IPTSF Text 17
The note read:
They ask me again? My daughter for armistice?
A good ruler would surely accept this offer, but I don't suppose I can claim that distinction.
Time and again, the Lady Temple advises that my decisions cannot affect what has been Predicted.
If this is truly so, then life is ludicrous and without meaning.
If no decision matters, then I shall make no decision.
Let the choice be made between you two.
You each have my trust and my love.
"Your units may bunk in the east barracks, and the adjacent officers' quarters and stables," she said, rising to her feet and gathering her books. "You should count on having them use their own rations. There will be no festivities this evening."
Tommy and Wanda watched them leave the blockhouse without a further word. Larry glanced back at her as he held the door for Olive, then he walked out and left it ajar.
After a moment's thoughtful silence, Tommy whispered, "I get it."
Wanda looked at him. "What?"
"She doesn't trust Larry. She wants to turn, but she'll wait and do it on our turn, so we can turn around and attack!" Tommy's face was flushed with excitement. "She wants us in the east barracks so we can protect her. Aw, we should never have tried to turn them both. I'm an idiot."
Wanda had taken Olive's sudden coldness very much at face value, but it was hard to be sure. It would make things much nicer if what Tommy thought was true. "What if you're wrong?"
Her brother tilted his head, his smile going crooked. "Back to the original plan then, I guess. Stay here tonight, destroy her instrument if we can. Take the city tomorrow." He looked out the empty doorway. "But I bet she turns. C'mon, let's assemble in the barracks."
Fritz seemed a little more at ease in the barracks. They filled him in on the intent of staying another turn here. He was quiet, but clearly skeptical of the entire matter. Wanda wondered if he regretted staying sober through the previous evening's carousal.
The warlords played cards through the rest of Haffaton's turn, and no news came to them via the hat or any scout observations. Another quiet turn. For the last ten days, the war had barely seemed to be a war at all.
Fritz raised the possibility that they could catch Haffaton off guard and take the city before Olive could play her instrument. "No," said Tommy. "I think she probably won't play, but that will mean she'll be here to turn. We should just be ready for the fight."
Within the barracks, then, they stayed stacked. They took up positions of readiness by the doors as Haffaton's horns sounded the end of their turn.
But at that very moment, Olive's strumming and singing rained down from the city's tower. Tommy and Wanda stood in the doorway and stared up at her tiny figure on the parapet. As with yesterday, her voice reached them from everywhere and nowhere, sweet and haunting.
Wanda's eyes widened at the final lyric. Wordlessly, Tommy drew his sword. He stepped out into the courtyard and swung it as hard as he could at a Haffaton soldier who was standing in the sunlight, chewing on a dried pear.
The sword stopped in midair, an inch from the man's neck. He looked up, put the rest of the fruit in his mouth, gave Tommy a quick and sarcastic salute, and wandered off.
"Had to try," Tommy called after him.
"Wha'ever," said the soldier, through a mouthful of food.
The Goodminton officers' card game eventually resumed. "What do you think her lyric meant by 'too late?'" said Wanda to the table. She was dealer this hand.
Fritz looked worried. "You're asking us?"
"I took it as a threat of some kind," said Tommy. He'd been quiet since the turn began, and slow to answer his bet. He looked at Wanda seriously. "That's why I confirmed the spell was active. But the fact that she was singing about turning... I don't know what to think at this point. "
Wanda nodded. "Bet's to you," she said.
"Check," said Wanda. "I don't know, either. That spell uses Rhyme-o-mancy, but I don't understand it. You want cards, Mack?"
Wanda dealt his cards. "Well, it's bothering me. So if it's just a threat, it's doing a good job. Cakes?"
Rex Cakes, an awkward Level 3 with a pasty face and a large gap between his teeth, took three cards.
"Do you think we should go talk to her?" asked Tommy.
Wanda shrugged. She had a feeling in her gut that Olive was moving on to something else now, and that this meant bad news for Goodminton. "I guess we could. Fritz?"
"I'm fine with these, my Lady," said Fritz.
"Really, now?" said Wanda suspiciously. "Don't spend all of Clay's boost at the poker table. Tommy?" Tommy was looking up at the ceiling. "You want cards, big brother?"
