Aside from a nasty encounter with a feral Snookimonster, the six-turn ride to Squashcourt’s territory had been serene and pleasant. Chief Crush of Firstpost appreciated the change of scenery. He didn’t often get to visit the desert landscape to the southeast, but he liked the look of it: all dunes and mesas and scrubby, gnarled trees.
Squashcourt had sent their own Chief Warlord out to the border to meet him, along with a three-stack escort of knights and pikemen. That was a few too many troops for Crush’s comfort, but he supposed he could understand it. This country could be wild. Fifty turns ago, Squashcourt had lost their elder Prince out here, to a feral pack of nabs.
Their Prince was a huge, green-eyed, sweaty brute named Axe Bodyspray, who wore a splint mail skirt and iron boots and rode a particularly hideous looking eyesaur. He seldom said a word on the road. At night, he and his units made a separate camp.
That first night of the five-day trip, Crush tried to be cordial and visit their campfire. He brought a skin of brandy to offer around, but there were no takers. None of Axe’s hulking warriors would even make eye contact with him.
“I knew your brother from the Union conference, you know,” said Crush. “Terrible loss. He and I often exchanged books.” He sat on the stony ground beside Prince Axe, who squatted on a boulder. “In fact, I’ve brought the last one he sent me. This trade mission seemed a good opportunity to return it to your library in person.”
Axe stared grimly into the fire, poking at the logs with a spear tip. “Keep it,” said the Prince.
“I couldn’t do that,” said Crush. “It was a loan.”
“Racket is croaked. I’ve no need of books.”
Awkward silence followed that and every other exchange. Before long, Chief Crush gave up and withdrew to his own contingent.
He didn’t understand their unfriendliness, but he had to wonder if it was about his Signamancy. As a Level 5, Lord Crush considered himself a skilled if not particularly distinguished fighter. He hunted and trained daily, and might be due to level before too much longer.
But Firstpost had long been at peace. For many hundredturns, his main function had been caretaker of Second City. He looked like a caretaker warlord, and he knew it. Average height, gaunt, balding, intellectual....he could easily be mistaken for a caster.
The bulky Prince Axe, on the other hand, was clearly a warrior at heart. His eyes scanned the horizon as he rode, on perpetual watch for enemies, feral threats, and game. Crush’s eyes were more used to seeking the printed word. He read and wrote voraciously, spending his nights in Second City’s library, reading the histories of campaigns and speculating on the rise and fall of great sides. He’d brought far more books than weapons with him on this trip.
The thing was, Squashcourt had been at peace for just as long as Firstpost. They were in the Union. So why did their Chief and his men look and act like this?
Crush had certainly read enough history to know the answer: Squashcourt was gearing up for war. But with whom?
As he lay in his tent at night, the large portion of Crush’s mind that thought in terms of military strategy began to shift from “theoretical” to “practical.” He hoped he’d brought the right books along.
It turned out that the Prince’s remoteness was more of a personal trait, not shared by King Scrofula and his courtiers. The city of Squashcourt greeted Crush’s arrival with warmth and hospitality. Bright banners of lime and blue adorned the gleaming white towers. There was a pageant of specialty units and beasts, and entertaining performances of song and acrobatics at a raucous banquet thrown in Lord Crush’s honor.
The King sat at the head of the feast, of course. He laughed loudly and often. His brown beard showed a bit of gray, but his physique was powerful, athletic. The sapphire-studded crown he wore sometimes fell over his eyes or clunked onto the table, as he whistled and howled and made outlandish proclamations. (“All units with green eyes are heretofore to wear bowls on their heads, and be known as “salads!”) Twice, he exchanged volleys of dinner rolls and mutton bones with his fool.
Chief Crush, as Guest of Honor, sat to His Majesty’s left, sampling each course and making appreciative comments about the performers. To the King’s right scowled the silent Chief Salad, trying to preserve his tough dignity with the bowl atop his noggin.
Four manservants attended Crush after the meal. In his stately guest suite, they presented him with a new suit of clothing, and helped him get ready. The trade negotiations were to start that very evening.
“It’s beautiful,” said Crush, admiring the rich blue samite and silken lime cording. “But it doesn’t fit me. It’s, uh, it’s way too big.”
The valet fussed and pulled on the nonmagical garment for a bit, before giving up. “Wear it anyway, Y’Lordship. The King’s insisted on it. S’made for you.”
“All right,” said Crush, looking around his quarters. “I need to get a message home. Where is my sending hat?”
The courtiers shrugged and ignored the question.
“Um, I need it. What happened to it?” said Crush, growing alarmed. “I’ve a right under Union terms to send dispatches home at any time.”
“S’amatter for a King, not a servant,” shrugged the fussy little man. “F’you’re ready, we’ll lead you to him.”
Geographically speaking, Crush’s side had it pretty tough. Firstpost claimed no coastline, and boasted no mountains worthy of the word. For its entire history, the Queendom stood in the middle of a crowd of small sides, bumping and shoving, warring over the same eight or nine little city sites among the lakes and farms and grassy plains.
