221. Beat the Retreat

People have a strange reaction to gratitude. They resent it. Having to admit to others and to yourself that you owe someone, that without them, you would have failed, is wounding to the ego.

You say thank you, you acknowledge the debt, but if the person makes too big a deal about their role and, by implication, your lack of contribution, it starts to get annoying.  Yes, you’re great, now don’t mention it again.

Winston Churchill is a good example of this. He saved Britain, both as a war leader and as a role model. He set the tone for how we should treat the Nazis, and that attitude of utter superiority completely undermined the German attempt at world domination.

“Er, veren’t ve supposed to be ze master race?”

Sorry, Fritz, maybe next time (and with the Germans, there’s always a next time).

Churchill led us to victory and a grateful nation thanked him by voting him out of office. Because no one likes a show-off.

Once the danger’s passed, once it looks like the way ahead is clear, everyone and their mother thinks they know what’s best. Welcome to my world.

An ogre was crying. I mean, really sobbing, snot streams gushing from cavernous nostrils and wailing like a banshee. I don’t actually know what a banshee wail sounds like, but I had no doubt this world would show me at some point.

The ogre was Dudley’s fiancée and she had been told her prospective was already taken. They had returned Dudley’s clothes to him and he was getting dressed while the ogre clung to her Magi mother, pointing at Dudley like a kid in the sweets aisle of a supermarket.

“You want us to attack Requbar?” said Claire, making it clear she didn’t approve. Like that would affect my decision.

“Yes. We have an army—actually, we have their army, so they don’t even have anyone to stop us.”

I had healed Biadet’s head, which Laney had smashed in from behind, and Jenny was tying her up before she came round and killed us all. They were quite the pair, the mad princess and the stone cold ninja. If they went at it for reals, my money would be on a plane ticket the fuck out of there.

Laney herself was pacing around with a large grin on her face, looking at Biadet from different angles. I think she was planning a painting of her standing over Biadet with one foot on her chest, like a big game hunter.

“They have the Queen’s Guard,” said Jenny. She hadn’t come out and disagreed with me directly, but I could tell she wasn’t so keen on my idea, either.

“Yes,” I said, “but we have the eunuchs, the ogres, the trolls, a dragon, and a couple of Visitors, if they’re willing. Seems like we have the advantage.”

“We also have the chance to get as far away from here as possible,” said Claire. She’d  learned from the best. Or the worst, depending on how you viewed me. “This isn’t like you.”

She was right. I don’t usually head towards trouble, even with an advantage. Simply winning to show you can is for tossers who get off on that sort of thing. Hooray, I’m at the top of the leaderboard. Well done. Now what?

But this was a tactical strike. The Queen of Requbar possessed a way to enter the spires and probably a lot more information besides. Uncle Peter was going to be a problem wherever we went. He had plans for this world and since I was stuck here, ignoring him was rapidly becoming a non-option. This could be my best chance of dealing with him. It could also be the last chance, for all of us.

“How do you know the eunuchs will even follow your orders?” said Claire, using the classic debate technique of changing the subject when your first attempt is shown to be horseshit.

“We’ve got the magic stick and we’ve got Jenny. She’s still their leader, technically. Plus, they’ve got no balls. They’ll do what they’re told.”

The eunuchs stood around, sad and lost. They watched as their female overlords were stripped of their armour and put into a hole dug by the trolls, who had reverted to their troll forms. Giant rock monsters and ogres surrounded the eunuchs and they recognised it was safest to stay close to us. At least we were human. Although I didn’t find watching dead women being dumped into a mass grave particularly upsetting, so how human I was at this point was hard to say.

There were a lot more eunuchs nearby and controlling them probably wouldn’t be that easy now that the female soldiers were all dead. They were the only ones who knew how to operate the controlling stick. Maurice had it now and was trying to figure it out, but we’d never encountered a device like it before.

Claire was glaring at me, searching for a way to prove me wrong. She probably would have found one if I gave her time. So I didn’t.

“You know,” I said, wiping my bloody hands on the grass, “I couldn’t understand why they’d have an army of eunuchs. They make shit soldiers. Smaller, weaker, less aggressive. But it does kind of make sense. Weaker but easier to control is better than super strong and a mind of their own. Some women feel better about themselves if the men around them are less assertive.”

I could see Claire about to explode, which was better than her coming up with a rational reason why going to war was a bad idea. And it wasn’t like what I said was untrue. Advertisers have been trading off the idea for years, the dumb husband and the savvy wife. Not savvy enough to not marry a dumb husband, mind you.

“It’s because Requbar is a matriarchal society, isn’t it?” said Claire. “You can’t stand the idea of women running a city.”

A desperate ploy. I have many questionable views on women, but seeing them in charge isn’t a problem for me. I mean, they’re shit at it, but so are men.

“That’s got nothing to do with it. I don’t even think the Queen is a woman. Everything so far points to her being a man. Surrounding yourself with brainwashed bimbos that do your every whim, not letting other men anywhere near. It’s all classic male behaviour.”

