Scipia found me before dawn. She saw my new leg, but didn’t realize it was permanent. She was waiting for the day, for my wound to open. I told her that I’d been healed. She looked surprised, then dropped to one knee and at the point where my stump joined my smooth, mottled, new flesh. “Come quickly.” she said. “We must get you out of here before the other patients wake.”
She and I walked through to what I assumed was a storeroom. She asked me to cast a spell which would hide our voices, and we sat on some crates of supplies. “You can bivouac with me until we get things sorted out.” she said.
“What needs to be sorted out?”
“I can see her sigil in your skin, Mirarius. They are going to tear strips off her when they find out.”
“Yes, but I doubt she cares. Actually, the Tytalusians enjoy that sort of thing. Maybe she did it just because she hasn’t had a decent argument in a week.”
“She was specifically forbidden from healing you. She’d argued for it in the War Council. She claimed Achlys’s vis was hers by right. The others over-ruled her. She must have broken into the vis stores.”
“That’s serious, but again, I presume that’s what she wanted.”
“No, you still don’t understand. We don’t have enough vis to go around…”
“I do know that…”
“…so there’s a triage list. The vis she spent on your leg should have gone to one of the combat magi. Unless we find more vis, whoever that was is going to die because of Decimata’s decision.”
“Who is it?”
“They haven’t told us. They don’t want fighting over who ranks whom.”
“Well, all of the War Council, and whomever they have told.”
I shrugged. “I can see that’s a problem, but I can’t see what I can do about it.” Again, I shrugged. “I just need to wait for orders.”
“Yes, but while you wait, it’s best not to sleep in the terminal ward. A knife in the neck and suddenly there’s Corpus vis available, and the list gets ever shorter.”
I was fencing with one of the grogs when I saw Scipia again. She called me aside, and I dismissed him. That was when I met Ruggerio. He became a shield of mine, later in the war.
“Decimata has left.”
“Left where?” I asked, as I took off my training jerkin.
“She’s packed her gear. She’s left left Heartfoam.”
“Why?” I was casting a petty spell to clean me up. I didn’t think this a serious matter.
“The War Council started to upbraid her. She said she was sick of them, and that she was leaving the army…”
“…and they let her go?”
“The can’t stop her. Many of the Tytaluses are heading off on their own. They think they can do more harm to the Diedne with guerrilla tactics, or that they can seek a separate peace.”
She and I had walked to a quiet part of the stableyard. I dropped my voice. “How bad is it? The desertion, I mean.”
“People rally to causes in the ascendant. A lot of the Tytalus magi are angry at the tactics used in the Tempest.”
“Is that what they are calling the battle?”
“Oh, yes. The Criamon says they have been calling it the Tempest for decades now. No point annoying them.”
“So how many have we lost?”
“It depends what you mean by ‘lost’.” She sighed and sat on a rail. “Flambeau heading south or Tytalus heading to the sea just claim they are just going to their Domus Magna. They say they are going to bolster the defences in case the Diedne decide to knock their House out of the war, to cover their rear before they march east. Some of them are even telling the truth.”
“But what are the numbers?”
“No-one is sure. More leave every day. We are now grossly numerically inferior in this theatre. The Diedne may be fielding a force five times the size of ours, and theirs are less injured, and more experienced. We lost most of the Mercurians when their ritual was disrupted.”
“So, what are our orders?”
“Currently? Hold Heartfoam, to buy the leadership time to cajole the stragglers back into the army.”
“That’s not going to happen. What are the contingencies?”
“Unofficially? We wait until enough stragglers leave for House Tremere to say “We are doing things our way from now on, and you can join in if you can obey orders.”
“It can’t be that bad. We only lost one battle.”
“If the Diedne make it as far as Bohemia, then they hit some of the defences we have had prepared since the post-Sundering security monomania. We might hold them there. If we can’t, then Lycaneon is where we win or lose.”
“We are openly discussing drawing a line at Lycaneon?”
“Yes. Within the House, yes.”
“That…” I paused. “That could never work.”
“It could if they were stupid about it.”
“If we give them all of France and Germany, they just need to wait for a decade, harvest all of the vis…”
“Call up demons with it, and feed us to them. Yes. Demons lack patience.”
“That’s why they have human servants, so they can borrow patience.”
“This is why we wanted allies to begin with. To prevent the scenario which some of our commanders are now suggesting is the best possible outcome.”
I sat down and stared into space for a minute. I couldn’t find any angle that made things look better. “What can I do?”
