"...and how is Irena doing?" Devaraja said as he placed his Boiler piece on the queen's pawn. The wargame was in its final rounds. Agnieska's pieces were thoroughly scattered across the bard and Devaja's own were poised to rush her point and take it. In a challenging game this would have taken an hour to set up. Devaraja had the queen at his mercy in about ten minutes.
"Oh, happy as she's ever been," Agnieska said, surveying the board and trying to suss out some way to disrupt his strategy. Winning was out of the question. She could never figure the guy out, but then, that's why she had him where he was. "I think she's doing great for herself. You should see the way she carries that gun around. It's just delightful, like a new puppy." No, she was doomed. She moved her Siege Tower over to one of Devaraja's own Towers and plopped the tile down.
"And how do you feel about this?" he said.
"Couldn't be any more proud." She reached into her purse and pulled out her smoker's tin.
"You're nervous, too. I haven't seen you smoke this much before."
"It's been a good crop, Dev."
"When we met, you only smoked when you were nervous... or waking up. Now you can't put that tin down, or so it seems."
"Well..." She opened the box a crack. "I guess it's been a busy year."
"If you don't mind me doing so," Devaraja said, "I would like to guess the reason why."
"Go right on ahead." She went ahead and flipped the box open, rolling out a fresh cigarette with machine-like efficiency.
Devaraja sighed and won the game, using his Mantid piece to send his Infantry into the queen's point. "Firstly, the last time you smoked this much was when you sent your eldest to basic training. You were a chimney from the palace 'til the night after you came back, which I presume meant three straight days of partaking."
"Mm... accurate." She lit a match with her thumbnail and lit her hand-rolled.
"Then again when Irena's first day of basic ended... then again after I demonstrated the Thunderbolt to her... and from the day she saved Ms. Nowakowski until she was discharged from care. And a week after. And ever since then you've lit up at least four times per day. Up from a rate of, from what I'd seen, perhaps four times per week."
"Hm." Agnieska took a contemplative toke. "Two joints in the morning... two in the afternoon... two in the evening... really, it's more like six." She smiled. "Then, you'd know that if you went to bed with me~"
Devaraja closed his eyes. "Well, that didn't take too long."
Agnieska pushed up from her seat and walked around the game table. "It's because you're being such a fuss bucket, Little Raja. You could use a little smoke yourself."
"I'm not a smoker, Your Majesty. One can have a few drinks before they get to one's head, but all it takes is one of those--"
"Blah blah blah." She wrapped her arms around him and rest her head on his shoulder, her cigarette dangling from her lips. "You're proving my point. You're a smart, smart boy, Raja, but you really do need to loosen up too. I'm not saying retire to smoke a lot of wee-e-e-d, I'm saying once in a while and you'll get nice and calm."
"I'll consider it," he said. "But, Your Majesty, dare I observe that it's your eldest daughter you're most worried about?"
"Mm. I do love my babies, Raja."
"As a mother does. I propose that the reason you have been so deep into your tin as of late is because you're worried she'll meet her end as a soldier, in the prime of her life."
The queen plucked the joint from between her lips and blew out a lungful of smoke. She started speaking but quickly devolved into a short series of coughs. "Ah, pardon. You know... I'm told I have very cute coughs. Do I?"
"Like a sneezing kitten, your majesty," Devaraja said. Exaggerating only slightly.
"Right-o. I wonder what you sound like."
"You're avoiding the subject... my queen."
"Ooh. 'My queen.'" She kissed his cheek. "Mr. Khasa, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were trying to seduce me..."
"I believe I have found the core of your distress, Your Majesty. You miss your husband, don't you?"
"...well, of course I do."
"And you don't want to lose Irena."
"Of course I don't."
"Because you love her, and because you love him. You see it in her red hair, you see it in her soft-spoken demeanor. She's a painter, too. You took the royal gallery out of mothballs around the time she started talking, if the histories are correct..."
The queen had no response for that. She took slow, deep draws off of her cigarette.
"Thus, my conclusion: you're proud that your daughter is learning to defend herself, but outright terrified at the notion that one day the Reunification will need her to lay down her life... and given that she is proving a model soldier, that she will have no qualms with doing so."
"Let's say you're right," the queen said. "If you don't want me smoking so much, Raja, what do you want me to do?"
"Well." He bat his eyes at her. "Have you considered the Svartalf project?"
Agnieska rubbed her temples. "Oh, Raja, Raja, Raja. You sweet little bastard."
"Remember what I said last time?"
"What we are discussing here is the life of your soldiers, and in particular, your daughter."
