“I should probably introduce myself,” said the small and frightening man. “I am Gullen Santan, Administrator in charge of Road Maintenance and Planning. A general dogsbody, if you will, to Her Highness Queen Zarigold. But please, call me Gullen.”
He made it sound like he had a lowly clerical position operating out of some back office. I didn’t believe it for a second.
He raised his hand high over his head and twirled a finger. A large carriage pulled by four horses came thundering out of the gates towards us. The driver appeared to be a child in a black velvet coat and a top hat.
“All aboard,” said Gullen Santan cheerfully. “Tomorrow you can explore the city and find yourselves suitable accommodations and whatnot, but for tonight, at least, you will be my guests. The best food, the softest beds and a hot bath. Chop, chop.”
He held open the carriage door and we all filed in. Possibly to our deaths, but he made it all sound so appealing none of us would have cared if he’d said, “Come along children. Lollipops, ice cream, chocolates. All free today,” while ringing a small bell.
He closed the door after us.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” I asked through the small window in the door.
“The life of a minor bureaucrat is ever-busy. I shall join you later. Until then, Biadet will see to all your needs. Biadet!”
There was the crack of a whip and we were thrown into our seats as the carriage set off. You might think seven in a carriage would be a tight fit, but we had four on one side, three on the other and still plenty of space to bounce around as we thundered through the streets.
“Did he say his name was Santan or Satan?” asked Maurice over the clatter of hooves.
“I’m not sure it makes much of a difference,” I shouted back.
We got a rather hasty tour of the city with us all squeezing our heads together to get a look out of the twelve by twelve opening on either side of the carriage. The streets were cobbled, like the ones in Fengarad, but the sidewalks were paved and full of people in much fancier clothes. And the buildings were much more colourful.
Streaks of bright reds and yellows flashed by. Pink and blue and green. Someone had invented the paint grenade and tossed them around liberally.
We also got to see the castle in the centre of the city, but only through the gaps between buildings. It turned out not to be built on top of a hill after all. It was built on top of a pyramid. Or a ziggurat—one of those pyramids with stepped terraces. The kind ancient civilisations would drag sacrificial victims to the top of to be beheaded.
It took us ten minutes to get to a more suburban part of the city with beautiful tree-lined boulevards. A few minutes later we were spraying small stones on a long gravel drive that led up to a large mansion. Quite a swanky residence for someone in road planning and maintenance. We came to a skittering stop and the carriage door was flung open.
We clambered out, still a bit wobbly from the bone-rattling journey, to find ourselves alone. The driver had disappeared and the horses were unattended. We looked at each other, wondering what we should do.
“Maybe someone should knock on the door?” suggested Claire. Everyone agreed this was a good idea. Nobody actually moved towards the door though.
Before I could take my usual role of meat shield, the door to the mansion opened and a small maid stood there. “This way, please.” She was petite, about the same size as the driver. Did Gullen only employ children?
There was thirty seconds of oohs and ahs after we entered the house. The huge winding staircase, the chandelier, the enormous paintings that filled the walls—it was all very impressive.
“I will show you to your rooms.” The maid headed up the stairs with us in line behind her.
“What’s your name, by the way?” I thought it was only polite to ask.
The maid stopped halfway up, making everyone bump into each other. She turned, her bobbed hair swishing like curtains, and gave me a quizzical look. “Biadet.”
“Oh,” I said. “The same as the driver.”
She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Obviously.”
She set off again. It took me a moment to realise she was the driver and, apparently, a quick change artist.
Biadet led us down a long, portrait lined corridor. The paintings were all of incredibly austere-looking men in uniform. The type who never approved of anything, certainly not wasting time sitting for a portrait.
We stopped at a door and Biadet indicated who was to go on in by pointing and saying, “You. You. In.” She seemed to know our arrangements. Flossie and Dudley were in one room, Maurice and Claire in another. Jenny got stuck with Mandy. Which left me.
We came to the last door. “This is you. I will come collect you when it is time to eat. You may clean up and relax until then. Or not. I don’t care.” She turned around and sauntered off.
I entered the biggest bedroom I’d ever been in. The bed was a four-poster the size of a small country. The windows were floor-to-ceiling and led out onto a balcony overlooking a manicured lawn with shrubbery in the shape of animals.
But the award for most amazing sight of the day went to the bathroom. A sunken bath that could have fitted four people easily, and a toilet. A proper toilet with a flush. I ran a bath, stripped off, and took a massive naked dump. Heaven.
After I finished bathing—I would have stayed in there longer but my skin was beginning to change texture to corrugated iron—I returned to the bedroom to find a set of clothes laid out on the bed. They looked like black silk pyjamas, but a little more sturdy. It was something a James Bond villain might wear for a Netflix binge.
I was happy to wear something other than my dusty leathers, and put them on. Comfy. It was hard to resist sliding my hands all over myself. Things could have got quite steamy, but there was a knock on the door. Can’t even get lucky with myself.