“Well, the Primus may have orders for you tonight. He’s seeing you directly before the next meeting of the War Council.”
I felt my spine straighten “Me? Why?”
“You are a conciliarus. He’s calling together all of you. I’m guessing he’s about to make a major shift in strategy and wants to make sure none of you are going to demand he defend his right to lead with a duel.”
“You’d have to be an idiot to challenge him now.”
“Some people are suggesting father might challenge.”
“He’s not an idiot. Whoever is in charge…I mean, it’s…”
“At best, of a forced withdrawal where we kill our wounded, harvest our dead, and burn the earth as we flee?”
“Yes.” There was nothing else to say, really. I smiled, resigned half smile. “I’ll tell you what I can afterwards.”
“I know. I’ll tell you what I learn too. Things are going to get worse, Mirarius. We haven’t finished paying for the Tempest yet.”
Scipia broke off as a redcap found us. The redcap was called Aristella, and she started talking, apologetically and hurriedly. One of the patients wanted to see me. Her name was Incendia of Flambeau. She’d sent a redcap so that this was an official request for an audience. I sensed this was not going to go well, and had the redcap lead on.
I attended Incendia’s bedside. I’m not sure why she was in the hospital. They were keeping her between days, so from dawn until dusk her wounds were closed by magic. Come the evening her skin would peel off and her burns erupt through her flesh, until another temporary spell could soothe them. During the day, though, there was no need for her to be on a pallet.
She introduced herself. Incdendia of Flambeau. No honorific. Not parent’s name. She looked old. Not just experienced: tired. I gave my name. She came right to her point.
“I know you offered to commit suicide, and I’d like to accept your offer.”
“I didn’t offer to commit it for you.”
“You did, though. I’m the person highest on the triage list. The vis used to replace your leg was meant to heal my burns. When the Diedne arrive here, I’ll certainly die at the turning of the day. You can prevent that. Give up your life, and let me take your vis. I will slay many of our enemies in your memory. They will light your way to the Afterlife.”
“Will they, though?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your plan seems to be to be to incinerate the druids.”
“Yes?” she looked bemused, as if I was speaking in riddles.
“So, make the biggest fire you can?”
“I will kill legions of them and write your name with their ashes, in commemoration.”
“No. You won’t. You can’t.”
“I will, and can.”
“If you’d offered virtually anything else, I might have killed myself for you. This? This is ridiculous.”
“You are mocking me?”
“Yes. You plan is to just fight the Tempest again. Why do you think we lost the last time?”
“The Mercurians botched the ritual…”
“No! That’s exactly my point. We lost last time because you, and I, and the Diedne all know exactly what you plan to do in every battle. You just try to burn people. Not just you: your entire lineage. You had one great victory at the Battle of the False Sun because the other side didn’t know fire magic was scalable. You’ve fought that one battle ever since. Usually you win. You burned out the Corruption. Well done you. Your doctrine though? It’s always the same.”
“And you? You illusionist?” She spat the word. “What do you plan to do with your little amusements?”
“Improvise.” I shrugged. “I don’t know what I’ll do, but neither do the enemy. I don’t have much hope of success, but you? You have none. I’m sorry you are going to die, but fire magi are a penny a gross. You’re all the same. All interchangeable. If you’d been almost anything else, even an Apromorian, I’d have seriously considered assenting to my death. This? To die just so you could try to prove your housemates weren’t acting like idiots last time? No. Never.”
“Then you leave me no choice. Creo!”
“No. I refuse to meet your challenge, on the basis that it breaches military discipline, breaks the Code and is just damned stupid.”
“Coward. A Mycetian who will not duel!”
“Duelling is for disputes that have merit on each side. This is just foolish. I won’t give my life for yours, because I don’t accept that you are of greater military value than me.”
“Then I declare War upon you.” she announced.
“Well, see you at the full moon then,” I snapped back. Mentally I did a quick calculation. I’d lost track a little, because of my time in hospital, but I presumed the moon would be full in slightly over two weeks. I turned to stride away.
“Will you flee? My brethren will hunt you if you flee. Even if I die, you will not know peace. You will feel our fire, and we will see if you mock so easily then!”
I turned back at the door. “How could I kill you if I fled?” I asked. I had no idea how I was going to fight her, but I’m an illusionist. Sometimes you need to lie about things until you can make your words true.
I took a moment to calm myself, and then decided I need to talk to the most dangerous person I could find. Decimata was gone, so that left my father. I knew he’d be busy, but since I was now one of his main problems, I thought he’d find the time.