IPTSF Text 37
Jillian’s shoulders slumped with relief. Something had been telling her to brace for an ugly surprise, because this situation was too good to be true. The weak garrison might explain how Haffaton handled its upkeep, but how could an empire so huge keep its cities this poorly guarded, unless they had some good tricks against invaders?
Eh, well...maybe it was reputation alone that kept their enemies from doing what she was doing right now. Haffaton was a giant, and giants are scary. People usually run away without testing them. The Kingdom of Faq was doing exactly that, when maybe they should be walking up and stabbing Haffaton right in the eye.
“Let’s take an hour or two to explore,” she ordered. The leadership stood together on the grass in front of the steps of the tower archway, savoring the victory. “Hedda, see what you can scrounge from the armory and smithy. Chip and Bart, find the stables and the larder and take on provisions. Take the best, because we’re wreckin’ the rest. But don’t let the troops get into the booze; we still have to fly this turn. I’ll poke around upstairs for maps and intel.”
“Heh. You just want to have a look in that tower,” said Hedda.
That tower. Jillian thought about the head she’d seen. Those eyes.
“No...no I really don’t,” she said, taking her apprehension and slapping a smirky mask of sarcasm over it. She lifted her face to the bright overcast sky, squinting at the tower top. “But it would bother me forever if I didn’t go up there. And, uh, have a look at whatever was looking at me.” She chuckled, with no humor to back it up.
Hedda had plenty of humor to go around. She showed her teeth and laughed like a jackal lantern, discovering some true hilarity in her Chief’s nervousness. She hadn’t looked in that window, though.
“Arright, shut up,” said Jillian.
“Would you like an escort, Chief Warlord?” said Bart Lightrail.
Bart rarely said anything, so it earned him all of their attention at once.
He pursed his lips self-consciously, looking around at each of them. “I’m curious too,” he shrugged.
Jillian’s mind immediately went somewhere she didn’t need it to go. In fact, it busted down the door of a padlocked room she’d been trying to keep it out of since they’d left home. Since they’d left Mount Pilot, even.
Oh, yeah? Would she like to go up in the tower with the tall, rock-ribbed Viscount of Kibo? Alone? Is that what he was asking? I’m curious, too...
She’d maybe hinted her interest to him a few times, but it was a difficult and dangerous thing. She didn’t want the other two warlords (or Titans forbid, the regular infantry) to know she liked the new guy. With the stakes so high, she couldn’t afford to undermine her leadership with any trail drama right now.
So far, self-discipline had been easy. Out in the field, they usually slept on their separate gwiffons. Nothing could happen at night. Sometimes they made a proper camp, with bedrolls and tents, but even then she was safe from any thoughts of converting her new warlord into a temporary mount unit. There was no way she could do anything with him in camp without Hedda and Chip and half the soldiers knowing about it.
Well, she wasn’t safe from the thoughts. But she was alone with those thoughts in her tent, employing the third edge of Three-Edged Sword, and that would have to do. That was a safe, drama-free place for her to be.
This tower, though. The tower was not a safe place. There were actual locked doors up there. And behind them, rooms. Rooms with beds in them.
“Eh, sure,” said Jillian, as casually as she could. Oh, crap, did she say it? Fine, she did. She was in trouble now. Was that voice too high to pull off casual? “But I’m not holding your hand if you get scared,” she sneered at him, then turned for the steps. Bart followed.
Hedda laughed wickedly as they climbed.
“Okay, you saw this thing too, didn’t you?” Jillian asked Bart, who was striding up the staircase in front of her. For the first few flights, just looking up the flaps of his long mail shirt and watching his buns work had been entertaining enough. But she was wasting her chance to strike something up, to get to know the man. To make the most of the alone time.
“I didn’t see it move, but I saw it,” said Bart, over his shoulder. Still climbing. Still scrunching and bunching. “I think it was a sculpture or a statue. Something decorative, perhaps.”
“You’re something decorative,” muttered Jillian under her breath.
