Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 25, Epilogue
Part 25: Captain's Epilogue
«So, is it going to be Overlady Bargain, or Boss Bargain?»
«Overlady Bargain. I’d like to put some distance between myself and my father’s style of leadership, starting with the title.»
Marco and Faustina were standing in the middle of the Overlord’s-- now Overlady’s-- personal chambers.
They weren’t alone though. Faustina had ordered the apartments emptied of her father’s incredibly extensive wardrobe, custom furniture, and most of his personal effects. So at least a dozen maids and manservants were bustling about, emptying and folding and organizing. Some even breaking down the garish furniture too big to remove.
A maid carrying an evening suit came up to Faustina, and she gave the maid a nod for her to take it away.
Most of the clothes would be sold off by Elvie in the Magic Kingdom’s raiment district. “No sense letting good clothing go to waste, and we can make back some Shmuckers out of it.” Faustina had said, in a sensible and remarkably even tempered decision considering her father had tried to croak her just last turn.
If it had been Marco’s father (well, if he’d had a father) he would have probably torn and ripped up all of it, tossed it out a window and lit it on fire. Possibly even in that order.
As is, Marco nodded. «Okay. I’ll let our diplomatic attaché know. He wants to be properly respectful when the meeting starts.»
Faustina smirked. «You mean your brother?»
«Yes, my brother.» Marco rolled his eyes and let a bit of irritation creep into his tone. He was happy for Zheng, really, but it somehow still annoyed him that while he’d been suffering unspeakable fashion horrors Zheng had been advanced to Captain in the Air corps. He’d even gotten special diplomatic duties to handle the preliminary negotiations before their Chief Signamancer Amicus Brief arrived to do the heavy lifting.
Faustina’s face went blank as a pair of manservants worked to remove a huge, twelve foot tall portrait of Boss Hugo wearing a ridiculous cape and hat, all while riding a rearing Painted Horse and pointing towards the horizon. «It must be nice to still have family.»
Marco looked from the garish portrait to Faustina, who wasn’t bothering to shield her feelings behind a smile. He decided not to filter himself or condescend. «Two is nice, but I miss the days when there were eight Voyagers. I don’t think a lot of units understand that about war, you know? Not just the cost in units, but lost relationships.»
He could relate to losing family, but it was strange to feel so much empathy for a woman he’d have croaked in a heartbeat not so long ago. And now, he was commiserating with her unguarded.
Faustina kept her expression neutral, but her words were full of doubt and longing. «There could be two Bargains for the price of one popping, I suppose. I could set city production to pop an heir, or commanders in the capital to have sons or daughters. But what if he or she turns out like my father, or how I used to be? Just… right now doesn’t seem right.»
Marco nodded. «You need time to sort things out. Take my advice, and don’t rush it. Find yourself. Eventually, you might even find it in you to forgive Boss Hugo. That’s… well, it gave me a lot of peace when I forgave my brother. Though that’s a long story.»
She gave no sign she’d been listening, but when a third manservant came back carrying a hammer to break the painting, she finally spoke. «Stop. Roll up the canvass and put it in one of the east wing storage chambers.»
The manservant stopped mid swing, he’d looked like he was relishing the thought of smashing up the painting. «Yes, Lady.» He reluctantly put the hammer down and got a pry bar to get it out of the frame.
Faustina put a hand to her chin. « “Find myself?” That’s an interesting thought. I used to think I knew who I was, and what I wanted. I’m not sure I have much chance to explore now with my new Duties as overlady, but...» She turned to Marco «I’m already changing my title. Why not my name, too? “Overlady Fina Bargain.” How does that sound?»
Marco couldn’t help but smile. It was still her, and incredibly Banana Republican, but seemed much fresher. «I think it’s fine, Fina.»
She nodded, satisfied. «I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive my father, or pop an heir. But if I do, I intend for her to know her grandfather. The good and the bad.»
Faustina-- no, Fina, turned to Marco and nodded for him to follow. «Come on, this is too depressing, and the negotiations will begin soon.»
They walked the palace hallways, significantly emptier now. A little more than a third of the people at the ballroom assembly-turned-coup had been croaked, and fully half of the casualties had been courtiers. Marco suspected it might not be solely due to being used as human shields, but probably due to long simmering feuds getting “resolved” lethally.
What was left of the court was a somber, sober group that was reflecting on its own mortality and where all the backstabbing and prejudice had gotten them. One of Overlady Bargain’s first acts was to get them out of this funk was to put them to work, crafting the Banana Republic’s diplomatic position. Marco doubted they’d ever worried about anything more important than what color blue and yellow dress to wear, but considering how life-or-croak the internal politics had been, he was confident they’d at least put energy into working out a stance
A maid rushed past them in an intersection, pulling a U turn to bow to Fina once she realized who they were, only to skitter off.
