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Of Plaits and Priority

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Sliding a last pin into place, Ravenwaves leaned back from her mirror and gave her reflection a critical stare. She'd changed as soon as she'd gotten back to camp, and the peasant's clothes she'd worn in the capital—the heavy wool dress and the long, plain shawl she'd used to hide her mane of hair—lay in a heap in the corner of her tent, hopefully never to come into contact with her skin again. Now she was back in her rich purple brocades, with two long braids looped around the rest of her hair to keep it out of her eyes and in place behind her shoulders. One smudge of dirt lingered on her jaw; she plucked up the handtowel beside the water basin, moistened it, and swiped away the mark. Dropping it back on the vanity, she nodded to herself and turned, ducking out of her tent and into the bustle and noise of a fully decamped army gearing up to lay siege.

She'd not gotten three steps before a laborious cough behind her announced its owner.

“So, how'd it go?”

“Perfectly,” she answered, glancing back at Hairball as he fell into her stride like the years-long associate he was. “So long as the army has enough shovels, this is going to spare us all about eight months of miserable drudgery.”

The little sorcerer's mustache moved, suggesting a smile, though as ever, it showed teeth. “And a lot of deaths, right?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “Those too.”

“Should I get the Comb Gnomes started on it?”

“Hah!” Ravenwaves spotted the fluttering pink pennants above the main pavilion and angled towards them. “If you think I'm sending my magic-users to dig holes in the ground when this army has perfectly serviceable grunt soldiers to do it, you've been around those commanders too long!”

“Even a few hours is too long for me.” Hairball grumbled, but she could hear the appreciative tone. He coughed again, a chronic heavy wetness that clung to the back of his throat. He'd had the cold since before he came to her lands, a relic of his youth in realms that had fewer court positions for sorcerers and a great many more bared blades. Normally he took it in stride, nursed it with honey and lemonbalm, but the summer had been rainy and the humidity disagreed with him. He'd need to be back in proper stone walls well before the first frost set in or he'd be basically useless until spring.

“From the sound of it, a few hours with a tea kettle is what you need,” she rebuked. “Go to bed, Hairball. I'll tell you how it went in the morning.”

“Your Duchesship.” He gave her a bow with three whole sarcastic hand flourishes, claws flashing, but obeyed, cloak snapping around his squat form as he turned and scurried back towards the circle of tents huddled around her violet banner.

With him gone, Ravenwaves approached the pavilion tent and shoved its entrance flap aside with a ramrod-stiff arm. The guard inside spun on her in shock, but recognition filled his eyes even as he raised a spear; she wrapped a hand around the weapon's shaft and lifted it neatly out of her way as she stepped up to the war table.

“I've found our way in,” she announced to the circle.

Murmurs erupted around the table.

"Is this a magical method, Duchess?" a man sitting opposite Lady Lovelylocks asked, stroking a glossy brown mustache. Skepticism flew red flags around the words.

"Mundanely-found, General Swiftsword," she replied, not bothering to hide her haughty smile. "But don't worry; your men won't have to be anywhere near the casting."

"You've made contact with the great dragons, then." Swiftsword smiled back, a crooked twist at the corner of his mouth. "Because your warlocks being able to fly is the only thing I can think of that will keep them out of our way."

"Both of you, please," Lady interrupted with a sigh. The general murmered an apology, Ravenwaves shrugged, and she went on. "What have you found, Ravenwaves? Shining Glory told us earlier that the barrier is as strong as ever."

Ravenwaves glanced at the oldest member of her complement, sitting in his usual position to the right of her own empty chair. Sensing either her attention or her pause, he nodded confirmation, his clouded eyes turned in her direction.

"The barrier ends at ground level," she said, and showed teeth in her grin. "I've just gotten back from confirming it."

"How?" Lady asked, eyes widening slightly with hope, Swiftsword following up with "You think we should try sapping? What does your magic have to do with that?"

"Do you know what the local farmers sometimes dig up in their fields?" Ravenwaves answered before anyone else could try. "Hair. Big, brown, coarse hanks of it. They sell it on the market for low quality cloth-making. But it's the same stuff that raises and lowers the palace." She circled around the table, pausing for one of Lady's handmaidens to pull her chair out for her, and went on as she sat down. "The whole thing is one big root system. We sap our way to the main trunk, lower the castle with magic, and send in as many soldiers as it takes to deal with whatever little resistance we find. And it won't be much; Redtress is wagering everything on the barrier."

Silence prevailed for a few moments as the war council took this in.

