I was leading an army of several hundred men, women and monsters to take a city. I mean, okay, strictly speaking, I was being led like a kid on a pony ride, and Jenny was technically in charge of the army, but let’s not get bogged down in details.
As we neared the city, I sent Flossie off to see if she could spot any stray dragons flying about. I’d seen one when I first arrived so it stood to reason there might be a couple more. We could use as much firepower as we could get hold of. Even though we had the Queen’s eunuchs, I was sure there were other defences we’d have to deal with.
A person who can create a stick to control hundreds of men at a time, or is able to brainwash someone into being their personal pawn, was bound to have a few other tricks up their sleeve. No point in being overconfident.
As evening drew close, we paused on a hill overlooking the city, which was a couple of hours away. It looked the same. Flowery. Another sign to be cautious. There were no walls and no towers to watch for approaching enemies. How did the city intend to defend against attack? They knew monsters were abroad, but apparently they weren’t worried. It didn’t make sense. Unless they had a way of protecting themselves they were keeping a secret.
Flossie returned with three more dragons, which was impressive. They immediately set to grazing and gently mooing at each other, which took the shine off a bit. But since the vegetation was more fuel for their various noxious expulsions, it gave me confidence that we would be able to handle whatever was thrown at us.
Confidence is a slippery thing. It can be the difference between winning and losing, but it works in both directions.
We made camp on the hill with plans to enter the city in the morning. We looked like an army of eunuchs, led by Amazonians. Requbar friendly. I was hoping to avoid fighting altogether and make directly for the Queen, leaving the ogres and dragons in reserve. Once we were inside the palace, I would have to figure out a way to get the secrets of the spire from her. Or from him. Lots of things could go wrong and there was an excellent chance the Queen had ways of dealing with us that we weren’t aware of, but we had a range of specialists to help us.
And then we’d run away as fast as we could. The ogres and dragons covering our retreat. Seemed like a good plan to me.
“This plan of yours,” said Gabor, the human calculator, “will not work.”
“I thought you said nothing’s a hundred percent win or lose.” We were sat around a fire eating some kind of antelope. It had four legs and horns. It could have been an athletic cow, or a goat that had been working out.
“True,” said Gabor, “but there’s a point at which you’d be a fool to take the risk.”
“You don’t understand how he operates,” said Claire. “There’s no such thing as foolproof when he’s around.”
The others murmured their agreement.
“We will see,” said Roland with a hearty laugh thrown in. “I have yet to see Gabor proven wrong. I look forward to seeing it happen.” He laughed again, nearly falling over backwards.
Jenny took out a knife and crawled behind where I was sitting. “I don’t like your hair this long.” She began hacking bits off.
My hair had got quite long recently with all the healing I’d done. My nails, I could chew down to the stub, but I quite liked the long locks I’d developed. They didn’t get in my way as long as I wore my green hat.
“Maybe I want to keep it long,” I said.
She didn’t stop. “I suppose I could braid it, if you really wanted.”
“Or you could just leave it. Would you be happy to change your appearance just to suit me?”
“Yes,” said Jenny, kind of killing the argument. “What would you like me to change?”
On one level, it was an obvious trap, but she said it so openly that I didn’t doubt she would agree to whatever I asked of her. She always did.
“Nothing,” I said with a sigh. Which wasn’t me trying to butter her up (she’d agree to that, too), I really couldn’t think of anything I’d change. Not because she was perfect or anything like that, just... what’s the point? Different isn’t better.
“Thank you.” She kissed the back of my neck and kept chopping off my hair.
Laney stood up, hands on hips, about to deliver a speech.
“Sit down, Laney,” I said before she could get into her stride.
“Do you know who you’re speaking to?”
“Yes, Your Highness. I’m already having my hair forcibly removed, I don’t need you twittering on about great victories and heroic heroes.”
Laney didn’t seem too flattered by my characterisation of her. “Gabor, kill him.” Her voice was very steady, her tone dark and purposeful. The words of someone born to command.
“I don’t think so, little lady,” said Gabor, roasting a piece of meat on the end of a stick. “I wish to see his plan in action. I will do it after that, if you wish.”
A reprieve, I guess. Laney, at least, seemed to accept the compromise and sat down again.
