The Palace was quiet. You expect a certain amount of activity in the seat of power, but it was probably lunchtime and you know how it is with government jobs— all expense accounts and extended vacations.
We were at a junction where two endless corridors met. The carpeted hallways stretched out in every direction with no signposts to help.
“They should provide you with a map,” I said as I tried to remember the way to the throne room.
“You could have asked for directions,” said Jenny, “before you killed everyone.”
“I didn’t kill anyone,” I said. “You can’t kill what’s already dead. They’re just indisposed for the time being.” I looked over at Claire. “You must know where we need to go.”
Claire looked down each hallway in turn. “I don’t usually come in this way.”
“Ah think it’s this one,” said Flossie.
“Right,” I said, “so not that way. One of these two.”
“Hey,” said Flossie, pouting. “Ah could be right.”
“You picked right once,” I said, “when you picked Dudley. You’ve used up all your lucky guesses.”
Flossie opened her mouth to say something barely intelligible, then looked at Dudley, smiled and hugged him. If only all the people in my life were so easily dealt with.
“Can’t we just try one and then try the other way if we’re wrong?” said Jenny.
“Yes,” I said. “If you want to go about it like a noob.”
“I think it’s this way,” said Claire.
“Okay. So, not that way either. Must be this way.” I took the third option and left it up to them to decide if they wanted to come along. They did, but one of these days...
“How have you managed to put up with him for this long?” said Claire.
“You get used to it,” said Jenny. “The thing about Colin is that he doesn’t change.”
“How is that a good thing?” said Claire.
“I didn’t say it was,” said Jenny. “But to love him at his best is also to love him at his worst. It saves a lot of time and means no nasty surprises.”
She was talking about me as though I wasn’t right there, but that’s how you should talk about people behind their back — when they’re literally standing in front of you.
Of course, you’re supposed to change as you grow older. You mature, you become wiser, you see things from a more seasoned perspective.
Like fuck you do.
That’s the difference between the trailer and the movie; everything looks like it’s going to be great when you have it cut to music. In the theatrical cut, people don’t learn how to accept their faults and be tolerant of others, they learn how to hide their screw-ups and try to get everyone else into trouble.
If you assume everyone who is trying to do you a favour or wants to make the world a better place is actually a self-serving prick, then you will become a cynical and jaded bitter piece of shit. Hello, I’m Colin.
That might not seem like the ideal state of mind to carry around with you as you journey through this relentless series of tricks and traps we call life but trust me, you shouldn’t play poker the same way when you have a pair of deuces as when you have aces over kings.
I got a crash course in helpful humans at a young age. When you deal with social services, health professionals, charities, you soon learn to tell the difference between the good, the bad and the incompetent.
There are those who are genuinely interested in assisting people in need, but they get worn out pretty quickly. What you will find more often than not is that the person who wants to help improve the world is just looking for attention; the guy who wants to cure world poverty is more interested in banging third world prostitutes; and the guy who wants to spread the word of Christ… well, those guys have a whole bingo card you could fill out.
You change to adapt to your surroundings. You have to survive among people who are going to try to fuck you — in the metaphorical sense, in the literal sense, in the sense that they will be perfectly nice and reasonable until an opportunity comes along which will be better for them than it will for you and asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission, especially if you have no intention of doing either.
But if you aren’t interested in improving your social standing, because you aren’t social and you can’t stand the people you grew up around, then change is just something to do with your underwear. How will society punish my complete lack of interest in what it thinks is cool and hip? Turn its back on me?
“Change is inevitable,” said Claire. “You either get lucky and you both change the same way, or you don’t.”
“It’s that kind of thinking that’s going to turn you into a bitter and twisted old woman,” I said. “Instead of a bitter and twisted young woman.”
“But how can I force Maurice into doing what I want?” said Claire.
“That is the most horrific and yet most Claire thing I think you’ve ever said.” Ahead of us was a room with chairs arranged in a grid. “Look, I was right. Again. There’s a valuable lesson here, girls.”
“You’re insufferable,” said Claire.
“Insufferably correct,” I said. “Be more like me, Claire.”
“The universe hates me,” muttered Claire.
“There you go,” I said.
There was a desk with what appeared to be a dead woman sitting at it, although she might just have been a temp. They don’t tend to be the most energetic people.
