Another NaNo excerpt. Brief context: They have arrived in Hálsiend, and are speaking to the queen/matriarch.
They had but a few scant months before the Æbban assault on Þracian, and all wished to have the Hálsiendic army fighting the Þracian soldiers, drawing them off from their home, before that happened, so it was with much relief that the nine of them answered the summons from the Hálsiendic guard, whom they followed until he deposited them in a chamber full of stuffed bags that served as chairs.
Taking a seat, the humans and their allies waited for the arrival of the Hálsiend contingent. “How should I address their leader?” Sawwaed spoke to Á?ðan.
“Depends on who she is. I don’t think we’ll speak to the matriarch first time out.”
“Matriarch? The country is run by women?”
“What, you do it differently? Didn’t you know most of the important people you were speaking to were women?”
“How could I tell the difference? You all look identical to me.”
“It’s the bulges on the shoulders. That’s where the eggs come from. You can’t seriously tell me you didn’t notice that? I can tell which ones of you humans are female.”
“No, I didn’t. And your language using neutral titles didn’t help either.”
The spy shrugged. “A title is a title. It has meaning regardless of who holds it. Why would they be tied to male or female?” The Áðexe shook his head. “You humans really are strange sometimes. I’ll have to come visit you. I’d get a good laugh out of it.”
“Thanks.” Tarranau rolled his eyes at Á?ðan, but his comeback was interrupted by the arrival of their interrogators. Four Áðexe sat down opposite, and despite the spy’s assistance, the watermage could still not tell which was female and which wasn’t. He must be blind.
The largest of the Áðexe spoke, secondary arms writhing. The humans could not tell if it was nervousness, or something else. “You have come to us in an Þracian barquentine, but your crew is from Æbban, and you wear the markings of Æbban clans. And you bring Veryans with you, foul creatures that they are. Are you from Þracian? Do you seek to taunt us with a show of countries united against us? For I tell you now, it will not work, and we will fight you until the last breath leaves our body. You will not have Hálsiend, now or ever.”
The Áwendennes held up a claw in a placating gesture. “Matriarch, I fear you have us wrong. We are Æbban, all of us Áðexe, but these are not Veryans. They come from Tri-Hauwcerton, a kingdom in conflict with Bhreac Veryan, and the Þracian vessel was stolen from their anchorage at Telgian.”
“You lie. That one is Veryan.” Her claw pointed straight at Sawwaed.
The Áwendennes raised an eyebrow at Sawwaed, who spoke for himself. “Yes, milady, I was born in Bhreac Veryan, but I do not owe them my allegiance. I have chosen to give my strength and my skills to Tri-Hauwcerton, in the hopes that it would overthrow the foul men who have captured control of my home.”
“Pah! No creature can side with any but his own clan. Your very words paint you a liar.”
“And what of spies? You have none of those?” Á?ðan chuckled. “You’re playing the fool to gauge our reactions. Be done with it. It grows tiring.”
The other three Áðexe from Hálsiend hissed at that, but the matriarch smiled. “I like your bold tongue. I think I shall take you as a mate.”
Á?ðan scrambled back, tumbling out of his chair onto the ground. “No, no, I must decline. It’s too cold here, too breezy, and I’m much better suited for southern climates.”
The matriarch hissed with laughter, and the room joined her. “You would stand up to me, yet you cannot lie down with me. You are a strange Áðexe.”
Á?ðan had recovered himself enough to retort. “One that values his freedom above all else.”
“Freedom? Is that what you call it? I think you and I will need to talk again. “ The spy blanched. “But enough of that matter. If you are indeed from Æbban, what has brought you here?”
The Áwendennes took up the telling. “We were sent here by the leaders of Æbb, although we were not the only couriers that brought the message. Have no others come this way?”
“None, to my knowledge.”
“Then they have fallen into Þracian hands. They, and we, brought a message of allegiance from Æbb, pledging that we would attack seven months from our departure, our entire force committed to a strike against Þracian itself, and we had hoped that you might join us in that attack. But what we have seen since then shows that Þracian is arming itself for an invasion of your country, and to wait for the spring thaw to assault would doom both our kingdoms.”
“And you have conveyed this information to Æbb?”
“No, matriarch, we have not.”
“Then you ask me to be the mortar, taking the blows from Þracian, while you are the pestle, grinding them down to nothing. I see little in it for me, for my people will suffer greatly either way, but we have an advantage on the sea, and will sink many Þracian ships as they come to seek our shores.”
