Grayson was starting to win me over. He was cold and dismissive, and he certainly had a very low opinion of me, but he was competent and willing to help. He could also very easily be working for any of the numerous parties trying to fuck me over, but fair play to him. If he was going to turn around at some point and stick the knife in, at least he was willing to speed things along.
“There is a slight problem,” said Grayson. “You will need Guildleader Toniono’s cooperation. Without him, there is no way I can get my men inside the temple unnoticed.”
“I’m the Lord Protector,” I said, “can’t I just order him to do it?”
“Yes,” said Grayson, “technically you could, but it wouldn’t remain a secret very long. You need him on your side if this operation is going to be a success.”
Wherever Grayson’s true allegiance lay, I trusted his instincts when it came to the nuts and bolts of planning something like this. I was confident the men he would choose for the job would be more than up to the task. Probably not at the level of the SAS — double tap, one in the head, one in the chest, off down the pub for last orders — but I expected they would get the job done. Plus, they had the advantage of looking like the locals (since that’s what they were). If we could get them in, they’d take care of the rest.
“What do you suggest?” I said, happily tossing the ball back to someone who would know what to do with it.
Grayson turned to look at Joshaya. “If Toniono was to meet Arta Aski, the man who founded the guilds, he might be more easily persuaded.”
Using Joshaya playing Arthur was a genius call. The guilds revered him as the guy who created them, so his word would be treated much more seriously than mine. Grayson had a keen eye. He’d already worked out that the best way for me to get what I wanted was to have someone else do the asking.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s give Toni a call.”
We couldn’t actually call him, there was no telephone and no one had a homing pigeon on them. Maybe I would set up two paper cups attached by a long piece of string and blow everyone’s minds, but now was not the time to suggest such technological advancements.
Grayson had men stationed outside the gates. Whether they were here to protect me or him it was hard to say, but he sent one of them off to summon the leader of the Waste and Sewage Guild.
In the meantime, I sorted out how we were going to reel in this fish. I would start by laying out the importance of the mission, which I would keep brief without revealing any details other than it being vital to the survival of the city, and then Joshaya would come out and add weight to my claims. Simple.
The fact I’d invited Toniono without the other guild leaders would both flatter and please him. He would consider it a sure sign that he was a step ahead of the others and he would try to consolidate his position by doing what was asked of him.
Our guest arrived a few hours later. His carriage pulled up outside, escorted by six riders dressed in matching uniforms. If he was trying to impress me, I wasn’t really into displays of strength or money. I was partial to displays of sunglasses in a pharmacy, but trying on cheap sunglasses to amuse yourself is what you do when your life is devoid of ambition. It’s also impossible to accurately tell what you look like in sunglasses while wearing sunglasses, which I found relatable.
We so often accept forces working against each other as completely normal. Oxymorons stare us in the face, blatantly warning us that someone is trying to get away with some dark shit under our noses. Business ethics. Military intelligence. United Nations. The clue’s right there in the title, but we blithely carry on.
Toniono was a large, gruff man. He looked like he enjoyed his food and considered exercise to be some kind of unfounded rumour.
“Lord Protector, it is both a pleasure and an honour. I thank you for inviting me. I am your humble servant.”
Feigned deference is a sure sign of trouble ahead, but I was just as polite back. It was a bloodbath of good manners.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice, Guildmaster.” I had upgraded his title to make him feel special. Vicious, I know. “There is a very important matter only you can help me with.”
His eyes shone with anticipation. Who would get their way and who would get fucked? Human history in a nutshell.
I invited him in and plied him with food and drink, prepared by the rapidly indispensable Damicar. Flossie and Dudley were dressed up to look like important people, and I had tried my best to tidy myself up. I hadn’t had a chance to see my tailor yet, but I was looking forward to designing my own leader’s get up. Something with tassels, I was thinking.
He seemed particularly taken with Flossie, complimenting on her dress and her hair. He probably knew she was the Dragonrider and was trying to ingratiate himself with her. Flossie seemed to be enjoying the attention.
Grayson wasn’t present because he thought it would be better if I made Toniono the centre of attention. He was technically connected to the War Guild, so his presence might make it look like I had already made contact with a rival.
After some small talk about what his guild did, all of which I promptly forgot as soon as he’d said it, I brought up the idea of a great danger approaching.
“There is a darkness that is spreading across the land, and it will soon arrive in Gorgoth. We must rise up to meet this challenge, and you, Guildmaster, are uniquely positioned to aid me in saving the city.”
I’d played enough CRPGs in my time to know what an overblown intro sounded like. I never thought I’d appreciate the fact they’d all been unskippable.
