Rendolan Telli sipped the exquisite wine his host had provided, using the moments of appreciation for the vintage that were expected of him, to formulate a response to the delicate question that General Pentacourt raised.
“Vice Commander Lafli’s whereabouts?” Ren said, placing his glass back onto the velvet tablecloth and relinquishing the social armor it provided. “As I told the queen, she was forced to leave suddenly and wanted me to express her regrets for the swiftness of her departure. With news of the Green Council’s declaration of war against Gallagrin surely you can imagine how our plans in coming here to seek a peaceful resolution to your conflict have been dealt a telling blow.”
General Pentacourt placed his own glass down on the table as well and smiled at Ren. It wasn’t a cruel or sharp smile, but it held the menace of a man who knew he was playing a game, and being played, and who could sense that the story being presented to him was missing critical elements. Ren disliked perceptive foes as much as he enjoyed clever friends. The problem was in telling which of the two Pentacourt would prove to be.
“I can imagine many things,” Pentacourt said. “For instance I can imagine many reasons why our war room would be missing a pair of ledgers. What I can’t seem to imagine is any good results coming from that.”
“Ledgers you say? From a war room? I would have to concur. No doubt they contained critical information. Troops movements and composition if I could hazard a guess?”
“Oh nothing that bad,” Pentacourt said. “We guard those sorts of ledgers with much greater care. No, these only held supply requisitions and logistic correspondences.”
Ren winced. Pentacourt had his suspicions, but he didn’t have as complete a picture as Ren did.
Vice Commander Lafli hadn’t stolen the ledgers. Ren didn’t know her well, but anyone Queen Alari chose to trust with her life was not going to go renegade for such a minor reason. Her sister Jyl though was another story.
“Supply requisitions?” Ren asked. “Are you, by any chance, in the habit of fabricating the data in those ledgers?”
“No, I’m afraid our bureaucracy works poorly enough even when feed with accurate information,” Pentacourt said. “The Sleeping Gods would rise back up if we asked those poor sops to deal with sorting real work orders from faked ones.”
“I’m afraid you may be facing a much worse problem than you know then,” Ren said.
“My realm is under attack by a hostile force which has, apparently been preparing for this day for centuries, and our best defense lies in a deposed queen of another realm taking control of the military forces we have present in the area,” Pentacourt said. “Do tell me of a problem that could be worse than that.”
“As a child I spent a significant amount of time reading,” Ren said. “It seemed to please my father the Duke. He believed it helped prepare me for my role as my brother’s exchequer.”
“You were not in line for the Ducal throne then?” Pentacourt asked, shifting back in his seat and indicating his tolerance of the digression by tilting his head to the side. Dinner in Senkin was a time to discuss light topics usually, but a private meal offered the opportunity to speak freely that was rarely afforded to high ranking generals or Dukes.
“I was third in line, by my father’s express order, behind first my elder brother and then my sister,” Ren said. “Needless to say, things did not work out quite how he hoped in that arena.”
“My condolences on the loss of your siblings,” Pentacourt said.
“Oh, they’re both still alive,” Ren said. “One is a wanted fugitive though and the other is taming dragons.”
Pentacourt paused, raising an eyebrow as he read Ren’s face for sincerity. Nobles weren’t often allowed to survive long enough to become fugitives if they crossed their rulers and no one, not even the lord of Paxmer, truly “tamed” dragons.
“Yes, my husband is a vampire and I’m considered the normal member of the family,” Ren said.
“Sleeping Gods preserve us but your realm is mad,” Pentacourt said.
“No one in Gallagrin will deny that,” Ren said. “It’s even a source of some pride. Of course we see all the rest of you as mad as well, just differently so.”
“As interesting as that is, I don’t quite follow how it connects to the loss of our ledgers as being a terrible threat to my realm?” Pentacourt said.
“Ah, yes. In my studies I was always fascinated by where victories began,” Ren said. “The classic stories point to moments of heroism by this commander or that knight but when I looked at the record of those battles, the bright moments that were lauded were often an inevitability by the time they occurred.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Pentacourt said.
“Take the Battle of Blue Spire,” Ren said, leaning forward and arranging the salt shaker and plates to illustrate the long ago battlefield. “The only tale remembered of it comes from the final battle wherein the Steward of Blue Spire Keep road out of the gate with a mere dozen knights and carved a path to the Commander of the forces from Singing Rocks Glen who had besieged them for months.”
“None of these names or places are familiar to me,” Pentacourt said.
“Most in Gallagrin don’t remember them either, just the bawdy ballad of the Steward and the lover she stole from the Duke of Glar, where Singing Rocks Glen is found,” Ren said. “The important bit though is that Singing Rocks was successfully sieging Blue Spire Keep. Food stores had run out, the rats were all eaten and starvation was just starting to set in. In one triumphal charge though, the Steward managed to break the siege and through single combat end the threat poised by the Duke of Glar’s forces.”
“Sounds heroic,” Pentacourt said. “And now you will tell me that the besieging troops numbered no more than twenty and the charge took place on the back of Mountain Mammoths or some insanity I presume?”
“No, the charge, as best as I can determine, was every bit as impressive as the tales made it out to be,” Ren said. “The Steward’s troops were vastly outnumbered but with her leadership they absolutely crushed the forces that were waiting and prepared for them. At least the ones the encountered in their charge to army’s commander.”
“How badly were the odds against them?” Pentacourt asked.
“The enemy forces had them matched at least one hundred to one, by the most conservative accounts,” Ren said. “The key however is that the Steward devised a path that ensured they didn’t have to fight all of their foes, only a small subset who stood between Blue Spire Keep and the Commander.”
“I feel as though the tale should continue with the rest of the army annihilating the Steward’s forces, regardless of how well her strategy worked,” Pentacourt said.
