Polychrome – Chapter 20

Chapter 20.

Ugu the Unbowed stood on the balcony overlooking the petrified Emerald City; halfway to the horizon the pure dead gray ended, in a line as sharply drawn as if by a knife, and the green of the surrounding lands began. “And so it begins.”

“Sire?” Cirrus Dawnglory – or, at least, the being who now wore his name and face – said, clearly unsure of what his King meant.

“Ah, you are here. Excellent. Walk with me, Cirrus.” Ugu turned from the balcony and began a slow walk into the depths of the Gray Castle. “Our spies – the finest and most subtle of the transformed spirits of Air which the Queen could craft – have reported back, and today – almost precisely one year after his arrival – the mortal has left the Rainbow Kingdom and landed somewhere in Faerie.”

Cirrus drew a deep breath. “I see. So the forces are now moving and the war cannot be far away.”

Ugu nodded. “Indeed, and this is why I have called for you. Cirrus, you – and you alone – are truly suited to prepare our defenses against the forces of the Rainbow Kingdom and – potentially – the other kingdoms of Faerie. We must discuss this now, at some length, as we have no way of knowing exactly when the assault will come, or in what form, and you may have extensive preparations to make.”

Cirrus’ head, crowned with hair as fine and white as his namesake, nodded sharply. “I understand, Sire. I have many thoughts on this.” They passed from the South Wing to the West, walking now through the area of the Castle reserved for Ugu’s use.

Ugu smiled thinly. “I am sure you do – and you will write them all down later.” Cirrus glanced at him, puzzled.

“We have far more important matters to discuss. Matters involving Her Majesty.”

Cirrus went several shades paler. “M… my King, I…”

“You wonder that even I would speak of her? Remember, Cirrus, it was I who helped her regain her form. I whose recipes and apparatus removed first my form, and then gave to her the shape she now wears. I, Ugu the Unbowed, am a master of many magics indeed. I studied the lore of Glinda, and the Wizard, and many others, those in my line and those beyond, sorcerers, witches, warlocks, faerie, alchemists, even the secrets of the Yookoohoo herself.

“She has spies –” Cirrus burst out in warning before he could catch himself.

“Do you think I do not know this? She can transform nearly anything or anyone as she will, and place her own will upon many such things. Yet here, in my portion of the Castle, she is still unaware that I have complete control. Her spies still see us talking, and report to her that we are discussing strategies and tactics. Which I will, at the end, command you to prepare a detailed report on, including annotations indicating what useful additions I may have suggested.”

Cirrus stared at him, both hopeful and apprehensive. “She cannot…?”

“She hears precisely what I wish her to hear, sees only what I wish her to see. Only within this part of the castle, true – I cannot safely extend my powers outside of that area without her potentially discovering it. Now,” he continued, pausing and looking down coldly at the young man, “we must talk.

“You see, I am quite aware of the Queen’s nature. She has… given you much incentive to focus your loyalty, has she not?”

Abruptly the lightly tanned face flamed red, then went pure white and Cirrus stared up, immobile with fear.

“I see.” Ugu chuckled. “Draw breath and fear no more. I am hardly unaware of those temptations, General Dawnglory. And even less am I held by them. You, of course, must follow whom you choose. But here you may speak freely, and so may I. And I say to you that she is a viper, a serpent of great beauty and skill and yet deadly to the touch, one who in the end will destroy all she encounters until she is finally eradicated by one who understands her for what she is.”

Cirrus’ face was slowly regaining its color as he realized that the King had not brought him here to suffer a painful and permanent accident, and his expression shifted to puzzlement. “But… Sire, if you know of the… favor shown to me, and her promises… are you not –”

“– taking considerable risk in revealing these things to you?” Ugu nodded. “Oh, certainly. And yet, I think, not so much risk as others might believe, for you – though not born a warrior of the Rainbow Kingdom – have become such a warrior, and one of such skill and courage that for a hundred years you were the right hand man of the General of Hosts. Such a man is the sort to see where his true interests lie, no matter what silken promises may be made by others.”

Cirrus seemed thoughtful, trying to decide how to reply. As he opened his mouth, a tremor ran through the castle, and Ugu held up his hand sharply. Another tremor. Another, and it was clear that these were footsteps, the massive tread of something so immense that even the tremendous stone edifice of the Castle had to respond to its movement. Both stood frozen as the titanic figure drew closer and closer. Suddenly, for a moment, the nearby tall windows were blacked out, the entirety of the third floor thrown momentarily into shadow by the hulking armored form of something so huge that even here, forty-five feet in the air, the head was still too far up to be visible through the windows.

Ugu only lowered his hand once the footsteps had faded away. “The Yoop has sharp ears, and is entirely her creature – one I cannot influence.”

Cirrus shuddered. Ugu could not entirely blame him; what Amanita Verdant (neé Yoop) had done to her erstwhile husband was a thing of horror, transforming an ordinary giant into a monstrous and twisted juggernaut of destruction which lived only to serve her will.

On the other hand, I have heard enough from her in the dark of night to know how little sympathy the Yoop deserves from anyone, for it was he who made her what she is, in truth. A part of him was, honestly, somewhat sorry for Amanita; the torment she had suffered at Yoop’s hands – and other parts – indicated that the Yookoohoo’s vengeance had not only been richly deserved but had, perhaps, merely brought to the surface the monster which had always been there.

