IPTSF Text 78
She was leading a single-city side, which was always a precarious position. They had a bunch of casters, but not much else. There were tactics to think of. Defenses. Even if they did raze this city and return to Faq, they had to protect it for the ten turns they’d need to pop their mounts.
Charlescomm, their likeliest adversary, had an unknown number of high-powered air units and an army of elves outside. The elves could be a problem. The Archons...they could handle the Archons if they prepared.
By day 3, Jillian possessed an up-to-date Battle Room, and a working defense plan.
Orwell had worked pretty hard, poring over Haffaton’s treasure trove of maps, taking his Chief Warlord’s directives seriously, despite the King’s insistence that Charlescomm was no threat. The Lookamancer set up two separate tactical maps, one of Efbaum’s internal defenses and the other of the surrounding 56 hexes and the High Elves’ positions and strengths. If he resented her for putting a sword through his guts, it didn’t show.
She’d only brought it up once, in jest. “I was Serving when I blinded you and you struck me down, and I am Serving now,” he’d told her with a shrug. “I bear no resentment, but I am uncertain of the lesson. I have much to meditate upon.”
The Court was still traumatized, but they were nothing if not philosophical about it.
Jillian put most of the rest of them to work spelling up the tower. Useful for a change, Rusty Trombone designed and directed the implementation of an interlocking array of spells that would draw on some of the magical disciplines they had to work from. He and Wanda talked about the city defense he had put up against her army. Although the fight was futile (with that stubby pagoda they called a tower), Faq still managed to get a few licks in. Christian Sidehug had apparently fallen, and been uncroaked in mid-battle to rejoin the fight.
It was a weirdly friendly and technical discussion that Jillian listened to with fascination. Even though attacking cities by air was her business, she learned a few things. How did a Croakamancer know so much about Shockmancy?
Wanda wasn’t looking too good, though. She kept that last, empty flower in her hair long past the time when it could be doing her any good. She was having trouble moving around. Jillian worried about her.
And of course, her own need for a flower never quite left her mind.
Five days after the battle, the Archons approached the Chief Warlord again. She’d ridden her high horse out to the northwest wall at sunset, to have a look at crenellating the battlements for casters, in case it came to that.
They played some kind of music as they drifted in from above; she didn’t know why. Maybe they were trying not to startle her.
“Had a chance to think it over?” asked Chynna, descending effortlessly from the orange sky.
“Yup,” said the Chief. “Lots of chances. And I passed every one up.” She turned her attention to the stone edge of the wall, taking a sight on one of the elves’ tents with an imaginary crossbow.
The Archons hovered there for a while. Jillian drew her sword in a purposely reckless arc and put the point into a mortarless crack between green bricks. As Chief Warlord, she willed the brick to come loose as she pried, then pushed it over the edge of the wall. It fell in the mud, twenty-three feet below. Spuck.
She took another sighting through the hole it left. Yeah, better.
“You missed an interesting council today,” said Chynna.
“Doubt it.” The Court met at council twice daily. Jillian hadn’t even attended once, but the Archons were sitting in. She tried not to think about the security damage that was probably causing.
“Olive was there.”
“He acknowledged that,” said the Archon, looking smug, knowing she’d gotten a reaction. Disband it. “But then he made a speech about ‘intellectual bravery’ and facing what you don’t want to. It was quite novel, and inspiring.”
The other two nodded.
The Chief turned back to the wall. “Yeah they’re into that crap.”
“It’s not crap,” said Carnie.
“Yeah, it is,” said Jillian, setting Three-Edged down on the wall and putting her hands against the brick. That was a lot of elves she was looking at. She had to imagine that Charlescomm was still footing their upkeep. How long would that go on? How long until they were free agents and might decide to attack this city on their own? The Archons would probably tell her if she asked, for a fee. “You can go away any time.”
“Olive was there because the Lady Firebaugh was under inquisition,” said Chynna, ignoring the comment. “Before the Court accepts her as a member, they wanted her to defend her discipline. They essentially made her answer for all of Croakamancy.”
Caster stuff, in other words. Club initiation. “So?”
“I don’t think she did very well,” said the Archon. “She seemed to be having trouble standing up.”
Jillian picked up her sword and turned around slowly, locking eyes with the hovering unit.
“The lack of buds is very dangerous for her,” said Chynna, her eyes narrowing. “We have an unlimited supply. The next time you have a chance to reconsider our offer, perhaps you’d care to think about her needs as well as your own.”
Wanda had her own suite in the tower, where she’d stayed whenever she was in Efbaum. It was similar in luxury to Judy’s, but on the ground floor.
She came to the door and unlocked it for Jillian. But in trying to open it, she fell.