Jenny took her time vandalising my head, going super short, practically a crewcut, leaving me with an itchy neck. I got up and went to wash off the hairs now creeping over my body. Claire got up and followed me.
She held a water canteen over me as I bent down and washed my hair.
“None of them think this will be as easy as you’re making out.”
“Including you?” I asked through a sudden mouthful of hairy water.
“I know it won’t be easy, but that’s always been the way for us. I’m just worried about having so many other people with us.”
I stood up, water dripping down my face. Someone had to invent towels in this stupid place. “Isn’t it better having more of us? Better chance of winning.”
Claire shrugged. “I don’t know if we can rely on them the way we can on each other.”
“You’re the mind reader, can’t you tell if they’re trustworthy?”
Claire gave me an ‘are you serious?’ look that white girls just can’t pull off. “They might be trustworthy now, but that won’t be relevant when they have to make a decision in the heat of the moment, will it? Isn’t that the first rule of Colin Club?”
“What the hell is Colin Club?” Trust Claire to come up with the dorkiest name ever. “And my rules are never worded that clunky. Don’t go spreading that around. People will think it came from me and then what happens to my reputation?”
She looked at me like I’d promised her a go on Super Mario, but then I died too quickly and restarted without telling her. Disappointed and unimpressed rolled together.
“What reputation? No one remembers who you are, most of the time.”
“That’s cold, Claire.” It was also very true. “What about Gabor? We can count on him, can’t we?” I had a feeling his ability would come in useful at some point.
“I don’t know. Every time I look in his head I get a headache. It’s like the chalkboard in Good Will Hunting.” She winced and looked over to the fire where Maurice was sitting. She’d made an esoteric movie reference and Maurice wasn’t here to praise her. Opportunity lost.
“Ah, I was wondering if I could speak to you,” said a small, squeaky voice. It was Nyx, who had been a quiet but useful member of our group since he’d joined. He did what he was told without complaint, usually something menial or dragon-related. Didn’t get in the way and made no demands. I was seriously considering taking him on full time.
“We are returning to Requbar with an army, but you do not intend to usurp the Queen?” he chittered.
“No. In and out. Why, did you want to go back to your people?” I had offered him the chance to leave the group a number of times. He always refused. I was sure the life of an adventurer he had been seeking was not the one I’d shown him. He’d spent enough time around me to see exactly how ill prepared and unconventional it was to be in the Colin Club (damn, now she had me using it).
“No, no,” he insisted. “I don’t want to go back. Not yet. I have been watching you, trying to learn. Trying to understand why you are the leader.”
There was some sort of put down in there, but not one I could hold against him.
“I think I’m beginning to understand.”
“You are?” said Claire, like she wouldn’t mind an explanation herself. I knocked the canteen up so the last dregs of water poured onto her chest. Wet tee shirt contest, last place.
“What have you understood?” I asked him. I couldn’t deny I was curious to hear his theory.
“You do whatever it takes because you love them. You love all of them.”
“No.” I smacked him around the back of his head. “No, Prince Nyx, seventh idiot of the seventh litter. You need to watch more closely.”
I left him rubbing his head while Claire spoke to him about I couldn’t care less. He so desperately wanted to be a hero, to live the fantasy rather than the reality, that he was predisposed to force his picture of the world into a romantic frame. He would end up learning the hard way it wouldn’t fit.
In the morning, we set off with our army. The ogres and dragons stayed back with Flossie and Dudley. Nyx convinced me his knowledge of tunnels in Requbar might come in useful, so I took him along, wrapped up in a cloak to hide his innate rattiness. If he was discovered, we had caught him and brought him in. The same went for me.
Last time we were here, the earth was shaking and lava threatened to destroy the city, but it looked fine. The ground beneath my feet was tremor-free. For now. But if we did end up underground somehow, the rat would come in useful, if only as a bargaining chip with his family. I was considering all angles. All the sharp ones pointing at me, at least.
We marched into Requbar without much fuss. I was playing the prisoner. The trolls were the Queen’s Guard. Jenny was in command of the eunuchs, who were happy to do whatever she told them. We made it to the palace without being stopped once.
