We probably don't have to ask what the putative Hero thinks of Polychrome...
Focusing on what Polychrome was telling me wasn't easy at first. I may not have had many lady companions, especially in the last few years, but I was very, very far from unaware of the attractions of the opposite sex; given my commonly-noted lack of maturity, perhaps overly much so in some ways. And there was no girl or woman I'd ever met who could compare to Polychrome.
I think I had managed a heroic feat in keeping my eyes fixed on hers most of the time we talked, and never letting them drop below the neckline, but the couple of times I'd followed her I had lacked such a clear focal point and I had studied that view much more intensely than was probably proper. And, of course, I have excellent peripheral vision, so even her front view was fairly clear – too much so, in some ways. O'Neill had captured much of Polychrome's essence correctly in his pictures, or I'd never have recognized her – the ethereal delicacy of her basic build, the sunshine-golden hair that floated unconfined yet never in the way, her curiosity, her joy – but the real Polychrome was not the almost fainting hothouse flower that the pictures conveyed. Her stormy-violet eyes were merry and bright and intensely alive, her face beautiful but far stronger than O'Neill's artwork had allowed, her figure much more… intriguing than I suspect had been permitted when those pictures were drawn.
It did not help at all that O'Neill's drawings had been entirely accurate in depicting her gauzy, near-transparent, diaphonous clothing. It wasn't – quite – transparent, but as most guys know, sometimes a tantalizing hint of a view is as riveting as a full exposure. Even her scent was maddeningly distracting, a combination of flowers and thunderstorms, and a nigh-subliminal song seemed to follow her, a phantom music that echoed her actions and moods.
It was also not helping that I was terribly aware of how poorly I compared to her or any men she must know – both in general appearance and in the semi-squalor of my bachelor existence. Only the oddities of the high-tech era managed to make my place look different than she might have expected. But she was talking and serious now, and with another supreme effort I drove all those thoughts to the background and focused every mental faculty on her problem. For whatever incredible reason, she has come here to find you. This is that impossible chance you were waiting for all your life. Don't blow it.
The initial modus operandi of the unknown attackers was clearly familiar, and she confirmed it shortly. The immediate aftermath was grim. I nodded. Of the various so-called villains in most of the Oz books, these were the two who – once I allowed for the shifted imagery in the children's versions – were undoubtedly the most formidable, intelligent, capable of long-term planning, and of nursing an intense grudge against all Oz. "Yeah, the ending of Lost Princess never rang true to me, even as a kid. I just couldn't see Ugu suddenly reforming that way. He never showed any sign of really caring about other people, and I think that level of reforming takes a lot more than just a few weeks of thinking," I said. Another thought struck me. "I'm betting they also got themselves a few more allies, among others that Ozma's regime had stepped on."
"You go fast, and well." The quick smile she gave, lighting up the grave face, and the swift glissando of bright notes amid the muted, somber background strains sent another spurt of joy through my heart all out of proportion to the words. "But they reserved the vast majority of power for themselves, and none would be foolish enough to gainsay them."
"Why didn't they change Ozma to stone also?"
Her smile was suddenly more cynical. "Because Ozma is the true heart of Oz, granted that power through her birth line, in direct descent from the Faerie Queen Lurline. Turning her to stone would weaken the power of Oz overall, reduce the value of their prize. Imprisoning her in that mystic cage leaves her helpless, trapped in a dream that permits her only the vaguest awareness of the situation, her power sealed such that it can only be used by her captors – and even that indirectly, in that she cannot prevent them from making use of Oz' power."
"So she wasn't actually in Lurline's band to begin with? I was always confused about that – Baum's tales didn't leave it clear."
Polychrome shook her head. "Ozma is a child from the point of view of any Faerie. It was required that there be both mortal and Faerie blood on the throne of Oz, so that both sides were represented at this, the core of all Faerie. She is descended of a line of rulers." She smiled again. "And as I think you have already guessed, his early tales oft held more of truth in them than the latter tales."
