There is a knife in Janos's chest!
All right, time to show off a little.
"Eight hundred years ago, Valdemar was founded with an ironclad commitment not to wage offensive war. It has followed this principle since, with the first-order effects that your neighbors are more comfortable with you and that you, following this commitment, fight fewer offensive wars. These both produce the second-order effect that you fight fewer wars, which produces, as well as a number of positive third-order effects -" such as higher economic growth; every soldier on campaign isn't tilling the fields - "the negative third-order effect that your armies are less experienced than those of your neighbors, exacerbated by the fact that your Majesty's predecessor -" he bows his head slightly "- enforced this sufficiently ably that Valdemar had not fought any war for a full lifetime. The Karsites assumed that Valdemar would be in disarray on your succession, and therefore that their own, more experienced army could defeat your before you could stabilize, and took advantage of the unstable situation in Hardorn to make the correct gamble -" a slight risk, here, but Vanyel probably would have mentioned Hardornen troops assisting on the front lines, and the Imperial diplomatic service would know if Hardorn was fighting a war on its southern border and would probably have let him know - "that Hardorn would be too distracted to offer material aid should they invade. I don't know the precise course of the war, but I would guess they launched a push upriver which was stopped before it could reach Haven?" That is the safest bet humanly possible, since Valdemar and Karse's capitals seem to be on the same giant river, according to the map, and also 'upriver' is easy to interpret as metaphorically meaning 'north along the South Trade Road', which is the only other plausible option for Karse.
"I suspect that the fighting has died down for the winter -" it usually does; the seasonal rhythm of war means that irregular troops are called up in the spring after the planting, campaign during the summer, and return home for the harvest before rain and snow makes campaigning impossible for the winter, before it resumes again after the planting. "- but that the war has taken a heavy toll," (wars do that if you're being invaded) "and that you are currently looking for ways to end the war quickly and without overmuch loss of land or life, come next campaigning season." Because what else would they do, throw up their hands in despair and say 'well, the war's not going to end any time soon, might as well get ourselves killed?'
He inclines his head and refrains from saying anything more.
"That's a very detailed analysis." Katha seems impressed, and even more curious than before. "That's - mostly right, I think. A couple of notes: we weren't on great terms with them even before Elspeth's death, nothing really overt but they pulled their permanent ambassador from Haven and sent someone much more junior to replace him, and the talks we arranged to discuss a marriage between Randale and their King's daughter broke down quite awkwardly, things like that. Hardorn...is complicated. I think the situation, roughly speaking, is that formally they're ally, but informally their current King is - not well liked, not very forward-thinking, and not especially able to persuade his Council of anything they don't like. We weren't expecting help from them, if it came up."
She frowns. "They did start off attacking Horn, which is both on the South Trade Road and very close to the river, but we managed to retake it almost immediately with Herald Vanyel's help, and it's quite well defended. Probably for that reason - and because of the limitations on stationing our mages - they've fallen back on doing a lot of smaller random raids up and down almost the entire Border, probing to find out where we're weakest and nibbling away at our troop numbers and resources. Herald Vanyel can contribute very effectively in a single major battle, both for defense or offense, but he can't deal with five things at once."
"- Also, we had thought the fighting had died down for winter, but - apparently we were wrong. They attacked in significant force at a town called Deerford - which isn't on the river, but is close enough that they might have been hoping to carve through some of the less-defended countryside to meet it further into Valdemar - and they had a simultaneous plan to incapacitate Vanyel, so he wasn't able to defend on our side."
... Who is Herald Vanyel? He can't be their only Adept, Savil was also one -
"I see." Wrong predictions, mostly; he's probably wrong about the terrain. But -
"I think," he says, "I am missing quite who Herald Vanyel is."
(Also, that sounds like Karse has already lost the war, and is just making dumber and dumber moves out of a reluctance to admit it. Can't tell just from what the other side says, though -)
Significant glances are exchanged between the Heralds. Katha looks unsure of something, and worried, and then relieved.
"Herald Vanyel is - unusual. He's the most powerful mage that we know of, by quite a large margin - possibly the most powerful in Valdemar's entire history. And he has eight other active Gifts."
"I think no one realized the full extent of it until the war started," King Randale adds, quietly. "Savil says that he can do by himself what would usually take five Adepts."