The woman looked at us as we approached. She had a blank expression and soulless eyes, which was about what you expect from a receptionist. The dead were made for customer service positions.
She stood up but didn’t say anything. She seemed to be in pretty good shape — no bits of flesh hanging off her, no sight of bones through torn skin. The double doors behind her desk opened and a dozen guards came marching out. They were carrying spears but had them pointed up. They formed a line on either side of the open doorway.
“This is nice,” said Dudley. “An honour guard to welcome us.”
Our guards honoured us by tightening their grips on their shafts (not a euphemism).
We walked past them without getting stabbed. They came in behind us, closed the doors and blocked the way out.
The throne room had undergone some changes since my last visit. Then again, I have a terrible memory for these things so maybe it was exactly the same but with new occupants.
There were two thrones now, there had been only one before. I think. Anyway, the Fairy Queen — big lass, smug face — was sat looking bored in one of them.
Maurice, in his new body, was stood in front of a large table with a model of Flatland built on it, bent over, huge wings folded behind him, very carefully painting a tree.
I could imagine Maurice taking his time to get everything to look right — lots of papier-mâché and hours spent with very fine brushes getting the shading just so — although it was called Flatland for a reason (the reason being a lack of imagination) so most of it could have been done with a roller and some green paint. Still, there were a lot of details. Trees, caves, rivers that glistened like they actually had water flowing in them.
“Nice,” I said looking over the fields and valleys, as you do. “Good to have a hobby while you wait for the next disaster.”
“Colin!” said Maurice, looking up like he hadn’t realised anyone had come in. Not an affectation, I think he was busy working out where to put the model railway he was planning. “You’re back. How was your trip home?” It was odd seeing him without glasses; his new improved body didn’t require them.
“Lovely,” I said. “The walking dead are running things over there, too.”
Maurice stood up straighter, towering over me. He had the same face as before but everything else was all swollen and engorged. He was also naked, which was disconcerting. Obviously, you get a new phone, bigger, better, more features, you want people to notice it. You take it out all the time and nonchalantly wave it about as you speak. I guess it’s the same when you have new genitalia.
“They aren’t running things,” said Maurice. “They’re making life better for everyone. It’s a win-win.”
“I’m pretty sure it isn’t for them.”
“They don’t count,” said Maurice. “They’re dead.”
“Sure,” I said. “I have no issue with it. Same as raising them to fight in an undead army. Makes no difference if it’s that or being someone’s butler.”
“Right,” said Maurice, absent-mindedly pushing glasses that weren’t there up his nose. “See, Claire? That’s all it is.”
Claire was tight-lipped and arms-folded. She seemed more concerned about the queen on her throne. Jealousy was a green-eyed monster, and the Fairy Queen was literally a monster with green eyes. I wondered if there was something going on between Maurice and the queen. It wasn’t impossible, even if Maurice was far more interested in his model and getting the right colour for autumn leaves.
“How are you controlling all these dead people? Is she pulling the strings?”
We both looked over at the queen, who yawned. She didn’t seem very concerned by my arrival. Probably couldn’t remember who I was.
“No, not her. Not exactly,” said Maurice. “It’s Joshaya who controls the dead.”
“He’s working for you? No? For her?”
“He’s…” Maurice struggled to find the words. “He’s trapped in the Void having his powers siphoned out of him like a cow being milked.”
I would have preferred if he had taken a little more time to come up with a less gross image.
“That sounds unpleasant. Still, he did get us into this mess. Got what he deserved.”
“Right, right.” Maurice seemed very pleased that I was on board with his mission to put an undead servant in every home. Cheap, effective and fully compostable. “The queen keeps Joshaya in check, and in return she gets to do what she wants. “
I looked over at the queen again. What she wanted to do was apparently lounge around.
“Did you drug her or anything?” I asked.
“No,” said Maurice. “That’s just how she is. She doesn’t really get excited about things unless there’s some sort of battle to fight or lands to conquer. You’ll see when the fighting starts. We’re expecting things to kick off soon, actually — I’m hoping to get my figurines finished before then so I can use them to show troop movements on here.” This was clearly what he was most excited about. “There’ll be some hardships — no one likes change, after all — but once it’s over, I think people will settle down and learn to accept the new order. It’s much simpler to be accepted as supreme overlord of the known world if you provide people with indoor plumbing.”
“And zombie butlers.”
