Polychrome – Chapter 29
“Ha! You’ll need to be faster than that, Erik!”
Yeah, no kidding. Zenga was dodging most of the blows I sent at her, and I couldn’t do nearly so well dodging hers. My armor did make up some of the difference, though.
This was worthwhile practice, I had to admit. My workouts in the Rainbow Kingdom had been against Sky Fairies, and mostly near-pure blood, which meant that my True Mortal advantage was tremendously pronounced against them. Zenga, on the other hand, was more human than Faerie, and in sparring with her I almost had to invert what I’d learned in the Rainbow Kingdom. She was quicker than me, but only in a human sense; she had the reflexes of a 17 or 18 year old girl, while mine were those of a late 40s man. On the other hand, since I’d spent a year working out under the Master At Arms of the entire Kingdom, I was now in superlative shape for a late-40s former geek, which meant that even though Zenga was young and in top shape, I was undoubtedly much stronger than she was.
Still, it was basically an even match, and she’d hit me hard. I still did have a little edge with my Mortal nature, but nothing like I was used to.
We were sparring mostly hand-to-hand, since I was missing my sword – there being no point in trying to replace it with the ordinary weapons available, as those Gilgad could offer were either so mundane that they’d never survive conflict with major magic, or magical enough that I’d shatter them the first time I swung. Also, sparring with edged steel in the wilderness just didn’t strike me as a good idea anyway.
As I parried a flurry of attacks, I noted that I didn’t have any advantage in range, either. She was just about exactly my height, maybe an inch or so taller, and with long arms and legs she probably had a slight edge on me in that area.
I ducked and covered, then bulled my way forward, taking a clip on my jaw that sent pain rocketing through my ear, but didn’t stop me from barreling into her with a crude but pretty much unblockable body-check. She cushioned the blow and tried to roll off, but I caught her arm, went with her attempt to throw me and grabbed the long braid that ran down her back, pulling her off-balance and slamming her to the ground. Without armor to cushion the impact, I could hear the breath whoosh out of her, and I rolled and came up, arm drawn back, hand in blade formation. “Yield.”
She laughed. “Yield!” she agreed, bounding upright. “That’s one fall each, Erik; best of three?”
I smiled back, breathing hard, then held up my hand. “Give me a few moments first.” I pulled out my inhaler and took a couple of puffs a minute apart. The building tightness slowly retreated.
Zenga regarded me curiously. “What is that?”
“One of my Achilles’ heels,” I answered. “My own body has it in for me if I expend too much effort too fast.”
She stared. “In truth? You run or fight for too long –”
“– and I stop being able to breathe, yes. Been that way all my life.”
We started the next match, but she seemed more tentative until I kicked her in the shin. “Don’t you dare baby me, Zenga! None of our enemies will!”
With a yelp of pain, she stared at me, at first angrily and then with a devilish smile.
She won that match, too, managing to get my arm twisted up behind my back and me pinned in a way that didn’t allow me the leverage to get her off me without giving her the chance to break it. “Yield!”
“Ouch! I yield!” I smiled at her as I got up. “That’s more like it. Now let’s get some dinner; that sure worked up an appetite.”
The sun was now down past the mountains and the light starting to fade. We returned to the little fire we’d built before starting our sparring match, and I got out a round-bottomed pan something like a wok and the bottle of oil. Quick-frying or roasting was pretty much the rule on the road, unless you just ate jerky or waybread or something like that. We were carrying enough stuff to live on for a while, and if we ducked in and out of Gilgad territory we could probably catch some game or maybe buy something from farmers or woodcutters along the way.
Zenga watched with approval as I stir-fried a mix of vegetables, some dried, some reasonably fresh, some dried meat, and a couple of sliced potatoes, then added just enough water to let it cook for a bit, moistening the meat and dried veggies. I’d also made sure to bring along a few packets of dried spices; I like flavor in my food. “I’d heard that many countries consider cooking to be women’s work,” she said finally.
“Used to be the case where I came from. That actually mostly changed in my lifetime. But I’ve been cooking for most of my life; my parents always said that if I didn’t like was for dinner, I’d better cook it myself.”
I served up the stir-fry, which hadn’t turned out badly at all given the improvisation I’d had to try with the mix of ingredients, and we ate in silence for a few minutes.
This was the first night we were truly in the wilderness; up until now we’d always been able to find a family, a cabin, somewhere to stay for the night. Without anyone else to distract me, I found myself looking at Zenga more. Which made me distinctly uncomfortable, since there was no denying she was very much worth looking at, but she was also as far as my gut said considerably less than half my age, which was definitely putting me into dirty old man territory. Yeah, Polychrome didn’t look much if any older, but after spending a year around her I knew that it would be entirely wrong to look at her as being anything like an ordinary girl her apparent age. Zenga, on the other hand, did still strike me as a teenager, or at best a very, very young woman, albeit with some considerable hardheaded common sense and discipline.
“So now we are undoubtedly alone, Lord Erik,” Zenga said, breaking me out of this uncomfortable reverie, hopefully not because I’d been staring at her too hard. “Can you tell me anything new? About this key, or about the advantages you’ve talked about having in this enterprise?”
Ah, a reasonably safe topic of conversation. “I can certainly tell you some things. As your father mentioned, I am a True Mortal – not even just a distant descendant, as you are or as were those other outsiders who came to Oz and surrounding lands over the years, but someone with, as far as any can ascertain, not a single drop of Faerie blood in him.”
