Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) - Episode 077
She couldn‘t technically get lost in her own city, but Jillian took as many random turns and sudden jogs and detours as she could. Like most Level 5s, Efbaum had buildings enough for thousands of units in it, all standing empty and unused.
She let Faq‘s turn end on its own, and walked around until well after the sunset, trying to tire herself out. Her father and his casters might be able to center themselves by sitting perfectly still in one spot. Jillian did it this way, by walking, pacing, stomping on the terrain.
It was working. She was starting to trip over paving stones, and bump her elbows into the corners of buildings.
In part, that was due to the darkness. These streets were gray-black, lit only by stars and a lone powerball at about every fifth intersection. It was a mercy to lose all the emerald green in blackness, but her mind was still twisted from dreams. It seemed to want to fill in the shadows with things that weren‘t there.
Things that... probably weren‘t there, anyway. She hoped.
In this solitude, this darkness, she had to wonder if what she‘d seen in flower dreams might be real. Could it be that the buds opened a window into something? Somewhere?
She stopped for a moment, peering into the angular shadows of these empty barracks and cottages. Those black spaces between the few dim shapes she could make out, those were like the extra directions she could see when she was dreaming. Holes in reality. Other sides to things. Maybe she could step right out of this world by walking into the right doorway.
On a whim, she decided to try it. She drew Three-Edged and held it out in front of her, and stepped into the darkest shadow.
Three steps, four, fi– and the sword clacked on brick.
Just a wall. She tapped it in a line, crab-walking slowly away from the light. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tick, thump. She found a wooden door. She sheathed her sword, found the cold brass knob, turned it, and went inside.
This building was a granary. There were small windows to the street, with no panes in them, letting in a trace of light. She could see piles of empty burlap sacks and wooden barrels, and a staircase to the second floor.
Upstairs, she found a loft with a timber-frame ceiling. Two tiny, empty windows. A bed with a plain straw-tick mattress and no pillow. Simple and anonymous. It looked pretty good to her.
Minutes later, the Chief had shed her armor and was trying to tuck herself into the rickety bed without acquiring too many splinters. If ordinary dreams were her only doorway out of this world, then she‘d take them.
The dry straw crunched under her weight, reminding her distinctly of her fight with the scarecrow.
On nights following a battle, she would lie awake and play the action over in her mind. Move-by-move she would critique her own performance, the feats and the falters. Scripture said it was a part of leveling, and she did it faithfully.
Tonight, she found it difficult.
The golem fight wasn‘t her finest hour, and it was the first and only time her father had ever seen her at work. He‘d been completely horrified at all of it. Yes of course. Of course he had.
She shifted uncomfortably on the straw, balling up her fists. Was there something else she could be thinking about? Battle plans usually fit that bill, but there were none. How could there be? King Banhammer only wanted to go home.
A Chief Warlord might have some limited power to override the Ruler in matters of strategy and tactics, but fundamental goals of the side–the grand strategy–that was up to him alone. If the King wanted Faq to go back into hiding where it had lurked for thirteen thousand turns, then there was nothing she could do but obey. Her job became planning how to get everybody home safely.
To that end, she‘d reviewed Efbaum‘s production options and decided to pop high horses. They were decent, tunnel-capable ground mounts that popped at the rate of one per turn. There was at least one underground route into the valley, two if Haffaton dug through a mountain themselves. She‘d have to ask Wanda what route they–
She heard a birdlike whistle outside. A little patch of light was moving over the timber beams above her head.
Oh, Titans. So much for two hours of trying to get lost.
“I thought you weren‘t a ranger, Jack,” she called up to the ceiling, still lying flat on her back.
“All trades, you know,” came his faint voice from the street. “I only just learned that one today, from an admirable and capable tutor. Might I come in?”
She sighed, not ready to admit she was grateful for friendly company. “Yeah, c‘mon up.”
“Seriously, how‘d you find me?” Jillian asked him. He stood on the wooden floor, holding a white powerball. She sat on the edge of the bed.