But - that's impossible. Not all Adepts are the same strength, but - Adepts are the highest tier of mages, the differences at that level are much more about skill then strength - you don't get nine-Gifted quintuple-Adepts -!
("That was yesterday," said old Cendas. "Now it is today. Do you still want to win, today?")
Arguably, this is military advice, but since they already know it -
"I predict," Janos says, mouth slightly dry, "that however many men you have in Herald Vanyel's personal guard, you should double them."
Some more looks are exchanged. This time, King Randale looks almost sheepish.
"Last autumn he was traveling alone," Katha says quietly. "We judged it was better for him to be able to stay ahead of any Karsite parties - Companions can move a lot faster than regular horses, and maintain the pace far longer - and most Heralds we could have sent with him are much less capable of defending themselves. He was worried about putting other people in danger by being a target. ...I'm not sure it was the right call, not insisting anyway, but it definitely wasn't workable having him staged at one of the major Guard posts."
Janos is currently considering the idea that, actually, the Call is not selecting based on intelligence, it is selecting purely for moral obedience, which explains why Vanyel might be the only person here with any intelligence, though not, apparently, all that much if he regularly went around without bodyguards while his nation's most important military asset.
"I... do not think I can safely give further advice on this topic without verifying that the story is as you say." These words are actually painful for him to speak. Someone is wrong, and he can explain why they could be right, and by this point Janos is certain he'll have much more influence in Valdemar if he just shuts up and gives them advice, but it would be a break in the character he has been presenting them to give up on it now instead of after some form of verification. "I would be prepared to accept a description from the leading Karsite official residing in Valdemar, the official Karsite declaration of war if sealed with their royal seal, or even sufficient conversations with Karsite residences." He pauses. "If you have no alternatives, I would be willing to, under Thoughtsensing, lay a simple Truth-telling compulsion on someone who would be informed and then remove it, if there is no better option. I would very much like to assist you in your military situation" (because you desperately, desperately need it) "if it is as you say, but I hope you understand that there are limits to my ability to trust without verification."
"...I understand why you need that," Katha says softly. "We don't have any official Karsite representatives in Valdemar at this time. We do have their written declaration of war, but it was only issued after they attacked Horn and it's...not very informative. The last envoy we tried to send to open a channel of communications with them didn't come back. I...guess you could speak with some of the Karsite refugees who fled to this side of the Border?"
"Also, I doubt we could stop you from Gating over to their side of the Border yourself. If you were inclined to do that. I...don't recommend it - I think the current leadership there is much less likely to treat you well or act in good faith - but I understand you only have my word for that."
The King mostly looks very, very tired.
Honestly, he thinks the Compulsion idea would be so much easier, but since he does not, in fact, want to know whether Valdemar is in the right, he wants to successfully demonstrate that he is a Good Person who is not just joining the side he'll have more influence on but is siding with the Right, he'll take 'talking to refugees'.
"I do not intend to Gate to Karse; I am inclined to agree with you that it would not be safe." The odds that the Karsites would treat him anywhere near as well as the Valdemarans are, as he sees it, negligible; they are simultaneously losing the war and, almost certainly, need him less, since he refuses to believe you can get this level of error without spending at least one full lifetime at peace. "I would be pleased to read the Karsite declaration of war" (assuming he can read it; with luck he can decrypt Valdemaran, it clearly has a lot in common with the Imperial language) "and if you could arrange meetings with Karsite refugees soon, I would appreciate it."
He pauses; if anyone intends to say anything, he'll be pleased to listen; if not, he's still trying to work out sufficiently good excuses for how, exactly, he knows all the information he learned via Farsight about just what desperate poverty Valdemar is in, or if he can just play mysterious-Adept-from-superior-civilization well enough to get them to listen about civil matters, even though he should not actually know what he does, in fact, know.
"There is - something I wanted to bring up," King Randale says stiffly, after a few beats of silence. "It's - I really don't mean any offense, and we're deeply grateful for your advice and help, but...from what I understand, the Eastern Empire may have - fairly different ethical standards around warfare from the ones we abide by, here. I - think we should get on the same page about that."
Well. This was going to happen some time or later. Better to get it into his framework, while the King is feeling conciliatory and doesn't want to start a fight.
