“This is the man who will bring us the paradise we all dream of.” Dorma stretched out his hand to indicate the person behind him.
I was also standing behind him. If I stepped forward, it would look like he meant me. I could draw everyone’s attention while Claire and Maurice snuck into the mansion. Everyone would think I was some kind of idiot (again), but I could do it.
I could, but I wasn’t going to. What am I, a fucking idiot?
Jenny nudged me in the back. I arched my shoulder blades to absorb the shove without moving.
“Commander Varg!” Dorma introduced Varg to the crowd who broke into wild cheers. Varg stepped forward, arms raised.
“You could have done it then,” said Claire under her breath as she applauded politely.
“Yeah,” added Maurice, also clapping. For some reason they felt the need to act like they were supporting Varg’s appointment, even though it had nothing to do with us.
“People of Meet,” boomed Varg, “war is come!” Cheers. “The fight for our freedom begins!” More cheering. “I promise you this…”
Cheers, vague claims of imminent triumph, heartfelt gratitude towards those who would give their lives for the cause, blah, blah, jubilant blah.
Maurice leaned closer to me. “We need to get that manual.”
“Why?” I asked. “You already know how to fly the flappy-box, right? It’s like those remote control helicopters you had at home.”
Maurice’s did a hard blink, making his glasses slip down his nose. He pushed them back up. “It’s more than that.” He reached round my back and poked Claire.
“It’s not just the box,” she said. “It’s for all their magic. If we get hold of it, we’ll know how their magic works.”
I’ll admit, it was a reasonable suggestion. Phil had the device that stopped time but getting hold of it wouldn’t mean we’d know how to operate it. And there were any number of other magical artefacts we might come across. As a young male, reading a manual was, of course, anathema to me—just plug it in and let’s see what it does!—but in this case I might have made an exception.
However, there was one slight problem.
“I’m not going to cause a distraction or be your decoy, and neither of you are going anywhere,” I said as Varg raised his fist to unadulterated enthusiasm for whatever bullshit he had just announced to the crowd.
“Why not?” hissed Claire. “You don’t think we can handle it?”
“No, I don’t, but that’s not the reason. What language do you think the book’s written in?”
They both leaned forward and exchanged a look across me; a look clearly indicating they hadn’t considered this.
“We’re on a different world,” I said. “Think how long it took us to learn the last language, and that was after we were gifted a Rosetta Stone.” Technically it was a children’s learn-to-read book, but Rosetta Stone made it sound less dorky. “We’d have to steal the book, learn to read, make sense of what the book said, and then try it out… the fighting would be long over and we’d all be Yuqi’s puppets by then.”
Neither of them said anything. Dorma retook the podium and began another round of Queen at Live Aid. We listened to him fire up the crowd with calls for unity, a demand for the end of tyranny, and a chorus of ‘We Will Rock You.’ Not that I was paying much attention. At least Claire and Maurice had realised they weren’t quite as smart as they’d thought. A perfect time to put the boot in.
“Next time you have a bright idea that involves me,” I said out of the side of my mouth, “take a deep breath, count to ten, and then please go fuck yourselves.”
There was no response, which was unusual for Claire. I’d expect at least some grinding of teeth. I glanced across. There was a tear running down her face.
At first I thought she was using the old female trick of getting upset when you say something horrible—so underhanded—but then I realised she wasn’t even looking at me. Her gaze was fixed on the back of Dorma’s head.
She continued staring straight ahead. “He’s going to kill them all. Men, women, children. He plans to let them all die.”
Another psycho masquerading as a caring leader; not exactly a surprise. I shrugged. “It’s war. That’s what it’s good for. Anyway, it’s not like it matters. They enjoy dying. They’ll just come back to life.”
She slowly turned her head to face me. “No, he’s going to send them to fight the war golems. They’re like huge demons. They eat people. They won’t come back to life. He’s…” Her voice caught in her throat and she winced like a sharp pain was going through her head. “He keeps thinking about how each of them will be torn apart and devoured. He’s looking forward to it.”
