“I have placed a single Shockmancy charge on the tower,” said Wanda’s voice. “Let me know when to fire it.”
“She tunned!” exclaimed Marie’s.
“She sees...the gwiffons as...as blocking her path,” said Jack absently, his concentration focused on the illusion he was creating for the fleeing Overlady. “But she isn’t stupid, obviously.”
Standing there in the main street of Efbaum, blind Jillian nodded. She tried to picture the battle in her mind’s eye, but couldn’t imagine Olive would be stopped cold by such an obvious trick. Not after what they did to her instrument. “No, she won’t get Fooled again.”
“She is still tunning, though,” said Marie. “She’s climbing.”
“Not just flying right through the fakes?” asked Chief Jillian.
“No...” said Jack, after a slight hesitation.
The Croakamancer now spoke softly. “It’s not her way, to directly charge at an enemy. Even one she’s fairly sure is unreal. She’ll always need a hidden advantage before confronting a threat.”
“I’m...using it against her,” Jack struggled to explain. “Allowing her view of things to, ah...lag behind...the actual.”
Jillian understood right away what that would do to a flying unit. Olive would be turning more sharply than she thought. Maybe she’d even turn completely around. And she wouldn’t necessarily expect this second form of Foolamancy, after spotting the first. The Jack’s tricks had tricks inside of them.
As more moments passed, she locked her fingers together and hoped for the best. But her casters were not telling her what was going on. She didn’t know if the next thing she’d hear would be “we got her” or “she got away.”
“I’m trying to Predict the shot, Wanda,” said Marie eventually. Her voice was low, and thick with tense frustration. “I’m only evah seeing that we miss.”
“Where are the gwiffons, Jack? How close?” asked the Chief.
“Closing,” said Jack. “I’ve got her...turned almost parallel to the outer walls. They’re cutting strai—a straight path. Toward her. Still fifteen seconds behind. She may still get out.”
“It’s all zeros!” said Marie, sounding upset. “This is not Fate’s plon for Olive Branch. Fate doesn’t want her croaked this way.”
“Fate can suck a sweaty sausage!” said Jillian, making a pair of fists. What, was the entire game rigged against Faq? Small chances she could deal with, but zero chance was just unfair. Was that how the Titans played, for real? The world was run by cheaters? Everything was all Carnymancy? “Shoot the broom, then!” she snapped. “The broom’s the problem, right? Shoot for the dismount, ’n let her fall inside the city!”
Marie whispered something trancelike under her breath.
A little breeze blew, carrying the faraway scent of heroine buds to Jillian’s nose. Her stomach twitched. Her fists stayed clenched. No-one else said a word.
A battle for two kingdoms was going on in the sky above her, but she couldn’t see or hear anything of it. Even her big gwiffon heavies up there were running veiled and silent, emitting nary a peep. She had to play it all out in her own imagination.
So what, if anything, was really real? What was in her head? After everything she’d been through on this mission, could she even tell anymore?
Marie cleared her throat. “It tuns out Fate doesn’t motch care for that broom,” she said, sounding strangely amused. “Princess, you should ordah the gwiffons to fly below her. Wanda, take my hand, please.”
Jillian’s sense of unfairness was now fixed on something a lot less important. Still, to be blind right now...she did feel pretty cheated.
“That thing where you can share what you’re seeing with me...”
“I’m sorry, my Chief Warlord, I can’t now. I haven’t the juice left.”
“No, I know,” said Jillian. “But...do you think you can remember all of this? And show it to me later?”
Jack chuckled. “Of course! The moment of great triumph, and everything. Or...you know, if not all of it, then certainly the important parts.
“To describe it for you now: the three gwiffons are in a smart formation. Very prim. They are just now clearing the last low building, and...now settling down to hover their way along the main thoroughfare toward us. The Overlady is gripped tightly in the maw of the lead gwiffon, arms pinned behind her, shackled feet free and dangling. She is not struggling, but she has turned her head to look our way. Her hair’s a fright. A lot of it’s stuck to the gwiffon’s lips.”
Jillian smiled. “Gwiffons have lips?”
“Well, you know.”
“Thanks, Jack,” said Jillian. Her head hurt, her ribs hurt, but she still smiled at Jack Snipe. He was so cute sometimes, the way he put things. Even just his words could put wonderful images in her mind.
“Are you going to execute her, Chief Warlord?” asked Lady Firebaugh, standing close behind Jillian.
Her smile went slack.
Wanda’s rough, breathy voice was familiar, but the tone had something strange in it. Respect. She was querying a superior officer. Surprisingly, her neck tingled at the sound of it. All that time in the glass box, all that time at the mercy of “Mistress.” Now she could give Wanda orders. How was it going to be from now on?
“Yeah,” answered Jillian. “I was thinking about having the gwiffon smother her right now, but how can you pass up the chance to croak a Level 12 caster? I’ve never even seen a Level 12 caster besides her. I’ll level up for sure.”
“I think it might still be wise to do it now,” said Wanda.
