Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) - Episode 010
"As I have already Predicted, my Lord, Frenemy and Quisling won't maintain their alliance for many turns longer. Clay has noticed indications that they may already be working against us, and certainly they will break alliance and attack us at the first opportunity they sense."
Delphie stood beside Wanda, at a respectful few steps' distance before the grand desk in Firebaugh's reception. The Chief was doing all of the talking. Firebaugh was seated, stern and upright, his fingers tented upon the ruddy chestnut desktop.
Wanda had seen her father the Overlord on only the one previous occasion, and he had used that occasion to express his disappointment that she existed. This time, he had risen and given her a respectful nod, calling her by name and somewhat perfunctorily congratulating her on her levels. But he seemed less than comfortable around her, all the same. His eyes stayed riveted on Lady Temple, and he barely spared Wanda a glance.
"That could come next turn, for all I can foresee," continued Delphie. At this, Firebaugh started forward and seemed about to ask a question, but Delphie kept her momentum. "...although I don't believe so," she hastened to add. "However. Whenever that betrayal comes, Goodminton shall be alone in this war, unless we have changed our allegiances preemptively."
Firebaugh leaned back a bit, but he was gripping the edge of the desk. "I have never yet broken an alliance."
"I know, Lord. But break it formally and peacefully, and there will be no shame of treachery upon it," said Delphie, patiently.
Firebaugh only scowled. "It's more complicated than you can imagine, Caster. You don't need to deal with these sorts of things. And be glad of it." He pulled an inkwell and sheet of parchment toward himself, dipped a black-tipped quill, and wrote something across the top of the page. "All right, then what are their terms?"
Delphie gave Wanda a quick glance, as if to confirm that she still stood in agreement. Wanda met the woman's eyes, but gave her no such reassurance, only a empty stare. She would give this woman nothing voluntarily. Delphie turned back to the Overlord, uneasily. "They offer a fifty-turn contract of alliance, bound by a severance penalty of ninety thousand Shmuckers. No cities exchanged."
Firebaugh's eyes widened. He did not write anything on the parchment. "That's much more than anyone should be offering us. Much more. Haffaton still has at least nine cities. What are they, scared?" He glanced at Wanda and his eyebrows went low, in thought. He placed the quill absently back into the inkwell. "Or greedy? Are they asking special considerations or remunerations? Is this even a genuine offer?"
Delphie reached into the satchel she had placed upon the carpet and produced a folded document. Wanda could see the unbroken Thinkamancy seal upon it. "They have tendered the offer formally, Lord," she said, holding it up. She cleared her throat. "And by way of remuneration, they are asking only for a single unit." She stepped forward, placed the paper upon the desk in front of him, and stepped back.
Firebaugh frowned, picking up the missive and touching the seal to break it. "Fritz, I guess. Might have been easier if they'd asked for Hamfurter back. But... For this much breathing room, we could let him go I suppose. I--"
He stopped and read the paper again with full and silent concentration.
He glanced at Wanda, then looked at Delphie. "Does she know?"
"Yes, Lord. This is why I recalled her."
Firebaugh set the page down on the desk and lowered his head, looking at it but not reading. He pinched his lips and blew out a long, pensive sigh. "You must know," he said, and looked up at Wanda at last, "what you are worth to us."
Wanda straightened. "I have some idea, Lord."
In fact, she was not certain. With their recent gains in action, Tommy seemed more optimistic about Goodminton's future. But he had also said to expect a massive counter-offensive by Haffaton soon. Their army was three times the size of Goodminton's, and their production capabilities similarly daunting.
Still, she and Tommy were excited to be discovering together the strategic power of Croakamancy on the battlefield. On the night they took Frankburg, he had held court at the dining table, boasting, "If we play it right, then right now Haffaton's cities are busy popping our future armies!" He raised his tankard in toast to the former defenders of the city, some of whom lined one wall of the mess hall. "To Wanda's fellows!" It was what the (now loudly cheering) knights and leadership called her uncroaked units. Wanda, more than a little inebriated on juniper ale, cupped her own tankard with both hands and grinned down into it with embarrassment. She silently ordered the line of uncroaked to bow in unison, which prompted more cheers and laughter.
