General Dorma, leader of the city of Meet and its combined military forces, rubbed his hand with glee at the prospect of us leaving for the masters’ mountaintop retreat. I don’t think the relish he displayed at our imminent departure was due to me and my motley crew, rather the fact that Phil and David would be accompanying us.
Even though the two of them would be a great asset when it came to challenging the masters, the more discrete and distant their achievement, the less likely they would become folk heroes and challenge Dorma in any popularity contest.
And if they happened to perish while off fighting the masters, so much the better. Sure, that would make it harder to defeat the masters—maybe impossible—but a man like Dorma would gladly leave everyone neck-deep in shit rather than give up his place on the throne.
I didn’t doubt Dorma meant to hold elections after victory had been achieved, and that those elections would be heavily rigged in his favour, but I was sure he’d still prefer to be the only candidate standing.
At least, that’s how I saw it. I could have been wrong. Occasionally, a leader emerges who truly puts his people before himself. They usually end up getting shot in the head. By people like Dorma.
Not that I cared. I had no interest in defeating anyone or getting involved in politics. Once I got to Cheng, my only goal was to find a way off this world. A vote for Colin was a vote for getting the fuck out of here.
Dorma happily ordered us to be fed and sat at the head of a long table alternating between wringing his hands and forming a pyramid with them to rest his chin on. If he was hoping to convince anyone he wasn’t a despot filled with evil machinations, he needed to work on his disguise, ideally not choosing to hide his obvious despicable intentions behind a mask of slightly less obvious despicable intentions.
The meal of soup and bread wasn’t lavish, but it was very welcome. We hadn’t eaten in a while and even our British upbringing could stop us from immediately stuffing our faces.
Before we set off into the wide blue yonder (which happened to be a wide white yonder in this case) I wanted to ask David and Phil a few more questions. Yuqi had mentioned Phil’s ability to stop time came using a device he wore around his neck, but as far as I could tell he wasn’t wearing any kind of necklace or chain.
If he no longer wore it around his neck, where was it? And where had it come from? I also wanted to know more about David’s sword and why it was able to move during time-stops. Possibly he had brought it with him when he first arrived here, but if that wasn’t the case and there was a way to make items immune to the effects of time-stopping, it would be worth knowing.
They would be unlikely to answer these questions, of course, but that’s where Claire came in handy (never thought I’d use those words in a sentence).
Despite her difficulty in understanding exactly what went on in a person’s mind, what she was excellent at was seeing the thing they didn’t want anyone to see.
It was like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant. If you asked the right question, they might find ingenious ways to avoid giving you the true answer, but they were guaranteed to think of the correct one.
Unfortunately, as soon as they’d eaten, both Claire and Maurice had excused themselves saying they needed to use the bathroom and had yet to return. This could have meant a number of things. A very long, synchronised shit. They’d got lost. Or, more likely, they’d decided to prove me wrong and had slipped away to find the manual Bibler told them about.
The thought of them sneaking around the mansion, ducking out of sight of passing guards and breaking into Bibler’s room, filled me with dread.
There was certainly a chance they would succeed. I wanted them to succeed, despite the smugness I’d have to endure as a result, but how likely was that?
The longer they remained absent, the more convinced I became that they’d fucked up and were probably chained to a wall in a dungeon somewhere. Claire would no doubt be complaining about the lack of quilted toilet paper while Maurice took notes to use in his next D&D campaign.
I asked Jenny and Flossie if they knew what the other two were up to but got shrugs in return. Phil and David were at the other end of the table having an intense exchange I was too far away to hear.
A soldier came in and whispered something in Dorma’s ear. He nodded and looked down the table at us. Varg was seated to his right, still in full armour, with his sword leaning against the table. They leaned their heads together and conferred.
My stomach clawed at my ribcage, which may have been anxiety or it could have been the heavy bread they gave us with our soup. Either way, I felt compelled to find out what had happened to Ocean’s 2.
“Do you know where the rest of my party is, General?” I asked, trying to make the inquiry sound off-hand.
Dorma lifted his head. “You mean that girl?”
He said it in quite a pointed manner, which made me only more concerned.
“You have some kind of problem with Claire?” I asked.
“Yes. Every time I look up, she’s staring at me.” Dorma closed his eyes for a second and shuddered. “I say staring, drooling would be more appropriate. I don’t mean to boast, I’m not unused to the attention of ladies, but her ogling is quite unsettling.”
My intestines relaxed a little. He had mistaken Claire’s probing of his thoughts as some kind of aggressive flirting. You couldn’t blame him for being unnerved.
“I have experienced the very same,” said Varg. “I’ve caught her giving me the eye a number of times. Very forcefully. I am happily married man, it’s quite unwelcome.”
I hadn’t expected Varg to be so prim and proper. However, I was pleased that Claire had managed to hide her ability by coming across as a massive slut. Good job.