Most of the palace staff were being as discreet as possible considering the capital was officially occupied (but not claimed) by Tar Zhay until a treaty was negotiated. The Macheteers and Guewilla’s stationed at certain key points and patrolling the halls certainly had a chilling effect on palace life.
In an odd reversal, it somehow made him feel sad. For all their faults, the court had made Inname Only feel alive, vibrant and active. It was now an uncroaked version of its former self.
Marco cheered himself up with the thought that things could have gone much, much worse though.
Zheng’s offer of surrender from Tar Zhay had been genuine, which surprised Marco a little. At the time he’d imagined the Komissars gave Zheng the offer as a feint to stir disunity, and would probably prioritize secrecy and wiping out the Banana Republic over actual mercy, only to pick up the pieces.
But once the remainder of the BR leadership signaled for parley, and agreed to several rather comprehensive security concessions to start the negotiations, a lot of the tensions had ratcheted down.
His official role in the negotiations, if it could be called that, was to be an intermediary in terms of the-- cultural differences between both sides. Smoothing over potential gaffes and failures of communication.
They hadn’t told Marco what the goal of the negotiations were, only that rather than trample them into crushing reparations, they wanted to “establish a stable peace and cultural exchange with the Banana Republic”, whatever it was that that meant.
He probably wouldn’t have long to wait to find out though. After another two hallways and a climb down four flights of stairs, they reached the second story interior ballroom where Marco and Faustina had had that dance all those turns ago.
Lady Bobbie Window, Elvie and Colonel Dijon were there as part of the Banana Republic’s diplomatic contingent, talking animatedly among themselves about some fashion frippery or another, and generally seeming like it was just another day in the Banana Republic’s court.
On the other end of the room was the Tar Zhay contingent, consisting of Zheng, Cap’n Crunch, Count Black, and Jintao, all sitting perfectly silently save for the tap tap tapping of Count Black’s finger on his arm.
“Well”, thought Marco. “This is going to be fun to mediate.”
Negotiations had been rough, but not unproductive.
Economics, sovereignty, even internal side culture were touched upon and ferociously argued over. Tar Zhay wanted a lot: reparations, assurances of good behavior, secrecy. The Banana Republic, while in a choke hold, wasn’t simply going to just roll over.
There was room for hope, though. It would take a lot of discussion to hammer out, but there was an actual desire to solve the problem, helped along in no small part by Tar Zhay’s demonstrated willingness not to destroy or humiliate the Banana Republic, and from Overlady Fina Bargain to reform her side.
As to the how though, there was a big argument. Count Black said the Komissars wanted assurances that the Banana Republic would have proper “checks and balances” not just in its finances, but in the power of the Overlady to wage war and against mistreating her units.
Tensions had flared up over what looked to the BR as a blatant attempt to run their side, but Marco had managed to disarm that particular trap by explaining it in a context they understood: the fashion bidding on the roof of the gables.
Sans jumping off it, of course.
In that light, Count Black’s proposal didn’t seem that unreasonable. He even actively offered to lend several administrative units and commanders, Marco included, to help the BR create a courtly system that could suit their culture.
Put in context, Marco had a sneaking suspicion that the Komissars were soft selling the virtues of the Komissar system to Overlady Bargain. It was an interesting gamble, trying to promote the Tar Zhay way rather than impose it. He wasn’t sure Fina would ultimately Sign off on the idea, but maybe they could find a… republican alternative to what Tar Zhay had?
Maybe it would even work better, considering their own Ruler would be active?
Unfortunately, there was about as much disagreement on every other topic. By noon tempers flared over territorial matters, and Marco called a recess to let everyone regroup and meet again later that turn.
As everyone filed out of the room, Marco was looking forward to a surprise at the gables Edna and Chief Viet had prepared. But first, he had to finish some unresolved business.
Marco knocked on the door to Selena’s chambers. The formality and politeness of it felt odd, considering everything they’d lived through.
«Enter, please.» She sounded distant, not so much because of the door muffling her voice but in tone.
He opened the door, only to find her sitting despondently on her favorite chair by the windowside tea set, flanked by two soft rock golems and looking through the window at Tar Zhay’s forces camped outside. She was not looking her best. Her platinum blond hair hung limply from her twin ponytails, and her usual Royal raiment was replaced with a plain prisoner’s flax chemise and pants.
She turned to look at him, and just as dismissively turned back to look out the window.
«Oh. It’s you.»
A dozen jokes and twice as many insults flitted across his mind, but he wasn’t here for that. «Yes, it’s me.»
He took his seat across from her, noting the empty desert table with the non-spinning silver tray on it. It made sense, considering she was currently a prisoner of the Banana Republic. One of Tar Zhay’s initial demands to open negotiations was for Selena to be rendered unable to cast, and though Elvie had offered to craft casting disabling manacles without making her a prisoner, Tar Zhay had insisted.
They sat there for a long moment, completely silent.
