333: On the Stump
I’d had to face a lot of difficult things during my time in this world. Monsters. Disasters. Unpleasant people. Mostly unpleasant people.
Many of them were very stressful and panic-inducing encounters. But none came close to arranging a party for a hundred guests.
What’s the theme? Should there be plates, or are napkins enough? What about music? DJ or band? It’s a nightmare. At least I didn’t have to worry about providing a veggie option.
As hard as it may be to believe, I hadn’t been invited to many parties in my life. And I’d never thrown one before. The idea of sending out all the invites, and then waiting for the guests to arrive. And waiting. And waiting.
It’s a terrifying concept, the evidence of your own worthlessness. I mean, you can suspect all you want, but being handed the proof...
And now here I was, fretting over lack of ingredients. How would I ever live down the embarrassment of running out of vol-au-vents?
“What happened?” I said. “I thought we were above eating people.” There’s a statement I wouldn’t have guessed I’d have to make.
“Ah, actually,” said Damicar, “my fault. I needed some tasters to help me get the acidity levels right. It’s a very careful balance. I’m using a subtle blend of sea salt and crab juice; It’s been described as very morish. Royn’s leg was snapped up before I knew it.”
He held out a wooden tray made from a piece of driftwood. There were small strips of crispy flesh on it. The smell hit me and I had to force my hands to stay by my side.
I glanced over at the men and caught a couple of them licking their lips. They dropped their heads and refused to make eye-contact with me.
We were a whole leg down, and the party hadn’t even started yet. Meanwhile, the shark carcass was lying on the beach hacked to pieces. Why hadn’t they eaten that?
“What’s wrong with you?” I shouted. “We’re supposed to be saving Royn for the guests. There’s plenty of fish. If you were hungry, you could have stuck a bit of shark in the fire.” I turned to Damicar. “You could add a bit of crab juice to make it taste the same, couldn’t you?” I was feeling like I was the only one who understood what was at stake. Us, served as steak.
“No, sorry.” Damicar wrung his hands apologetically. “On closer inspection, this particular leviathan of the sea has a number of poisonous sacs throughout its body. Not an issue, normally — easy to remove —but I’m afraid the men didn’t realise when they began carving her up. Most of it’s been rendered useless. No one’s fault, just one of those things.” His grin was more a grimace, and his face turned red.
No one had anything to say. I’d gone from general of an army, to irate teacher at a nursery for naughty boys demanding to know who spilled the juice.
The thing about shame, useful as it is, was it could easily get out of hand.
Most people handle doing things they’re ashamed of by keeping it secret.
They might, if it gets hard to keep it under wraps, try to recruit others, so they can at least spread the blame around. Nothing beats having someone else to point at when you get caught.
And if there seems to be no way to keep things on the QT, there’s always good old fashioned conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Nobody wants to own up and take their deserved punishment. I don’t know when it happened, but honour really fell out of fashion. Got replaced by something cheaper and easier to clean.
I was being a bit hard on these guys, but my previous experiences in charge had taught me to go hard and go early. No point gently trying to persuade people to do things your way if eventually you were going to end up having to shout and scream at them. Might as well start with screaming and miss out the middleman.
But that was when I’d been dealing with clueless noobs. It only served to cause resentment if you tried the same thing on people who had been doing just fine until you turned up. And it might even appear the only difference between when things were going well to when they weren’t was you getting involved.
The sailors were looking miserable, and we still had a full night’s entertaining to do.
I just needed to calm everyone down, including myself. There was no need to get all worked up. We just had to do a good job of showing the islanders that we could work with them towards a better future for everyone. Not something that looked very likely if we were fighting amongst ourselves.
“Let me put it in context for you,” I said, “There’s nothing wrong with eating Royn. He’s delicious, we all know Damicar’s did a great job.” There were nods, which at least meant they were listening. “But if we don’t stay focused on why we’re throwing this party, then we will not find ourselves fighting for our right to live free and unmarinated, but which of us gets to be soup of the day, and who gets to be one of the chef’s specials. Either we fight as a team or we will die as individuals — by which I mean individual portions on a buffet table.”
Normally, I would give a rousing speech, and everyone would cheer and jump to it with certain victory within their grasp. Possibly I was confusing my life with a movie where an American sports coach leads his team of misfits to the championship finals. Either way, this lot weren’t buying it. Hollywood had let me down again, just like with those two crappy Matrix sequels, only with better special effects.
Being a party organiser was turning out to be much harder than I’d expected. I couldn’t even organise a few chips and dips. Basically, if I couldn’t run away or surprise attack someone when they weren’t looking, my chances of accomplishing anything were slim to none. Why was I even trying?
“Did anyone eat the fish?” I tried to force myself to chill out. I tried — but failed — to keep my voice steady; it wavered in my ears, and I was awash with an abrupt feeling of self-contempt. No one answered. “The poisoned fish. Did anyone eat any of it?”
“Yes,” said Damicar. “Show him.”
The men reluctantly shuffled to the side, and revealed one sailor sitting with his back to the wall, his face pale and clammy. He was sweating and trembling.
“They didn’t want to tell you,” said Damicar.
I walked over to the man whose head was lolling from side to side. He was delirious, lucky bastard. I recognised him. He was the one whose vines I had cut off, as an experiment.
I had a quick look at him from the other side. His vines were still shorn. Did that mean he was suffering less right now? My whole trial and error approach to magic left a lot to be desired.
“There’s no cure,” said Damicar.
“Yeah, there is,” I said, and I healed him.
It took quite a bit of effort, and my hair was down to my shoulders after I finished, but the man was saved. He thanked me profusely, but I wasn’t really listening. I was disappointed in how I had handled all of this. Nothing so far was going smoothly. I didn’t even know what I was trying to achieve. Win the hearts and minds of a bunch of cannibals to find some magic trinkets?
