Grayson looked impressive in front of his squad. They had matching armour, which always adds a little class to any group of men who are about to beat the shit out of you.
“Who is responsible for this?” he demanded. I could feel the eyes of everyone slide in my direction.
This was the sort of situation I had prepared myself for. The whole point of building my strategy from the ground up, instead of just barging in and taking what I wanted, was to ensure a clear and simple exit strategy.
I didn’t start the fire, as Billy Joel so prophetically told us all, it was already burning when one of these dipshits threw a stick at it. That guy was the one to blame, and I fully intended to, as soon as I could spot him. Probably would have helped if I could remember what he looked like.
Grayson had his hands on his hips, while the men behind him gripped the shafts of their spears a little harder. If they were using the move to flex their muscles in some pathetic attempt to intimidate people, it worked really well. You could tell they’d been well-drilled in the ways of looking like you want to stab someone with a pointy stick.
“It was him,” I said, pointing at one of the thugs. He wasn’t the actual culprit, but close enough. “He threw a missile into the building, knocking over some candles and the place went up all by itself without any help from any other kind of interference.” I may have been overselling the explanation.
The guy I pointed at hadn’t realised it was him that was being blamed (probably because for once in his life, he hadn’t done it). “Wait, me? What? No, no, it wasn’t me.” He was very convincing. It’s times like these that you should take a note of what it feels and sounds like to be genuinely innocent, so you can fake it better when you aren’t. There’s always something to learn from any situation.
He was a squat, mean-looking individual, although he was a bit frantic at the moment. He looked around at his fellow thugs, but wasn’t getting the sort of backup he expected.
“We can sort this out at the guardhouse,” said Grayson, indicating to two of his guards to take the man into custody.
Somewhat flustered at the injustice being perpetrated, the thug pointed at another thug just behind him. “It was him that threw it. I still got my stick, see?” He held up a club with nails sticking out of it. Ah, how I missed the good old days when I had my own stick.
The guy who had been pointed out had no stick. This was damning evidence, and you could sense the crowd form a collective judgement.
“My mistake,” I said, holding up my hands. “Yep, he’s the one. Look, he doesn’t have a stick.”
“It wasn’t me.” Not convincing at all. Hadn’t he been watching his mate put on a masterclass of innocent whining just a second ago? How did he expect anyone to believe his pathetic attempt at denial? It’s like these people have no interest in perfecting their craft. I tell you, if I was the head of a mob organisation, the first thing I’d do is make everyone take improv classes. Maybe set up a road company and send them on tour.
“Give me the name of a place, okay, give me an occupation, good, now give me all your money”
It’d be like going to see a regular improv troupe, but funny.
The stick-thrower pointed at me. “Him, he done it. He made me throw my stick.”
It was a desperate ploy, and no one believed him, no one had any intention of yes-anding him.
“How? You think I have mind-control powers?” I had to be careful, I didn’t want to give away my special abilities. Grayson knew I was a Visitor, but he only knew about my healing powers. If I pushed it too much, though, he might suspect I had been more involved in the fire than I was letting on. “Everyone saw you.”
The witnesses were my trump card. I had managed to gather a nice number. Not so many that they couldn’t see what had happened, but enough to confirm my version of events.
“It wasn’t me!” pleaded the thug, sounding like he actually believed it wasn’t him. Now that I got a good look at him, maybe it wasn’t him either. Had his buddy thrown him to the wolves to save himself? No honour among thugs, I guess.
“It was the Golden God,” said the boss thug, stepping forward. The accused looked utterly grateful, like a dog being taken from the pound. The other men crowded around him.
It was an odd dynamic they had going. One moment, the pack was ready to tear itself apart, but all it took was one guy to reunify them. It probably helped he was such a terrifying hoodlum with close-cropped hair that showed a mass of old scars across his scalp, and eyes so ferocious they seemed totally black.
“You all saw it. He set fire to the plants. It was his will this place be crushed. Nothing to do with my boys.” The boss thug had a different air about him now. He seemed much more in his element, ready to go down with his men. I guess that was what made him the boss.
You had to give him credit for trying. It was a religious city, and there had been something approaching a spiritual manifestation. I would have tried something similar, if I’d been in his position. In a higher register with slightly more vibrato in my voice, but more or less the same.
“Come on,” said Grayson, “all of you. You’re coming with us.” The guards spread out to cut off any chance of escape. There had been half a dozen thugs to start with, and Malmur had brought another four or five with him, so there were quite a few of them. There were about the same number of guards, but they were much better kitted out. Any kind of a fight could only end one way.
This was a slight problem. I hadn’t got my ticket money yet, and Malmur was the only one who could provide me with funds on such short notice, but he was about to get nicked.
Malmur looked upset. “I have nothing to do with this. I only just arrived when the place went up.”
“We can sort this out at the guardhouse,” said Grayson. “I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it in no time. You too,” he said to Damicar.
At least I wasn’t getting taken in. I was clearly involved, but Grayson didn’t seem to want me making things more complicated. Maybe he felt he owed me for healing him, or maybe it was Visitor privilege.
Unfortunately for me, he was taking my only source of funds with him, which meant I couldn’t stand back and let the show go on without me.
“Hold on,” I said. “Could I have a quick word?” At least I could get some information out of Grayson while he was here.
Grayson came over, not looking very pleased to see me, but not like he was going to murder me, which was his usual resting face in my presence.
“This is your doing, isn’t it, Colin?” It was posed as a question, but not really.
