The Faq contingent hovered just off the edge of the tower, as Jillian sat there on the floor at Wanda‘s feet, fuming in silence at how this parley was playing out.
Time and again, she‘d hear the Croakamancer ask King Banhammer a ten-word question, and receive five hundred grandiloquent words in reply. Her father could talk a mountain down to a pile of sand, especially if the mountain kept saying, “please go on,” and “I don‘t precisely follow.”
The Lady Firebaugh was clearly stalling for time. Haffaton was still on its turn, and Dame Branch had probably run off to find Judy and evacuate the city. Or call in some reinforcements. Or maybe she was preparing air defense spells to shoot him down. (It didn‘t really seem like the Florist‘s style, but that was what Jillian herself would have done.)
Whatever the plan, Banhammer was speechifying his way through Faq‘s last, best chance to survive. And all Jillian could do was ball her fists, grit her teeth, and look away so he couldn‘t see the kind of faces she was making.
When all of Efbaum‘s air suddenly rang with the strumming of magical strings, she knew Dame Branch‘s gambit. And she knew that Faq‘s chance to topple Haffaton was lost.
Listen, friends, I have a story
Of a people and their crime,
Men of war and men of glory,
Passions wild, but lost to time.
Two great sides who shared an island
One was poor and one was rich,
One was peaceful, one was violent,
Can you tell me which was which?
The poorer ruler sent a paper:
"Pay us Shmuckers, or we'll fight."
Those who prospered loved their neighbors
But they found this impolite.
Both sides sent their armies over.
Both sides marched to bugles' call.
On the field they spent their soldiers
Winning little, losing all.
Jillian turned back to look at the rescue party. Unaware of what it meant for the future of his Kingdom, her father sat upon his gwiffon and smiled appreciatively. Brother Orwell‘s eyes were closed; he seemed equally entranced by the song. Sister Marie listened with a skeptical squint and a jutting jaw. Jack‘s eyes darted all around, until eventually locking upon a point behind Jillian: the archway that led to the staircase she and Wanda had climbed. King Banhammer‘s eyes turned there as well.
Clacking in her chains, Jillian pivoted around to see Dame Branch slowly ascending the steps, strumming on her chillaxe and sweetly singing, just now coming to the end of her song.
Though the armies both were shattered.
One king triumphed, one king lost.
Still, his victory did not matter
When the island's sea was crossed.
Foreign soldiers slew the victors,
Razed the lands and left the shore,
Shook their heads and softly snickered,
"Nothing here worth fighting for."
Go ahead and croak your neighbor.
Go ahead and start your war.
Do it for the Titans' honor,
They'll be counting up the final score.
The hero will return to zero
When he's fought his final day.
And when every side has fallen,
One tin golem rides away.
Dame Branch demurely bowed her blonde head at the final chord, and King Banhammer actually applauded. This time, Jillian did snap her head around and level a glare at him. The casters were following his lead and clapping their hands for the song that just destroyed Faq‘s chances here, although only Brother Orwell showed real enthusiasm.
“Lovely!” exclaimed the King, literally overlooking Jillian to address the enemy.
“Thank you, King Loj Banhammer,” said the Florist, “I composed it especially for you, after reading The Principles of Peace.”
The King‘s eyes widened, and his mouth opened to a tiny O. “You‘ve...read The Principles?”
“I‘ve read all of your writings in Faq‘s library. They were perhaps the greatest prize we ever captured,” she said, setting her instrument down. “I am Olive Branch, Chief Florist of Haffaton. I could call myself your conqueror, but that would be false. In truth, your words have already conquered me. It is an untold honor to meet you, Your Wisdom.” She bowed again. “If you please, call me ‘Sister Olive.‘”
Banhammer straightened in his saddle, and held his lips together in a pout of assessment. He was trying not to let his pride show, and failing at it. Jillian could see that Olive was casting the “spell that costs no juice,” and he was already under it.
He looked down to the floor of the tower top, where Jillian sat. By his order, she still held her tongue. But she gave him all the heat of her most ferocious glare. For a long, searching moment he held her gaze, then he looked back to the Florist.
“This situation...this impasse...would seem to run counter to the Principle of Mutual Benefit,” he said, indicating Jillian and her chains.
Dame Branch smiled knowingly. “Then let me resolve it, by applying the Principle of Generosity. Your daughter is free to go. We hereby end our turn.”
Jillian fell slightly off balance and planted her palm on the marble. A great whistle was sounding in the City of Efbaum, and her chains were gone.
And...her armor had returned.
Instinctively, she reached behind her. Three-Edged Sword was secure in its sheath upon her back. In one motion, she leapt to her feet and drew it clean. In another, she sidestepped Wanda to strike a head-lopping blow to the enemy Florist.
