4. Death cures what ales you

Donna leaned over the bar to peer into the mirror on the back wall. One of her curls was starting to droop. She wet a finger and twirled the strand back into shape.

One tall, handsome, muscled man after another had been walking into the Barley Mow Inn all night. Most were wearing default avatar costumes, but Donna didn’t mind. Unlike some grid residents, she wasn’t prejudiced against noobs.

The bartender snapped his fingers at her. “This tray goes to table five.”

She reached for the tray and he started pushing it forward, then stopped. “Do you know which table that is?”

“Sure.” Donna glanced around the dining room. “Do you count across or in a circle?”

The bartender closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “It’s the one with the guy in the chain-mail bikini.” He opened his eyes and pointed at the table. “Just put the drinks down. If they want anything else they can come up and order it from me directly.”

He let go of the tray.

He thought she was going to spill all the drinks again and mess up the orders. Well, maybe she would, but maybe she won’t. Donna picked up the tray, holding it carefully with both hands, and took tiny careful steps in the direction of table five.

She was almost at the table when the band started playing, startling her into stepping too quickly. Her foot landed on a sword hilt and she started to lose her balance when someone caught her.

Another patron took the tray out of her hands and distributed the drinks.

The man who caught her let her go and she turned to thank him then paused, momentarily speechless.

He was ugly. Not much taller than she was herself. No muscles, even though he was decked out in leather armor. A slightly misshapen face, uneven skin tone, and a receding hairline.

She gasped and pulled away and the other men laughed.

“Don’t be scared, he doesn’t bite,” said one.

“Not his fault he looks like a wolverine.”

The man in the chainmail bikini, who’s been mopping himself with a towel from the drink she spilled on him on her previous trip, tossed the towel. “Here, Mitch. Put this over your face.”

Mitch reddened. It made the pockmarks on his face stand out even more.

“This is my natural body,” he said. “I believe in being honest about who you are.”

Donna retrieved the now-empty tray and clutched it to her chest. “You’re very brave,” she told him and motioned at his face. The rest of the table burst out in laughter and she retreated to the bar.

While waiting for the bartender to bring plates of food from the kitchen — she was not allowed to go anywhere near open flames — she looked back at the ugly man. Mitch, the chainmail bikini guy had called him.

Mitch.

There were other ugly people on Krim, of course. As she carried plates of deep-fried onion rings, chicken wings, and skirrets out to the diners she remembered several.

The bouncer, for one. He was big, and broad, and had scars on his face and arms. But his ugliness was intentional. It was meant to scare enemies and was sexy in its own way. The ugliness was part of the avatar.

She looked back at Mitch. He was repulsive. Before she could look away, he turned in her direction and caught her staring.

A group of wenches arrived, specially hired for the occasion, and she and the bartender had a chance to catch their breath for a couple of minutes. A couple of wenches recognized her and waved at her while they were dancing. They always knew where to find the best makeup and skincare supplies. Krim wenches were the best.

She leaned on the bar and waved a hand in front of the bartender’s face to catch his attention. The bartender had a thing for one of the wenches. The two largest tables had been moved to the back storage room, giving the wenches room to dance, and Derek the wench was using the space to the fullest, tossing the other wenches into the air, giving the partygoers exciting glimpses of their pettycoats.

The bartender blew Derek a kiss and looked at Donna.

She leaned in towards him. “Why is that ugly guy so ugly?”

“What ugly guy?”

Donna half-turned and pointed at Mitch.

Again, Mitch caught her looking and she flushed.

“Probably picked the first option from the avatar menu,” said the bartender. “The basic bio option. It creates an avatar for you based on your default genetic profile.”

“You mean, he looks like that in real life?”

“Probably. I can’t imagine why someone would improve their physical appearance but not their virtual one.”

Donna shuddered.

“Imagine going through life looking like that. The poor man.”

“Maybe it’s a religious thing,” said the bartender.

Just then, the streetlamp outside the window went dark, and Mitch caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the window and shrieked. As his fellow party-goers laughed at him again, Mitch jumped up, walked up to the window, and examined his face.

The bartender chucked. “Not a religious thing then. Just an accident. He probably hasn’t seen his own natural face in decades.”

Then there were some speeches that Donna didn’t pay attention to. Instead, while carrying food and drink, and only spilling some of it, she wondered what Mitch really looked like when he was himself.

Or was he himself now?

Donna patted her own hair. Even when she had a physical body, she adjusted her genes regularly to keep up with fashions. The important thing was that your appearance matched who you were on the inside. Anything else would be dishonest.

Then Mitch gave a speech, and one of the other men was dragged into the open area, where all the wenches danced around him and sat on his lap.

The bartender sent Donna back out to gather up the empty mugs and plates. As she was passing by him, Mitch grabbed her sleeve.

She flinched away, and he quickly apologized.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “I don’t normally look like this. It was an accident.”

She didn’t say anything. On her next trip past him, he tried to explain himself again.

“I don’t spend much time online,” he said. “I’m too busy.”

He said something else, but a round of cheering drowned him out.

“What?” she asked.

“I said, only people without a real life spend all their time online,” Mitch said loudly.

This time, she heard him. Everyone heard him. She looked around and saw heads turning in his direction.

“I bet that guy dies a gruesome death tonight,” the bartender told Donna when she brought the empty dishes back to the bar.

“Who do you think will kill him? One of his friends?”

“My money is on one of the wenches,” said the bartender.

“Derek?”

“No. See Candy over there? She ran a campaign up north last season. Personally decapitated at half an army before she decided to try her hand at wenching.” He shook his head. “The ugly guy is going to die slow. Here.” The bartender poured a large whiskey. “He’s going to need this.”

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3. Saturday night at the Barley Mow

The four of them — Charlie, Mitchell, and two other guys — walked through the…

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5. All the way down

Everyone was staring. The other party attendees. The wenches. The musicians. Charlie. And Harmon, of…

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