“I just don’t understand it, Lili. You’re such a bright girl, and so promising in your lessons. Why wouldn’t you want to use all that brilliance you were gifted with for the greater good?”
“Nana, no,” said Lili, burying her face in her palms. “Please, don’t. I’m so tired. I don’t have the energy to go through this again.”
“But Lili–“ said her grandmother.
Lili groaned. “I’ve tried it all, Nana. I’ve tried pitching my voice louder, I’ve tried amplifying astrologically, I’ve tried meditation. Every trick my tutors could think of. I can’t speak combatively. I just can’t.”
Nana sighed a deep, long-suffering sigh. “You always test so well, though.”
“And when it comes to application, I choke,” said Lili. “We know this. This isn’t news.”
“The war is getting worse, Lili,” said Nana, reverting to the role of the stern general. “Garesia needs people like you on the front line, where you can make the biggest difference. It will be different once you’re there, I guarantee it. When you see the lives on the line, you won’t choke. Souls are forged on the battlefield.”
Sometimes Lili allowed herself to forget that her grandmother was the second most highly decorated general in Garic history. Today, apparently, would not be such a day.
“Really, Nana?” she said. “You guarantee it? Would you stake the lives of your soldiers on that guarantee? What about mine? Would you stake my life on it?”
Nana grumbled, but she had to concede the point.
Out of two dozen living grandchildren, Lili was still the only one who had the gumption to challenge their authoritarian matriarch so openly and brazenly. She knew her grandmother respected her for this, although her parents had both been mortified whenever they’d been present for such a display. In fact, she was almost certain that this was the main reason why Nana harped so much on her lack of involvement in the war effort – a war that had yet to be formally declared, but was foreshadowed for years, now. It wasn’t as though she was the most promising wordsmith among the grandchildren, so that couldn’t be the reason.
But no matter what she did, Lili couldn’t bend her talents to military applications. If indeed it was true, as was widely believed in modern times, that a wordsmith’s talents went only as far as her willpower did, then maybe her ineffectiveness really was a failure, as her grandmother had suggested. Maybe if she’d only tried a little harder – but no. She had tried as hard as she possibly could, and often. If it was a failure of will, then it wasn’t a willful one. Lili couldn’t force herself to want.
“Nana, can we please talk about anything else? Please?” asked Lili, as close as she had ever come, as an adult, to outright begging.
Nana sighed, and then smiled. “You’re right, darling. Let’s lay the matter to rest, for now.”
“I think you underestimate her,” said Mo to his mother, when she brought up the conversation at their next weekly luncheon.
Nana snorted. “Hardly,” she said. “I’ve nothing but the highest estimation of her. Otherwise I wouldn’t be half as insistent that she should join the war effort.”
“War hasn’t been declared just yet, mother,” he reminded her.
“It’s only a matter of time, Mo,” said the General. “The consuls agree with me that the latest provocations on the border are simply unbearable, and the assembly is of one mind, as well. Once they put it up for a vote, the declaration is sure to pass. It can’t be long, now.”
“Of one mind, mother?” asked Mo. “Are you quite certain?”
“Almost of one mind,” she huffed, “excepting those lazy ninnies who still think appeasement is an option.”
The word fell from her lips already dripping with contempt, as a sword might drip blood.
“They must be very certain, to risk so many lives,” said Mo. “The running estimation of potential casualties is–“
“Wars require sacrifice, Mo,” interjected Nana. “You know that. I taught you that.”
“Yes, mother,” said Mo tiredly. “That’s precisely my point. How can the soldiers be proud of laying down their lives, unless they can be sure that the assembly has considered all diplomatic alternatives?”
His mother narrowed her eyes slightly, regarding him with something like suspicion. “Now you sound like– Yes, what is it?”
“Excuse me, Madame General,” said the man at the doorway, “but I was assured that it was of the utmost urgency that you receive this message with all due haste.”
She plucked it from his outstretched hand and placed it by the side of her plate, where a fish fork would ordinarily go.
“Dismissed,” she said crisply.
The man did not dare argue, but retreated at once, soundlessly shutting the door behind him.
“You see, Mo,” said Nana as she drew her knife to crack the seal, “this is why I insisted on your marrying Sila, all those years ago.”
“Not because of her marvelous wordsmithing skills?” asked Mo with amusement. “Whatever potential you see in Lili, she certainly got it from her mother, and not from me.”
“No, my dear boy,” said Nana, brandishing the rolled page like a baton, “that was merely a side benefit. I knew you needed someone of strong will in your life. Someone with tenacity, who knew what was important in life and didn’t balk when pursuing it. Someone who–“
As was her custom, she was multitasking, dividing her attention between the conversation with her son and the letter she had just received. Once the note was unrolled in her hands, though, she froze. Her voice withered in her mouth and her face turned gray.
Mo leaned forward in his seat, reaching out for her hand. “Nana, what is it?” he asked urgently. “Is something wrong? Who’s hurt? Is Sila all right?”
It did not look like the seal of any border outpost he knew of, but anything could happen when they were so close to outright war.
Nana dropped the rolled paper from her nerveless fingers, batting it weakly in his direction. “Read it,” she said.
Confounded, he grabbed the note and unrolled it.
“The assembly was deliberating today,” said Nana.
Mo frowned. “On the declaration of war. I thought we had more time.”
