Cheng didn’t seem all that convinced by Jenny’s sudden surge of enthusiasm for finding him a bride. In fact, he seemed a little suspicious of her motives. Can’t say I blamed him.
“Yes, well, I suppose there is room for interpretation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Visitor or a virgin, technically, but I would still prefer it that way.”
Jenny was still standing, leaning over the table. “As longs as it’s the right person, the details of who she is or where she comes from shouldn’t matter, should it? If she’s the right girl, she’s the right girl.”
I grabbed the back of Jenny’s shirt and pulled her back into her seat.
“Ignore her,” I told Cheng. “You know what girls are like whenever you mention a wedding. It’s like catnip to them. Drives them nutty.”
All three girls turned to glare at me (Noreen was already glaring at me, so she didn’t count).
“I still have a bunch of questions I want to ask, so let’s leave your nuptials to one side for a moment. Okay?”
This was aimed at the others as much as Cheng, but Cheng was the only one to nod in agreement.
“Good. Can you tell me how old you are, Cheng?”
“I’m fifteen.” It was strange hearing that number come out of such a monstrous and unteenage-like mouth. That’s puberty for you.
“And your mother, where did she come from? I mean, back in our world.”
“A place called Hong Kong. Do you know it?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve never been there, but it’s a very famous place.”
“She always claimed she had been brought here by something called the ‘Y2K bug’. Some kind of disease, I believe.”
That would mean she left Earth in 2000.
“And she raised you?”
“Yes, until I was five. Then…”
“Yes, okay.” I didn’t want to go into how she died, not with everyone primed to go off at the slightest provocation.
“May I ask a question?” said Dudley. Flossie had climbed out of his lap and he had been nibbling on what looked like a cob of corn, only bright orange.
“Yes,” said Cheng. “What would you like to know.”
“Did you care for your mother, even though she was human?”
“I did,” said Cheng. “She loved me in whatever form I took, it made no difference to her. She taught me to treat people equally no matter who or what they were, and not to judge by appearances. My father felt she was in danger of making me soft, which is why he killed her.”
A chill went around the table.
“He killed her?” asked Claire.
“Yes, he ate her.” Cheng continued eating as though he’d just mentioned a new restaurant that had opened down the street.
I almost got away with it. So close.
“Don’t freak out,” I said. “Remember if you judge them because they have a different culture to ours, you’re just being racist.”
It was a long shot, I admit, but the last thing I needed was for everyone to start throwing a fit because of the death of a woman we never met.
Nobody said anything for what felt like a long time. His statement was so absurd, and delivered in such a casual manner, that I don’t think it fully registered with them.
“Ah,” said Flossie. “Weren’t you a bit upset?”
“Oh, yes. Of course. At the time, I was inconsolable. But where he came from, it wasn’t considered a terrible thing. By right, he should have eaten her as soon as she gave birth to me, but he allowed her to nurse me and see me grow. For that, I am grateful.”
Did that make it better? Slightly?
“And if we bring you a bride,” asked Jenny, “will you eat her?”
“No.” Cheng looked genuinely offended by the question. “I would never eat my wife.”
I’m not sure how you go about killing an eight foot demon, but apparently you could hurt his feelings quite easily.
The atmosphere around the table slipped into something more apprehensive. Which was odd. You’d think having dinner with a demon would max out your senses, but there’s always room for a little more dread, I guess.
“Can you tell me about the Temple Under the Mountain?” I asked him, hoping to keep things on track. “How does it work?”
“I don’t actually know the mechanics, or who built it, but I can tell you it requires the sacrifice of a Visitor to function.”
“Could it send us back to our world?”
Everyone became much more focused when I asked this question.
“Possibly, although I am unaware of anyone who has tried. I know it allows travel to any place in this world, and the one underneath it.”
“Where your father came from?”
“Yes. It was my mother and her friends who summoned him. They were trying to fulfill the prophecy, or at least their understanding of it.”
“Did they sacrifice one of their own to activate it?” I asked.
“They sacrificed someone, whether it was one of their party or not I do not know. My mother didn’t like to talk about it. In any case, there were rather more sacrifices once my father appeared. My mother was the only survivor.”
The mood around the table had turned somber. Human sacrifices didn’t make for great dinner conversation.
It didn’t bother me if people went around killing each other. Pretty much what I would expect. I pressed on. “What about the spires? Do they work on the same principles as the Temple?”
“Yes,” said Cheng. “That’s how I knew they were active. Gargantua reported a white light that fell from the sky onto the fort. One moment there were thousands of men across the bridge, the next there were none.”
Which would explain where the soldiers had disappeared to, but made little sense otherwise. “Why would they attack their own soldiers?”
“They didn’t attack them. They were priming the weapon for firing. The men were fuel.”