Still, it was also another proof of her own vicious and heartless nature.

“As I said, Cirrus; I believe you understand your position well. I know what sort of a creature the Queen is. I was allied to her from convenience, and she to me, and both of us know that sooner or later one will betray the other. We both make preparations.

“But she believes that this is in the end a war of magicians, of sorceries, and that her powers will exceed mine. She may be right in the latter; but I believe this is also a game of alliances, of powers within the people. I made many mistakes in my first attempt to conquer Oz, and I will not repeat them. I had no allies, nor did I attempt to gain any, believing myself sufficient unto all things. I paid for that. I paid dearly for that.” He restrained the snarl that always came to him when he remembered his centuries as a nearly-helpless Dove. I believe that having a loyal General commanding thousands of troops is a very powerful weapon. I believe, in fact, that a General who will have to examine all of his resources and describe to me their deployment – and how they might serve in small tactical areas as well as large, strategic ones – may be the most powerful weapon I could ask for. More than sufficient, perhaps, to balance out whatever small advantage in power the Queen may possess.”

The widened eyes showed that Cirrus understood exactly what he was saying. “I am no fool, Cirrus Dawnglory. Unlike her, I have learned. I will reward loyalty well – loyalty and honest effort, Cirrus, not merely success. I understand – none better – that failure is a possible consequence of trying. If you give me your best effort, I will not punish you for failure. You will not find the Queen so tolerant.”

“No, Sire… I agree with you.” Cirrus said finally. He had, after all, seen much of Amanita’s temper. “But when –”

“We need not speak of that now. You need neither write nor say anything of that matter until I say otherwise.” He smiled with a sharp and cold expression in his eyes. “But think much upon it, and how best it can be accomplished when the time comes – perhaps just after the True Mortal has been captured and the final sealing ritual performed. I need her for that – but afterwards, she would be no longer necessary.”

He sighed. “And to tell the truth, Cirrus, she is far too dangerous to live much longer. You have seen her … volatility. As she tampers more and more with the darkest forces… I am afraid she will only become worse. She will be a danger, not just to me, but to our entire realm.” Ugu looked straight into Cirrus’ eyes. “What say you then, Cirrus Dawnglory? Are you with your King?”

For answer, Cirrus dropped to one knee. He drew his sword and held it up, presenting it to the King. “I swear to you, my King. My loyalty and my strength and my will are yours to command.”

Ugu smiled and took the sword, reversed it, and placed it back in Cirrus Dawnglory’s hands. “It is well, Cirrus. I accept your pledge with gladness. Rise and let us continue our walk.”

They walked for a moment together, the tension in Cirrus clearly draining somewhat away… to be replaced by the tension of new realization. “Yes, that will be a problem, my friend. You must continue to play your part with her.” He gave a sudden laugh. “Ahh, perhaps I will show some jealousy over this favor of hers, giving her both the belief that she can still control me in that fashion and that I have no clear hold over you. How sits that with you, Cirrus? Could you manage to carry out such a deception?”

Now it was Cirrus’ turn to laugh. “My King, my apologies for reminding you of what you doubtless recall… yet you speak to one who walked the Rainbow Fortress for three centuries and more and never once was suspected.”

“Ha! No, my apologies to you instead. Of course such a simple task you can manage. Amanita is far less subtle than Iris Mirabilis or his General, I think.” He nodded, noting where they were. “We are close to the area where her spies will begin to hear us again. So I will begin to speak of another important matter, one connected to strategy, which follows logically from what she will have seen.” He took another deep breath. “General, I have one other command for you, and I suspect you will not like it.”

Realizing he was once more potentially under the watchful eye of the Queen, Cirrus looked suspicious. “And what is that, Sire?”

“While you may have to journey the country for a short time in the next few weeks, you are to return here immediately if any sign of enemy forces is seen. Moreover, you are not to allow yourself to be seen outside of our most loyal troops. Your name will not be mentioned; you must choose another name for your persona as the general of our forces. As soon as it seems even possible that an agent of the enemy could be in Oz, you will return to the Castle and remain there, never emerging until and unless I give permission.”

“What? Why, Sire? A general cannot command his troops nearly as well when he must remain hidden!”

“Because,” Ugu answered levelly, “your very existence is one of our greatest weapons, and under no circumstances do I wish this revealed until we have the Mortal in hand and under control. You are welcome – encouraged, even – to devise all of the stratagems, plots, and tactics that you wish, and we will make all manner of use of them, but you will take absolutely no risks that may betray your identity.” He looked down at Cirrus, face forbidding and grim. “Is that understood, General?”

Cirrus’ look of resigned frustration was picture-perfect; Ugu could not tell how much of it was honest annoyance and how much was merely following a script that the younger man clearly understood very well. “As my King commands.”

“So I do.” He glanced at the sun in the sky. “I have other duties to attend to for now. General, I want you to write up a report on all we discussed this day and submit it to me – with your recommendations – before three days have passed.”

General Dawnglory bowed. “It will be done.”

“Then that is all. Dismissed.”

He watched the argent-haired warrior depart and allowed himself a small smile. Let Amanita make of that what she would. He now knew he had a powerful ally which the Yookoohoo would underestimate… and he knew how best to use him.

In a few months, there would be only a King in Oz.