The city was mine. Well, it was under the auspices of Her Royal Highness Princess Laney of Fengarad, but if she didn’t do what I told her I’d send her to bed without any supper. She would probably demand a spanking instead.
The city’s confused and mildly disappointed citizens wandered back through the gates and returned to their homes, which much to their surprise had not been burned to ashes. Being confused and mildly disappointed was, of course, normal for anyone living in a city, so they were used to it.
There was no great outcry, no seeds of rebellion. And even if there were, I planned to be long gone before they bore any fruit.
My plan had worked, more or less. Everyone looked at me like I’d stumbled into victory defying all reason, but that was okay. A win is just a win, you still have to manage the aftermath into something useful. Putting Laney in charge was the key to preventing any resistance. That, and getting Damicar to arrange free food and drink for the returnees, all sourced locally and paid for by the city treasury. Bribe the people, stimulate the economy, give them a pretty girl to look at. If I wasn’t busy facing global catastrophes I’d have made a great campaign manager for some local election.
There were still a large number of undead soldiers all over the place, so it wasn’t quite back to normal, but the undead didn’t really do much when they weren’t under orders; more of a curiosity than a threat.
They would have made a decent constabulary, one that didn’t abuse their power to harass people because it made them feel important and powerful. It’s a problem with police everywhere except on TV, where they spend most of their time driving fast and somehow not killing pedestrians. Completely unbelievable.
I convened a meeting of the Fengarad roundtable, which consisted of me, Jenny, Laney, Biadet, Flossie and Dudley, Joshaya cosplaying as Arthur, Caim and Angel Rose, and Damicar, who was in charge of catering. Other than Damicar, the rest were all likely candidates to fuck things up first chance they got.
We had an Arthur, we had a magic sword, we had a princess, and we even had a dragon. It was very roundtabley, apart from the table being oblong and a lot less of a sausage-fest than the OG version. See how progressive I am? I guess I was Merlin.
The Holy Grail for this particular crusade was for me to get rid of Peter and then make a swift exit. My chances were about as good as finding the actual Holy Grail. Although, to be fair, I can see the reason why you would search the world for the cup used by Jesus Christ at the last supper. Imagine how much it would go for on Ebay.
My sliver of attachment to Jenny was already making it much harder to think clearly. I should have been pressing her for answers and explanations. There were numerous questions I still had, but it was hard to focus on them when we were alone, other options seemed much more attractive. With everyone watching, it would be much harder to get carried away. I hoped.
“So, let’s start by asking where Peter is exactly, last time you saw him, ballpark area, roughly speaking?” My attempt at being forceful and demanding like all those successful dictators you see on the news wasn’t going well. They make it look so easy. Perhaps it helps to have a funny moustache.
All eyes turned to Jenny. “He’s here in Fengarad.”
“What? He’s really here?” said Flossie. “Why didn’t yo’ tell us?”
“Sorry,” said Jenny.
“I thought everyone went to Dargot,” I said.
“Everyone but him. He’s in one of the spires, working on getting it active. We can’t get in and he won’t answer the door. That’s what he’s been doing since we got here. Maurice managed to get into one of the other spires, that’s how he was able to send himself to the island.”
After having had no explanations about anything, it was a bit overwhelming to suddenly get answers.
“If he’s here,” I said, “why didn’t he do anything about our attack on the city?”
Jenny shrugged. “I don’t think he cares. He’s working on something bigger.”
“A way back home?” I said.
“That’s what Maurice thought. They were in a race to see who could get there first.”
Coming first has always been a big deal for the human race. It’s an odd concept most of the time. It’s not like if the guy who discovered a new land or a new drug or some handy gizmo had decided to do something else instead that we’d still be wondering what was beyond the horizon, riddled with STDs, riding around on bicycles with the wheels different sizes. Someone else would have invented the telephone or the lightbulb.
But first confers some kind of ownership. You got there first, you get to keep it. Put a flag on it, stamp your trademark underneath, patent pending.
I mean, if I paint a flower, I own that picture. I can do what I want with it. But it shouldn’t mean no one else can paint flowers without paying me just because I did it first.
I realise I’m oversimplifying, but sometimes it does feel that idiotic. And even if you believe people should be rewarded for getting there ahead of everyone else, it’s never as straightforward as it should be. History is littered with stories of inventors who were bullied out of their rightful credit.
If Maurice was able to find this gateway back to Earth, would he be in charge of who went through? Wouldn’t Peter just say, “Thanks very much,” and take it away from him?
More than being first, you need the clout to back up your claim. You need an army.
“What was in the spire Maurice opened? Did you go inside? Is it still open?”
Jenny nodded. “You can go see for yourself. It didn’t make much sense to me. A lot of weird runes and symbols Maurice was trying to decipher. He wrote it all down in his notebook. Claire has it.”
This was good. It felt like I was making progress. I would have a look inside the spire and hopefully it wouldn’t be a trap designed to capture me. I wouldn’t put it past Maurice to set all this up just to get me to walk into some elaborate ruse he’d concocted. Mind you, stuck in a spire on my own wasn’t the worst thing I could imagine. My mum took me to see Starlight Express when I was a kid — my pit of horrors runs deep.
“What we need to do,” I said, “is keep an eye on Dargot while we work out what’s up with these spires. And if we can’t understand them, how to topple them.”
“It isn’t possible,” said Joshaya.
“Not with that attitude, it isn’t.” Negative people are such a downer. Puts a real cramp on my sunny disposition. “This the part of the movie where we come up with a brilliant plan that employs all our special abilities to devastating effect. Obviously, the plan will go horribly wrong and we’ll have to improvise a way out from under certain disaster, probably losing one of you in the process. Who’s closest to retirement?”