“I, ah... It doesn’t look like they go for ‘decorative’ around here,” she said, nodding at the walls. That was true. The Signamancy of this city was dull, functional, industrial. Aside from the potted plants every floor or so, there was barely so much as a painting to liven the tower up. Nor was there much sign of recent occupancy. “I guess we’ll see.”
“Oh,” said her warlord. Maybe he’d heard her, and was disappointed. Or was that Jillian’s imagination? And why was she backpedalling, anyway? Why be subtle? When they got up to that penthouse, she could just order him to lose the armor...
Her boot kicked a stairstep and she stumbled, distracted by the thought.
He stopped and looked back. “Are you all right?”
Sheesh, what had gotten into her? Normally she could keep a better lid on this kind of thing.
“Yeah,” she said, climbing up the next step and nudging him forward with her shoulder guard and cheek. Ooh, his leg was warm. “Keep going, we got stuff to do.”
The door to the penthouse suite was locked and barred, but this was a Faq city now. Jillian was its mistress. Only her King could lock her out of a room in her own city.
“This looked like somebody’s bedroom,” said Jillian. “From the outside. Didn’t it?”
Bart stood at the doorway, quite close to her. “It’s your bedroom now, Chief.” His voice was low and quiet. Jillian couldn’t read him, but maybe...he looked a little hopeful. She liked being this close to him.
“That’s true,” she said. “So I guess I’m inviting you into my bedroom, then.”
Bart smiled. “There’s something I never thought I’d hear.”
“Oh yeah?” said Jillian. She became aware of her own pulse, right at the base of her neck. “Well...don’t get any ideas. There’s a monster in the room and it’s gonna get us, remember. I’m planning to throw you at it first.”
Bart nodded with his lips pursed in consideration. “That’s fair. You’re the Chief. I’ll try to be a satisfying meal so it’ll let you get away.” Okay, he was definitely flirting back.
“You ready?” she said, hand on the brass knob. “You wanna draw first?”
Bart shook his head. “It could be some kind of trap, I guess. But I doubt it’s anything we’d have to fight. It’s not a unit; we just took this city, didn’t we?”
Jillian smiled a bit. “Are you convincing me? Or yourself?”
The handsome man looked at her and smiled shyly back. “Probably neither. But let’s go in, Chief.”
Leaving her sword sheathed on her back, Jillian turned the knob, and felt the scrape of the wooden bar being raised. Her armor thunked against the door. She leaned in.
In the dimness, the eyes were the first thing she saw. She drew a breath sharply.
“Lights,” she said. Much like the bar upon the door had, the room responded to her order with natural Dirtamancy. It sparked up four or five powerballs, and the dim room revealed its secret.
The thing had eyes upon its head, but nothing else. No face. It wore a gown. Bart put his head into the doorway. His chin brushed Jillian’s hair.
“Augh,” she declared, and stepped immediately into the room. It was a bedroom, a nicely appointed personal suite. Jillian hardy noticed, but walked toward the thing in the corner.
“What is it?” asked Bart, following cautiously.
It was facing an enormous floor-length mirror. What she had seen from the window were its reflected eyes. The movement was probably her own reflection.
The dress it was wearing was incomplete, and not her style: a fine linen blouse wrapped in a brocaded surcoat and a leather corset. Something for a caster to wear, maybe. Or a courtier, in some court that wasn’t so hung up on equality as Faq’s. There was a Haffaton emblem embroidered on the bosom: the skeleton with the flower garland again.
Still, she had to admit it was a really pretty gown.
“It’s a Dollamancer’s mannequin,” said Jillian, stepping toward it. “I guess they must have a Dollamancer.”
The mannequin was made of burlap, with a detachable head that someone had painted elaborately realistic eyes on, but no other features. Jillian felt the sleeve of the dress, and could smell a faint perfume of flowers and wood. “Somebody didn’t finish what they started,” she mused.
Bart’s hand, warm and masculine, was suddenly resting on hers. She snapped her head around, wide-eyed. His face was right there.
“Somebody should,” he said, almost in a whisper. She couldn’t help but kiss him.
^1 Possibly a reference to Ender's Game, where Ender killed a giant in a training simulation by stabbing it in the eye.