"I don't like relying on magic for this, Lady." As expected, Swiftsword was the first one to speak up against her. "We have the numbers and the supplies to just wait them out. Why risk the subterfuge? We have no way of knowing whether this trunk even exists, much less whether magic will even work on it."

"The trunk obviously exists," Ravenwaves countered. "Magic alone isn't enough to raise several thousand tons of masonry on a glorified sunflower. You'd have to have a huge underground network funneling strength into the part we can see, and that's exactly why this kingdom exports haircloth."

"And the hair itself wouldn't be magical," Shining Glory mused, fingers curling around his chin. "Or there'd be traces of it in the cloth. The magic probably comes from within the castle, from the same source as the barrier."

"You haven't been able to take down the barrier, so what makes you think your magic will be any more effective on the trunk?" Swiftsword leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and gesturing in the direction of the besieged castle.

"Because as Shining Glory just said, the trunk isn't magic," Ravenwaves said, tone acidic. "It responds to the castle's magic; it can respond to ours."

"And if it's protected by its own barrier, Duchess? What then?"

Ravenwaves pressed her nails into the fine wood of the table. "Then I suppose you'll get your siege, General. But what's wrong with attempting the subterfuge? Or are you just that eager to lose a few thousand men to sickness, starvation and winter?"

"How dare you!" The man shot to his feet, brows twisting down with fury. "You would swoop in with your heathen magic-users and your wild speculations and expect us to heed such unproven tactics over centuries of practiced and proven warfare! I have heard tales of magic gone awry; how many men might we lose to another Brightfalls, or a Pathlost?"

"Both of you--" Lady broke off at the sound of a soft cough, turning her gaze to the young woman seated behind her at a small scribe's table. At her gesture, the girl turned fully to face the council.

"I have to say, Lady, that I believe that General Swiftsword overstates our preparedness." The scribe—the other of the maidens fostered in the house of Lovelylocks, and the quieter of the two—crossed inkstained hands demurely on her lap. "We haven't any shortage of supplies right now, but we don't know how much the castle may have stockpiled, either, or what methods they may have to replenish their stores. If the seige does stretch into winter, we'll have to buy more—likely from the Citadel of Frosttip Peaks." She shook her head, waves of brown hair rippling. "They don't part from their trade cheaply, and our treasury is not as well stocked as our larder."

Swiftsword's face reddened. Ravenwaves would have smirked, but her gaze had landed back on Lady. Blonde locks, normally perfectly curled, had fallen askew, and one of Lady's little spirits had emerged from behind a braid to sit on her shoulder. It rested a pink paw on her cheek, gazing at her with gleaming eyes, inscrutable at a glance, but narrowed with worry if one looked longer.

"Thank you, Maiden Fairhair." Lady reached up to stroke the pixietail's tiny head with one finger, sighed almost impercetibly, then looked back up to the council. "Thank you, Duchess Ravenwaves, General Swiftsword—everyone. I would like some time to think about what to do next. We'll meet back up tomorrow morning to discuss our plans for moving forward. Thank you for all your hard work, and please sleep well."

That was more abrupt than usual, Ravenwaves thought, and moved with deliberated slowness as the others around the table began to stand and offer their farewell bows. The other handmaiden—the redhead—slipped over to Shining Glory's side and slid her arm around his, returning his grateful expression with a glowing smile. Swiftsword knelt to Lady, head inclined to her in deference, but didn't spare Ravenwaves a glower on his way out of the tent. She ignored him, eyes turned to Lady.

“Your hair's a mess,” she said bluntly. Fairhair gasped; she ignored it, and went on, “For you, I mean. Where's your brush?”

Lady blinked at her. “You don't need to, Duchess,” she protested. “You just got back—you should rest.”

Ravenwaves fluttered one hand dismissively. “I've got a few hours in me yet. Anyway, I want to talk to you in private about a few things.”

Blue eyes held her gaze for a moment, then Lady smiled, rueful. “How could I refuse my first foreign ally?” she said, and moved towards the back of the tent, where another flap lead to her private chamber. “I'll be all right, Maiden Fairhair,” she added, forestalling the girl's protest. “If I can take an early night once in a while, there's no reason you shouldn't too.”

Fairhair looked between the two of them, reluctant, but nodded acquiescence. “I'll let Curlycrown know, then.”

“See you in the morning,” Lady agreed, with an encouraging smile, though not one that fully hid the weariness in her eyes.

“Yes, good nights and 'til thens all around,” Ravenwaves said, bustling the other woman on into the back of the tent and closing it firmly behind them. “Honestly. The devotion is nice, but sometimes you just need some room to breathe.”

