And let's return to the eponymous star of our tale...
Polychrome danced lightly through the corridors of the Palace, out the gateway, and laughed. For there were gathered all the people of the Rainbow Kingdom, from the smallest child to the eldest of the wise old women, all gathered to see the Hero off. Far, far away, down the Way of Light that ran from the dawn to the sunset, she could see the tiny figures of Erik and Nimbus, and the much larger shape of her father against the brilliance of the rising sun.
The crowd saw her and gave a cheer; she blushed. I don't know why I am so popular compared to my sisters. But for some reason I am. Thank the Above that the seven of them aren't too envious. She gave a laugh and a spin, and then leapt up to dance lightly over the assembled people, feet touching as gently as a breath of morning mist on each of the upraised hands that rose to provide her a path to the beginning of the Way.
"A good morning to you, Princess." Nimbus said as she arrived.
"Bright sunshine and only clouds of glory, yes." She smiled back, then said with a touch of sadness, "I only wish Cirrus were here."
A shadow passed over Nimbus' face, and her father looked solemn. "Indeed. He knew on what errand you had gone, and it was his greatest wish to see this day. Well, possibly his second-greatest."
No need for this now. "Well, let us hope he watches us with the Above."
"So we shall," Iris Mirabilis said quietly, and then raised his voice so that it rolled sonorously over the entire crowd, "for today we begin the liberation of our brethren; today the Hero of Prophecy sets forth!"
There was a mighty cheer. We have all waited for this day, waited for long enough that even we wondered if this would ever come. She turned to Erik, whose cheeks now flamed red in embarrassment, but who stood tall and straight and faced the crowd, and she laughed suddenly. "And you look every bit the part!" she cried with delight, clapping her hands.
"What? Don't joke with me about that, Poly." He was trying to maintain a properly respectful and determined expression, but his voice was that of someone being presented an award for someone else's work.
"Joke? Have you never looked at yourself?" She gestured and danced, the Music of the Spheres chiming about her in happy laughter, and called the air and warmth and light to do her bidding, formed a mirage-mirror in front of the mortal.
It was fortunate that from behind the mirage blurred his form, because the expression of disbelief would have been a comical and perhaps inappropriate sight for this particular day.
For this day Erik was dressed in the final and finest armor the artisans could create, a creation of cloud-metals and crystals of blue and gold with touches of sunset crimson. The helm was light, almost a circlet or crown rather than a helmet, but it did the older mortal a service in hiding the retreat of his hairline. His shoulders were wide, waist narrow, dark brows emphasizing the glint of blue eyes, and over his shoulder the tall hilt of a mighty sword projected. A small pack, a few other small pouches or containers about his waist, but little else to mar the clean lines of the armored figure. He's very different than he was when I first brought him here, she thought, remembering the oddly-dressed, somehow soft-looking man who had searched for some Earthly beauty amidst the clutter of his lonely rooms. And yet, she mused, seeing how he looked at himself with wonder and then at her as though she had wrought the change, maybe he hasn't changed much at all. Maybe he – and we – are only seeing the man who could have been there all along.
The Little Pink Bear was there as well, almost invisible in a carrying pouch at Iris' side. Now the tiny stuffed creature climbed stiffly out and marched to Erik, who knelt down to view the Pink Bear eye to eye. "I wish you good luck," the Bear said in his high-pitched childish voice. "I cannot see the end of your road, Hero."
"It's okay," he said, so quietly that none in the crowd could have heard it. "I won't let you down. I'll beat them, somehow. And as long as I do that, what happens at the end… I'm okay with it."
The little Bear bowed stiffly, and Iris picked him back up. "All of our good wishes and our prayers go with you, Erik Medon." The Rainbow Lord stretched out his hand, and from the very end of the Way a brilliant Rainbow stretched, out and down and down and down, its end coming to rest somewhere in Faerie. Only Iris and Erik knew exactly where that was, although since she was guiding him down the Rainbow she thought she'd probably figure it out, if he didn't tell her. "Go, and may the Above guide and protect you, your courage uphold you, and your strength never fail you."
