Running or floating, Jillian fled from nowhere to nowhere. She fell or swam, or was blown by winds of green dust. She swung her sword at phantoms that tapped her shoulder then screeched and fled. A flock of doombats fluttered in the cavern of her mouth, hanging upside down from her teeth. Her selves split up, arguing briefly before storming off in a huff to all six points of the horizon and vanishing. Where her eyes didn‘t go, a filthy scarecrow waved its broomstick arms and did a parody of each unconscious thing she did.
Endless, lost, alone. Dark and bleak. When she was awake and without a flower, the nagging need never left her. But here in these dreams, Jillian‘s need was more desperate and terrifying: she had to escape.
Time flaked away. She might have been in the dreams for hours. There had been a time when familiar voices and forms surrounded her. Her father, Jack Snipe, and the voice of the mirror-white sky, the Lady Wanda Firebaugh. Those had long abandoned her. Now she had only jagged visions, teeth and knives, coldness and dry darkness. Nowhere to rest. Nowhere safe. Nowhere that could be called “home.” Nowhere to nowhere, she went on.
She found the screaming jester in a house of blades.
“Hey! What are you doing! You‘ve got a sword and you‘re free! Go croak her!” he yelled from a window in a tall turret. He didn‘t make the wild gesticulations and acrobatics that she usually saw him perform. His outfit seemed to be hung up in the blades that poked out of every wall.
Jillian knew what he was talking about, but she couldn‘t remember the details. She stood in a patch of emeralds and squinted up at him, dazzled by visions of sunshine on steel.
“Tried!” she said. “Can‘t! Magic.” She shrugged.
“She‘s poisoning them!” shrieked the bald, red-faced jester.
“I can‘t stop it!” Jillian stomped her foot and crushed a little patch of emerald grass to shards.
“Then flee! Leave them to perish! Found a new side, far away! Go! Go now, Warlady! Go!”
“Can‘t even...walk,” she muttered. Her dream-feet had taken root in the pile of green shards. Heroine buds sprouted around, just out of her reach.
“You don‘t just do that, you crazy! You don‘t just lose! You‘re losing!” The jester pointed accusingly with a wagging finger, but his arm remained pinned to the wall.
A little brown bird was circling the blade-house. It hovered by the jester‘s window for a moment, then fluttered down and rested on a fencepost near Jillian.
“I‘m a bird, am I?” said the bird, looking at itself. “And a little one at that. Disappointing, but not unexpected I suppose.” The bird preened its feathers absently. “I seem to recall you‘re not fond of birds.”
Jillian knew the bird‘s voice. “F‘ryou, I‘ll...make ‘n exception, Jack Shnipe,” she said, smiling with relief. A fog of smoke drifted across the emerald lawn. In the distance, toothy mountains slowly rose and fell, like the world was breathing.
“My Princess and Chief Warlord,” said the Snipe, bowing its head. “I came as soon as I was free to. You are physically safe, but under the influence of something magically fascinating but probably very dangerous. Have you been in this state for a long time?”
“Think so, yeah,” said Jillian, nodding. “How‘re you...here?”
“I can see what you see, you see? It‘s necessary to what I do. In this state you‘re in, you‘re practicing an odd sort of self-Foolamancy that I don‘t recognize. But it‘s like learning a new song. You pick up the tune as you go along.”
“Oh. ‘m really glad you‘re here,” said Jillian. “Even if I‘m just...fooling myself.”
“It‘s the flower, is it? Doing this?”
“Mmhm,” nodded Jillian. She tried to move closer to the bird, but her feet were still ensnared.
“You look distressed,” said the Snipe.
“Yeah I am. We shouldn‘t be here! She‘s got us all now...” Jillian drifted off at the end of her sentence and forgot exactly who and what she meant. It was true, though. She knew it was true!
“Yes, well. Time to talk our way through that later. Right now, I‘d like to understand what‘s happening to you. I can help, I hope.” The bird tilted its head three or four times, glancing around. It shook its wings, like a sudden shudder. “Tell me about the fellow in the house.”
She talked with the Snipe for a long time, and things got better. They freed her feet from the ground, then left the house of blades behind. The jester seemed satisfied to see her moving on.
“I like him. He‘s a part of you, I think,” said the little Snipe. “I‘m quite certain that you need him yelling for your attention that way, when you‘re forgetting things. This is all very interesting, by the way. But you know...he‘s right; we have too little time. Tell me about the Ruler of Haffaton.”
Jillian walked in yellow sunshine, following the bird. She was able to speak (and think) better as they went along. The trail got nicer, more normal. The sky went blue. The ground mostly restricted itself to three dimensions. She told the Jack-bird about the flowers, and Judy, and the Olive Garden, and her escape from Wanda and recapture by Dame Branch.
The Snipe told her that she was physically sitting in a private room, that the Faq casters had been to dinner with Olive, and that Olive and King Banhammer had left together.
“She was an excellent and charming hostess. His Wisdom was quite taken with her. But you know, she didn‘t mention that the Overlady is here. I‘m quite sure we aren‘t meant to know,” said the Snipe.
“No. Probably not,” agreed Jillian.
“Do you think she is still here?”