“Yo’ take that back,” said Flossie rising from her chair, her features all rushing into the middle of her face in consternation. “Claire’s in a committed relationship already, thank yo’ very much. She wouldn’t be interested in the likes of yo’.”
“You mean with that young man who’s always writing things down?” said Dorma. “The poor boy.”
“At least we know what he’s writing now,” said Varg. “The world’s longest suicide note.”
Both of them chortled. I may have slightly joined in. Half a bread roll hit me on the head.
“What are you laughing at?” Flossie demanded to know.
“What? I wasn’t laughing with them, I was just laughing near them. Anyway, don’t get the the hump so easily. It was a joke. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at a joke.” I rubbed my head. The bread, as I previously mentioned, was made of sturdy stuff. It bloody hurt. I turned to Dorma and Varg but they had gone all po-faced. I was on my own.
Claire and Maurice chose that moment to reappear. They scurried into the room, bouncing with nervous energy and looking as guilty as two kids with chocolate smeared around their mouths and sweet wrappers stuck in their hair.
Maurice had a strange bulge under his jacket that I would describe as book-shaped. They both kept raising their eyebrows and suggestively nodding at the bulge.
Varg and Dorma seemed to interpret this in their own way and stood up.
“I’ve received word the Royal Wagon has been brought into the city,” said Dorma. “I’ll inspect it before you leave. You can join us in the courtyard once you’re ready.” He nodded at David, who nodded back.
Dorma and Varg walked past Claire, giving her an odd look she found baffling but shrugged off. As soon as they left the room, Claire and Maurice exploded.
“We got it,” said Claire.
“We got the manual,” said Maurice. He flashed us a glimpse of what was under his jacket. It was a red, leather-bound book.
“Yeah,” Claire reconfirmed. “We got the manual.”
“No problems,” said Maurice. “In and out. Mission accomplished.”
“You doubted us,” said Claire, pointing a triumphant finger at me. “You were wrong! Secret agents, bitch.”
“CIA,” said Maurice. “FBI.”
They weren’t even making sense at this point. Possibly the surge in adrenalin had proved toxic and they were both brain damaged. I would have slapped them out of their hysteria but Bibler walked into the room. Claire and Maurice immediately clammed up and looked at each other nervously.
“Ah,” said Bibler, “you’re still here. I wanted to wish you a good journey and to thank you once more. The thought of flying you to Darkholme…” He shivered at the thought. He turned to me. “Your friend has kindly offered to fly you to your destination, but you have nothing to fear. Everything he needs to know is in the manual.”
I had always planned to use Maurice as our pilot since I knew from experience he was better than Bibler. Maurice had, however, convinced Bibler he would do him a favour and take his place, in exchange for the manual.
“So, you don’t mind us borrowing the manual?” I asked him.
“Oh, no,” said Bibler. “I’ve read the thing so many times I know it by heart. You’re welcome to it. Come, come, we should go see where they’ve brought the wagon. I can answer any questions you have before you leave.”
Bibler was evidently very happy to give away the manual in return for not having to take us into the mouth of madness where we would inevitably get eaten. I could see why that would put him in a giving mood.
We all rose and followed him out of the room.
“You just went and asked him to lend it to you, didn’t you?” I said to Claire.
“That’s a valid way to do it,” said Claire defensively. “We got the job done, that’s the important thing.”
“Yes,” I said. “It is. Well done.”
She narrowed her eyes and stared at the middle of my forehead. She was trying to read me, probably to see if I was being sarcastic. I wasn’t.
Bibler led us to a courtyard where the flappy-box was sitting, wings tied down with ribbon. I don’t know how they got it into the city without anyone noticing, maybe they didn’t. Considering how public Dorma was about his plans to vanquish the masters, perhaps our secret mission wasn’t that much of a secret.
Bibler walked Maurice around the box, pointing things out and showing him how to use the controller. The ribbon was cut and the wings stretched out and thrashed at the air for a bit, but without taking off. Maurice patted the side of the box like it was a large pet which seemed to calm it down.
“Do you really think we should be doing this?” asked Jenny.
“Yes,” I said. “You don’t think it’s a good idea?”
“It’s not that. You normally do everything you can to get away from a fight. All that jumping around in time… sometimes I wonder if this is the real you. You seem different.”
It hadn’t occurred to me the reason the people around me felt like they weren’t the same as before wasn’t because they had changed, it was because I had.
“Don’t worry, I still have no intention of fighting anyone. With Phil’s ability to stop time, we should be able to do this without even being noticed.”
Jenny rested her chin on my shoulder, her mouth millimetres from my ear. If this wasn’t the same Jenny I originally fell for, it was a bloody good copy.
“What if Yuqi was right?” she muttered. “What if it was Phil who betrayed her to the masters?”
If that was what happened, we were making things a lot easier for him by voluntarily heading into the hands of our enemy.
“In that case,” I said, “we’re seriously screwed.”