“You probably don’t want to hear this, Miss, but you look inordinately cute right now,” he said with a smile that was more pleasant than she wanted to admit.
Blushing, she averted her eyes – not that he was likely to be able to tell the difference. “What is going on?” she asked in a small voice. “I can’t… I can’t take this. Just tell me what you want and be done with it.” She felt close to breaking down into tears.
Instead of answering, he reached around her neck with one arm, pulling her in to press his forehead against hers for a moment. His skin was cool, and the gesture was so… human and relaxing and she… for a few moments, she forgot where she was, and why, and with whom.
When he pulled back again, she felt in control once more. Steady. Or at least mostly so. Enough not to break down crying, at least. Now blushing, she stepped back and dried her eyes with the back of her hand, before she looked at Prospero again. He was just standing there, a sympathetic look on his tired face, quiet.
“You want to know what I want, or what the Queen wants, dear?” he asked in what was almost a whisper, his eyes on her face – now sharp and focused, with nothing of the earlier exhaustion and fear.
She opened her mouth as soon as he intoned the ‘Q’ of ‘Queen’ to correct him, but decided against it. Calling her a tyrant in front of what was turning out to be a loyal subject of hers after all would not improve her chances – whatever her chances for anything were.
And besides, it didn’t hurt to be polite. “Yes. Please, tell me why I’m here,” she said, trying to keep her insecurity and antipathy out of her voice. Which wasn’t all that difficult to achieve, since she had perfect control over her voice, when she was paying attention.
“How about we walk while we talk?” he suggested with a sincere-looking smile. “I’m afraid I might have trouble staying awake unless we’re moving.” Then he waited, until she realised that he was actually giving her a choice.
“Oh, sure, sure,” she said, once more surprised. That seems to be a running theme here.
With another smile, he opened the door, quickly checking out the hallway. “Alright, the bloodhound isn’t there. Let’s go in the opposite direction from her – though even she can’t object to me giving you the rundown of your situation, so that might save me if she does track us down.” And with those ominous words, they left the room.
* * *
They walked for a minute or so in silence, through a weirdly plain, homely hallway. The walls were painted in a very faint, natural green colour, with picture frames every few meters to break up the monotony. Mostly pastoral landscapes, and a few photographs of Prospero and his (huge) family. Aside from being quite disconcerted about him letting her see all of them so easily – as if he didn’t think she could ever use this information against him – she was startled to realise that, apparently, the stories actually matched up with the reality; he had a lot of kids. However had his wife managed to give birth to all of them – Jasmine counted at least nine children, ranging in age from Minerva’s apparent sixteen years down to a newborn baby in the most recent picture she’d seen (dated to just a year and a month ago) – and still look that slender?
She’s probably a metahuman, duh. Someone like Prospero would want a metahuman wife, if only to increase the chance of his children manifesting powers.
Though judging by all the sincere smiles she saw on the pictures, he at the very least enjoyed having such a family all by itself.
They’re manipulating me, she realised. Why else would they treat her like that, or show her all this? Trying to break down her image of them, trying to knock her loose from her ideals, probably. But why? She couldn’t see what they stood to gain from that. Her power? The Tyrant could make her do anything she wanted. Besides, it wasn’t that useful to them… or was it?
“I’M GOING TO FUCKING SQUASH YOUR FUCKING CREEPY LITTLE HEADS!!!” a smoky voice screamed so loudly both Prospero and Canary clapped their hands over their ears – Jasmine even doubled over.
When she looked up again, a small swarm of babies came around the nearest corner of the hallway, crawling on the walls and the ceiling.
The… babys?… rushed towards them, moving far too quickly to be real human babies, and Jasmine got a closer look at them. They certainly were baby-sized, and each was wearing a different onesie – she made out a piglet, a platypus, a flamingo and a snake – with masses of oily black tendrils sticking out of the openings for their faces, wriggling in nauseating ways as they moved on all fours.
“What in God’s name are those!?” she shouted, crouching in the middle of the hallway to put as much distance between herself and the walls and ceiling as possible.
One of the ‘babies’ stopped and looked at her – at least she thought it was looking at her, there was really no way to tell since they had no eyes – and its tendrils opened like a flower, revealing a slimy black beak that snapped a few times before it went on its way.