Marco breathed out, and decided to break the silence first. «Are they treating you well?»
«About as well as we-- they-- treated you.»
«I spoke out on your behalf in the negotiations today. Our Moneymancer has quantified the damages your Turnamancy did to our finances. With a few dozen turns of work building water and wind mills, the aggregate gains in Shmuckers would cover your damages and some of the BR’s debts. After that you’ll be released to the MK once you sign a non-disclosure agreement.»
«Oh. So that’s to be my fate, I suppose.» There was no rage, sarcasm, or even interest in her voice. Just despondent apathy.
Marco sighed. «I thought you’d be worried, and want to know. Well. I suppose I’ll leave you to it then.»
He got up off the chair and started walking out, then she called out to him just as he reached the door. «I won’t thank you.»
He stopped without turning back. «I wasn’t expecting you to.»
«Then why are you doing this? To prove how powerless I am? To rub in how the tables have turned?»
«No, I’m doing it to prove to myself that what you did to me-- tried-- to do to me didn’t change me.»
«But I did! I felt it! You weren’t half as cold blooded and conniving when you arrived!»
Marco gripped the door handle tighter, lowered his head and tucked in his shoulders. It was amazing how, even as a prisoner, she could work her Turnamancy with mere words. He knew what she was saying was true, but…
«I still care, Selena. About my side. My friends. My family. Even you. You couldn't change that, and that’s why you failed.»
He heard a small sob. «No, that’s why I won. You used that to redirect the cutthroat spirit I was trying to nurture in you. You used the court, the rumors, even the Overlord against me. I succeeded too well.»
Marco straightened his stance and breathed in, remembering he’d told Fina to try forgiving her father, and tried to take his own advice. «I don’t think you’re evil, Selena. Or even bad intentioned. But maybe next time, find an overlord and side that aren’t complete scum to work for? You’d have a lot easier time then.»
Her voice went jagged. «I was only ever trying to help. To prove Turnamancy doesn’t have to be nasty. To show everyone how beautiful they could be.»
He spoke then to her, one last time. «Goodbye Selena. I’ll send maids in with one of your traveling dresses. You should look your best.»
But what he didn’t do, was look back as he turned the handle and stepped through the door.
Marco, Zheng and Lucy walked up the steps to the gables’ rooftop terrace and Runway. Marco had both his arms open wide and was hugging them both tightly to his sides-- had been, actually, every chance he got.
«We’re not going to fly away if ye let go, Marco.» Lucy playfully complained.
Zheng concurred. «Indeed brother, it does seem a bit unbecoming.»
He squeezed them a little tighter and fought to keep his voice from going all emotional and sappy. «I don’t care, I’m not taking any chances.»
Zheng and Lucy shared a look. Lucy smirked, and both proceeded to poke him in the sides like so much precision archery sniping until it was laughter he couldn’t hold in. «Hahaha! Okay, okay! You are no longer my prisoners!»
The three were laughing as they reached the top of the stairs, only for a huge shadow to fall over them.
«So these are your friends? Well, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you!» It was Edna, looking absolutely radiant in her Tar Zhay teal and cyan plated battledress.
Marco grinned up at Edna «I try to keep my promises. Edna, these are Lucy and Zheng. Lucy, Zheng, this is Edna, the unit that kept me sane when I was captured.»
Lucy giggled and Edna blushed.
She, the Plusers and Guewillas had organized an improvised brunch at the top of the gables, and invited Marco and his friends, family, and assorted allies to get to know each other.
What was amazing about this brunch, and went a long way to setting Marco’s mind at ease, was that the Plusers and Guewilla’s had teamed up. The Plusers raided some of the local larder for “war spoils” (that Lady Bobbie would likely harangue about until it get deducted from the BR’s reparations tab) and the Guewilla’s had dismantled and rebuilt several of the tables into elevated long benches that were a couple of feet higher up from the ground.
They’d also broken down and modified some chairs to be sturdier for them and the Plusers, and “high chairs” for everyone else, so everyone could now sit comfortably and see pretty much eye to eye.
Marco thought it was a good omen, considering the talks.
Undaunted by the size difference, Lucy reached up her hand to Edna. «Pleasure to meet ye lass, I saw the ruckus you made at the gate.»
Edna had kneeled to shake her hand, but covered the awkwardness by turning the motion into a formal curtsy. «Nice to meet you too Lucy. And I saw your ruckus above the palace from the ground floor.»
Lucy smirked. «Well, it just goes tae show how perspectives can flip. Now I’m looking up at ye and ye’re looking down at me.» Both ladies giggled, and Marco felt an unexpected wave of relief to see them hit it off.
Zheng shook Edna’s hand, «Thank you for keeping my brother safe. He always gets in trouble when I’m not watching.»
Marco scoffed. «Pfft. At least I have stories to tell afterwards. I suppose you’ve been all safe and cozy in my absence?»