Claire closed in for the kill. “And I suppose no one’s noticed because women are just that stupid.”

She had me there. Damned if I agreed, damned if I didn’t.

“I think no one’s noticed because he uses magic. But it doesn’t work on Visitors for some reason, so we should be okay.”

“Then how come Jenny got put under a spell?” asked Flossie. They were getting emboldened by Claire’s relentless jabs.

To be honest though, it was a fair question. “I don’t know. Might be something to do with whatever makes that stick work.” I pointed at Maurice.

He looked up from examining the stick. “Can’t see any buttons. We really need to try it out.” He turned to the eunuchs. “Any volunteers?”

The eunuchs shrugged and didn’t seem too bothered. Beta males for you.

Jenny, who knew me well enough to not bother using logic against me, tried the road less travelled. “Do you really want to make the ogres fight for you?”

The ogres were sitting on their haunches, goofy looks on their faces, with bunnies running around them. Other than Dudley’s ex, who was still bawling, they looked very happy.

“You say that like the options are go to war or have jelly and ice cream. There’s going to be death and destruction regardless. Uncle Peter isn’t going to let the monsters have free run of the place. And the monsters aren’t going to back off and go home. They don’t have one, for a start. I’m not saying my way is the best, but it’s probably going to be safer than charging into Fengarad. We just need to get to the Queen and get out again, end of.”

“You don’t wish to hold the city?” asked Keezy. He had been listening to us bicker but hadn’t said anything until now. “You could be king.”

I shuddered at the thought. “Running a city isn’t my idea of a good time. If you’d ever been in London during rush hour you’d understand. I don’t give a shit about ruling the people, and I certainly don’t want to stay in one place for too long. Nice, big juicy target for the guy with the supergun.”

“This is your wish, too?” Raviva, now a six-foot blonde, asked Flossie.

She looked from Claire’s disapproving scowl all the way round to Dudley. She’d promised me her obedience if I returned him to her, and here he was.

“Yes,” said Flossie, quietly. “I suppose so.” Not a ringing endorsement, but close enough.

“Wait!” said Laney. “I haven’t given my approval of this plan. Fengarad is where the battle will be. How will going to Requbar help? It will not. As ranking officer here, I command you to—”

“How are you ranking officer?” I asked, not really bothered by her attempt at a coup, just curious how she was going to sell herself as the new leader.

“I’m a princess!” she said, like it was obvious. She walked towards me in what I would call a waddle, although I think she was trying to do sexy-slinky. Hard to pull off when you don’t have hips to speak of. “And you can be my prince, if you do as I say.”

Her path was cut off by Jenny. “He isn’t interested, Princess,” she said in a voice Batman would have been proud of. It would have been nice if she’d asked me first, but apparently I’d been taken off the shelf. I didn’t mind. It was nice to have the old Jenny back.

Laney stopped and considered her options. On the one hand, she didn’t want to take on Jenny. On the other she was barking mad.

“Little lady,” said Gabor, “I think you will find the road to Fengarad will be quicker if we follow this one.” He pointed a gloved finger at me. I still couldn’t work out what weapons he had; nothing visible.

“Really?” said Laney. “Are you sure?”

I couldn’t blame her for not believing him. I was surprised by his statement, too.

“I work it out here.” He tapped his head. “Of all the possibilities, this one has best chance of success.”

This seemed to mollify Laney. Whatever Gabor’s ability was, she appeared to trust it.

“Very well, I grant my permission.”

I hadn't asked, but fair enough. “Thanks. Okay, let’s get back to the dragon.”

“Ah, um,” said Dudley. “That is…”

“We just need a sec,” said Flossie.

“There’s a cave over there,” I said, pointing. “Hurry up.” No point making them wait, it would only make the dragon nervous. I turned to Gabor. “Is my plan really our best chance?”

“Not even close. But it is the most interesting and it is hard to find good entertainment in this world.”

“They don’t even have Blockbuster Video,” said Roland. Poor guy, if only he knew.

Claire still looked pissed off. “I wish I could read your mind, see what you’re really up to.”

“I doubt that would help. Just back me up.”

“Don’t we always?”

To be fair, they did. But that could always change.

There’s a story that in 1940 Churchill was told that a message had been intercepted and decoded revealing a bombing raid on Coventry. But taking action to save people would let the Germans know their code had been broken, so Coventry was allowed to be hit without warning. 

People say it never happened. An apocryphal story that shows the difficulty of leading in wartime. But if it did happen and the public were told, would they appreciate the cruel position he’d have been in? They voted him out when they thought he was an unblemished hero, how would they have reacted to learning his hat was less than white?

I think the answer is obvious. Gratitude and understanding from an intellectual place, but something else from the heart, I would guess. Fear. If a man is capable of doing something like that, what else is he capable of? Who else is he prepared to sacrifice? Me?

Even a good leader struggles to make the right choice, and sometimes has to make the wrong one. And I’ve never claimed to be good.

“I have a question,” said Jenny.


“Where’s Biadet?”

I looked down. The girl who had been bound and trussed on the floor was gone.

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