不敢為天下先 — Daring not to be first in the world
The Vizier — a small man of ever-growing consequence — watched with relish as his towering rival began to shrink in his chair. The tall man’s contortions and agonised screams (which, the Vizier noted with satisfaction, became progressively more childlike as the once baritone larynx retracted its adolescent growth) were bracing proof of the efficacy of the Vizier's plans. The action of the poison he had had so meticulously prepared and infused into one of the fifty bowls of banquet soup was more akin to, though in the opposite direction of, that medieval stretcher of spines and limbs to which the Vizier had occasional recourse (he delighted in the anachrony), than to the wand-waving, smoke-puffing diminutions of fairy tales and TV shows. The guests were horrified, of course, but managed to hide their nausea at the succubus of contracting flesh behind mock exasperation and grim witticisms. They avoided looking at the victim's face, in which the distorting asymmetry of the drug’s effect was most frightfully apparent — one eye a dog’s, the other a budgie’s — lest their carefully stilled empathy rose from their bellies like regurgitated food. When the convulsions were over the Vizier addressed the deformed child in the tent of adult clothes.
— Won't you have some more, Spartacus? You always did have such a large appetite.
The laughter released by the Vizier’s barb had the lush, synthetic, mechanically reinvigorated quality of movie rain. It was a sound he loved, so fattening for his ego, so dependably triggered by the half-beat pause and cymbal-clash emphasis; by the signal, in other words, that laughter was required. It was not that he had lost the ability to distinguish genuine mirth from sycophantic oral applause; rather that he had come to prefer the ersatz form, as a child might favour a raspberry-shaped confection of coloured sugar over the acid and unreliable sweetness of the real thing.
The Vizier had anticipated an uneasy silence in the laughter’s wake. He had even, among his pre-banquet, tie-knotting, mirror-admired murmurs, rehearsed a few sardonically solicitous phrases to paper over the cracks: Why don’t you run along to your room now Spartacus, grown-ups are so boring. He had not anticipated that his diminished rival* would stand on his chair, launch himself face first into the soup and guzzle as much as his misshapen jaw would allow.
*Rival — and yet Spartacus had never shown the slightest inclination to challenge the Vizier, beyond the implicit insult of his breeding, height and looks. Early in their acquaintance, the Vizier had noticed his apparent unconcern with the way others treated him, and had diagnosed him as precariously arrogant: a man convinced that his innate advantages were enough to protect him. The Vizier’s probing of Spartacus’ alliances (rare, and seemingly reserved for the powerless and simple) had confirmed his suspicion that a tall tree was ready to fall. It was at this point that he identified Spartacus as a rival.
The Vizier’s expression of grey distaste made his face seem suddenly older. He gestured to his servants to remove the writhing homunculus who had now escaped from the neck of his once-tailored shirt and was attempting, despite his shrinking pains, to crawl into the bowl of pea and mint soup. They were understandably hesitant to approach what soon became a churning green birdbath. Anyway, how should they capture a being that shrank before their eyes: now the size of a starling, a frog, a mouse, a beetle. When a pea-coated fly raced up the side of the bowl, evidently satiated, a blast-radius of panic sent guests scraping back their chairs and jumping to their feet. The Vizier, recognising the futility of imposing his usual social control, watched the green tracks dwindle to pinpricks on the white tablecloth, his mind racing behind a calm smile. Eventually, when Spartacus had disappeared completely, and an eerie confusion had settled on the guests, he stood and shrugged his shoulders with an air of boyish contrition:
— Well that didn’t quite go according to plan.
The guests once again rode the waterslide of the Vizier’s intonation and splashed into dutiful laughter. But even his narcissistic ear balked at their submerged unease. In the short pause that followed those who knew him well could almost see the calculations taking place in his brain, the rapid exploring and discarding of verbal paths, scrying that flinty, discontinuous terrain on which the modern human survives or dies.
— I propose a toast, he said, lifting his glass and dropping his tone to a solemn, one-word-at-a-time earnestness, like a newsreader announcing a tragedy. To — our — emotional — friend Spartacus.
A sharply indrawn breath was the collective onset, unconscious and impossible to repress, of outraged disbelief. But its exhalation — as the Vizier predicted — brought with it a paradoxical tenderness. Constricted by fear, their need for empathy found an outlet in the commemoration of a man whose awkward independence many of them had both publicly mocked and privately admired.
— To Spartacus!
The blooming of raised glasses around the table was something remarkable, a rose unfolding in a desert. The Vizier presided over it with a smile that mixed self-satisfaction at his mastery of the situation with the softer pleasures of the gratified host: the mood lightened, the small talk began to revive — if anything more animated than before. He had operated the sluice gate; there was no choice but for intercourse to flow.
Yet it soon became clear that the conversation was less carefree than it seemed. As the banal questions, the enthusiastic answers — I love the games, the gladiators are so noble when they lose — circulated the table, strange memories began to trouble the guests. It was as though an information-bearing wave was interfering with their brains, hijacking, like pirate radio, their neural frequencies, superimposing upon them not the propaganda of an insurgent force, but rather long-forgotten and seemingly meaningless fragments of their own past.
One gentleman, in the midst of flirting with the elegant but somewhat cadaverous wife of his colleague (and rival for the Vizier’s approval), found himself so viscerally immersed in a scene he had glimpsed decades ago, of a group of children charging into a brown river on a baking hot day, leaving puffs of mud behind their bare feet, that his interlocutor wondered if she had something in her teeth. Another lady, who had just finished preparing a slight, one that would more than repay the slight she had herself received a moment ago, from the woman who had succeeded her as the Vizier’s mistress, opened her mouth to deliver the blow; but instead of speaking she lifted her gaze higher and higher, tracing the helical flight of a seagull above a rusted gas-holder, reliving every detail of an autumn afternoon in her childhood, even (her eyes now virtually trained on the ceiling, her delirious appearance the object rather than the author of another round of laughter) re-imagining the world seen by the gull as it soared over the suburbs towards the sea. The man immediately (and not coincidentally) to the Vizier’s right could not reply to the overture he had awaited for so long from his boss: the smell of sun-heated pine was too intense, the crescendo of crickets on the sparsely forested hillside, with its red-brown earth and scintillations of sea, was too overwhelming.
Even the Vizier was not immune to these irruptions. But in his case the memories were less random, more pointed: the small boy bullied at school, the short and nondescript man overlooked by women. It was perhaps for this reason that he found them easier to ignore; or perhaps — as he preferred to believe — it was simply that his mind was sharper, his grip on his inner life stronger. Not only was he able to repel the psychic invasion, and to do so without leaving a trace on his expression or words, he was able to infer that others were suffering similar attacks, and even to guess what the consequences might be. He was therefore not entirely surprised when his neighbour rushed from his seat to snatch Spartacus’ half-empty bowl from the silver tray on which one of the waiters (now equipped with long white gloves) was bearing it away. Nor did it shock the Vizier when, counter to the mass repulsion before, the effect of the right-hand man’s slurping and shrinking was to suck others in — a firestorm instead of a blast — knocking down seats and trampling over the table in their haste to drink the last few drops of poison. The Vizier made no effort to prevent them: he had already realised that whoever joined the disgusting knot of snakes — worms — on the floor, willing to suffer unspeakable pain for the prize of non-existence, was useless to him. Useless because they were weak and oversensitive, and therefore unable to enact his wishes; useless because they preferred failure to success, and people like that are not worth leading.