deal of thought to Father when she boosted the tower, for this was now the nicest and coziest room in the city. He leaned forward and tilted his head toward her. "You lost another six this turn?"
Wanda nodded at the question, though it was rhetorical. As a ruler, Father knew his exact complement of units. Six uncroaked infantry had decayed to dust at the start of their turn. "I had expected that number to be greater, actually," she admitted. "The knights and warlords will last for a while yet, but most of the infantry can't be expected to make it three more turns."
Fritz grunted. "Which is surely what they're counting on. Let the Fellows all dry up and blow away, and then they can sweep us up at their leisure."
Father grimly examined a sketched-out map on the blotter before him, but there couldn't be any new ray of brightness in it. Wanda could see the strain pinching his eyes and his brow. Turn upon turn of helpless inaction was taking its toll.
She worried about him. The Overlord was powerful in his way, but that way was diplomacy: solving crises by means of the bargain, the alliance, the veiled promises and threats of formal diplomatic language. And nobody was listening any more. Deprived of those pursuits, he had been growing frantic, reviewing his troops every single turn and calling fruitless meetings like this one.
Wanda had mostly spent that recent time studying magic, looking for a loophole, an item or a scroll they could buy, a tactic of some sort to break them out of the situation. But it was almost hopeless. There was too much. She was finding that the vastness and strangeness of the other disciplines left her with ten more questions for every answer she extracted. Half of her inquiries brought her back to Predictamancy or Luckamancy, and she was trying to avoid both Clay and Delphie as much as she could.
So for now, she had come full circle to her own discipline. Croakamancy was the only one she actually loved and trusted herself to manage. She folded her hands on her lap, straightening in her chair. "We will lose them, so they're expendable. I'd prefer that they serve some use before they vanish."
Firebaugh squinted at her. "You want to send them out afield? See if they can find something to fight?"
Fritz shook his head. "We've talked about that. There's no targets out there worth spitting on. And the Fellows...they're really quite weak without leadership. May as well keep 'em here where we've got leadership bonuses and the Lady's."
Wanda shook her head. "No, that isn't what I'm suggesting. I want to lead them out myself."
She had Father's interest immediately. She was at least giving him a new idea to chew on. "You want to lead a strike?" he said. "Where? At Coolminton?"
Fritz was silently shaking his head already, but Wanda intended to press the case. As a Croakamancer, the move seemed obvious.
"Yes. With uncroaked only. Including...uh, warlords," she said, mindful that Father did not like it when un-Tommy was called by name. "It's not certain we could take the outpost, but if we can at least march in and expend the infantry units in battle, it might allow us to retreat with new ones made from our fallen enemies."
"We're risking you, then," said Fritz. "Would that be worth it?" But the objection seemed halfhearted. When they had discussed attacking Coolminton before now, the idea of a raid to create fresh uncroaked had not come up. Fritz would see that it had merit.
"I'm not at all concerned about that," said Wanda, and suddenly her father's eyes locked upon her with new interest.
Fritz sat forward, "Well, we need to be concerned, Chief Croakamancer. If we're attacked here while you're raiding, or if you and the rest of the uncroaked units don't return—"
"Chief Warlord," said Firebaugh, "you're dismissed, for now." Fritz looked affronted, but the Overlord held off his objections with a raised hand. "I won't approve an action without your counsel. But, go now."
The cracking and popping of the hearth continued for a long minute or two after Fritz had shut the door behind him. Father looked to be gathering his thoughts, tenting his fingers over his lips and nose. Wanda couldn't imagine what he was thinking, but she was content to wait for as long as he required. She enjoyed his company, whether or not he spoke.
Finally, he straightened in his chair and shuffled some of the documents and maps on his desk. "I've been speaking with the Lady Temple," he said. "I still don't trust her, that's true. But I asked her to be candid with me, and I believe she has been. She tells me you were cruel to her."
Wanda started to say something in protest, but Father was smiling. "Which only means you disagreed with her on some matter of value to her. I know. It's how she is. I'll accept that my daughter is cruel when Delphie's called you that more times than she's said it of me. In other words, likely never."
He chuckled, and Wanda tried to. His smile slackened. "Chocolate?"
It was another new amenity of the tower, and he'd taken an instant liking to the drink. For Wanda, its sweetness was cut by its bitter associations with the enemy Florist, but she had to admit she kept drinking it. It was habit-forming. She rose from her chair. "Yes. I'll put the kettle on."
A few minutes later, they had moved to a pair of tall armchairs with embroidered crests, facing the warm hearth. Wanda poured the chocolate into china cups and served her Overlord first, then sat down. The backs of her leather boots scrunched pleasantly on the velvet seatcushion.
