It was some time after midnight before Michael and I returned to the bar of The Hotel Majestic, still no closer to striking inspiration in terms of finding something to barter for our inter-dimensional travel drive repairs. I was undoubtedly beginning to warm to the idiosyncratic delights of Marksville home-brewed alcohol, and there had certainly been plenty more of it on offer on the way back, but in none of its many textures, tastes or colours could it be said to particularly lend itself to clear thinking.
With most of the population still out on the streets celebrating the armistice the bar was empty but for two lone figures who, on closer inspection, turned out to be none other than our fellow railway passengers, the businessman and the accountant. They were both hunched morosely over the bar with a half-empty bottle of the hotel’s cloudy concoction resting between them. “Drink?” offered the accountant in a peculiarly glum tone as we approached.
Thinking that it would be rude not to, Michael and I both signalled our acceptance and pulled up a couple of bar stools alongside.
“Is everything alright?” I asked, somewhat puzzled by the distinctly funereal atmosphere.
“Oh yes, fine,” replied the accountant. “Only, well I suppose you must’ve heard – they’re planning on signing a peace treaty in the morning.”
Michael and I both regarded him curiously. “You wouldn’t rather they remained at war, would you?” asked Michael in surprise.
“Naturally I would,” answered the accountant. “Why else do you think I came to Marksville?”
“You came to Marksville because there’s a war on?” I said, baffled.
“Of course,” replied the accountant as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Catching our continued looks of bewilderment he added, “Surely you’ve realised what I do by now?”
I gazed back at the spectacles, the tank top, the neat side parting. “Well, it did occur to me…” I began.
“I’m an adventurer,” said the accountant.
He nodded sombrely. “Third generation member of the Honourable Company of Adventurers,” he told us. “I’ve been touring the landscape in search of adventure since my early teens.”
The accountant (for, despite his declaration, I found it quite impossible to think of him in any other way) gazed down into his drink and sighed heavily. “Only adventure has been a little hard to come by of late,” he said. “First the great volcano of Nairostan resolutely refused to erupt when it was supposed to. So I pressed on to the French Revolution, only to find they were packing up their guillotines by the time I arrived. And then the highly promising Schmalkaldic Uprising fizzled out almost before it had started.”
He swallowed a mouthful of booze. “I really thought I was onto a winner with Marksville though,” he continued. “A city under siege, daily bombardment, dwindling supplies… It sounded perfect.” His eyes held a momentary gleam of excitement before he subsided into another heavy sigh. “But we’ve been here less than 24 hours and suddenly the Viborg are suing for peace. Who’d have thought that could happen?”
Knowing as I did the reasons behind the Viborg’s sudden desire to sue for peace, I felt a guilty flush rising in my cheeks but remained silent.
“They’ll be revoking my Adventurer’s badge if things don’t pick up soon,” moaned the accountant wistfully.
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” insisted Michael heartily. “And peace isn’t such a bad thing when you think about it.” He turned cheerfully to the businessman seated alongside him for support but received only a sour scowl in response. There were no prizes for guessing the reasons for his grumpy mood – you could hardly after all expect an arms dealer to endorse the virtues of peace.
The conversation, not entirely unexpectedly, lulled somewhat after this as Michael and I fell to silently sipping our drinks alongside the unhappy pair. It had yet to pick up again by the time Mo unexpectedly appeared in the room a little while later.
“Hi Mo,” I called out cheerily, grateful to see a fresh face.
Mo had entered with the air of someone searching for something and her face registered an expression of relief when she caught sight of us. However, having hurried over to the bar, she then hovered awkwardly by our party as if struck by a sudden shyness.
“Enjoying the celebrations?” I asked by way of conversation.
“Oh yes. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Mo replied.
“Fancy a drink?” asked Michael.
There followed another awkward pause.
“I wondered if I might have a word with you,” Mo finally said to me.
“Of course,” I replied.
“In private,” added Mo hesitantly.
“Oh yeah, sure.”
I slithered down from my barstool and Mo led the way across the room, nervously at first but gradually striding out more confidently as she went. We headed out of the bar and turned down the corridor and still I followed blithely behind. Probably, I thought, Mo had run into some pimply youth out in the crowds and was after a bit of big-sisterly advice on the ins and outs of young love. Even after we’d turned more than one corner and weaved our way down what felt like a mile of empty corridor into the very bowels of the hotel it never occurred to me to question our eventual destination.
It was only in fact when we came to the end of a very long, very dark passage and Mo stopped in front of a thick, steel door being guarded by two bulky chaps in green armbands that I felt the first spasm of concern. This did not seem after all to be the ideal set up for the passing on of romantic advice. Acknowledging our approach, the guards stepped aside. Mo indicated the door and offered me a vaguely embarrassed smile. “You’re to go straight in,” she advised.
I stared uncertainly at the door for several seconds before cautiously turning the handle and stepping into the room beyond.
The door opened onto a small windowless office containing just a desk and two chairs. Sitting patiently behind the desk, looking for all the world as though he had been waiting there all night, was none other than Fitz. “Thank-you for coming,” he said as the door automatically clanged shut behind me. “Please sit down.”
I hesitated just a moment before taking the chair opposite. Fitz continued to regard me in that unhurried manner of his for a moment or two longer before he spoke again. “I have a very important question that I am obliged to put to you Miss Everingham,” he finally said. “Are you the individual who released the argentabugs onto the plains?”
