Despite the casual and friendly way the offer had been made, I was under no illusions as to what would happen if I said no to working for Gullen Santan, Road Planner.
“What about the others?” I asked him.
“I’m sure we could find them something to do in Dargot. Or, they could carry on their adventures without you. It’s a big world with lots of interesting things in it.”
Yeah, that could kill you. But I could see them all settling down. Maurice opening a small bicycle shop. Dudley and Flossie running a karaoke bar. None of them bothering me anymore. It could be quite nice.
Biadet placed a small bowl of creme brulee on the table and narrowed her eyes like a gunfighter. I leaned back and let her take the first bite.
“Under normal circumstances, I would encourage you to roam around a bit, too, but these are troubled times, I’m afraid,” said Gullen. “As you know, Fengarad is under siege at the moment. The lizardman are encamped on their doorstep with more arriving daily. It’s quite a worry.”
“I did wonder about that. I thought our army supposed to be keeping the monsters at bay. Were they defeated?”
“We don’t know. We stopped receiving reports weeks ago, and the people we sent to investigate never returned. It’s a bit of a mystery. We are, as you would expect, preparing a counterstrike, but it’s going to take some time raising the troops and calling in reinforcements. We’ll just have to hope Fengarad can hold out until then. The lizardmen don’t take prisoners.”
It was grim news, but there wasn’t much I could do to help. And if there was, I wasn’t doing it.
“That’s where someone like you comes in useful. Who better to unravel a mystery. With your ability to look at things from a different perspective, I’m sure you could spot things we’ve missed. ”
I started eating quickly. I hadn’t lost my appetite yet, but I could feel I was about to.
“Not that I would send someone like you to border.”
“You wouldn’t?” My eating slowed.
“Oh no. You’re far too valuable a resource to place at risk. Not only did you vanquish the Mouse King, you avoided capture by the lizardmen and escaped the clutches of the trolls. Something no one has ever managed to do before. I look forward to hearing the details. Boys like you don’t come along very often.”
He really had been keeping tabs on us. I guessed he didn’t know exactly how we’d managed to faff our way through those predicaments, but he was happy to lavish me with praise and admiration. Don’t worry, I know when I’m being buttered up. That’s how people get you to do things you would never normally do. Horrible things.
“That outfit looks great on you. Try this hat on. Amazing. That colour really suits you. Now, let’s go out, have a good time, round up some Jews, then back to mine for drinks. Sound good?”
“In any case,” continued Gullen, “we’ve already dispatched a team of specialists to gather information for us. You know them of course. Gideon and his party.”
I stared at him blankly. Who the fuck was Gideon? “I’m sorry, I don’t think I know anyone called Gideon.”
“Really? They arrived with you. He’s a handsome boy with a tattoo down one arm.”
“Oh. Right.” He meant the Cool Kids. I’d wondered what had happened to them. “That’s great, then. I’m sure they’ll bring you the answers you’re looking for.”
“Yes,” said Gullen, “I have every confidence in them. But it will take time as these things always do. And you have only just got here, so, please, get used to the city, make yourself at home, and if you have any questions…”
“Actually, yes I did want to ask you something. On our way here two soldiers attacked us. They were dressed in your city’s uniform.”
Gullen looked surprised. “Are you sure?”
I told him what had happened. He listened intently, asking questions about where it happened, what armour they wore, what kind of weapons they used. I reduced Mandy’s injuries to being knocked unconscious since the true severity of her wound would only raise awkward questions.
“That is very strange. We should have no patrols in that area at the moment.”
“The really weird thing is that it was only when she mentioned we’d been captured by trolls that they freaked out. It made me wonder if maybe they were trolls.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, because trolls can change their appearance to look like humans.”
Gullen jumped to his feet. “What!?”
“You didn’t know? I’ve seen them do it. They can mould their bodies like clay, taking on any appearance. Would make them excellent spies.”
Gullen was reeling. He had to put a hand on the table to steady himself. I was quite enjoying watching the Chief of Intelligence learn a thing or two. Perhaps he didn’t know everything after all.
“I have to go. I have things I must attend to.” He staggered towards the door. “Please, finish your meal and then Biadet will take you to your friends. My apologies.” He left the room.
I finished my dessert in silence. It was a big eerie room, even more so now that it was just me in there. I put down my spoon and waited but no one came. I looked around for a bell to ring but I couldn’t see one.
I was about to get up and leave when an inexplicable urge made me lift the tablecloth and look under the table. Sitting there, cross-legged with her eyes closed, was Biadet.
“What are you doing?”
“I am protecting you,” she said without opening her eyes. “You’re a valuable resource.”
“Who are you protecting me from?”
I felt like telling her the only villain in the vicinity was the one she was working for. “Do you really think there are people in this city who want to kill me?”
She opened her eyes and looked at me, her head tilting slightly to match the angle of mine. “I think there are people in your party who want to kill you.”
Perceptive little freak. “Why is it I only ever seem to meet precocious young girls? I wonder if the boys in this world are as unusual.”
“Oh,” said Biadet in a manner I didn’t appreciate. “So it’s like that?”
“I just meant I was curious about boys in this world.”
“Yes. Curious. It would explain a lot.”
“Hey! Just… cut that out. It wouldn’t explain anything, because there’s nothing to explain.”
“Would you like me to take you to the rest of your people?”
“Yes. I would.” I dropped the tablecloth in a bit of a huff and stood up. I turned around and nearly jumped out of my skin.
“What?” said Biadet.
“How did you… You were under there and now you’re… Are you some kind of ninja?”
“Nin-jaah.” She said it like she was sucking on a sherbet dab. “What is this nin-jaah?”
“Never mind. Let’s go.”
I could have probably have found the others myself. The noise was hard to miss. Laughing, shouting, squealing—it sounded like they were having the time of their lives.
Biadet led me through double doors into an enormous room with a table piled high with food. My dinner had been very nice, but this was a feast.
The others were all seated around the table having a lovely time stuffing their faces while maids and butlers whooshed around serving them. I counted at least six, all adult-size.
“And then the bunnicorns started chasing us!” More laughter.
My group of little misfits were reminiscing and sharing war stories. And they were all drunk. While I was navigating my way through a minefield with Li’l Himmler, here they were letting it all hang out and getting very, very wasted. It was annoying.
Not that there was any real danger, but it was still foolish to let their guards down in a strange place where we didn’t know if we could trust anyone. If some kind of threat had materialised… who was I kidding? Drunk or sober, they wouldn’t stand a chance either way. It was still annoying, though.
And the thing that really annoyed me was Sonny, sitting at the head of the table like he was King of the Castle. He was laughing and drinking along with the rest of them like he was just another member of the gang. No, not just another member. The leader.
Part of me wanted to hand over the reins to him and say, “They’re all yours. See ya,” but that was just me feeling a little underappreciated and sorry for myself. Or normal, as I like to call it.
“Hey! Colin!” called out Jenny. She raised a glass of wine in salute, spilling half its contents. “Where ya been?” She was totally sozzled.
“Colin, Colin, Colin,” said Maurice. “Why are you dressed like Bruce Lee?” He burst into laughter and fell out of his chair, continuing to laugh on the floor.
I noticed that they were all wearing their regular clothes. It seemed I had been marked out for special treatment. I didn’t feel special, though. I felt like I’d been separated from the herd so I’d be easier prey.
Sonny stood up and came towards me unsteadily. “Come on, mate, have a drink. Let’s put the past in the past and start over. We’re all in this together, am I right?” He punched the air with his fist.
“Fuck off, Sonny.”
The atmosphere in the room changed. Party time was over. Captain Killjoy had arrived.