Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 23

Part 23: A nice Ring to it

 

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Few other than Courtiers appreciated the hidden life of rumors. Infantry, warlords, casters, even rulers seldom gave stock to how such tiny, frail things could become so powerful; like a candle blazing into an inferno. Light a single match, set it on dry grass, give the flame some time to spread, and even a reputation as towering and strong as a redwood could be burned up in the space of a turn.

 

This was mostly due to the subtle, delicate, and intricately related nature of politics within a Side.

 

The balcony over the ballroom rang with an accusation, lighting the flame. «Lady Selena is slipping.»

 

A hushed conversation in the foyer buzzed with speculation and fanned the fire. «She’s getting sloppy, falling in love, she was coasting on Transitioning already disloyal units.»

 

Pillow talk in a Warlady’s chambers added some truth, lies and conjecture to fuel the fire. «She’s only hired, you know. She’s playing Boss Hugo. She’ll step through the portal once her purse is full.»

 

A seditious idea was shared on the benches of the Dance Fighting Studio, showing the fire had started to spread to other city zones. «Prisoners with clients, a Turnamancer not doing her job, and we’re losing cities. This is bonkers. I think the higher ups, even the Boss, are starting to fall behind the trends.»

 

And every Turn that Marco held on, only made the rumor fire get closer to Inferno status.

 

Until, one turn, Boss Hugo had had enough.

 

---------------

 

«Is all this really necessary, May?»

 

Marco was making a face and having a hard time holding still as the manservants went about dressing him in a new set of raiment.

 

It was a much simpler affair than his pilfered uniform, and for Banana Republican warlords in general, but he enjoyed the comfort and freedom of movement it granted. It consisted of knee length socks, somewhat baggy shorts, and a long sleeved shirt, all in banana blue and yellow.

 

The shoes were giving the manservants a hard time. While comfortable for running, the long laces were a hassle.

 

He was nervous. The plan was for Ray to defect in the predawn hours today, but he’d have no way of knowing if he succeeded before meeting up with Lady Bobbie or the Colonel to get the latest gossip.

 

May was standing to the side, grinning a bit at his discomfort. «I’m afraid so. Most warlords and courtiers have to pay or trade to get new duds, being gifted a set is a sign of incredible achievement, even if it is from a newly popped clothier. Not wearing it would be much worse than disrespectful… it would be tacky.»

 

Marco’s expression didn’t change, but he stopped fussing and let the manservants go about their work, only to ask her. «And this morning assembly, what’s it all about?»

 

May put on a diplomatic smile. «It’s an official Transitioning ceremony. For warlords who have finally decided to turn.»

 

Marco raised an eyebrow, flexing his hands inside the white gloves that came with the raiment. They were thin, but like the knee length socks, padded to reduce blunt attacks. He thought they were actually pretty handy; he could wear and hide the Finder Keeper ring on his right hand under them. «Really? But I thought Selena had been focusing her efforts pretty much exclusively on me these past turns, I didn’t think anybody else’d be ready to turn.»

 

Her smile went brittle, and she sat down on the bed. «That’s true, Marco. That’s… I think that’s rather the point of it.»

 

Marco’s heart skipped a beat. So, today would be the day.

 

He gave May a carefree, joking smile. «Well, they should have thought to ask me first, because I’m not quite ready to--»

 

«Marco, please.» May held her head in her hands, her inferno-colored hairdo pointing at Marco’s heart.

 

The pair of manservants dressing Marco stopped what they were doing, and Marco gave them a meaningful look. They took the hint and stepped out of the suite.

 

Once they had left, May Day looked up, real anguish on her face. «This has never been done before. Not for a unit who hasn’t already agreed to Transition. Never for one whose held out so long. I don’t know what they’re planning, they wouldn’t tell me. I’m afraid, Marco.»

 

«I’m not going to turn if they ask me to, May.»

 

She stood up from the bed, pressing her lips together in frustration before shouting. «You… you have to! I think they might croak you if you refuse!»

 

Marco’s rueful, apologetic smile came naturally. He’d really come to appreciate May’s concern. «You know me, May. I don’t do things just because they’re safe or easy.»

 

There was an unfairness in their exchange. He’d been making his peace with today for several turns; with the very real possibility of croaking. But all May had seen was Marco upend convention and resist Transitioning, all while masterfully using that to gain rather than lose status at court.