“I think so,” Jillian said. “She was passed out when I saw her before they ended their turn. I guess, like me. Walking in flower dreams.”
“So she‘s afflicted as well,” said the Snipe.
“Worse than me. Worse than Wanda.”
“Ah yes. And that was the Lady Firebaugh, the one I told you Sister Marie and I had once met. She left the soiree very early. I think at Dame Branch‘s suggestion.”
“Yeah, I don‘t think they like each other,” said Jillian.
“Do you ever see them here, in your dreams?”
She shook her head, “No, never.”
“Then there probably isn‘t any thinkamancy to it.”
Jillian shrugged. “Dunno.”
“I came to find you as soon as we‘d been given our quarters. Your reaction to the flower was worrisome.”
“I need them,” said Jillian.
“Doubly worrisome,” said the Snipe.
The ground slipped at her feet. The trees and hills went a little gray, a little sideways. She saw a lantern, hovering. She saw Jack‘s eyes.
“Oh. I think I‘m falling,” said Jillian.
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“Out of...dreams,” she managed to say, as the world began sliding backward into ordinary dimensions of space and distance.
The fading bird flew around her twice. “I see. Fall carefully. There‘s a comfortable bed beneath you.”
Jillian fell backwards, and only by plopping on her back did she realize that she had been sitting on the edge of an unmade bed. Her eyes were wide open. It hurt a little to blink.
She propped herself up on her elbows, seeing the little room swirl into focus. Her head was too high for her neck, or something. But she could focus now. That was the lantern, hung from a hook on the ceiling. That was tussle-headed Jack Snipe, sitting beside her on the foot of the bed. He held out an emerald teacup.
“Water,” he said.
Jillian took it gratefully and downed it in quick gulps. She held the cup in her lap, trying to pull her head on straight. She wore no armor, only cotton long johns. Her feet were bare. Her armor was there, though, arranged neatly in the corner for her. Her boots. Three-Edged. The room was simple, tasteful, and grossly green.
She looked at the empty cup, turning it over in her hands, feeling the realness of it. The flower was still in her hair, and it would stay there. Even a stale bud could hold off the headaches and need for another half a turn or so.
The cup looked strangely real. Too sharp. The inside of it was slippery with water. It reflected the lantern‘s light. She saw it so clearly, compared to dreams.
Jack Snipe said nothing, but watched her with a patient concern.
Jillian put the porcelain cup in her palm and wrapped her fingers almost all the way around it. She stood up. Her legs felt strong and normal.
Without much regard for aim, she side-armed the thing across the room with all her strength. It shattered meekly, its shards falling to the carpet.
“She left alone with my father?!”
Jack, to his credit, was not even startled by the outburst. He simply tilted his head. “That‘s as dangerous as it seems, is it?”
“Yes!” she shouted. “Where did they go? Did he take a bud? Did anybody take a flower?!”
“The flowers were on offer, and a few other things that looked similarly dubious,” said Jack. “But we took your admonition for an order. And the King was in an abstemious mood. We did not even drink wine. Nevertheless, I would say that he was adequately intoxicated by her company.”
Jillian stomped over to her armor and snatched up the chain loin guard. “We have to go break that up,” she snarled, stepping into it and fastening it. She wanted to take latrine first, but she could hold it.
“Seems inadvisable, as we‘d likely be interrupting some form of intimacy or another,” said Jack.
Jillian winced. “Oh Titans, seriously?”
“It seemed headed in that direction,” he said. “He‘s already held you to silence once. He might not accept another word from you again, if you were to storm in on them now.”
Jillian kept slapping on the rest of her armor, trying to think of what to do. “Would he listen to you?”
“His knave? Perhaps. But I‘m not Faq‘s brightest star, you know. I‘m more the philosophical straw dummy. At Court, my aim is always to diffuse the heated arguments by letting them turn their sharp wits to jab at me. It‘s necessary, but it doesn‘t garner me much influence.”
She pulled a buckle tight on her breastplate. “Who, then? Orwell?”
“Brother Orwell would be the natural choice, as he holds the King‘s greatest favor. But I‘m afraid he‘s as smitten with our hostess as His Wisdom. We should find Sister Marie.”
“I‘d as much like to listen to her opinion as to sway her. She and I haven‘t had an opportunity to discuss the Croakamancer yet. At dinner, she was extraordinarily quiet. I‘m sure she sees something in all of this, but you know Predictamancers. Parsimonious with their insight. Frustrating people, really.”
“Yeah. Let‘s go get her first. But we gotta talk to my father, whatever he‘s doing.” She pulled the scaled pauldrons over her shoulders. “Whatever horrible, disgusting thing he‘s doing...”
It wasn‘t far to Marie‘s room. They knocked, and she bid them to come in.
Marie had been given much more opulent quarters than Jillian, spacious and well lit. The Lady Firebaugh was there with her in the inner chambers. She left immediately, without saying a word, without meeting Jillian‘s eye.
“We wah talking for quite some time,” said Marie. “Things are very complicated.” She looked deeply worried.
“Will they turn out all right, in the end?” asked Jack.
“You know how I often say, ‘I don‘t know?‘”
“Yes, you do.”
“Well,” said Marie softly. “I really don‘t know.”
(apologies to They Might Be Giants)