She looked like she was about to be sick. She knocked me out of her way as she ran past into Maurice’s arm, taking him by surprise.
“You have to do something,” said a voice in my ear.
If I’d known sex with a girl meant she’d always be on my shoulder telling me what to do, I wouldn’t have bothered. Okay, that’s not true. I’d still have sex with her, but a lot quicker and then I’d make a run for it. After having rid myself of my own conscience, the last thing I needed was a new one with a vagina.
“This has nothing to do with us,” I mumbled into my shoulder. I didn’t want to turn around and look at her in case she tried to hypnotise me, a well-known ability of snakes.
“Do not fear!” shouted Dorma. “I am not asking you to fight an unwinnable fight. We have a secret weapon.”
It was the hush that caught my attention more than the rhetoric. The whole crowd seemed to be holding its breath. I fully expected the secret weapon to be some symbolic sword or ancient prophecy. Anything to get the crowd geed up. The atmosphere was pretty electric, though. Thousands of people all focused on one man is a powerful thing to witness.
“Those of you who have recently risen, know the masters are seeking a sorcerer. A man they fear. A man as powerful as them. That man is here with us now!” He threw his hand towards me and pointed.
I looked to my side. I wasn’t going to fall for the same trick twice; Maurice was holding onto Claire. I looked on the other side; Dudley was holding Flossie. She wasn’t upset, they were just embracing for no reason.
“His name is Colin and he will lead the charge to victory! Colin, say a few words.”
“Break a leg.” I was violently goosed in the left buttock, making me leap up on my toes. While I was off-balance, a shove in the small of my back sent me hurtling forward.
Dorma opened his arms to receive me and clamped me by the shoulders. He planted a firm yet tender kiss on each cheek. It wasn’t enjoyable, although since I’d been kissed by very few people in my life, he still made it into my top five.
“Just show them some of your tricks,” he whispered into my ear, “give the fools some hope to cling to.” He winked at me and then pushed me towards the podium.
I was so thrown by being suddenly called on by name, I forgot to turn around and run away. Instead, I found myself standing behind the stone podium, looking out at a sea of uncertain faces. The silence was unnerving to say the least.
“Er…” I began in a cracked voice. I cleared my throat. “Hello, I’m Colin.” Nothing. “I’m the secret weapon, apparently.”
It was amazing how well my voice carried. The acoustics were great. Not so wonderful were the thousands of cold, hard stares coming the other way. When someone told them they’d be running into the jaws of monsters it was whoops galore and holla holla. I take the stage and not so much as a thanks for coming.
“Of course, I’m not really a secret weapon. If I was, Dorma wouldn’t shout it out in the open where the masters could easily hear about it, not unless he was a complete imbecile.”
I turned to look at Dorma. The smile fell off his face.
“So, ah, General Dorma wants you all to fight the war golems while we sneak in the back, right?” I’d heard enough of what Dorm and Varg had said to get the gist of their plan. “I think that’s a pretty stupid idea.”
A mixture of surprise and confusion spread through the crowd, trickled into the lined-up soldiers, their eyes betraying them as they glanced sideways at each other, and passed all the way to the people behind me.
The tension in my body slowly eased away. The people were not on my side, nobody was happy to see me, but I had their attention completely. They wanted to hear what I was going to say next, and that was enough for me to feel comfortable speaking to so many. I didn’t need their approval or their admiration. I didn’t need anything from them. They needed me.
“Fighting out in the open with no training, women and children, against opponents who are far more powerful than you—the whole thing’s obviously a bad idea. Of course we don’t want you to do that, it was just a test to see if you were committed to the cause.
Where was I going with this? No idea. The crowd began muttering to each other. You’d think they might show a little more enthusiastic about not being the main course for the war golems, but they glared at me like I was the one they weren’t too sure about. Some people don’t know what’s in their own best interest.
“We want to fight,” someone shouted. Voices rang out from all sides as people agreed.
