Damicar was on his knees, really leaning back into the bawling. He wasn’t in pain, but something had properly upset him.
In these sorts of situations, you can’t assume level of distress equates to seriousness of cause. You get just as many tears per square attention-seeker when someone’s loved one dies as when their football team gets robbed in a major cup final.
“What did you do?” I said to Laney. Damicar was incoherent, doing his impression of Jodie Foster in the classic movie Nell.
“Ahh mow nik chick fil a leeeesbian.”
“Why do you assume it was I who caused the poor boy to lose his composure? It is very rare for someone as universally beloved as myself to cause any sort of turmoil. It could have been one of these degenerate islanders.”
Not producing enough turmoil was never going to be an issue for Laney. She was a turmoil factory.
The islanders didn’t seem very impressed with the accusation they were degenerates, but what were they going to do, point to the wonderfully presented garnish on their plate of human liver and kidneys?
Laney responded to the cold looks in her customary way, which is to say, she redefined it to suit her own way of thinking.
“And please stop drooling like that. Yes, I would be delicious, but I am forbidden meat. Your master has staked his claim already. Forbidden. Meat.” Now she was talking to them like a pack of dogs with eyes on her packet of biscuits (which she was one biscuit short of).
“I am not their master, and I haven’t forbidden them from eating you,” I said. “Now, be quiet. Damicar, calm down. Whatever happened, it’s okay, we can fix it.” He wasn’t responding. His mouth was open with strings of saliva connecting his upper and lower lips, snot streaming from his nose, and his eyes all red and puffy.
“Here,” I took out the doll of Damicar that Mrs Somya had made. “Show me on the voodoo doll where the nasty girl touched you.”
One of the reasons I was reluctant to change my shabby clothes for a more impressive set were the pockets. My trousers had loads of them, and I made it a habit to load them with whatever shit I came across. You never knew when it might come in handy. It made for some odd bulges, but then I had those even when my pockets were empty.
Damicar momentarily paused his descent into trauma-induced anguish to look at the doll. I’d stuck the arm back on as best I could — by stuffing it into the tightly woven straw his body was made of — so it looked like him again.
He reached out a trembling finger and poked his effigy in the tummy area.
Using a voodoo doll for this purpose was probably not a great idea. You would have thought the arm falling off would have broken its effectiveness. Nope.
Damicar let out a sharp groan and doubled over, his forehead slamming into the sand. Not what I had in mind, but at least it provided some new information.
“Did you do something to his stomach?” I said to Laney.
“Certainly not. We haven’t been physical in any way, I’m not that sort of woman.”
“You aren’t any sort of woman. What happened while I was gone?”
“Cooking,” said Laney. “Lots of cooking. And I graciously put aside my right of leadership by birth, which I have oodles and oodles of, and acted as his assistant.” Her eyes widened. “Hard to believe, I know. No more princess and peasant, we were simply commoner and much more important lady. He added the ingredients, I added the seasoning.”
Damicar rose up from his self-inflicted winding — I couldn’t be held responsible for simply providing the opportunity — with a primal wail.
“That’s why you’re upset? Because she added too much salt to your recipe?” Fucking chefs who think they’re artists… It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to make, it all comes out the same from the other end.
Laney leaned in, her face a picture of faux-concern. “Do you think he may have become distressed because I improved upon his efforts? It’s a common reaction from those around me when I show them how to do things properly.”
“Why are you even here, Laney? Shouldn’t you be on the walls of Fengarad demoralising the troops?”
Laney fixed me with a narrow-eyed stare. “If you mean my absence will leave the men and women of the Fengarad army disheartened, then yes you are correct.” No shift in reality was too wrenching for Laney to pull off. “But I was sent here as a special envoy.”
“Your father sent you? I find that hard to believe.” What cruel perversion of diplomacy would that achieve?
“True, he would prefer to keep me by his side.” Not what I meant. “But he is not the one who beseeched me to come be by your side to lend you my strength. It was a friend of yours.”
This revelation gave me a chill. Had she been sent to spy on me by Maurice? I didn’t think she would intentionally sell me out, but she was daft enough to be tricked into doing it.
“Who sent you, Laney?”
“I forget her name. Little chubby thing with orange hair. Red hair is very particular about who it suits, isn’t it?” She ran her fingers through her own crimson locks.
“Flossie sent you? Why?” What possible reason could Flossie have for sending me this nightmare in pink and lime? Was Flossie my true opponent? Fucking plot twist of the century.
“Isn’t it obvious? With me by your side, you would be immune to defeat. She also asked me to pass on a message.”
“Your secret is still safe, she has said nothing to anyone except me, and if you need her or her dragons, you need only call.”
I had assumed Flossie would eventually slip up and reveal my not being dead to the others, so it was quite a surprise she had managed to hold out this long. How had she managed it against Claire’s mind-reading ability?
“Call her?” I said to Laney. “Call her how?”
“Ah, that’s where I come in. I have the means to get word to her. I don’t want to reveal any more than that with all these people in attendance, but suffice to say the method is on my body and very secure. If, for security purposes, you wish to make sure, I will allow you to search me later tonight. Just keep it professional and thorough. We can’t be too careful about security.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. If I had a way of calling up an evac then I certainly didn’t mind Flossie getting it to me in the form of Princess Ding-a-ling. It was probably the only way to do it without raising suspicions. Laney was unquestionably someone no one would stop from leaving their presence.
