Ask the Trope Fairy: Take the Weight Off Your Shoulders
Ask the Trope Fairy is an advice column for characters navigating science fiction and fantasy realms.
Dear Trope Fairy,
I work for the second in command to an emperor who’s not the best guy. Neither is she though. They rule the empire very effectively, at least, I think so. There's always plenty of money for the palace. Then the emperor fired my boss, his top advisor, and I might have, well, given her the idea to go after him. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I said a thing and then next thing I knew, we were down in her lab picking out a poison.
I can’t say I objected at the time, but I did mess it up. Between running to the kitchen for my spinach puffs and having to put the poison in all of our goblets, when I lost track, I made a real mess of killing [redacted] the first time. In my defense, dinner was excellent. I got one thing right that night, and it was definitely the spinach puffs. And dessert was so tempting that even [redacted]agreed we could wait to dispose of the body. The body wasn’t dead you see. It was alive. An alive llama to be precise.
So after dessert, I go out to dispose of the llama, and my shoulder angel and shoulder devil show up. I don’t know why they weren’t there before. It seems like they really should have been on the whole poisoned dinner thing. I think they were distracted by the spinach puffs nearly burning. To be honest, they’re not very helpful. Every time they show up, they are more interested in trash talking each other than helping me navigate a moral quandary. So on my own, I put [redacted] the llama on a random cart and just hoped for the best.
My boss took over the kingdom, and everything seemed fine until I had to tell her about the llama still being alive. The trip to find the llama wasn’t what I’d call pleasant, but it was a nice bonding experience for us. I think [redacted] might have had an even better time than we did camping in the woods, because when we bumped into them in the diner (where I had to take over the kitchen -- it was a mess and they were in dire straights). he was still pushy but he had a peasant friend. Which is unlike him. So maybe he's changed. I know [redacted] hasn't.
We’re nearing the final showdown, and my shoulder angel isn’t even showing up on time anymore, so I’m a little lost. No one missed [redacted] when they thought he died. But I couldn’t kill him as a llama. Is that different? Should I not have poisoned him in the first place then? If I couldn't kill him later? What do I do now, to get from under [redacted] when I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed and [redacted] has always looked out for me?
Dear Asking For a Guide,
I am tempted to write many words to you, and I will do so below, but most importantly, you need a clear answer. Here it is: Do not poison any more dinners. As your Shoulder Angel should have pointed out, all forms of murder are wrong. As your Shoulder Devil should be pointing out, you are clearly bad at it. Find yourself a new job in a restaurant far from court politics.
Now, if you are still reading, I am going to back up and explain how I got to that answer.
I don’t usually engage with minions to villains, unless I feel that they are being misled or gaslit into morally gray (or black) territory when they genuinely mean no harm. I'm not sure you qualify. How much deception can I really say is happening here? You seem clear-eyed on what your boss is asking you to do and fully capable of repeating it clearly back to both her and me.
But your description of your Shoulder Angel and Shoulder Devil worries me a great deal.
Typically, the people assigned Shoulder Angels and Shoulder Devils are gentle but simple souls who require help with the complicated moral world around them. The idea that yours have gone astray and are lost in their own petty contests rather than helping with your struggles is deeply distressing to me. The purpose of Shoulder Angels is to clarify often difficult situations into simple moral choices so that simple, gentle souls may know if they are doing right. The purpose of Should Devils is to show the advantage to be gained by evil actions so that simple souls do not lose the chance to make their own choices. This was the bargain struck, to guide the naive on their own path.
So for a Fairy Guide like myself, that means that top priority is helping you avoid complex moral situations until your Shoulder Angel and Shoulder Devil can once again develop a healthy, combative working relationship. Because your own moral center is compromised (as evidenced by your cheerful willingness to murder by poison but inability to kill by other means), it is imperative that you remove yourself from court politics.
You need to find yourself a new job, a quiet situation with few moral quandaries, at least until your Shoulder Guides are functional again. The good news is that you are apparently capable of gaining another job — on a whim in the midst of an evil mission, no less! So, could you be happy leaving your boss and the emperor behind and going back to run that diner? The moral quandaries there are simpler, so even if Shoulder Angel and Shoulder Devil are busy working out their own issues, you should be able to deal with these smaller scale problems.
Your letter reads with the simple sweetness veering toward jolly amorality that I’ve come to expect from misled henchmen. Often such people stay in the employ of evil for lack of other options. But you have other options. Some that might appeal to you much more than your current stressful employment. Be honest, wouldn’t you rather open your own restaurant someday? Even in their addled state, I suspect your Shoulder Duo would agree.
But until they are back on line, I will remind you of my clear ruling: Don’t poison any more dinners. As your Shoulder Angel should point out, all forms of murder are wrong, not just the violent ones. As your Shoulder Devil should point out, you are clearly bad at it. Find yourself a new job in a restaurant far from court politics.