“That is because you have a realistic view on how warfare works,” Ren said. “And you are correct, the Steward’s forces were doomed. They rode out with the thought that a death in battle would ensure that they didn’t die of starvation. The Steward however promised them more than that; she promised them victory.”
“And apparently delivered, but how?” Pentacourt asked.
“As the Commander of the besieging army fell, the King’s forces arrived at the besiegers rear flanks. There was a brief skirmish, but after a few hundred additional casualties, the besiegers surrendered, being unwilling to fight a superior foe who was also their sworn ruler.”
“Rather convenient timing for the Steward,” Pentacourt said.
“Yes, that bothered me too,” Ren said. “Then I found the provisioner’s log for Blue Spire Keep.”
“And what insight did that shed?” Pentacourt asked.
“The siege began just before the end of winter,” Ren said. “It’s a terrible time to move an army, but a fantastic opportunity to catch a castle at the low ebb of its food stores. The Duke who ordered the attack chose his time to strike exceedingly well given that his army was able to traverse the mountains and lay in the siege while keeping its own supply lines open. By rights the castle should have starved out within a week.”
“And yet it survived?” Pentacourt said.
“They held on for close to two months,” Ren said. “And the provisioner’s log explained why. What the besiegers didn’t know was that Blue Spire Keep had been selected as the site of the King’s First Vernal Festival of the year. The staff at Blue Spire had stockpiled supplies to last them to the exact day the King was scheduled to arrive with the Royal Army.”
“Quite convenient,” Pentacourt said.
“Somewhat, though less so as they were unable to receive the additional supplies they would have needed to be able to host the festival itself,” Ren said. “The important part however is that the Steward knew the day the King would arrive. Their survival and victory were all but assured given the assistance that was due to arrive. Her charge was an attempt win glory and prevent the Commander of the besiegers from presenting the Duke’s case for the return of the Duchess.”
“One would think the Duchess would be able to present such a case for herself,” Pentacourt said.
“That presupposes that the Duchess was not the one who instigated her flight to Blue Spire,” Ren said. “The bawdy ballad suggests otherwise and the copy of her diary I’ve read makes the ballad seem chaste by comparison.”
“Scandalous,” Pentacourt, “But I’m afraid I’m beginning to see the shape of your concerns with our missing ledgers. On their own they may seem innocuous but read with the proper eye they could reveal a great deal about the disposition of our forces.”
“Yes, they would be an enormous boon to an enemy who already is already in motion and has reason to search for the soft targets rather than tangle with an unexpected thorn that has arisen,” Ren said.
“You speak of our dear ally, the former Queen of Paxmer?” Pentacourt said. “I must confess I still don’t quite know what to make of her.”
“Assume she is a more dire threat than the Green Council, and also your best hope for retaining the sovereignty of your realm,” Ren said. “Despite her reduction in position, I believe her to be the second most dangerous person in all the realms at present.”
“I am curious as to your Queen’s designs in bringing her into Senkin?” Pentacourt said. “It seems almost a declaration of war on its own.”
“I cannot claim to be privy to my Queen’s reasoning but I believe releasing the Paxmer Queen into a situation where she needs to overcome impossible odds with insufficient and under trained forces is a gesture of friendship and respect.”
“To Senkin?” Pencourt asked. “I can see how it’s to our benefit but I believe a troop of Pact Knight would have accomplished the same result.”
“I was thinking more that the gesture was directed towards Haldri Paxmer,” Ren said. “The ex-queen’s renown can only swell from her actions here, and there’s little which dragons seem to like more than adulation.”
“I imagine in this instance, she might also find reinforcements rather agreeable,” Pentacourt said.
“And yet you cannot send any to her,” Ren said.
“So says my Queen,” Pentacourt said. “She’s concerned that Haldri Paxmer’s position is not a tenable one to support the defense of the realm. So while the battle rages, we dither over where to send the bulk of our forces.”
“I have to wonder if Queen Marie’s concerns lie less with the tactical realities of Haldri Paxmer’s location and more with the strategic issue of sending more troops to be subborned by the Dragon Queen’s charisma and acumen,” Ren said.
“You are not alone in that suspicion,” Pentacourt said.
“Regardless though, your Queen is right not to send aid to the front lines,” Ren said.
“And why would that be?” Pentacourt asked. “Because of the stolen ledgers?”
“In a sense, yes,” Ren said. “Even without their loss, the Green Council’s next move will be to broaden their assault. They gain nothing by contesting with a tenacious foe and everything by crushing the Senkin forces who remain isolated from each other.”
“And yet we can’t gather all our might together into a Grand Army of the realm without leaving ourselves exposed to widespread devastation,” Pentacourt said.
“That is not entirely true,” Ren said.
“In what particulars?” Pentacourt asked.
“Given that the delegation I came here with was dispatched to facilitate peace, I am loathe to point this out, but there is one certain method of finding a spot to defend your realm from. One strategy which will guarantee that the Green Council will meet you at the place of your choosing.”
“What trickery do you speak of?” Pentacourt asked.
“No trickery at all,” Ren said. “Just this; you must attack their realm. Strike into their heart and force them to recall their troops. Place them on the defensive, and you can set the pace and parameters of the conflict.”
Pentacourt leaned back and steepled his hands in front of his face, considering for a moment the impact of Ren’s suggestion.
“My Queen will not be happy with the prospect of extending our forces like that,” Pentacourt said.
“Then perhaps you can offer her this,” Ren said, “If Senkin pushes into the Green Council’s territory, you will not march alone. By this time tomorrow, Gallagrin will have responded to the Council’s declaration of war and will be marching across the high mountain borders. The Council may have plans in place for dealing with its neighbors but they will not be ready for the forces my queen has put in play against them.”