Toniono seemed mildly alarmed as I continued my warnings about the doom and devastation approaching. I hadn’t specified what form the danger would take, or how he would be involved, but that was part of the plan. Damicar kept the food coming.
“Lord Protector, I understand we are facing a great threat,” said Toniono, “but what is it that I can do for you?”
“I need you to smuggle some men into the Church of the Shrine. They will recover a valuable item from the catacombs below, but I don’t want news of this item to become known, alerting our enemies. It must be dealt with discreetly.”
“The temple?” Toniono seemed less than enthusiastic. “But, that is no small thing. The Pope would not be pleased, I think. And the new… members of the congregation…”
“I know how it must sound, but secrecy is absolutely essential. The Pope is aware of my mission, but no one else can know, especially not his congregation, new or old.”
Toniono still wasn’t entirely convinced. He ate nervously.
“To make it clear how important this is,” I said, “I have someone here I’d like you to speak to. Arta? Please come in.”
We all looked towards the doorway, which remained empty until Joshaya came bursting in, making the most of his entrance to wow his audience of one. He was a bit of a ham, but it had the desired effect.
Toniono nearly fell out of his seat. He stood up, eyes wide with shock. “Founder! You are here? We didn’t know what happened to you. We’ve been trying to get in contact for so long. It’s such a relief that you’ve finally returned.”
“That’s right, I have returned to make sure this one task is carried out. It is of vital importance, absolutely vital. Can you assist me in this vital task?” Joshaya was all smiles and eye-contact. Once he got the guild leader to agree to help us, he was probably going to try and sell him a genuine designer watch.
“This is wonderful,” said Toniono, his face all lit up. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited for an opportunity like this. There are papers sitting on my desk for months that require your signature. I’ll send one of my people to fetch them.”
He was very excited by the idea that he might be able to get some paperwork completed. He was supposed to be the head of a nefarious organisation that made people disappear, but I guess there’s always admin that needs to be taken care of in every profession.
“Wait, wait, we don’t have time, first—”
“Founder, please, this is also of vital importance. Once you authorise the long overdue changes to the guild, I’ll be more than happy to help you any way I can.”
It wasn’t quite how I imagined us getting him on the team, but if all it took was a signature or two, who could complain?
Joshaya could, it turned out.
“One moment, first I need to discuss something with the Lord Protector. Enjoy the food, it’s all free.”
Joshaya pulled me aside, a smile fixed awkwardly on his face. Dudley and Flossie followed us into a huddle, which probably looked a bit suspect, but the food was good enough to keep the target of our conspiracy busy.
“What?” I said. “This is good, isn’t it?”
“I can’t sign anything.”
“Why not? Are you worried about unbalancing the guilds?” The guilds had been set up to counter each other. It was impossible for one to gain supremacy because the others would join together to prevent it. I assumed Toniono was trying to get some sort of advantage from stumbling onto Arthur without any of the others present. “Don’t worry, I won’t let it come to that.” I was trying to sound reassuring, even though I had no idea how I would stop a guild war from breaking out, especially as I intended to abandon the city at the first opportunity.
“No, it’s not that. I don’t know what Arthur’s signature looks like. He’ll know I’m not really him.”
The problem was a lot more prosaic than I’d imagined. But that was okay, I could handle the mundane stuff, I liked the mundane stuff.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll just ask him for something with Arthur’s signature on it and you can copy it.” Even if his magic didn’t allow him to copy handwriting, just a roughly similar squiggle would do.
“No, no, I can’t.” He pushed in even closer to me, which was unsettling. “You see, I can’t read. Or write. When I look at the page, the words just jumble up and make no sense.”
I was in a world where literacy was in its infancy, yet somehow I’d found someone who’d already developed a learning disability. He’d probably claim to have OCD and ADHD, too.
“I think I’m allergic to gluten, that’s why my life hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped.”
Was he lying? I was at a bit of a loss how to proceed. Try to bolster his confidence? Tell him he wasn’t stupid, he just saw the world differently? My patience was starting to run thin. Not just with him, with the universe.
“Okay, forget signing anything. Make an excuse to get something, then come back in as the Pope. He was worried about the Church getting pissed off at him, we’ll wow him with another guest appearance.”
I felt we were close to signing our new recruit, he just needed a little push. He was still here after all, chowing down. We hadn’t scared him off with mention of sneaking into the temple, it was just a matter of negotiating terms.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” said Joshaya, shaking his head rapidly.
“Why not?” I said.
“The Pope takes time to prepare. I can’t simply turn it on, there’s a whole process.”
It sounded like bullshit to me. Unless my theory was true and fairies didn’t magically transform into different people, they had bodies they took over. Bodies that remained where they were when vacant. He couldn’t transform into the Pope because the Pope’s body wasn’t here.