“Why? She can’t cast or anything.”
“She can speak. She has tricks. And this is still Haffaton’s turn. They will know she is here, and they will send forces.”
Jillian considered the advice. “What do they have that can reach?”
“High Elves, mostly,” said Wanda. “Some uncroaked infantry, a warlord or two.”
“Enough to take the city?”
“I don’t think so. Perhaps.”
Jack’s voice now said, “She is nearing. Closing within earshot.”
“Well, tell me if there’s any sign of trouble,” said Jillian, lowering her tone a bit. “If even one arrow hits the outer walls, I’ll order the gwiffon to snuff her.”
“No. You will not.” said her father’s voice.
“Also,” added Jack, “the King has arrived. Sire.”
Jillian turned roughly in the direction that Banhammer’s voice had come from, and raised her chin, trying to strike a defiant pose. For all she knew, she was looking the wrong way and looked ridiculous, but whatever.
“Yes. I will,” she said. “I told you, the side is at stake.”
“It isn’t any longer,” said Banhammer. “She is our prisoner. The battle is won. So there’s no sense in it. We will talk with her.”
“There’s plenty of sense! Haffaton hasn’t fallen yet! We have one city, they have...” Jillian didn’t know, actually.
In the pause, there was a soft sound on the breeze. Crying. Olive’s honor guard was coming in for a landing.
“Sixty-nine,” said Wanda.
“Titans, are you serious?!” exclaimed Jillian. She drew Three-Edged from her back. “Yeah. We’re at war, Daddy. That’s my side of the business. We win it now. With one chop, we’re gonna take over the biggest side in the world.”
The sobbing was coming in close now. Jillian could hear the casters moving aside to make room for the landing beast. “Over here,” she pointed with her off hand, not wanting to sweep her sword blindly.
“Loj, help meeee,” Jillian heard Olive plead, as the gwiffon brushed by her. “Don’t let her take my life! What about the Service of Life? What about the Service of Justiiihice!”
She could hear the gwiffon set down in the street. She might need a little help with the aim now...
“Princess Jillian!” boomed Banhammer, with all the might of a King’s command. “Sheathe your sword!”
Jillian froze. It was not an easy thing to disobey an order, and she had a little less reason to do it now than she had before. Olive was Faq’s prisoner now. The imminent threat was over, as far as anyone knew.
“Loj, what about the Service of Love? I love you!”
“Sheathe it at once, or I’ll disband you!” shouted the King.
Jillian looked up to the sky in her blindness, not knowing what she was trying to see. Nothing could help. She had no way to ignore this order. She found herself sliding Three-Edged slowly back into its scabbard.
“King Banhammer,” said Marie, in a low growl. “Disbanding your daughter would be a crime you could nevah answer for. A crime against the whole wuhld, with consequences beyond your imagination. You must let her fulfill her Fate now. And you must not divert from your own! You know she will be Queen of Faq aftah you. You cannot allow yourself sotch intellectual cowahdice. Your wisdom means nothing if you do! Your life is wuss than nothing!”
The group fell silent. Even Olive stopped crying at this incredible affront.
“My life,” said Banhammer slowly, “is worse than nothing if I am only Fate’s mechanism, its...blind tool. I would be a better man. I would be wise. I would be just. I would be good. And,” he said, drawing a deep breath, “I would be free to be all of those things, by the choices of my own mind and heart.”
“You ah free. To do evil, to commit a crime, yes,” said Marie. “But don’t.”
“The execution is the crime!” exploded Banhammer. The shout echoed from the towers and buildings all around them. Jillian had only heard him lose his temper a few times. It was frightening each time.
“I don’t think so,” said Jack Snipe.
“I know it is not,” said Marie.
“I have pledged you my Loyalty, Your Wisdom,” said Wanda, “Please accept my counsel on this matter.”
“No!” said Olive. “Loj, she hates me!”
After the barest pause, Banhammer said, “Speak, Lady Firebaugh.”
“The evil this woman has done in the world may exceed your comprehension,” said Wanda. “Each turn she has been alive has come at the cost of someone else’s misery. She must be executed, without delay, by Princess Jillian’s hand.”
Jillian wished she could see faces. She could only hear the muted sound of Overlady Branch, hovering on the verge of tears.
Her father spent a long time in thought. Jillian didn’t want to think about what he might decide. She just mentally rehearsed the sword draw she’d make, if he granted permission.
“We don’t discuss the Service of Justice nearly enough at Court, do we?” he said at last.
“Bit of a running joke, really,” said Jack. “Isn’t it? Where is the model? The natural justice we’re meant to emulate? There is none. It’s an unjust world.”
“But I’ve often insisted: Justice is ours alone, to make,” said King Banhammer. “And so we shall. I have recalled the other casters here. Two of them have already arrived; Betsy is on her way to help Orwell. Lady Firebaugh, Croakamancer of the Court of Faq, you will have your chance to test what is beyond my comprehension. We will conduct a trial.
“You shall prosecute, and the Court and I shall judge.”