Sometimes you have to take control of a situation.
You may not want to, you may be happy in the background, letting others steer the boat, but circumstances won’t let you. Life is a big ocean and the chances of hitting a random iceberg are quite small, you would think.
At some point you realise that someone on this boat is a fucking iceberg-magnet. It just isn’t possible for RNG to be this bad. That was the third iceberg today, and we’re sailing around the Caribbean.
And when you throw everyone else overboard, and you still have a bunch of penguins bearing down on you at ramming speed, you have to accept the magnet is you.
There’s no point trying to leave the shipping lanes for a quiet life. You have a responsibility to yourself to control your own fate. If life wants to keep sending giant obstructions into your path, time to start farming icebergs.
“I don’t think you’ll need to arrest anyone, Commander,” I said.
Grayson looked around again, making it clear the mess he was seeing wasn’t to his liking. “Someone is responsible for this.”
“Yes, him,” I said, pointing past Malmur, at the little tax collector.
He didn’t deny my accusation. He didn’t get flustered or panic, either, even though everyone had turned to look at him. He just stared at me with a pinched expression. Here was a man who tallied the receipts before making his adjudication. I could claim all I wanted, the taxman would decide if my claims were valid.
“What do the city statutes say about compensation for an act of god?” I asked him.
We were in a city where gods had been in attendance for a long time. Long enough that they would need to have some system in place to deal with unsanctioned resurrections and sexual harassment by swans. If Mutual of Omaha had provisions for intervention by a deity, Gorgoth, with its temple in the shape of a giant skull, must have had a meeting or two on the subject.
“Oh, well, let me see,” said the taxman, a small smile on his lips as he entered the arena of his many past victories. Here was a man who loved his work. A gladiator who couldn’t wait to get back in the Thunderdome. Such a man was to be feared and respected. But mainly avoided. “If it’s a true act of god, of our god, then the matter resides with the Church of the Shrine. There have to be witnesses, though. Independent verification.”
Here was a simple solution to everyone’s problem. It might even make Malmur feel more generous towards me, I stupidly thought.
“No, I don’t want the church involved,” said Malmur sharply. There’s no pleasing some people. He actually looked a bit frightened.
Of course, big religious organisations are capable of some scary shit. A cold-blooded mobster knows his own kind. I felt like I should trust his instincts.
“You’re right. We don’t need to bother them with such a minor disturbance. The Golden God wanted to let us know we need to do better, and we will, right?”
Everyone nodded. The vagueness of suggesting we do better without specifying how was the key, I think. We can all agree to improve ourselves at a later date, in an area yet to be decided. Put that sentiment to gospel music, and you’ve got yourself a packed house on Sunday.
“In the meantime,” I said, “Uncle Malmur will get this cleaned up and the Piscine Cuisine back to its former glory. Okay, lads, fetch some brooms and lets get started. And someone grab a bucket of water to wash away this vomit.”
A good direction for us all to move in. Who didn’t want less vomit in the streets? The lads didn’t move. That’s not entirely true. Some of them flexed at me. Some jaws may have tightened.
“And who’s going to foot the bill for that?” asked Malmur, not so happy to find himself being ordered about by yours truly. No one was ever happy with that.
Gangsters, in general, are hard to deal with. They don’t like following rules, they don’t like sharing what’s theirs. Very territorial. They do, however, respect a strong opponent. Which was bad news for me.
But I knew how to handle his type. I had seen a lot of gangster movies. All the ones people say are classy and important. Slamming someone’s head in a car door while Pagliacci sings on the radio is proper art; it tells you about life.
Not about the workings of an illicit business with no morals or ethics (you can get a more realistic portrayal of that from watching any credit card advert on TV — that part when the small print says APR 923%, most authentic murder ever caught on film), but what those movies do tell you is that an Irish cop speaking with a Scottish accent can win an Academy Award for acting. Which is to say, there are rules, it’s just that they’re not the ones you’ve been told about.
And they also tell you that people who don’t pay their taxes should find a better way to do it. Steal legal, boys, all the cool kids are doing it.
“You don’t have to worry about the cost,” I said, waving away his concerns. “It’s more or less a charitable donation. Tax-deductible, right?”
The tax collector tilted his head to one side, and then nodded. “Yes, I think that would be considered admissible.”
It’s a good idea to have a tax inspector on the payroll. All contributions exempt.
Malmur looked surprised, which took his attention off me for a second. “Really?”
“These acts of god happen more often than you think,” I assured him. You could see the possibilities spinning around in his head. “Shall we get started? We don’t want the commander here hauling everyone in for questioning, do we?”
Malmur signalled his men to start cleaning up. It wasn’t exactly a new concept to them. I was sure they’d had to tidy up after a massacre or two in their time.
“What do you think this will achieve?” asked Grayson. “Are you planning on taking over? Gorgoth doesn’t have a king, you know?”
“I have no interest in being a king,” I said. He didn’t look like he believed me.
This is the problem. It doesn’t matter what you intend once people decide you must be thinking the way anyone (i.e. them) would think in your position.
Wanting to be a king requires a certain kind of mindset. You have to enjoy the attention. You have to buy into the bullshit. Being told you’re great, getting all dressed up and poncing around while people stare with envy, having someone to cut up your food and clean the bathtub after you’ve used it, those things are quite appealing to a certain kind of narcissistic arsehole.
