War begins with a smile as King Hex bares his teeth at the dying woman. The eyes of the Elders, of her children, even those of the figures in the bedchamber’s stained glass walls are full of love for Lady Gwyn. Not the King’s—as always, his emerald eyes glitter with amusement. Gwyn’s own sapphire eyes are as full of hate for her husband as they are full of pain. Her hand trembles as she points at the morphing multichromatic halo crowning her husband’s head; her own halo shines bright green as she recites in a low strong voice, “By the ancient laws of yore, I declare Kaleidoscope War. Sworn by the halo around my head. Sworn for the tongues in Necropolis, dead. Sworn for justice, so I implore: award the Kaleidoscope, mine evermore.”
“How quaint,” Hex says. “This comes as no surprise, not after what I did yesterday. The declaration, I mean. I am surprised by your choice of tactics. You mean to defeat me by committing suicide? I’ve always thought myself unexcelled at humor, Gwyn, but that is funny!”
“This is no joke, Hex. I’m going to avenge every evil you’ve done.”
The crimson-haired girl holding her brother’s hand is appalled to find herself in agreement with her father. Zo remembers Mother’s visit to the nursery last night to ask the twins for their allegiance in the coming war. She’d found the prospect disturbing but unsurprising; war between her parents had been coming for years. But the announcement which had awoken Zo and Sol this morning, cried out by Sparklestain in the palace’s voice of stained glass, had been a surprise, and more disturbing by far: “Your mother has poisoned herself!”
Hex asks Gwyn, “What exactly have you ingested? ‘Poison’ is such an imprecise term. Rawzah?” The King turns to the Elder Mythifex beside Gwyn’s bed. “What substance did you administer to Lady Gwyn? Come now, obviously it was you. You’ve been lovers for ten years now. I believe foulstone is the only pure flavor which kills yumanfolk. Was it foulstone?”
Rawzah shakes his head. “Not foulstone,” he says, but as he answers the king his miserable eyes meet Zo’s. “Lady Gwyn thought there was a chance. She remembered the legend and it gave her Hope. I tried to talk her out of it, children, but she wouldn’t let go of Hope. Zo, Sol, I’m so sorry.” Rawzah breaks down into tears, but his sobs are quickly silenced by Hex’s magic when a thick clot of sweet-smelling yellow goo plugs up his mouth.
The King waves a hand in the gagging Mythifex’s direction. “Try giving us a straight answer next time, Rawzah. Legend, hmm?” Hex muses. “I wonder which—no, Sir Elenson, you keep your pedantic explanations to yourself, unless you too want a mouthful of rotten bananas. I want to figure this out for myself.”
Zo, her mind older and sharper than her ten years can account for, ponders the question: Legend? What legendary poison gives Hope? It doesn’t make any sense . . . a line from Omli flashes across her mind: she stirred the stars. “Milkmaid!” spurts from Zo’s tongue.
All of the Elders, even the Palace herself, gasp at hearing that word. Hex glances in astonishment at Zo, then turns a malicious grin toward his wife. “Gwyn, you madwoman! You want to become the Milkmaid! You’re taking the Milky Way! You really believe that old story?”
“I do.” Gwyn’s words fight to get through a sudden storm of wretched coughing. “But it doesn’t matter what I believe. All that matters is what the people of Rydlorypt believe.”
Zo considers the legend of the Milkmaid, and as its implications overwhelm her she cries in dismay, “Mother, what have you done?” A sob erupts from Sol as he squeezes Zo’s hand.
Hex folds his hands as if in prayer and peers over them at his wife as if seeing her for the first time. “Yes, Gwyn, what do you Hope to accomplish? Did you think to fill my heart with grief? To send me into some fainting despair? Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to this Kaleidoscope War of yours. Especially since your sole offensive strategy is to perish.”
“I have ingested Myth and milk, Hex. Mine will be a slow death. You can’t imagine how much I will suffer—how much I’m already suffering. That’s my accomplishment, my advantage. Every atrocity you’ve ever committed, every torment you’ve inflicted, I’m going to know them all intimately. All the pain you’ve caused the UUorld—I’m going to own it, Hex. And in the end, I will redeem the UUorld, and even though I’ll be dead, you’ll be coming with me.”
Zo can’t believe her ears. Her mother has lost her mind.
Her father agrees. He unfolds his hands and bends down close to his wife, lays a hand on top of hers. Gwyn shivers with revulsion at his touch. Hex says, “My dear Gwyn, you do understand you are quite mad. This notion that to cause yourself pain and death by your own hand somehow has any connection with any deeds I have committed . . . well, it isn’t sane, love. It is very noble and just and all those good things, though. I trust thinking about it in those terms will give you some comfort while you die.”
