“His Royal Highness, the Prince of Delkey, Creen,” announced the courtier at the door. Everyone except for King Posbrake rose and stood respectfully at parade rest for the Royal entrance.
If anything, the rumors of Creen‘s appearance and manner had fallen short of the true picture. He arrived at the Key Boardroom wearing a long ermine-lined velvet jacket and pantaloons, both of a deep royal crimson, with a white satin waistcoat and silk stockings up to his knees. On his head, he wore a long wig of talc-white curls. At his hip, a silver rapier with a basket hilt gleamed in its jeweled scabbard.
He made no eye contact and said nothing as he swept into the room. The Prince was a flying unit, and he literally glided along on the opposite side of the Long Table from the Homekey contingent. As he reached the head of the table where Posbrake sat, he climbed higher into the air, hovering at a height just lofty enough that everyone could see his patent leather shoes with the gold-plated buckles on them. A Homekey courtier pulled out the tall-backed chair to Posbrake‘s left, and guided the scabbard under the chair‘s arm as the Prince lightly descended into it.
Although Digdoug could detect that the shoe buckles were not solid gold, much of the rest of his jewelry was of a quality that the pieces were directly convertible to Shmuckers. Having both a Dollamancer and a Moneymancer on your side must be nice.
Creen‘s entourage then followed him into the room, led by that very Moneymancer. Digdoug rarely got to meet another caster, so he studied the Moneymancer with interest.
The man wore a much more modest wig than his Prince‘s. His body was draped in a formal green wizard's robe that reached to the floor, which was embroidered all over in arcane symbols in gold and silver threads. His face appeared strangely pinched, with his cheekbones seeming to push his eyelids up into a permanent squint.
“His High Lordship, Chief Caster of Delkey, Duke of Foreshift, Robert Dinero,” added the doorman.
Something was going on in this room, beneath the conversational surface. Digdoug didn‘t have a lot of experience at politics, but the meeting was lasting a long time, long enough for even the Dirtamancer to catch on to the game a little. The Prince and Chief Caster and their captains and menservants had traveled here for some presumably serious reason, but Posbrake was apparently going to go over every detail of his domestic matters before letting them speak.
Most of the time, Lord Peck or Lord Hunt went on about troop deployment and military matters, or Chief Bucky answered the King‘s questions about everything else. For quite a while, Digdoug was forced to explain in detail each of the improvements he‘d made in various cities, down to the last latrine. He tried to be succinct, and not to look at Prince Creen as he spoke. But His Majesty kept pressing.
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” said Posbrake, his hands folded in front of his face with great seriousness. “Now, the ones by the main gate guardhouse, were those the four-seaters or the six?” The message was clear enough: Whatever my brother came here to say, it is less important to me than the toilets in my most distant city.
When Digdoug related the particulars of his trip to Weatherbug, he could feel himself tensing up. Hunt and Peck were still adamant that his lone trap–one which he had constructed hastily and in possible contravention of his orders–had saved the city. But Digdoug believed that if he hadn‘t wasted two turns on drains and roofs first, some or all of those defenders would still be alive.
Or...if he had just ridden a mount to the city instead of walking, then there would have been time to put in all the other traps. But then he wouldn‘t have made the golems. So how would it have played out? He didn‘t know. He‘d spent much of a fairly inebriated night going over and over it, painfully.
All he was sure of was that Allison deserved more than he‘d given her.
“You don‘t seem to be comfortable being commended for your work, Digdoug,” said the King, smiling kindly. “Which I suppose is commendable.” There were chuckles on the Homekey side of the table, silence on Prince Creen‘s. The Delkey contingent had shown no visible signs of irritation at their low rung on the agenda, but they also weren‘t playing along with Posbrake. They sat in patient silence, following the conversation. Creen occasionally inhaled a pinch of snuff.
“I just...if I‘d had more time out there,” said Digdoug, “I think the losses wouldn‘t have been so bad. I had so many plans for traps and defenses...”
“Yes, well, the enemy had plans of their own,” said the King. “That‘s the way it works in war. You‘re lucky we pulled you out of there when we did.” The warlords nodded emphatically.
“I don‘t know, Your Majesty,” frowned Digdoug, “I think if I had been present for the attack, it would have been another story.”
“Yes,” said Peck, “we‘d have lost our only caster.”
“You don‘t know that,” said Digdoug, still frowning unhappily. “If I could have led those hard rock golems, they‘d‘ve had my bonus. It would be like having a third warlord there, leading a stack of heavies.” Peck made a face. “I mean, I know I‘m not a warlord, but I can follow orders. Lady Chains would have known what to do with me.”
Hunt leaned in, looking exasperated. This was a repeat of a conversation they‘d have several times last night at The Space. “Did I not give you the numbers? Do they mean anything to you, Caster?”
“Digdoug, I‘m relieved and pleased that I ordered you out of Weatherbug when I did,” said the King in his calm, reassuring baritone. The King was a handsome man with a healthy Signamancy about him. His build wasn‘t really that of a warrior, but he was broad-shouldered and trim. He kept a neat red-brown beard, and dressed in a casual, comfortable suit of cotton clothes, practically thumbing his nose at Creen‘s finery. He happened to be wearing his crown at the moment, but he didn‘t always. “We need you, and that recall order saved your life.”