And that was still not the weirdest thing about them – each and every of these… things… was carrying some piece of female lingerie. Carrying as in, wearing. One had a bra on its head, tied so it looked like two lacy, pink ears. Another had turned a thong inside out and pulled it over its head, with its tendrils wiggling around it.
She didn’t even want to take a closer look at the others.
Prospero sighed in a way that reminded Jasmine a lot of her own father. “I hate these things,” he said and stepped aside, leaning against the wall before he lifted his hands and put them over his eyes.
“What…” Jasmine was just about to ask for some kind of clarification when the source of the earlier scream bounded around the corner and ran towards them at breakneck speeds.
She was young – perhaps a little older than Minerva, but certainly no older than Jasmine – and completely, utterly naked. Her medium length, unkempt red hair was dripping wet as she pursued the little monsters with an outraged look on her face.
Jasmine tried to avert her eyes, embarrassed that a girl would run around like that – though fortunately, Prospero seemed to be decent enough a man to hold his eyes closed – but the girl had made very sure that it was too interesting to look at her – Jasmine saw more piercings on her body than she cared to count (and in places where she hadn’t known girls could or would have piercings) and the most intricate tattoo she had ever seen starting at her left ankle, winding its way up her leg, across her belly, disappearing behind her back to reappear on her right side, hugging her lowermost rib and going on over her right breast and under her right armpit, only to reemerge over her left shoulder and then curve over her breasts to go over her throat up to her right cheek. It formed thorns and roses, black as the night with only faint blue lines added to make them more than mere silhouettes, winding around each other as they wound their way up her body, all of it coordinated with her silver piercings to make it impossible to avert your eyes.
She’d barely managed to take in half of that in before the girl had leapt by the two of them, screaming bloody murder after the little… thiefs. As Jasmine turned, she saw that the tattoo continued on her back, as did the piercings. Whoever had done this had been a true artist, she had to admit, but why was she running around naked!? And then she’d gone around another corner and out of sight, only her promises of brutal murder to be heard.
Perhaps that lingerie was her only underwear?
“Is she gone?” Prospero asked. “Is it safe to look again?”
“I-I think so,” Jasmine gasped, still blushing at the shameless display. She turned around to look at Prospero, just in time to see a shadow run around the corner. It was running on the wall, flat, the shadow of a slender young woman dragging another bigger, wide shadow behind her. Just as it came around the corner and ran towards them, a big bath towel came flying after it, its movements mirroring those of the shadow towel dragged by the girl shadow, which ran past them and after the naked girl and the tentacle babies.
Jasmine sank down onto her knees. “What the hell is going on?”
Her guide (jailor? captor?) came to her and held out a hand to help her get up. She accepted it, feeling numb.
“That was Belle Rose. She’s the Guard’s newest member. And it looks like the gremlins absconded with her underwear… again,” he explained. Or rather, he spoke. Because it didn’t make any sense.
“G-gremlins? What are they?”
He shrugged. “Some kind of… fallout. Whenever Tick-Tock and Totemic heterodyne their powers, some of those Gremlins are spawned. They’re annoying little pests, but harmless. Tend to play really stupid pranks on people.”
“I didn’t know that could happen with superpowers,” she replied. She knew the basics about heterodyning, but it was such a convoluted subject… still, she was sure she’d never heard of this kind of side effect.
“A lot can happen when diverse powers interact. Living in a palace full of metahumans will broaden your horizons a lot, I assure you.”
“I think it’s more likely that it’ll drive me completely insane,” she said with a flat look in his direction.
He threw his head back and laughed brightly. “Oh, that’s for sure! There are only two sane people around here, after all. Three if we count you, but I’m sure you’ll join us soon enough in our insanity!”
Sighing – no one here seemed to really take anything seriously – she just shook her head. He was obviously goading her to ask who the two sane people were, but… she really did want to know. Though she could probably guess as to one of them. “Let me guess, Minerva is one of the two?”
Now his smile turned into a proud grin. “Aye. And our Queenie is the other one.”
