Cecelia Quest 2
That’s right, after a two-chapter interlude, we’re back to the Dark Side with our favorite Sith apprentice in all of whereverstan.
Cecelia was far, far from Reason, and she hated it.
She had her plate mail, at least,
Look, I don’t mind “chain mail” to refer to what was historically called maille, because the fact is that we’re in the modern era, most people don’t know the word maille (the WordPress spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it, although the WordPress spellcheck also doesn’t recognize “WordPress”), and if you say “chain mail” everyone knows what you’re talking about.
I refuse to make that exception for “plate mail.” Yes, everyone knows what you’re talking about in common use, but it actually makes it significantly harder to explain the word maille to people who are getting slightly deeper into pop history. It’s still not especially difficult by itself, but it does take noticeably more time, and that’s time you could’ve used explaining how Richard the Lionheart’s actual real biography is basically an action movie. It’s pretty straightforward to explain to people “in the actual middle ages this was just called ‘maille,’ but these days we call it ‘chain mail’ or even ‘chain armor’ to avoid confusion with postal services,” and that much harder to say “oh, and also maille refers exclusively to chain mail, and referring to other armors like ‘plate’ as mail was just a mistake from the 70s that caught on.’ These kinds of clarifying preambles force historians to choose between being accurate and being accessible, if you have enough of them they can seriously hurt you in one direction or the other, and history is riddled with enough of them already that every new piece of straw on this camel’s back counts. “Plate armor” is a perfectly good term that doesn’t make ‘maille’ any harder to explain to people.
Oh, also, Cecelia’s suit of steam mech armor is called “Reason” and I don’t think I mentioned it when I reviewed that chapter, because that whole sequence was kind of weird and didn’t seem to have much point.
Also, plate armor makes combatants into an absolute tank. It’s real hard to kill someone wearing it, because it’s nearly impenetrable (contrary to popular belief, even to longbows – Agincourt was won by terrain and squad tactics, not archery). Now, there’s no reason why a fantasy story can’t smack another layer of armor and weapons on top of the actual 14th century’s arms race, with some weapon so deadly as to penetrate plate armor but which steam armor is resistant to. Muskets could work as the weapon, or some kind of magic if you don’t like gunpowder in your fantasy (although if you’ve got steam armor, probably you don’t care), or dragons. Fantasy is full of possibilities, that’s what makes it fun.
But alternatively, maybe no actual possibilities will be used, and instead the narrative just drastically underestimates the resilience of plate armor and doesn’t realize that it’s nearly immune to swords and arrows already.
“You’ve got that look again,” Morris said, grabbing the wagon’s tailboard and hopping up into it, moving easily in his own armor. “That look like you just sat on a hedgehog. Why the resting bitchface?”
If it’s resting angry face, then the whole point is that it’s automatic and not indicative of mood. And yes, I’m using angry face and not bitch face. “Bitch” is (in this context) gender-specific, but resting angry face is a gender-neutral phenomenon.
The bastard had hit level twenty-five recently, and loved showing off one of his top skills that let him move around like his armor was weightless.
Don’t get me wrong, that would be a useful skill to have. However, unless that “hop” onto the wagon involved a front flip, Morris isn’t doing anything that Cecelia shouldn’t be able to do just as easily. Plate armor is heavy, but it’s not inflexible. If Cecelia spent five minutes jumping over things and under things and such, she’d start to wear out, whereas Morris, not feeling the weight of the armor, would barely be working up a sweat. One hop, though? That’s not showing off. Any trained knight should be able to do that in armor as easily as out.
So we’ve now reached the bottom of page one. At this rate, I may have to put a moratorium on medieval armor research failures within the same chapter they first came up.
There’s a discussion here about the rangers. The Jericho Reach rangers have absorbed most of Mordecai’s old scout team after he was brought in by the government, and now they’re running a really effective guerilla war against supply and reinforcement lines, which is why Cecelia can’t bring her mech suit. It’s too hard to keep it fueled on the trip, and it’s also implied that she’d be more vunlerable when out of it, although I’m not sure why she would ever be out of it, nor why she couldn’t just immediately put on plate armor after getting out. Sure, there’s a window of vulnerability, but you get to pick exactly when and where it happens, so you can make it hard to exploit.