“Oh, you‘ve an interest in magic now?” he smiled. “Princess, the tricks of my trade are guarded jealously. You‘d have to use either the keenest subtlety to puzzle them out of me, or the cruelest brute interrogation.”
“Tell me,” she ordered.
“I cast a beacon that only you could see, high over your head. The ceiling must have blocked it for you, but I followed it right here,” said the Foolamancer, pouting. “And that‘s really not fair.”
“Huh. Not bad,” said Jillian, nodding appreciatively. “And you should know I‘m not subtle. I hate riddles.”
“Yes, but the brute interrogation route deserved some exploration, I thought. Seems like something you might discover a latent talent for. If you‘ll pardon the anagram.”
She shook her head. “No. Not after what I‘ve been through.”
His smile faded. “Bad, was it? I can‘t imagine.”
“You can imagine anything, Jack Snipe. That‘s your line,” she said.
He gave her a different kind of smile, less comical and more meaningful. They locked eyes. “Yes, I suppose I can. Even fantastical things,” he said, in a lower voice.
With Jack, you only ever knew a portion of what he meant. Jillian stared at him, trying to imagine what he was driving at. “So...you found me. What did you want? Why‘d you come looking?”
“I wanted to see if you were all right,” he said.
“Unlikely,” said the Jack, “given ‘what you‘ve been through.‘ Is there anything I can do?”
Her eyelids were feeling heavy. She swallowed. “I dunno. Just...keep the King off my back, okay?” Banhammer could order her to the Garrison for a chewing out any time he liked. There was no walking away, no hiding in random spots like she did in the field. “I need some time alone. Let him...meditate for a while on how much he hates me.”
Jack‘s eyebrows knotted. “I wouldn‘t say he hates you.”
“He hates what I do,” she scowled. “Same thing.”
“I‘m not sure it is.”
“Jack...” she sighed. “Okay, look. I‘m a warrior. What I do is what I am. I fight for the side. That‘s my only calling, my only passion, and my only reason to exist. And he can‘t deal with that. He saw me swing a sword for Faq, and it just...turned his stomach.”
Jack flicked the powerball to the ceiling with a deft little gesture. He walked over and sat down on the bed beside her. It gave a little creak. His shoulder rubbed against hers, and it felt warm and friendly.
“Something we discuss at Court rather too much is a unit‘s sense of identity, and how it may or may not differ from the role that they were popped to fill. You‘ve a passion,” he said, leaning very close to her, “for your designated role, as you see it. But who you are, personally...that is something separate.”
He smelled nice. He always did. She wondered if that was something he projected, or if it was his natural Signamancy.
“I don‘t think so, Jack. I am what I am.”
“It‘s possible to test the proposition,” said Jack, his voice going softer. He leaned even closer. “You could, if you allowed yourself to, discover something new and personal about yourself. A drive that isn‘t a passion for combat. You could simply...form a new passion.”
His face was in hers before she could register that he was trying to kiss her. Their lips touched briefly, but she pulled her head back and stood up.
“I‘m sorry,” he said, standing up as well. His hands were out at his sides, helplessly. “I mean, I... I was only trying to...”
Jillian nodded, putting up her hands. “It‘s okay.”
“I do care,” he said. “That‘s the point. I want to see you be well. I think you could be happy in Faq. I... I think I can help you. I want to.”
Jillian closed her eyes for a moment and took in a deep breath. “I know you do, Jack. You‘re my only friend on the Court. You‘re...about my only living friend. You‘ve saved my life a couple of times today, y‘know? I haven‘t thanked you enough. But, just...” She put her hands up. “Not that way. Okay? I‘m sorry.”
The shadows from the light above made his face a mask of tragedy.
“No, I am. I‘m truly sorry, my Princess.” He gave her a genuine, courtly bow. “Forgive my transgression.”
“I‘ll take my humble leave,” he said, stepping nimbly toward the stairs. “Please keep the light. It‘s good for chasing away the undesired shadows.”