“But they weren’t Visitors,” said Maurice.
“Visitors are the richest source of energy, but if you use enough normal humans it can do the same job. It’s not very efficient though.”
“And what’s their target?” I asked.
“I do not know. It could be anywhere. The only place I know it won’t be is Fengarad.”
I was starting to understand why the lizardmen had been sent across the bridge. “So that’s why you sent an army there?”
“Yes. They can’t use the weapon so close to their own people, and if they use it on a target over here, we will attack. It is a stalemate, for now. My hope is that you will be the one to change that. If the prophecy is fulfilled, perhaps we can avert this disaster.”
“And you’ll show me the prophecy? The full version?”
“Yes. We can go see it right now.”
“No. I’d rather wait until tomorrow. I’d like to discuss some things with you in your other form, if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish. I would also like to see the Dragonrider in action, if that is acceptable.”
Flossie smiled, but her eyes didn’t look too happy. Whether that was in regard to spending time with Cheng or the dragons, I wasn’t sure.
We continued eating, but the others didn’t have much of an appetite. They were probably dwelling on the whole summon a demon, get forcibly impregnated, raise a child in captivity, get eaten thing.
I think they were blowing it out of proportion. Yes, it was a dark and unpleasant story, but if you decide to summon a demon, what do you expect? And there are plenty of people who have had to endure worse things. Some people have to live in Leeds.
The rest of the meal was a quiet affair. There were a couple of questions about this side of the border and its inhabitants, but nothing worth mentioning. The others nibbled on their food, while Cheng and I demolished the rest. Admittedly, he did most of the demolishing, but I wasn’t going to wake up hungry in the middle of the night because people had been cruel to each other. If I allowed that sort of thing to affect my appetite, I’d starve to death.
“If you have more questions, I shall be happy to answer them tomorrow,” said Cheng as he rose from his throne. He seemed a little bemused by how the mood had gone from terrified to mildly depressed. Welcome to my world. At least he didn’t have to travel around with the miserable fuckers.
Cheng left and Noreen led us back to our rooms.
“Should we really find him a wife?” asked Claire. “I don’t think she’ll be safe.”
“She won’t be safe wherever she is in this world. It’s just an arranged marriage, they happen all the time. It’s not like we’re going to kidnap anyone. If two people agree to get married, then it’s no business of yours, is it?”
“Colin, how can you act so blasé. Demons eat people!”
“That was the old generation. You can’t blame him for what his father did. He’s much more progressive, demon-wise.”
Claire didn’t look satisfied by my answer.
“Just wait until tomorrow,” I said. “I think you’ll feel better about the whole thing once you meet him in his other form.”
“I doubt it,” said Claire. “I already know how I feel about this whole bride thing. Not good.”
“No, Claire, you don’t know. If I tell you to wait and see, then you can only know after you’ve waited and seen. Just because you have a bad feeling doesn’t mean those feelings are justified. Making a decision based on what you think will probably happen, when you’ve hardly been right about anything in your life, is idiotic. Have a little patience.”
She tightened her mouth but didn’t say anything.
When I returned to my room with Jenny, she gave me a doubtful look.
“Don’t tell me you have a bad feeling, too.”
“Not about the bride thing. I’m more worried about the spires. If they’re willing to kill thousands of their own men, they must be planning something pretty awful.”
“Yes. I think you’re right. More reason for us to get as far away as possible before things kick off. If Flossie really is the Dragonrider, that would help. We’ll be able to travel freely, at last.”
“Don’t you think we should do something about the spires?”
“No.” It was exactly this kind of thinking I wanted to nip in the bud. “They killed thousands of their own people just to power their Death Star, what do you think they’ll do to us? We’re like extra-longlasting batteries to them.”
I took off my clothes and got under the furs.
“Somebody has to stop them.” Jenny slid in next to me.
“Yes. But not me. And not you.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
I rolled on top of her and grabbed her wrists. “Yes, I can. You’re the one who said I have this divine ability to get people to obey me. Well, the only person I want to obey me is you.”
She struggled to free her wrists, but not very hard. “And what do you command, Oh Master?” It was said sarcastically, but it was still nice to hear her say it.
“I want you to stay with me and not go running off, no matter how important it seems. Promise me.”
She struggled a bit more.
“Say it!” I pinned her down harder.
“Fine. I promise, okay?”
Not that promises were worth much, but it would do for now.
She shifted her body under mine. “You know, we can’t have sex, right? They can smell it.”
“Yes,” I said, not moving.
“Are you going to stay on top of me all night?”
“Yes,” I said, and lowered my head to rest on her shoulder, her wrists still held in my hands. It wasn’t particularly comfortable, but at least this way I could keep my eye on her.