I finally breathed out and relaxed a little in my chair. This was not an altogether unexpected inquiry. Ever since our encounter with Ash it had occurred to me that sooner or later Fitz would put two and two together and figure out who was behind the Viborg’s little insect problem. I may even have devoted a few thoughts as to how I might react to the inevitable outpouring of gratitude that would naturally greet this discovery. On the whole I felt it behoved me to act at all times with a certain modest dignity. All offers of parades, awards or ceremonial triumphs should, I felt, be graciously rejected. Well, alright, if pushed I might just accept some sort of small decoration but I would absolutely draw the line at any statues being erected.
So it was that I smiled modestly and replied, “Yes, that was me.”
Somewhat to my surprise Fitz sighed and shook his head sadly. “Oh dear,” he said. “I rather hoped that wasn’t the case.”
“I suppose I ought to explain,” said Fitz. “Earlier this evening I received details from the Viborg of the conditions they wish to stipulate regarding the peace negotiations in the morning.” He hesitated for a moment. “They have in fact just one primary clause they wish to apply. Before they will conclude any treaty with the city of Marksville they insist we surrender to them the individual responsible for the infestation of argentabugs on the plains.”
“Surrender?” I said, my booze-infused brain not quite yet caught up. “Whatever for?”
“That they haven’t yet stipulated but I assume the general idea is that they want to have you executed,” answered Fitz.
“Have you put to death,” added Fitz, apparently unsure whether or not I might understand the term ‘executed’.
It wasn’t however the meaning of the word that I was having trouble with. “But… how come?” I spluttered.
“The Viborg claim that the introduction of argentabugs onto the field of battle is a gross violation of the Combatants Code and cannot be allowed to go unpunished,” explained Fitz calmly. “They are accusing you of introducing illegal biological warfare to the conflict.”
“But I haven’t got anything to do with their stupid code,” I protested. “I’m not even a Combatant – I was just riding on a train.”
“You have to understand that the Viborg are a proud military race,” advised Fitz patiently. “To be obliged to sign a peace treaty, any kind of peace treaty, counts as a gross humiliation for them. They need a sop to their honour and I’m afraid they feel they’ve found one with you.”
“I didn’t even know I was carrying argentabugs,” I objected. “And anyway, it was the Viborg who insisted I open the damn box in the first place.”
“Perhaps you can take that up with them in the morning,” suggested Fitz lightly. “Though I’m not hopeful it will actually get you anywhere.”
“You’re not really planning to go along with this, are you?” I said, glaring disbelievingly at him.
Fitz gazed down at the desk for a moment. “You have to see this from my point of view,” he replied. “I’ve been authorised to negotiate on behalf of the city and I have to think of what’s best for her people. If I reject these Viborg terms they’ll not only resume their bombardment, they’ll probably redouble it. They’ll do everything in their power to flatten this whole city and everyone who lives in it.”
“But surely, while they’re being attacked by bugs…” I began hopefully.
“Oh I’m sure those bugs will do at least some damage to the Viborg cause,” conceded Fitz. “But it may not be enough.” He sighed again. “The truth of the matter is that this city has been at war for almost six months now and, no matter how hard we try to make the best of it, there’s no denying that our resistance is beginning to wear pretty thin. Any fool can see that the Viborg will have finished us off long before the bugs could ever finish them off.”
“But I mean… to surrender me to execution?” I stuttered.
“And what would you have me do instead?” demanded Fitz. “Should I sacrifice the whole of the city in the cause of just one life? One life that probably won’t be worth much once the Viborg bombardment starts up again anyway? Is that what you’re asking?”
Not feeling altogether equipped to wrestle with that particular moral dilemma just at the moment, I said instead, “So that’s it, is it?”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Do you know what I used to do before this war started?” Fitz suddenly asked somewhat unexpectedly. “What my job on the council was?” He didn’t wait for me to conjure up a suggestion. “Highway maintenance,” he told me. “I was in charge of pot holes, traffic jams and loose paving stones.”
“A very worthwhile occupation,” I muttered, a touch sarcastically.
“But not one that particularly fits a man with the qualities of leadership,” continued Fitz without a hint of rancour. “You may not believe me but I never had any particular desire to be in charge. Even when I called that first meeting in Central Square I wasn’t looking to be anyone’s leader. I just thought people had a right to know what was being done behind their backs.”
“And yet here you are,” I said.
“Here I am.”
“Marksville’s saviour. That’s what everyone thinks, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” replied Fitz with a weary smile. “But I’m afraid the truth of the matter is that I’m tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of being responsible for everyone and everything. At the end of the day all I really want is for the whole thing to be over and I’ll quite happily go back to worrying over pot holes and broken traffic lights.”
There was another pause.
“I suppose there’s nothing more to be said then,” I sighed.
“I suppose not,” replied Fitz. He rose slowly from his chair. “I must warn you that the guards on the door are under orders that you must on no account be allowed to leave this room until I send for you,” he announced. “And you’ll find that the people here are at least very good at following orders.”
“I’m sure they are.”
“But Mo will be waiting outside in case there is anything you should need,” he added in a brighter tone. “Sadly, supplies in our city are still somewhat restricted but you are welcome to anything that Marksville can provide.”
“A traditional hearty meal for the condemned prisoner?” I said with a raised eyebrow.
“Something like that,” conceded Fitz wryly. He paused for a moment with his hand on the door handle and turned back to me. “I am sorry things have had to turn out this way,” he said earnestly. And then he slipped swiftly out of the door, leaving me to deal with both the prospect a terrible fate in the morning and a rapidly blossoming hangover.
To be continued…