"It did strike me that way – no money? A perfect socialist state? And all the evil gone except in out-of-the-way benighted places?" I grinned, then grew serious. I think we've still been doing dancing. "But you still haven't told me… where do I come in?"
Now I saw real worry on her face, and the sound was of foreboding horns far off in a darkened fog. "Well… you know I was following a prophecy. A man of your talents already guessed that the prophecy led to you."
"Hard though that is to believe – and I can imagine your disappointment."
She flushed, a lovely rose hue that if possible made her even more beautiful than she had been. "Well… I…"
"Don't try to apologize, Polychrome. I would never have picked myself for hero material – as opposed to dreaming of it – and if you weren't surprised and disappointed, well, you would have been seeing things I don't in myself."
She was silent for a moment, as though she wanted to protest but couldn't think of any convincing way to do so. Then she sighed. "Yes. But as I have thought on the prophecy… or prophecies, for really it's more than one, a string of several pieces more than a single epic of foretelling… I think I see that someone like you was exactly what the Little Bear was seeing." She stood and turned away from me, gazing out of one of my windows into darkness. "And there isn't any certainty, yet. Or, really, none until the ending. The prophecies make clear that we can fail. That, perhaps, we are far more likely to fail than to win through. And…" she hesitated.
I had a feeling I wasn't going to like the answer, but I asked, "…And? What is it?"
"…And the first chance to fail is… tonight."
I had a feeling there was more to it, but that was bad enough. "Tonight?" I glanced around involuntarily, wondering if something was lurking in the shadows already. "No offense, but what the hell will I be able to do in the next few hours that will determine ultimate victory or defeat?"
She looked sincerely sorry, pained, a touch of mourning violins. "It's… the prophecies, Erik. Now that I've found you, the next part has to be fulfilled, and as it was told me, that is:
To the Rainbow's Daughter a beauty will be shown
Might and mortal glory as she has never known
Set her feet to dancing, until they've skyward flown
Through the skies and homeward to stand before the
I blinked. "So let me get this straight. I am supposed to show you beauty such as you have never known?" I could not keep total incredulity from my voice.
She bit her lip. "I … don't see any other way to read that prophecy, Erik. And the following stanza was:
If no joy by dawning, if no dancing glory felt
Hope is gone now, shattered, lost
Like first snow's fading melt.
Return you to the palace and prepare you for the end
For mortal heart has withered
And Faerie has no friend.
"Oh. Okay. So in the next…" I checked my watch. "Um… lessee, it's about nine, and the sun rises tomorrow at around 5:40, so in the next, oh, eight or nine hours all I have to do is show you some incredible beauty that sets you to dancing, or I've doomed all Faerie. No pressure."
She gave a sympathetic giggle. "No, none at all."
Holy Jesus. I was utterly appalled. How was it possible that someone like me could be key to this mystery? Even worse, how could it be that by not meeting this criterion I'd doom all Faerie? "… for mortal heart has withered, and Faerie has no friend". The whole thing implied that there was in fact something special about me that would be difficult or impossible to duplicate – that is, finding another person that would fit those qualifications would take too long, or – worst case – there simply WASN'T anyone else with those qualifications.
One good thing about this new wrinkle was that I was finding it a lot easier to concentrate. "'When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,'" I said, slightly misquoting Johnson. "Poly – you don't mind, I hope, if I call you that?"
"Not at all. My friends mostly do."
"Poly, that last verse… that means that there has to be something specifically about me that's unique. Trivially that's of course true – my genetic structure, exact personality, all that is going to be unique – but I find it hard to believe that it's that which is so important. Do you know any more about what about me is supposed to be unusual?"
She looked as though she were having an internal debate, then nodded. "First… Erik, understand that there are things I know that I can only tell you at particular times. And there are things that I haven't been told, and won't be maybe ever, or only whenever I'm supposed to. My father is the only one who's heard the whole of the prophecies of the Little Bear, and the way the prophecies work…" She sighed again. "Just telling the wrong person the wrong part could ruin the entire thing. I suppose it might end up making things better, but I would be very unwilling to risk it."