Zheng started to retort, only for his mouth to clamp shut. Before he could ask or segway into another dig at his brother, Zheng waved to Chief Viet, who had walked by to greet them. «Thank you for doing this, Chief. We really did need a break from the negotiations.»
«My pleasure, Comrade-Compadre. It’s important for everyone to come together now, and start not just celebrating, but thinking about tomorrow.» The big ape pulled out a cigar from one of his bandolier pouches and offered it to Zheng. «Smoke?»
Zheng took the cigar dubiously, lit it with a flick, and choked out after his first drag.
«Haha! Don’t worry uncle, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough. Now, I wanted to talk to you about some ideas we had for teaching the units in our side how to handle all the freedom they’re just now realizin’ they’ve got...» And pulled Zheng over to talk with Danny, Crunch, and some of the other Komissars.
Lucy and Marco shared a look and a chuckle, then he asked both ladies. «Either of you want anything to drink?»
«Aye, some iced tea for me, if you please.»
«Oh thank you! A mimosa would be nice, and some bread and cheese.»
Marco nodded and made his way to table set up with the food and drink.
When he got there, he noticed Jintao and Lily were standing by the buffet table under a parasol. Neither talking, only blinking every once in awhile and drinking Tarzhale and water, respectively.
Marco walked up to the pair, not sure what to say, when he thought to think at them. «Hello?»
Lily turned to Marco and blinked slowly, and he felt her thoughts and intent flow across his mind like water through his fingers. «Marco, it is wonderful to greet / reunite / celebrate with you.»
His jaw dropped as he thought back «This is amazing, Lily! We can really talk now!»
Lily leaned her head to the side and blinked rapidly, confused by Marco’s thoughts. «We could always communicate / cooperate / concur. The difference / novelty / improvement is that now, Jintao is cleaning / unobstructing / channeling the stream of consciousness.»
Marco looked to Jintao «This is wonderful! Is it hard to relay her thoughts like this?»
Physically, Jintao didn’t move, but his thoughts felt relaxed «Rewarding.»
Marco breathed out and laughed in his mind. «Well I’m glad you’re both getting along, I was worried Lily and the other Smackers might feel left out with the difficulty talking. If you'll excuse me, I’m going to take these drinks and plates over to the table.»
After excusing himself, he heard Jintao… not so much speak, but mimic Lily’s intent laden stream of consciousness in his mind. «You’re welcome / glad to help / my pleasure.»
He turned, a question in his thoughts, but the Thinkamancer wouldn’t elaborate, finishing off his Tarzhale by putting a serviette in the bottle. Marco shrugged and went back to the long table. Must be a Thinkamancer thing.
When he reached the table to hand out the drinks, Venice, Ray, Lucy, Elvie and Edna were already sitting and talking.
«You drink this? Really?» Ray seemed dubious, which was understandable given the mug Venice was pouring the emerald green Tarzhale into was as big as his head.
Venice laughed, and his well muscled chest heaved in a faithful imitation of an erfquake. «Yeah! It’s good stuff, careful though, it might--»
Ray slammed down the mug on the table, empty, and licked a bit of foam off his upper lip. «Acceptable, though further testing will be necessary.»
Elvie cackled and slapped Ray in the back. «Didn’t know you were such a deft hand at Foolamancy, making that ale disappear!»
Edna’s eyebrows shot up at the pair. «Really now, it’s barely midday, at least wait til turn ends if you want to do extensive “testing.”»
«Madam.» Ray said with the kind of respectful deference Marco didn’t know Ray was even capable of. «When you Find an interesting trail, you have to follow it wherever it may go, whatever time of turn it may be.»
Lucy’s ears perked up at that. «It’s interesting you say that. You’re a Findmancer, aye? Well, I’ve found that when exploring with Venice...» and off the casters went into a fascinating for them, but eye-glazing discussion for everyone else.
It was good to see Ray so happy. He’d decided to put a hold on Turning to Tar Zhay or becoming a free caster. He’d told Marco that seeing Elvie stand up for him, he’d decided to give the Banana Republic another chance.
Marco nodded to Edna, and they got up to leave the casters to their thing. They walked over to the entrance stairwell and gazed out at the city. Marco looked up to Edna. «I know I said this before, but it’s amazing seeing you in our colors. How’s everyone been treating you?»
Edna smiled contentedly. «Wonderfully. It was a bit awkward at first, but between us and the Guewilla’s, I think the infantry and Macheteers are getting used to the size difference.»
Marco patted her hand on the railing. «That’s good, I’d hate for you to feel out of place. Venice is going to be pretty busy with accommodating the cities with wet areas for the Smackers, but I’m sure he can remodel some of the buildings in Dis so you can sleep comfortably.»
A bit of worry crossed her face «I was wondering, do you know if overlady Bargain is going to pop more Plusers?»
Marco nodded. «I think so. Overlady Bargain isn’t closed minded like Boss Hugo.»
