Once again, Jillian wore shackles of cold iron upon her wrists and ankles. On the parapet‘s marble floor, she crouched down on bruised knees and elbows, panting for breath, still feeling the afterburn of a series of lightning strikes that had just run through her whole body.
“The box,” said the Croakamancer to the Florist, “was, in some ways, an impediment.”
The shocks had struck her in a methodical order, describing a netlike pattern through her body from feet to head, as if her tormentor had followed a practiced checklist.
“The sense it gave of the prisoner‘s body was surely a help to Tina,” continued Lady Firebaugh, “but my own sense as a Croakamancer is superior to that. I have more finesse, more control. I can make her hurt as much or as little as I wish to. The pain needn‘t blind or paralyze. Mere discomfort has its place in the changing of a mind. Observe.”
The Croakamancer put her hand on Jillian‘s back, and she suddenly found the marble floor to be biting at her with tiny invisible teeth wherever she came in contact with it. She jumped and twisted, then stood up in her iron shackles, hopping up and down on tiptoes, trying to touch the floor as little as she could.
Then, it was just a floor again. She shuddered, and stood there breathing, her fists balled up.
Taking one quick glance at Lady Firebaugh, Jillian lunged at Dame Branch. Her legs betrayed her; her knees failed at Wanda‘s barest finger-gesture, and she fell on her face with a clatter of iron and flesh on stone.
Something was on her tongue; both of her front teeth had broken. She put her forehead to the cold marble, and spat out the chips.
Dame Branch sighed. “I really don‘t care about your methods, Wanda. We‘ve been through this. You think you have control. But you‘ll never know, and that‘s sad. This Motion stuff is just simple mechanics.” Jillian stayed down, but as the Florist moved closer to Wanda, she considered making another try. “So don‘t feel you need to brag to me about your discipline. I won‘t be impressed. Croakamancy is a joke. I just want her turned, or ended.”
“Are you certain about the second?” asked Lady Firebaugh, “given the Prediction?”
“Yes,” said Olive Branch tensely. “I don‘t like how any of this is going. But if we force Fate to come up with another way, then we‘ve at least bought a little more time.”
“Perhaps...” said Wanda, her tone of voice suddenly strange.
Jillian could only see Wanda‘s feet from this pathetic, defeated position. But those feet now turned away, and began slowly walking toward the edge of the parapet. “But perhaps it has now forced Fate to take extraordinary measures.”
Dame Branch gasped. Jillian cautiously lifted her head.
The Florist was backing slowly away toward the tower stairs, looking up in the sky with her mouth agape. Lady Firebaugh, walking in the other direction, was also looking to the sky. Jillian followed their gaze, squinting into the daylit sky.
A tiny yellow dot was moving up there, billowing a trail of black smoke behind it. The smoke took the shape of letters, and then two enormous words were formed:
Olive turned, and fled down the stairs.
The sight of King Banhammer on gwiffonback was enough to make Jillian smile. Even with her smile broken. Even on her knees, with her life held at Wanda‘s fingertips.
Her father, huge and fat and awkward, had still managed to descend from the clouds –materializing from a cloud, in fact–with a measure of regal dignity. Beside him was Sister Marie on her own mount, and Brother Orwell and Jack Snipe riding double on a third. They floated at the edge of the tower parapet, unable to cross the city zone to attack.
“I cannot release her to you,” said Lady Firebaugh, continuing the parley, “but we may allow you to leave without harm.”
Despite her situation, Jillian laughed sharply. Wanda‘s finger was on her throat, and with the tower boost, the enemy caster would have plenty of raw Shockamancy to end her life. But the “leave without harm” bit was a joke.
She‘d just seen Wanda fire off the tower‘s air defense spells, and not hit any real target. Jack‘s decoys took all of the shots. Jillian figured that Marie must have been directing him, Predicting which ones would draw fire. It had been the clumsiest, funniest air battle she‘d ever seen, and now the spells on this tower were probably all spent.