* * *
Trying to wrap her head around the mere idea that the Tyrant might be the only remotely sane person around here – it didn’t seem like Prospero was joking or lying – Jasmine followed Prospero quietly down the hallway and soon entered a small atrium that opened into a wide balcony, all built out of white marble, with a fountain in the center of the Atrium and several very comfortable looking leather armchairs standing on the balcony in a loose half-circle. The fountain was spewing clear water up into the air in several artfully arranged arcs.
It was… a very, very peaceful, pleasant scene. Though that was perhaps to be expected – why would the Tyrant and her trusted servants live in anything other than perfect luxury?
Prospero gave her a moment to enjoy the scene, then he walked towards the balcony and she followed him, waiting for him to finally start talking.
When they stepped out onto it through a huge archway, Jasmine’s breath caught for a moment.
They were standing on a marble balcony that looked out onto the Outback and the view was breathtaking. She’d always thought the palace floated over Ayer’s Rock simply as a testament to the Tyrant’s power, but… this view alone might have been reason enough to put a palace up here. The arid waste was breathtaking, despite the deep scars and cracks it bore from nearly a century of war.
As much as Jasmine despised the Tyrant, this sight was pretty effective in reminding her why she had so many legitimate supporters. She’d heard stories of the Outback, from before. Of plants and animals that had adjusted to life in the arid land, of the indigenous people that had once lived here and considered Ayer’s Rock – Uluru in their tongue – a holy place.
All gone, now. Long since wiped out. Instead of brushes, there was sand burned to glass, and ragged jet-black crystal formations left behind by Asag. Cracks in the earth from the Kangaroo King’s futile attempt to break off the Western half of the continent for his mad kingdom. In the distance, the jagged spire of Pazuzu’s throne, touching the sky but not the earth below. Nothing alive was down there. At least nothing natural.
“You know, I was just a child when Pazuzu and Asag took over Australia and split it between them,” Prospero suddenly said, making her jump a little. “I even saw the two of them. Back then, I thought they were angels, the most beautiful women in the world.” His voice was soft, and he seemed to be only partly here, with her. “I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. And then their madness became too obvious to ignore, and we all realised that they were no better than the warlords that came before them; only more powerful and more intelligent. Not that it helped them stave off the madness.”
“How’d they die?” she asked. Few really knew how it ended with those two. One day, they’d just been… gone. But the stories said Prospero had been there.
“They let me kill them,” he said with a sad smile. “A last moment of sanity shared between them. They knew they were lost, so they decided to die together, in peace.” He sighed. “I wonder what might have been, sometimes, if they’d held out long enough for Madeleine to emerge.”
“That’s… too sad. I heard that they weren’t so bad, in the beginning. If they truly were driven insane, somehow, then that’s…” She hung her head. She’d heard this story too often. People with good intentions driven insane by their powers until they became like the monsters they fought.
Story of our country.
“They really did want to save the continent. Though I think they’d be proud of what Madeleine has made of it,” he spoke softly, making her tense up again. Here it came, the propaganda. “I’m not going to pretend like everything she’s done and doing is perfect and for the better, but for the first time since Point Zero, we have had a true period of peace on this ragged, broken continent of ours.”
“A peace bought by ruthlessly oppressing all opposition and conquering the surrounding islands,” she replied with venom in her voice – though not as much as she would’ve liked to put into it.
“Madeleine does not suffer challenges to her authority, that much is true. Once you get to know her, you’ll realise the reasons for that, though,” he said calmly. “And I’d like to mention, for fairness’ sake, that Newfoundland and the Indonesian islands all joined after independent insurrections that resulted in the new governments asking to join the Monarchic Union.”
Insurrections started by you, she thought, but didn’t say. It was obvious Prospero either truly believed these lies or didn’t care that they were lies.
“But that’s not what you were asking, anyway. You were asking what we want with you.”
Finally, something useful.
He stretched out his arm, making an arching motion to indicate the Outback. “We need your help to fix this.”
“F-fix?” she asked, dumbfounded.
“Madeleine calls it the Reclamation Project. We want to turn the Outback into fertile farmland,” he explained calmly. “We’ve been gathering the right powers ever since Madeleine ascended to the throne, and have started some preliminary work in clearing out the more… hostile effects left behind. After the Sovjet Union collapsed, we managed to extract a whole batch of agricultural gadgeteers, and we’ve been taking in every weather manipulator we could find, so we’ll be able to manipulate weather patterns.”