Edna relaxed a bit and took a sip of her mimosa. «That’s… that’s wonderful. I only wish I could be here to meet them when they do pop.»
«You just might.» The chipper falsetto was instantly recognizable, Marco turned to see the Overlady and her entourage of Lady Bobbie, Dijon, and Ibid walk up the stairs. While they all seemed relaxed, Marco recognized it as the kind of “relaxed” used to Screen rivals in the BR court. He couldn’t help but note Lady Bobbie and Colonel Dijon seemed somewhat daunted by Edna.
For her part, Edna was showing back most of those feeling less guardedly, unsure whether to be fearful, casual or respectful towards Fina. «Overlady… I’m glad you could come.»
Fina flashed one of her usual smiles. Amused, but also more relaxed, kinder. «It was an unexpected invitation, but in the interest of diplomacy and goodwill between our sides, and being extended as it was by a former subject, it was easy to accept. Thank you, Edna.»
Edna managed to curtsy. «I-- well, thank you, overlady! But, if I can ask… what did you mean by what you said earlier?»
Fina gestured with a hand toward where Viet, Zheng and the Komissars were talking. «The topic of reparations came up today, and your people were rather progressive, suggesting establishing regular trade as an alternative to a per turn Shmucker transfer from our treasury to yours. The details need to be hashed out, of course, but both sides would have to send caravans back and forth.»
Marco grinned «And we’d need units to guard those caravans. How about that Edna? You’d be defending rather than pushing the cart, and get to show the fresh popped Plusers a dance or two.»
«Oh My! Thank you! That-- That would just make me the happiest heavy this side of the Crimea River!» Edna’s enthusiasm and relief were infectious.
Fina’s expression went serious. «No thanks are necessary, Edna. Plusers were always a part of the Banana Republic, and denying that cost us. Though if I could ask a favor, I’d appreciate if you could introduce me to some of the other guests.»
«I’d be delighted to.» And Edna nodded to Marco and the other BR units, before leading Faustina away.
The two ladies’ exit left the rest of the group in a bit of an awkward silence. Marco looked from Lady Bobbie to Colonel Dijon, a bit unsure. «So… how have things been for you two? I hope the other warlords and courtiers aren’t, ah....»
«Angry I croaked Boss Hugo? Mmm. I think they’re jealous, honestly. It did help make me Chief Warlord, after all. That and us taking a principled stand. Though I do feel uneasy. The self-absorbed blighter had it coming, but, ah, croaking your own ruler is frowned upon in Scripture...»
Lady Bobbie hugged his arm a bit closer. «Oh you’re being too hard on yourself, dear. You did your Duty to the Side by croaking him. And I believe book of Gloria says: To a ruler who should hurt you with his pride, who makes the side crumble, who makes you lay down and croak, say “no, not I!”»
«It’s Book of G-gaynor, actually.»
Marco blinked a couple of times, this was the first he’d heard of Ibid speak since he arrived, and it looked like he’d answered on autopilot. He followed the scribe’s gaze and saw he was peeking at Edna.
It clicked for Marco then, once negotiations ended, most Tar Zhay’s units would probably leave, including Edna. So he asked. «Ibid… Are you worried you won’t see Edna?»
«Well, I, we… you know, we worked so well together before, on the list, and I always wanted to ask her, um...»
Lady Bobbie seemed to reconsider Ibid. She’d been fairly indifferent to the curve nosed scribe, but now seemed to actually notice him. «You fancy her, don’t you?»
«What?! No, I-- I mean--»
Lady Bobbie’s expression changed from uncomfortable at his blubbering to simply exasperated. «Oh, for Titan’s sakes. You do fancy her. She may be… larger than most women, but she still has a heart. Come on, life is short and then you croak; you are telling Edna how you feel before she leaves or so help me--»
She took Ibid by the crook of the arm and lead him away to devise some Plus sized heart capturing strategy. Once she was out of earshot, Marco turned to Dijon. «Overlady Bargain made a good pick putting her on the negotiating team.»
Dijon’s chuckle sent his mustache wiggling. «Indeed! We’re going to need that decisiveness when we try and rebuild and reform the court. Titans, will that be an undertaking.»
They talked a bit more on the negotiations, when another pair of latecomers climbed up the stairs.
«Annie! May! You made it!»
Annie smiled brightly. For once, her entire face visible with only a token application of makeup and hair held back with a band. She ran her hand over her face and hair reflexively, still getting used to showing her scar. «It was a pleasure to come, lord. Chief Dijon.»
Marco laughed. «You saved my life Annie, I think you can at least call me Marco when we’re off duty.»
Dijon stroked a whisker. «It’s a loss to the side for you to Turn, but under the circumstances you’ve earned it.»
Annie’s smile dimmed at that. «I only lived to earn it because Tiff screened for me. I never really knew how he felt.»