I nodded. "Just as long as all of you also remember the old, old problem of prophecies biting people on the, er, nether regions because they took actions trying to either avoid the prophecy or make it come true too literally."
"Oh, believe me, Erik, we are all too aware of that. It's one of Father's biggest worries, and the Little Bear can't clarify things too much." She followed me as I started sorting through books, looking for something that might give me an idea as to what kind of "beauty" I might show her that she wouldn't already have seen. "But there are a few things I can tell you. The most important is that you're supposed to be pure mortal, not more than the faintest trace of Faerie in you."
I glanced at her. "That's unusual? You've had people like Dorothy, Cap'n Bill, all of them there –"
"Most of them aren't pure mortal. Most people who end up in Oz or other parts of Faerie have at least some trace of Faerie in them. Often quite a bit."
"Really? You mean most of the mortals in the Oz books are…?"
" … part Faerie, though often very very small part. It's one reason many of them didn't have parents or were missing at least one parent. Such people often get… lost, between worlds, especially if something distracts them from their anchor in this world, or if they encounter some passing magic. The cyclone that picked up Dorothy on her first venture had some spirits playing in it – against the laws of Faerie, I'll note! – and that brought her across."
"So I'm supposed to be purely mundane, then."
Poly smiled. "Don't sound disappointed. There's nothing wrong with it, and according to Father you should find it an advantage in many ways, though exactly what those advantages are he's not discussing until you arrive."
The thought of "arriving" at the palace of the Lord of Rainbows was still mindboggling. But that wasn't going to happen if I couldn't figure out what I could show her.
I was connected to the Internet, which gave me access to an awful lot of possibilities. Computers themselves were pretty impressive. But impressive wasn't the key here. I shrugged. Nothing for it but to try to find something.
I showed her pictures of just about everything I could think of. I showed her television and modern sculptures and paintings of old masters, video games and clips of movies, parades and models, clothing old and new, mountains and jungles and ancient ruins.
A lot of things she found silly, quite a few were fascinating, others nothing special; after all, as I should have realized, in her past visits to the mortal world she'd probably seen every type of natural wonder WE had. It was the newer material that interested her at all – things invented since the era of the early Oz novels. But none of them really touched her sense of beauty.
There were a couple of moments where I thought there was something. She spent a fascinated moment looking at a picture of the Twin Towers, marvelling at how huge it was, a chiming of wondrous bells echoing for an instant in her sourceless following themes. A picture of the gaudy Las Vegas strip held her attention for a few seconds. But nothing quite managed.
I knew I was missing something, something crucially important, not just to me or her, but everyone in the world, if my guess of the connection between Faerie and the mundane world was anything like the truth. There were moments I almost had it, but in desperately grasping for that clue it evaporated, disappeared like morning mist or like a dream that seemed so clear upon awakening, but as you try to remember the details they become less and less until you are left with nothing but a vague memory and disappointment.
I glanced at the clock on the wall. 12:55. "Poly… look, I know you don't need much rest, but you've had a busy day, and you might as well get some. I'm the one who has to figure this out, and maybe I'll do that better alone. I'll come get you if I get any ideas."
She gave me a grave look – mixed, I thought, with sympathy as well as concern – but nodded. I showed her to my one guest room (which was, fortunately, clean, as I rarely used it), then went back to my study.
Think, man. The prophecy makes it clear that there is something you could show her. You just have to find it.
The problem was that I was running out of ideas. Oh, there were things I could envision that might do the trick, but they simply weren't available here. "Damn me for being such a geek." I muttered. "It may have made me able to recognize her, but almost everything I have or do is on a damn computer or in a book. And there's nothing around here more impressive than she's already seen. I don't have TIME!"
I started taking books off the shelf, flipping through them, but it was a measure of desperation. Books wouldn't do it. Videos wouldn't, either. There was something completely different about seeing something on even the best wide-screen and seeing it in person, but what I was missing I didn't know. Walking quietly so as to not awaken Polychrome, I went through the house one room at a time, seeking some clue, something that would bring out that vague, half-formed idea and make it solid. Minutes passed. Tens of minutes. An hour. Two.