I summarized the advantages this gave me, with Zenga asking a few questions that showed she actually grasped the ideas quite well. When I was done, she was looking at me with new respect – and an almost appraising look that brought back that uncomfortable feeling. “Now I do indeed understand why a single man can be so important, Erik.” She moved slightly over around the fire, closer to where I sat. A part of me had the impulse to scoot around and keep my distance, but I rejected that as just plain stupid. “What does this Prophecy say about what you are to do, though? For you have – I think quite rightly – kept much of that to yourself, but if I am to travel with you to the end, as I intend to, I would think I should know what to expect.”
She has a definite point. Well, I don’t have to tell her everything, but I can summarize that, too. I tried to soft-pedal my own potential downfall, but I couldn’t avoid the concept entirely. I’m generally a terrible liar.
She looked at me with wide eyes. “But… how can you possibly hope to win, sir? Ugu and Amanita have spent centuries mastering their powers, and you – as a True Mortal – can’t even try to use magic until… that one crucial moment. At least if I understand you correctly.”
“You’re correct,” I said, smiling slightly.
“Then… I don’t understand. Any warrior knows that sufficient skill can overcome even a vast disadvantage in strength, and even if you claim the power of Ozma herself and her connection to Faerie, still will they have great powers of their own, and hundreds of years of skill to pit against you.”
I grinned. “Imagination is the key, Princess Zenga. And of all the things I have brought from my world – of all the knowledge and skills I have ever had – that one is the greatest I have.” I remembered having a similar conversation with Poly, months ago, and for a moment I felt a terrible pang of loneliness despite Zenga being so nearby. I wanted nothing more than to see spun-gold hair and violet blue eyes laughing, talking to me, even for a moment, even though I would never dare tell her the truth. “The Prophecy promises that I have a chance to win, and so the essence of it comes down to my being able to envision ways of using that power that is given to me. You’re perfectly right; if I just try a sledgehammer without any control against them, it’s almost certain that they’ll have more than enough finesse to beat me. But… where I come from, leisure time has gone far beyond anything you know. It’s become an artform, many artforms, all devoted to entertainment. Some of these… involve a lot of imagination. And I was and always have been darn good at imaginative games. Plus…” I patted my pocket where my inhaler sat. “That kept me pretty much housebound as a child. I did very little other than read, and I read a lot of books of imagination, including of course the books of my world that dealt with Oz. So I not only have my own imagination; I have the accumulated imagination of a thousand others, and more.” I looked up into the sky, seeing the patterns watched by a hundred cultures; the might of the Zodiac as seen through a dozen sets of eyes. “And that is a weapon that none of them have ever seen.”
Zenga seemed to be trying to understand. “But how can that work? That is, surely we are not all unimaginative here.”
“Not at all,” I assured her, “but you’ve never codified it, so to speak, to the point that it was as valuable a commodity as food or weapons; it damn near is, where I come from. And when… it happens, I won’t be learning to do magic, I will become magic. Magic held in a burning case of mortal essence, but basically pure magic to be directed by thought and will. That’s the only answer that really makes sense of the Prophecy, you see.”
Her eyes lit up. “Oh! That does make sense.” I noticed that somehow she seemed to have moved a bit closer without my noticing. “And what exactly are we doing here? Where is the ‘key’?”
I looked at the mountains, which were now just pure black silhouettes against the dark sky. “Somewhere out there. We need to find him.”
She blinked, something I could see clearly because she was quite nearby. “Him? Your key is a person?”
“Yes.” I looked back out into the darkness, and it struck me suddenly how isolated we were. If we’re attacked here, it’ll be just me and Zenga, and I don’t have much experience protecting anyone else. Part of me very much wished I could have left her behind. Sure, the Prophecy had led me to believe I’d find a companion there, but it didn’t state that outright. Maybe I should have considered asking someone else – say Huru, he’d have been overjoyed – to accompany me and sent Zenga back.
I glanced back at Zenga, who was waiting to see if I’d say anything else. The fact she was leaning slightly forward did not help me stay focused on the matter at hand. Why the hell did Inga send her out with me, when –
And then I remembered Polychrome, and her story of Cirrus, and Inkarbleu’s laugh, and it suddenly all made a terribly comedic sort of sense. “Oh, Jesus H. Particular Christ on a pogo stick. He did NOT do that.”
“I … beg your pardon, Erik?”
Whoops. Mr. Evil Overlord, Sir, you’re monologuing out loud again! I shook my head. “I … have suddenly had a rather disconcerting thought as to why your father and mother might have allowed you to come with me on this mission, when it could easily get you killed.” I looked up, and suddenly she was quite close. Very close.
“Um…” Dammit, I am not very good with words in this kind of thing, not that this kind of thing has ever really happened to me, but I know what I mean! “That, well, you’re a Princess, and if I manage to keep from dying in this mission, I’d be… well, a most eligible bachelor, so to speak.”
“And that’s disconcerting?”
I took a deep breath, which might have been a mistake, because it brought her scent to me – some sweat, but mixed with a coconut sweetness and something warmer, spicier. “Dammit. It’s disconcerting that a girl might be sent out to basically possibly get married to me because it would be a political advantage!”
She pulled back slightly. “Lord Erik, do you have an objection to women?”
“No, no, not at all.” Far from it. “But I think they should be entirely able to choose who they marry, or even just who they want to spend time with, not be ordered into it.”
She leaned back towards me. “Lord… Erik, you are correct that my mother and father partially agreed to this because of careful consideration of what our position could be if the Usurpers are defeated. But I am not a child, no matter what you may think, and the decision is entirely mine to make. And in the few weeks we have travelled, I have decided that there are many far worse choices I might make.”
She was very very close now, and her eyes were firelit pools of ebony, like the hair that tumbled over smooth chocolate shoulders and trailed down towards shadowed curves…