Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 3
By BakaGrappler (Tipped by 1 person!)
The rest of the walk to the tower was uneventful. Everclear had many open spaces covered with grass that doubled as training fields and as recreation areas. The Chief Signamancer once called them "parks," Grey believed. And throughout most of them the side's units were practicing, often against each other to simulate real combat, but using safer padded weapons that would sound with a boff every time a unit was struck to allow longer training periods. But in the park just before the courtyard some units were exercising the side's heavies, the Were-Woofs, by throwing branches or balls a far distance and having the heavy units retrieve them in a repeated pattern that only ended when the Woofs grew bored of the activity. In fact one of the Woofs approached Grey near the gates. Pure white fur with a black circular blotch over one eye, named Patches, Grey thought. Even though the bipedal unit was larger than him it's eyes seemed vulnerable and begging.
With a sigh, Grey tossed his apple core over a shoulder, where it disappeared in mid air, and held his hand out to receive the red ball in Patches' mouth. Taking it into his hand, it was more slimy than he'd expected, but Grey still threw it hard and long, and the big hairy Woof took off running after it, bounce after bounce.
"Ugh," uttered Brink in disgust as Grey shook a gobbit of slime from his hand. Grey was pretty much in agreement and washed his hands off at a fountain spout close to the garrison's main gate before entering. Inside was an open air courtyard, large enough to house a small army, luxuriating in the open space with turreted hard points growing almost organically from the walls at every fifty paces on the wall top. And in the center of the parade ground stood a great fountain with an ornate base covered in carvings showing the Battle for Everest, the pinnacle of the violence and turning point of the Everlong War, the battle where Everclear's Healamancer Mother Wrappings was croaked while preserving the command stack until the Knighthood could annihilate the Hickson's left flank and come to the relief of the center. Grey could see the image of the Caster, and the units surrounding her, covered nearly from head to toe in her Magic Item bandages. Losing her had been a great blow, but the Hicksons had lost their Dirtamancer in that battle, which cost them the war.
And the central pillar of the fountain showed mounted Bluebirds flying up its base, or sitting resting on a crawling mass of thorny rose vines, the same as the emblem which sat on Everclear's livery; a few blooming roses that sat on a grey tangle of thorn covered vines, all on a field of green. An emblem of something beautiful, but also deceptively dangerous. And at the top, is a great flowering rose, in gilt gold, as water poured over the sides in a steady stream.
Grey reflected quietly about how the entire city was like this while rounding the fountain and walking toward the tower's main entrance. How the capital was filled with tiny pieces of masterful artistry, each one a tiny part of a larger whole of interwoven imagination given form, because once the Chief Signamancer had finished sculpting the form and layout of the capital itself, he'd turned his spare time to reworking all the tiny parts he could manage. He was probably still working on half a dozen projects around the city, even now.
Well, not right now, because the Chief Signamancer was the one who just skip strode down the stairs from the gated garrison entrance, calling out. Instead of replying right then, Grey approached the Chief Signamancer until he was within a respectable distance and said politely, "It is very good to see you again, Chief Signamancer." More for Brink's sake than for the Chief Caster's, since the fairly stiff Brink minded these things.
Chief Signamancer Artakis however, did not. You only needed to take one look at him to see that he wasn't much one for authority, even his own. His hair was toned bright blond through Signamancy, he wore short sleeved shirts and loose fitting trousers of a sturdy blue twilled cotton. And on his arms was a type of permanent Signamancy that Artakis called "ink," forming images that either stood alone or wove in and out of each other to form a collage on the backdrop of a living unit's form. A Signamancy that Artakis changed on a regular basis. Artakis was a very relaxed unit, but one of vision, drive, and unusual passions. Grey still remembered the turn he'd been introduced to the Chief Signamancer, as he'd introduced himself in a voice that held both pride and rebellious spirit with the words, "I am Artakis," before following up with a mellow, "but call me Art."
"Oh, yeah," said Art, remembering they were in front of others. "You're dismissed to... do whatever. Come with me, Grey."
Art quickly led Grey into the tower and towards the ascending stairway. Nothing was in the tower's dungeon other than Woof kennels, prison cells, storage, and cellars for larder usage. The portal for the Magic Kingdom was also down there, but the Casters were the only units it mattered to. But going up the tower did nothing to narrow down the myriad questions of why he was summoned to the capital. So he asked his questions.
"Say, Art, why was I ordered here? Are you the one I'm suppose to see?"
