PART THREE: THE EDGE OF THE BLADE
Vorti's army arrived home in a mid-afternoon drizzle. Travel-weary and mud spattered, there was not a man among them who didn't desire a warm fire and a full tankard of ale, but the commanders allowed no respite. With the threat of an imminent invasion hanging over the city like a pall, the soldiers were dispersed to their posts, not their homes. It would be a long time before anyone wearing armor was presented with an opportunity to rest.
When Lea reached the palace, she was in no better condition than her men. Despite the grime coating her clothes and clinging to her skin, she refused a bath and went directly to the little throne room, where she demanded audiences with Eya, her battle commanders, and King Guc - in that order.
The chancellor did not accompany his queen to the palace, having already been given instructions about what role he would play in the preparations for battle. His task was not an easy one, and he was uncertain how to go about it, but he recognized the necessity of attempting what Lea had requested. If humanity was to survive this dire crises, as many Apaths had to be gathered as could be found, and it was his duty as Devforth's most notorious practitioner of magic to lure members of his kind out of anonymity to the defense of their race.
After entering the audience chamber where her queen rested wearily and crownless on the throne, Eya offered no more than a brief curtsey. Observing proper etiquette and ceremony had little meaning in these circumstances.
"A wasted journey, then," noted Eya. "You look exhausted."
"I am exhausted," replied Lea. "The situation is bad, though. I didn't see Tsab, but we have Guc's survivors with us, and they say there's nothing left. The quatics have a blood debt to pay, and they've put the whole ferocity of centuries of festering ill into it."
"We'll see how they fare when they meet the heart of human resistance. It's one thing to tear apart an inferior army. It's another to come up against a well-fortified city guarded by stalwarts and Apaths. I doubt the quatics are aware of what they'll be facing. If anything, the ease of their victory at Tsab should help us. They may think of our race as soft and weak."
"I see you've put the stonemasons to work building a wall."
"Not just the stonemasons. Every able bodied person who isn't filling some other important function. We're going to need some kind of barrier, if only to slow down the quatics. I'm not foolish enough to think anything built this quickly will stop them, but it will be a barricade."
"It's a good idea. I don't think I would have thought of it."
"That's why you have advisors. Speaking of which, where's Wil?"
Lea outlined the mission she had constructed for her chancellor. When she was done, Eya said, "Coordinating a magical offense is better suited to me than him. As deeply as I respect Wil, I don't see him as our greatest asset in battle. Something happened between him and your father long ago that soured his taste for using magic as a weapon. He's never told me exactly what it was."
"Why is Guc here?" asked Lea suddenly.
"Something to do with Meg. He hasn't been forthcoming. Except for a brief appearance in the throne room, he's spent all of his time with the seeress. Apparently, she's gone blind. Lost her abilities. No one knows how or why it happened."
"Is she all right?"
"Unharmed, but despondent. Now, can I ask the same question about my brother's son?"
"Sor? How should I know?"
"He was a member of your army. I assumed he made his presence known to you sometime on the march."
Lea shook her head. "I had no idea. And at his age... he should never have been allowed..."
"Oh, come, Your Majesty. He's only a year younger than you and, as a male, far more eager to prove himself. Valor is the man's badge of honor that he presents to his intended mate."
"Meaning me, I suppose."
"Would he be that bad a choice? He's devoted to you, which is more than can be said for your 'official' betrothed. And, now Guc is without a city to present to you as a wedding present, I think that marriage need no longer be pursued."
"At the moment, there are more important issues to deal with than who I choose as my husband."
"I agree, Your Majesty, but it's an issue that won't go away."
"If I don't survive the battle, it will. Now, send Guc to me. My prospective bridegroom owes me a full report on what transpired at Tsab and thereafter."
Shortly after Eya departed, Lea's top military strategists arrived, most - save the few who had remained behind in Vorti - looking as bedraggled as the queen.
The war council was brief and pointed. Lea spoke little, allowing her generals to sketch plans for Vorti's defense. There were the expected arguments, but in a surprisingly short period of time, a workable scenario was mapped out for preparing the city for battle, implementing an advance scouting network, and, when the time came, defending Vorti.
"Fortunately, time appears to favor us, at least for the moment," noted Battle Commander Dus after Lea had agreed to his latest compromise proposal. "The quatics will almost certainly try to take the Twin Cities and perhaps Llam before moving on us. That should give us the better part of a week to prepare. We probably don't need half of that, but the less we rush, the more unlikely the chance we'll miss some hidden chink. After all, 'twas the one missing scale that killed the dragon."
"I want the men ready as soon as possible, Dus," said Lea, a hint of steel in her voice. "It's time to stop judging the quatics as if they were a human army. We've been thinking that about them all along, and look what's resulted. You have forty-eight hours, Battle Commander. By that time, this city must be sealed and ready to withstand the most brutal siege in its history."
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