“Strategically,” said the Lady Firebaugh, “you should only pop nine mounts. It would be wasteful of...time and resources.”
“You’re making the trip, Wanda.”
Jillian sat on the edge of the bed, wearing her armor, while Wanda shivered under the covers. She had helped the caster back into bed, and it was suddenly apparent how frail and close to croaking she really was. Lack of a flower was a constant point of agitation for Jillian. It made her yell at people and kick things. For Wanda, it meant the end was coming soon.
“I order you to live,” said Jillian. “Faq needs you.”
Wanda said nothing. Jillian looked around the room for water, or something else she could bring. Or anything she could do.
“I heard they raked you over the coals today,” she said. “Made you defend yourself for being a Croakamancer.”
The Chief smiled wryly. “I’ve been there. A lot. I have to defend my being a warlord every time I’m with them,” she said. “So how’d it go? Did you win or lose? I always lose.”
“I lost,” said Wanda distantly. “I suppose I always lose, too.”
“We should start our own side,” said Jillian. “Call it ‘Popped to Lose’ or something. You can be my Chief Croakamancer. We’ll pop the worst units possible.”
Wanda didn’t laugh, only shivered. The bed gently shook.
“Should I start a fire?” Jillian asked, after a minute or so. The room had a nice little hearth.
“There’s no firewood,” said Wanda. “She didn’t like burning trees.”
Jillian stood up, looking around the beautifully appointed room. “I’m sure I could burn something in here,” she said. She picked up a chair by the writing desk and held it up, ready to smash it to kindling. “How ‘bout this?”
“I can’t eat. Haven’t in two days.”
She sat down on the chair, watching Wanda shake and waste away. Then she stood up again, reached into her armpit, and began unbuckling her breastplate.
In her longjohns, Jillian lay beside Wanda, holding her hand like they’d done in the Garden, talking about any little stupid thing and trying to lend her some warmth and comfort.
She did not mention the big stupid thing until it got late.
Her internal battle had been fierce, but she’d finally decided that Wanda deserved to know about Charlescomm’s offer. Heroine buds still existed, and they could be had for a price. Jillian just wouldn’t pay it.
Wanda’s eyes had been halfway closed for an hour. Now they were alert and open, but she said nothing. Jillian felt guilty. What was her stubbornness costing now? Wanda’s life?
“Maybe...he’d, um... accept something else in return for buds,” she said lamely. “I can’t take the Deal.”
“No,” said Wanda, “don’t.”
“You don’t think so?”
“They are furious at you, at Court. They want the King to order you to sign. He refuses to.”
Jillian had wondered. “Huh. Why not?”
“Because you are Fated to be Queen of Faq after him,” said Wanda. “He respects the Ruler you will become. The Deal of a Lifetime would constrain Queen Jillian in a way that he does not feel privileged to impose upon her. Orders within his reign are one matter. He will not issue an order that will affect you in yours.”
“I... Wow.” She lay there in the dark, holding Wanda’s frail hand, trying to process that.
“You should not take the Deal...because you should not have any more of the buds. From this point, you can recover. I cannot. I have used them for too long.”
She squeezed Wanda’s hand. “How long have you got?”
“A turn or two, I think.”
“What about if you had some of the buds?”
“Fifty or sixty turns?” guessed Wanda weakly. “Not much longer than that. Likely not a hundred.”
Jillian shook her head on the pillow helplessly. How unfair was that? Where was the battle plan that let you fight your way out of that situation? Whatever the odds, there should at least be a fighting chance. For several minutes she turned it over in her head, looking for the flaw, the weak spot to punch through. Why couldn’t she just be outnumbered in the air? Why couldn’t this just be something she could fight?
“Jillian...” said Wanda.
“There’s something important. But there are things I can...no longer s—” the Croakamancer suddenly convulsed in pain.
“You...are you okay?”
Wanda shook her head, and clamped her hand over her own mouth, squeezing her eyes shut.
“Is it the Deal, doing this?”
Wanda almost, almost managed to nod.
“Okay, um...you need to tell me something but you can’t. That means it’s about Charlie.” She watched Wanda twitch, and started guessing wildly “He’s, uhh...got the buds. He’s growing them. What? He has them because...he needs them, too?” Wanda convulsed again.
“Yeah, in the trial you said that Olive used her Flower Power on him. So he uses them now, too, maybe? He figured out how to grow them on his own, so he could stay alive?”
Wanda curled up rolled over in the bed, unable to acknowledge a word.
“But no that can’t be true. He should have croaked by now. He would have started on them long before you did, right?”
Her eyes got wide.
“So maybe he’s got a way of coping with it. A cure?” She clenched her fist. There it was. Charlie did have something worth dealing for.
Something was keeping him alive. And whatever it was, she wanted it for Wanda.