395: Growth

It hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that every time I come up against a handsome, confident guy, I end up killing him. This isn’t because of some deep-seated resentment caused by bullying in my younger years, a kind of wish-fulfilment where I finally get my revenge.

For a start, I wasn’t bullied when I was younger. I didn’t go to the sort of school where that kind of thing happened very much. No one could be arsed to harass the smaller, weaker kids. They just ignored them and had a great time enjoying their lives of underage drinking and underage sex.

The only place in Britain where you get proper bullying, the type worth putting into a movie so you can justify all the shitty things the protagonist does to get claim his rightful place as lord and master, is in public schools. And for them, it’s not so much about the power trip — they already come from the richest families in the country — it’s more about keeping the old traditions alive.

English public schools are known for two things, primarily. Producing the men who will lead the nation, and buggery. It’s a horrible thing to fuck people in the arse so bad they lose the will to carry on, and the buggery probably isn’t much fun, either.

The reason I tended to kill my competitors rather than come to some civilised understanding was because they were better than me. Not just in looks and style, but at fighting and convincing others to join them. A true bully isn’t a coward or a weakling, he’s a masterful coordinator. He has friends, he has resources, he goes to the gym and eats properly. That way, when he comes up against someone who has something of value, he can just take it.

Boys picking on weaker boys is nothing to do with vying for position and status, it’s more than likely an expression of latent homosexuality, the way boys tease and fight with girls they like. Posh boys don’t have that problem since they got it out of their system at boarding school.

My only hope when confronted by someone who could win the long game was to make it as short a contest as possible. If I knocked them down, they had the resilience to get up again, and they would be much more wary of any second attempt. I had to make the first shot count.

It was purely a matter of pragmatism. I wouldn’t survive if I didn’t go ham from the off. It’s not really cricket, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Although, it was a much more effective ploy back when no one knew me and they expected me to behave in a manner befitting my face.

I should have been bitter and sarcastic, but ultimately too craven to stand up for myself. Or, if I did once, a quick beating should have put me in my place. I’m only too aware of my position in the scheme of things, which is why my usual response was to bow out of competition at the first opportunity. I’ve never resented those who were born with a better loadout than me, but I wasn’t going to participate as cannon fodder, either.

Things were different here, though. I was still the same low-level pleb, but everyone else didn’t have the support structure to help them. No mummy and daddy, no old boy’s network, no class distinction. They still had massive advantages over someone like me, but they had no real practice using those advantages. It had never been necessary.

I, on the other hand, had been fully trained in the art of scraping by. The kind of training that’s done with a chair and whip. Spoiling kids works fine if they grow up to be spoiled adults. Not so great if they have to face real hardship on an empty stomach and monsters who aren’t cowed by a plummy accent.

Which isn’t to say I planned to murder Gideon. Not immediately. He knew I wasn’t someone to take lightly and would have his guard up, I was sure. And he had the advantage of knowing what I was capable of, while I had no idea what kind of ability he had.

I still considered myself as having the upper hand because of the pause button I could press at any time, but I assumed he knew that and had taken steps to come up with a counter of some kind.

Or, he could be an arrogant twat who thought he had nothing to fear from me. Fingers crossed.

Gideon was alone. He didn’t even have a horse. I doubted very much that he walked here from Dargot, so I assumed his cohorts were close by.

I had expected Gideon to arrive with a face displaying the latest in inadvisable hair ornamentation, and he didn’t disappoint. He had gone for a full-length beard — by which I mean down to his waist — no moustache, and a Mohican haircut. Not the big spiky kind punks used to have, this was very short and bristly, like he’d glued an oversized nail brush to his head. Only, it wasn’t in the middle, it was off to one side, like it was slipping off.

He was dressed in a mixture of leather and chainmail, and bell bottom trousers. Not a look you see very often.

“Hello,” he said as he was escorted into the main hall of the palace by a retinue of undead Visitors of the past. “You’ve done very well for yourself, haven’t you?” He gazed around the room, relaxed and comfortable in his own skin. “Did you pick out the furnishings yourself?”

“No, it was like this when I got here.” He was annoying me already. Perhaps I should have just killed him and saved myself a lot of bother. “Are you hungry? We were just about to sit down and have something to eat.”

There was an air of civility between us, the kind you fake when you want someone to piss off, but you’re both English so you serve tea and crumpets instead.

“Oh, that sounds lovely. Thank you very much.” Translation: A chance to judge you on the quality of your food preparations? Yes, please.

