"How is she broken again?"
Parson kept his voice low, because Jack had asked him to, but he had the distinct urge to pick up the Croakamancer and shake her. Wanda sat on the throne, stiff and motionless. He leaned over the chair arm, trying to peer through the black veil that covered her eyes. He wasn't sure, but he thought they were wide open. "She's like my car."
"I don't know if we've seen her precisely like this," said Jack. "Although, perhaps I have…"
Parson pushed on his knees and stood up straight. "Maggie, what's her deal?" he asked. "Can you help her snap out of it?"
They sat on the carpeted stairs, talking in whispers that evaporated into the vast, airy space of the Throne Room.
At first, Parson didn't understand Jack's explanation at all. The guy had a way of talking around things, using a lot of words to say almost nothing, when he wasn't comfortable with the company he was in. As soon as he'd realized that's what was happening, Parson dismissed Sizemore and Ace. Jack still threw a few regretful glances at Maggie, but he seemed to accept that she needed to be there and to hear the story.
"Right," Parson nodded. He'd heard Jack's account of the agreement once before. "To cure their Flower Power addiction or whatever."
"Well, in Sister Wanda's case, the procedure certainly saved her life," said Jack. "And perhaps in Princess Jillian's as well. But what I may have neglected to tell you was that the Princess was profoundly altered by it."
Parson tilted his head. "Altered how?"
"Personality," said Jack darkly. "She was not herself again for a very long time. Drastic changes of self, which I believe was a deliberate sabotage of her mind," he looked at Maggie, "by means of the Arkendish."
Jack locked eyes with Maggie and continued speaking directly to the Thinkamancer he'd been mentally bound to for all those dozens and dozens of turns. As we all know, the link-up can do terrible things to a person. I'm telling you that the 'dish has given him some understanding of that state, some facility for Thinkamancy that goes beyond what even you might know of."
Parson mashed his lips together in thought, then looked back over his shoulder at the throne. "So you think he's using the Thinkamancy connection between Wanda and the Archon to worm his way into Wanda's brain right now?"
"I don't know," said Jack. "It's one possibility. Another is that Sister Wanda is doing battle with him right now, with the battlefield being the prisoner's own mind."
Parson put his chin to his chest, staring down at the long red carpet that stretched away into the middle distance. His Chief Caster, Gobwin Knob's greatest single military asset, might be engaged in a silent battle just a few feet behind him right now. Or she might already be compromised.
"Or she might just be observing," he said, by way of putting all possibilities on the table. Maggie nodded.
Jack looked grim. "True," he said. "She could be observing Charlie's work, as he mentally plumbs and prods our prisoner."
"And… programs," Parson added to Jack's string of alliteration.
"He may not know that he is being observed," said Maggie. "Lady Firebaugh may require this stillness and trance to avoid detection."
"Or she may need immediate help," said Jack. "We can't know which."
Parson pivoted on his ass and looked up at the unmoving Croakamancer. She had the Arkenpliers in her lap, gripping them tightly. So what was she doing in there? Was she an outgunned commander in need of reinforcements? Or a scout whose cover they desperately needed not to blow?
"We're under truce with Charlescomm," he said. "He can't do her any material harm or he pays us a million Shmuckers. For that matter, I don't think he can harm the prisoner. I think she still counts as our unit."
"Are you sure," said Jack, "that slicing and splicing up her mind would be considered a 'material' harm?"
Parson looked at him, not sure which 'her' he meant. He guessed it didn't matter. "No. I'm really not. I'd have to look at the contract again, but I don't think it's defined."
"In any event, if Charlie sees more than a million Shmuckers' worth of value in removing Mistress Wanda," whispered Jack, glancing at the throne, "he would certainly take the opportunity."
Maggie also looked up toward Wanda. Her gray face was stony, but her body was tensed, as if she wanted to sprint up the stairs to her aid. "A majority of our units are Decrypted, Lord. If she is croaked, we do not know what would become of them." She turned back to Parson with focus and purpose. "The side could not replace her for a million Shmuckers. Perhaps not a billion."
The Decrypted Jack nodded his profound agreement.
Parson folded his fingers and put his hands on the crown of his head, staring out into space. The decision to let Maggie cast on Wanda, he had made already. That was an easy one. If the worst case was that Charlie became aware of Wanda's spying ability, then that would be a crappy outcome, but livable. But the potential downside of letting Charlie keep Wanda in a trance was too big a risk. He just needed one more moment to work something else out…
"Okay," he said after almost a full minute, during which they'd attended in silence. He took his hands off his head and leaned forward, toward Maggie. He looked her in her earnest, pink eyes. "Light touch. All right? Go in carefully, sneakily. Don't do anything until you know what's going on. If she's okay, then sneak back out. If she's not…"
He leaned in even farther, dropping his voice to the barest whisper, and focusing his intentions in the form of an order. "Well, it goes both ways. Link up with her if you can. Focus your combined will on the prisoner, like we did with Ansom. See if you can break her out of there. And if you see a chance… I mean, a real chance… then truce or not, I want you to go for Charlie."
Jack straightened suddenly, as if taken aback. But if Maggie was at all surprised at the order, it didn't show.
Parson put his hands on his knees, preparing to stand, and added, "I mean if we croak him, we don't have to pay him the million bucks, right?"Maggie's eyes narrowed predatorily. "True, Lord."