Home again. The gray granite gates and purple/white pennants of Opencola claimed the better part of his view now. Spires rose, trumpets sounded, and stout soldiers lined the battlements to hail him. The city cut the line of the sky like a two-handled saw. There was nothing like it in all of Erfworld.
The Titans had, at least, given Chief Thomas that blessing.
He avoided this place as much as he could. That he was forced to muster the army near the capital demonstrated his many failings as a leader. If he were any kind of Chief Warlord, he would be far from home, not falling back to raise up a counterattack. If he were any kind of Chief Warlord, Opencola would be invading Bay City, not being invaded by it.
And truly, if he were any kind of Chief Warlord, he would not be losing a war to his own grandmother.
His aunts, too, curse them all. He did not need another family feud. Mother got irrational about them. When the war was against Pencilvania or Gesund Heights, he was free to fight as he chose. But when trouble was to the west, Overlady Bibi got involved.
He shuddered in the saddle, then converted the involuntary motion into suddenly kicking the stone pony forward. He rode out several lengths ahead of his captains, silently ordering them all to tarry behind. He wanted to be alone for a few moments on this road, the only road, the one path to trouble, leading into the city before him.
No way to turn aside. No way to vanish. No way out. She waited for him there, in the tallest tower. She had plans. She had ideas for him. They would be terrible ideas.
He knew about one of those already: the epic. The Rhyme-o-mancer would be waiting to interview him for it. Probably at the main gate...
Yes. To his warlord’s eye, Dylan stood out like a beacon there, a caster among infantry. The Rhyme-o-mancer was following Ruler’s orders, orders that Thomas could not countermand without good cause and certainty.
He gritted his teeth. He could face Mother; he was steeled for it. He could not face Dylan, followed by Mother.
“Springsteed,” he called to his mount, clicking with his tongue. The rock beast made a gravel-voiced nicker. “Charge the gate,” he ordered.
The pony took off like a boss, as if it had been popped to run.
The spring was sprung, but the trap was crap. Dylan was going to have to find another way to corner his prey today.
“What do you do, when options are few?” he muttered to himself, shuffling down the cobblestone street toward the garrison. “Call on your friends, to further your ends.”
In fact, Dylan Fugue had only one friend.
Not that he was an outcast; the Rhyme-o-mancer was well liked, if poorly understood. Naturally then, his only friend was a man who was well understood but poorly liked: the court jester.
“Did we get our interview?” asked Chester. The shirtless fool was still standing in the doorway to his cluttered apartment, even after Dylan had come in and sat down. He had his fat, hairy back to the caster, eyeing something out in the corridor. The room smelled of old books and stale...cheese or something.
Chester Drawers lived in the tower, near the Overlady’s chambers. It was the perfect spot for him, in among the courtiers and officials, well-situated to lurking and eavesdropping on his perpetual victims. A literal gossip monger, Chester the Jester would buy and sell tidbits of information on anyone for a few coins, from the trivial and harmless to the scandalous and profane.
And Dylan helped him.
“No,” said the Rhyme-o-mancer. “He ran me over.”
“Bwahahagh!” the rotund man wheezed. “Sorry, chumpus.”
The fact was, Chester played the fool perfectly. He was indispensable to Opencola. Overlady Bibi wasn’t the most stable individual; her temper and fickle favor always threatened to capsize the ship of state. Rumor had it that she’d disbanded her entire staff at least twice, before Dylan had popped. So intrigue at court was only self-defense. In the Tower of Rasslin, you’d better be scheming against someone, because you could be sure someone was scheming against you.
Dylan sighed. “I was sure it would work,” he said. “I had a good spell fired up.”
“Ain’t nothin’s sure,” said Chester, still watching out his doorway. “‘Cept trippin’ and fallin’ into the garbage pile. That gag always works.”
As the courtiers and city officials and warlords formed their secret cadres and plots, Chester kept abreast of it all. He sewed confusion and distrust among allies, cultivated counter-plots, and punctured those who got too powerful for Opencola’s good. All with the power of bad jokes.
Dylan helped. He used his senses as a Rhyme-o-mancer to help Chester sort the maliciously false information from the maliciously true.
Rhyme-o-mancy was Stagemancy, performance magic. A Rhyme-o-mancer could boost or diminish the performance of almost anybody. Whatever a unit did, he could help steer them toward the higher or lower end of their range of potential effect.
To do this, he needed to know what the unit was capable of. Although he was only a novice, his natural senses allowed him a dim but true insight into their inner nature. So Chester would ask him to scope out someone and see if it seemed like they were really up to what rumor said they were.
It wasn’t fun, but it helped. And it didn’t cost any juice. The rest of the time, his only contribution to the side seemed to be making talismans and incantations, writing trail songs for the army, and providing the classier portion of the entertainment at court.
Chester closed the door at last, and walked into the room, expertly dodging clutter. “You look like a garbage pile yerself, chumpy.”
“I’m worried,” said Dylan. Chester should know perfectly well why. The Overlady was frantic for her only remaining caster to do something. She’d ordered him to write a proper heroic epic about Lord Thomas’s battle exploits. This would involve up to twenty turns’ worth of composing and casting. If completed successfully, the poem would provide a leadership boost to the entire side, as if the Chief Warlord himself had leveled up.
A master class Rhyme-o-mancer could write one from rumor and reputation alone, but at Dylan’s low level of mastery, he just couldn’t do it without spending some time with the Chief and understanding his subject. He didn’t know why Lord Thomas had been avoiding him for fifty turns, other than that he denied that he was worthy of a song of praise. But the Lady Bibi screamed at Dylan daily about it, threatening him with the dungeon or worse. He simply could not let Chief Thomas leave the city without granting an interview this time.
“Ahh. Don’t be,” said Chester, producing a crust of bread from the folds of his bedsheets, and gnawing on it. “I got a plan. You and me, we’ll get him at the banquet.”