I wandered through the attic, seeing dusty packed boxes that I hadn't opened in years, standing in the barely adequate gloom of the streetlight like an abandoned city under a dead moon. I turned, seeing the flash of the light against the darkness, then froze.
That's it. Almost it. What am I…
The buildings. She'd looked at buildings. But no, that couldn't be it. She'd seen Albany as we drove across the bridge on our way here. But… somehow, that was it. The Las Vegas Strip…
And suddenly I had it. The one chance I had, the one possibility in the real world that I had ignored, that she couldn't have ever seen, the one thing that just might work. I was downstairs in a flash, throwing things into a backpack, checking my pockets – keychain with light, mini-laser ponter, Swiss Army Knife, wallet, couple of inhalers – thinking desperately fast, writing a note to leave on the table for whoever finally came in after me. After all, if this doesn't work out I can always just come back this morning and go back to normal. No one else will read it if nothing happens. I looked up at the clock. 4:10.
I rapped gently on the door; it opened almost immediately. My memory had already started to fade the immediacy of her own beauty, and seeing her again made me momentarily speechless. "Yes, Erik?"
"Um." I shook myself. "Come on, Polychrome. I have one possibility. You have to promise to just do what I say for the next few minutes. Will you trust me?"
She studied me for a minute, then gave me the smile that seemed to go straight through my heart. "Yes. I will."
"Okay. Then I want you to close your eyes and keep them closed until I tell you to open them. I'm going to take you to the car, and we're going somewhere. It's not far away, but I want you to promise to keep your eyes closed until I say. Okay?"
Taking her hand to lead her into the car was … almost too much. I was so charged with adrenalin, loss of sleep, hope and worry that just touching her sent a tingle up my arm. Her hand was silky as rose petals, yet I could feel a strength in it, the strength that had carried me over the heads of a crowd of people, delicacy combined with immortal power. Don't lose focus!
We got to the car and I made sure she was properly buckled in, then put the car in gear. I knew where I was going, heading up Route 4, to the point where the bridge over I-90 gave one of the best vantage points. The road streamed by, black in the headlights, streetlights flicking regularly by.
"Still keep my eyes closed?" Polychrome asked.
"Still. Just a few more minutes." Just ahead…
I pulled off to the side shortly before the bridge. "Hold on. I'll get you out."
The night air was cooler, and I knew that to her it would be cold, but either way it wouldn't be long now. I led her to the best location, took a deep breath and gave a wordless prayer to whatever powers there might be. "Okay, Polychrome. Open your eyes."
She opened her eyes… and gasped.
Before her was the city of Albany – but not the city as she'd seen it in the light of day, an impressive but somewhat dingy-grungy pile of masonry, buildings jumbled together, showing all the warts all too clearly in the sunlight. This was a magnificent blaze of light in the darkness, the mighty four hundred foot main tower of the South Mall alight with a thousand brilliant tiny squares of luminance, four smaller towers shining next to it, the curve of the Egg outlined in reflected glory, the rest of the city adding to it, standing against the surrounding night, a mighty beacon of edges and beams and hard-cut stone defying the power of darkness. In daylight it had been merely a city; with the cloak of night and the infinite brilliance of electricity, it became a symbol.
"Ohhh…" she sighed, eyes wide, harps and bells beginning to resound in the remotest distance. Slowly, hardly able to take her gaze from the city, she turned. "You… you built this?"
"Me? No, I only wish. But we did, my lady Polychrome. THAT is the power and the glory of my people, Poly, and if that will not suffice than there is nothing more I have to give."
"Suffice?" she repeated, and I heard tears in her voice, saw a glitter in her eye, and a rising crescendo of trumpets and drums, a chorus of triumphal voices, resounded in her words. "Oh, Erik, it is beautiful!"
And, surrounded by the ethereal music, Polychrome began to dance.
Hmm. Maybe he can, a little.