 

He’d even been taking her advice on how to use his social capital. For all she knew, he’d been holding off as part of a scheme, not as a croak wish.

 

And the way May’s expression went from anguished to angry, it was like seeing someone rip a rule book in two over some unfair stipulation.

 

«Well then you’re going to the assembly without me, because I-- I don’t want to see you croak! There, I said it! It’s stupid, you’re stupid! And if you don’t want to listen to me, then… then you can just find yourself another Transitioning Facilitator!»

 

She was halfway to the door when Marco called after her. «Thank you, May. You’ve been a good friend.»

 

May stopped, hand tightly gripping the door handle.

 

She tilted her head forward and drew in her shoulders, speaking with increasing fragility «I’ll-- I’ll send the manservants back in. You-- should look your best.»

 

But what she didn’t do, was look back as she opened the door and stepped through.

 

------------------------

 

It was midmorning, and the sky over Inname Only was mostly misty, with no sun in sight but most of the nearby jungle visible.

 

This was the first time Marco was in the “i” of Beholder Tower. The tower had an entire floor dedicated as a ballroom / Throne Room, with a blue granite floor and two huge circular windows that let in the diffuse morning sunlight and allowed a peerless view of the surrounding hexes.

 

The entire court was present, lining both sides of the ballroom along a yellow carpet leading up to the throne.

 

The band was there, stationed overhead on a balcony and playing the Banana Fana Hosanna sans words, giving the gathering a festive feel much at odds with the anticipation and slight dread Marco was feeling.

 

Marco walked up the carpet, with Tiff and Annie on either side of him. He smiled and nodded to the courtiers on both sides of the aisle, even passing Lady Bobbie and Colonel Dijon. Most smiled back, but a few that were just behind view had wickedly gleeful expressions, no doubt expecting something to go amusingly awry today.

 

Well. Marco hoped he wouldn’t disappoint.

 

He looked ahead, and up on a seven step dais was Boss Hugo on his throne, smiling with supreme satisfaction. Faustina was standing to his right, a perfectly manicured serene smile on her face. Selena, Elvie, and two warlords stood to either side of the pair. The former looking much the worse for wear.

 

There was no sign of Ray up there, but that didn’t mean much.

 

A footman indicated for Marco to stop when he got to the front of the aisle before the dais.

 

Boss Hugo stood up from his throne and addressed the crowd, with the voice amplifying gem on his uniform lighting up. «Friends, subjects, thank you for coming this morning for this glorious event! Today, we will witness the newest addition to the Banana Republic!»

 

Everyone cheered and Marco barely managed to resist raising an eyebrow.

 

Boss Hugo went on jovially. «I’m sure you’ve all heard of how very well Lieutenant Marco Voyager has meshed with our side, indeed, it’s a wonder this day has been so late in coming!»

 

The crowd laughed good naturedly, and even a few cheers and well wishes rose up.

 

«And as befits someone who has refused our normal invitations and Selena’s ample talents at Turnamancy--» Marco knew he heard a distinct murmur in the crowd behind him at the Overlords very subtle tone of impatience there «-- it’s only fitting we make a very unique offer this turn.»

 

A door opened to the right of the dais, and a man in a Tar Zhay General’s uniform stepped out.

 

A reflexive jolt of panic raced through Marco’s back, he sucked in his gut at the memory of the beating he’d gotten at General Franco orders.

 

After a closer look, he breathed out a small sigh. He didn’t recognize this general. He was portly, taller than Franco, had a medium tan, and was sporting a very impressive Van Dyke beard. Marco conned him and it was true, this was a General from Tar Zhay! But-- what in the Titan’s chamber pot was he doing here?

 

The General walked midway up the dais steps followed by his own set of escorting knights, too far for Marco to try and run over to repatriate. The general cleared his throat and boomed out like a drill instructor to be heard by everyone present. «Good day, your Overlordship, Lieutenant Voyager, and assembled lords and ladies! I am General Tso of Tar Zhay. It pleases me to come before you with an offer of peace.»

 

Unexpectedly, the crowd went wild. Marco actually turned to see some of the screaming courtiers behind him, he’d have expected they’d be disappointed at anything short of the total destruction of Tar Zhay.

 

General Tso waited for the crowd to quiet down before he went on. «On behalf of our Emperor, the Komissar council has been in consultation with Boss Hugo, and terms have been reached to end this conflict.»

