Polychrome – Chapter 26
Ugu found Queen Amanita in the Third Garden, one of the few spots of green in the Gray Capital. She was apparently experimenting with transformations, morphing a butterfly into a sort of winged centipede with a dozen sets of brilliant wings, then into a bird with butterfly wings, and other variations on flying pretty creatures. She has an excellent eye and appreciation for beauty, but her art is as cold as her smile, alas.
As he waited for her to acknowledge his presence, he reflected that the latter thought seemed somewhat odd. How has this changed me, I wonder. I have found myself spending much time contemplating the best way to keep this realm for my own… and it seems that the best path has led to understanding those around me…
The train of thought made him uncomfortable, and it was almost a relief when Amanita Verdant turned her brilliant smile in his direction. “Oh, my apologies, Majesty. I was so involved in my work I did not see you there. What brings the King of Oz to visit me here in my humble garden?”
Ah, the charming and harmless flower approach. A shame none of your disguises, of body or of speech, work any more upon me. It was sometimes better, then. “Merely… curiosity, my Queen, as to some differences in policy which you appear to have directed without informing me. I would, you understand, prefer to know if any changes in Our directives are to be undertaken, that we appear to speak with one voice to the people.”
Her eyes widened and she gave her most innocent gaze. “To what differences do you refer, King Ugu?”
Play the ingénue as you will, then. “I am certain that you heard – if not with your own ears, then by proxy – my directives to the Viceroys, that assaults on the others of Faerie were forbidden. And now it appears that an assault was made on the flagship of Gilgad, one which nearly sank the object of our own plans, mind you, and which seems to have been directed by none other than yourself, Queen Amanita. Might you be willing to clarify these actions, which seem to me … a bit difficult to reconcile?”
“Oh, that!” Amanita laughed, then covered her mouth with a show of contrition. “My apologies, Majesty. I had thought you more clever than… that is, I had thought my reasoning entirely transparent.”
As transparent as your attempts to goad me. But we shall play the game. “Take care, Amanita. What is this obvious explanation which I am too stupid to understand?”
Her green eyes flashed for an instant with amused malevolence, but immediately returned to the wide-eyed harmless girl-queen. “Well, my King, we are agreed that our great advantage is in knowing the Prophecy, while our adversaries believe we know nothing – save, possibly, that a Prophecy exists, but nothing of its specifics, yes?”
Ugu nodded. “Iris Mirabilis has wisely treated the details as a state secret, and while we could ascertain that there is some ‘prophesied Hero’, no more than that would be available to us were Cirrus not one of us.”
“Exactly! So we should keep that advantage, I am sure you agree.” She scattered a dusting of sparkling powder with a gesture and the ground itself formed seats for the two of them. “Well, if we knew only that there was some prophesied hero and he was moving against us, would we not, in turn, move against him?”
Ugu grunted, as though he began to understand her point.
“I see you agree. Of course we would. For us to not attack him and his allies, at least on occasions when they seemed vulnerable, would possibly reveal that we know more than we ought, don’t you think?” She smiled prettily up at him. “So I had Cirrus direct a small but credible assault on that annoying little ship. We also have learned something of our opponent this way. Is this not a wise thing I have done?”
Ugu’s mouth tightened. His expression made clear that he did not like being so simply out-maneuvered. “I… I commend you on your strategy, my Queen. You are, of course, completely correct. Yet I would point out that General Dawnglory has been under my command, as you seemed more interested in your researches for the mystical defense of the realm, and I would prefer you not simply insert your commands into the military structure. Had you revealed these thoughts to me, I would certainly have given those directives, and this confusion would have been avoided.”
She smiled and ran her fingers sensuously through her silky hair. “Why, Ugu, I’m so terribly sorry. It wasn’t at all like that, it was just a personal request to Cirrus –” She put her hand delicately over her mouth again, the very picture of a woman who has accidentally revealed too much.
So that is the point she wishes to make. “Personal indeed, My Queen,” he said, with a hardness to his voice which – to his surprise – was not entirely an act. She is beautiful and talented and skilled, and helped bring me from my accursed bondage of centuries to rulership of Oz, and a part of me still wishes she was… what I once thought she could be. “Think you that I am entirely blind, or so old that I cannot see, or unable to watch as things pass within my own realm? I am aware that General Cirrus has been seen leaving your quarters at most inappropriate times. That will stop, Amanita, and it will stop now.”
All the gentleness vanished, and now there was just poison-candy venom in her smile. “You think you can order me in that fashion, Ugu? Order my personal life? Oh, I understand you may miss certain… aspects of interaction, but let us be clear that you have long since had all of your rewards in that area. Cirrus is a far more… compliant and entertaining companion.” She leaned forward and her voice carried the silken hiss of a cobra. “I will see whosoever I like, Your Majesty, and unless you wish to show yourself as foolish as other men, you will not risk your life or your current shape by trying to tell me otherwise.”