“You know,” said Laney, “you would do well to remember I am no ordinary wench for you to toss over your knee.” I still wasn’t sure Laney really understood what a man and a woman did when they were alone. “I am a person of great influence. If it weren’t so, would I be able to gain passage on a ship belonging to the Council?”
It was a fair point. For all her mad declarations, she was someone who could pull strings, although not necessarily due to her position. Most people just wanted her to go away, which is a powerful ability in itself.
“I guess you should stay here then. No point sending you back to the—” I had been so preoccupied with this domestic situation I hadn’t noticed the boat and Grayson had both departed, leaving me with the princess whether I wanted her or not.
For a man of honour, Grayson was also a sneaky little shit.
“Look, Laney, Your Royal Highness, I have some things to sort out. Why don’t you spend some time with the islanders? Teach them some army manoeuvres or something.”
Laney’s eyes glinted with enthusiasm. “They do lack discipline. And I enjoy discipline very much. A perfect match.”
“Excuse me,” said one of the islanders. “I don’t think that’s necessary.” There was a murmur of support for the voice of dissent.
“Didn’t you guys vote me in as President? This is my presidential decree. Princess Laney will put you through some simple exercises, maybe an assault course. It’ll be fun.” It would be a nightmare, but it would keep them both out of my hair for a bit.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Laney, full of glee and anticipation for the horrors she would be able to inflict. I would have felt bad for them, but they were fucking cannibals. They deserved some kind of punishment for their crimes against humanity.
I turned my attention back to Damicar, who had stopped sobbing, mainly, I think, because his body had no more fluids to give up. I rummaged around in my pockets and found another onion — I’d been storing them every chance I got, but had no idea how many were left. One day the onions would run out, and then there would be a reckoning. I placed it into his hand.
“Come on, Damicar, you have to forgive and forget.” Wise advice I had not once followed in my entire life. You can prise my grudges from my cold dead hands.
“Because she didn’t mean it?” said Damicar, munching down.
“No, because she can have you executed.”
She was over with the islanders, getting them into orderly lines, occasionally berating them for salivating in her presence. They weren’t looking at her with hungry eyes, just resentment.
“I have things to do, Damicar, and I’ll need your help.”
“You spoke with the Council?”
“I did. Lovely people. They’re going to do their best to try and get me killed. We, on the other hand, will show them their best isn’t good enough. Right?”
Damicar nodded. My ability to inspire the troops was almost as well-honed as Laney’s.
“What happened to Richina, by the way?” There was no sign of Lazarus-in-a-toga.
“She returned to the shrine to wait for you. She said you would go there once you returned.”
“Yeah, but that can wait.”
She was right, that was where I meant to go, but I needed to take care of a few things first. Things that would take time to get ready, so had to be started as soon as possible.
I hadn’t spoken to Wesley up until now because I had a habit of speaking out loud to her without realising it, and I didn’t want to be overheard. Being aware of a problem is the first step to a solution, but solutions aren’t always easy to come by. In that case, the next step is to not expose the vulnerability in public.
Once I got back into the shrine, I would be able to speak freely, to her and to Arthur. I had a question or seventeen. First, though, I wanted to speak to Captain Somya.
“Let’s go find the Captain and tell him he can stand down,” I said to Damicar. Giving him something to do helped pull Damicar back together after the ordeal of having too much salt and pepper imposed on him against his will.
I left Laney in charge, much to her delight, and the islanders’ dismay. I was bringing justice to those in need of correction, like the UN, only effective. I might even bring civilisation to this island of zero morality. So far, with Damicar’s help, I’d got them to stop eating raw human flesh and start cooking it with herbs and spices. It was only a short step from there to the kind of behaviour acceptable in France, and from there, civilised society was within sight.
Damicar cheered up the further away we got from his nemesis. He even picked a few plants as we walked, crushing leaves between his fingers and sniffing them. Which reminded me of one of the questions I’d been pondering.
“That powder you found, the one that allowed the islanders to absorb the poison, what was it?”
Anything to do with his culinary obsession he was, of course, happy to talk about. “It is from a mythical plant, or at least I believed it to be, called Godsbane. It has a very distinctive scent, described as pig’s armpit in the books I’ve read, which I recognised immediately. I was quite shocked to find it existed.”
“And you have to eat someone who’s eaten it to get the effect?” This had been how it was explained to me. It sounded ridiculous.
“It’s supposed to be the food of a mythical creature — I don’t know if it too exists — called the golden wing. It digests godsbane and regurgitates it to its chicks, or so the legend goes. The golden wing is a huge raptor that is immune to all hurt and pain. It’s supposed to be immortal, but no one’s ever seen one as far as I know. I’ve never heard of it working on people.”
Despite what Arthur had told me, I still suspected his true goal was to achieve some kind of godhood. Perhaps making people immortal was part of that, and the islanders were his guinea pigs.
“You can’t think of another way of using it?” I asked Damicar. “If it’s that powerful, could we find another application?”
“I have been thinking about that since I found that sample. Perhaps if I could study the plant itself… I asked some of the island people where they procured it from, but they wouldn’t tell me. A secret on an island of secrets.”
Yep, one more for the list.
We found the captain back at the cove. His men were ready to launch the boat to come to my rescue, or row out to sea. He showed no reaction at my return other than a nod. His mother sat by a fire, even though it was baking hot. She was staring blindly into the flames while her fingers wove dry grass into dolls, as I’d asked her. I had a few more to add to the list.
The Council had been smart to keep their faces hidden. It made it impossible for me to get voodoo dolls of them made, but they should have done the same for the rest of their crew. The captain of their ship, for example.