"Jojo, I think if she ultimately burned up at Spacerock, then Fate won. You didn't." Parson said, surprised to find himself on the side of this argument where Wanda usually stood. "Do you ever actually win, in one of these bargains? Is that possible?"
The Carnymancer sat back and straightened his shoulders. "I'm told that you like to gamble, my friend. Or something similar. Is that right? You like to play games with dice."
On the bench beside Jojo, Janis looked at him curiously. Parson didn't think his interest in gaming was known outside of Gobwin Knob, so he frowned a bit as he nodded. It made him wonder how Jojo knew that (through Charlie, probably), and what else them might know. Maybe it was meant to make him wonder. "Sure."
"And how did you come by that affinity? Did you pop with it?"
In fact, he had taken up tabletop gaming at about age 9, when he'd checked out a Monster Manual from the public library. But maybe Jojo didn't know he was from a reality where grown-up people didn't just pop whole.
"It's hard to explain," said Parson. "It was an early interest, yeah."
"Stayed with you, didn't it?" said the Carny. "Your whole life. Even as you leveled."
Jojo took in a long breath. "When I pulled her from the fire at Powerstone, she was a stabber. An infantry unit. Do you know what that is like?"
Although Parson liked to talk with everyone, it was harder to connect with common soldiers. They had an ingrained military discipline that made them speak only in clipped responses to direct questions, and not much else. Come to think of it, it was kind of weird that Jojo had fallen in love with someone in the ranks.
"I remember being the low man on the totem pole, if that's what you mean," he said. But he knew that his being part-time fry cook or a counter guy wasn't really the same thing.
"A stabber wants to stab enemies," said Jojo. "If they have any ambitions, then of course they'd like to stab more enemies. The really forward-thinking ones might even dream of being promoted to warlord, so that they and the stabbers they are leading can stab lots and lots of enemies. It's an 'early interest' that stays with them. The ultimate good life for a stabber would be to become a warlord, and win great battles for their side, then to croak in action and end up at the City of Heroes."
Parson nodded, beginning to understand what Jojo was getting at. "You're saying that the victory conditions were met. Just delaying her Fate got her all of that, instead of being another dead stabber on the battlefield. You did win, in a sense."
The Carnymancer's eyes went sad. "Well. She won," he said, looking back into the flames. "She must have enjoyed herself very much, in those battles where she couldn't lose. I won that for her: her extra turns of happy life. But I never won, no."
Parson blinked in the purple firelight. "You never won...?""Her heart," said Maggie.
Parson turned and glanced at her, surprised that she had spoken at all. Maggie was performing a kind of Thinkamancy that Parson wasn't supposed to know existed, where she was memorizing this conversation for later review. But the "recording" extended to channels Parson didn't understand: part video and sound, part polygraph, part... something deeper that sounded empathic or mind-readish. It required her full concentration, so he'd been trying not to involve her too much in the discussion.
"Indeed," said Jojo to Maggie. "Love is also a magnificent hustle, isn't it? It's another way the world does not play fair. Maybe the worst way."
He looked at the Thinkamancer for a long moment, then seemed to snap himself out of his reverie.
"So! Victory conditions. What a fine phrase! Yes, how can we cheat Fate well enough and long enough to call it a win? For that's all it can be. No-one lives forever. That's just not a prize one can win at this table, is it?"
One of the questions that had never been answered to Parson's satisfaction was whether or not Erfworld units could die of old age. It was apparently unknown for a unit or Ruler to spontaneously croak without cause, but that didn't mean it couldn't happen.
Jack had given him the most complete answer he thought he was going to get, which was that units which stayed useful and well-regarded would maintain their youthful Signamancy indefinitely, but doing so required them to serve some important function for their side. When a unit's talents were wasted, or they "caused some lingering harm" to their side, then their Signamancy gradually deteriorated to the point where they became feeble, diminutive, bloated, or otherwise outwardly begging to be disbanded by an alert Ruler. With Rulers, the decay in Signamancy could lead to the kinds of madness or infirmity which made their side a ripe target for conquest. For this reason, Jack did not believe that there were any units alive who were more than fifty or a hundred thousand turns old, and certainly none from the original 99 sides of Erfworld. The rules were a little different here, but everybody died in Erfworld, too.
"Yeah, I guess not," said Parson.
"Then what is your prize? What do you wish to accomplish, while you live?" asked Jojo. "When you pick up your dice and roll them, gambler, what is it you are trying to win?"
Now it was the Chief Warlord's turn to stare down into the flames, in silence.
In the short term, he knew he wanted to do his job and clean up the diplomatic mess Stanley had left... consolidate Gobwin Knob's gains, and break the unified front of their enemies. But that wasn't the question. Jojo was asking what he wanted from his whole life.
"I dunno," he shrugged, after a while.
"I suspect you just don't want to say," said Jojo, smiling. "Which would be wise. Look at the three people you are seated with. Each of us would want you to answer that question in a different way. Janis would be overjoyed if you said you want to bring peace to Erfworld, to stop all this fighting. Maggie would want you to say, 'I'm out to destroy Charlie.' And I," he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "would want almost anything but that."
Parson chuckled, as did Janis. She had a musical laugh. Maggie was silent.
"Charlie is my benefactor," said the Carnymancer with a shrug. "But I think it is that. I think you are out to destroy him, because you need to prove that you're the smartest player at the table. You need that very much, Parson Gotti. The way Sylvia needed to slay her enemies in combat, you need to outsmart every opponent. That's what makes you happy. Your 'early interest.' Isn't that right?"
Parson went poker faced. "You can think what you like, Jojo."
"Assume I'm correct. In that case, you should also know that Fate has likely designated you for that very task. You may well be Predicted to defeat Charlie," said the Carnymancer darkly. "This means two things for you. First, that if Fate is on your side, then your victory won't mean anything. It won't mean you were smarter. It will just mean you won a rigged game."
"Jojo..." Parson gave a little grunt of exasperation. "I'm kind of past treating Erfworld as a game, arright? It's not. It's people's lives. Since I'm Chief Warlord, I'm responsible for them. If the battles are rigged in my favor, then good. It means more of my guys get to stay alive."
"Second," said Jojo, ignoring Parson and reclaiming his momentum. "if beating Charlie is your destiny, then that is the last thing you should ever do. Indeed, it may be the last thing you ever will do; Fate will be finished with you, as soon as you have won. How long will you live, after that?"
Parson squinted at him. "You're assuming my victory conditions, and then trying to get me to change them."
"If anything, Parson, I am trying to get you to get up and leave the table," sighed Jojo, "because the game of Erfworld is horrible and rigged. It cannot give you what you really want. You really have no business playing here."
"Leave the table?" asked Parson, raising an eyebrow. Then it clicked. "Oh, the spell.""In fact, Fate does not always win," said Jojo. "If you stay here, Fate will force you, by circumstance, to fight Charlie. But if you use the spell to go back home, then you will break the Prediction. You will actually have cheated Fate." Now his barker's grin broke out in full, his teeth shining purple as if lit by blacklight. "How does that strike you as a victory condition?"
^ Turn:year conversion Fifty thousand turns is just shy of one hundred and thirty-seven years (136.89) and hundred thousand would be roughly two hundred and seventy-three (273.78).