 

He turned and looked squarely at Marco. «And one of those terms, lieutenant Voyager, is your turning to the Banana Republic.»

 

The bottom fell out of Marco’s stomach, and his vision went momentarily blurry at the sides. The crowd yelling wildly wasn’t helping as disorientation set in… a very familiar kind of disorientation.

 

He looked up and noticed Lady Selena wasn’t in her spot by the dais.

 

«So Lieutenant, it is with much satisfaction that I must now order you to Turn to the Banana Republic.» General Tso’s order could not have been more absolute. But focusing on it, something was missing. He got a flash of rhetorical insight, and shrugged off the Turnamancy/Order combo with a mental Judo Throw.

 

He evened his breathing and looked Tso in the eyes without blinking, and smiled. «Of course sir, I would be happy to! But please, forgive my stubbornness for details; I’ve been out of the diplomatic loop for some time. I really must see the signed treaty first before I turn.»

 

The happy murmuring behind Marco started to turn down, until it went croaking quiet.

 

«Sir?»

 

«The treaty is being penned as we speak, and it would be… unwise for Tar Zhay to show ingratitude at this juncture.» Tso improvised admirably, but compared to the Banana Republic’s court, his lies were amateur at best.

 

Looking at Boss Hugo, his magnanimous smile hadn’t wavered, he wasn’t bothered by the refusal. He must have another card up his sleeve.

 

What’s more, and most importantly, Marco hadn’t sold Hugo on his willingness to turn yet. Hadn’t gotten him to lower his guard.

 

Marco spoke to Boss Hugo loud enough to also address the crowd. «Begging your Overlordship’s indulgence, what’s a few more hours of waiting? Your hospitality thus far has been most kind.»

 

General Tso hid a nervous glance at Boss Hugo. After that initial blast of Turnamancy / Order, and thinking about it, there was a good chance Tso was another of the traitors.

 

Overlord Hugo gestured to a footman stationed by the door on the right, and two knights came in. One carrying a box, and the other, a very familiar bound caster.

 

Hugo’s voice carried the kind of deep satisfaction of a Sleeping Lion cornering its prey. «Time, lieutenant, is not on Tar Zhay’s side.»

 

He gestured again with a casual wave, and the knight leading the bound and bruised Ray knocked him onto the floor to the court’s vast amusement. Ray grunted, but refused to scream in pain, which was a feat given the bruises on his face. Marco tried to make eye contact, but it was difficult considering he’d lost his glasses and one of his eyes was swollen.

 

«Your plot with Ray Darr was foiled by one of my loyal casters.» And here Boss Hugo turned and smiled at Elvie, who looked like she wanted to be anywhere else but here. «It was naive of you to think no one would, or could be watching through that amateurishly made Crow’s eyes. And wouldn’t you know it, she saw someone you may be familiar with through it.»

 

The box-carrying knight knew a cue when he heard it, and opened the box, dumping out the contents and… oh Titans.

 

It was Zheng’s severed head.

 

It was half decayed, and pieces of his Navatari spear tumbled out behind it.

 

Marco collapsed on the floor.

 

Boss Hugo was taking leisurely steps down the dais.

 

«You see, Lieutenant, the cost of waiting? It costs lives. Sides. Family.»

 

Hot tears streamed down Marco’s cheeks. He tried to reach for the head, only for Boss Hugo to cut him off and stand in front of his brother’s remains.

 

«Your plan to have Ray defect, and your allies rescue you, has instead led them right into my hands. Your little caster friend, the Luckamancer? She’s eluded us for now, but her Luckamancy can’t hold out forever. While I would certainly like to capture her and let her Transition into the Banana Republic, I can’t guarantee her safe capture.»

 

The overlord leaned in close to Marco’s ear and whispered. «Or her quick croaking if you keep being difficult.»

 

Hugo took a half a step back, and Marco felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked back and saw Selena behind him, a look of abject failure on her face.

 

He knew she was working her Turnamancy on him still, felt as though the pillars of his heart and soul had just shattered. He stopped resisting and let the Turnamancy tide rush over and through him...

 

«Now, lieutenant. You have one last choice to make. Will you turn?»

 

Marco sniffled, and got on one knee, putting his hands before his mouth and subvocalized a prayer.

