The Croakamancer had not spent much time in Jillian‘s company. She was gone for whole turns. Here in the stone garden, she often slept in one of the marble sheds. Since that first, strange evening of Jillian‘s captivity, she had not even taken her meals outdoors.
Tonight, though, she set up her brazier beside the clear box, cooking lamb skewers and humming softly in a minor key.
Jillian was curled up under the blankets, peering at the flames of the brazier, listening to the chirp of frogs and crickets. She knew these things to be real, but kept doubting them, testing them. She tried to wish them away, as she sometimes could do with the visions that had tormented her. Three days alone in her own head wasn‘t something she could immediately shake off, especially when the alternative reality of her senses was kind of a nightmare, too. There was the distinct possibility that she was still locked in her own skull.
The crickets persisted, though. So did Lady Firebaugh.
Well. Okay then. That‘s how it was. She took deep breaths.
And hey, she was still holding out. At home, they would have had time to pop a new warlord by now, plus a couple of flyers. They‘d have another expedition party soon. Father‘s “find a new capital” plan might be loopy, but as long as Faq had even the tiniest straw of a chance, she was going to have to stay strong and resist. Such was her Duty.
Tomorrow, there would be something new to endure.
She couldn‘t imagine what, but the sudden dread of it got the better of her. She clenched the blanket tightly, cold but perspiring. The silence of deafness had truly disturbed her. And here was someone real to talk to. Oh, disband it... She was so lonely.
“Whatcha got for me tomorrow?” she said. She cleared her throat, which was clogged with disuse.
Lady Firebaugh stopped her humming, but did not turn. She reached forward and adjusted one of the skewers. “Worse,” she said darkly.
“Yeah? Can I guess?”
The Croakamancer said nothing. Jillian wondered if she might get up and touch the box, just to put Prisoner in her place. The danger of flaunting her resistance like this was not lost on her, but she couldn‘t help herself. After all, in this game she had chosen, she was kind of winning.
“Until I return, you will be pecked by little birds,” said Jillian.
The Croakamancer turned one of the skewers, making no acknowledgement.
“Until I return, you will be doused in scalding hot tea.”
Crickets chirped. Under cloak of darkness, Jillian hid a defiant grin. There was fun to be had here, at least for the moment.
“Until I return, you will be lectured on etiquette by your father,” she said, actually imitating the Lady Firebaugh‘s voice this time.
The Croakamancer looked up from the flames, up toward the night sky. Then she turned her head to Jillian. “That is interesting,” she said. “You have a father. Are you an heir?”
Jillian‘s lip buttoned itself. Many long, long minutes of silence followed. The Croakamancer ate some of her supper, while Jillian felt foolish and weak for letting down her guard.
“You‘ll tell me everything I wish to know, eventually,” said Lady Firebaugh at last, looking at Jillian with her hands upon her knees. “I‘ve told you, we are patient here. But the suffering gets far, far worse. You have my personal assurance that it‘s beyond any endurance.”
Some sudden, wild insight clicked in Jillian‘s head. She‘d been thinking of the enemy caster as a force of nature, not a person. “Your personal assurance,” she said. “So you‘ve been through this, haven‘t you? You said you chose the hard way.”
Even in the dim, flickering light of the brazier, Jillian could tell she had scored a hit. “I‘m not the only one who gives up more than she wants to say,” she added, trying to keep the note of triumph out of her voice.
The Lady Firebaugh‘s face went more sour than usual. “We have returned to exchanging information,” she said, “if only by inference and gamesmanship. It is progress, of a sort. But again, it ought to be easier. The hard way takes many forms.”
The Croakamancer turned away, but remained seated on her marble pedestal.
The better part of an hour then passed in silence. The flames of the brazier dwindled to red coals. Jillian‘s mind, emerging from the fog of her sensory dungeon, jumped on the problem of Lady Firebaugh and gnawed at it like a soup bone. She‘d been a prisoner here at Haffaton? So she wasn‘t from here?
If she could figure out her captor, then maybe she could work some kind of angle.
The Croakamancer rose and made signs of retiring. In the morning, there would be new torment. Right now was Jillian‘s only chance to widen the crack. She determined to say something, to keep the conversation going. She would just have to be careful.
