We made it back to the hill without trouble. Only ten minutes from the city by dragon, stunning views and only a slight infestation of ogres. The ideal place to take a break and consider your plans for revolutionary war.
The ogres were lounging about, picking flowers and having tickle fights. These were my shock troops. Shocking, indeed. The dragons circled once and then came into land. Everyone immediately disembarked and wandered off.
You might think with all the fighting and power struggles and underhand shenanigans going on, the mood would be quite serious. Time for a war council. Time to prepare for the final battle. You would be wrong.
World domination was way down on the agenda, well below making out and taking a nap. It was a sunny afternoon and the ogres were frolicking, who had time for silly distractions like not getting blown to pieces by a mad rat queen?
I followed Nyx off the dragon and pinned him against a tree. I considered him my ace in the hole. Or rat in the hole, which is probably racist.
“Do you understand why you’re here?” I was pretty sure he didn’t.
“Of course,” he said, all big eyes and innocence personified. “We’re going to retake Fengarad.”
I closed my fist tighter around the collar of his shirt and shoved him into the tree, making him squeak.
“No. We aren’t going to Fengarad. We’re going to stay here and take care of your mother. You’re going to tell me everything you know and I’ll gladly use violent means to make sure you aren’t leaving anything out.”
Nyx tried to back away from me but there was a tree trunk in the way and his scrambling only pushed him up it. He tried his best to incorporate himself into the bark.
“You don’t have to do anything like that,” he squeaked. “I told you, I think you are the only one who can stop my mother. I want to tell you anything that might help you.”
“Yes,” I said, “but the things I want to know are the things you don’t want to tell me. So I have to hurt you. It’s the only way.”
Nyx’s snout trembled as he tried to work out what the hell I was talking about.
“Are you feeling alright?” asked Claire. My gang of loyal followers were standing behind me, watching me terrorise a two year old.
“Claire, I want you to get everything out of him you can about the Queen’s set up. I doubt he’s going to know anything very important, but even the minor stuff could be useful in a tight spot.”
“He’s just a kid,” said Maurice. “I don’t think we need to—”
“He may be a kid, but he’s also been spying on us for his mother, the Queen.”
There was some confusion.
“How can the Queen be his mother?” asked Flossie. “He’s a rat.”
“Perhaps he is of mixed parentage,” suggested Maurice.
“Half-rat?” Flossie peered over my shoulder. “Looks pretty ratty to me.”
“I am a pure-blooded member of the royal family,” squealed Nyx, his voice even higher than normal due to my hand at his throat.
“So the Queen isn’t human?” asked Gabor. “Interesting. That adds a whole new set of variables.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I will have to give this some consideration.”
“You do that,” I said, mildly annoyed by all the interruptions. My arm was getting quite tired. “I don’t know how she got to be in charge, or what kind of magic she uses, but what I do know is that she wants us to get rid of Uncle Peter so she can take over. The whole world run by women and eunuchs.”
I looked from Flossie to Claire to Jenny. I didn’t like what I saw. “And that would be a bad thing,” I clarified for them. “So I’m going to…” I paused to rethink what I was going to say. “So we’re going to stop her.”
“And torturing a child is part of the plan?” asked Jenny.
“Yes. It’s the centrepiece. Spare the rod, spoil the child. That’s also going to be my approach to parenting. Might want to make you reconsider a few thing.”
Jenny bristled. Even though I knew she wasn’t guilty of the things the Queen had accused her, she was still unreasonably determined to have a child with me. A little food for thought might slow her down, at least.
Her frown melted away and she touched the side of my face. “No. You’ll do fine.”
The problem with having a girlfriend who’s connected to your emotions is that it’s really hard to bluff her.
“What are we going to do after we get rid of the Queen?” asked Maurice.
“Jumping the gun a bit, aren’t you?” I asked him.
“It’s the aftermath that usually screws things up,” said Maurice. “If we leave a vacuum, something even worse could take her place.”
He was right, but it felt like something to be dealt with later. Which was probably the way everyone thought, and why it always ended up being a much bigger problem than it ought to be.
I dropped Nyx, to the relief of both of us, and walked over to the trolls. They had reverted to their troll forms and were discussing the best way to deal with lizardmen.
“King Raviva, would you like to be the next king of Requbar?”
The question took him by surprise. “You really don’t wish to be king?”
“No.” I had no hesitation in making that decision.
Raviva turned to Keezy. “He speaks the truth?”
Keezy nodded. “He is too lazy to govern. In many ways he is like you.”
“Is that any way to talk to your King?”
“If you are my King, then act like it. There is danger from—”
They weren’t paying attention to me, so I didn’t bother paying any to them. I turned to Gabor. “What about you? With that brain of yours, you could do a pretty good job of running a city.”
Gabor burst out laughing. Roland joined him. They found my suggestion very amusing. Annoyingly so.
“If it is a great ruler you seek,” said Laney, “then look—”
“Rejected,” I said and moved on. I stopped at Biadet, we exchanged looks, I kept going.
It was going to be harder than I thought. I returned my focus to Nyx.