It was a bit more frosty between him and the others. There were some nods and wary greetings, but everyone was very much on the alert for an unexpected attack. Joshaya had made himself scarce, but Caim was in attendance, although not suited up. Gideon didn’t seem too worried.

We sat down around our oblong roundtable and Damicar very excitedly brought in platters and salvers and various silver trays loaded with pastries and an assortment of delicacies.

Honestly, if anyone deserved the title of hero around here, it was him.

Gideon’s face fell as he realised the food selection was of the highest calibre. The presentation alone was worthy of a Michelin star, although why anyone cares what a tyre manufacturer thinks is the best place to eat I have no idea.

“This is Damicar,” I said. “He’s the chef.” Credit where credit’s due (although blame always seems to find its way to me).

“He’s the king’s chef?” He wasn’t sure because Damicar wasn’t dressed like a chef of the royal household, he was dressed like a regular pleb. As was I.

“No, he’s my chef. You don’t have a personal chef?”

“Of course, yes. She’s a marvellous cook.”

He was probably talking about the person in his party who did all the cooking. There was no need to press the point. He could see the quality of the enemy he was facing. He could taste it, too.

I hadn’t asked Damicar to do anything funny with the food, I wanted to impress on Gideon how I had my shit together and the general stability of my environment. It’s much harder to look down on people when they serve you fantastic food and you didn’t even bring a bottle of wine.

Yes, it’s petty and insecure to behave like that. Why should I care if he was impressed or not? But it’s a struggle to maintain an even keel when you’re swinging wildly between deep self-loathing and moments of unrestrained power. It’s hard to act the way you would like to if you could choose.

“So, what can I do for you?” I asked him.

“Yes, down to business. I came to offer you a truce.”

“Okay. I’m not sure why you think that would be something I’d consider. It’ll only take a couple of days to defeat Dargot. You sure you didn’t mean you came to offer your surrender?”

“It won’t be as easy as all that,” said Gideon, chuckling like I’d made a joke. He tucked his beard under his chin so he could bite into an eclair without getting cream everywhere.

“Yo’ know,” said Flossie, “yo’ have really nice hair.”

“Thank you,” said Gideon, smiling with the satisfaction of one who believes all compliments he receives are well-deserved.

“It’s just a shame it isn’t on your head. Ah think it would look much better up there.”

Women, of course, are masters of the passive-aggressive attack. Half the time they don’t even know they’re doing it, it’s all muscle memory.

“It does seem a bit impractical,” I said. “I mean, if you get in a fight, it’s an easy thing to grab onto and yank you off balance, isn’t it?”

Gideon’s eyes flashed, but not with irritation or offence. He seemed amused.

“Not at all. Why don’t you try?” He jutted his chin forward, presenting his beard.

Not one to turn down a free beard tug, I grabbed it and pulled. The beard came away in my hand, all of it. Not the way a false beard would come off — this was a real beard growing out of his face — it ripped out. There was a gasp from the others like a magic trick had just been performed. A very weird trick.

There was no blood, just a beard in my hand and a freshly shaved Gideon.

And then, as I watched, the beard grew back.

It sprouted out of his face. At the same time, it grew on his head, filling in the non-Mohican bits until he had a full head of hair which elongated, glossy and luxurious, down to his shoulders

This was his ability? He could grow hair at will? My ability was starting to look a lot better all of a sudden.

“I know it isn’t the flashiest of abilities,” said Gideon, “but we can’t all be supermen.”

Maybe I’d misjudged him. He was handling it very well, all things considered. If that had been my power, I’d be complaining day and night. Well, I’d put it into the rotation.

“Ooh,” said Flossie. “That’s the best power anyone could have. Ah’m so jealous.” Her own hair was red and frizzy, so her comment was understandable.

With a quick twist, Gideon turned his flowing locks into a man-bun. He produced a clip from somewhere and fixed it in place. You could easily have believed a team of stylists had worked for hours to get his hair to look like that.

Now the atmosphere changed. The air was charged with animosity as the girls in the room looked at him with envy. No one should be allowed to have such manageable, tangle-free hair. It was an affront to women everywhere. All he had to do was unclip his hair and shake it free to settle into sleek magnificence, and war would be declared.

“Here,” I said, giving Flossie Gideon’s beard. “Take this to Mrs Somya, maybe she can knit you a wig out of beard hair.”

Of course, I had other reasons for wanting the hair to go to Mrs Somya, but Flossie was welcome to whatever was left over.

“The rest of you, clear out, too. I want to speak to Gideon in private.”

They all filed out, looking at me with various levels of distrust, and then at Gideon’s hair with various levels of anger at the injustice.