 

When boss Hugo offered his hand, Marco took it in his own gloved one. He moved in to kiss the blue sapphire ring… when he pulled his hand back and stood up, Selena’s own hand sliding off his back.

 

… he let the tide of Turnamancy rush past and away from him. Let it carry away the grief and guilt of his failure, for him to pick up in all its hideous glory another turn.

 

«Please, if I… if I may… I’d like to thank you before the court, before I...»

 

Boss Hugo chuckled, wearing an expression half self-satisfaction and half condescension.

 

«Oh, by all means.»

 

Marco turned to address the crowd and clasped his hands together, manacles clanking. He marshaled up all his feels and let himself be carried forward by those emotions. «I was a good soldier, choosing my battles.»

 

He lowered his hands, removing the gloves as unobtrusively as he could while he spoke. «When I was caught, I picked myself up, and got back in the saddle.»

His speaking cadence moved at an even tempo, too slow for most to notice. «When you're on the front line, everyone's watching.»

 

In the crowd, he could see a few confused courtiers look up towards the band in the balcony, no doubt curious about the stray notes they were faintly hearing. «You know it's serious. Choice getting closer.»

 

The gloves came off, and he slipped on the lynchpin of Plan B on his middle finger.

 

Once the gloves hit the ground, Marco pushed all his feelings of hope, defiance, and freedom into what he sang next. «This isn’t over!»

 

And all at once, the saucy Samba music he’d been keeping below audible volume blared out in joyful reverberation. He swayed his shoulders and hips in the Prisoner Dance that the Capo and he had discovered, and which he’d chosen to name after his croaked mentor.

 

Marco was dancing the Capoeira!

 

He dropped low, sweeping his foot in a circular arc that knocked Boss Hugo, Tiff and Annie off their feet. He didn’t wait, using the kick’s momentum to spin-jump onto Hugo and use his manacles as an improvised garotte.

 

The crowd’s shrieks actually rose over the music as he made contact with the Overlord’s neck and started choking him for all his worth, all while singing merrily. «The pressure’s on! You feel it?»

 

Unable to reach for his saber and hold Marco back, Hugo nonetheless managed to kick him off.

 

Marco tumbled expertly, only to leap with a spinning kick at the head-carrying knight who was now moving to intercept, all while belting out «But I've got it all, believe it!»

 

«Chains!» Faustina’s yell rematerialized the manacles and chains around his feet, but just like he’d practiced with the Capo, he used the torque to speed up the kick and break the knight’s neck flat-out on contact. Oh, Titans, it felt glorious to Dance Fight!

 

The male warlord beside Faustina started running down the dais. «Someone stop him!»

 

Unable to run because of the chain, Marco’s mobility was limited to tumbles, jumps and somersaults. And so he tumbled and dodged a strike from who he guessed was the Chief Warlord.

 

He mixed his tumble towards Boss Hugo with leaps, avoiding both a Bananarang and a beam blast of some type from the gallery, only to hear Faustina yell again. «Stop firing you fools! You’ll hit the Overlord!»

 

He took the break in enemy fire to flip kick the Overlord, aiming for a strike to the head. Hugo was a level 7, but with Marco’s Dance Fighting Bonus they were pretty much even. Boss Hugo had drawn his saber and swung at him, only for Marco to miss and get a cut along his back.

 

The momentum of his leap and stumble from the cut sent Marco to the floor. He focused through the physical pain to keep the song from scrubbing; he couldn’t let rage or fear in his heart, the Capoeira could only bypass his Prisoner status if he felt hopeful and free. So he focused on the sheer joy that he was doing something no one had thought possible, and the hope he could still save Lucy. He did a backflip back onto his feet and kept singing. «When you get tossed down, you gotta get up and say...»

 

The other knight and the Chief Warlord zeroed in on him, and he sang on defiantly «This is for Tar Zhay!»

 

He waited for the knight to strike, only to deflect the sword strike with his manacles, grab him by the arms and spin-toss him back at the Chief Warlord.

 

Both went reeling to the floor, and Marco used the leftover spin to duck under Faustina's blade and punch her solidly in the gut. She was fast as always, having flanked him, but there was no way any of them could touch him now.

 

Boss Hugo was, unwisely, choosing to stand by the foot of the dais and stare at Marco with a mix of utter fear and incomprehension.

 

He was running out of time, the rest of the assembled warlords were rushing forward, some even starting their own Dance Fighting beats, and despite his energetic leaping Boss Hugo could very easily outrun him.