Ugu’s face was white and his voice, when he spoke, showed the strain of iron control. “I would not dream of interfering in whom you show the favor of your bedchamber, Queen Amanita. But for your sake, as well as that of my own image as the Ruler of Oz – an image you find useful, I remind you – what will stop is the clumsiness of these assignations. You may see whom you will, but you will no longer allow witnesses. The respect of the realm will not be tarnished by such sordid conduct.”
Her eyes narrowed, but the smile slowly returned; apparently she was willing to accept the practical directive with the knowledge that she had truly won the battle. “Oh, of course, my King. So we shall speak no more on that subject.”
Ugu nodded ungraciously. A change of subject. “Then allow me to ask how your researches have progressed, my Queen.”
Her expression lightened. “Oh, very well, King Ugu! In fact, since we are here, allow me to describe this to you – in privacy ensured by my magics, even better than your own.”
And so she tells me subtly that she has realized I have assured myself of security in my own chambers. But I doubt she realizes how carefully or subtly that security has been managed. “I would be most pleased to hear anything you would be willing to tell me.”
She turned and gestured; a small table grew from the ground between them, and the pebbles and grass upon it flickered and became an afternoon tea, with a number of dainty dishes on crystal and china. “Well spoken, my King.
“You understand that our greatest concern is that – despite all of our advantages and preparations – the mortal somehow achieves his power, the fusion of the power of Oz embodied in the Princess and the strength of a mortal being. I have dug deep and searched wide – often with the inestimable aid of your elemental servants,” she bowed in his direction with only a hint of mockery, “who have brought me much information from the other lands of Faerie. Such incidents have only happened a very few times in all our known history, but the past months have permitted me to assemble perhaps the most complete collection of accounts of all of these.” The smile widened. “And it turns out that even in that extremity, we have a good chance to triumph.”
Ugu leaned forward. “You fascinate me greatly, my Queen. How is this so?”
“His time is limited not merely by the nature of the fusion – by the fact that his body and soul will be overstrained by the alien power within him – but by something else.” Her smile grew even wider, a predator’s grin.
And as she continued her explanation, his own smile joined hers. Ahh. So very clear, even inevitable. So as soon as he gains the power, his very triumph is burning towards its own defeat. We need only survive long enough!
Ugu stood. “It is well, my Queen. Though, of course, we hope that this knowledge shall not be needed, as he will serve far better as a sacrifice than as a failed Hero.”
“Of course, King Ugu. Though,” and her smile was even more cold, “the failure of such a Hero would also do much to secure for all time our hold on this land.”
“As you say.”
Ugu bowed and left Amanita, and strode away, deep in thought, for some time. Finally he reached his own section of the Gray Castle.
He smiled and nodded to Cirrus. “All is well. Very well indeed.”
“So she suspects nothing?”
Ugu’s smile was wry. “She suspects many things, my friend. But she does not give you credit for the strategy, and thus obviously suspects not at all that you passed to her the hints of action against the Hero, or the way in which I might be … missing critical aspects of the situation.”
Cirrus bowed. “Then all proceeds as planned.”
Ugu looked at him. “No… second thoughts?”
Cirrus did not pretend to misunderstand. “Majesty… she is quite beautiful. And … talented in certain areas. But… she is intending to use me as well. And she is even more mad than I had thought.” He shivered. “I will be well pleased when this is over, no matter how… entertaining some of the nights may be.”
Many are the men who would still be unable to think so clearly. A unique and precious find you are, Cirrus Dawnglory. “Soon, my friend. A few more months, I believe… and it will all be finished.”
Agony of boiling light, cruel radiance tearing her slowly apart, pieces of her own self taken away, forged with hammers of blazing selfish will and cruel luminant ambition.
But the tiny comfort of the point of darkness remained, and she clung to that. Over days and weeks and untold passage of time, when her eyes and soul felt tormented beyond endurance, she could seek it out, so small, but still there, the one still and solid hope in all the light of the terrible world of ceaseless burning cold mystic fire.
Sometimes – for a moment or an eternity – she thought she saw something else, a flicker of different light, almost familiar, not terrible or destroying but laughing, and it danced around the dark point, then away, as though it did not know why it was drawn to the darkness and fled, heedless, to the realms of killing brightness that lay hidden behind all.
She could scream, but there were none to hear, save those who might be taking the strength from her, and they would not care.
And then, one day, like all other infinite days, but it was not. For on that day, when she awakened from the unsleeping rest she found within the unending baking light of all deserts distilled, she opened her never-closed eyes, and looked, and the darkness was no longer a point, but something else, a shape she could not see, but closer, and she knew and laughed, a laugh soundless and tired and agonized, but a laugh.
For Hope now walked towards her, and a Mortal had set foot on Faerie.