“Why do you plant people?” she asked. Of all the questions she could ask, this one seemed the safest tack to follow. People like to talk about what they do, especially when it‘s unusual.
The Croakamancer glanced her way. “What do you offer in trade for that question? I want much, but I have only asked your lover‘s story.”
“Why, though? Please, I‘m asking. Make this make sense to me. This place,” said Jillian. In the dark, she gestured at all the stones surrounding them. “Maybe I‘ll tell you about him, if I don‘t think it‘s a threat to my side.”
The bent form of the enemy caster did not move, but stood like one of the crude statues that adorned a few of the stone blocks.
“I cannot plant them, not truly,” said the Croakamancer slowly and deliberately. Then she turned and sat back down on the marble pedestal. She positioned herself to face Jillian.
“Their Life is gone, and they will not grow back. Their bodies can still serve, of course. I make them serve. But then those, too, will go to dust. Without a memorial, all will be lost. Entire sides, kingdoms, all that ever mattered to anyone. The beginnings, middles, and ends of all life stories. These should be preserved, not lost to living memory. So even as I take their lives, I plant stones to represent them as they lived. Stones are forever.”
“But the Titans remember,” said Jillian, suddenly and quite firmly. It surprised her to react so strongly against this idea. She didn‘t think of religion very often, not because it wasn‘t important, but because those matters were so thoroughly settled. The struggle to stay alive was interesting, but the meaning of life was just a dusty, boring book written long ago. The Titans made Erfworld thusly; that was written in stone. This Croakamancer with her rock garden was crazy; she ignored the plain facts. Nothing was lost except what didn‘t matter. “The Titans know our lives. They remember. Isn‘t that enough?”
She nodded with her own certainty. Yeah. All would become clear to those who did their Duty. That‘s what Scripture said. You didn‘t need to clutter up the world with reminders of people you‘d be seeing in the City of Heroes. They weren‘t lost. Remembering everyone wasn‘t the job of ordinary units, or even rulers.
“No,” said Lady Firebaugh definitively. “In fact, it is not. What you are to the Titans is one matter...”
The Croakamancer straightened, glancing around. She motioned the uncroaked Bart to approach. Bart wasn‘t looking quite as handsome these days. A good portion of his head was showing the skull underneath. His raiment was deteriorating. Still...a warrior. Still recognizable as what used to be her man.
“What you were to him–and what he was to you–is quite another. You knew him as a lover. The Titans wouldn‘t know him that way.”
“The Titans know everything,” said Jillian reflexively. But she had her doubts. It seemed wrong to even consider the question.
Lady Firebaugh shook her head. “Love is different. It is a personal bond. Private. Knowable only to those who share it. Look upon him,” she said, gesturing in the dim light at what was left of Bart. “Despair at what you have lost. Deny the meaning of it, I dare you.”
Jillian shook her head. “I didn‘t love Bart,” she admitted.
There was silence.
“I mean, he was handsome and a good man. But you know, you can‘t let yourself get that attached out there.”
The Croakamancer seemed to consider this in silence. “Why not?” she asked in her soft, half-whispered hiss.
“Well for one thing, it causes problems in the field. If one of your subordinates gets a crush on you, there‘s jealousy, heartache, drama, all that kinda crap. And, you know...you lose people all the time in battle. It‘s guaranteed.”
“Yes, it is guaranteed,” said Lady Firebaugh, taking a step closer to Jillian‘s box. “And you learned that. At some point, you learned this truth the hard way.” She put her hand on the box, and Jillian flinched. But there was no pain, no punishment. “Who was he?”
Jillian looked up at the shadowed face of her captor, and did not look away. She considered the security implications of telling the details of a story from a mission long past, of a unit long ago croaked. There were many. But if she were going to part with any information at all, then it might as well be some long gone personal history.
“You asked me several questions,” said Jillian, echoing one of the first things Lady Firebaugh had said to her. Odd, how she had no trouble remembering anything she‘d been told by this woman. “So I will choose which one to answer. I choose, ‘Who was he?‘”
Her captor cocked her head attentively, and Jillian fervently hoped this would not be a mistake.