This raises a question, though. Why did the king hit the resistance when he did? It made sense in the first book, before it turned out there were dwarves and rangers still out there maintaining a front line, but now? The resistance was ineffective, so why alienate the scouts, wipe out a village, and risk stirring up resentment or even opening up a second front? Sure, peasant uprisings aren’t much of a threat on their own and that appears to be as true in Threadbare as historically, but they can be really hard to deal with when you’ve got an enemy kingdom on your borders that you need to maintain a front line against.
That night, Cecelia gets a mysterious message in her tent about going to a certain village to see the “truth of your kingdom” right before the camp is attacked by rangers.
“Rangers!” She shouted. “We’re under attack! Able bodies get those fires out! Noncombatants take shelter! Go go go!” She didn’t know where the officer in charge was, and it didn’t matter. They’d order the same thing, she was sure.
This is not how a chain of command works.
Later on, a necromancer-turned-knight in Cecelia’s party talks about soulstoning people to allow them to resolve any unfinished business they have without being nailed to haunting the spot where they died. Being a necromancer, this Graves fellow can communicate with them, so as long as he carries their soulstones around, he can communicate any last messages they need sent to the living. They haven’t stumbled across the golem trick (although it is mentioned that a more powerful necromancer could create undead shells powerful enough to allow souls deposited into them to act freely, but that being deposited into a standard skeleton or zombie would trap the soul in an automaton they can’t control). Cecelia agrees to be soulstoned in the event she bites it.
Besides, the cynical part of her added, If you stick me in a zombie my father will fumping kill you.
This Bowdlerization is really weird considering how freely this story has been willing to swear in other sections.
At some point, Cecelia begins brooding about being queen one day.
Her father had unlocked Ruler for her, recognized her as his heir, but asked her to refrain from taking the job just yet. And she had obeyed, as she’d sworn to. She’d thought it was because he didn’t trust her with it yet. Because he thought she couldn’t handle the responsibility.
But what if it was because he was sparing her from the full weight of it? What if he was giving her what time he could? What if it was his version of mercy?
Then he doesn’t seem to grasp how class abilities work in this setting, which is weird considering he lives here. Being a Ruler class doesn’t impose any actual obligations, it just gives her the ability to buff anyone who swears allegiance to her. Assuming swearing allegiance to her is mutually exclusive to swearing allegiance to Melos, she wouldn’t even have any subjects to buff until after Melos bites it (or abdicates, if his subjects can switch allegiance while he’s still alive, which seems reasonably likely).
There’s a lot of “and then” in this chapter, so I wanna be clear here that when I bounce from “Morris and Cecelia have a chat” to “we’re under attack from rangers” to “how much do we trust this ex-necromancer guy” to “brooding about being a queen” to “reporting for duty in the morning,” I’m only glossing over one actual segue. There was a bridge between the conversation with the necromancer guy and the brooding about being queen that I didn’t quote just because it was a pretty unexceptional transition, but the rest of this is just smash cut from one scene to another without transition.
“To sum up for our late riser, we’ve got five days of travel and one day of food left. We’re out in the middle of nowhere and we can’t risk foraging. The Rangers haven’t hit us since the last run, but the Captain’s assessment is that they won’t pass up a chance to pick off more personnel if split up and try to hunt. Which leaves requisitioning food from the local villages. The rangers don’t involve civilians in their treason or put them at risk, so that should be safe. It’ll delay us, but there’s no help for that. Dame Ragandor, are you rested well enough to lead a three-man task force?”
I really hope they’re not trying to frame the Rangers as blameless in the extortion of starving peasants that is certain to follow. What did they think was going to happen when they targeted Melos’ food supply? And surely this can’t be the first time this has happened. It’s a really canny plan because the villagers will definitely hate Melos at least as much as the Rangers and probably more, so it’s a PR victory for the Rangers as well as slowing down the enemy and sapping their countryside, and depending on the extent of Melos’ villainy it might even be justifiable, if sacrificing some peasants is worth the cost of ending his reign. But the Rangers are sacrificing peasants.