Chief Dijon put a hand on her shoulder. «Another loss to the side. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling, but it gives us all reason to hope. In the end, he didn’t care about how you looked, but who you were. That’s something I didn’t understand until Boss Hugo threatened to disband some of us just for being bearded.»
Marco couldn’t help but stroke his own beard a tad protectively, and nodded. «There was no love lost between us, but Tiff was a good Stackie to you. And I think he’d be glad to see that you’re happy now too, Annie.»
She didn't smile, but Annie looked somewhat consoled, and the conversation lulled.
Deciding to bring things back to sunnier topics, May spoke up. «Chief Dijon, Marco, it’s good to see you both again.» She was also sporting a new look. She’d changed up her hair to be bleach white, stood it straight up like a cone, and laced several different colored ribbons through it in an interlacing pattern.
«Likewise.» Marco agreed. «I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again after we spoke before the assembly. It’s nice to see you changed your mind.»
May raised an eyebrow quizzically. «I didn’t. I was incredibly angry at you -- still a bit grumpy, actually -- and walked the halls and up stairs just to let off steam. Lucky for you, I ended up at the Balcony quite by accident after the musicians had left.»
«Yeah, lucky me.» Marco’d been hearing all sorts of stories of just how improbably, sometimes impossibly lucky most Tar Zhay units and certain Banana Republicans had been during the siege, Lucy’s magic was amazing but must have been incredibly terrifying for the defenders.
May went on. «But… seeing you down there, I realized I hadn’t changed my mind. I didn’t want to see you croaked, so I did the first thing that came to mind and tossed the Tuba at that warlady.» May acted out the scene, raising an imaginary Tuba and tossing it. «Pow! It was a real million to one shot!» And her big conical hairdo wobbled.
Dijon and Annie laughed, and Marco couldn’t help but join in, amused in equal parts at her recounting the story as the wobbling multi-colored hair. He nodded up at it. «That’s a nice new look May. It’s good you came in a celebrating mood, but I can’t imagine it’s a popular sentiment right now.»
May proudly put a hand to her be-ribboned hair. «Thank you Marco. Annie and I went to one of the hairdressers at court, I thought we could both use a change. But it is a good time to celebrate. We’re alive, we’re free from Boss Hugo, and we get a new chance to change who we are and what we believe.»
Marco nodded. «Well, I just hope the rest of the Banana Republic shares the “May Day Celebration” outlook. Though now that you mention it...»
May sighed and shook her head, grinning. «I can see the idea forming.»
He grinned and went on. «Chief Dijon was saying morale and changing the side’s outlook are an issue. Well, there’s an entire corps of Transitioning Facilitators still around… maybe they could help Transition the side into a more inclusive one that can work together?»
Dijon raised an eyebrow. «Interesting, and a good use of a resource we already have. What do you think, May? Can you come up with a new focus for the principles of the Banana Republic? Something so we can be beautiful outside and in?»
She drew herself up, undaunted. «Where there’s a will, there’s a May.»
The brunch drew on, and as it started to wind down, Marco was approached by Archduchess Sa Shay and Major Raquel, who motioned for him to come by to speak privately for a moment.
Once they were a out of earshot of the other guests, Marco did a formal bow, mindful of Shay’s public persona. «Archduchess, Major, it’s good to see you both again.»
Shay nodded. «Likewise, Lieutenant. I heard from the Major that part of your antics in the Banana Republican court were due to you Dance Fighting while a prisoner. I don’t think I need to explain how groundbreaking a discovery that is, you’ve made a huge contribution to our cultural heritage and military knowledge.»
Major Raquel eyed him keenly. «How did you discover it, exactly? Do you think you could teach it at the Dis’ Co-teach? It would be an incredible boon for our agents.»
The topic brought up a whole host of mixed feelings for Marco. «Well, Archduchess, thank you. But I didn’t discover it; that was Capo Ira Civil’s work.»
Shay raised an eyebrow. «I thought the Capo had turned?»
«No.» Marco said more forcefully than he’d meant to. «Sorry. I mean, he did turn, but as a gambit to assassinate Boss Hugo. He failed, but… it helped me create a plan that ultimately did work. As to how he came up with it...» Marco related the story of his breakdown while trying for a breakout from the Paddy Wagon. And crucially, what happened the turn after.
Marco remembered waking up late the next turn with the Paddy Wagon plowing along, only to see Capo sitting cross legged in front of him. He was looking at the wooden wall Marco’d tried to break as if it were the most fascinating thing on Erfworld.
Even with his wounds healed and Hits restored, Marco still felt broken.
The Capo had stood up, and ordered Marco to do the same so they could train. Marco’d been snippy, asking “Why does it even matter? I tried my hardest and still failed. It was exactly like Faustina said.”
The Capo walked over to the wall, and spoke without turning to face Marco “Because even in failure there is cause for hope.”
He laid a hand on the wall, pushing to test it. Intact.