“You know, Ravenwaves, you're not less distracting.”

Ravenwaves turned to find Lady sitting down on her cot—a fine one, piled with blankets and raised well off the ground, but still no proper four-postered bed. As in Ravenwaves' tent, a vanity and chair sat nearby, an oil lamp turned low on the tabletop. Unlike in her tent was the empty, cushion-lined dog bed at the foot of the cot. A chest sat in the other corner, with a closed folding table tucked behind it, which seemed to complete the contents of the room.

“Brush,” Ravenwaves ordered, ignoring the earlier comment. When Lady gestured her to the vanity, she crossed over to it and pulled open the top drawer. The expected assortment of combs, brushes, ribbons and hairpins met her glance, albeit rather more neatly organized than her own array. She plucked out a tortoiseshell-handled brush, tested the stiffness of the bristles with her fingernail, then closed the drawer and turned back towards the bed.

Lady had turned slightly away and begun pulling out the pins that secured the braids circling her face. The plaits slipped down to hang in front of her shoulders, thin pink ribbons tied at the dangling ends. Ravenwaves sat down behind her, gaze tracing over the lay of her hair. The pink and purple locks flowed in seamlessly with the rest. People claimed—and not just common people, but folk like General Swiftsword and her own Shining Glory—that the colors were evidence of Lady's claim to rule, a blessing from spirits of the dawn and the dusk. Which was all well and good, but predictably less than convincing to the people already in power. Thank goodness for a charming disposition and insight sharper than a sword's edge.

Ravenwaves threaded her fingers beneath the colored locks and lifted them to run the brush through, watching closely. They felt like nothing strange beneath her touch, just hair, though certainly clean and well-kept. But as the brush reached the end and she lifted it again, a spirit stirred at Lady's crown, a little purple creature with folded ears like a rabbit's falling in its eyes. It turned, drawing its long lavender tail behind it, and blinked at her.

Ravenwaves stared at it, momentarily at a loss. Biting down on her first instinct—to flick her fingers at it and shoo it off—she instead held her free hand up to it.

“You must be the dusk one, right? The sun's going down now, so you're just waking up.”

Lady chuckled in front of her, and it seemed to ease the pixietail's concerns—it floated up away from Lady's mane and perched on Ravenwaves' hand, tiny paws clasped over her fingers. She smiled at it, a trifle stiffly, because it was so much less talkative than Snags, and she wasn't sure how much conversation it could support. Was it less intelligent, or simply shy?

It circled around her hand once, tail winding around her wrist like a gossamer silk scarf, then hopped off. Its tail slid away more easily than Ravenwaves might have thought, and it flapped its ears as it drifted over to Lady, who smiled at it fondly.

“Good evening, Pixiebeauty.” She stroked one of its ears. “Ravenwaves is right. It's your time outside. You can look around, if you want. I'm going to bed early tonight.”

The spirit smiled, which crinkled its black, bright eyes, and nodded. With a flick of its tail, it moved back up over Lady's hair and reached down to tug at the pink strand. A muffled squeak answered, and the pink spirit from before emerged. It blinked up at the world much as its companion had, but sleepier. The purple one circled around it, entwining their tails, and they spoke, their voices high and faint, fluting and delicate like a trilling of wind in high rafters. Ravenwaves couldn't understand a word of it.

Eventually, Pixiebeauty wound its paws around the pink one's foreleg and tugged it out of Lady's hair. It yawned, but nodded, and the two of them circled once around Lady's head before they floated towards the tent flap. Lady chuckled again as the pink one bumped into the fabric and rubbed its nose while the other pixietail pawed at the flap, trying to find where the fabric divided. Finally, they decided to go under, and Ravenwaves, forebearing to comment on their intelligence, went back to brushing Lady's hair.

The two women sat in silence while Ravenwaves worked, gently but briskly unwinding braids and pulling the brush through them. With the pixietails gone, Lady's hair was entirely blonde save for the two curls of purple and pink in her bangs—so there was something to the talk aside from the dubious wisdom of slightly dim spirits.

“What did you want to talk about?” Lady prompted after a few minutes, crossing her hands in her lap.

“Some of my people have been talking.” Ravenwaves answered immediately. It was, in actuality, the only major topic she has to discuss with Lady that wasn't trying to convince her privately to agree to the tunneling plan. She didn't feel bad for that, as Swiftsword would doubtless pay a morning visit to do exactly the opposite. But best to save that for a little while in, so as not to look desperate. “They want me to find out if you're still planning to allow them entrance once we win you your castle.”