“Exactly.” He beamed at me. All new teeth, only slightly green. “So what about you? What are you going to do now you’re back.”
“I’m going to go see Joshaya,” I said.
Maurice’s attitude changed. His brow wrinkled, his wings flapped and his pecs bounced up and down. I’m not sure what emotion that indicated, might have been unconnected.
“I don’t think you should do that.”
“I don’t think I care what you think.”
He looked over at the queen. “She doesn’t like it when people interfere with her possessions.”
“I don’t think I care what she thinks, either. Has the vegetable oil started clogging your arteries? Maurice? Since when did I take anyone’s word for anything? Whatever’s going on here with you and the queen of the fairies, I have no interest in breaking it up. Good luck, have fun. But someone’s up to something. You, her, Peter, whoever.”
“Not Peter,” said Maurice. “I took care of him. He’s out of the picture.”
“How? He has a habit of coming back from the dead.”
“I turned him into one of them.” Maurice pointed at the guards at the far end of the room. “Feedback loop so his power strengthens his own captivity. He’s completely cut off from everyone.”
“Where is he?”
“In one of the spires. I can take you to him if you like.”
“Sure. After I see Joshaya.”
“Really, I’m not being controlled by anyone,” said Maurice, spread his arms out. “You can check if you like.”
“Alright, I will.” I left my body. If Maurice was being controlled by the queen or Peter or maybe even Joshaya, I’d be able to see it from the adjacent world. It was the one place people couldn’t deceive me.
As soon as I exited my body, I was surrounded by vines, floor to ceiling. But none from Maurice, who was completely smooth and unconnected, not even to Claire.
There were a lot more vines than I’d been expecting since most of the people in the room were dead and only had the one. They mostly emanated from the queen, who was off her throne and drifting towards me through a sea of tentacles. I didn’t recall her having this many.
“You wish to see Joshaya,” she said in drawl. “That can be arranged. Permanently.”
“I’m sorry,” said Maurice, even more slowly. “I knew you’d come back and try to ruin everything.” He was threatening me but his slowed-down voice made him sound like he was from Devon, so it was hard to take him seriously.
Both of them were moving in slow-motion so I had no idea what they thought they could do to me in here. Not to blow my own trumpet but I had home-field advantage.
There was one area that was clear of vines, and that was the table. It no longer had woods and dales dotted on its surface, it was completely black. Like a portal.
Maurice picked the table up and stood it upright.
As the queen approached me, I found myself being pushed back by some invisible force. Their goal was pretty obvious. I go through the door. They close the door. Adios Colin.
Only, they hadn’t really thought this through. It wasn’t a bad idea; they probably spent a lot of time preparing it. They expected me to come back and they didn’t intend to put up with any of my mullarkey. Shenanigan-free zone. Which was fine and dandy, except, I had already said I wanted to go see Joshaya. This was where I’d asked them to send me, so I didn’t understand what they were so excited about.
I turned around and walked through the portal.
The moment I was through, I felt an immense sense of relief. Not the usual response to entering a trap, but these days it’s not easy finding a quiet place where you won’t be bothered every ten minutes.
“What are you doing here?” said Joshaya, sounding surprised and displeased. He was in front of me, not looking much different to before, maybe lost a little weight. “You’re not here to rescue me, are you? I’m not going back out there.”
Not the reaction I had expected. “No. I’m just visiting. Do you have cake?”
“No,” said Joshaya. “I’m not leaving.” He was adamant in rejecting any rescue attempt, not that I had offered.
“Fine. You can stay as long as you want. How are you controlling all the dead people from in here?” I couldn’t see any vines at all.
“I’m not. Nothing to do with me. I’ve been shut out. I’m not controlling anything.”
“Then who is?” I asked.
“Your friend. That girl. Big nose.”
“Claire?” Honestly, you can’t trust anyone these days.
“And that other one. Half-face.”
There was almost an inevitability about it. Claire and Jenny together. What were they up to? Something they felt was important and necessary, probably. And I was part of the plan whether I liked it or not. Not, for the record.
Well, whatever they had in mind, they could do it without me.
“So, where’s my room?”
“How long are you staying?” said Joshaya.
“Long term,” I said. “I like what you’ve done with the place. Apart from the lack of cake. Is there an oven? We can learn to bake together.”
“I am not a replacement for your woman,” said Joshaya.
“No,” I said. “That’s what the cake’s for.”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino