Be Evil, Not Stupid
Negin stood on the hill, looking over the village below. The weight of Be Evil, Not Stupid rested reassuringly in his backpack. Today was the day he'd start his rise to power. Today was the day he would show them; today was the day he would show them all.
Water dripped off the rims of Negin's spectacles. The rain was slow, heavy; the kind that seeped into the tightest woven cloth and leaked into the best made boot. It formed puddles in the packed dirt road that ran through the middle of the village and flowed in rivulets off the poorly thatched roofs of the clapboard buildings. It soaked steadily into the mismatched uniforms of the dozen soldiers who confronted him with leveled guns.
“Already tol ya, I don' see vistors, 'specally wandren vag'bonds like yerself,” the lone swordsman said. His uniform had traces of gold thread at the shoulders. His sword was pitted with rust, and radiated the threat of tetanus.
“Oh, you'll see me, my uncouth friend, and I wasn't asking.” Each syllable dropped into place like a mason's brick, forming a wall of diction and culture. “The only question is how many of your lackeys will die before you bow to me.
” “Wat actent is dat? 'Et's har te unnerstan'. Almos' soun'ed like ye wuz tretonen me.”
“It's called education you fool. And I am not threatening you, I am threatening your regime!”
“Wha? Oh, dat makes dis sef defen ten.” The swordsman grinned evilly, exposing a mouth with more gaps than teeth. “as Burgomaster I ga' te folla te 'legal niceties'.”
“Under my rule, being you is a capital offense,” Negin retorted. “You are manifestly guilty, sentence to be carried out immediately.” Activating the Ionization Sphere, he tossed it in the midst of the uniformed men. Lighting lanced down, playing amid bodies that jerked like marionettes being operated by a spastic puppeteer. Blue after images danced on Negin's vision as his mind chortled with success. A heartbeat and a lifespan later Negin stood alone. The melted remnants of his opponents steamed in the rain and flowed down the street. “Thus the reign of Negin the Great begins!” Negin's voice echoed along the empty streets of the village. “I shall return in three days to accept your fealty. Prepare to receive me with grandeur!”
Negin lay on the floor of his cave, wrapped in every scrap of blanket and shred of clothing he possessed. The shivering was interrupted only by fevered thrashing. His nose was so full of snot it seemed liable to burst out his ears, and his teeth felt parched from a week's worth of incessant mouth breathing. While confronting the Burgomaster on a rainy day had been necessary to overcome the deficiencies of his lightning device, the subsequent head cold had disrupted his schedule badly.
Negin picked his way down the hillside unsteadily, relying on the cane he had cut to prevent a trudging stagger from becoming a tumbling fall. The peasant before him seemed oblivious to Negin's presence, despite Negin's frequent stops to noisily void a nostril. The object holding the peasant's fascination had attracted Negin's attention as well: a tall log wall newly surrounded the village, patrolled by villagers with antiquated blunderbusses and pikes. Negin poked his cane into the peasant's back. “Attempt to fight or flee and I will burn you where you stand.” The only way Negin could immolate anyone was if he soaked the peasant with oil and used the cane for kindling. “What is the meaning of the fortifications? Did the Burgomaster survive and decide to resist me?”
“Naw, thae 'master's dead. He weren't much of a mayor, more a bandit who took who 'un what he wanted.”
“Then who put up the wall?”
“Wiell, you said you'd be back in three days so we made up a real nice feast and took baths for your celebration but then you didn't come and Old Man Whithers decided we shouldn't let the food go to waste so we had a town meeting while we et and decided that 'stead of always being told what to do by others maybe we should try ruling ourselfes so we eclected a town council and they decided to build the wall so we could defend ourselfes."
” Negin's eyes slowly unglazed from the onslaught of oratory. “Very good of them. I shall see their foresight is rewarded after my coronation. Lead me into town, peasant.”
“Umm, I think you were the kind of person the wall was meant to keep out.” She closed her eyes. “Are you goin'ta kill me now?”
“What? No!” Negin was shocked at the thought. Be Evil, Not Stupid had stressed the importance of maintaining a pliant local populace:
'The locals are not your little playthings. They are your tax base, your food source, your soldiery, and the ones who will storm your castle with pitchforks and torches if provoked. If you must be a monstrous tyrant, make your subjects proud you are THEIR monstrous tyrant, and they will conquer the ends of the earth for you.'
The amateurs who had come before had obviously violated this principle, and Negin was now paying the price. “I would not harm you, you are my vassal. I am responsible for you.”