“The Þracian army comes armed with metal, and already has many ships like the one we stole sitting in harbour. You would have to fight that battle and win many times over if you sought to see your country safe.”
“Do not forget that we have nature on our side, that the gales and hurricanes that give this place its lure will come and come again, smashing their ships and sending them to the bottom. With luck, we will barely have to fight, and instead Air will spare us.”
“This is why Þracians will come during the spring calm, when the weather clears and the snow recedes. They are no more fools than you or I. And think you they do not have an agreement with ?gflota? Þracians are a cunning foe, and have shown their diplomatic skills to be a great advantage. I think they shall land at Gárwiga, protected by the ?gflotan fortress city there. And then you will have to cope with them on the land, where none have stood against them.”
The matriarch waved her hand in resignation. “And if I attack them in Telgian, I must run the barrier of the fortresses, and be caught in a narrow harbour from which there is no escape. And if I strike them any place but there, my fleet shall be too far to recover should they launch across the channel, and Hálsiend will fall with little resistance. And before you ask, I do not have the forces to defend Hálsiend, defend against an ?gflotan incursion, and go on the offensive.”
Á?ðan broke in. “Then pull back into Hálsiend. You defeated ?gflota in the past, so you can do it again. Þracian defeated you, ran you out of Telgian. In a war of attrition, you know they’ll win. There’s more of them, and they have better weapons. So be interesting, be unexpected. Attack them. You’re going to lose your kingdom if you don’t.”
“And I shall lose my kingdom if I do, so what you propose offers me little hope. I had thought you were smarter than that, but I see not.”
“Stick a twig in your ear. You can’t win this war on the defensive, and you’re blind if you don’t see that. And holding on by your claws for a little longer just means more suffering for everyone involved. So get out of that throne and act like a matriarch or go surrender.”
The monarch stormed from her chair, her claws clashing as she stalked towards Á?ðan. She hissed at an earsplitting pitch, and the humans clapped their hands to their ears, trying to block out the noise. The Hálsiendic nobles leapt from their seats and restrained her before she got far, and gently urged her back to her seat. She took their advice with much bad grace, spitting at Á?ðan before resuming her place upon the throne.
“You will never, ever, insult me like that again. I do the absolute best that I can for Hálsiend, and I shall see that we remain free for as long as possible.”
Á?ðan waved at the room around him. “Is this what you call your best? You live in constant fear of an invasion, you’d rather watch yourself slowly lose than try and win, and when someone speaks to you straight you attack them. Some leader you are. I’d take any of this lot over you.” He gestured at his allies. “Go on, get out of that seat again. You’re a coward and a bully, not a leader. Roll the bones. You’ve lost everything if you don’t. Even you know that.”
The matriarch fumed as she listened to Á?ðan’s words, but she held onto her self-control by the thinnest of margins. Then she slumped, defeated. “What would you have me do? If I attack Þracian, I give my land to ?gflota. If I attack ?gflota, I give my land to Þracian.”
“Pull back from those damn cities over near Gárwiga, and leave a small detachment to harass any invasion. They won’t notice for a while, and anyway, they aren’t so stupid to gear for an invasion in the dead of winter or in thaw season across that patch of land. Throw everything else you’ve got into the water, and send it towards Telgian or B?ran.”
Tarranau shook his head. “Not Telgian. The city isn’t that well defended, but the Þracian army is on the plains about the city, and digging enemies out of the tunnel system would be hell.”
“If we go for B?ran, our navy will be out of position, and they can strike at our homes.”
Á?ðan bared his teeth. “Think more! If your navy doesn’t get spotted on the way to B?ran, by the time a messenger can make it from there to Telgian, your navy can be blockading the mouth of the channel. Sure, Þracians are good sailors, but they sail the inner sea, not the open ocean, and trying to beat upwind into combat coming out of that channel will see them cut to shreds. You’re really going to tell me you couldn’t out-sail them if they were bottled in there?”
“And if they send the army to the relief of B?ran? What then?”
By now, the spy was laughing out loud. “Oh, I think we might have a surprise or two for them if they do that.”
The others looked at him, waiting for him to elaborate, but he said nothing more, and chuckled to himself. The matriarch shook her head in exasperation at the recalcitrant spy. “Very well. Mobilize the troops, and give the order to abandon Heardlic and Herewulf. And I want every windmage on the boats. Leave enough to discourage ?gflota, but every other, regardless of age or infirmity, is going to war.”
“Now you’re starting to think like a leader. Much better.”
“And I think you shall be a most suitable mate.” At that, Á?ðan fled into the tunnels.