Seated beside her on the bench, Tommy shook her shoulder fondly. He took the vessel from her hands, placed it upon the table. "You're doing excellent well, Wanda. Excellent well." She looked up at him drunkenly, flung her arms around him, and passed out. Later, she learned that he had carried her over his shoulder and returned her to her quarters, but that much of what she had consumed that evening did not make the full trip.
"I exchange letters with Tommy twice a turn," said Firebaugh to her. "At times, his enthusiasm for your talents knows no bounds. Twice now, he has talked of conquering Haffaton!" He said it with a bitter chuckle, and shook his head. "He's a good man, my son. And you..."
Firebaugh leaned forward, placing his elbows upon the desk. His eyes were skeptical, the lines around his mouth deep and straight. "Well, I suppose I don't understand you. I am impressed with your performance in the field, though. Tommy calls you 'sister,' but it is difficult yet for me to think of you as my 'daughter.' Magic is so strange to me, and your magic..." He made a face. "Particularly so. I had one of your uncroaked units brought in here. It's...unsettling. I don't like to think of Goodminton fielding such things, as the face that we show to other sides."
Wanda jerked her head back, to the barest degree. Perhaps nothing her father could have said would have stung her worse than this. She had gone into the field to show him that she could be a fighter, that she could be what Goodminton needed. And she was! Tommy thought so.
But now to find that it was a personal distaste for Croakamancy that kept him from considering her his "daughter?" Blood flowed to her face, a mechanism she understood down to the tissues and sinus cavities within her head, for Croakamancy was a beautiful art. She felt her eyelids getting hot, ducts and vessels dilating. She was just a speck of Matter, herself, after all. Just a unit to be traded away.
"Twice a turn, Father?" blurted Wanda. "Excuse me, Overlord? So what are you asking me, then? Do I know what I am worth to you on the battlefield? Yes!"
Firebaugh straightened, as Wanda stepped toward his desk. If he felt like disbanding her for insubordination, she didn't care. It wouldn't be any worse than any other means of disposing of her. "Tommy knows it. Haffaton knows it!" she stiff-arm pointed at the offer on his desk.
"Caster!" barked Delphie from behind her. "Calm yourself!"
For a mere moment, Wanda was close to turning around and striking Delphie. But that was an order, and it did have an effect. Wanda instantly regained some of her composure.
She hadn't been ordered to shut up, though, and she simply continued in a lower tone of voice. "If Tommy thinks we can conquer Haffaton, and Haffaton considers me such an...asset, then perhaps that is because I am that important. That we could beat the enemy now, even as strong as they are."
"I don't Predict that, my Lord," said Delphie from behind her. The Chief's tone was soothing and calm, which sounded to have been affected by a great conscious effort.
"Of course you don't," spat Wanda. "It's not in your 'plan.' Lord, she has a plan. Did you know about that?"
Firebaugh, whose eyes had been darting back and forth between the two casters, settled his gaze on Wanda. He seemed to be exercising conscious restraint as well. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that she lies to you, my Lord. She knew I would be a caster. She is steering Goodminton toward some--"
"Be silent!" ordered Delphie, and Wanda complied at once. "Lord, she is obviously distraught. And she is without certain critical understanding. If you let her continue to speak, she will cause ruin to Goodminton, this I Predict."
Firebaugh looked at Delphie with his head tilted in a skeptic's pout. "Have you? Have you lied to me, Lady Temple?"
Wanda mutely crossed her arms and looked at Delphie, who stood defiantly erect, her hands folded in front of her. "I have, Lord," admitted Delphie. Her tone was factual and unapologetic.
"Really," said Firebaugh. He seemed not angry, but curious. "For my own good, I suppose."
"That is correct, Lord."
He stroked his chin, considering her. "You've a rightly twisted idea of Duty."
Delphie kept her chin raised. "If you could foresee all that I do, you would see it as my only recourse, Lord."
Firebaugh smirked humorlessly. "Pity, then, that you've lied about what you see. Isn't it? I can't possibly see things your way now, can I?"