Marco remembered the Capo’s words like it was last turn. “You gave me a cause for hope, Lieutenant. And that was all we really needed. I tried to follow your lead, to break through our bonds with sheer rage. I couldn’t. But seeing you try regardless, to throw everything you had into it… I dared to hope you’d succeed, to feel free. And that was the necessary catalyst.”
Marco remembered hearing faint notes, almost drowned out by the rolling Paddy Wagon. “While everyone was busy shouting you on, no one was looking my way. So I used those feelings. And…”
The Capo swayed his shoulders and hips, only to tumble and stack with Marco with a fluidity and joy to his movements completely out of place with their predicament. He’d said: “We will take this hope, this unboundable freedom, and plan, and work. Because the very weakness the Banana Republic sees in us, will be our greatest strength.”
Marco wiped the moisture at the edge of his eyes and finished the story. «It wasn’t just a question of dance moves, or emotional intensity, but the nature of the emotion itself. It felt blindingly obvious in hindsight. It takes feeling hope and freedom to rise above the despair and anger inherent in the Prisoner Status, and the Capo had unlocked it, even figured out how to control the volume.»
Archduchess Shay looked crestfallen. «I’m sorry I doubted him. At the least, he’ll live on in song and dance.»
Marco could only nod. He breathed in and finally answered Major Raquel «As to teaching it, I think I can. Though it’s likely going to be hard considering we’ll have to be bound. The trick about it is that manacles aren’t just something to overcome, but are indispensable raiment for dancing the Capoeira.»
The ladies exchanged a look and nodded. Raquel turned to Marco with a smile. «Good to know, Captain.»
Marco’s eyebrows shot up, but before he could ask, Raquel went on. «You’re being promoted and placed in the Tal Shiar, though officially you’ll be part of the newly created Diplomacy Directorate. Once our relations with the BR stabilize, you’ll be training several agents before you get a new assignment.»
«So Tar Zhay is finally opening up?» Marco breathed out excitedly (and quietly).
«Today is only a small step, Captain. But it represents a giant leap in thinking for Tar Zhay.» Raquel gestured at the party goers. «Our spies can only go so far, and I must recognize, we were blindsided by the BR because of it. We’ll go slowly and carefully, but we will seek friends, allies. And if we do our job helping rebuild the Banana Republic well enough, perhaps we can even show Erfworld our way is better.»
A bout of laughter distracted the trio, and Edna gestured for Marco to come and sit. He’d managed to catch a fragment of what they were saying; apparently Zheng was sharing stories from boot camp. Marco gave the Major and Archduchess a nod, with a look to say they’d finish the conversation later.
As he sat down, Zheng patted him on the back and Lucy squeezed his arm. Venice and Ray were playing some kind of improvised game where Ray would flick pieces of paper between two stone goalposts Venice was moving with his Dirtamancy. Despite his energetic shuffling, Ray’s shots kept passing them through, to another round of laughter.
Marco looked from right to left. He was surrounded by friends, family, and allies.
He didn’t know how long this peace and joy would last. How long they’d be together before Duty called, or some new threat faced them. Or even what shape the future of Tar Zhay and the Banana Republic would eventually take.
But right now, for this infinite moment, everything was alright.
From somewhere in his subconscious, he thought. “It’s okay. This is enough.” And hugged them closer.
Thank you everyone for reading! Your support and encouragement has kept me going and made this something I take immense pride in finishing. Your questions, comments and suggestions have helped make this story richer and more interesting.
I tried to cover all the loose plot threads since I don't know if or when I'll come back to this story. But if you feel I missed something, or are curious about another aspect of the plot, feel free to ask and I'll try to answer.
Bravo, Spicymancer. You have crafted a truly unique and incredibly rich tale that probes the depths of Erfworld and comes back with riches. Your character arcs, plot-twists and puns are all top notch, and I thoroughly enjoyed your exploration of the culture and mechanics of an already well-established (yet stil tantalizingly shrouded in mystery) world. Here's hoping you make it a trilogy!
@Shai hulud: Arg. That was a typo, so to speak. I'm usually good with filtering out "die" and the like (and it really is a loss for Rhyme-o-mancy, that) but this one slipped past Ray Darr. Consider it Retconjured, and thanks for spotting it.
@despree: Thanks! I like to consider Erfworld dreaming to be a form of on again, off again Natural Predictamancy. Or was Jintao just being cheeky?
@Free Radical: Thank you! It's been a pleasure to write for y'all, actually helped me through some tough times.
@knivetheturtle: Much appreciated, though... I just finished! Let me depop in peace! More seriously, I have some other ideas I'd like to do, which is why I wanted to wrap this up as nice as I could. I'm frankly just happy to have finished.
@Falcore51: Glad you liked it, and thanks for sticking through it all this time.