“The Elders say we're responsible for ourselfes now,” the peasant girl replied, opening her eyes. “If you're not goin'ta kill me, may I go? Only it's my night to makes dinner, an' pa gets real angry if it's late.” Negin nodded, and watched as the girl traipsed down the hill. The village would be his. He'd show them. He'd show them all.
Negin lay under the pile of Autumn leaves watching the wagon drovers drink their dinner. If the merchants stayed true to form, they would break camp early to congregate outside the village for a day of trading before moving on.
The liquid glistened damply in the moonlight. It would fade, Negin knew, and be indistinguishable from the wagon's dirt overcoat. As he added the final layer, Negin cursed the need to use his last vial of pheromones as a stimulant. He could summon wild animals, but exerting control required extra effort. Moving to the last wagon, Negin dipped his brush in the jar and began brushing the elixir on the wagon seat.
The caravan stood clustered by the village gate. Negin could hear the angry tone though not the words being shouted by the caravan master. The yelling seemed unusual, but Negin's knowledge of trade was limited to a passage from Be Evil, Not Stupid:
“Just as the blood that flows through the veins gives life to the body, trade is the lifeblood of civilization. An area deprived of trade will whither and collapse, as an extremity deprived of blood will sicken and die. Resist the urge to secrete yourself in a decadent seraglio or laboratory tower: an effective ruler dedicates much time to ensuring the unimpeded flow of ideas, inventory and individuals throughout his land. Thus is the difference between ruling a thriving empire and a desiccated wasteland."
Negin adjusted the tripod legs on the speaker for the Device for Subsonic Fauna Voconation. Flipping a switch, the Device emanated a slight hum and with a rising howl a hordeling pack of wolves erupted from the forest to fall upon the men of the caravan. After a shockingly few frothy minutes the field lay quiet. The caravaners had accounted for quite a few wolves before dying, and the remainder were driven off by the villagers' wild shots. Negin strode away happily. He would have to work to reestablish trade after the village fell to him, but the short term effort presaged a long term reward.
The girl tripped through the forest, head down, eyes intent on the underbrush. With a squeal she dropped to her knees and rummaged through he loam. Placing her prizes in the basket at her side, she tumbled backwards in surprise to see Negin standing before her. "Cor, you gave me such a turn, ye did," she said reproachfully. "
"I will come with you to your village," Negin's stentorian tones rolled through the woodlands. "I will accept their fealty and outlay my plan to reestablish commerce."
"Wiell, ye can come, bu' I don' see tha' thae'll be terrible int'rested. Mos' e'ryone awful busy w' all thae new trade."
"What trade?" The quaver in Negin's voice marred his attempt at omnipotence. "The merchant caravan was destroyed."
"Oh, aye. Twas a group a' slavers which would trade wit' thae old mayor for body parts an' young wimmen. Thae wa' tryin' ta bully thae elders inta continyin thae relationship, bu' thae elders said nay. Thae flesh-merchants wa' t'reatenin' ta raze thae village and enslave e'ryone when thae beesties et 'em." A coy look entered her eyes. "Are ye gonna subject mae ta thae fate worse than death?"
"What? Oh, no, you may leave." Negin's mind was racing when he realized what the girl had said. "Wait, what did you mean, the new trade?"
The girl climbed sulkily to her feet and flounced over to pick up her basket. "Thae wolves kill'd thae slavers but thae carts an' most a' thae horses was untouched. Ol' Man Whithers ha' thae wolves skinned an' he took 'em in a wagon an' sold 'em in thae flatlands. Thae village is plannin' ta use thae gild tae build a win' powered loom 'cause w'out thae wolves tae preditate on thae sheep thea flocks will grow. Thae's e'en talk a' sending the linen, wool an' mutton ta thae big Spring Faire now thae we ha' thae transport."
Negin's mouth formed a thin line. The more challenging the obstacles overcome, he reminded himself, the greater his triumph would be. This minor setback would not prevent him from succeeding. Turning away, he waved his hand dismissively. "Be careful returning to your village, girl. I would not have one of my subjects harmed."
The girl turned away hesitantly, then removed a cloth clad bundle and rushed to place it in Negin's hands. "Ye look like ye could use a bite a home cookin'," she said before running off. Negin stared blankly as the mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich had an intense discussion with his salivary glands. He couldn't remember what Be Evil, Not Stupid said about this; he'd have to reread it tonight. Then he'd show her, er, them, he'd show them all.
Act IIINegin stared at the children through the falling snow. A spirited snowball fight was raging through the framework of the half finished windmill being built to power the loom already sitting snug in the completed manufactory. Large mill stones collected snow as they awaited the next stage of the already expanding project. Several boys began arcing snowballs at Negin before being run off by a remonstrative adult. Negin watched the snowballs fall short, then turned and walked into the storm. Let them enjoy their jocularity while they could. He would show them; he would show them all.
Negin knocked on the gauge until it stopped swinging like a metronome. The Transatmospheric Fridgidation Condensanator had taken Negin months to build, and still lacked a proper steam engine for power, but through it he held his land in an icy thrall.
The drifted banks almost topped the protective wall. The streets were filled but not choked with snow; their pristine condition showed little movement occurred within the village. The bleating of sheep drifted across the preternaturally still air as across the way a swallow slid slowly off its branch. The crack as it broke the encrusted snow rang in counterpoint to the whimper that whispered through the air from a child in pain. Negin trudged to the hole marking the swallow's fall. Plucking the bird from its icy tomb, he observed the slight rise and fall of its breast as it struggled to live. With frozen feet and colder thoughts Negin tucked the bird inside his jacket and began the trek back to his cave.
The peasant labored through the snow, branches slung in a crude sling across her back. Crystalline clouds puffed hard and fast from under her shawl as she labored to draw air cutting as razor blades into her lungs. She looked up sharply at the sound of Negin shifting in the snow. The dull eyes framed by her pinched face showed a flicker of their usual life when she recognized him. "Och, I was hopin' to find ya." Her eyes were red from weeping, her voice rough from forced humility. "I'm needin' your help, if a mighty scientist like yourself will aid someone as low as me. " Negin reveled. All his years of planning had reached their culminating moment. His guerdon was finally within his grasp:
"Power. It is often held to be evil, corrupting, the goal only of the megalomaniac or tyrant. This is wrong. Power rewards. Power inspires. The promise of power drives people to innovate, to strive, to take great risks. Power is the reward for those willing to dare all. The few who seek greatness will always be slandered by the jealous many unwilling to fail."
Negin's blood sang in his veins. "It is right for a lord to grant boons to his subjects. What do you wish, child?"
Her appraising look showed she knew the minuscule gap in their ages made 'child' a condescension. Sliding the load of wood to the ground at her side, she bowed her head. "It's my pa, sir. The cold's got into his bones and it don't seem like nothing I do' can warm him up." Her shoulders slumped as she tried to kneel in the deep snow. "if you could use your knowledge to heal him or change the weather then I'll pledge myself, body an' soul, to your service, an' I made Ol' Man Whithers promise the rest a' me village will as wiell."
Negin stared at the rag clad woman shivering in the deep snow, and felt his blood boil cold. In his visions of ascension he was always greeted by cheering multitudes or trembling crowds, not by a dutiful daughter begging for her father's life. "Return to your father, young woman." From his cave behind him, Negin could hear the swallow chirping happily in the rough cage he had made for it. "All will be well."
"Yes, my lord. Is their anything else ya need from me?"
The empty pit in Negin's chest seemed to echo the hollowness in his voice. "I am not your lord. I do not have the right of it." He shuffled through the snowbanks toward the cheery firelight emanating from the cave mouth. "Just be careful going home; it's getting dark and you want to be in the warm before night falls."
"What may I call you?"
Negin stopped, but daren't turn around lest she see the defeat carved in his face. "Negin. I am Negin, the Nothing."
He heard the rush of movement, but she had her arms around him before he could react. "Thank you, Negin," she whispered. Just as suddenly, the press of her body was gone and Negin saw her flee through the forest at a floundering run. Resuming his snowy slog, he calculated the maximum rate he could allow the snow to melt without causing flash floods. He'd shown them, but wasn't sure what she'd seen.
Act IVNegin hugged the tree trunk tightly, observing the bald spot on the man below. Groups of villagers had been combing the forest for him for days. Chance heard snatches of conversation indicated he was to be brought before the village elders for an uncertain fate. But they'd never catch him. He would slip thought their clutches like smoke through a net. He'd show them, he'd show them all.
Negin scraped the chameleon skin on the rock until it was thin enough to become translucent. The acrid fumes streaming from the retort steaming over the dung fire made his stomach twist. The flat stone which severed as Negin's worktable rocked with his movement. Bird, freed from his cage but refusing to leave, watched the stone dip and sway as he darted from perch to perch. The infusion, when completed, would cause Negin's skin to blend to match his background, giving him three days to escape to the lowlands.
The workstone wobbled as Negin rocked into it. His mind had stopped registering the pain in his stomach long ago; his spastic perambulations were an instinctive response from a long forgotten childhood. His eyes, the only part of his body free from the paralyzing pain, registered with pride how his body blended into the stone around it. This same camouflage had prevented the party of peasants from rescuing him from his distress when they had discovered his cave the day before. The wobbling stone and his agonized keening had driven them from the cavity screaming of spirits and specters.
