Huge, elegant, stupidly green. And just as stupidly empty. The City of Efbaum disturbed Jillian. It could trouble her even in the waking dream of a fresh bud.
This one wasn‘t turning out to be a very good dream, either. Not at all. Despite wearing a flower again, she couldn‘t properly let herself go. The angles of this place spooked her, clashed with the dream-angles and made her paranoid of things lurking behind reality. If she lost herself here, she might physically fall or get lost. The heights and spires made her dizzy, nauseous. And yet, following Wanda, she determinedly climbed up a grand spiral staircase to go visit Overlady Judy.
“If you croak her, of course, then Olive will formally rule the side immediately,” said Wanda. “If you do not, then Judy may simply succumb to the bud, as so many of us have. As I will. That takes a long time, but it happens eventually. Olive doesn‘t want that, for obvious reasons.”
Jillian was having trouble following Wanda, both physically up the stairs and conversationally. She grunted. “Nothing‘s obvious,” she muttered. “Why not?”
“Because then you will be Fated to croak her, of course. Or her successor. Either way, her reign would be jeopardized by you.”
“Then why doesn‘t she just croak me?” said Jillian, unhappily. “She said she‘d have you croak and uncroak me.”
“She could try. But it would be a dire mistake,” said Wanda. “Either something would go wrong and you would escape again, or you would perish. But then, something worse would take your place. Worse for her, I mean. Some instrument of Fate that Olive would like even less than you. And she certainly doesn‘t like you. Olive knows she would suffer, for having turned away from Fate.”
“She seemed pretty nice to me, sometimes. She really doesn‘t like me?” Jillian said, feeling pathetic and weak for asking such a thing. In the dream, she saw herself as a yellow marble, rolling down jagged emerald steps and getting tinier and tinier with each clacking bounce.
“Charm is like a spell that costs no juice. Even warlords can be charming. Olive is as much a mistress of that as of Flower Power, and at least as dangerous with it,” said Wanda. Her hollow, airy voice reminded Jillian of the wind in the tower at Goodminton. “She doesn‘t like anyone but herself, in truth. But she does need people to love her. So if you can‘t escape her, then it‘s best to pretend. She eliminates those she cannot sway.”
The walls buckled and shifted. Jillian tripped on a step, falling into the back of Wanda‘s legs. This was not the first time she had stumbled on these stairs, either. She lay on her belly for a moment, breathing green air. Then she took Wanda‘s hand, and pulled herself up by the banister rail.
At the touch, her dream-world became clearer, safer-feeling. She decided that she rather liked holding Wanda‘s hand, and did not let go this time. Nor did Wanda seem to mind.
“D‘she eliminate whatsis– Maxwell?” she asked, remembering some of the rest of what Wanda had said about Haffaton. They took the stairs more carefully now, walking side by side.
“Well, she made the hero buds with him, and Tina. So he had those. They discovered or created other means to self-destruction involving Flower Power as well. Maxwell liked experimenting. He went exploring Thinkamancy through Hippiemancy. Then I would say she just...denied him the way back,” said Wanda. “She didn‘t so much eliminate him as choose not to save him. Their relationship was complex. Everyone‘s relationship with Maxwell was complex.”
Jillian shook her head. What Wanda was talking about sounded like the Court of Faq, only worse. All that caster business and politics. “Don‘t understand.”
“Mm, well. Maxwell liked to link up with other casters while intoxicated. We did things with our disciplines–and with our bodies, usually–which I couldn‘t properly describe to you. I had the idea for memorial stones while linked with him and Komatsu, and I learned enough Dirtamancy to create them afterwards. I held glimpses of things even greater, mostly lost to me now.”
She fell silent for a while, thinking. “He was reckless, but we all did our finest work under Maxwell. Eventually, though, he ventured out too far from shore, and Olive would not rescue him. He was lost, destroyed by his own Thinkamancy.”
There was yelling coming from somewhere, and Jillian didn‘t think it was from her dream. No, a woman was definitely shouting. The harsh tones echoed through the grand, poison-green hallways.
“No! I wanted to believe, and I tried my disbandedest to believe, in the rainbow I tried to get over, and I couldn't! … So what? Lots of people can't!”
“Is that Judy?” whispered Jillian.
“Yes,” said Wanda, looking worried. “Be careful. Be quiet.”
At the far end of a slick, black-green hallway, a huge set of doors was hanging partly open. The light of bright power balls spilled out and made a few of the walls glint and sparkle. Wanda led Jillian forward. Their bare feet made no noise.
“And you! I think you knew all along!” The Overlady‘s voice was ragged with incoherent rage. “Didn‘t you! Sack of straw! No brains! Holding out on me all along, you were. You were the best at it. My best friend, right? Well that‘s a laugh!”
They crept closer to the open door, until they could see Judy standing inside. The room was beautifully appointed, and full of bright colors other than green. The curtains were white and indigo. There was an embroidered settee in deep crimson. The furniture was stained hardwoods, inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl.
Seated–or laying– in an ornate chair was an ordinary scarecrow unit. Jillian recognized it as the unit she had seen in the city once before. It was the object of Judy‘s wrath. It did not move or look at her, but it was definitely an active unit.
“You had brains enough. You just didn‘t do anything about her! You were the one lacking courage, not him! He got himself killed for me. That was never you though! Ohhh no.”
Cautiously, Wanda led Jillian into the room. Judy did not take notice. Her eyes were wild, and she stalked around the scarecrow, pointing at it accusingly and stomping her stockinged foot. She wore a bud in her gray-black hair. Jillian watched the scene, which was no weirder than the dreams she usually lived in, and felt horrified. Embarrassed for Judy. She‘d never seen a ruler reduced to a state like this.
“You didn‘t have the courage or the heart! You didn‘t have the heart to tell me, did you? Or the courage to stand up to her? But you had the brains all right! You knew! Well now you don‘t even have those anymore.”
“Overlady,” Wanda almost whispered. Jillian felt her hand tighten its grip slightly.
Judy‘s head snapped around like a dwagon‘s. She focused her gaze for a moment on Jillian, then fixed it on Wanda. “What?!” she shouted.
“We‘ve come to ask you something,” said the Lady Firebaugh steadily, respectfully. This was news to Jillian, but she assumed Wanda knew what she was saying. “May I pour chocolate, and will you grant us an audience?”
Judy‘s face twisted. Jillian could almost see her dragging herself out of some personal agony and back to the present reality, and realized this was probably what she looked like when she was coming down from the dreams.
“No chocolate!” snapped Judy. “Just ask and get out of here!”
Wanda curtsied. “Yes, My Lady,” she said. “Forgive me. It is about the shoes.”