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"I'm here. I'm sorry, Caesar. I'm really sorry." The Dollamancer stood with goggles in hand at the entrance to the portal room, panting and sweating. He'd been ordered not to cross the threshold. Maggie had never seen Bill's small, red eyes before. He was a misshapen, pig of a man.
The Caesar of Transylvito did not fly. His boots remained planted on the strip of red carpet that ran the length of the portal room. He took a final drag of his smoke, blew out a pale cloud through pressed lips, and absently flipped it away.
"What are you sorry for, Bill? Whyon'tcha tell me everything?"
This must have also been an order, because a confession immediately came gushing out of him. "I broke your orders! I spied! I... thought... thought I was helping. I helped... her."
The Dollamancer extended the hand that held his goggles, pointing into the room to where an unconscious Turnamancer lay splayed on the marble floor, right beside the body of her co-conspirator Roger. One of her co-conspirators. "I helped Vanna."
At the edge of Maggie's vision, Jack shifted his stance. He and Maggie both stood beside the Moneymancer, directly behind the warlord. That was no small thing, to be screened by the ruler of a side with no heir. If Caesar fell, all of Transylvito would fall as well. Would Stanley the Tool have done the same for a pair of foreign casters? Well, perhaps. So that no-one could block his view.
"Helped them--they wanted that... warlord gone." Bill looked at the floor. "I mean... I can see why. There's the treasury... There's a lot of money now, right, Chief? Nineteen million." He raised his head, looking to Benjamin for affirmation. "It's all from Charlie."
The Dollamancer shook his head and jowls emphatically. "No! No, uh-uh, Caesar! Actually, um, Charlie said... they did it." He gestured with the goggles at Jack and Maggie, only meeting her eyes briefly. Then he seemed to notice the Makaleka and the guard dolls standing up against the wall. "I think she controls that one. And... and maybe it... gave orders to the other ones? I think it did. I think they croaked Roger. He said they attacked all the Great Minds.
A treacherous silence now hung in the air. Maggie knew what it might mean for her and her side if Caesar believed this fresh lie from Charlie. But did it ultimately matter? Whatever Charlie's gambit of the moment, the dreadful fact was that he'd already won. He could lie and lie, until his lies were believed. In a world without either the Great Minds or Parson Gotti, there was no counterforce left that could stop him.
Yet she was buoyed by an undefinable sense that this was not the case. The war was not over, and what happened her did matter, she felt. The scene in this room had her full attention, but her attention was overfull. One of the parts of herself that she was used to tuning out, an annoying and emotional part, was busy fighting a pitched battle for Lord Parson's safety. How that could be, Maggie did not know. She was most likely experiencing a form of denial, but she allowed those extra thought bubbles to keep fighting.
When at last the Caesar spoke, he spared only two, softly spoken words.
The sense of danger in the room now tilted toward the doorway. The Dollamancer shrunk into himself once more, hunching his shoulders and looking at the floor. "Um. Yeah. Charlie sent me a Thinkagram... on the stairs just now."
With his head and fists, Caesar made a motion that looked as if he were thinking of taking flight, but his boots remained planted on the carpet. "Just now. You took a call from Charlescomm on the way to this room."
"To any side," Benjamin added, in a warning tone.
Caesar took a breath, reclaiming whatever small speck of composure he'd let slip. "Yes. He is."
"But, he's not," said Bill, shaking his head at the carpet. "Like, all that money he paid us, the nineteen million--"
"He'll take back," said Jack, which surprised Maggie. It was not Jack's place nor hers to interject in what amounted to a high-level matter of the Court of Transylvito, even with Gobwin Knob's enormous stake in the matter. But Caesar only jerked his head back in Jack's direction, to indicate his agreement.
"He can't!" whined the Dollamancer. "It's in the contract."
Another laden silence followed. This time, the Dollamancer broke it himself. "He can't attack any of our units for a hundredturn or they have to pay us like another million Shmuckers," he said. "And anyway, he doesn't want to. He's friendly." Bill stared into the room for a moment, and made another gesture at the floor. "She knew that! Vanna knew Charlie's a good guy.
Caesar glanced back to Benjamin. It was the first time he'd released the Dollamancer from his glare. "I mean..." he said under his breath, "Don was talkin' about gettin' a unilateral truce out of a deal, too."
The Moneymancer was doing Bill no such favors. Benjamin kept his gaze locked straight ahead. "Charlie's a good guy. Charlie can't attack us," he said sourly. "According to Charlie, according to Bill."
The Dollamancer nervously shuffled his feet. "Well, he's sending you a copy of the contract. And, uh... some clips. For the rifle? Just as, like, a goodwill gesture. He said we can keep the rifle, even though it's stolen." He licked his lips and squinted at Caesar. "He might've already sent it. I guess I thought you'd be wearing the crown. Where is it? That's cool raiment, though. What's the pendant do? Um, can I come in?"