"I understand completely," he says. "The laws and customs of war are different in different lands, and betraying a land's customs can destroy your reputation in that land, even if the actual harm of the action is limited. I recognize that actions I would consider harmless or unremarkable are banned by custom or treaty here in Valdemar, as well as those both sides in war genuinely benefit from the banning of. I'm sure there are some tactics in Valdemar that would shock us in the Empire, and I will keep in mind how my actions reflect on you and your realm while I am at your nation's service and will do my best to refrain from actions that will violate the laws and customs of Valdemar."
The King looks a little relieved, though not entirely relaxed. "I'm glad to hear that. I'm not going to assume that I can list off all the differences without more thought, or knowing more about exactly what customs your Empire has - all we have to go on is old books and rumor, really. You should talk to Vanyel about it, he's - good at explaining the reasoning behind things like this. But, er, the obvious ones are that we don't make use of blood-magic and we don't use compulsions."
"Karse does," the young woman says darkly.
"Sure, and they summon demons on us too, that doesn't mean we're about to start doing the same."
That's... somewhere between 'idiotic' and 'genuinely impressive'? Oh, wait, no, they aren't enforcing principled regional norms to restrict the horrors of war, they're just being dumb. OK. 'idiotic' it is.
(The demon summoning bit makes more sense, given their shortage of mages. Banning generally bad ideas is much more reasonable than banning generally good ones.)
"To... clarify. You refrain from using both compulsions and blood magic under literally all circumstances, including on willing subjects to save more lives and while at war with enemies who started a war with you with no declaration of war prior to the first attack who are making use of them themselves in knowing violation of the regional laws and customs that forbid them."
(His first thought on the blood magic was, honestly, that given their lack of weather-workers it might make sense. His second, um...)
After a single beat, "I understand your customs and will obey." 'No matter how incredibly stupid I think the idea is' is a sentence that's just better if you let them say it for themselves, isn't it?
"Yes." King Randale looks so tired. "It'd hardly mean much if our own government started breaking Valdemar's laws as soon as it was convenient for us." He seems mostly confused at Janos' reaction. "I really think you should talk to Vanyel about it, though."
"Perhaps I should."
So are they really just stupid?
Randi is honestly even more worried about the sheer disconnect here! He had been assuming that the mages of the Eastern Empire were at least aware that they regularly committed what normal countries would regard as atrocities.
It feels very obvious to him that it shouldn't make a difference to anything, that Karse started the war, or whether they followed the standard customs of the region themselves. It...would be cheap, if everyone agreed that any act became morally acceptable if the enemy had already committed it first! He can't find the right words to convey this, though, and he really isn't in the mood to try and fumble and earn himself more of that faintly pitying look, which Janos is probably trying to hide but Randi does, in fact, have training in reading people's reactions.
"For what it's worth," he says wearily, "I think Karse has wreaked havoc on their own people as much as ours, by...resorting to those tactics. It's going to take years for the land near the border to recover."
He really wishes someone would change the topic.
Well, yes, that's what happens when someone uses blood-magic badly. That's why you stop people doing it by the least destructive means that will work, then punish them appropriately, so nobody is ever incentivized to do it. If a law isn't being enforced, you can abolish or reform or enforce it, but if you just let it stand empty, the whole idea of the Law is weakened, here and forever.
Either way, though, that is not a productive conversation to have. Janos can tell when King Randale doesn't want to talk about this, and he is happy to provide a better change of topic.
"While your Healing abilities are very impressive," Janos says, "and meaning no disrespect to your country's engineers, Valdemar seems to be somewhat behind the Empire in the field of civil engineering. Significant developments have been made in the field of aqueducts, for instance, in the past eight hundred years." Actually, the significance is mostly that the worse emperors' administrations have figured out exactly how much you can embezzle the budget before it falls down soon enough to get blamed on you, but that did leave their more competent successors with a pretty good idea of how to build them cheaply.
"Really." Herald Jaysen does not look especially impressed. "Vanyel mentioned that he wondered how much of that is feasible because the Empire can commandeer far greater numbers of mages, which we don't have."
He is not going to mention exactly how high a percentage of the routine building and maintenance in Haven over the last ten years has been done by Vanyel specifically. Or how badly behind they are now that he's been away on the Border for almost a year.