Shadows had moved, lengthened. It was late afternoon now, and still King Banhammer had not emerged from the Wizard’s Hall. Charlescomm had still not ended turn. Their rations hadn’t popped.
“I wonder if we might acquire a meal from the larder,” said Brother Orwell, breaking many long minutes of silence among the group. After several attempts at group discussion had faltered, the casters broke off into little pairs: Marie and Wanda, Jack and Rusty, Orwell with Adderall, and Betsy with Moothfott.
Jillian sat with her back to them all, sharpening her already-sharp sword, rebuckling her perfectly-sound boots. Trying not to think about flowers. Trying not to look at the one in Wanda’s hair.
“Tea would be the thing,” said Adderall, to a murmur of assent.
Jillian had never known this group to be so subdued. Having any three of them in the same room usually created a competition to be the next to speak. But the last hour had passed with only the barest mumbles.
“You know this city, Lady Firebaugh,” said Labeler. “Is there a formal tea service to be had?”
The problem was King Banhammer. They didn’t dare say anything about it, but even Jillian could read between the lines here. Every one of them was personally offended that her father was off by himself, carrying on important discussions without their input. And they didn’t want to discuss anything serious without him.
She smiled to herself, a little wickedly. Must be horrible for them, being ignored by the King. Join the club. Hi, I’m the club president.
“Perhaps not in the same tradition,” said Wanda, rising to her feet. “But a tea service might be scrounged. However, the provisions here are scarce, and...suspect. Much of what we might find would be products of the Olive Garden, and not fit to be consumed. I do not trust my own lay-caster’s command of Flower Power enough to say what would be safe to eat.”
“Pity we just lost a Florist, then,” said Betsy. Jillian stopped her whetstone on the blade, and turned around to look at the Healomancer. Yes, she’d been looking right at her Chief Warlord when she said it.
“Yeah, pity,” said Jillian. “She could have told us just which foods she poisoned, and which ones were safe. And you would have believed her. You would’ve gobbled it up, right?” Jillian looked at a few of the other faces. “Yum, yum. Eat it up, just like her ‘testimony.’”
She turned back to her blade, rubbing the whetstone for a few more useless strokes.
“That was her discipline,” said a male voice. Moothfott’s, Jillian thought. “Of course she used poisons and intoxicants.”
“Yes, and I would have eaten her food. We all ate her food,” said Betsy. She was standing now, and approaching Jillian. Jillian kept working on Three-Edged, ignoring her. “And we all are alive. Only Olive is croaked. Whose doing was that?”
“Three dozen other Faq units ate her food and croaked,” snarled Jillian. “Remember Bart? Chip? Hedda? You remember taking tea with them? They all croaked from Olive’s poison.”
“As I understand it, that food was raided from an enemy larder,” said Moothfott. “From a purely defensive standpoint, poison seems a cost-effective alternative to a standing garrison force.”
“One could even argue it to be morally preferable,” said another voice. Maybe Labeler. “It’s entirely defensive. Poison apples don’t march off to war.”
“Argue what you want,” said Jillian. “Haffaton marched off to war all the time. They also conquered Faq, Otoh and Kibo.”
“Yes. Specifically,” said Betsy, “this woman did. You led the army which conquered Faq, did you not, Lady Firebaugh? How many of us did you croak?”
“I led the conquest,” said Wanda, “on the order of my Overlord.”
“Who was under Olive’s control!” said Jillian. Now she did turn around and face the group. Betsy could only say so much about her own Chief Warlord, but Jillian would be disbanded if she’d let her pin anything on Wanda.
“Judy did not seem to be under Olive’s control when we saw her,” said Orwell. “She seemed quite in command.”
“I helped her,” said Wanda. “I returned her the Arkenshoes, and helped her to go home.” All eyes were on the frail Croakamancer, who stepped forward now as if to testify in her own defense. And perhaps a new trial was forming. “Judy was near exhaustion from the effects of Olive’s Flower Power. She would not have lived much longer, as I will not.”
Some of the casters looked at one another. Wanda touched the flower in her hair.
“I understand that she had an effect on you. That you saw good in her, and you felt you could be...her redemption,” said Wanda. “But that is an illusion she created for you. You believed it because you wanted to believe it. That was her special power. Beyond what she grew in her Garden, her true power was to know and to say what others wanted to hear. To flatter and charm. You could love her, because she would seem to be what you loved in yourself. To you, she was a creature of peace, a spiritual and intellectual comrade. To others, she was...whatever they wanted to see.
“Make no mistake; Olive Branch was beyond your power to redeem.” Wanda held up her bony hands as if showing a piece of evidence, and looked down at them. “She was a monster, entirely.”
“She’s a monster now,” said Betsy. “You made her one. Her body walks and obeys you, but does not speak. How terribly convenient that must be, as you make her a monster in memoriam as well. Will you make her a ‘stone’ now? Will it say ‘MONSTER’ on it, so that you might have the last word in your personal rivalry?”
Wanda, who had not shied away from Sister Betsy’s piercing gaze, looked away to the ground. “I do not think so. I believe I shall cease planting people in my garden. I think she is best forgotten, as perhaps we all are. Let the Titans alone remember us.” She suddenly looked at Jillian. “When I perish, do not make a stone for me, either.”
Jillian swallowed. She nodded.
“I find it remahkable,” said Sister Marie, “that our own Princess, our brave Chief Wahload, is coming undah such attack, aftah winning Faq’s very suhvival today.” Her tone was stern and matronly, and aimed directly at Betsy. “You don’t get to stand there and criticize. She was Fated to do this. Take your complaints to the Titans, if you want to.” She pointed at Jillian. “Her, you should be thanking. Faq is reborn today.”
A contemplative silence fell. A few of the casters folded their hands to call for meditation, but Moothfott raised an index finger. Marie nodded to him.
“Reborn as what, exactly?” asked the Moneymancer. “This city is not hidden, as Faq was. Haffaton has fallen, but an army is at our gates.” He looked to Jillian. “Are we in danger?”
“Always,” said Jillian. “I’ve tried to make that clear every time I’ve spoken at Court.” She looked eastward, in the direction of the Main Gate. “I don’t know what the High Elves are doing out there, or why they haven’t attacked. But assuming we can deal with that, then the obvious plan is to carve out an empire from the ruins of Haffaton.
“There are sixty-nine barbarian cities out there, barely guarded! And the nearest neighbor is faaaaar away. We have a chance to build a dream side here. We can conquer Haffaton’s former cities one at a time, at our leisure. And I figure from here we can—”
Brother Orwell had raised a finger urgently. “King Banhammer is approaching.”
They all felt a silent order to gather at the steps of the Wizard’s Hall.
They were the Archons that Jillian had encountered in the field. The ones with the elaborate rain gear. Of course they were. Chynna, Carnie and Wendy stood by Banhammer in the grand hallway, while Chief Jillian and the rest of the Court looked up from the steps.
“I have had a vision quest,” said the King. “I am aware of many of the events which have transpired since the smoke fell, but I have only been able to put them in proper perspective with the help of these units.”
He was looking down at them all, seemingly healthy and whole. He made eye contact with everyone but Jillian.
“There was much to be considered, and to you, my friends and subjects and fellow students, I must apologize, but I had to walk this path alone. The clarity of my vision was my guide. There will be time to describe what I have seen, but for now you must trust me. Faq is reborn today.”
Jillian glanced over at Marie, who nodded slightly.
“I have struck a deal with Charlescomm,” said Banhammer, with an air of stern pride. “We are going home.”