 

He did a series of somersaults and, running out of lyrics, just sang out the first nonsense words he could think of that matched the beat. «Tsamina mina, eh eh!
Waka waka, eh eh!»

He clutched both fists together on the downward swing, Boss Hugo reared back to strike.

 

One lucky Crit, that’s all Marco wanted for Titansmass.

 

---------------

 

Marco’s saucy samba scrubbed, and with it, two sets of sounds managed to echo even through the commotion of running warlords, screaming ladies in waiting, and a veritable stampede of panicked courtiers.

 

The “snik-thwak-slide” of Marco getting chopped into while smashing his fists against Boss Hugo’s round little head, only to fall and slide down the ballroom floor made everyone’s blood run cold.

 

The “clatter-wheeze-crack” as Boss Hugo’s saber hit the floor, he gasped for breath after Marco’s hit, only to stumble and hit his head on a dais step, made no less than three ladies in waiting faint straight away.

 

The next thing Marco heard were boots rushing towards him, and he felt himself get hauled up to a standing position.

 

He managed to see Selena and Faustina by the Overlord… and in full Banana Blue and Yellow raiment, instead of Neutral Gray.

 

He winced in equal parts pain and disappointment. Boss Hugo had sliced well into the bone of his left arm.

 

The Chief Warlord stormed up to him and made the situation worse by giving him a punch to the stomach. «You utter, slimy, tweed wearing reject! I’m going to croak you right -- !»

 

«Stop!» The Chief Warlord stopped mid swing of his fist, held fast by a direct order from Boss Hugo.

 

Looking at him, he was lying prone on the steps, head and back cradled by Faustina.

 

And not moving a muscle.

 

Titan’s disband him! Marco’s hit or the fall had been hard enough to incapacitate the overlord, but not crit him!

 

«You won’t croak my prize. Faustina, help me sit up.»

 

Boss Hugo glared from his sitting position. «Tell me how you did that… I must know!»

 

Marco rescued a smirk from the pain strewn rubble in his gut. «No.»

 

«You will tell me! I am the overlord!»

 

Marco stopped looking at Hugo and turned to the crowd. Most of the courtiers and warlords had remained, and now huddled around like a mob waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

And drop, it would.

 

He’d only had a slim hope that Plan B would work, and that he’d live through it. He’d actually given himself better odds of failing B, and hoped he’d live to try Plan C, but that would need an audience. And right now the stage was practically set and the audience was primed and ready. And with the Overlord’s incapacitation, it was all going to play out spectacularly.

 

Marco yelled out using the typical, venomously snide tone the court loved to affect when talking about lesser peers. «You see this? This is your overlord.»

 

He gestured with a nod, unable to move his arms while they were being held in (he now realized) Tiff and Annie’s grips. «A tiny man unable to defend himself from one! ONE!!! Unarmed prisoner in the middle of his own court! The heart of his domain!»

 

And with that, all Hellabad broke loose in the court with shouting and gasping. Marco felt satisfied, he’d actually gotten another lady in waiting to faint!

 

The overlord yelled for silence, and the ballroom went completely still with the force of another Order.

 

«Prize or no, you will tell me what I want to know, and you will turn, or I will have what’s left of your friends croaked! I will have you croaked!»

 

Tiff kicked his legs out from under him and held him down, pulling his head back by the hair to expose his neck. The Chief Warlord moved beside him and readied to strike.

 

Marco snickered. «Oh please! Do that! You’d be admitting you can’t turn any unit you want. That the Banana Republic really isn’t that appealing. I mean, I’ve already proven you can be hurt, and-- »

 

His defiant bravado was cut short by the swish of the Chief Warlord’s sword as it miraculously missed his neck, forcing Tiff to actually duck to the side. Thankfully, the bravado was the only part of him to get cut.

 

Okay, he hadn’t expected the Overlord’s patience to be that thin.

 

Marco looked up at the Chief, smirking. «Hey, you better be careful with that sword buddy, you could poke someone’s eye out!»

 

The crowd’s murmuring went to shocked gasps… and a chuckle from the warlady beside the Chief. For his part, the Chief looked to Boss Hugo for confirmation, and tried again.

 

With another misstacular result.