Still, that history was a remarkably long and prosperous one. They’d held fast to a winning strategy: keep two tough level fives close together, and let all the ones and twos get shuffled around—traded and raided, razed and rebuilt—in an endless game of deals and dust-ups.
And there hadn’t even been any of that in quite a while. Sixteen hundredturns ago, Crush’s mother Queen Post played hostess to a tumultuous summit for all three of their neighboring sides, with Crush acting as the moderator and secretary.
As secretary, he’d done a pretty fine job of keeping track of everything that was proposed or amended. But as a moderator, he was out of his depth. The delegates would not be reined in. After a dozen turns of fruitless bickering and namecalling, the discussions finally built up into a full-blown yelling match over the umpteenth revision of the document.
“Stop shouting!” the warlord from Protip bellowed at the red-faced warlord from Tapwater, who would not yield the floor. He rattled the sheaf of parchment in his hand threateningly. “Just plainly tell us what is in this version that you object to!”
“I?!” roared the delegate, “I am trying to refute their objections!” He pointed to the delegate from Squashcourt, and to Crush and Queen Post.
“Fool!” accused Prince Racket of Squashcourt, leaping to his feet. His eyes bulged in their sockets. “I already said our concerns had been substantially addressed! I said it an hour ago!”
The room suddenly fell silent, and all eyes turned toward Crush, who looked up from his blotter, then over to the Queen.
“I authored this version,” he said, shaking his head. “Firstpost has no objections to it, either.”
Mouths hung agape. Eyes darted.
The delegate from Tapwater pounded the podium with his fist. “So be it!”
“So be it!” said the other delegates in turn.
The Queen nodded. “So be it.”
Thus was the So-be-it Union founded. It limited the number of units each side could pop, and forbade them from attacking one another. They no longer needed to maximize their forces and look over their shoulders all the time.
But it also set minimum unit numbers and pledged them to one another’s defense, so they would not be left weak to outside threats. Each of their four sides had half an army, but they could respond to attacks from non-Union sides with two armies’ worth of strength.
At the banquet, Crush had mentioned his desire to visit the city’s library and return the book, so King Scrofula offered to hold negotiations there. It was a prettier library than Second City’s, with posh blue carpeting, white marble columns, and shelves of dark walnut. But Crush could see at a glance there were fewer books here than at home. Disappointing.
“That suit looks...interesting on you,” said the King, after he’d shooed away his servants. “How does it feel?”
“It’s nice,” said Crush, pulling on a loose sleeve.
“Looks like a bad fit,” said Scrofula. There was little of the laughing, boisterous host-of-the-banquet to him now. He wore a gold circlet with a single sapphire in place of his crown. His robes had been replaced by a white suit of clothing, embroidered with the Royal seal upon the jacket in blue and lime. “What of the colors?”
Crush looked at the sleeve again. “Your side’s colors are, uh...grand, Your Majesty. Striking.” What did the King want him to say?
“Well. My apologies. It was tailored for a Chief Warlord,” said Scrofula.
Crush smiled diplomatically. “Not every Chief Warlord is built like yours.”
“No, I suppose not,” said the King. “And Axe is not necessarily the ideal, either. No, not at all. He, ah..he, too, has trouble filling out his garments. In this case, fitting into his brother’s boots.”
“Yes, I was very sorry to learn of Prince Racket’s fate, Majesty.”
“Mm. I know,” said the King. “I’ve read your letter of condolence more than once. You might say it is the reason you are here.”
Lord Crush looked around the empty room. Being alone here was a significant display of trust for the King to be showing him. As a Chief Warlord, he was technically capable of breaking alliance and attacking the Ruler of Squashcourt.
Of course, croaking Scrofula wouldn’t end the side; Prince Axe had been promoted to heir. And breaking with Squashcourt would automagically break alliance with Protip and Tapwater, triggering a reprisal from the remaining So-be-it sides that would probably wipe out Firstpost in fifteen turns. Three half-armies against one? It wouldn’t be a contest.
But still, no guards. Either the King was a brave man, or he was making a point. ...Or he really wanted privacy. Or something else. Crush still didn’t know what this meeting was meant to be about.
Well, first things first.
“My sending hat,” he said, “seems to have gone missing, Your Majesty. I wonder if you might know what has become of it?”
The King pressed his lips together tensely. “It’s in a safe place.” Crush took a step forward and began to make a demand, but Scrofula held up his hand in warding. “Please. I wanted you to hear my offer in its entirety. Duty will compel you to report what I say, and then you will be ordered home. I must ask you to think it over for yourself first.”
Crush started to say something ugly and demanding, but caught himself and held his anger in check. “You’re in violation of Union terms,” he said, “but I’ll hear your offer.”
Scrofula fixed his attention on Crush, pointing at his sleeve. “Royal blue and lime, you see. I want you in those colors for good, Lord Crush. I am asking you to turn to Squashcourt.”