Her sword halted in mid air, barest inches from Dame Branch‘s lovely neck. Grunting, she drew back and took a stab at the Florist‘s stomach, knowing what was holding her back but wanting to test it anyway. She couldn‘t strike the blow. It was useless.
She dropped her sword-arm to her side and stood there dumbly, glancing back at her father and the rest. They had already landed the gwiffons on the tower, the beasts‘ yellow stomachs splayed out over the emerald-green marble. Jillian‘s headache had returned, and she realized that she now wore a helmet. The circlet of thorns had vanished.
As much as anything at the moment, she wanted a flower.
Without a word, she sheathed her sword and mounted Sister Marie‘s gwiffon, taking the fore position.
Dame Branch looked at the King with a sad little smile. “This is what we are up against, we who seek peace above all,” she said. “But I have powerful means against violence. That song was a spell, cast upon this city. No engagements may take place here for another turn.”
“Remarkable,” said King Banhammer, and he exchanged glances with his casters.
“Thank you. Even before receiving the light of your wisdom, you can see, Haffaton preferred to handle our enemies without fighting. And in our way, we have thrived,” said the Florist. “I imagine that if we‘d had your guidance all along, we could have brought peace to the entire world. So I will study your writings carefully, and work out the answers to my questions, that we may pursue a more enlightened path. I wish you well, Your Wisdom. You may take safe passage through Haffaton.”
Jillian clutched the gwiffon‘s reins, and got herself ready to order the stack to lift. Her father‘s command to silence her would expire the moment these negotiations ended, and she intended to get them into the clouds and far away.
...After stocking up on flowers, maybe.
“Tell me, Sister Olive,” said Banhammer, “what is your most pressing question about The Principles?”
“Oh!” exclaimed Dame Branch excitedly, “But I have so many! The Hierarchy of Good, I suppose is most puzzling. I cannot understand why you ordered the Service of Life below the Service of Wisdom. Perhaps I am foolishly devoted to my discipline, but it seems to me that Life has the greater value. Does it not?”
“Oh, so it would seem, so it would seem...” said Banhammer grandly, pinching the corner of his mustache in thought. “But you must understand that the progression of the world is toward a greater Wisdom. Individual Life must perish, but Wisdom well-served can accumulate. It will serve and enrich new Life as new Life inevitably generates! So the hierarchy does not imply that Wisdom is greater in value than Life, but that the service of Wisdom is of greater importance because it also serves Life and Love and Harmony and all the other Goods. You see, Sister?”
Jillian weighed the option of leading the group away right now. She didn‘t figure she could get away with it.
“I...think so, Your Wisdom. I imagine I have many nights of study ahead of me. It is a pity we must part. I would treasure your company, and that of some of the casters of Faq.”
Banhammer looked over his shoulder at Orwell and Jack, and everything inside Jillian‘s chest went cold. She knew where this was leading, and she shook her head violently. Her father ignored her.
“If that is an offer of hospitality...” he began.
“Certainly so!” gushed Dame Branch. “Our city is your city, for as long as you would care to be our guests. We have much to offer you here, and I would only ask to sit in the light of your counsel.”
“MmnNO!” Jillian shouted. The choked word echoed back from the green towers around them.
Banhammer stopped ignoring Jillian immediately. His voice was calm, but his eyes flashed a genuine anger. “You‘d disobey? We have risked much for you. More than you could know!”
“If we can‘t attack, we have to get out of here,” hissed Jillian. She pointed at Dame Branch with a straight arm. “You have no idea what that woman can do!”
Banhammer folded his arms.
“Highness, your order for silence was requested by the enemy,” said Jack Snipe, very quietly, “expressly because they acknowledge the Princess has sensitive intelligence. Now she is free. Perhaps it‘s time to listen to her?”
Banhammer tilted his head, but kept his arms crossed. “Peace is terribly difficult, you know. Here we have been invited by perhaps the greatest power in the world, to speak truths in the name of peace. Shall I decline this opportunity? In fear? Should we go off into the wilderness, and try to survive, laying aside all the wisdom we have worked for, and expend our energies on raw survival? Or should we risk the chance to sow something new here?”
The King looked each of them in the eye, in turn, including Jillian. “I trust your counsel,” he said. “I wish to stay here and speak with Sister Olive. The Princess wishes to leave. Wherever you three stand will determine our course.”
Jillian shook her head through the discussion. But in the end, only Jack petitioned to leave.
As unreal as any flower dream, she found herself descending the green tower stairs, walking beside Wanda Firebaugh. In front of her, Dame Branch and King Banhammer happily burbled about philosophy. At the bottom of the tower, Olive offered Jillian a fresh bud.
Resentfully, she took it.
“Nobody else touch one of these things,” she scowled at the Faq commanders, taking the flower and placing it in her hair. “That‘sh an orderrr...”