 

«You may want to rethink that strategy. You see, I have this little bauble.» And with no one holding his arms, Marco lifted his left hand with only the middle finger extended and pointed upwards for emphasis; showing he was wearing the Overlord's most prized magical item.

 

The ring he never took off: the Star Sapphire Scream Ring.

 

The crowd murmured in curiosity, even the Chief Warlord seemed intrigued. But the blanching of Boss Hugo, Faustina, Selena and Elvie showed they finally figured it out. Before the fight, Marco had whispered its name to the Finder Keeper ring he wore, and used it to yoink it off Hugo’s finger under the cover of a raspy glove.

 

«Take-- take that off his hand and bring it to me! Now!»

 

Marco balled his hand into a fist and clutched both hands together; yelling as loudly as he could. «Are you sure you want to do that, Hugo? Do you really trust this yutz with a ring that protects you from every Banana Republican’s attacks? That gives you the drop when attacking any and all your subjects?»

 

Gasps, chatter, even yelling at the discovery of the Overlord’s treacherous trinket, the warlords at the head of the crowd actually had to serve as an improvised fence to keep the gawking courtiers from rushing in.

 

It really was amazing how the crowd still had energy to be shocked at all these revelations.

 

Marco put on a gracious smile. «That’s right folks! I got the inside scoop from Ray, one of the casters who made it! Everyone who's ever kissed this ring won't be able to land a hit on whoever wears it! Your Overlord trusts you that much! And it gives the wearer a nice Attack bonus on them, too!»

 

Marco reared his focus back on Hugo. «In fact, you’re incapacitated right now. Anybody could croak you, and you can’t disband anyone. Who are you going to trust to take it off my hand and put it on yours? Faustina? Then who's going to protect you while she walks here and back? Or can you even trust her?»

 

After a beat, he added. «No offense, Faustina.» As an apologetic afterthought, only for her to shoot him a disbelieving look.

 

A thin sheen of sweat covered Boss Hugo’s forehead as he weighed his options, eyes darting. The courtiers, even the warlords, were eyeing the new situation and almost nakedly calculating their options. Weighing their fear and ambition against what was most certainly the most vulnerable they’d ever seen their Overlord.

 

And there it was, Plan C was working! Even without a coup right now, everyone in the Banana Republic would now see Hugo as a potential target; what little cooperation they “enjoyed” would crumble under Boss Hugo’s ramped up paranoia and his subject’s new distrust for their Overlord.

 

Amid the traitorous whispering, Faustina held on to Boss Hugo tighter and tried to reassure him. «Father, we’re loyal to you, to beauty. He’s just trying to get in your head.» The Overlord did not seem reassured.

 

The Chief Warlord moved a step toward Boss Hugo. «You can trust me, sire. I, Prezi, your most loyal Chief Warlord would never use this ring against you or the Banana Republic!»

 

Prezi turned to the assembled units, spreading his arms out placatingly. «Don’t listen to this wretch’s words! He’s only trying to stir up trouble! But for those here who are falling to this temptation, remember that without an heir, croaking our Overlord is suicide!»

 

Marco yelled out in a sing-song voice after the Chief.

 

«Your side’s got the Shmuckers

you just gotta dare

threaten to croak the sucker

and he’ll make you Heir!»

 

Marco was proud of this little bit of Rhyme-o-mancy he’d cooked up. Remote as the Luckamancy of getting to try Plan C was, he’d given a lot of thought on just what he’d say to help kick start an internal coup. And wow, judging by the hungry looks, he’d rhymed right.

 

He just prayed the Titans he’d shown their tormentor weak enough, and stirred their power lust high enough to--

 

Boss Hugo’s order cut through Marco’s self satisfied stream of thought like a hot sword through a Snow Golem. «You, knight, take it off his hand, croak him, and kick it here!»

 

To his right, he heard Annie shuffle close and kneel before him. Both were at eye level now, and Marco could see through the eye holes of her mask -- a designer butterfly mask he’d bought with a favor to help her hide her scar-- how this was tearing her up inside.

 

«Lord Voyager… please for--»

 

For once, Marco didn’t have any words of wisdom or comfort he could offer her, and struggled, really struggled, with whether to tell her to do as the Overlord ordered and save herself, or ask she return the favor of the life he’d saved.

 

Annie saw the fear on his face, and made up her own mind, standing and yelling with all her might. «No, I won’t, you-- you Face-ist!!!» Everyone at court physically reared and took a step back as if struck; though no one understood the word’s Signamancy, they could all appreciate what it took to defy an Overlord’s order-- and what it meant would happen to Annie.

