When it came to sightseeing, nature walks, or even just leaving his air-conditioned apartment for any reason other than to acquire bagged snacks and sodas, Parson had to admit he had pretty much been Hamstard. He was fine with whatever cage he was in, even his dinky dorm room with the Thinkamancers.
But there was something about the Hippiemancers' Glade that struck him as incredibly pleasant and natural. For one thing, their section of the Magic Kingdom got all of the green, normal-looking trees. But it also smelled more like a forest here: earthy and grassy and leafy. There were bird chirps, crickets, frogs. He realized he had only seen a handful of different places in Erfworld, most of which were pretty artificial and odd-looking. This place felt like a state park campground or something.
So while he was no Nature Boy, it made him weirdly happy to be here. He didn't even mind all the snakes.
Janis Atlantis had prepared a giant cauldron of vegetable stew for the Gobwin Knob troops and commanders, and it was just about the best thing Parson had eaten since he was summoned. They hadn't just shown up unannounced; Maggie had Thinkagrammed ahead, and Parson explained that he wanted to march to the Glade precisely because he didn't want a fight. Janis said the Hippiemancers could keep it peaceful, and that she would personally keep Jojo from casting, as she had done to him down in the tunnel.
"What about Carnymancy?" Parson had asked her. "Do you think he could cheat his way out of that?"
"Not against me," was all she'd said.
They all sat in the grass around the gigantic technicolor flower called the "Lovin' Bloom," eating from wooden bowls with utensils that looked hand-carved, and not with the expert twollish fabrication Parson was used to seeing. Janis sat in front of the Bloom's huge pot, between Sizemore (who looked as contented as Parson had seen him since before Spacerock) and Jojo (who was uncharacteristically silent, intent on devouring his stew).
"Did you want to talk now, Jojo?" Parson asked, looking over at the hairy little man in the orange marching band outfit.
The Carnymancer shook his head, barely glancing up over his bowl. "In private, if you don't mind," he said. "As I mentioned, it's a personal matter."
Parson exchanged a meaningful glance with Janis, whose scrunch-mouthed, skeptical expression said, "oh don't let him get away with that, dear."
"I do mind," said Parson. "I want my team with me, and Janis. In fact, we might as well do it right now, right? So you want to know about Lady—"
"Up, up, upp!" barked Jojo, hastily dropping his spoon into his bowl to raise a warning hand. "Please, my friend! Have a care!"
In the end, they negotiated a sunset meeting in a little gazebo, with only Jojo, Parson, Janis and Maggie present. Parson's troops stayed out of hearing range, but within bowshot. Nobody was particularly pleased with the arrangement. Artemis and Downer objected strenuously and required a direct order to leave his side, and Jojo refused to have Maggie there about twelve or fifteen times before he finally relented. So Parson figured it must have amounted to a good compromise.
"Nobody on this side of the portal ever served with her," said Parson, after they'd settled in and gotten down to talking about Lady Sylvia, "but my impression was that Sylvia was, um..." How did you say 'crazy bitch,' politely? "Kind of raw. I mean, in our battles before Spacerock, she was like Wanda's personal attack dog. The enemy would usually put up something nasty in front of Ansom...a squad of knights or a heavy beast unit...and Wanda would just send Sylvia at it to make it not be a problem anymore."
Jojo nodded sadly. It was strange to see him drop the carnival barker routine. He was just sitting there, sedate and introspective, not often making eye contact. Janis held his hand as a precaution against him casting, but she also looked sympathetically toward him.
"She had a kind of smoldering anger," the little man said distantly. "Everyone around her felt the heat. But only the enemy got the full furnace-blast of it. She only was happy in battle, during those bare few moments when she didn't have to restrain her rage."
Parson leaned forward. "I...barely knew her, Jojo. What exactly did you want to know?"
He looked up, searchingly. "I need to know how she croaked."
"Fire, either way," said Jojo thoughtfully. "It shouldn't have been allowed."
Parson tried three or four different ways to parse that statement, none of which made any sense. "What shouldn't? Allowed by who?"
"How did the fire start, I wonder?" asked the Carnymancer, ignoring the questions.Parson shrugged. "I dunno. Nobody who saw it survived, except for red dwagons and they don't talk. But I mean, she was in command. And, you know...red dwagons."