It would be better to find a way off this island, and then return Wesley back to where I found her. She’d be better off.
It’s all very well deciding you’re going to get your shit together and make that concerted effort to attain your goals like they tell you to do in self-help books, but it’s only the one or two who fluke a good ending that write those books. The rest of us have to live with our failure.
The universe loves a winner, just not too many of them. It even sets up the game to encourage you to try. If it can be done, there’s an example to prove it. You could be next! If it can’t be done, there’s no evidence. You could be destined to be world’s first!
“Sorry about that boss,” said one of the sailors. “Won’t happen again.”
They helped up their cured mate, and set to work without any more fuss. I could tell they were really putting their backs into it.
Kindness to win people over? It was a dangerous precedent to set.
“I still need those herbs,” said Damicar.
“We’ll take care of it,” said another sailor. “Leave it to us.”
By the time the first guests arrived, I was somewhere between seriously worried and cautiously optimistic, which isn’t as broad an area as you might think.
The islanders were in their evening wear, formal loincloths and the latest in designer spears. Apparently they had come ready to help with the after-party clean up.
The president was the first to arrive, bringing with him a barrel of wine. He even had cups. Already relegated to second best host at my own do.
They came through the tunnel in twos, which was as many as could fit through at a time. It would have been the perfect time to deal with them, but my reputation as a host might never recover.
I still needed their help in opening the shrine. If things didn’t go our way, then I’d have to consider other options, but I had decided on the path of diplomacy and taboo crudites, so here we were.
“Thanks for not attacking and eating us, Mr President.” I had been working on my opening line, and this felt like it captured the right balance of politeness and horror for an early evening cocktail party.
“No problem,” said the president. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
I had used my magic to light the cove with a number of coloured globes. It looked pretty swanky.
Sailors walked around with trays of food. Damicar had gone out of his way to make everything look appealing. The colours and smells were vivid and appetising. The islanders were suitably impressed. Now I just had to win them over with my charm and sophistication.
I felt very awkward. A fight to the death at least didn’t require small talk.
“So, you’re just president for today?”
“That’s right. Until the sun comes up, then my successor takes over. That’s her, there.” He pointed at a woman laughing while chatting with Damicar, a cocktail sausage on a stick in her hand. And when I say cocktail…
“Everyone gets a vote do they?” I asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “Old and young alike. We are a very fair society, once you get to know us.”
“Can’t be easy to get things done in just a day,” I said. “Voting on everything...”
“No, it requires quite a lot of organisation and fast-talking during the committee stage.”
“Does that mean you’ll need time to decide what to do with us?”
“Oh no,” he said. “We’ve already taken a preliminary vote. We should be able to come to a decision by the end of the night. You really should circulate a bit more. The undecideds are the ones with yellow ribbons on their arms.”
I looked around. There were a surprising amount of people with yellow material wrapped around their upper arms.
“Oh. If you’ll excuse me.” Here was my chance. The targets were all lined up and ready, I just had to work them with my silver tongue, convince them it was in their best interests to not make us their breakfast fry up. Colin-Fu to the rescue.
I made my way to the first one, a young woman.
It was horrible. I was tongue-tied, rambling, making no sense.
How do you convince someone not to eat you? How do you even break the ice? Ask if babies taste best? Test for freshness by squeezing it like fruit?
As she made her excuses and walked away to talk to someone she said she had to say hello to, she slipped the yellow ribbon off her arm. I realised arranging the party had been the easy part.
“Would you like a little help?” asked Wesley.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I let her take the controls, and sank into the background where I belonged.
She was great. Magnificent, even. Chatty, charming, interested in what people had to say, no matter how retarded. She would get them talking about the things that concerned them, and then suggest ways in which we could help fix the problem.
She didn’t just work on the people with the yellow armbands, she went round talking to everyone. It was very impressive. She was a better me than me, by a mile.
I sat in her chair, watching. Little me was on the sofa. Neither of us spoke. We both knew we were out of our depth in this particular match-up.
By the end of the evening, there was an air of warmth and bonhomie around the party. Royn was all gone. People had besieged Damicar, asking for various recipes. Even the crew seemed to be relaxed and at ease.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” said the president. Everyone turned to face him. “I’d like to thank our hosts for what’s been, and I think I speak for all of us, a truly wonderful night. To new friends.” He raised his cup.
“To new friends,” joined in everyone.
“Now, there’s just the small matter of the vote.”
“I think it’s pretty even,” said Wesley, returning to me in the dimly lit nook of my mind she had made her temporary home. “A few who could still go either way. You should get out there for the final decision.”
“You don’t want to see it through to the end?” I said. Which felt like the decent thing to do — she deserved the credit for making this a close-run thing — but it made me feel even more pathetic admitting it.
“We all have our strengths and weaknesses,” she said. She even managed to make it not sound like she wasn’t just saying it to be nice. “Go on. Be ready to fight your way out if it goes against us.”
It was the most cheerful warning against cannibals you could ever hope to get. She really was a decent person. If she ended up betraying me later — and let’s face it, chances were sky-high on that one — I wouldn’t even be mad.
“All those in favour of eating our new friends?” said the president in a rousing, slightly tipsy voice, as he raised his own hand.
Lots more hands went up, but not all. Not by a long shot.
Another sea of hands. The crew had theirs up the highest. I almost forgot to raise mine.
There was a slight pause.
“Oh,” said the president. “It seems to be extremely close. Those for, again.”
I put mine as down as far as I could. The fors put their hands back up. The president counted with his eyes.
“Yes, absolutely even. My, my.” The president turned to me. “Well, I don’t know what to… My mistake, I missed one.” He pointed behind me.
I turned around to see Damicar with his hand up.