The things Jillian had learned and the things she had only imagined were smeared together in her mind, like two colors of paint on a palette. She‘d certainly lived more days in the Olive Garden, but she couldn‘t say how many. A lot, maybe. With the field of pink flowers at hand, it was easy and pleasant here. And what was time?
Judy lived in the City of Efbaum, which seemed pretty much empty (she had only ever seen a scarecrow unit and some kind of metal golem guarding it). But Jillian found she couldn‘t be there long without getting dizzy and sick. Something about all the shimmering green made her retch. It was the wrong shade or something. She slept outside, on the moss of the stream bank, and ate berries and fruits.
Both by day and by night, she dreamed. She walked in something like space or air, looking at the things behind the things. Everything seemed to have numbers behind it, but the number was too high to count, or she wasn‘t high enough to count it, or something. In the corners of directions that had no names, she saw borders, like hex borders, but these were the edges between reality and...something else. Unreality? Potential reality? Other reality? She didn‘t know, because she couldn‘t go there to see it.
At some point, inevitably, all of that would start to slide away. Falling out of a dream was scary, and could hurt quite a lot.
When Jillian had fallen and her flower was stale, she would sometimes remember things about who she was, what her mission was, and even that she was held captive and she ought to try to escape. The bald jester would return, to shout and curse at her. She tried to go without a flower sometimes, to get her thoughts straight. But the flower dreams were not replaced with clarity, only by headaches and need. No plan of hers to escape or overpower Judy or seize the city lasted even thirty minutes. She always found herself back on the yellow road, back in the field, picking a new flower. Dreaming again.
Then came a day when she didn‘t fall down from the dream. She was pulled.
Smoothness touched her hand. It wrapped around her wrist, grabbing firmly and tugging her down (or...out, or some other direction) from the dream. The weird angles collapsed into straight lines, the numbers blurred, sunlight touched her face. The colors were only green leaves and flowers and blue sky. It was morning in the garden.
And Dame Branch was here, holding her hand.
“Hello, Jillian,” said her captor, smiling.
“That‘s me...” she said, just to confirm it.
“Uh huh,” nodded Dame Branch. “It‘s time to talk about your future, dear. If you want one. Can you sit up for me?”
Jillian‘s hand went to her head, feeling a tangle of hair but no flower there. She looked around by the bole of the tree where she‘d slept. The extra one she had picked yesterday was gone. She frowned, and sat up, looking around in quietly frantic confusion.
“You‘ll have one if you‘re good,” said Dame Branch.
The seriousness of that statement struck her a cold-handed slap, and she focused on the Florist. She hadn‘t gone without a flower for a long time now. She didn‘t like that.
“Please...” she said, with a gummy throat.
Dame Branch smiled, looking deeply satisfied. “You see that? We never needed Tina at all.”
Jillian shook her head, not knowing the name “Tina.” But Dame Branch wasn‘t addressing her now. She let go of Jillian‘s hand and rose to her feet, turning to look back over her shoulder.
“Your failure and hers, Wanda. Remember that. Life conquers all.”
Jillian‘s heart, already pounding for fear of not getting another flower, tripped over itself at the name. The view behind Dame Branch‘s golden hair was no longer just a blur of colors. One of those blurs wasn't the thin white sapling she‘d taken it for. It was Mistress–or, it was Lady Firebaugh.
Jillian squinted, pulling the Croakamancer into focus. She looked different now. Worse. She was wearing only some kind of white gauze, wrapped around her cadaverous body in strips. Her skin was nearly as pale as the gauze. And she wore a pink flower in her hair. Jillian‘s fear mixed with envy, and she considered pouncing to grab it.
“Yes, Mistress,” said the Lady Firebaugh, with lids half-closed. Her posture was slumped, defeated. “Although...she hasn‘t yet–”
“She‘s about to. Now, Jillian,” said the Florist, crouching and turning a kind face to her once more, “you must know we can‘t afford to keep you as a prisoner forever. We could use a warlord of your level, but we can‘t pay your upkeep if you‘re not going to be on our side. So it‘s time for you to turn to Haffaton, dear. What do you say?”
After all of this time, something reached through to what Jillian recognized as herself. The enemy...yes, that‘s right, the enemy was asking her to turn! She couldn‘t bring herself to speak, but the look on her face must have told all. She clamped her lips together and shook her head violently. It was all she could do. Words wouldn‘t come.
Dame Branch continued to smile, but her eyes no longer did. “Now, Jillian. The alternative is rather gruesome, I have to admit. Do you want to go the way of the other warlords from Faq? Do you want to be croaked, and your body used like a puppet?”
Jillian shook her head again, keeping her lips pressed together. Tears were forming at the corners of her eyes, and her face felt hot. This was just unfair.
“Do you want a flower?” asked Dame Branch.
“Yes!” blurted Jillian. Oh Titans, she wanted one.
“Well, you can have lots of them, dear! All you want,” she said. “But you‘ll have to earn them. You‘ll have to undo some of the damage you‘ve done, and play nice with us, and defend Haffaton instead of wrecking everything, okay?”