Uhh… not what I was expecting… It sounded like a great plan, actually. Why had no one else thought of it before?
“Me, Madeleine and Quetzalcoatl are obviously the world’s most powerful – sane – weather manipulators, but Quetzalcoatl is unwilling to leave South America for an extended period of time, and even with him, we three would not suffice for this task. Yet the more people we add, the more their powers interfere with each other – that’s not much of a problem for gadgeteers, but weather manipulation is a very delicate process, especially if you want to do it on a large scale and over a long amount of time.”
She nodded. So far, it made sense. So then, her power would be needed for…
“We need you, specifically, because you are the most powerful catalyst that we know of,” he continued, looking her in the eyes.
“Catalyst?” She’d never heard herself described that way.
“The technical term for someone who can facilitate the synchronisation of powers,” he explained. “You are the only living person we know of who can affect an entire group of metahumans. Everyone who hears your song long enough, right?”
She nodded, aghast at how much they’d found out about her power. “H-how do you know all this!? It was supposed to be a secret, a trump to play against the Tyrant!”
He chuckled. “Please. Your organisation is more of an annoyance than a threat. Honestly, the only reason we haven’t swiped them all up yet is because we’re using them to draw out dissents that might otherwise remain hidden from us… people like you.” He winked at her. “In fact, I’m pretty sure they’ve served their purpose in Madeleine’s eyes. I expect her to give Tick-Tock the clear for an all-out attack on what remains of them.”
Jasmine paled. Not Tick-Tock. They had nothing to stop her if she knew where they were. And… “You always knew about us? Our plans?”
He nodded, his face serious.
That… hurt more than having Pale try to kill her. In fact, it made that action hurt even worse. It had all been meaningless. Except he might be lying. Maybe this is all a plot to make me feel weak and defenseless, to make brainwashing me all the more easy.
“So, is this the point where you take me to be brainwashed and turned into a worker drone?” she asked. Let’s just get this over with.
“Oh God, is this the whole mind control spiel again?” He leaned against the railing of the balcony, rubbing his temples with his hands. “When will people get it? Madeleine can’t control minds!”
“You would say that! But why would people even say that unless it was true!?” she shouted back, feeling herself at the edge to cracking and just getting into a screaming fit. In fact, she was tempted to use her power on him – she did have one offensive attack that was sure to hurt him.
“Because she can control powers, dear child,” he replied calmly, without taking any apparent offense at her outbreak.
“What?” That made her deflate.
“Madeleine can manipulate powers. Within certain limits. I guess that’s how the mind control rumors started. But her influence begins and ends with the powers of metahumans. Activating them, blocking them, changing their targets, moving their parameters around – like making them weaker in exchange for making them more precise – and so on. Pretty small stuff, overall, but very, very versatile,” he explained in the voice of someone who’s done this quite often. “Any power that is used within her line of sight, she can control. That’s all there is to it.”
“Wha- but… Then why do you need me?”
He shrugged. “Because her power is not that well-suited to serve as a catalyst. And because you can affect far more people at the same time. The idea is to synchronise at least twenty weather manipulators for the sake of long-term changes to the weather patterns over the Outback. And before you ask, no, you don’t really have a choice in this. You are a terrorist, and your sentence is to support the Reclamation Project.”
“I didn’t get a trial,” she replied half-hearted.
He smiled sadly. “There is no due process here, my dear. Madeleine thinks it is grossly inefficient. She made a decision, and you have to live with it. And don’t tell me you don’t want to turn the Outback into farmland in order to feed the people?”
“I…” That was a good point. The idea sounded really damn good. In fact, it was one of the best ideas for the use of superpowers she’d ever heard of. “And then what? I spend my whole life singing so this project can work?”
He waved his hand in a no-no gesture. “Nah, nothing like that. Just for half a year or so, I suspect. Once the whole thing is set up, Madeleine should be capable of keeping it stable on her own. You’d just have to step in every now and then when adjustments became necessary. Even less for the other projects – converting the ground into farmland and all, setting up roadways and a water supply. You’ll barely be needed on those, since they don’t require large-scale heterodyning.”
“And then what?”