Erik simply bowed, apparently feeling that he had no words to say. But then he turned to the crowd and in a single movement unsheathed the great sword, holding it over his head in a single hand, the immense blade blazing in the morning sun. "For Faerie!"
The roar of the crowd was as deafening as summer thunder, as powerful and joyous as a downpour after a drought, and Polychrome felt a tiny sting of tears at the corners of her eyes. He does understand the power of his symbols.
As dramatically as he had unsheathed the blade, he returned it to its sheath with a theatrical spinning flourish and then bowed low to her. "Lady Polychrome, would you lead the way?"
"With pleasure, Lord Erik." She waved gaily to the people, who gave another cheer, and began to dance her way along the Rainbow. Erik gave a last wave of his own and then strode after her, keeping pace with her light-footed dance with a straight-forward, almost military rhythm that lent purpose and power to even his simple exit.
It was many minutes before the cheers faded behind them, but slowly they did, and after an hour there was nothing but the gently-curving Rainbow beneath them and sky and clouds around them, with the dim mass of Earth below.
"You have the Jewel of the Bridge?"
He grinned and pulled the glittering crystal that her father had made to bring his Rainbow Bridge through the Great Barrier that separated Oz from the rest of Faerie. "Never left my side since he gave it to me."
"Good." She wondered if she should tell him that her father said that as long as he carried it, they could also watch him, using her father's powers. Probably not; after all, they wouldn't be able to do anything, only watch. "My father says that the Jewel will also serve as a Letter of Introduction to any of the true rulers of any of the Faerie kingdoms," she said instead.
"I admit that's a relief. I have a suspicion that despite the nice open way Faerie was depicted by Baum, some random guy walking into a king's throne room and saying 'Hi, the Rainbow Lord sent me down, would you care to give me some help defeating the conquerers of Oz' might not get a completely positive reception."
She giggled, and the Music chimed around her. "No, I think you're right about that." She saw him tilt his head and grin. "What?"
"Oh, the music. It's just so neat how you Faerie have sort of a living soundtrack. Though I notice that it's not all of your people that have it."
She shook her head. "Only those of us with a lot of true Faerie blood. It gets fainter and fainter as one becomes more mortal."
"Still, it's pretty neat." They walked along in the near-perfect silence of the sky for some moments. "Hey, Poly – something I'm curious about. You guys mentioned Cirrus, Nimbus' second in command. If this was his second-greatest wish, what was his first?"
He would have picked up on that. She found herself unaccountably hesitant. "Well…"
"If it's something you can't talk about –"
"No, no… well, it's just that…" She took a deep breath. It's just a simple question and answer, why do you have a problem with this? "We were betrothed, and Nimbus was just saying that our wedding day might have been Cirrus' greatest wish." It hurt to talk about it. But not exactly the way she had thought it might.
He blinked, looking both startled and shocked. "You were engaged to be married? I didn't… Holy crap, I'm sorry, Poly, you never told me this guy was someone you were in love with! I mean, you never showed how upset you must've been…"
Now she felt really uncomfortable. "No, no, Erik, it's… not quite like that. I liked Cirrus, really, I did. And I'm sad he's gone, he was very sweet. Very kind, and a very good warrior and a good friend, and I've said a lot of prayers for him over the past year. But… I wasn't in love with him. Father simply felt that it was time for the next generation to begin."
"Hmph. I didn't think of Iris as a sexist pig."
"A what?" For a moment she couldn't even understand what he was saying, then she managed to dredge sense out of it in the context of some of her other conversations with Erik over the last year. "No, no. It's policy, Erik. If I was a boy, he'd have chosen one of the court ladies. Nimbus was his first choice, actually, but Nimbus refused – and by the morning mist did that make things uncomfortable for a while."
Erik's expression was unreadable, though he had an odd smile for a moment. "I would think it would be. That's a real 'offer you can't refuse'." Again, as with so many things, it was clear he was referencing something she had no background for. "Nimbus doesn't look crazy, so what was his reason for refusing?"