Flossie put her hand up.
“This isn’t a movie.”
“Good to see you’re paying attention. No, this isn’t a movie. We’d all have to wear 3D glasses and pretend it was impressive how things look like they’re coming towards us if it was. But just because we don’t have final cut, doesn’t mean we can’t use what we know from our lives back home to help us come up with something the other Visitors never thought of. Most of them never saw Die Hard, they have no idea what happened at Nakatomi Plaza.”
I was met with a bunch of blank stares. My point exactly.
“While we brainstorm some interesting high concept action movie ideas, why don’t you pop over to Dargot and do a little spying for us?” I said to Joshaya. Keeping tabs on them seemed like a good idea.
He looked bemused by my suggestion. “I don’t have anyone in Dargot I can use for such a task.”
He needed a dead body as a host, which he had plenty of, but none that would go unnoticed in Dargot. I looked around the table, thinking who would be best to send.
The obvious answer was me. I could use the adjacent world to float over there and have a look without them knowing I was ever there. But it would be a static look that wouldn’t tell me much unless they were right in the middle of something very obvious, preferably with notes and diagrams in front of them. Plus it would take ages to float there and back, and I was very tired from various exertions.
I could send the dragon to do a recce from the air, but I recalled Gullen having some kind of anti-dragon machine he never got a chance to use last time we were in the area. I didn’t really want to give him a second bite at the cherry.
And then there was Biadet. She was more than likely spying on us for them. Sending her back would be like filing a report they’d been waiting for.
That was maybe unfair. She had been quite helpful so far. Although, that’s how you get people to let their guard down so you can really apply the punish.
Ah, paranoia, the only one who has never abandoned me.
That was that decided then.
“I have heard all your advice,” said Laney, “and I think it’s time for me to make a decision.”
“A decision about what?” I asked her.
“About this city, about the war effort. As sovereign ruler—”
“Can you write it down? We’ll need it in writing, with an official stamp or seal or whatever, so it’s official. The troops won’t obey it if it isn’t official.”
“You’re going to make me write it all down and then throw it away, aren’t you?” she said, glaring at me through narrowed eyes.
“I’d set it on fire if I wasn’t worried it would give them PTSD and start panicking.”
Laney stood up and stamped her foot. “But I’m the Queen of Fengarad!”
“Yes, it must be very nice for you. I, however, am the Emperor of Flatland, so you have to listen to me. Emperor trumps queen.”
I had the uncomfortable feeling they were all staring at me, mainly because they were.
“What? I’m joking. I’m not actually an emperor. Look, no big hat.”
“Is that your ultimate goal?” asked Caim.
If I’d said yes, I think they would have been somewhat relieved. It would be a motivation they could at least understand.
“Let’s wait until after the war’s been won before we start squabbling over the toys in the nursery. Dargot — Dudley, you’ll have to be our eye in the sky. Sorry, I know it’s a strain.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I just need somewhere quiet to sit and not move for a few hours. I should be able to manage that.”
“I’ll give yo’ regular back rubs,” said Flossie. I could see where that would lead.
“Okay, that should be fine for now. I’m going to go have a look in the spire. Might give me a few ideas. Any questions?” I should have known not to ask something so open. Had I learned nothing? (Shut up, it’s rhetorical). Flossie put her hand up. “Yes?”
“Are you and Jen back together again?”
I turned to look at Jenny.
“Why don’t you answer her?” she said.
“I wouldn’t want to speak for you,” I said.
“Good, then don’t. Speak for yourself.”
What do you say in these sorts of situations? What if the other person doesn’t agree with your take and makes you look like a fool?
I think the only choice is to be honest. Say what you genuinely think and that can never be turned against you any more than it already has by you. Can’t get me if I get me first.
“Well, I’d like to think we’re heading that way, but there’s always the chance she’s pretending to like me and using sex to keep me distracted while Claire or someone sneaks around doing whatever it is they think will give them an advantage. Pat Benatar said don’t use sex as a weapon, but I’m not sure how much of a follower of Pat Benatar Jenny is.”
It felt good to get my concerns off my chest. Jenny didn’t seem pleased, or surprised.
“Ma moom loved that song,” said Flossie, riding roughshod over my exposed vulnerabilities, which is about as painful as it sounds. “She used to sing it around the house.”
“Your mother sang Don’t use sex as a weapon around the house? Are you sure she wasn’t trying to let people know she was the victim of domestic abuse?”
“Hey,” said Flossie, “don’t say that. My parents loov each other. They’re very happy.”
“Don’t they live in the West Midlands?”
Flossie didn’t seem pleased, or surprised.
A guard came rushing in. He stopped in front of me and saluted, which was an odd experience. “There’s a man at the gates. Says he’s an envoy from Dargot.”
All this time I was thinking to send someone to keep an eye on them, they’d decided to send someone to check up on us.
“Did he give a name?” I asked.
“Gideon, my lord.”
“And he’s alone?”
The guard nodded.
Gideon was the leader of the cool kids. It seemed unlikely he would come without the other Gidiots. Were they already in the city, waiting for a signal? Had Peter summoned them? Was I about to face him in a battle to the death?
What I knew without a shadow of a doubt was that he was going to have some ridiculous new haircut and while that wasn’t a good reason to kill him, it would make the guilt a lot easier to deal with.
“Let him in.”
The guard rushed away to relay the order. Gideon probably had something or other up his sleeve, but so did I.
“Damicar, we have a guest. Let’s serve him something extra special.”
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Afterword from Mooderino