The remaining archers, knights and soldiers snapped to attention and/or saluted as King Slately walked near. His procession disturbed them in a wake of little circles, so that he passed like a water strider, stepping upon the unbroken tension.
A door was opened for him by a scraping guard, and he went wordlessly into an empty staging room. Air defense was meant to muster here, but they were all assembled upon the tower now. The wide, wood-floored chamber was starkly vacant.
"I'll not be disturbed," he told the guard. "On pain of disbandment. Even the Prince can wait."
"Yes, Sire!" The guard took Slately's merest glance at the door as the order it was, and pulled it shut behind him.
At the center of the room was a single block table, and one simple wooden chair. The King walked toward it, musing upon Fate and furniture. There could have been ten tables and sixty chairs in this room. Had he wanted to address his men at this point, there probably would have been.
But one of his subjects had chosen to place in this room a single setting for one.
Whoever it was, they surely had some reason which made sense at the time. Yet Slately understood that in some subtle way they were carrying out the Titans' will. People of import such as himself, who proceeded through their lives directing and driving the wheels of Erfworld, so often stepped upon a scene which was ready-made for what they would do. The Titans had set this table for him now.
He sat at his humble place, and removed his crown.
From within his robes he took out a brass coin, a token of the realm. His men traded them among themselves for small items and services, or gambled with them, but they had no value in real Shmuckers. Oh, if only.
He dropped it into the crown and waved his scepter over it three times.
"Pinochet," he intoned. The coin was made to disappear.
He placed the burdensome crown back on his pate and waited, both with impatience and with dread. He drummed his fingers, and glanced around the tabletop. It was covered with odd items. That awful Dollamancer's things. Had that buffoon really wasted juice without orders on this critical turn, just to make another "accessory?" He'd see that the caster was punished. That was, assuming Jetstone would be victorious this day.
Slately intended to see that they were. Yes, the truth beast still stalked him. But another truth might be his salvation, a truth he'd long denied.
He had discovered in his last living son a sort of Royal role model, strange as that might seem. Foppish little Tramennis? Truly? But the Prince cared for naught but the preservation of the side, in an understated, focused way that shook Slately from the throne of his complacency. He was, in truth, many hexes closer to the Royal ideal than Slately had ever been.
The King picked up some kind of odd green egg-shaped object with a ring at the top, and looked at it in the light of the room's sole orb. Useless. He placed it back down and pushed it away. Holly Shortcake would not have fabricated such things. She was such a delight.
If he croaked today, might he be allowed to see her again in the hereafter? Would the Titans judge him so kindly? Could it be his final reward to know love again? Not unless he was worthy, he supposed. Not unless he was truly worthy.
A tickle upon his brain, then Bunny, Transylvito's spooky Thinkamancer, "Your Royal Highness King Slately of Jetstone, His Royal Highness Don King of Transylvito." The words were only in his mind; she never spoke aloud.
Don's image floated before him, seated as Slately was. Concerned. Serious. But as ever, calm. "You all right?" he asked, after a moment's hesitation, "I watched that Croakamancy maneuver."
"So far, I am well," said Slately. "But I now must do something that is beyond my reach. I require your help, Don."
Don King nodded. "Spill it."
"I want to promote my son to heir."
Don tilted his head in consideration. "Understandable," he said noncommittally.
Slately pursed his lips. "I'm not sure that it is."
Don raised an eyebrow and the corner of his mouth twitched. He looked prepared to say something, then seemed to think better of it and shook his head. "Enlighten me, then."
Slately raised himself up in the chair. "You were right, Don. He is quite a good general. At present, he's gone down the tower to secure my escape from the city, and he plans to fight the invader only once I am clear."
Don nodded again. "Smart."
"Oh he is. He's very much so. So who cares if he's a– If his Signamancy is less...than manly." Slately cleared his throat. "I certainly don't. Any more. He ought to lead."
Don stared at Slately for a long moment, then let this pass and said simply, "He is leading."
"Slately, if you're out of the city, your side will survive this. That's the important thing."
Slately shook his head, struggling for the words.
"I know," said Don, raising a hand. "The city falls, and you'll lose the heir you're popping. You may not be able to do anything about that, though. You have to face the facts."
"I am facing facts!" said Slately.
"Then face this one. We can't give you that kinda money. It'd leave us a couple turns away from an empty treasury ourselves." Don's voice had a certain granite texture, which Slately knew meant there was no room to negotiate.
He took a moment before speaking again. "I am facing facts," he repeated, softly. "My friend. Hard, hard facts." The two rulers looked at one another for a long moment. "My son is more of a man than I am. All my sons have been. And you always knew it. Did you not?"
Don said nothing.
"You never would listen to me about Royal ideals," Slately said, frowning. "Honor, sacrifice, dignity, decorum, station...loyalty, bravery... You were too polite to me, Don. You couldn't simply say I was no Royal ideal myself."
Don raised his eyebrows at this. His permanent squint showed a hint of eyeball for once. He appeared genuinely surprised to hear Slately put any blame upon himself, for anything. But he still remained silent.
"You've changed your mind since the Battle for Gobwin Knob," said Slately. "But I haven't changed. I thought I'd finally convinced you."
"You did," said Don, but he had covered his lips with his knuckle.
"No," said Slately. "What was it, really? The threat of the Arkenpliers?"
Don blinked. "It was that," he shrugged. "We're clearly in big trouble here, arright? It was a lot of things. It was you, partly. But really, it was Bea."
"Bea," whispered Slately, mid-sigh. The Queen of Unaroyal had seen her daughter felled and decrypted. As her side was about to fall, Queen Bea sent a few last words to Don King, then wiped out her entire side by stepping into her portal and disbanding. "I haven't wanted to talk of her with you. You must know why. I...haven't felt worthy of speaking her name."
Don stiffened. His eyes went icy. "Yeah, well. It was a hard thing she did."
Slately found his fists striking the table, "It was a Noble thing she did!" His voice clenched up and the final word of his sentence came out airy. He swallowed. "We would be fighting her former units now, if she hadn't... I couldn't see how she could do it." He felt a sudden hotness in his eyes.
Don King shook his head, very sadly. "She believed. That's sacrifice. That's what Nobility is. As many times as you've preached it to me, you should know."
"I know!" Slately shouted again, and the image of Don went watery. "I want to be that– I want to be that way now, Don."
"What, disband yerself? You're kidding."
"Nohoho!" exclaimed Slately, in something between a sob and a laugh. "It's not that hopeless here yet. Not yet." He sniffed, and smiled bitterly. "No, I must promote my son. And then I will order him out of the city, and lead the army into the garrison myself."
Don leaned back and tilted his head, his lips pressed tightly together. "That's crazy," he said.
Slately shrugged. "It's what I have to do," he said. "I think perhaps this whole war of attunement must have been the Titans' way to make us realize how far we have fallen from the Royal Mandate. But if not, it is still something that I must do. Personally. I want Tramennis to be King, should I fall."
Don's face betrayed nothing, but Slately felt as if his old friend were looking at him for the first time.
"Help me, Don," Slately pleaded, in a hoarse whisper. "This is what the war's about. Help me to honor Bea. Help me to honor honor itself. What else is there to fight for?"
The Transylvitian King folded his hands, his index fingers extended and touched to his lips. The question hung in the air. He took a deep breath through his nose, and let it out slowly.
"I'm gonna need you...to agree to some very tight terms on this loan, King."