"Huh? Oh, no, Shindig and the Princess both wanna see you. But they're still in a meeting with Dame Montoya and Bookkeeper Dewey about- well, whatever, I tuned out Dewey pretty quick. Shindig asked me to keep you entertained until he was free. Shindig wants to talk about what's happening himself."
"And what's happening?"
"That's fer Shindig to tell you, Grey," said Art playfully.
"Oh," said Grey a little disappointed. But this was a good opportunity for the second most pressing question on Grey's mind, now that Duty was put on hold. "So, uh... Could you do something about my, -uh, ink?"
"With your what?"
"My ink. The ink you gave me. Last time I was here, after the feast."
"Oh, yeah!" Art laughed to himself a bit. "You got pretty wasted that night."
Grey turned a shade red in embarrassment. It's true he'd gotten completely plastered, but then again Everclear's specially brewed alcohol bearing the side's name was incredibly potent, despite being as clear as water. "Yeah, yeah I did. But, uh, that's not what- Look, do you remember giving me some ink that night?"
"Oh, yeah. You were pretty serious about getting inked up. Real specific on the design, too. Can barely remember what it was, though, I was pretty well sloshed myself. Why?"
"Well, I was kinda wondering if you could... uh... remove it?"
Art stopped dead, the light of the wide open windows beaming across his face as he turned with a shocked expression, and asked, "You don't like my work?"
"Oh, no, no, no! The thorn band on my arm is great! No, no... I just... well, I don't think I really knew what I was asking you to put on my chest that night. Seeing as how I was drunk and-"
Art's laughter broke Grey's train of thought in half, leaving him standing there speechless until Art had collected himself again. "Titans, you're an easy mark, Grey. I've been expecting this question since I put that ink on ya. Just bad luck you were ordered out of town the next morning before you sobered up right and remembered it."
Art then quickly turned a corner and into his very well lit living quarters, which doubled as a studio. Stepping inside the large one room studio apartment, Grey picked up where the conversation had left off.
"Wait, you remember the- why did you even give it to me if you knew I wouldn't like it!"
"Like I said, you were pretty forceful about getting that ink. Not my call to say what art people should put on their bodies, I just give it to 'em. And the answer is no, I can't remove it, not this turn at least."
Crestfallen, Grey asked, "Why not?"
Art snatched a round contained and threw it side handed at Grey, who caught it in mid air. "Cause I used my juice to make you some more make up. Thought you might be running low."
Grey was grateful, it's useful makeup, indispensable to the side. But he was really hoping to get his ink removed. He'll have to take a rain check on "catching up" with Lydia until it was gone or he'd never live it down.
"That, and I was finishing up a commission all morning. Took most of my juice to get just right."
With that, Art cocked a thumb at the easel on the far side of the room and walked over to it. Grey naturally followed. There was a finished painting on the easel, as tall as a unit and then some made out of some kind of black fabric as a background. On it was a Titan in all his glory, on a stage apparently, perhaps singing some Rhyme-A-Mancy, and his arm was around the shoulders of someone he didn't recognize. A warlord definitely, perhaps a noble from the bearing and dress, but a stranger. And down the Titan's face were streaming tears. Grey tilted his head trying to understand the picture, but no matter how he looked at it all of Grey's thoughts ended up with the same opinion. Complete garbage. And his face showed that thought.
"I know, right," said Art, not as a question. "Completely tasteless. But the King of Kitsch had his Moneymancer commission me to make it, to honor his croaked son Nicknack, that's him the Titan is crying for. The entire thing is crap, but they paid five thousand Shmuckers up front, the rest on delivery, so who am I to argue. In fact, it was then I'd heard about the relay system. What did you think of it?"
Five thousand up front? That's a lot of upkeep. Art was pretty good about supporting the Side through his craft like- wait, relay?
"That was you? The Bluebird mount switching was you?"
"Naaaaaw, I'd only heard about that in the Magic Kingdom. Apparently some side way to the west started doing that and the Mathamancers and Moneymancers have been arguing about cost and logistics of the thing. And when Shindig said he needed you here quick, I thought, hey, why not give it a try! So, what did you think?"
"Well... it was useful. But only for small numbers. But if King Shindig agreed to test it today... then is what's happening bad enough to warrant it?"
"Oh, Grey," said Art, turning serious. "It's worth the relay and more. I'm not sure where we stand exactly, but I can tell you this. The Side is in trouble."
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.