Ch. 1- All in a Popping
“Fwip!” It was a bedchamber. Worse, it wasn’t his. His. Now there was a thought. He hardly had time to think it before a new sensation hit him. Warmth swelled to his cheeks. Blushing. Embarrassment. He was embarrassed to be here. Some other sense was filling him in on the details. There was a mirror in the corner. It had an elaborate baroque bronze frame, all curls and waves.
There he was. He wore a... raiment--that was it--a raiment of a charcoal grey tunic with a V-neck collar that descended to the middle of his hairless chest. A symbol hung there on a loop of black string, a necklace. A circle with an arrow. A sign. “Of course! Everything’s a sign,” he thought; well, not exactly. That would be the best summation he could later give of the feeling he had in that instant. On his right shoulder there was a single pauldron that covered a fair bit of his chest on that side. Like the sign around his neck, the pauldron was an electric blue. A strap from the pauldron down to his belt held the small tunic tight to his body. His grey slacks flared out at the bottoms, and … he was barefoot? Odd. He shrugged and looked in the mirror again. His attention had been drawn to the sign on his chest and the tilt of the mirror meant he couldn’t see his face. A half step toward the bed and there he was in the mirror. His face. Him. A round face with a round nose, electric blue eyes, and--oh, good grief!--on his head rose three great spikes of... electric blue hair.
“There you are!” A lilting voice came from the door. He turned to see who it was. A man with black slicked-back hair parted deeply on the left-hand side stood in the doorway in evening attire, a white bowtie tied neatly at his tuxedo shirt’s collar and a black suit jacket with tails. The man took a few steps forward and came to a sudden halt. His eyes resting on the Sign on the newly popped unit’s chest. He squinted. It was an odd expression given the dark haired man’s square jaw. “A HIPPIEMANCER!! ...oh, great...,” the man grumbled. and then said half to himself and half to no one in particular: “A Florist at least... we could have used... but a Signamancer...”
“But everything’s a Sign.”
Dismissively as though it were an afterthought, the other man asked, “Name and specialization?”
“Brian Rumble, Signamancer... ...Level 1, novice-class.” His voice dropped as if he were admitting it to himself. Even as he said it, something felt off, awkward, wrong about it. It wasn’t his name. That was him again; that was right. He looked down at his own hands. His hands looked to him as if they were so much more than the hands of Brian Rumble, the novice Signamancer.
“Well, you’d better come with me. The Queen will want to meet you...” the man trailed off, “Look, don’t mention your discipline when I introduce you... just say you’re a caster, okay?” Brian scrunched up his round nose into a wrinkle. “Do that for me and I won’t let on where you popped.” Brian looked around for a second... was he still blushing? No. Okay, then, still... He quietly nodded his assent. The two stepped out into the hallway, and after a few steps the other man turned, ran his hand over his hair, “Heh... where are my manners? My name’s Stanton Tyrone, Chief Carnymancer of Falderal. You can call me ‘Stanty’ if you like.” The man held out his hand. Sign of trust, handshake.
Brian reached out and shook the hand offered to him firmly. His hand slipped out, slimey. “Stanty” turned around and started walking, “Welcome to the side!” Brian looked at his hand. Some sort of Signamancy stuff responsible for the man’s slicked back hair was smeared on his hand. He wiped it on his bell-bottom slacks and trotted after Stanton.
They went down some stairs in a great hall. A three storied garrison, plus tower and dungeon. He’d popped in the main garrison? That didn’t seem right. “Do casters usually pop in the garrison?”
Stanton glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, “Not really... Usually it’s the tower or close to the Chief Caster’s quarters.”
Brian’s eyes went wide: “Was that your room!?” He asked with a shock.
“Heh, nothing that bad.”
Brian had been so absorbed with his Chief Caster that he hadn’t paid much attention to his surroundings. The angles to the doors and furniture weren’t square. Two long tables stood against either wall facing each other, opposite ends higher than the other, their drawers all irregular quadrilaterals. The wavey, curly, curvy shapes of the wooden legs reminded Brian of the mirror’s frame in the bedroom where he’d popped. There were six irregularly spaced columns which bowed inward and were wider at the top than the bottom. The walls seemed to lean outward so that the ceiling was wider than the hallway itself. The ceiling was covered in a fan vaulting splayed in that same wavy, curvy baroque as the table legs and mirror frame. In front of them stood two large doors. The open balcony on the second floor around the great hall meant the doors stood nearly two storeys high. Like the columns the doors were wider at the top than the bottom. Footmen stood to either side of the doors armed with long thing polearms, wearing formal attire with frills of lace at their throats and white carnival masks resembling poodles with faintly electric blue puffs covering the upper half of their faces. Helms, the masks functioned as protective headgear. Further out again from the door hung a banner to each side: a charcoal grey shape, bowed in at the sides, with an electric blue streak going around the edge and... a poodle curled up in the middle. Just what side am I on?