"Right, sip on this. Don' drink too fast, or yer li'ble to choke and drown to death." Negin felt firm hands pry open his clenched teeth; his parched tongue suckled feebly on the course rim of the pottery pitcher that penetrated within. The tension in his gut eased slightly, and his straining joints blazed anew as too taut muscles relaxed.
"More," he demanded in a stentorian croak. With patient, rough hands the peasant girl slaked his thirst and throes with herbal tea and massaged the rigor from his cramped muscles.
"Name?" Negin relaxed his head against the rough rock wall and struggled to regain a modicum of control over his vocal chords. "What is your name, woman?"
"Morgiana, sir. Have ya feelin' in yer toes yet?"
"Yes, but since they feel like they're being pulled off I can't say that's an improvement." He fixed Morgiana with a baleful glare. "What reward will you receive for remanding me to your elders?"
"I'm never sure what yer talkin' about when you use those fancy words. Why don't ya just say what you mean, plain like?"
"Don't be ignorant, peasant. There have been posses scouring the forest looking for me. The only logical conclusion is I'm to be brought before a star chamber to face whatever barbarism you brutish bumpkins call justice."
"Ignorant." Morgiana's voice was flat as the uplands around them. "Ol' Man Whithers sent folk out to invite ya into the village. Us bumpkins wanted you to teach our children so maybe they wouldn't be so brutish. We thought your help with the weather, the burgomaster and the slavers an' all meant you cared about us. But now that I see what you really think I don't think we want your help at all." She stormed to her feet and stomped out of the cave. The pitcher rested at Negin's side, and a basket of fresh bread sat at his feet. He'd shown her; but for the first time he was ashamed of what she'd seen.
Negin stood on the hill, staring at the village below. The weight of his conscience weighed heavily on his shoulders. Today was the day he would achieve his dream. Today was the day he would show them. Today he would show them all.
Bird chirped from his perch. Negin's hitched his backpack, bulging with the sundry detritus of living, over his shoulder, grabbed his cane, and walked away from the cave. Bird flitted from branch to branch, following.
The guard on duty at the village gate snapped awake and belatedly tried to block Negin's entrance with his rifle. Negin tossed the man his cane and walked past unimpeded as the guard instinctively juggled to hold both items. Despite the village's new wealth, the main road was was still packed dirt, the buildings' roofs still thatch. A drainage ditch would need to be dug to ease maintenance and as a precursor to a wider sewer system; shingles would help repel rain and insulate the homes. There were many changes needed. Negin was going to be busy. The crowd gathered on the village common flinched as Negin's backpack hit the ground. A bent and weathered old man sat in a crude chair in the sunshine, Morgiana whispering in his ear. The man's leathered skin framed cutting eyes shining with defiance. Negin's voice spoke to the crowd but his eyes spoke to Morgiana. "I hear the village is looking for a teacher. I have learned much in my studies, and I would like to show you. I would like to show you all."
"Wiell, husband, have ye ev'rything ye wanted?"
"That's an odd question. I love and am loved, enjoy my position as schoolmaster, and am accepted as a valuable member of the community. What would I be missing?"
Negin froze, the instinctive reaction of new husbands. "Why do you think I desired that?"
"This." Morgiana set Be Evil, Not Stupid on the table. "I went up tae yer cave today, tae get Bird's cage, and this wa' sitting on the floor. I read some a' thae pages an' saw yer notes." Her voice was steady as her eyes wavered. "Ye weren't really trying tae help the Village were ye? Ye wanted tae set yerself up as thae new tyrant, tae be jus' like thae others."
Negin stared at the book, caressing the cover gently. "I thought the book was showing me how to get what I wanted. Then I was offered everything it promised, and discovered it wasn't what I was searching for at all. I knew then what I was doing wrong. Did you notice there's a page missing?"
Negin removed a much folded piece of paper from an inner pocket. "Read this."
"If you find your schemes thwarted, review your plan to determine the cause of your failure and excise it from your life. Do not allow others' actions or advice to keep you from your goals."
"I don' un'rstand."
"I mistook power for respect. Once I realized what my true goal was, I took the necessary steps to achieve it." He gestured at the book. “I was getting bad advice, so I got rid of the source.”
A smile spread across Morgiana's face. "Ye chose tae be respect'd for what ye did, 'stead a' feared fer what ye could make us do.”
“Fleeting power may be imposed at the barrel of a Death Ray, but lasting respect must be earned. You showed me that. You all showed me that.”