"Sh," he said, holding up the fingers of his empty hand. He put his cards on the table, face down. "Check the hat. Did the hat rumble?"
Olive and Larry came out to speak to Tommy at the fore of the Goodminton column, just inside the main gate of Kiloton. She listened coolly, as he explained that they were withdrawing from the city immediately.
"I see. And are you ready to take our offer?" she asked.
"It's still on the table," said Tommy, matching her tone. "But not this turn. We need our Croakamancer too badly right now."
Olive nodded, her face blank. "Trouble? It's not with us. Maybe it's your allies?"
Tommy's eyes narrowed. "That's not anything I'd care to share with the enemy, Olive."
In fact, the message they had received was dire. A large air armada of mounted heavies from both Quisling and Frenemy had flown into the capital's airspace and would not withdraw. They declared they would break their alliance and attack the city unless given concessions amounting to the rest of Goodminton's treasury. Lord Firebaugh was uncertain the attack could be fought off.
"We don't have to be enemies, Tommy," Olive said, her eyes softening as she stepped closer to him. "With Wanda on our side, we'd be more like family. Like a tribe."
"We had a tribe," said Tommy stiffly. "You helped wipe them out."
Olive shook her head just slightly, as if to say "history doesn't matter."
Larry stepped forward and stared at Wanda. His eyes were longing and sad. "Take the deal," was all he said.
Wanda looked at him, understanding full well that he desired her, but feeling nothing for him. Perhaps what he was feeling was some form of love. Perhaps it was something else.
Then she looked at Olive, and it was like looking into the sun. Wanda considered the possibility of staying here with her, and her heart voted in favor of the idea by knocking on her breastbone from the inside. But was that love, or something else? Was that what Larry felt when he looked at her?
And if so, perhaps Olive was just as indifferent to her.
She touched her brother's arm and looked up at him. "I'll go. If it will save us."
Tommy shook his head, and pulled away almost violently. He scowled at Olive, angry. "No. That shouldn't be necessary! Olive, you should turn! You should've...you should have."
Olive shook her head sadly. "It wouldn't help you now. You have to go, and I'm out of move." She stepped close to Tommy, and took his hand in both of hers. "But if you mean I should have loved you, I did. And I do." She looked up at him. "But I make you no promises about the future. Will you kiss me?"
They looked into one another's eyes, then he put his arms around her waist and locked her in a passionate embrace. Some of the Goodminton knights hooted, but Wanda, Larry and Fritz stared in awkward silence, as the kiss dragged on for many moments.
When they finally drew apart, Tommy looked distant and distracted. He looked at Olive only a moment longer, then shouted the booming command, "Column! March!"
The column split by destination, based upon move. Slower and siege units were sent on their way back to Hamfurter, while their fleetest units and the leadership would take a four-turn overland route straight home to the capital.
They rode hard and fast through the hills, over fields of boulders and snow. Tracks indicated there was game here, but they had no move to spare for hunting. Wanda and Uggymug stayed close beside Tommy's flank. Hunched down in the saddle, he barely spoke a word, but kept his eyes ahead and his teeth bared into the wind.
It was good to be riding with him. Even if the capital should fall and they should all disband in the field, she felt glad not to have stayed with Olive. Every time she looked at her brother she felt that they belonged together, Fate and the Titans disband.
Halfway through their journey, he read a message from his hat and called a halt.
"Leadership, to me," he said. His voice was barely a loud whisper.
The commanders huddled their mounts. Wanda could see by Tommy's grim face that something very serious was happening. "The siege group is gone," he said, his voice low and strained. Wanda watched him closely. He was in deep distress. "Haffaton was waiting for it on the road. We should watch for a second ambush. Let's get scouts ahead as we ride."
There was no second ambush, but the rest of the ride was slower and the mood more desperate. Haffaton was offering no more concessions now. Enemies are enemies. Tommy looked as pained as Wanda had ever seen him, and he said nothing more until the group had spent the move of its slowest units. At that point, he pulled up into a wind-sheltered grove of firs and ordered camp made.
Then he dismounted his brontosword, slid down its side, and collapsed into the snow.
Wanda's head snapped around. The big mount obscured her view of him. "Tommy?"
But before she could even get her boots out of the stirrups, her senses as a Croakamancer told her she would find his lifeless body upon the ground.