Delphie looked pained. "It is difficult, Lord, to--"
"Shut up," ordered Firebaugh softly. Delphie did. He held up his head and stared into the distance, as the fireplace hissed. After a few moments, it almost seemed he was ignoring them, wishing them both away.
Then he spoke again. "Magic," he said, in a weary voice, "is vexatious. Magic of all sorts. If Haffaton is afraid of you, Wanda, I can understand that. I am afraid of you. And you," he said to Delphie. "This war ought to be a game of generals and fighting men, of leaders. Swords. Knights. Bravery and sacrifice. Not...tricks. I'm quite weary of tricks."
He tapped the desk with an index finger, punctuating his words. "We've had Foolamancy, tricking our eyes. We've faced Thinkamancy, tricking our wills, our minds. We've gone against Hat Magic and Weirdomancy and Carnymancy, the trickiest of the tricksters! A croaked body," he said to Wanda, "should go to the Titans, having served and sacrificed. You shouldn't be tricking it into getting up and fighting against its comrades in arms."
Wanda could say nothing, but she could not stop herself from shaking her head. He was so terribly wrong...
He turned to Delphie. "And a Ruler should count on the the Duty and Loyalty and Obedience of his units. His choices should lead to the consequences he enjoys. Or endures! I've heard your mumbo jumbo about Fate. I don't like it any more than any other magic tricks!"
Delphie looked about as wounded as Wanda, to hear her work denounced. Whatever their differences, they shared a pride in their disciplines, and that pride was being bludgeoned ruthlessly at the moment.
Firebaugh fell silent again for a while. When he spoke, he sounded more conciliatory, resigned. "However. I must live in this world. I must rule a side. We are not popped in an ideal world."
He looked down at the treaty proposal, scanning it again. He shook his head at it. "I really don't want this," he said. He looked up. "I have to tell you Wanda. I've very much enjoyed receiving the news of our success." He looked up at her and smiled weakly. "When you took back Goodfinger, I actually, literally danced a jig. Right on that rug where you're standing."
Wanda tentatively returned the smile. It was rewarded. Firebaugh made a helpless gesture with his palms as if to ask "what am I to do, in such a world?" He smiled more openly at her. "Wanda," he said, "speak. Please."
"I love Croakamancy," said Wanda. "I am sorry that you think ill of it, but I do love it." Firebaugh nodded, by which she understood him to indicate his respectful disagreement. "And I love using it for Goodminton, because I also love Goodminton, and my brother Tommy."
The absence of an "and you, Father" hung in the air for a moment.
"I don't believe I popped here as a chip to trade," she said, stepping up to the desk and putting the fingertips of one hand upon it. "But if that is the case, I don't believe I care. I just want to fight for my side. I like that Haffaton is afraid of me. I like it." She smiled a white-toothed smile, pretty and predatory. "Oh, Father...don't you?"
Before she left Firebaugh's reception, he had called Wanda "daughter" and embraced her. And more than that, he had called her "Chief."
"I'll want you shoring up the air defenses on the tower," said Wanda as she descended the stairs behind Delphie. "And Clay making scrolls. Every turn, until I change that order, or Father does."
Delphie's turned her sunken, haunted eyes back to Wanda, and nodded her assent.
"Neither of you is to go to the Magic Kingdom without permission, either," Wanda added, as they reached the base of the tower and stopped. From here, Wanda would be heading to the stables and Delphie to the dungeon. "And you're to report any contact with enemy units to Father or to me, immediately."
The Predictamancer nodded again, distantly.
"You have permission to speak."
Delphie cleared her throat. "You have doomed us all," she said simply.
Wanda looked into Delphie's wrinkled eyes for a moment. Wanda had no doubt she believed what she was saying. But no branch of magic was so strong it could not be defeated on the battlefield. If Predictamancy were infallible, only sides with Predictamancers would be left by now. Wanda wanted to fight a war, and she and her father believed that should be enough, even against "Fate."
She licked her lips. "You have your orders, Caster. You're dismissed."
It was Wanda who turned and left the scene first. She wanted to use the remainder of the turn on a fresh mount, heading back toward the action, and needed to hurry. Delphie stood there, her hand upon the railing.
"When it happens," she called after Wanda "don't uncroak my body! Your father was right; you are an abomination!