Jojo peered at him. "You think she started the inferno intentionally?"
"I doubt it. With no move, that would've been suicide, pretty much," said Parson, thinking back to how close he'd come to dying in that blaze himself. You wouldn't set an inferno in a city you couldn't leave. "But in a big battle, with reds teaming with greens? Accidental fires were pretty likely."
Jojo narrowed his eyes. "Did you have any pinks? To put the fires out?"
Parson tilted his head. "Yeah, we had pinks."
Now the Carnymancer nodded knowingly. "She set it herself, I'd wager," he said. "She thought she was immune to fire."
Parson looked at Maggie. There were units that had an immunity to fire, like the red dwagons did, but he didn't think warlords could have that special. "Was she?" he asked.
Maggie raised an eyebrow. "It seems not, Lord."
Jojo smiled sadly, looking down into the purple flames in the firepit. These were only Foolamancy, of course; the firepit was a Changemancy apparatus like Janis' cauldron, which used powerballs as fuel. But Parson saw Jojo's face through the flames and remembered the soldiers who'd saved his life in the burning Portal Room, where Charlie had him trapped.
Jojo had been a part of that plan. He felt sorry for the guy, but he was keeping fact in the front of his mind.
"Why would she think that, Jojo?"
The Carny looked up at him. "Fate is so terribly tricky, my friend," he said. "I'll tell you. Really. The truth. So that you will understand what I said to you in the tunnel that day. There is free will. Fate can be fought. But it can also be bought. I struck a bargain with it, for Sylvia's life."
Parson glanced at Maggie, whose eyes were locked on Jojo as he spoke. "You can parley...with Fate?" he asked incredulously. "Is there...like a Fate hotline I can call or something, if I want to negotiate a prophecy?"
Jojo smiled. "Nothing that straightforward, I'm afraid. You see, I came to understand that Sylvia was Predicted to croak in the fire that I'd saved her from. You know that Carnymancy lies upon the axis of Fate, yes?"
"I used Carnymancy to subvert Fate's, ah...connection, or intention, or...the word simply doesn't exist. I did not 'parley.' I cast. It wasn't easy, but by casting over several turns, I swapped the stuff of Prediction around and subverted her destiny. I named a different agent of her destruction, arranging it so that she could not perish, as Fate wanted her to, in flames. This left a kind of hole in the Predictamancy. Sylvia could not perish in a way that would fulfill Fate's intentions, so it kept her alive. In all of those battles she fought, she must have noticed this happening, and thought that she was immune to danger. Especially fire."
"Huh." Parson thought it over. All those tough battles where she'd been unbeatable, with Wanda attributing it to Fate...if Jojo's story was true, then Wanda had been exactly right. "I guess coming back from the dead was her first clue," he said.
Jojo's eyes flashed. "Oh yes, indeed. When she croaked in flames at Gobwin Knob, Fate returned her as Decrypted. Quite a good cheat. An admirable hustle." His voice had gained back some of its lilt.
"But she finally did die, and in flames," said Parson. "So is Fate gonna find a way to bring her back from that again?"
Jojo's face fell, and he looked sad again. "No. And that is my fault, I think," he said. "I named, as agent of her destruction, the fair Lady Sylvia herself. I thought I was being clever."
There was a long silence, at the end of which Parson said, "You...wanted to doom your lover to commit suicide?"
Jojo raised his head and stared at Parson. "I wanted to preserve her from all harm," he said. "But you know, self-destruction is an act of free will, one we cherish here. It's something that sets us free casters apart from you. If ever she wished to end herself, then my bargain left her that power. For who am I to take it?"
"I never considered that overconfidence might lead her to recklessness, and to become the agent of her own end by fire," said Jojo softly. "So...Fate got what it wanted for her after all. It copped me good."
For more than a minute, nobody spoke. Parson considered again this idea of destiny as an active agent. Jojo thought he had "subverted" Sylvia's destiny, but in the end, hadn't he only added a layer of complication to it? When the time was right, the original Prediction came true, as well as Jojo's own.
"Then, um...maybe you can't fight it after all," he said at last.Jojo suddenly sat up, and found a bit of his barker persona. "Oh no! No, my friend! Fate is simply the ultimate Carnymancer. It doesn't play fair. And therefore, neither should we!"