Stanton pushed open both doors at once and strode into the room, his arms reaching out wide to either side. “Presenting the freshly popped Brian Rumble!” With that, he made a half bow and swept his right arm to his chest in a gesture towards Brian standing behind him. Facing them, a short courtier with a paste mouse mask similar to the guards’ poodle masks backed away from the doors and Stanton before running around to the top of the long table.
A large golden throne stood vacant on a dais. At the base of the dais’s steps sat a long oblong table. The end closest the door was much narrower than the top of the table at the steps. There sat a woman with a giant puffball of very faint gray blue curly hair topped with a huge floppy magenta rose perched precariously to one side. Her gown was likewise magenta, giving her the appearance of a person rising out of a cupcake. Her bright red lipstick covered only the center of her lips in the shape of pursed lips, or a heart. The woman herself was short and squat yet somehow still very imposing, frightening even.
Actually, she sat to the right, not the center top or head of the table. Brian still noted her as his ruler regardless. To her left, sat a similarly short, squat man. He wore trousers with broad vertical stripes of a deep purple alternating with green, a brighter purple suit jacket, a vest underneath with a chain for a pocket watch, but most noticeable of all an enormous black top hat sat on his head with a card tucked into its band. Hat Magician, master-class. The Hat Magician slung his teacup onto the saucer in his right hand, sloshing the tea up and splashing a little on his jacket, then wrenched out his pocket watch, glared at it, and bellowed: “CHAAAANGE PLACES!!”
The mouse-masked courtier had only just taken a seat by a third person at the table when they all stood and dashed madly around, shuffling chairs in and out, two people trying for the same chair. In a matter of six or seven frantic seconds, the top of the table had shifted their seating. Stanton was striding up the hall behind the courtier. Now, the Queen sat at the head of the table. To her right, where she had been seated before, sat the Hat Magician; to her left, stood Stanton and sat the third member of the tea party, a warlord in a brocade suit with a scabbard strapped from one shoulder down to his hip. He wore a mask that looked like a hare’s face with long ears pointing upward.
Stanton bowed low. The Queen raised her white gloved hand, and he took it and kissed it gingerly. “Now, then, Stanty, have our new darling step forward then,” she said with her creaking, crooning voice as Stanton stood with his back to the throne looking back down the hall. Stanton gestured with a level upraised hand flipping his four fingers toward the palm, come here. Brian trotted forward up the left side of the table as both the courtier and Stanton had. The table broadened as it ascended the hall towards the throne. A trick, of sorts, it makes the hall appear longer, the distance to the queen seem greater. Halfway there, Stanton turned his hand so the flat of the palm and fingers faced Brian, stop there.
The members of the tea party eyed Brian sternly. Or so he thought at least for the hare and the mouse, but the masks obscured their faces. “You disappoint me, Stanty,” crooned the queen.
“Ma’am?” Stanton winced. She raised her hand in reply.
“With a name like ‘Rumble’, I should have hoped for a Shockamancer. Now, they can be GREAT fun. Naughty, but fun,” she intoned with a nod. She glared at the sign around his neck. “Signamancer, what do you think of my capital?”
Brian beamed sure he had the right answer, “It’s lovely. Very extravagant and fitting for Her Majesty.”
She raised her hand to him then. “Yes, I hired a Signamancer and Dirtamancer upon my mother’s croaking, at great personal expense, to reform things to my liking.” Personal? It was an expense to the Side. Brian could have rolled his eyes at himself for that thought as he didn’t really care but he managed to keep himself from it. “So, you see, Signamancer, what need do I have for you?”
Brian felt like he’d taken a hit. He felt certain there was more he could offer. He looked down at his hands. They seemed so small when he thought about Signamancy. “I--uh...” He had no answer. He was a Signamancer. He knew. He could alter a unit’s Signs but only superficially; the bonuses weren’t permanent. He could... impose order...HERE!? That thought made his eyes roll.
The Hat Magician took a handkerchief and wiped up some thick sticky stuff from the table. “Now, Your Highness, every value has a casta, afta aul...”
“Every caster has his value,” corrected the mouse with a nod. Brian nodded too. He was sure Door was right and in particular about him.
“Quite. That’s what I said,” the mouse opened his mouth as if to protest but the Queen raised one finger and shook her head with a very slight roll of her eyes. The Hat Magician continued, “He would lessen tuh small cost of maintaining tuh Signamancy of the court and its courtas.” No. More. I can do more. It came out aggressively, hungrily, from within his mind.