He shrugged. “You’ll be free to go, so long as you promise not to break any laws anymore.”
“Just like that?” No way they are this lenient.
He smiled at her. “You were a member of a terrorist organisation, but you’re young and you didn’t actually cause any harm yet. Madeleine may be strict, but she’s not unreasonable. Besides, we hope that you’ll decide to work normally for us, afterwards.”
Her mouth dropped open. “You’re joking, right? Why would I work for a Tyrant!?”
Again, that maddening, paternal sigh. “You are aware that more than ninety percent of the population absolutely adores Maddi, right?”
“Like those numbers are actually r-“
“Why would I lie?” he asked softly. “I literally have no reason to deceive you, Jasmine. You will work for us, because you are a decent person who wants to help people – and the Reclamation will do just that. As for afterwards, we want you to work for us long-term, of your own free will. Feeding you lies would be completely counterproductive to that.”
She bit her lip, stiffling another outburst. It stung, because he was right. She saw no reason for them to lie to her. Fuck, now even the way they treated her so far made sense – they wanted her to join. If the Tyrant really couldn’t control her mind, then this was really the best thing they could do…
“So, if what you say is true, how come there are resistance groups, huh?”
“There are always malcontents. Madeleine allows for free press and criticism of her rulership, but she doesn’t actually allow the average person to take part in the decisionmaking process at any level. Most people don’t care – she’s turned Australia from a Fourth World country into almost a First World country in less than twelve years. Unemployment is at less than two percent, the economy thrives, there is no war, she’s taken all the orphans off the streets and given them homes – but a few are always unsatisfied.”
Stepping away from the balcony, he walked to the fountain, his arms folded behind his back. “Honestly, I think it won’t be an issue anymore, once the Reclamation Project is through. We’ll basically eliminate hunger in the entire Monarchic Union. No one will be able to turn that on us. The few who try will be shot down by the people who, for the first time in their lives, don’t have to worry about feeding their children.” He turned to her, sitting on the edge of the fountain, his robe’s patterns shifting to match the dancing water. “Look, I get that Madeleine is… difficult for people to understand. Hell, I have trouble understanding her sometimes. And I don’t expect you to just jump into this blindly. But I’d ask you to give her a chance. Give us a chance.” He smiled at her.
“I… uh…” Why the fuck is this so difficult!?
“Prospero, you’re pushing too hard. Again,” a childish voice spoke up.
Jasmine squealed like a little girl, jumping straight in the air. She hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her! She turned around and saw… a cute little moppet, maybe eight years old, with short reddish-brown hair, huge black eyes and wearing a very severe looking, very old-fashioned dark blue dress with shiny black shoes. And she a golden disk in her left hand, attached to a pocket in her dress with a fine golden chain.
She also had an utterly unnaturally severe expression on her cute face.
“Tick-Tock. I didn’t hear you come in,” Prospero spoke calmly from behind Jasmine.
“Eeep?” A meek little sound came out of Jasmine’s throat as she realised the golden disk was a pocket watch. Slowly, she started to edge back from the girl, trying to figure out an escape route that would take her far away from her. Perhaps leaping out of the balcony?
“Oh, goodness, relax child,” the little girl said, looking up at her with the most deadpan expression she’d ever seen on a person. “I’m not going to harm you. If I wanted to, you’d already be a goner.” She leaned to the side, looking at Prospero. “Your daughter-in-law is running around stark naked again. Shouldn’t you do something about that?”
“She is not my daughter in law! They’re just… friends…”
Tick-Tock chuckled, the quirk in her mouth that that produced looking completely wrong. “Yeah, right. Friends. Someday, you’ll have to accept that she and your girl are…”
“I swear to God I’ll blow up this atrium if you finish that sentence. Boss.”
She chuckled again, then turned back to Jasmine, pointing one small finger with a shiny little nail at her. “You, child. With me. Prospero has work to do.” A groan came from behind her. “Get to it, or I’ll tell your wife on you.”