I actually had a rather depressing internal debate over which/how many characters might get killed off, but decided there really wasn't much need for that from a storytelling or causality point of view. Plus, Tar Zhay is sneaky and everything, but if we're going with Civilziation games as a metaphor, their goal isn't the conquest victory, it's the Cultural one. So there was always room for a "happy ending" without that much bloodshed.
Absolutely great fic, it has in my opinion all the things that an erfworld story ought to have: Puns, references, rounded characters and deep characterization, a clear depiction of how the events in the story are a direct product of the character's personalities and decisions, game mechanics and their exploration, different visions on how "Things ought to be" and on how to rule a side, Inventive schemes and strategies, non-conventional thinking, etc.
I Also appreciated the descriptions of the places and, regarding Journey Through the Hungry Jungle, things like "Solo" or "Duo" adventures and survival stories; things i wouldn't have imagined could happen in a world in which someone always knows where you are and can order you and others telepathically (on that note, rebel armies and large numbers of traitors didn't seemed possible before either).
So my ocular fatigue and lack of sleep says: You made a great story!
Before finishing i would like to ask a question: Was Marco already wearing the Blue Star Sapphire Scream Ring during the Capoeira fight that incapacitated the Overlord? That would add with the dance-fighting to explain his success; if that were the case, however, How could he get then punched in the stomach after being subdued? Was his success only due to dance-fighting with the ring not being involved yet?
Anyhow, thanks for the story! :D
@madmed: Thank you! It was a challenge to write, but fun. A lot of stuff was going on inside the story that wasn't always visible, so it was really fun to write parts like "Homefronts" and "Five Foreign Friends" with all the usually non-POV characters acting and reacting to events, because the world is always moving, even when the main cast isn't on page. Mostly, I'm just happy it was fun to read.
@IODQ: Much appreciated! Over a year ago when I read the wiki entry on Tar Zhay, a lot of these possibilities just immediately jumped out at me. Without a ruler, most sides would perish, but thanks to it's ruler's foresight and ideology, Tar Zhay was able to turn it around. And the Emperor's absence also created all this story space where so many things and people could slip thought the cracks, and it just fascinated me. And, well, I'm glad it interested you too.
Regarding the Capoeira fight. Yes, Marco slipped it on just before he broke out Dance Fighting, to maximize his chances. In my headspace, the Capoeira gives massive dodge bonuses, and a bonus to unarmed attacks that's almost as good as wielding a weapon. Almost. Plus, though not a mechanical bonus, it's just as unusual to defend against in Erfworld as in stupid world, so being unexpected makes it more effective. Still, without conventional armor, Marco would have wanted every possible advantage in his last ditch attempt to personally croak Hugo.
The ring has a bit of a backstory, and if/when I come back to this, I'll probably go deeper into it. Shortly after Ray was captured and he was still happy to have been turned, he, Elvie and Selena talked about working together and using their magic in tandem. One result was that they modified Hugo's ring using all three of their disciplines. It wasn't a Thinkamancy Trilink, just a series of joint spells, designed to click together like reinforcing Lego pieces. Elvie used Dollamancy to give the Ring, it's wearer, and attackers Motion-- specifically, to move threats away / away from threats. Ray used his Findamancy (Life element, Erf axis) so whoever previously kissed it so they were always on the radar of the Ring's two other spells, and give a bonus to attacking that person. And crucially, Selena used Turnamancy to give the ring the ability to read motivations: anyone attacking with intent to croak triggered Elvie's spell's defense.
Setting it to a lower "threat level", namely anyone with intent to harm, would have burned out the ring and/or was beyond Selena's ability at the time. This limitation is why the guards could physically restrain Marco when he incapacitated Hugo, they only wanted to restrain, not croak. Chief Prezi could also gut punch Marco because he didn't intend to croak him, just hurt him.
Such a fantastic story / pair of stories! Seriously, this is the best Erf-fic I've ever read. Rob needs to bestow as many schmuckers as he can on you for your work!
Seriously excellent work building a complex couple of sides and characters with a ton of heart and a diverse cast. Major kudos for all of that.
One question remains for me... what is Twister up to? That was a while ago, but is the one piece that never saw resolution... hope to hear about it and revisit these characters someday!
@jovalicious: Thank you! I really appreciate it, it's been a blast writing these. A lot of work over a long time, but as a labor of love, it really leaves you satisfied, and comments like yours really drive that home.
Speaking of work, there is something is in the works regarding Twister. It's a bit of an undertaking writing something on this scale, so it'll be a while before it does.
Mostly I may take a few weeks or months to refresh. I've got a different set of stories I've been wanting to write out. Maybe not to the length of the Hungry Jungle series, but a bit of a change of scenery to keep working out those writing muscles.
I've been very busy with work so I stopped all my pleasure reading for about a month. Just came back to this and read the last several chapters all in one go. What a story! Your ability take on so many different, unique voices is really something else. I laughed, I got choked up, I cheered... This is a top 5 Erf story for me.