With their ruler and heir both in this very tower, and no defense to speak of, Haffaton was in serious trouble. This was finally Faq‘s chance to bring down the beast! And using her as a hostage shouldn‘t be allowed to stop it. Jillian was a warlord; she was perfectly willing to be sacrificed for a win this huge.
“Let her croak me!” Jillian shouted. The pain that followed was beyond anything in her experience or imagination. Her abdomen bent like a snapped green branch, but Wanda‘s hand would not let her fall. She stayed in a rigid, upright kneel, unable to breathe.
“The display of control is unnecessary,” spoke the King, in a calm basso voice. Jillian struggled for air. The edges of her vision turned white.
“She has intelligence,” said the Lady Firebaugh. “I cannot allow her to speak even a few words in your hearing. I will suffocate her, rather than allow it.”
“I see,” said Banhammer. “Princess Jillian,” the King spoke, in gentle tones of command, “I order you to keep your peace during these negotiations. Will you obey me?”
White dots squirmed across Jillian‘s field of view. All she could think was that her father didn‘t know what he was asking. He needed to know they had the chance to take over Haffaton! She shook her head slightly, and felt the wrack of shocks again.
“Princess Jillian...” admonished her father. “This is my will. Be silent in the course of our parley. Under pain of disbanding, you will obey. Is that clear?”
Everything about everything hurt. The floor wobbled. I am about to croak. And if that happens, I cannot tell them about Judy, either. And it was an order...
She nodded finally, and managed to grunt out a strained syllable she hoped would be taken as assent.
Wanda allowed her to fall down at last. An iron collar suddenly appeared around her neck, attached to a short chain in the Croakamancer‘s hand. Jillian curled in a ball at her captor‘s feet, breathing sweet air again.
“Your position is unacceptable, Croakamancer,” said Banhammer. “Her release is our primary demand. We have others, as well. I have dedicated my life to avoiding violence, but I recognize its necessity in the most extreme circumstances. Unless you meet our terms, we will visit violence upon you.”
“State your demands,” said Wanda.
“First,” said the King, “allow me to state our grievances. Haffaton‘s actions against Faq were unconscionable. Our offers of peace, alliance, even parley were summarily dismissed. Your interests were poorly served by your actions. There was another way. But you wouldn‘t hear it. You must see, this was not only foolish, but rude.”
Jillian groaned a bit, still curled in her ball, facing away from her father and his company. What was he saying? You conquered us violently, but my concern is that you were impolite about it. And rescuing your “Princess” should be the last thing he was worried about. He was currently paying upkeep of an entire side out of his purse. He probably couldn‘t afford her release right now. Take the city, disbandit! She couldn‘t–
“JACK HERE. TWITCH RIGHT FOOT IF YOU CAN READ THIS”
The tiny words, glowing yellow, hung in the air just behind Wanda‘s ankles. Jillian twitched her right foot.
“TWENTY QUESTIONS. RIGHT FOOT YES, LEFT FOOT NO”
Jillian twitched her right foot again. Titans, bless the good Jack Snipe, and his fondness for Foolamancy that only she could see.
“DOES INTELLIGENCE INVOLVE ENEMY THREAT?”
“DOES IT INVOLVE A TRAP?”
“WAY TO RESCUE YOU?”
Jillian paused, thinking, while her father‘s speech droned on. Taking the city might qualify as a “resource acquisition,” but not as Jack probably intended. Left foot.
“DOES IT INVOLVE STRATEGY AT ALL?”
“A MILITARY TARGET?”
“TARGET NEAR HERE?”
Jillian jerked her right foot so hard that it caught Wanda‘s attention. She held the neck chain a little tighter, but said nothing. Banhammer was still talking.
“THIS CITY?” said the glowing words when she looked again.
She waited a moment until Wanda‘s eyes were no longer upon her, and moved her right foot in a slow, deliberate sweep.
There was a long pause.
“IS RULER HERE?” came the words at last. She wanted to hug him, but clamped down and didn‘t move. She finally moved her right leg, stretching it out unmistakably, and flexing her foot.
“RIGHT. I‘LL SEE WHAT I CAN DO.”