“Please, don’t call me that. I’m trying to keep a low profile.”
Grayson looked at me, then at the crowds milling about in the rubble, then back at me. “What would you like me to call you?”
“Victor Sifuentes.” I’ve always liked Victor. Sounds like a winner’s name. “And I’m blameless. I’m always blameless, I just attract the wrong sort of people. Not my fault if the Golden God decides to drop in to order takeaway.”
“Very well, Victor.” It didn’t sound very triumphant when it came out of his mouth. “This was the Golden God’s doing, was it? Do you even believe in the Golden God?”
“Believe in him? I’ve met him. He’s got a place under the Temple of the Shrine. Him and a bunch of other gods. He’s trapped down there. Long story.”
“If he’s trapped, how did he appear here, tonight?”
“Ah. That’s even a longer story. Probably better if you don’t pry. I wouldn’t want you to fall foul of divine retribution.”
“And the cloud giant that appeared this morning? Do you know anything about that?”
“That was an elf, and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Back to more important matters.” I was eager to get this conversation away from ecclesiastical questions. RE was never my strongest subject at school. “Malmur, there, can he be trusted?”
“Certainly not,” said Grayson. “He’s a known villain. Unrepentant.”
“No, sure, that’s what I thought. Just checking. Do you know why he’s dressed in a toga?”
“I have no idea. I imagine it’s some kind of fetish.” Grayson turned and looked at Malmur. “He’s a known sexual deviant. Isn’t that right, Malmur?”
Malmur didn’t seem happy to be called out in public like that, which was probably why Grayson had done it. No love lost there.
“Uncle Malmur,” exclaimed Damicar. “How could you cheat on Aunt Tersa?”
“Don’t be so ridiculous, boy. Who do you think makes me dress up like this?”
While they were divulging family secrets to each other, I lowered my voice. “Listen, how much is a thousand cronks?
Grayson frowned. “Cronks? What’s a cronk?”
“It’s the local currency, isn’t it?”
“Never heard of it.”
Something inside me snapped. I felt it go. I’m not sure what it was, but I think it had been holding up my dignity, which was now around my ankles.
Malmur had clocked me for a noob from the beginning. He hadn’t even bothered trying to get the better of me, I wasn’t worth the effort. He’d straight up bullshitted me, made up some bogus coinage, and watched me negotiate like a fool. No wonder he was so happy to let me raise the price.
Of course, I could have asked Wesley. She would know what they used for money around here. But I hadn’t. I wanted to impress her by becoming an overnight cronk millionaire. She’d shown what she could do, my turn to step up and prove my worth. Nice job, dickhead.
Had she known? Had she been laughing at me, too? No, I didn’t think she would do that. Perhaps she thought it was some new money that had been introduced after she peaced out. Well, she knew now.
I had spent plenty of time with people who had to be carried. The good thing about being surrounded by useless people is that you get to feel like you know what you’re doing. They weren’t here to make me look good anymore. Now I was the burden.
That was kind of a stark realisation to make. Everything I felt about having to slow down and talk slowly so the plebs could keep up was what Wesley was feeling right now about me. It put me in a shitty mood.
“I’m going to need Damicar,” I said, loud enough for Malmur to hear.
“The boy? You understand he’s in custody.”
“Yes, but I need him for a special assignment. We’ve got something we need to take care of at the Municipal Directory.”
I could see the cold panic in Malmur’s face. Good.
Grayson raised a solitary eyebrow. “The Directory is closed. It won’t open till the morning.”
I should have known that. I was familiar with their hours. Another painful snap. Apparently the last remnants of my ego had been clinging on. Not anymore.
Malmur hadn’t intended taking me to the Directory. He’d probably planned to lead me down some dark alley and have one of his men cave my head in.
I remained calm, swallowed, and then said, “That’s okay. I don’t need it to be open. But I need him.”
Grayson shrugged and signalled one of his men to release Damicar. He came stumbling over, tears in his eyes. I was beginning to think he wasn’t that upset, it was the onions making him cry. He had a small bunch in his meaty fist.
Malmur was staring intently at me. As far as he knew, whatever was in the Directory lockbox was safe for another three years, but he needed Damicar to open it. I, on the other hand, was planning on making an early withdrawal.
It was, of course, a terrible idea. What was I now? Ocean's 1? I was going to break into a bank to see what secrets people were hiding from each other? Like I gave a fuck.
The truth was I was embarrassed. I’d managed to string out a fairly simple task into nine different kinds of blundering. The worse it got, the more I tried to double-down, to somehow prove it was all part of my master plan.
But it was pointless. At least I still had enough sense to see that. Any chance to impress my more experienced partner had long gone. I needed to cut my losses and take the most direct route to my goal.
“Hey, Wesley,” I said, “I’m not doing very well, am I?”
“No,” said Wesley. “Not really.” She didn’t sound critical, just sad.
“I suppose you think this is all because I haven’t dealt with the loss of my friends.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I don’t really have the time right now. I need to leave the city.”
“Yes. They’re all looking at you, by the way.”
Everyone had stopped to stare at me. I was saying all this out loud. They couldn’t hear Wesley’s response, so I must have seemed a bit mad. I didn’t care.
I had been so focused on doing everything on my own, I’d just assumed whatever I came up with would be the best way forward. Succeeding alone proved you don’t need help, right? It hadn’t turned out that way.
“What should I do?”
“Whatever it is you’re trying so hard not to do, probably,” she said.
Nobody likes a smart-arse. Especially when they’re right.
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