“It does seem like a whole lot larger army than was initially suggested,” Bat said. “In their first meeting, the day they came to the keep, I remember that Musa fellow telling The Hen that he was expecting to face ‘several hundred’ of the enemy. Unless by ‘several’ he meant ‘a hundred’, his estimates were definitely low.”
“Definitely,” I said.
We stared out at the city and the siege for a moment longer, and then Bat nudged me with an elbow, right about the same time that I heard footsteps approaching behind us. I turned around just as Sir Hagan reached his half-erected tent, frowning.
“Sir,” Bat said, already back at the task of lashing the tent posts together, “sorry for the delay, Sir. We had trouble finding a good spot for the tent, and-”
Sir Hagan waved a hand in Bat’s direction. “It’s fine, don’t… it’s fine.” He rummaged around a little in the cart nearby. “Is my writing desk in here somewhere?”
“At the back, sir,” I said, moving around to get it for him. “Is there somewhere you’d like it set up until the tent’s up?”
“No,” Sir Hagan said, “I just need to re-read a few of my notes before…” He trailed off, then blinked his eyes back into focus. “We’re meeting with the Commander in an hour or so, by the way, so we’ll need to be prepared for that.”
“Aye, sir,” Bat said, and then added in a more hesitant tone, “Sir, are you all right?”
“Hmm?” Sir Hagan looked over at Bat, and then at me. “Oh, I’m fine, just a little distracted.” He pointed between Bat and I, in the direction of the city. “I take it you’ve seen the view?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, pulling the writing desk out from under a bundle of Sir Hagan’s clothes and setting it at the edge of the wagon. “Bat and I were just talking about it. About the size of the enemy army, in particular.”
Sir Hagan nodded. “Yes, that certainly would be a topic worthy of discussion. But…” He stepped around the wagon and opened the hinged top of the desk, and then paused. “A few days after her arrival at the keep, I had a conversation with Irandrya Ayes about her use of the fireplace. Specifically, I asked her if she intended to cook the both of us alive or just burn the tower down, as her fire was already filling the entirety of her hearth. She responded that she was sorry for my discomfort, and confessed that she’d actually got the room hotter than she’d intended, that she knew in theory how to use a fire for heat but hadn’t had much practice at it.”
“Hadn’t had much practice using fire to make heat?” Bat said. “What else would she have used a fire for?”
“That’s the thing that’s bothering me,” Sir Hagan replied. “She said that they don’t.”
“Don’t what?” I asked. “Use fire?”
“Use fire,” Sir Hagan said, nodding. “At all. She said that anything she’d seen one of us use fire to accomplish, the Fae either use magic for or eschew entirely. Their forges, their cookpots, their homes, all warmed by magic.”
Bat figured it out before I did, looking back at the smoke rising up around the city behind us. “Ah, so if the Fae don’t build fires when they make camp, whoever’s laying siege to Arcar…”
“…they aren’t Fae.” I finished Bat’s sentence as the realization dawned on me, as well.
Sir Hagan nodded. “So, the next question is: if it isn’t the Fae who are laying siege to Arcar, who is? And why would Lord Sanne and the rest of the leaders of Mirennus lie to us about it?”
Amesus Musa actually had two tents, set up next to each other at the middle of the camp, both made of a plain, un-dyed canvas. His sleeping tent was almost identical to the others in the camp, and to the ones we’d been provided by the Concord when we’d left Etrenium; the only difference I could see as we walked past was the eagle sigil sewn into the flaps at each end.
The other tent, the meeting tent, was much larger, more than twice as large as Sir Hagan’s, with a similar shape to the tents we’d been given back in Tilaird, straight-sided with a long, peaked roof. We entered at one of the ends, and I almost bumped into a stern-looking Euphentine man as I ducked in through the gap in the canvas.
Inside, a line of square tables ran down the center of the tent, pushed together into one long rectangle. Most of the seats were already filled when we arrived, mostly by thin, olive-skinned Euphentine soldiers, all with close-cropped hair and shaven beards and identical grim expressions. Sir Hagan took one of the few remaining seats, at the far end of the table, and Bat and I took up positions standing behind his chair.
There were a few low conversations between some of the men at the tables, all in Euphenti. “Well,” Bat leaned in toward me and muttered, “looks like it’s going to be another very informative meeting for me. I’m sure I’ll be quite helpful.”
I shrugged. “Based on our previous meetings with the Concord, I doubt I’ll understand what’s going on much better than you will.”
“True,” he said. “And it’s not as if I’ll be able to make things worse, not without doing something drastic. Like pull a blade and threaten Musa with it, for example.”
“Just as an example.” I looked around the room, at the hard faces of men that made even the knights in our unit look carefree by comparison. “Somehow I don’t think that’d go over as well here as it did with General Byrne.”
At the far end of the table, Amesus Musa stood, holding up a hand for silence. If his men were carved of stone, he was a man of unpolished iron. His head bore a scar from forehead up through cropped dark hair and curving back down behind his right ear, and his face seemed to constantly bear an expression of well-restrained anger. His clothes were the simple belted tunic and soft boots that all the Multitude wore, rough to the point of intentional privation, with no adornment of any kind except for the small gold dome pinned to his collar, the only marking of rank in the entire Multitude. In the whole of our three-week march down from the mountains, I had not seen the man smile, not even once.
Musa waited for the table to quiet before he began speaking. His voice was deep, but softer than his appearance suggested it would be. “By now,” he said, in Euphenti, “I expect all of you have seen the city, and the army camped outside. A few of you have noted that the size of the enemy force is considerably greater than what our previous information indicated, and I’ve heard at least one suggest that the army camped outside Arcar is not a Fae army.” He glanced at Sir Hagan as he said this, but continued to speak without a pause. “I can only tell you that, at the present moment, I share your concerns and your questions, and that what little more I’ve learned over the past few hours from Olus Tiusidia and his scouts has only raised more questions.”
He looked down at the table, pulling a parchment out from under several others and laying it in front of him. “Tiusidia returned to the camp an hour and a half ago, having ranged ahead of the main body of the army. He reports that, using hedgerows and fences for cover, they advanced to within a half-hour march of the city, close enough that they could see the besieging force with some detail.”
Musa looked up again. “He reports that the force appears to be primarily comprised of Mirennines, men and women both, who appear to be armed mainly with improvised weapons and farming tools. There are some who appear to be professional soldiers, infantry and cavalry, and most of those carry standards identifying themselves as knights or nobles, but the majority of those in the siege camp have only crude banners, bearing one of two sigils.”
“One of the two,” he said, picking up a piece of charcoal, “is a staff or scepter, wrapped by a cord.” He held up the page; from our end of the table it was impossible to make out any detail, so the symbol resembled nothing to me so much as a circle with a line drawn through the middle.
“Destin’s Rod?” asked one of the other Euphentine soldiers.
“I believe so,” said Musa, “though from what little I know of what the Mirennine believe, carrying the Rod as a war banner would seem to make little sense.” He set the parchment down. “The other banner was more recognizable, but no less mystifying; three gold bees on a blue shield, with a crown of gold above and a pair of winged men with swords adjacent.”
Looks of confusion and mild alarm seemed to spread from man to man down the table, and a low murmur of voices rose as some of the soldiers spoke to each other in low whispers. Bat looked at me. “What did he say?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “or I’m not sure why it’s important, anyway. He described what sounded like a noble’s sigil.”
Sir Hagan turned his head just enough to look back at us. “What he described,” he said, “was the military seal of the House of Larmonde. The seal of the Queen’s personal army.”
“Wait,” Bat said, pinching the bridge of his nose, “the Mirennine are… laying siege to themselves?”
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