You don’t have to be a monarch to get that sort of lifestyle, of course. But having a whole nation agree you should sit on the big chair and wear the shiny hat helps puts things in perspective. A very warped and misleading perspective.
You are the king because everyone thinks you earned it. Whether because you happened to come out of the right vagina, or because your army killed everyone else with a claim, there’s a clear reason why you got the top job.
I would find it very hard to accept that sort of role. Validation through mass support has never done it for me. A lot of idiots agreeing with each other has rarely produced results I could get behind.
If Maurice and the others wanted to apply for the top job, I wouldn’t feel aggrieved. There were a bunch of cities to share, plus the Council of Four which I vaguely recalled existed. Good luck to them.
All they had to do was act like heroes, save the world from disaster a few times, and I’m sure they’d be inducted into some royal family or other. Alternatively, they could Red Wedding it.
Either way, slotting in near the top was what our powers were made to do. We could claim a throne, unite the kingdoms and vanquish the White Walkers, all before lunch. People would cheer in the streets and doff their caps, because they would know we were objectively better than them.
That’s all anyone really wants — clear proof their inferiority is justified.
Well, I am not better than you. Your inferiority is entirely down to you being a lazy twat. Even if a radioactive spider bit you and allowed you to shoot sticky fluid all over the walls (like you need any help with that), you would still be a hopeless mess.
That’s why our world started to fall apart. We got to see what the high and mighty were really like. They were shit. It was all pretend and dress-up. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber never killed a dragon. Prince Albert of Monaco never led an army into battle. Why the fuck would you ever bow to these people?
Sure, you can take the edge off. Call it democracy, give them limited terms in office, but they aren’t really the ones with the power anymore. Peter understood that. He was happy to sit in his spire where he could pull levers and turn knobs. Sadly, those knobs were in my party, and he turned them against me, but the joke was on him.
He didn’t realise his ambition had intersected with Maurice’s. Because who the fuck would have predicted that?
I was fine with them getting in their fancy clothes and ruling Narnia like a bunch of English kids ruling… Narnia. Fuckers didn’t have an ounce of originality in them. I could have gone down that road. Marry a princess, order people about like I cared what they did. Not the life for me.
But I couldn’t simply potter about without support or money. I had powers, but I didn’t want to show them. What I really needed was a way to get shit done on the QT. Work with people who were used to keeping their mouths shut. Who worked in the shadows.
Malmur had everyone running around cleaning up, and the crowds had more or less dispersed. They certainly weren’t going to be reporting what had happened to anyone. Even Grayson, who was the law (more or less), seemed fine with letting things slide. Why bother making things tougher for everyone when shit was getting done already?
It occurred to me that I had been looking at it all wrong. I didn’t want to be top dog because of the baggage that came with it. But the kings and queens and popes weren’t the only people in charge. In many ways, they weren’t in charge at all.
If I were going to take control of an organisation to help me get shit done the quickest, quietest way, it would be an underground group with solid ties to the community, but nothing anyone would talk about.
Nothing as flashy as ninjas and assassins, even though that held its own appeal (how could it not? I was twelve once). Just a small group taking care of the fish industry would do me. A cosy nostra.
Having said that, it would be no easy task to take over. No one in their right mind would simply start following my orders. It wasn’t like I knew much about the price of fish. But I had other gifts.
Grayson was watching the thugs with a stony face. Malmur was supervising. Damicar was sniffling as he forced more onions down his throat. He was some kind of onion junkie, I was starting to think.
They would have access to a boat, I bet. Had to smuggle in fish somehow, I figured. It might have been easier just to ask them if I could hitch a ride, but now that I had it in my mind to be a made man, I was having a hard time not following it through. A base of operations. Hidden from the public. No state dinners. It had all the elements someone like me was looking for. I even had some leverage.
I closed my eyes and my mind slipped from my body. I was in a dark space, but with surprisingly nice furnishings. A sofa, some comfy chairs. A lamp with Wesley was sitting under it. She had changed her clothes into what looked like a brown velour tracksuit.
“What did you do to the place?” I asked my younger-self, who was squeezed into a corner of the sofa even though there was plenty of space.
He stared at the ground. “She made me,” he muttered. “Said if I didn’t get her new clothes, she’d walk around naked.”
That was a pretty dark threat. I felt a bit sorry for myself (so no change there).
“Do you like it?” asked Wesley, showing off the latest in chav fashion. “He said this is what the modern people of your time wear.”
You had to hand it to him, he knew how to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat. “It’s very nice. I have to take a trip to the Municipal Directory. I won’t be long.”
She gave me a look that suggested she didn’t approve of whatever I was about to do, but I may have been projecting. She didn’t say anything.
I exited my body and looked around. Everyone was standing still, vines sprouting out of all and sundry. I floated a bit higher.
I knew roughly which direction the Directory was in. It would be closed, but that wouldn’t pose a problem. I planned to go take a look in Damicar’s lockbox. I had thought of doing it before, but this time I actually had a reason. Plus, I’d figured out a way to locate it.
Damicar and Malmur both had a strong attachment to the box. There would be a link to it from both of them. Once I found it, and had a better idea of what had Malmur wound up so tight, I’d be in a much better position to take over his organisation.
He would still be in charge, nominally, and I would be a great help to him, so it wasn’t like he’d lose out in the deal. But access to funds and manpower would make things a lot easier for me. I saw it as both of us finding ourselves in a better place. There was just the slight chance of bloodshed and mass murder getting there.