A whole chorus of voices shouted “No!” inside her aching head. The little fat jester was among them. Jillian‘s mouth hung open, and she shook her head helplessly.
“I understand,” said Dame Branch sadly. “But let me show you something that may change your mind. Can you stand up for me?”
It came with the force of a captor‘s order, and Jillian lacked any strength to resist. She took the offered hand, and rose to her feet. Dame Branch led her around the tree to the stream bank. Lady Firebaugh followed at a distance.
“Look down,” said Dame Branch. “Do you recognize these plants?”
Jillian looked. At her feet, lovingly planted between the roots of the great tree she‘d slept beneath were tiny miniature trees. She certainly did know them. No longer in porcelain pots, no longer kept on pedestals, these were the tiny, revered trees of the Court of Faq.
And on the stream bank, newly planted wussywillows grew beside the thorny red rosebushes. Jillian‘s mouth hung open for a moment. Then she dropped to her knees in the mud, and put her hands over her eyes, and let out a mournful, lupine howl.
“Your Loyalty isn‘t your fault, really,” said Dame Branch, putting her hand on Jillian‘s sobbing shoulder. “It‘s even admirable. But it‘s misplaced. There‘s nothing left to be loyal to now but Haffaton.”
Jillian curled in a ball on the muddy ground, pulling away from the enemy‘s hand and crying into her stomach. Her hair touched a soft branch from one of the little trees. Dame Branch allowed her to weep.
If Faq was gone, there was nothing to be alive for. Why fight anything or anyone? No, she would rather croak and have her body used by Mistress Wanda. Let Mistress have her way, she didn‘t care. Maybe it would bring her some joy. Send my spirit to the Titans. She would not serve here willingly.
But she could say none of that. She could only lay there, crying into the mud. The voices in her head were crying, too. The whole world was crying.
But not the jester.
For once, the jester in her mind did not dance and yell. He stood with his hands folded before him, his mouth closed, his expression somber. As her attention fell upon him, it was as if a beam of sunlight fell in a circle around him, and all the wails and cries were muted.
“Banhammer lives. Do not turn,” said the jester. Then the beam of sunlight brightened, and he faded away.
She stopped crying. She was all here now, sober. Lying in the mud in the enemy‘s lovely garden. She sat up, and with sudden clarity said, “But...Faq didn‘t fall.”
Jillian heard Lady Firebaugh make some kind of stifled sound.
“Faq, Otoh, and Kibo are Haffaton cities now,” said Dame Branch evenly.
“I‘m not a Ruler,” said Jillian. “My father escaped, didn‘t he? He finally got off his huge keister and moved!”
Dame Branch took a deep, slow breath. “Would you like a flower, Jillian?”
“Yes,” she said again. “But I won‘t turn for one...”
“You don‘t have to, today,” said Dame Branch. “For now, just tell me where you think they went.”
“They.” Jillian gaped. The corners of her mouth turned ever so slightly upward. “The whole Court got out?”
Dame Branch no longer even faked a smile. “Where did they go, Jillian? Are they going to be a problem for us?”
“No,” said Jillian. In combat, the Chief trusted herself to find a reserve when things got tough. But she amazed herself with the magnificent lie that spilled right out of her mouth. “No, I don‘t think so. They would have gone south. Father always planned to join Transylvito if we got conquered. That‘s probably where he went. I bet they‘re just negotiating for everyone to turn now. I guess they‘ll only be a problem if you try to take Transylvito.”
Dame Branch looked into her eyes for a long moment, but Jillian kept her gaze steady, sincere, needy. That last part, she didn‘t have to fake.
The Florist stood and turned around, walking up to Lady Firebaugh, whose chin was raised.
“I did say...” said the Croakamancer.
The Florist‘s left hand flashed out and grabbed the Lady Firebaugh‘s throat. With her right hand, she tore the flower from the Croakamancer‘s hair and tossed it over her shoulder at the tree. Jillian leaped to her feet and greedily retrieved it from the mossy carpet. She attached it to her head, and the glorious relief washed over her. The first trickles of new dreams dripped into her mind, and she sat back down on the mossy path to welcome them.
When she looked up, Dame Branch was putting something different in Lady Firebaugh‘s hair. It was a hoop, made of twisted rose stems. The blossoms had been torn off of it and tossed aside carelessly. She put the thorny circlet on Lady Firebaugh‘s bowed head and smacked it in place, causing the Croakamancer to cry out.
“There, be right,” said Dame Branch petulantly. “Enjoy being right. Is that fun? Here!”
She grabbed Lady Firebaugh by the arm now, and hurled her. She tumbled to the ground beside Jillian, who gawked.
“Enjoy it together! Be little conquered sweethearts together! You can trade stories of how Haffaton rolled over you. Maybe she‘ll get up in the middle of the night and put you out of my misery!”
Jillian tried to ask a question, but the dreams were coming now. She lay back down on the moss, and forgot what a “question” was.