As we approached the lower terrace of the multi-tiered palace, a gate opened and a group of women soldiers came out, led by Primus Lenda.
We had expected this. Jenny took the lead and walked up to the tall, fearsome commander of the Queen’s Guard.
“I have captured the escaped prisoner and am taking him to the Queen.”
Primus Lenda let out a low moan, like she had indigestion. “You know that is not the correct procedure. You should not be here. You were all ordered to Fengarad.”
“This is a special circumstance,” said Jenny. “The Queen will want to see him. Now.”
Lenda shook her head. “I’m sure I can take care of whatever is so urgent.”
“No,” said Jenny. “You will let us pass.”
A mildly amused smile flickered across the Primus’ face. “And how will you do that? You challenge me?” She towered over Jenny.
“No,” said Jenny. “She will.”
Raviva, in the guise of Guardian Telma, stepped forward. Lenda seemed no less amused. Her eyes darted around, taking in the situation, working out what had happened. If she was worried, she didn’t show it.
She removed her helmet and passed it to one of the women flanking her. “Very well. I give you the first blow for free. Let’s see if you have improved since the last time we fought.”
Raviva punched her in the face. There was no amused smile left. There weren’t many teeth either. Lenda hit the deck, but surprisingly, she wasn’t out. A tough bird. She was helped to her unsteady feet.
“Shew aren’t Telma,” she slurred through bloody, split lips. “Who?”
More female soldiers came running out from behind them. If a signal had been given, I hadn’t seen or heard it.
The trolls planted their sticks in the ground; the arrows on top began spinning. “Eunuchs, attack formation!” ordered Jenny. The eunuchs had their game faces on. They outnumbered the home team five to one.
Lenda could see the writing on the wall, but she had a desperate look in her eyes. She yanked a chain from around her neck. There was a large, crystal pendant hanging from it. She held it over her head and there was a crack like thunder and wave of pressure knocked everyone off their feet, including Lenda and her soldiers.
The spinning arms on the sticks had been blown off, making them useless, but the eunuchs were all lying unconscious anyway. As were the women, of both sides.
I got to my knees and looked at Roland and Gabor, who shrugged. Maurice and Nyx were also okay, but Jenny was lying on the ground out cold, and Claire was draped over a female soldier.
The trolls hadn’t been knocked over, but they seemed out of it. Holding their heads and staggering about. I didn’t know how far the shock wave had reached, but hopefully not as far as the ogres.
Jenny was breathing but I couldn’t tell if she was hurt or not. She didn’t wake when I shook her, and I wasn’t sure where to heal her.
“She is unharmed,” said Biadet, scaring the shit out of me. Trust her to choose this moment to pounce. “The Queen is waiting for you.” She was standing next to me. She hadn’t been there a second ago.
“You aren’t going to take me back to Dargot?”
“You always surprise me, Colin. You escaped from the Lord Administrator. You outwitted the man in the spire, if only temporarily. You survived a hundred attacks that should have killed you. And, maybe most surprising of all, you convinced this fully grown woman to have sex with you.” She looked down at Jenny with a strange expression. Pity? “You want to reach the Queen for some unfathomable reason. I wish to see what happens when you do.”
Gabor and Roland were on their feet. “I too,” said Gabor.
“No,” said Biadet. “Just us two. She does not like crowds.”
“She? Are you sure the Queen is a woman?” I asked Biadet.
“Quite sure.” So much for that theory. “Shall we?”
“Wait,” screeched Laney. “You aren’t going without me.” She was on her feet and had a little blood dripping from her nose, but otherwise seemed fine.
Biadet locked eyes with her for a long moment. Neither blinked. “So, it’s like that?” She nodded and Laney stumbled over prone eunuchs towards us.
Why her and Biadet weren’t affected, I had no idea. I knew the Queen feared men, especially Visitors—dumping both me and Sonny in jail as soon as we arrived made that clear—so it made sense her weapons were weak against us for some reason, but little girls, too?
I gave Maurice a look, which he returned. He would make sure Jenny and Claire were okay.
Me and two thirteen year old girls headed into the dark doorway. I paused by Gabor. “How are my chances, now?”
He took a sharp intake of breath. “Better you don’t ask.”
With those comforting words in my ears, I entered the Palace of Requbar.