“I’ll think of something once we know what we’re up against.” I took out the gem the Queen had given me. “What is this? Where did your mother get it? How does it work?”
Nyx shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“You see?” I said to Claire. “We need to dig the truth out of him.”
“I really think he doesn’t know,” said Claire.
“No, he just thinks he doesn’t. That’s why we have to rattle his cage, to see what shakes loose. He isn’t the innocent babe you think he is. You’re all very naive and too trusting of a cute face.”
Nyx had his tiny hands up to his mouth and scratched at his whiskers. I didn’t see cute, I saw calculated.
Claire nodded. “Okay. And who’s going to torture him? You?”
“No, I don’t like that sort of thing. Makes me queasy. We can get the trolls to break his arms or give him to the ogres to play with.”
Nyx shrank away from me even though he had nowhere to go.
“And then I’ll heal you and do it again.” I could see the others were losing patience with me, so I doubled down. “I did think about feeding him to the dragons but if they get indigestion, they might explode.”
“We’re not going to torture him,” said Claire, arms crossed.
“You’re the chief inquisitor,” I informed her. “No one’s better at torturing than you.”
Claire was outraged. “When have I ever tortured anyone?”
“You’re doing it right now,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Amusing yourself?” asked Jenny, not very impressed. They were all giving me disapproving looks.
They didn’t understand amusing myself was part of the strategy. Nothing’s more unnerving than being threatened by a smiling bastard. It was already clear to me that Nyx was not the naive young rat he pretended to be. He was the seventh son of the seventh litter, which meant he was way down the pecking order. If he wanted to make something of himself, there were a lot of people to climb over. He wasn’t the sweet ingenue they had him pegged as. Which didn’t mean he deserved to be horribly mutilated, but then I wasn’t really going to harm him. Not physically.
Claire’s ability was far more useful for that sort of thing, but the young rat was bound to pull a fast one when he got the chance. I believed he wanted to help us overthrow his mother, but only because his long term plan was to help himself.
If I kept pushing him and didn’t let him get comfortable, it would be much easier to keep him in line. And he was going to be very important for what I had in mind. Any information he could give us about his mother was just gravy.
I handed him over to Claire, whose side he gladly rushed to. “Get what you can from him. I’ll go heat up some iron rods for later.”
While Claire questioned Nyx and Maurice took notes, I spoke with the Ogre Magi and tried to get her to understand what I wanted her to do. Never has ‘stay here and wait’ taken so long to communicate. I would have gotten Dudley to do it since he had picked up some of the language but for some reason he was very reluctant to speak with the Magi, or help us learn the language ourselves. Something traumatic had happened when he was alone with the ogres, it seemed, and I certainly didn’t want to know what.
“Okay,” I said to Flossie, who had returned to where the dragons munched their way through the grassy hillside, “we’ll need Vikchutni to give us a lift.”
“Oh, ah?” said Flossie. “Where to?”
“Back to the wife and kids. He’s been shirking his responsibilities long enough.”
Flossie gave the dragon a pat on the side. He lowered his head to get it rubbed. “Don’t yo’ say things like that. He only left them because you made him. Nothing he’d like more than go back and see his lover and his babbies.”
I don’t know if he understood what she was saying but he let out a plaintive moan I recognised only too well. The same sound could be heard up and down the green isles of Britain when it’s last orders at the bar. Tom Wolfe said you can never go home again, but every pub landlord insists otherwise.
Vikchutni gave me an accusing look. No point fighting the inevitable, mate. The thought sent a chill my own spine, for some reason.
Once we’d had a bit of a rest and people had come back from taking care of their various needs in private (don’t ask) we boarded the dragons.
I had come up with a plan, or at least half of one, and the others were happy to go along with me. For now. Nyx was sticking by Claire’s side; exactly where I wanted him.
The trolls paused their bickering for the time being, as did Biadet and Laney. Gabor and Roland were the only couple chatting freely and with good humour. No women problems for those two.
Everyone was keen to see how I was going to pull this off. Or not pull it off. It’s always been my experience with people, when they see someone try something they couldn’t do themselves, they assume it isn’t possible.
If you fail, they are reassured and happy. All’s right with the universe. If you succeed, they demand a recount. No one’s ever happy for other people’s success, because they assume its root cause is the same for you as for them: selfishness. And why would you celebrate that?
I genuinely didn’t want to be a king. Not because I was lazy (although I was lazy, no denying that) but because ruling people well is a thankless task, and ruling them poorly is for arseholes.
It’s not like I’m boasting about what a noble person I am. I just don’t have the taste for it. I don’t wear the freshest clothes, eat at the chillest restaurants or hang out with the hottest dudes. You might aspire to that, I don’t.
Someone drives up in a Ferrari, I see a sweet ride, I appreciate the beautiful lines, I know it would get me admiring looks. But I also see the high cost of maintenance, the jealous glares and the gold digging stares, and the death by stupidity hanging overhead. It’s a matter of values, and I don’t think it’s worth the price.
Then again, maybe I am just too lazy.