These people had died so many times they thought they would live forever. Other people might be sacrificed, but not them. They deserved to come out the other side with a bright future ahead of them because life is fair and the righteous would prevail. Sure, all the evidence pointed to the opposite being true, but this time, this time it would be different!
What these people needed was a slap in the face.
“Nobody’s asking you to fight,” I said. “They’re asking you to die. And not those little naps you take, I’m talking about proper death you won’t wake up from. Ever. You think you know what it is to die? You have no idea. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
“I don’t believe you,” called out a solitary voice from somewhere at the back.
I ignored the heckler. “I’ve been attacked by fish in the clouds over Dalada. I’ve seen sea monsters glittering in the dark near the bottom of the ocean. And I’ve watched war golems rip men apart until all that was left was a smear. I’ve seen weretics tear off human heads and eat them like grapes. I’ve smelled the burning skin of the Jester’s victims as they were cooked alive.” I was taking some poetic licence but the effect on the crowd was more than worth a little stretching of the truth. They nervously looked around, muttering doubts to each other. “Those are the deaths you can look forward to. If you charge into the Palace of Laughter, your lives will be lost forever… like tears in rain. Is now really the time for you to die?”
More muttering, still no reaction indicating they understood what I was telling them.
“I asked you a question. Do you want to die?”
I waited. There was a long pause and then the same voice at the back came drifting over the heads of the crowd. “No, not really.”
“Okay. Good. Here’s what I want you to do. What we need is a distraction, and while a massacre is very distracting, another way to make sure the masters’ attention is on you instead of us is for you to hold a massive party.”
Nobody said anything. The general atmosphere was one of, “Go on…”
“Just the wildest, craziest, noisiest party throughout the whole city. Music, dancing, as loud as you can. The masters will send war golems to investigate, but you aren’t doing anything wrong, so dance the night away. General Dorma will take care of the rest, assisted as always by Commander Varg. They will take all the risks, all the danger. You guys just keep throwing those shapes.”
It was, admittedly, a stupid plan. Stupid like a fox. If it didn’t pan out and the whole thing turned into a disaster, at least they’d had a party.
Slowly, people began looking around, lifting an eyebrow, shrugging a shoulder. If it was an important part of the plan, would it be so terrible? No harm in trying…
Someone grabbed me by the collar and I was violently yanked away from the podium.
“Plans are still being finalised,” shouted Dorma with such ferocity, the first three rows were startled backwards and sent a ripple of jostling into the ranks behind them. “You will be informed of your roles over the next two days. Be well.” He spun on his heels, his eyes rolling and his nostrils flared. He nodded at Varg, who had me firmly in his clutches, and marched back into the mansion.
The guards hurried to catch up and surround him. I was lifted up by the armpit and danced along on tiptoe, which isn’t a very comfortable way to travel. We were swept along with the entourage of baffled dignitaries and nobles.
Everyone seemed to have somewhere to go as soon as the large doors closed behind us. We were kept moving until we entered a grand room where Dorma was already seated behind a large desk. He had his elbows on the table with hands together, fingertips touching in Bond-villain repose. David stood beside him, face covered, not looking in my direction.
Varg released me from his vice-like grip and gave me a disapproving shake of the head, his other hand was on the pommel of his giant broadsword. The soldiers all left and the door clicked shut.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Dorma asked in a very quiet, very terse voice. It was a bit like Clint Eastwood asking for your opinion on the bullet capacity of .44 magnum.
“Which part are you referring to?” I asked.
Dorma stood up. “Which part?” He was shaking, scalp downwards. “All of it? Why did you tell them to hold a party?”
“Oh that wasn’t my idea,” I said. “I was just following orders from you know who.”
This was my fallback position. Claim it was the Jester’s idea, nothing to do with me. What were they going to do? Call me a liar?
Dorma sat down and opened a drawer in his desk, his piercing blue eyes remaining fixed on me the whole time. He took out a small, wooden cube, intricately carved with swirling grooves. He flipped open the top.
“Oh, Colin,” said a voice, so deep and guttural the little box trembled, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you… first.”