"He said that his responsibility was to serve the Rainbow Lord, and that if he married anyone he'd have two people to serve." Privately, Polychrome thought that the reason was simpler: he didn't want to marry anyone for anything but love, and not being a prince or princess, he didn't have to.
"So you don't get to choose?"
She shook her head. "It's not common."
He was silent for a while, occasionally glancing at her with that same hooded look. The glances did give her another subject to talk about, though. "You know, you were right. You do look much better without those glasses. I'm glad father was able to do that for you."
"Oh, you have no idea what that means to me!" he said with a clearly relieved expression. "I'd tried to have them fixed back home, but the treatments we had… well, they told me my eyes didn't qualify. Which reminds me…"
He withdrew the thick-lensed glasses from the pack he carried and stared at them. "I've wanted to do this for forty years."
With a sudden violent motion, he hurled the glasses into space; they disappeared into a nearby cloud, then reappeared beneath them, a tiny speck plummeting to an unknown doom. Erik gave a whoop and leap of joy. "HA! Abayo, you stupid pieces of glass!"
She laughed at his joy. "You really disliked them that much?"
"As I said, you have no idea." He grinned. "When I was a kid, people made fun of my just HAVING them. And in practical terms, they were just a pain." He strode on, still smiling. "And for this sort of situation… they were kind of a symbol."
She danced along, an answering smile on her face. "I'm glad."
Erik looked at her face for a moment, his smile brighter.
She became aware that for some moments they had simply continued moving, looking at each other in silence. That's dangerous, she thought, and wondered what in the name of the Above she meant by that. Still, she felt it was terribly important she say something."So for once a mortal knew where the Rainbow would end before the Rainbow Lord, I understand?"
"What?" He seemed distracted for a moment, then nodded. "Oh, yes. Yeah, I had to decide where I was going to start. So much time, so little to do – wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it." That slightly-lopsided grin again. "Fortunately, the prophecy clearly tells me where to go. 'Across the sky and sea, wisdom he will seek'. Follow that path, and I'll also get the companions and the means to cross the Deadly Desert."
She paused in the dance to stare at him. "From that line, you know where you're going?"
He laughed. "From that one and the ones following? Most certainly." He looked down. "And it looks like we're almost there."
Below were bare, rocky hills, mountains rising to the south and west; she seemed to recall seeing the ocean as they were descending, off to the East, which would mean the great Nonestic Ocean. One of the coastal countries. Can't be sure yet – I'll look more carefully when I go back up. "Be careful. The last part of the bow is… tricky for a mortal."
"You forget who you're talking to." He grinned, and she noticed that he was simply setting his feet down a little harder and creating miniature steps, notches in the normally impervious mystical substance of the Rainbow. In a few more moments, he stepped to the ground, the stones crunching faintly under his feet. "Well… I guess… this is goodbye."
"Yes." She found herself unable to say anything else, yet not quite able to just start dancing back up the Rainbow. "Will you… do you think you'll be all right? Will you be able to find your way… get across the Desert?"
Oddly, he did not answer right away. Instead, he asked, "Poly… I know I have to cross the Desert on my own, even without these companions I'm supposed to find. And I might not live through that. But… if I do… If I get to Oz…" He took a deep breath. "Will I see you again on that side, before the battle that… well, will probably be my last?"
She laughed, but for some reason his words, spoken so low and earnestly, seemed to cause an ache inside for a moment. "Father wanted me to stay safely at home. But I told him that if he didn't let me go with Nimbus and the others, I'd find my own way there without him. I saw everything fall, Erik. I'm not going to stand back and not even be there when everyone else is fighting. I'm going to be there. You'll see me there." She laid her hand on his. "I promise."
His eyes lit up, gaze locked on hers and she felt a strange shiver go down her back as he gently put his other hand on hers. "In that case, Lady Polychrome… there is nothing I cannot do."
With an extravagant bow over her hand, he turned and walked to the East.
And he sets foot on the land of Faerie at last.