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).