Which made me wonder if the body he was currently in was actually Arthur’s real body. Would Arthur try to reclaim it at some point?
“Let me try,” said Flossie.
“Try what?” I said.
Nausicaa undid her top two buttons to reveal her valley of the wind. “He’s been giving me the eye since he got here. Ah’ll use his own lust against him, Colin-Fu style. Ah’ll sweet talk him into helping us.”
It’s an odd thing, the way women can switch from shy and demure, feeling threatened by every male gaze, straight to bold and brassy, ready to use their sex to get what they want. Hormones? Something to do with periods and cycles of the moon? I have no idea, and judging by the covers of most women’s magazines, neither do they.
Dudley looked horrified. I was pretty horrified myself, but mostly in case I accidentally tripped and fell into her cleavage. How would I get out?
“Don’t worry, lover,” she said, “it’s just for show.” She winked at Dudley and then walked over to Antonio, swinging her hips.
I probably should have stopped her, but I was taken by surprise and failed to react quickly enough. Before I could say or do anything, she was fawning over Toniono, leaning over him, jiggling and bouncing like she was on one of those machines at the gym no one ever uses.
Toniono, bless him, didn’t seem to know what to make of her. Then he came to a decision and jumped up, taking out a handkerchief and using it to cover his mouth.
“She has the shakes,” he shouted in alarm. “It’s the first sign of the palsy, and highly contagious. We must quarantine her immediately.”
Not a bad idea, it would probably be the best in the long run, but I was pretty sure she didn’t have the palsy, just an inflated opinion of her seductive powers.
“What do yo’ mean,” Flossie cried out.
Toniono kept his mouth covered. “I’ve seen it before, the uncontrolled quivering. You need to see a physician.”
Flossie looked very cross. She turned her back on her terrified seduction target and stalked back towards us. The only thing that upsets a girl more than being ogled when she’s doing nothing to encourage it, is not being ogled when she’s doing everything to encourage it.
“I guess he wasn’t making eyes at you after all,” I said.
“Hey, don’t get mad. He might not be into girls.”
She brightened up. “Yo’ think he’s homosexual?”
‘They don’t fancy me, they must be gay’ has always been the soothing ointment of choice for the harshly rejected, but rarely true. And even when it is, it just means gay people hate you, too.
“Could be. Maybe it was Dud he had the hots for.”
Flossie’s eyes shone with inspiration, which was worrying. “Yo’ have a go.”
“Me?” said Dudley. “Oh, no, I don’t think that would be a good idea. I mean, I really don’t think he would, ah, be interested in…” He wilted under Flossie’s intense gaze. “Oh, I suppose I could go see if he’s sort of interested.”
The speed with which Dudley accepted the task, with a resigned fatality like he’d already been down this road many times, made me reconsider how his penis got scaly. His closet full of skeletons was getting so deep it was in danger of coming out in Narnia. On some level, I guess it already had.
Dudley sighed heavily, dropped his shoulders and went over to Toniono to inquire after his health. The guild leader had calmed down thanks to Damicar keeping the trough filled.
Dudley had a long chat which seemed to be going well. Very well. Antonio had his hand on Dudley’s back, massaging his shoulder, stroking his neck. Flossie was delighted, seeing her boyfriend’s success as her own, which is always nice in a couple.
Then, Dudley extricated himself from Touchy McFeely and came back to us, looking a little perplexed.
“Did it work?” I asked him. What bargain had he struck to win Toniono’s cooperation? Would it be okay if I didn’t ask for details, ever?
“I think you should come over. He’s… you should see for yourself.”
We all walked over, not sure what to expect.
Toniono was smiling. He looked a bit out of it, but not drunk. Something else. “There you are. My friends. As I was telling delightful Dudley — a good man, a very good man, solid — together we will put this city back on the map, eh?” He jumped on me, but only to give me a hug. Then he moved onto the others.
He wasn’t being aggressive or inappropriate, he was loved up.
I looked at Damicar. “What did you give him?”
“Oh, I thought it might help to lubricate the wheels if I used passion fungi in the food preparation. It’s the key ingredient in most love potions but a positive mood enhancer when used in small amounts, and there were quite a few growing in the garden.” Toniono was smiling warmly at us. “It may have been more potent than I thought.”
A love potion was basically the fantasy world equivalent of a date-rape drug. He’d roofied Toniono, which was morally and ethically reprehensible, had it been for sexual purposes. But this was business not pleasure, so perfectly acceptable. I’m not saying it was right, but ‘perfectly acceptable’ is an oxymoron, which means it’s okay if you can get away with it.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.
Afterword from Mooderino