The Hatter spoke with a strong, strange accent to his Language. Hat Magician, in court with the Queen: NOT Chief Caster. Brian glanced at the mouse and hare. The mouse-masked courtier was just that, but the hare was a warlord. But not Chief Warlord.
“That is well enough, but I do not need to stop the trickle from the treasury for treacle and tea...” The Queen herself was interrupted by cheers from the rest of the tea party. She did not gesture to stop them.
“I say, good show, Madam!” cheered the Hatter. They all stopped to knock back their cups of tea.
“More tea for all, Sir Door,” the Queen beamed. As the mouse poured tea for each member of court, she continued, “As I was saying, I have no need of Signamancy now. Our trouble,” she paused, waited a half second, then continued with a noncommittal shrug, “is that we are at war. We look great, but we are at war.”
A door to the side of the room off behind the columns opened with a squeak. A man in a shining metal breastplate strode into the room. “Come to meet the new caster, mother!” He yelled out into the hall. Here is the Chief Warlord. He stood a little taller than Brian. His hair was shoulder length and ripply with streaks of golden blonde and light brown. A large sword rested on his hip. “Ah, there he is... he looks like a warlord,” the man said setting his forefinger and thumb to his chin. As far as Brian could tell, he was the first to notice the light armoring with which he’d popped. Brian felt a slight tug in his gut upon seeing the man and a slight blush rise toward his cheeks as he smiled slightly.
“Signamancer, actually,” he answered. The man’s arms dropped. Brian felt a slight pang. Had he just slipped up in his deal with Stanton? The warlord hadn’t been present while the rest were discussing his discipline.
The man’s hands rested at belt-level palms up directed at the Queen, gesture of curiosity and frustration, seeking explanation. “Tell me something, mother! Anything. All those turns...”
The Queen’s brow furrowed and the corners of her mouth dropped, frustration, annoyance. “I know no more than you, Iple,” she turned back to Brian then, “Apologies, Brian, this is my son” she smiled wide, “Prince Iple Sillius, Chief Warlord of Falderal and my Heir.” Brian’s brain frazzled and spluttered all at once. What was that? He felt the beginning of a headache, his first headache. Popping seemed so long ago, and at the going rate, he was a little worried he’d be disbanded in short order.
“Are you alright, Brian?” It was the Queen. Her voice was gentle and smooth this time. He glanced at her and for the first time thought he saw some genuine concern.
“Sorry, sire... headache.” The Queen eyed him as Prince Iple took a seat by the Hat Magician.
“Yes. In any case, Hatta, I believe it is time for introductions?” she asked turning to the Hat Magician who took out his pocket watch again and nodded.
“Welcome, Brian Rumble! These lovely wuvlies are my court: Hatta Matta,” the Hat Magician, “Haigha Matta,” the hare, “and Sir Door formerly of Mouse” the mouse courtier, each nodded their heads in turn. There was a second squeak from the side door.
“Sorry, I’m late, mother,” spoke the voice. Brian noted its tone was soft and apologetic. Mellifluous. Stop that. The younger Prince of Falderal as his brother before him stepped out from columns on the other side of the room. He stood at Brian’s height. Like his brother, he too had streaky hair of golden blonde and light brown, but his came down only to the middle of his ears. His face came down to a pointed chin, just as his nose sloped to a rounded point. The Queen raised her right hand toward him as she had to Stanton, and he dashed over to kiss the back of it.
“No matter, Sirius, here--” she waved her other hand towards Brian, “Meet our newest caster: Brian Rumble.” Sirius stood from his kneeling bow and fixed Brian with a serious stare. Brian felt that pang in his gut again; a wave of tension and heat in his shoulders followed.
“A Hippiemancer,” Sirius stated, breaking into a wide grin, “I’m sure he’ll fit right in.” Brian thought for just a second that the statement had been followed by a roll of the prince’s eyes.
“Yes, a Hippiemancer, but a Signamancer,” the Queen intoned and sighed. It seemed to Brian that a light went on behind her eyes: “Stanton! Take him to the Magic Kingdom. Find out what you’ve done, but you may not spend a single schmucker.” What you’ve done? What had he done?
Stanton shifted bolt upright from a slight slouch, “Yes, Your Majesty, of course. Brian, let’s beat it. Follow me to the dungeons!” Stanton’s reply had a lot of flourish to it. It was showy enough, but the court seated at the table didn’t seem to care. Brian followed Stanton to a door on the left-hand side of the throneroom dais, leaving Sirius standing by the Queen and the court seated around her. As he passed through the door, he heard Hatta exclaim: “CHAAAAAAAAAANGE PLACES!”