Iselle stared down at the maps on the table, and absently scratched the itch at the back of the neck, trying to ignore the sweat pooling in the small of her back. Even in the lightest summer dress she owned, the heat of what had until recently (very recently) been Jokona was oppressive far beyond anything she was used to. The ceilings in the captured fortress they had used for their campaign headquarters were high to permit heat to rise, and the windows set high in the wall to catch the breeze, but in temperatures this high it made little difference. For a few moments, she wished she were merely a young girl back home in Valenda, who might be permitted to go swimming in a linen shift.
Only for a moment. She would not trade her royacy for anything in the world. Nor her husband and daughter. "It's going well, then," she said.
"Yes," said dy Palliar. "There was no resistance in the city itself, and very little in the castle. All but two of the border forts on the Visping side are in our hands, and those two should be taken soon. Every trained man they had was with the columns sent to Porifors. Joen put too much faith in her sorcerers to keep control while she was gone."
"I might be tempted to do the same, in her place," Bergon said. "Very few people would go up against a sorcerer willingly."
"Not without a saint to help, at least," Palli said with a nod. "Or a tame sorcerer of their own."
"And how is my mother doing?" Iselle asked, frowning. She knew that her mother was not mad, had never been mad; that she had seemed so was merely due to ignorance of the curse she'd been under, which was now broken. But Iselle's earliest memory was of cowering under her covers, pillow over her head, while her mother's wailing echoed down the stone corridors of Valenda.
Chancellor dy Cazaril, shrugged, his plain tunic shifting over a body that was now fit and healthy. "So far, Dowager Royina Ista has taken care of each demon she's found without trouble. Her escort is quite capable of protecting her from more material dangers. All goes well."
"Certainly, all is well in hand!" Palli said. "The Dowager Royina's troops are the best Chalion-Ibra may command, her seneschal is experienced and wily, she has a Temple sorcerer at her command, and if she could take out Joen's twelve best demons at one go, I hardly think the scraps left behind will pose her much trouble."
"Your point is well taken, Palli," Iselle said.
"So, once the last two forts taken …" Bergon placed a finger gently on one of the tokens representing their forces, and walked it over to Visping, measuring the distance. "A day to regroup, another to march, attack on the third day?"
"More or less," Caz said. "Though we are still waiting for that levy of troops from Taryoon; the courier says they will be here within the week."
"Is it wise to wait?" Iselle asked. "Some of Visping's neighbors may remember their promises and send reinforcements."
"The latest reports indicate that the nearest princedoms either have no reinforcements to send or will choose not to do so, despite earlier assurances," Caz said. "The report of a great caravan of supplies making its way through the mountains was false. It seems their readiness will not be greatly affected by a few days' delay."
"I see," Iselle said thoughtfully. "Thank you." Cazaril had ever been a skillful tutor. Palli had a tendency to gloss over things and defer to Bergon; Bergon had absorbed warcraft by osmosis all his life and could not always articulate why things should be done, only how and when. She knew enough of warcraft, now, to see how important it was to wait until their force could be committed all together, and not piecemeal.
"Yes?" Bergon said.
Iselle looked up to see a page hovering just inside the door.
"The Dowager Royina and her retinue have arrived," he said.
"Give my mother my greetings and ask if she will join us for supper," Iselle said, after a pause. "Then see to the arrangements."
The page bowed and left, and Iselle turned back to the maps.
"Mother! How good to see you," Iselle said, embracing the older woman. She stood back, studying her. It was odd to see her mother in the Bastard's white; it did not suit her as well as the black-and-purple of mourning or the green of widowhood had. But the focus and clarity with which her mother wore her new gowns was a relief and a satisfaction to watch.
"And you." Ista gave a deep nod to Caz, and turned to let Bergon kiss her hand. "Tell me what news of my granddaughter," she said as they entered the dining room.
"You are in luck, for I had a letter from her nurse just today." Iselle took her seat, and tried to keep a neutral expression on her face as her mother's seneschal held the chair for her mother. Lord Illvin was a good and honorable man, and certainly Iselle had no angst-ridden romantic notions of her mother pining for a husband dead these fifteen years and more. She truly wished her mother all happiness, but there were some things she didn't care to consider too closely.
Iselle shook her head. "Isara had a bad cold, but has recovered and is back to her usual sunny disposition, though she still resists sleeping through the night most strenuously…."
A discussion of Isara's development lasted through the first course, a cold soup. Illvin and Palli, having no children of their own, were only politely interested; Caz (who anticipated following their lead within the year) participated avidly. But as the main dish was brought in, Bergon turned to Illvin and Ista.
"I trust all went well on your latest patrol?" he said.
"Yes, very well," Ista replied.
"Had some trouble with a demon who'd gotten good at fleeing from host to host—much more difficult to track than normal," Illvin said. "But we got him in the end."
"And managed to return stolen pieces of soul to those discarded hosts who had survived," Ista said. "The rest of what we encountered was fairly common stuff—small, stupid elementals caught in animals, mostly. A few of Joen's sorcerers who did not flee in time."
"Your timing was impeccable," Iselle said. "For we will be finishing the last of this phase and moving on to Visping itselfin a few days' time."
Her mother took a bite of meat before responding. "I am glad your plans are progressing. But I cannot stay with the army; my god calls me back to the border, to Oby. There is a situation brewing there that requires me."
"The army requires you, as well," Iselle said. "We have not yet accounted for all of Joen's sorcerers, and the strayed elementals are an ever-present threat that could disrupt our forces at a critical time. Surely, a few days' delay could not hurt?"
"I am called," Ista said, locking eyes with her. "I go."
Iselle held her mother's gaze, and reminded herself that the curse was broken and her mother was truly rational now. Gone were the days when she must soothe and keep her mother occupied so that she might be calm and manageable. And no matter how nonsensical her mother's words and actions had seemed in prior years, there had always been a reason behind them. Now, as then, the intensity served a real purpose. "Very well."
"Your talents aren't the only thing it would be handy to have," Bergon said, breaking the tense moment. "Will you be needing Lord Illvin with you?"
"I don't know," Ista admitted, turning to face him. "I'll let you know, tomorrow."
The next day, Iselle took a break from her work to watch her mother's party—excepting Lord Illvin—ride out of the gates. She pushed down a pang of regret. Now, for the first time in her memory, her mother was capable of reason, of conversation, of building a relationship. And now they were both too caught up in their separate callings to spare the time.
When she could no longer see her mother, Iselle turned and walked back inside. She had an empire to govern and a war to win.