"But here's the thing, Raja. Each one of those little metal soldiers costs as much as one of our main battle tanks. And they're not as strong as one of our main battle tanks. That's a lot of finely machined moving parts, and a lot of spirit stakes, and that's on top of the Thunderbolt and Boneshaker and everything else we're making for that next fabled generation of warfare."
Devaraja furrowed his brow. "Have you actually seen the Boneshaker? The good men and women of Równiny assemble them in garages, with civilian-grade tools. That's why only half of them have the wooden stocks. If you had good sense you'd invest in more of the Riot..."
"Raja, baby, war isn't just about putting out the fanciest toys. You know that even we have to care about lo-gi-stiiiiicks. A platoon of tanks will have more of a return on investment than a platoon of toy soldiers, and those we can repair with quote unquote civilian-grade tools. I can't even name half the stuff you use to put the knees back together on those Svartalves."
"And if we can't keep them up and moving in the field, they're not going to take the place of any soldiers, and there goes a big chunk of our budget on an experiment that goes nowhere. And all our pretty boys and pretty girls get ground up anyway, and all that we did was say, 'but we tried not to get ourselves killed!' And the other guys will laugh as they make chairs out of our bones."
Agnieska slid away from Devaraja and made her way to her bed. "Raja, I get you, believe me. I don't--okay, yeah you're right. Of course you're right. I absolutely do not want to see my little girl come home in a little coffin with a flag draped over it. I've been having nightmares, these, just, really horribly sick nightmares that I don't even want to talk about..." She flopped onto her bed, on her back. "And every time I think about it I wonder who in the hell would want to go to war with us, and I just start thinking about how much wealth we're sitting on... and I gotta wonder, who wouldn't want to crush us underheel just to get at it? And... that's the trick of it, isn't it?"
"...Your Majesty?" Devaraja edged towards her bed.
"You can never really trust anyone, can you? Hell, look at what we did to Flatland. We made it live up to its name. And now here we are, trying to get along, waiting to see if anyone wants to test it. Maybe it'll be Threshold, wanting more raw material for its fleets. Or Shiver, or Lightwreath, or hell, maybe the Continent will try getting back in the game. And who the hell knows what they're up to? I mean, shit, look at what you're making that's not even worth pitching at invaders. War is getting scary. Like, really, really scary."
Devaraja stood at the foot of her bed, uncertain of what to do. There were some things that didn't read as well as a fight, or a game.
Agnieska looked down at Devaraja. "You know what my idea is?"
"Can't begin to guess, Your Majesty."
"Make a lot of friends and give them good reason not to kick you out of bed."
"Hm. It's a plan."
Agnieska worked her shoes off and, grasping them with her toes, tossed them to the side. "You sure you're not trying to seduce me? Because let me tell you..." She plucked a clip from her nightstand and grasped the short end of her cigarette. The little light was getting rather too close to her fingers for comfort. "Nothing gets me hot like discussing how screwed we are."
Devaraja sat on the side of the bed. "I... don't think so, Your Majesty."
"Well, then." The queen pulled open a drawer on her nightstand and took out another one of her smoking tins. "Brace yourself, we're getting you good and relaxed. We've still got a half hour 'til lunch is done."
"That's an order, general. I outrank you."
He sighed. "Understood, Majesty."
* * *
"That's on good and tight, right?" Irenka said, gesturing to the sides of her head.
"Huh?!" Noriko said.
"You are good!" Irenka said, slowly mouthing the words and giving her the a-okay sign. She pat Noriko's earmuffs, then pulled Henryk back behind the line drawn in the sand. Her Thunderbolt was mounted on a heavy-duty tripod, one that essentially negated the gun's recoil. It also sported a remote trigger, which meant none of her siblings actually had to touch her gun. This put her at an odd kind of ease.
"Alright!" She held up her hand. Henryk and Tymon covered their ears. "One.. two..." She tapped Noriko's shoulder, and she squeezed the two triggers. The gun ripped through its first belt in seconds as Noriko peppered the hill Irenka chose as their target.
"Woo!" Noriko said, throwing her arms up once the gun stopped firing. "That was so awesome!"
"Oh yes. Now reload it so your brother can shoot."
Irenka pulled an earmuff away from her head. "Reload, so your brother can shoot."
"...do I have to?"
"It's not hard, Nori. Just follow my lead."
"You're still a dork, Renka."
"But I'm also a corporal. That means I outrank you. And I'm older than you. And I'm first in line for the throne."
"Gonna assassinate the hell out of you," Noriko grumbled.