“They were deliberating, apparently,” said Nana, “not voting. Someone broke into the assembly hall. Sedated the guards, made it past all of their defenses.”
He read the note once, then twice. When he was quite sure that his eyes were not deceiving him, he slammed the crumpled paper against the cloth-covered table with surprising force.
“I have to go,” he said, and, rising to his feet, stormed out of the room.
The room was cold and the air slightly damp, and the only light came from an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling by an iron chain. Other than that, though, it could have been a room in a barracks, or one of the more austere schools of wordcraft. Heavy stone walls, and a reinforced door with two locks. A table, and two chairs.
It did not look like a prison cell.
Being the granddaughter of Garesia’s greatest living general must carry certain advantages.
Mo sat down on one of the chairs, and gestured at the other one.
Lili shook her head mutely.
“Please, Lili,” he said. “I’m your father, not your enemy. I just want to talk.”
“I don’t think I have anything left to say,” said Lili, but sat down all the same.
“Your mother and grandmother are very worried about you,” he said.
“Really?” asked Lili archly. “Worried? Not… disappointed?”
“That, too,” he admitted. “I must admit that they don’t understand why you did what you did. The number of laws you broke, and the sheer willful audacity of interrupting assembly deliberation at all–“
“You do, though, don’t you?” she demanded, interrupting him mid-speech, for all the world like her grandmother.
“Understand?” he asked. “Maybe. Maybe I do understand. Agree?” He shook his head firmly. “Never.”
“Because I broke the law, or because I misused my powers?” asked Lili.
“That, too,” said Mo. “Also because your actions were reckless and ill-thought-out, and will reflect very poorly on the opposition faction, once deliberation resumes.”
Lili’s eyes widened.
“Yes, Lili,” said Mo tiredly. “Of course the assembly will resume. They haven’t voted yet. Except none of the people whose minds you warped with your word tricks will be voting, nor participating in the debate, from here on out. In fact, their political careers are all but over.”
“What?” demanded Lili. “Why?”
“Don’t lose your temper at me,” said Mo quietly. “I’m your father, not your enemy.”
“But why, Mo?” she asked again.
Mo shrugged. “Your suggestion on them was so powerful that they can never again be considered free of your influence. By law, all of their appeals henceforth are deemed tainted by interference. Their careers are over. Even if you had convinced them all, it’s all for naught. To say nothing of the guards that you sedated. Who knows what long-term complications–”
“So it’s all for nothing, is it?” said Lili bitterly. “More fool I for thinking that my words could be counted.”
“Those are not the sort of words I meant, and you know it, Lili!” said Mo, half-rising out of his chair.
He sighed and settled back down in his seat. “I’m sorry. We’re all overwrought. It’s been a long day.”
“I thought I could make a difference, daddy,” said Lili. “This war is wrong and you know it, you know it as well as I.”
“I don’t agree with the war, either,” said Mo. “The reason we have an assembly, though, is so that every citizen can speak their mind. There are so many ways for you to be brave, Lili. Why did you have to choose the one that was least likely to work?”
“I thought it would–“ she started, but hesitated to continue. “I didn’t think it would work, the other way. I didn’t think anyone would listen to me.”
“So you decided to override the free will of fifteen elected representatives?” asked Mo. “The guards you harmed are still unconscious. They may suffer permanent brain injury. Did you know that? Did you bother to check what happens when an inexperienced wordsmith uses sedation on an unsuspecting stranger? We have procedures for a reason. Damn it, Lili!”
“I didn’t know!” she cried out. “I just thought I could– I don’t know, make a difference.”
“Well, what you’ve done will surely leave its mark,” said her father.
“What kind of mark?” asked Lili. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not the only Garic citizen who opposes open war,” he said. “While some may have been driven away by your – extreme – tactics, others have taken your actions as a sign that the common citizen is desperately opposed to a declaration of overt hostilities.”
“I can’t tell whether that’s a good omen or bad,” said Lili after a moment.
Mo sighed. “No more I. You’ve certainly driven the dialogue, though, I’ll give you that. Your grandmother will never again dare call you a coward.”
She considered this for a long while. Finally she said, “Daddy, what will happen to me?”
“Prison,” he said flatly. “I don’t know for how long, but likely decades, perhaps a lifetime. Some may call to try you for treason, but that’s just grandstanding. There’s no legal precedent for it. And you’ll have the best representation the family can find, I guarantee it.”
“Will mother come to see me?” asked Lili.
“She’s on her way,” promised Mo. “She has some business to attend to on the way, but I made her promise to come visit you as soon as she possibly could. Nana will come around, too. I think she’s still in shock.”
Lili winced. “I’m not sure I’m ready to see her.”
Mo sighed and stood up. “I can’t stay long, Lili, I’m sorry. I have to go now.”
She nodded, but her eyes were bright and damp.
“Someone from the family will be by to bring you some books and things,” he said. “I know it’s not much, but we’re doing whatever we can.”
“I’m sorry, daddy,” said Lili.
“I am, too,” he said. “I wish things had gone differently, but it’s too late to take it back.”
He turned to leave, rapping on the door to alert the guards. Then, with his hand already on the door handle, he paused to say one last thing.
“What you did was very brave, Lili,” said her father. “Foolish, yes, but undeniably brave.”
Then the guards opened the door and he left, leaving her alone with her thoughts in an empty room.