Two turns after Wanda‘d had her head worked over by Betsy and Charlie, she was able to ride. So Jillian packed up their rations and led her slowly through the city on horseback, on up the ramp to the outer walls on the northwest side, and into the shade of a huge cylindrical cistern.
“You got your appetite back yet?” she asked Wanda again, helping her down to the stone walkway. Physically, she seemed a lot less frail. But that wasn‘t difficult.
The Croakamancer nodded. “I believe I can eat something.”
Jillian unpacked the bento boxes and canteens, and threw a horse blanket down on the damp stone. They munched on crisp vegetables and little fish rolls, looking down at the sunlit city of emerald. Wanda ate daintily, but she did seem to be making a dent in her box.
“You gonna miss this place?” Jillian asked.
“Not here,” said Wanda. “This city was hers. My home was the city of Haffaton, with the stone garden.”
Jillian nodded. “You‘re not gonna keep that up?”
The Croakamancer looked into the distance. “I think not. I...cannot imagine creating a monument to the memory of Olive Branch. And if I let one story fall to oblivion, it might as well be all.”
“Well, for what it‘s worth, I think Marika would‘ve liked hers,” said Jillian. “The person with the bird wings you did. That was... It was appropriate. It was her.”
“Thank you,” said Wanda. She nibbled on a pickled carrot.
Jillian stared up at the skyline. Three little blue dots hovered by the Grand Tower. And if she could see them, they could see her and Wanda. No escape. No privacy. She needed out of this birdcage. “Three more turns ‘til we ride out. We‘ll need to cement a deal with Charlescomm before we go, or the High Elves won‘t let us out. We‘re under a very polite siege right now.”
“You said you would sign,” said Wanda, turning to look at her.
“Yeah. If you‘re cured,” said the Chief. “Are you?”
Wanda‘s brow wrinkled. “My head hurts,” she said. “Constantly. But I believe I am going to live.”
“What about the flowers? Do you crave them?”
“It‘s...” She shut her eyes tightly. “It‘s different than it was before. Knowing what they were, I always tried to manage my need of them. I went as long as I could without one, until I could feel my body decaying. You‘ll recall, I never wore one to interrogate you. Even if you did not know what they were, I could not appear before you in a position of weakness. I learned to fight the cravings, to defer...”
Jillian sat up and looked at her. “How is it now?”
“Better,” said Wanda. “I do not actively need a bud.”
“I do,” said Jillian, bitterly. There‘d been dark hours at night when she was certain she‘d be calling out for the Archons at any moment, and bargaining for buds. Whatever Charlie wanted. Only the thought of the flower as an enemy got her through. That, and having to look at Chynna and admit her weakness. In those thin, watery moments of will, she generally got up and did calisthenic exercises until she dropped from exhaustion. That worked in the moment, but the need never went away.
“I would accept one, though,” said Wanda, looking at her with shame. “If you offered me a heroine bud, I would place it in my hair at once.”
They locked eyes for several moments. “That‘s terrifying.”
“It‘s the truth. I think you‘ll be left in a similar state.”
“And if Charlie wants to control either of us, he really just has to dangle a flower,” said Jillian, looking up into the blue sky and shooting a glare at the distant blue dots. “I can‘t keep saying no forever.”
“He will leave Faq alone. He is contractually obligated.”
Jillian shook her head. “I‘ll be out in the field. If we‘re competing for a job or something, those she-beasts are going to be right there, in my face. ‘Wouldn‘t you rather have a few of these, Chief Warlord?‘ That‘s Charlie‘s way.” She put the empty box aside and leaned back on her elbows. “Anything and everything‘s a deal. And he always deals dirty.”
She lay back in the shade, staring at the dirty dots in the clean sky. “You know any good curses, Wanda? I need to learn some new ones.”
“Inside Tina‘s crystal box,” said Wanda, “You did not give in. I was impressed.”
Jillian felt a warm rush of blood around her chest and neck. “Thanks. It wasn‘t easy.”
“No,” agreed Wanda, “it is not.”
Jillian watched the dots in the sky. “So is this the same thing? Same principle? ‘Zat what you‘re saying?”
Wanda poked at a rice roll with her chopsticks. After a moment, she picked it up and popped it in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. “You could not have held out forever. I did tell you, Haffaton was patient. But you forced the issue by escaping. Perhaps you can do something similar here?”
Jillian sat up and looked around. “What, escape the city?”
Wanda shrugged. “Force the issue. Be impatient. In you, it seems to be a strength rather than a weakness.”
Force the issue. There was an enemy in the form of a little pink flower. Charlescomm was popping that “unit” in quantity.
Jillian hugged her knees at the edge of the wall and looked down. “Maybe I should go to Charlescomm and burn their gardens.”
Wanda smiled. “An option, I suppose. Dame Branch made a few efforts to that end,” she said wryly. “They didn‘t go as planned.”
“Yeah, nobody gets close to Charlie.”
She spent a few minutes in thought. A breeze blew through, not carrying bud-scent but some ordinary kinds of flower. She could see some of their new mounts down in the street below. Bright patchwork tents stippled the far horizon.
It was nice here, in the shade, seeing Wanda looking better. The Lady Firebaugh seemed intent on finishing her meal, despite the tiny bites she was taking. Jillian had made this happen, and that felt pretty good. All it took was a little stubbornness in negotiation. She had something Charlie wanted, badly. It had only required holding out for what she wanted in return.
The Chief stood up. She put her fingers in her mouth, and tore out a whistle through her teeth. The high horses skittered and bucked, even the ones down below.
“Hey, supertramps!!” she shouted. “Get down here a second!”
The blue dots moved like they‘d heard her. Jillian beamed at Wanda, who looked puzzled. “Okay,” she said. “I‘m forcing the issue. Howbout, if Charlie wants me to sign, he‘s gotta burn down his own garden?”