 

Annie, shaking with the fear and exhilaration, wasted no time from her rapidly shortening life in pointing accusingly at her Ruler’s prone form. «You’re a short, cruel, ugly, hateful, fat, callous, balding, and ridiculously mustachioed hypocrite!»

 

Marco had to hand it to her, Annie got five ladies in waiting to faint and made the Ballroom as quiet as a deserted Dungeon zone. Marco doubted anyone had ever dared use that kind of language to describe the overlord, even as a whisper to an “ally.”

 

Annie went on, relishing the chance to finally speak her mind and say what everyone was thinking. «This is who we fear and admire? Please. I’m prettier. Even with this scar!» And she tossed off the butterfly mask and pulled back her hair, revealing her scar to the gasps and sneers of the assembled.

 

She bit back a reaction and ignored the court’s revulsion, yelling on defiantly. «Why are we even listening to someone who has us croaked on the front lines for having an asymmetric face? Who disbands us for accidentally wearing mismatched socks? Who’s charitably a five on the Hot Or Not scale? And he’s--»

 

What happened next was a blur of motion Marco barely caught. While Annie was mid rant, the snickering warlady aide to Chief Prezi aimed a vambrace accessory and blasted at Annie with a cry of «Livewire!».

 

But before the blast connected, Tiff let go of Marco and-- Tiff tackled Annie out of the way, screening for her and landing as a charred heap on top of her!

 

For once in this entire debacle, Marco was as confused as everyone in the audience; he’d had no idea Tiff even cared for Annie.

 

Marco crawled over to Annie and helped move Tiff’s body off of her, only to find Annie somewhere between gasps and sobs. «Oh Titans, is he…?»

 

He turned Tiff over to reveal the X’s in his eyes. He looked at Annie, neither sure what to make of Tiff’s sacrifice. «I’m sorry, Annie.» She held back a sob, putting a hand to the charred hole in his chest.

 

It was in this lull that a tapping -- more a pounding, really -- came from the huge, circular “i” of Beholder tower.

 

There, flying in place on a huge, winged serpent was Marco’s Plan A, several turns ahead of schedule. The concerned looking Zheng Voyager had been knocking on a panel with a fist, and stopped once he got everyone’s attention.

 

He put his hands together and yelled to be heard through the glass. «Is this a bad time? I could come back later!»

 

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Part 22: Five foreign friends

Comments thread

Part 24: Get a clue

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Cover image by abstractangel77 for flickr.com, cropped, some rights reserved.

Comments

  • despree

    So AWESOME!  Well done!  Way to reveal enough to keep us engaged, but still keeping the twists!

  • Free Radical

    "That the Banana Republic really isn’t that appealing."

    It never ceases to amaze me how many puns you work into this.

    You really had me going for a while there with Zheng's head. The ending was an excellent way to turn that on its head while still leaving us with a cliffhanger!

  • WurmD

    Holy CRAP man! Holy doughy CRAP!
    What a SPEC-TA-CULAR piece of writting!

  • despree

    I love this little bit with May Day: 

    She tilted her head forward and drew in her shoulders, speaking with increasing fragility «I’ll-- I’ll send the manservants back in. You-- should look your best.»

     But what she didn’t do, was look back as she opened the door and stepped through.

     

    LOVE the foreshadow!

    Also, I'm guessing Elvie made the (Zhang) head item; perfect timing for Halloween!

  • Spicymancer

    @Free Radical: In hindsight, choosing "Banana Republic" for the angatonist's name was a really good choice. Banana's have to be one of, if not the most punny and joke laden fruit in existence.

    Also, "he ending was an excellent way to turn that on its head", you're pretty ahead of the pun race too. wink

     

    @WurmD: Thank you! I've been working on this part for a longer than usual while, just getting it right.

     

    @Despree: Not confirming or denying, but as guesses go it's good. We've seen Bill make almost completely lifelike dolls, and with Elvie being based on "Elvira, queen of Darkness", a proficiency in Halloween props would not be out of the question. laughing

  • falcore51

    THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING ME !!!!!

  • Silverfox

      It is adorable how that side does wordplay and sarcasm.  Now the MASTER, Zheng, has arrived. :)  My favorite part of the whole storyline.