"Thank you, daughter," he said, and sipped carefully at the scalding liquid. He stared into the fire with tired eyes. Wanda watched the lines of his face defined in firelight and shadow. Father was so complex; the things he knew about the politics of the world could and did fill books. But that was useless to him now, and he knew it. He looked lost.
She loved him, but perhaps she had reduced him to this state of impotence by being so stubborn about that. Perhaps she had destroyed Tommy simply by wanting to stay by him, to fight by her big brother's side. Delphie said it was so. (And who was being cruel, exactly?) Now Father wanted to discuss what Delphie had told him, while being "candid."
"So," began Firebaugh, "the Lady Temple says you two have barely spoken, ever since you had a falling out about that Fate business. And I asked her to elaborate. She wouldn't. So, I ordered her to."
The words gave Wanda a chill inside. She poured hot chocolate upon it like a siege defender, and waited for him to go on.
"Inevitability," said Firebaugh, "is maddening, you know it? When I ordered our withdrawal from Coolminton it had the stench of doom on it. So I asked her to confirm it, that Goodminton is truly meant to fall.
"She told me that it seemed likely, but it is not strictly inevitable. She said that the only thing about all of this which is Fated...or Predicted, or what have you...is that you will eventually serve under the enemy Florist who took Tom— who took your brother's life." His voice catching on Tommy's name betrayed his conversational tone. He took another sip of chocolate, then put the cup and saucer down beside him.
"She said as much to me," confirmed Wanda.
"Just so," said Father. "And now you want to go out in the field and fight Haffaton."
"Just so," she said, echoing him.
"Wanda..." he said, squinting as if looking into the distance for his words, "are you planning to go out there to turn?"
He looked her in the eye for her answer. Some part of her wanted to be angry, but wasn't. It was a reasonable question, and she looked right back at him. "No, Father."
He grunted. "It struck me that you might have it in your mind to meet the enemy and cut a last minute bargain with them. Offer yourself up on your own initiative, since they're so keen on having you. No? Save the side? Go and fulfill your destiny?"
She smiled and took a long sip of chocolate. "Inevitability is maddening, Father. So I don't intend to have any part in it. I want to go out," she said, placing the saucer in her lap and turning to face him more fully, "because I want to wound the beast that stalks us. I want more of their units in my silent service. I want to be of some use to you. Fate be disbanded."
He looked in each of her eyes in rapid succession, then took up his cup and faced the fire, sipping silently.
"Unless..." said Wanda, "that's what you require of me?"
Her father shook his head immediately, and swallowed. "No, no. Not my thought at all." He fell back into silence.
Wanda looked into the flames as well, seeing the warmth of home there. This was very like that night she'd fallen asleep in the chair beside her brother.
But perhaps Father was seeing something else there. Incineration, annihilation. Wanda could feel the consumption of Matter there in the fireplace, too, if she chose to. Everyone was Matter. Everyone was Stuff. Everyone was consumed in the fires of Life.
"No," said Firebaugh again. "And a deal mightn't save us at this point, anyway. Delphie may not feel our fall is inevitable, but she hasn't watched other sides fall in our predicament. I know the end is coming."
A log popped loudly, shooting sparks nearly to the thick rug.
"Father? What would you have me do?" asked Wanda softly.
The Overlord put his chin to his chest, looking down at the rug for a moment. Then he raised his head without looking to her, and said to the air, "Hurt them. Wound the beast, just as you say."
He turned his head and looked at her, the firelight glinting in his eyes. "You are my daughter. While I live, avenge Tommy. Should I fall, avenge me. Avenge Goodminton. I want you to make them pay. If they swallow you, be a poison pill. Let that be my legacy. It is terribly important, I feel."
The request, impractical and tinged with hatred, was surprising to hear from Father. But it was what Wanda felt in her heart as well. "I swear it, Father! I do!" she said eagerly, holding out her hand. He took it, and she felt more a part of the world than any time since Tommy fell in the snow. Still, something nagged... "But why is it important?"
He let her fingers slip through his. "Because I know the ways of war. Haffaton is more than powerful. They are that most dangerous of sides: a patient one. They want you for a reason. The Lady Temple says she cannot see your Fate much beyond your serving that other caster. But she thinks they believe you can make their side unstoppable. That with your help, Haffaton could conquer the world."
Wanda nodded, then a smile crept across her face. "...Really?"
"No! I mean, if that is so, then taking their offer would have doomed Goodminton as well, would it not? I mean, eventually. We didn't make such a terrible mistake, did we?" said Wanda, with a gleeful warmth rising within her. "Fighting the future conqueror of Erfworld is everyone's business."
Father blinked at her. "Yes. Let's think of it that way," he said slowly, a wry smile forming on his lips. He picked up his cup and sipped. "That's a much nobler legacy than vengeance, isn't it?"