“Of course,” Lady answered. “I already said I would.”

“Some of your other allies are less open-minded,” Ravenwaves reminded her. “There are parts of even this camp that the Comb Gnomes won't go to alone, and let me tell you, when they're comfortable with a place, they'll go anywhere.

Lady mulled over the words, fingers winding in her lap. “I've already told everyone that you and your allies are welcome here,” she said slowly. “But I understand that I can't always have an eye on things, and calling attention to it right now could just make it worse.” She turned her head enough to catch Ravenwaves' eye, and went on, resolute. “But I promise you, they will be welcome in my country.”

Ravenwaves nodded. “Good,” she said, switching hands on the brush and setting in from Lady's other temple. “Because Shining Glory's talking about staying.”

Lady blinked once, but didn't hesitate. “He's welcome to. We'd love to have him!”

“He's a proper wizard. Not a hedge wizard who knows his way around a hex like Hairball.” Working her way across the back of Lady's head and down, Ravenwaves answered the unspoken question. “Shining Glory needs a tower, he needs books and crystal balls. And he's an old blind man, so he also needs a place he can stay warm in the winter, and rooms he can organize without worrying about someone else coming in and moving things around.”

“I'm sure we can work something out. But isn't he teaching you?”

“Hah! Is that what they're saying?” Ravenwaves grinned. “Believe me, as much as I'd love to be some kind of all-powerful witch-queen, I don't have the talent for it. Not a bit. The most he's done is teach me to recognize magic when I see it. That and things about the conditions magic-users need to work best.”

“But you were the first person to officially welcome magic-users into your country.” Lady stole another glance back at her. There was a light of admiration in her eyes that raised her brows in surprised arcs.

Don't get flattered, Ravenwaves told the small part of her heart that melted at the expression. All that means is she thought you did it to be self-serving until just now.

“What kind of self-respecting would-be witch-queen wouldn't want an army powered by dark magic?” she replied instead, shrugging. She avoided Lady's gaze for a moment, then admitted, low-voiced, “My mother had a little bit of magic. Not enough to be an all-powerful witch-queen. Just enough to be scared of it her whole life. Not me.”

Lady nodded, a shallow dip of her chin. “I see,” she said softly. “I always thought it was so brave of you.”

Ravenwaves could feel her cheeks warming. Don't do it, she warned herself again, focusing her attention on the ends of Lady's hair and combing out the last few snarls with a little more force than necessary, other hand gripping at the golden lengths to keep the tugging from the other woman's scalp.

“...Shining Glory's welcome to stay,” Lady said when Ravenwaves didn't answer. “Any of your followers are. I would very much like to stay friends after all this is done.”

Friends? Is that what she thinks we are? Ravenwaves frowned to herself.

“We can stay allies as long as you allow magic in your country. For friendship, I'd need a little more personal trust.”

“If this is about your plan for getting into the castle, I'm already on your side.” Lady smiled back at her. “Would that help?”

Ravenwaves stared at her, taken aback. “You—you've already decided? Then why didn't you say so before?”

Lady turned around to face her, pushing her mass of hair back over her shoulders. “General Swiftsword is very set in his ways. And he's good at what he does! But he's already prepared to lose people if it means doing things the sure way, if there's a way to win this with less loss of life, I want to try that first.” She spread her hands in her lap. “I wanted some time to think about how to phrase it to him.”

“'I command it to be so,' isn't good enough?”

Lady smiled and shook her head. “I'd like it not to come to that.” When Ravenwaves went on staring at her, she chuckled and reached over to pluck the brush from the other woman's unmoving hand. “So then, Ravenwaves—are we friends?”

Ravenwaves' hands curled up on themselves, but she lifted her chin into a rebellious cant. “I guess it's a good start.”

“Good. Then turn around and let me brush your hair.”

“You—don't need to do that,” Ravenwaves protested. “I brushed it before I came to the council.”

“I know, but it helps me think, and you've run off my two maidens.” Lady raised her eyebrows, smiling in what Ravenwaves considered to be an offensively winning way. Heaving a sigh, she relented, wrapping her fingers around the cot edge and putting her back to Lady's hands.

In moments, Lady was running the brush through her hair, undoing her hasty braids. The woman's hands were lingering and gentle, leaving Ravenwaves grateful to be facing the opposite wall, as she could feel the blush climbing into her cheeks again.

The siege had better end soon, she thought, as behind her Lady began humming. Because this situation was getting more dangerous by the day.

Ravenwaves closed her eyes, relaxing slightly backwards.

Well... Maybe just a little is all right.