It wasn’t just to avoid hostilities that I asked them to leave, I also felt he was playing to the crowd a bit. It would be much easier for him to say what he thought, in a way that reflected his opinion of me, if others weren’t around to see it.

I also felt more comfortable that his power wouldn’t be a threat, not as long as I had my sword handy and could shave him before he rubbed his beard on me and gave me a nasty rash.

“Alright,” I said. “What is it you want?”

“Look,” said Gideon, “I think it really would be of benefit to us all if we joined forces. These fairies, they don’t sound like they plan to make life fun for any of us. From what I understand, they’re real purists, only true fairies will be tolerated, we’re the master race, that sort of crap. Our only hope is to work together to bring them down.”

He made a lot of good points. I also considered the fairies to be a menace. But they weren’t the only ones to worry about.

“What about Peter?” I said. “He’s just as crazy as the Fairy Queen.”

“He’s busy trying to crack the mystery of the spires. Quite frankly, I don’t think he’s got a chance in hell. He’s been trying all these years and where has it got him? Has anything changed? Does he have any new answers? No. Far better for us if we leave him to it and try to avoid a fairy occupation of the cities.”

Did I believe him? No. But what was his plan? Just to stall for time while Peter made his preparations? Or just get me in a position where they could deal with me in a manner of their choosing?

“Well, it’s an interesting idea,” I said. “I didn’t think you’d be willing to work under my control.”

“What? No, no, we would have to choose the leader between us, both groups combined. Democratically, of course.”

“Why would I agree to that?” I said. “I already have all the power. What reason is there to give it up to a vote?”

“Because it’s the fair thing to do,” said Gideon.

I think the one thing you can say about the human race is that we know what’s right. Our whole culture is built on art, whether it’s books or movies or whatever, where we tell each other the correct answer to a range of morally complex predicaments in great detail.

If you ask people what the right thing to do, they will know the correct answer, all of them. If you ask them. If they have to actually take action, then that’s a whole other story.

Life is a multiple choice test, here are all the answers. Wait, why did you select none of them?

The weird thing is, people are capable of doing the right thing. It not only doesn’t do them any harm, it usually turns out to be very beneficial for them. But they can’t help thinking the other options sounds like they would be better. And then they vote for the good-looking liar with dodgy sexual peccadilloes. Always the peccadilloes.

People can’t be trusted to do what’s in their own best interest. I know it’s condescending, but the weight of history is on my side. The problem is the people in charge can’t be trusted even more.

It’s not like people are inherently evil. When it was suggested that plastic bags were fucking up the environment, everyone accepted it as true. When the government encouraged shoppers to reuse old bags rather than just take more free ones, we all agreed to try our hardest. But it’s not always that easy. You forget, you’re busy, you never have the bags in the car when you need them.

And then they said no more free bags, 10p for each one if you don’t bring your own, and suddenly everyone’s memories improved overnight.

The problem isn’t evil. The problem is lack of giving a shit until it affects you directly.

“If the majority choose you, so be it,” said Gideon. “I can live with it. But I’m a capable leader. I’ve kept my people alive up until now. All of them.”

“What about Roona?” I asked.

His face clouded over. She had come with us to Monsterland, as Cheng’s prospective bride (and assassin). She hadn’t come back.

“Missing in action doesn’t mean dead,” he said.

“Dead doesn’t mean dead around here,” I pointed out. “To be honest with you, Gideon, I’m not interested in what anyone else has to say, or in what’s fair. If people want to follow me, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s okay, too, as long as they stay out of my way.”

“Okay. This was always a long shot, but I thought it was worth a try.” Gideon stood up. “Gullen warned me to not come here. Said it would be the end of me. To be honest with you, Colin, I’m not used to being underestimated. I suppose it will have to be the hard way.”

I stood up as well, and then was yanked off my feet. The world turned upside down. It took a moment for me to grasp the situation. I was hanging in the air with my feet bound together. There were longs strands of hair wrapped around my ankles. They were thick and matted and snaked out from the bottom of Gideon’s trousers. I could only surmise they were an extension of his pubic hair.

Hair was in my mouth, blocking my airways. I gagged.

I tried to leave my body, but I couldn’t. There was an odd prickly sensation throughout my body. It didn’t hurt but it made the hairs on my arms and neck stand up. Some kind of static electricity? Whatever it was, it was disrupting my ability to slip into the adjacent world.

I had thought Gideon was being overconfident, which was exactly what an overconfident person would think.

Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.

Afterword from Mooderino
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