During a ceremony before they split up to extort food from local villages:
Eight blades hissed free from sheathes, and eight helms pressed against the hilts as they held the swords out, points down before them.
This is reign of terror, because it’s really not a big deal whether or not people imagine swords making the wrong sound when drawn from sheathes, but dammit, most novels writing about swords drawn from sheathes don’t intrude upon my imagination to demand it makes the Hollywood shiiiing! noise.
“So how does this work?” Kayin asked, after they passed the third steading. “Should we be going up and knocking on doors?”
“No,” Cecelia shook her head. “Per the Articles of the Cylvanian accord, any order of military requisition must be presented to the local lord. This place will have a Baron, or something. We’ll talk to him.”
I appreciate the existence of some kind of actual law to invoke. Not that “we’re knights, you’re peasants, vae victis” wouldn’t be appropriate to most medieval settings even completely unvarnished, but Melos seems like the kind of guy who’d have legalist justifications for his tyranny, even if it’s not ultimately that big a difference whether there is an official code of laws formally allowing knights to say “we’re knights, you’re peasants, vae victis.”
Cecelia has arranged to be in charge of extorting Pads, which is the town the mysterious note directed her to for the truth about her kingdom. Turns out the baron running the place is corrupt, has made a deal with the bandits, and is profiting off of their raids. Which, okay? I guess the dark secret of Cylvania is that they need a stronger central authority better capable of dealing with corrupt officers? Like, this isn’t the peasants suffering because the king doesn’t care about them so long as the baron gets his taxes in. It’s just the baron having gone rogue and embezzling from peasant and king alike. The knight sergeant ends up overriding Cecelia’s concerns for legality and executing the baron on the spot, which bothers her, but it’s not actually a violation of their oath, since they’re sworn to obey the king and not the law, which, wow, that’s a Hell of a thin justification considering the king writes the laws.
Cecelia’s preference for trials over summary execution can make perfect sense, but it comes across as a bit arbitrary here. Like, she doesn’t bring up the knock-on effects of executing people without proving they’re guilty in a public court. If the Punisher shoots a bunch of people and just says “don’t worry, they were criminals, I checked,” that’s not good enough because why the Hell should we believe the guy with the skull shirt? Without a public trial to prove to the public that they were gangsters, you can’t tell the difference between the Punisher and the Joker. In nations that don’t care what the public thinks, they still care who someone thinks, so maybe the purpose of a trial is to prove to the nobility or to the king or something that a crime really did take place and we aren’t just killing people for funsies. What I’m getting at here is that for Cecelia to be worried that someone she knows for a fact is guilty of a crime won’t get a trial for that crime, she must either have totally arbitrary morals or else she’s worried about damaging the trust of whatever entity the trial is supposed to prove guilt or innocence for, the people or the king or whatever. In this case probably the king. But Cecelia doesn’t particularly seem worried that Melos is gonna be all “okay, sure, you claim you caught him red-handed, but then you lopped his head off without trial, so why should I believe you?”
In any case, there’s a message waiting for her in the camp.
Tane nodded. “Good. Then I’ve got news for you. Messenger imp came by today, checking on us. Your Steam Knight suit’s arrived at Fort Bronze.”
Wait, what? How? I thought they couldn’t ship the steam armor through this region because of Ranger ambushes? Did they teleport it? Why can’t they teleport Cecelia with it? Can only inanimate material be teleported? And if they didn’t teleport it, then how did it arrive not only safely, but ahead of Cecelia?
“That’s the last stop before the front, right?”
“Yeah. We’ll drop the food off there. Then it’s into action. But not against the dwarves.”
“I’ll tell the others when we’re together, but I might as well tell you now. There’s been a rebel uprising, just southeast of the Fort, in another shitty frontier village. Some little fishing town called Outsmouth…”
If this ends up just being a tease, and Cecelia arrives there only after Threadbare et al have left, I shall be very cross.