“She,” Jillian said. “Her name was Marika Neagle.”
The Croakamancer‘s eyes widened and her lips parted as she took in a breath. “You loved her?”
“Of course I loved her, that crazed guttersnipe,” said Jillian, cracking a smile. Her cheeks went hot. “You had to. How could you not love Marika?”
There was nothing to endure the next day but a general loneliness, and the doubts of having said so much, even about a subject so strategically trivial.
While the Lady Firebaugh was off in another part of the garden, practicing her simple Dirtamancy, she went over anything and everything that Haffaton might be able to glean from her story. They already knew most of it. Faq was a small, mercenary side, they knew that. She tried to hint that they were located much farther off and in a totally different direction. She‘d mentioned beaches and palm trees, and pretended it was a slip.
But the Croakamancer hadn‘t pressed her on anything sensitive, just the personal stuff. In the end, she‘d talked into the night about what made Marika special, how there would never be another as “souped up and looped up” as she was. Their days of flying in and stabbing anything that moved, with Jillian calling the shots and Marika spearheading the charge. Their nights of even fiercer lovemaking, when Marika would call the shots.
Then she told of how it all went wrong: the grumbles, the shouting, and the near rebellion among her other warlords at unrelated little stuff. Battles stopped going well. Losses were getting unacceptable. Jillian called a retreat in a fight that Marika insisted they had in hand, and shouted at Jillian for all to hear from their tent. It turned cold and awful.
Faq‘s company went from sharp predator to a hired punching bag. Neither Jillian nor Marika would back down. They had no way out. They went into the Battle for Blitzkrieg Bop not speaking at all, and Marika actively ignored Jillian‘s orders in the fight. Marika‘s stack was blindsided by a launch of Arrow Sparrows, and that was that. Jillian never even saw her fall.
She‘d been trying to regain her leadership and put the company on solid footing ever since. By the time Bart arrived, she thought she‘d done it. But here she was; she‘d led them all to their doom after all. No lesson learned, in the end.
Shackles appeared on her ankles and wrists, before she even noticed Lady Firebaugh‘s return.
“You must see it.”
Walking was unfamiliar and difficult, chains or no. Escorted under guard by a half dozen of her former soldiers and Bart, she followed the Croakamancer over the soft grass.
Along the way, she glanced at and read some of the stones. There were larger ones for warlords: Lord Huge Ackman of Loganclaw, Prince Willie Nilly of Nolens Volens, a barbarian called Pundarr, Lord Vitaly Important of Frenemy. Rows of small stones with names of infantry nestled in the grass as well: Private Idaho, Sergeant Pepper, Sergeant Stripes.
They climbed two hills and halfway up a third to reach the spot of Marika‘s stone.
It was medium-sized, and low to the ground, but perched upon it was a carving of a robed woman, with dove-like wings sprouting from her back. If this was some kind of flying unit, Jillian had never seen one before. Somehow, it suited Marika perfectly. The script on the stone face was tiny and precise.
Countess Marika Neagle
Warlord, Mercenary, Defender
Kingdom of Faq
Level 5 - 440 Turns of Life
a fierce fighter, dominant and brash
“Marika was amazing. She flew and fought like I only wish I could. I tried to show her how much I needed her, how appreciated she was, but I could really only show her in private. If the world goes on for a million turns, it‘ll never pop another one like her.” -Princess Jillian of Faq, who loved her
“I never said I was a Princess, or that Faq is a Kingdom.”
“Prisoner, you have said much more than you realize,” said the Croakamancer. “But that is all well.”
For the moment, Jillian couldn‘t worry about what she might have divulged. She could only think of Marika. Talking all night about her, about how she was...it brought it all back. Losing her had hurt so much, especially before they could make things right with each other. But when was there ever time to think about it? Occasionally in battle, she still almost shouted orders to her. She‘d called Hedda “Marika” more than once. Hedda hated it.
“It was real,” said Jillian, thinking of what they‘d had.
The Croakamancer said nothing.
“I see why you do this.”
She wept as she was led back to her box.