“But you don‘t know that,” Digdoug said, without thinking about whether it was wise to keep contradicting everyone in the room, including his Ruler.
King Posbrake dropped his smile, pressed his lips together, and gave Digdoug the strangest look, as if he had something to say but couldn‘t say it here. There was a flash in his eyes of...sympathy? Or guilt, almost? Digdoug wasn‘t great about reading people, especially the King.
For the first time in the meeting, it was His Majesty who changed the subject. “Let‘s turn to crop yields, Bucky,” he said, suddenly turning to his Chief of Staff. “We‘re doing way too much barley, don‘t you think? What about downgrading to rice and beans in Bonzibuddy, what would that get us?”
Whether or not the King had intended to delay the meeting all the way until start of turn, that is what ended up happening. A muffled chorus of horns rang out from above, as Numloch ended their turn earlier than expected.
“Hmh, well,” said Posbrake, straightening a stack of parchment sheets and handing them back to Bucky, “I suppose we‘ll have to table the rest of the domestic agenda and get on to prosecuting the war. The uh, business brought by our honored guests,” he said, turning and looking at his brother for the first time in half an hour, “can that wait until evening? Or would you care to sum it up for us briefly before we adjourn to the Battle Room?”
The King‘s slight smile and charismatic, amiable tone never wavered. But Digdoug couldn‘t help cringing a little bit. He didn‘t know how it usually went between these two men, but he thought Prince Creen might be well within his rights to sock his brother in the nose right now.
The Prince, his lids half closed in an air of regal detachment, placed his silver snuff box in his coat and produced a folded sheet of yellow paper from the same interior pocket. He unfolded it and laid it out on the ebony tabletop in front of him.
“Briefly. Yes. Hhrnn. Well, by providence I believe our business here can be summarized in a single word, Your Appointed Majesty,” he said to the air, as if speaking to invisible spirits hovering up near the ceiling. “That word is, ‘audit.‘ Hhrnn.” The Prince again made a noise that was halfway between clearing his throat and humming. “According to the terms of alliance under which your side exists,” he gently patted the paper, “you are required to provide complete transparency to Delkey as regards your treasury.”
“Yes, we do that,” said Posbrake, glancing at Bucky. “You receive our report by hat every turn. Have they not been going through?”
Creen may have given the Moneymancer Robert a silent order, or the man might have decided to speak up of his own accord. He placed his green sleeves on the table and leaned forward to make eye contact with Posbrake. “Homekey‘s reports have taken on a tone of vagueness of late, Your Majesty, which the Court of Delkey views with alarm. We are here to see that your every expenditure is still in compliance.”
“The reports we‘ve been sending you are in compliance,” said Posbrake, also leaning forward. He tapped at Prince Creen‘s paper, and Digdoug got the feeling that he was tapping on the exact paragraph or clause he was referring to. “You already know what we make and what we spend, and that‘s all I have to put into the report.”
“As I say, Majesty,” said Robert, “your recent vagueness about those expenditures is what brings us to your door. King Minus has ordered me to examine your books.”
“King Minus doesn‘t have the authority to issue such an order,” said Posbrake. It was strange to see him still smiling, despite the genuine anger in his eyes. “We‘re complying with the terms of alliance.”
“Yes, you‘re fond of that,” said Prince Creen to the air. “Complying with the letter of the agreement while confounding its spirit. Father doesn‘t look upon it kindly. You are required to have an heir, for example.”
“I was required to pop an heir,” said Posbrake, rolling his eyes at the repeat of a well-worn argument. “I did. The terms don‘t say I couldn‘t trade him for something we needed more.”
“The terms do say that you must replace the heir if he or she is lost,” persisted Creen.
“No,” said Posbrake firmly, while looking down at the contract, “the terms say ‘if the heir is croaked.‘”
The Prince closed his eyes wearily, which emphasized his long black eyelashes. “As I say. It is your game to violate the spirit of the agreement in such a manner.”
“That‘s not fair, and it isn‘t true. I will pop another heir here, after the war is won. Until then, this is our only city that can pop hippo-crates, and we need those more. That‘s my decision to make.”
“King Minus is not pleased with the decisions you‘ve made since he installed you on your...so-called throne.” Prince Creen looked with disdain at the high-backed chair that Posbrake was sitting in. Other than a gold seal at the top, it looked the same as any of the other chairs around the Long Table. “He wishes to know what expenses you‘re concealing.”
“I‘m not concealing a thing,” said Posbrake. “But our particular expenses are none of Delkey‘s business. We are a sovereign side, not a colony. Tell Minus to get used to it.”
At this, the King rose from his seat, shoving the throne backward with his legs. Digdoug and the other Homekey units scrambled to stand up as well. Posbrake reached over to the ledger where Bucky had been scribbling careful notes, and flipped the book closed.
“Access to our books is denied,” he said, turning to face Creen squarely. “This meeting stands adjourned. Digdoug?”
The Dirtamancer swallowed, as his King suddenly stalked around the edge of the table and passed him by, heading out of the side entrance. “Sire?”
“With me,” Posbrake ordered, as he disappeared behind the little door.