“Alright alright, I’ll go do the damn paperwork!” He stood up. “Jasmine,” he continued in a softer voice. She turned around to face him, even though she didn’t like turning her back to Tick-Tock at all. He looked… very paternal again. “Relax. Don’t be afraid. No one here means you harm.” He put his bony hands on her shoulders, gently squeezing them. “We’re not the enemy. We’re not monsters. You’re not here to be brainwashed or harmed or coerced into anything. You’re here because we need your help to do good work, and we know that it’s the kind of work you’d want to help with. Now go with Tick-Tock and if you want, we can sit down later on and have a more detailed talk over dinner. How’s that sound?”
Pretty nice, actually. They were just too nice. And weirdly quirky. How could she say no? “I think I’d like that,” she replied with a hesitant smile.
He nodded, smiling, and left with a nod towards Tick-Tock.
Jasmine looked after him until he was out of sight, then turned back to face the Time Hag. Though that name seemed utterly inappropriate now. “H-how…” She stuttered and broke off.
“How do I look like an eight-year-old?” the leader of the Queensguard completed her sentence. “It’s a side-effect of my power. I have to stay in this form in order to charge it up.” She turned towards a doorway different from the one Jasmine and Prospero had come through, walking towards it. Jasmine automatically followed her.
“Is that why they say you’re immortal?” she asked. Almost no one really knew anything about Tick-Tock, except that she was unstoppable.
“No, that’s because I can’t be killed and because I was born in the early nineteenth century,” she replied without bothering to look at her.
“You… What? How!?” she almost shouted in reply.
A careless shrug. “I got my powers when I was almost ninety years old. They made me pretty much unkillable, and I can freely age myself up and down – I just need to stay in this childish form to charge my power up.”
“Uhh…” Wow. “So you’re… even older than Lady Light, huh? Wow. I never thought I’d meet someone like that.”
“Now you have. Let’s hurry a bit, you have an appointment.” She sped up her step.
“An appointment with whom?” Please not the Tyrant, please not the Tyrant, please not the Tyrant…
Her thoughts must have been pretty obvious on her face, because Tick-Tock looked up at her and smirked. “With the Royal Babysitter.”
“Who? What!?” she asked, caught completely off-guard by the reply.
“The Royal Babysitter. She should be done in a moment, and then she’ll talk to you.”
“Why does the Ty- the Queen have a babysitter!? Does she have kids!?” Somehow, the idea of her having children was… too scary for words.
“You got it wrong. I mean ‘royal babysitter’ as in, ‘the babysitter is royalty’.”
Jasmine stopped dead. “No. No way. I’m not buying this. No.“
The hag stopped, turning to face her with an amused look on her face. “Why not?”
She was getting really fed up with this. “Look, I can buy you people not all being insane monsters! I can buy the Tyrant being well-intentioned. But do you seriously expect me to believe that Madeleine babysits for someone!?”
“Yes,” came the reply with a completely straight voice. Jasmine could make no deception out. “It’s not so strange. Madeleine prefers children to adults. They’re more honest.”
Now she fell down on her butt. “Do I even want to know why?” she asked with a sigh.
“Nothing too complicated. Her powers messed up her ability to relate to people. Reading cues and moods. That’s why she always comes across so rude and inconsiderate – she literally can’t relate to people the normal way,” she explained as if it wasn’t anything special. “She always has to consciously decipher them. So adults strain her. Children are more honest. More… straight. She can understand them better… which doesn’t mean much, but it makes it easier for her. So she takes care of the younger kids around here, whenever necessary and possible.”
And with that, she turned around and walked on. “You better follow, or I guarantee you that you’ll get lost!”
Jasmine jumped up and followed her, moving on autopilot. “Why are you telling me all of this? Don’t you know that I could use it against you all?”
Now she actually laughed, a cackling, scratchy laugh that didn’t go with her apparent age at all. Jasmine watched with wide eyes as her body began to shift, stretch, growing, her clothes changing with her as she… aged… until she was a moderately attractive thirty-year-old woman in a floor-length lilac dress, clutching the gold watch in her slender, perfectly manicured fingers.
The whole process had been incredibly smooth, without even a hint of discomfort. She’d just segued from a laughing eight-year-old to a laughing thirty-year-old.
“I’d like to see that, actually! Ah, what a joke.” She walked on. “Come, let’s hurry. Time for you to get to know your ‘Tyrant’. It’ll change your perspective on a lot of things. As it did for me, once upon a time.”