Hex straightens up and backs away from the bed, moving toward the balcony. “Milkmaid,” he says wonderingly. “Brilliant, Gwyn. Just brilliant! I must be off. Have to put up posters announcing this joyous event. The whole Garden will be so proud of you!”
Zo’s mind is a cloudburst. She wants to scream at her mother, to slap her, sob in her breast, curl up there and die with her. As emotionally satisfying as these acts would be, they all amount to surrender; none of them will do a Doomed thing to correct this awful mistake Gwyn has made. The only thing she can do . . .
Zo looks from her mother’s pained face to her father’s amused countenance. Hex’s cruel mirth is repellent, but Gwyn’s hollowly righteous martyr’s glare is even more so, and that decides her. There isn’t time for an explanation or farewell. She drops Sol’s hand and sprints across the floor for the balcony. She hears her brother’s strangled voice shout after her, “Zo, where are you going? Don’t leave me!” It hurts to leave Sol and Gwyn, but she has only this one chance to save her mother. She seizes Hex’s hand just as he magically travels from Gwyn’s bedchamber in Sparklestain Palace to the Ring of the Rolling Hills in a single step.
“Zo!” Hex turns startled eyes to the girl holding his hand. “Stealing a ride out of there? Can’t blame you. Talk about a gloomy scene.”
Father and daughter stand on a clover-strewn knoll. To their north, a spectacular view of Sparklestain Palace’s mountain of colored glass is suddenly eclipsed by a Rolling Hill. The hill, like a giant slug covered in grass and rocks, frowns down upon the tiny yumanfolk as it charges past at a hundred miles per hour. The soil under their feet ripples and the wind from its passage ruffles their clothes and nearly knocks them down. Zo has never before stood still in the midst of these hurtling, growling hillfolk who have guarded the Titan Sparklestain for thousands of years; she has to suppress her sense of alarm to muster up proper indignation at her father’s callous words. “Shut up, Dad,” she snaps. “Listen. I swore an oath to stand with Mother in this war.”
“Oh did you now?” Hex asks, smoothing out his cloak of black ivy leaves.
“Yes, I did, by Doom! I’m not ashamed to admit it. You deserve to be deposed. The problem is, you’re right. She is delusional. This is no way to win a war. I’m not going to let her kill herself. I’m going to find a way to save her, and you’re going to help me.”
“Interesting. Why should I, daughter?”
“Because I am your daughter, and I love you, be Doomed to you,” Zo declares as she kicks him in the shin. The blow hurts her bare foot more than his booted leg, but it satisfies her anyway. “And because you have those stupid boots, you can take me anywhere.”
Hex’s grin softens into a welcoming smile. “Why, Zo. I love you, too, by Hope.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Hope, Dad.”
“Whatever gave you that idea? Don’t you understand my so-called madness?”
“You hurt people and kill them sometimes. What’s to understand?”
“ ‘What’s to understand?’ ” Hex flicks a finger hard against Zo’s forehead. “How unworthy of one who wants to be a Scholar. You have more imagination than that. If, however, you insist on feigning ignorance, allow me to enlighten you: that toxic dose of vanilla that supposedly transformed me into a psychopath? What it really did was give me a sense of humor. Not the little sense everyone has, but bigger, deeper, more acute. To me, everything is funny.”
“That just means you’re cruel,” Zo says.
Hex shrugs. “It also means there’s Hope in my heart, of the purest sort. I can see the humor and the beauty in everything. Unlike ordinary men and women, I cannot despair; it’s just not in me anymore.”
Zo frowns at him. “But you never laugh.”
“That’s right. Should I laugh at one I should have to laugh at all, and never be able to stop. That would seriously hamper conversation and mealtimes. So rather than laugh helplessly with every breath, I choose not to laugh at all.”
“Whatever. Look, if you really believe in Hope, will you help me save Mother?”
“Yes, I’ll help you, Zo-zo.”
“Don’t call me that.” The ground trembles and the liquid-marble voice of another hill snarls wordlessly as it passes mere feet from where they stand. “Let’s go, then.”
“You already have a plan?” Hex asks.
“No. But this is a problem involving poisons, and Rawzah Mythifex is too wracked with grief to be of any help, and anyway he’ll only do what Mother tells him to do. We don’t need Mythifexes. What we need is the source of all flavors. We need the Titan Mythstool himself.”