Biadet was at the door, alone. She indicated for me to follow her. At first, I thought we were going to pick up the others, but we were headed in a completely different direction. Down some stairs, through a hallway and into a dining room with a gigantic table that seated at least twenty.
Gullen was sitting at the head of the table. I was shown to a seat on his right. He was dressed in an identical outfit to me. I don’t know if you’ve ever had dinner with someone who’s dressed exactly the same as you, but it’s odd.
“You must be ravenous. Biadet, serve the soup, please.”
“What about the others?” I asked.
“Oh, they’ve already started. They’re in the main dining room. I thought it would be nice for us to have a little cosy get together on our own.” His voice echoed around the ‘cosy’ little room. “Get to know each other a bit better.” He smiled.
Most people, the more time you spend with them, the more comfortable you feel around them. This was the opposite.
Biadet appeared with a bowl of soup which she placed on the table in front of me. It took me a second to realise she had changed outfits again. She was now in a tux with tails and looked like a bijou butler.
She leaned across me, picked up a spoon and used it to ladle some soup. I thought she was going to feed me but the spoon went in her own mouth.
She produced a cloth from a pocket and wiped the spoon before placing it back on the table. Then she fetched a carafe and poured some wine into the glass, which she proceeded to drink.
“Ahh. Nice.” She wiped the rim of the glass and then refilled it.
“What is she doing?” I asked.
“Biadet always tastes the food and drink to assure guests that they aren’t poisoned,” said Gullen. “We’ve had some… unfortunate incidents in the past. Please, enjoy.”
I picked up the spoon. I was starting to understand Sonny’s reluctance to attend. Which reminded me he was invited to this soiree too. Was he with the others? Not that I had time to worry about it now. I tasted the soup; it was pretty good. I left the wine alone. I had a feeling I’d need to keep my wits about me.
I noticed that Gullen didn’t have any food in front of him. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Oh, no. I never eat in public. Far too risky. Now, Colin, I must tell you I’ve been keeping an eye on all the visitors in this latest batch, but you are by far the most intriguing.”
“Fanksh,” I said through a mouthful of bread. The bread roll already had a chunk missing before it was placed in front of me.
“I would have put money on you not making it past the first week, but you really surprised me.”
Fair comment. I’d have made the same bet myself.
“The vast majority of visitors never even make it out of Probet. It’s a harsh introduction to our world, but it’s effectiveness at separating the wheat from the chaff is beyond question. The true heroes always come through. And then there was you.”
Was I being insulted? Hard to tell. I didn’t really mind. The roast chicken (I’m guessing that’s what it was) in front of me was too delicious to worry about minor things like backhanded compliments. Just a shame it was such a small portion. I did try to block Biadet from getting a forkful, but she faked me with a right before stabbing herself a juicy slice from the left.
“Nouvelle cuisine,” said Gullen. “We had French visitors before the Australians. Some rather delicious culinary ideas were their only contributions to our culture before they all sadly perished.” He shook his head, although I wasn’t sure if he was mourning the loss of the French guys or the dishes he would never taste.
“And then there was the Mouse King, of course. Even though you caught him in his refractory period, it’s still an impressive achievement. And using it to win the favour of Fengarad was a masterstroke. All by simply refusing to take the glory for yourself. Wonderful. Quite Wonderful.”
“How do you know about the Mouse King?” There didn’t seem any point denying it, he clearly already knew the truth.
“It is my business to know these things. You can’t plan and maintain roads without knowing where they lead. Although, maybe you can. You have a talent, Colin. A talent for finding your way out of trouble, even when the odds are stacked against you.”
“I just look at things from a slightly different perspective,” I said.
“Yes. Yes, you do. Which is why I’m so keen to pick your brain.” He squinted at my head, like he was considering where to make the first incision. “I want you to come work for me.”
I kept eating. Chewing slowly. You don’t turn down a guy like this without facing a few repercussions. I didn’t like repercussions. They probably involved dogs. “What’s the pay like?”
Gullen laughed. “Ah, you’re a shrewd one. You would be amply rewarded, of course. A very attractive benefits package. And the freedom of the city. That would put two keys in your pocket. Not many can say that.”
I put down my knife and fork. “You know, I’m not really a frontline kind of guy. I’m not big or strong, and I don’t enjoy stabbing things.”
“I am the same as you.” God, I hoped that wasn’t true. “It must appear like a world full of savages to you, everyone running around ‘stabbing things’, but we have fighters to fight, and thinkers to think. Someone like your friend Sonny is an excellent warrior. On the battlefield he is a sight to behold. Coming here enabled him to unlock potential he would never have known even existed back in your world. But you are not a fighter. You are very much a thinker. It is the job of men such as you and I to look at the bigger picture and decide how best to use men like Sonny.”
“And what if men like Sonny don’t want to be used?”
“Then we have them publicly flayed and all the other Sonnys become that much more obedient. Win-win.”
Scary dude. But some of his ideas weren’tbad.
AN: Big shoutout to Biadetes, one of my patrons, who chose the reward tier that gets a character in the story named after you. Hope you liked her. She’ll be popping up in the next few chapters too.