1. Perchance a missive

“World of Battle doth have much to be admired.” The speaker raised his flagon of ale, spilling some on the bar patrons around him. “To the World of Battle!”

Someone tossed a fried skirret at his head. It bounced off and landed in Ellison Davo’s beer mug.

The beer was mostly gone, anyway. Ellison got up from his table, edged his way past the World of Battle fan down to the end of the bar, where he found an empty stool. It was never a good sign when local residents started spouting fake Elizabethan English.

“What? Forsooth, ’tis true.”

“Shaddup.” Someone tossed another skirret.

“Hark! World of Battle is home to dragons of noble purpose and deathly flames.” The speaker drank down the rest of his ale. “From whence… I mean, wherefore… Sard it. What’s the point of having a medieval world if there art no dragons? Dragons! I want my dragons!” The man slammed his flagon against the heavy wood of the table, which was pre-distressed when it was first created ten years ago at Krim’s founding, and more distressed since then by being kicked, scratched, stabbed, and vomited on.

“If you like WOB so much, why don’t you move there?” asked someone at a nearby table. 

Ellison leaned over and grabbed a used copy of the local paper and opened it in front of his face.

“Perchance I shall!” 

There was the sound of a chair being pushed back as the speaker stood up, then a cut-off scream and a gurgle. 

Blood splattered across Ellison’s newspaper. He waited a beat and lowered it.

The World of Battle fan was on the floor, blood still pouring out of his slit throat.

The killer wiped his knife on the victim’s surcote and sat back down. 

“Hey, you kill it, you clean it,” yelled the bartender, and pointed to a soot-stained sign on the wall that said “No littering. Offenders will be disemboweled. Repeat offenders will be sold to Glad the Impaler.”

The killer smirked. “I’ve always wanted to see Glad’s torture dungeon.” 

“You sure about that?” The bartender leaned over the bar and scowled. 

The killer glanced around at the other patrons, looking for support.

“You know, on World of Battle, they have ghouls to take dead bodies away,” someone else said. “Takes care of the cleanup problem.” The bar grew quiet as everyone waited to see if there was going to be another stabbing. 

The throat-cutter eyed the ghoul fan, who paled and stood up. “I’ll help you clean up.” Two of them dragged the body out the back of the bar.

Ellison pulled out his flask and poured out the little that was left into his flagon.

The ale at the King’s Arms was notoriously watered down. 

Most patrons didn’t care. All they were looking for, really, was something to water their throats after getting their their first few lungfuls of soot and aerosolized excrement that composed Krim’s air.

The King’s Arms was located kitty corner from the Krim City Hall and across the street from the Krim Central Plaza, which was home to the Krim Main Gate, the main entrance for visitors to the Krim Virtual World. It was referred to by some residents as The Grid, and by the rest of the residents by a variety of colorful, earthy Anglo-Saxon phrases appropriate to the era of 1500s England that Krim was ostensibly inspired by.

Ellison had been nursing his own ale for more than an hour now, topping it off with whiskey from a flask in one of the dozen-plus pockets of his assassin’s cloak.

He didn’t choose the outfit because he wanted to role play at being an assassin. Rather, it was the default costume closest to the suits he used to wear in real life. He couldn’t really see himself in chain mail, as a peasant, dressed as King Henry the Eighth, or as a buxom wench. 

Plus, on the off chance that he really was an assassin, or aspired to be one, people tended to give him a wide berth.

Ellison put the flask away and retrieved the documents he kept in another pocket.

If his target didn’t show up soon, he was going to go home.

Usman Powell. 

According to his wife, Usman was planning to disappear on Krim so that nobody was ever going to find him.

Ellison’s brother, Jerald, the owner of the agency Ellison was freelancing for, even included some recent photographs. 

Krim’s mail service turned them into historically-appropriate woodcuts, making it hard to tell what Usman actually looked like. 

Ellison held the printout up to the candlelight, but it didn’t help.

The photos would have been useless in any case since the first thing people did when they decide to hide out in a private virtual world was to change their face, shape, and, usually, their gender as well.

Fortunately, Ellison had a particular and rare skill that came in handy for identifying people no matter what avatar they happened to be in.

It wasn’t a particularly valuable skill. Most places, finding out someone’s real identity was trivial, with personal and professional profiles accessible with a blink or a quick gesture.

Krim, with its idiosyncratic decision to restrict the use of modern technology meant that users didn’t have access to their usual interfaces. All the world had was the basic biological interface that nature provided. Or, to be more technically accurate, a computer emulation of the basic bio interface.

Ellison scratched under his collar. He suspected that he might have been infested by a flea, or maybe a louse, or another medieval parasite. 

For a world that supposedly didn’t have enough money to be able to provide decent customer support or in-world security, it was certainly spending a lot of computer resources on emulating pests and vermin.

Ellison put away the packet and finished his drink. He was just about to get up and leave when a group of people he knew walked into the bar. One, Roger Bannister, he recognized as a local mercenary guild leader. The other four, were, dressed, respectively, in chain mail, as King Henry the Eighth, as a buxom wench, and as a peasant. 

The back door slammed shut and the throat-cutter and the guy who really missed having ghouls around came back into the bar, looking slightly nauseated.

Ellison considered walking out the back before the new arrivals saw him, but then he might miss the opportunity to grab Usman quickly. The worst case scenario was if Usman joined some role playing group and travelled out of the city on a quest to some distant mountain somewhere. Ellison wasn’t a fan of long excursions.

He decided to order another ale, instead, but the bartender had already rushed off to serve Roger and Ellison’s old friends. A waiter had already brought them an assortment of bar foods — standard Krim tourist fare, including turkey legs, skirrets deep fried long enough that they could almost pass for skinny french fries, fried cheese and hot pepper poppers.

They didn’t allow potatoes or jalapenos on Krim, but there was a movement afoot to change that. Yes, they weren’t popular in England in the 1500s, but they did exist somewhere on the planet at that time. Some residents were building sailing ships and organizing expeditions to find local sources of those plants on Krim. If they did, it would revolutionalize Krim City’s restaurant industry.

If Usman happened to join one of those expeditions, Ellison might never find him.

His patience was rewarded when Usman himself sidled in, trying not to be noticed. He wore the default adventurer outfit and had apparently been shopping on the central plaza since he was carrying two large canvas sacks and had several knives on his belt and a blow slung across his shoulder.

He was surrounded by a faint aura that only Ellison, and a handful of other people, could see. None those other people were on Krim, though, and most probably didn’t realize that their visual impairment was anything other than a mild case of synesthesia.

Even without the aura, though, Usman would have caught Ellison’s attention by the furtive way he tiptoed around the tables to find the darkest spot at the bar.

Ellison watched with amusement as Usman tried to be inconspicuous even as his bags and bow kept hitting the other bar patrons.

Finally, he dropped his bags by an empty stool and squeezed in right next to Ellison.

“God, I’m thirsty.” Usman coughed up some phlegm into the palm of his hand, stared at it, then wiped it off on his pant leg. “What the hell is that?”

“Pollution,” said the patron sitting on the other side of Usman from Ellison.

“I didn’t know they had pollution in medieval times.”

“It gets better once you get outside the city.”

“That’s a relief.” Usman pointed down at his bags. “I’m planning to go on a long trip. But I’ve got to say, Krim isn’t what I expected.”

“How did you hear about Krim, anyway?” Ellison asked. “There are lots of friendlier grids out there.”

“I read about it on Escape Master,” said Usman. “They say that Krim is so unpleasant that process servers won’t come here.”

“They can still subpoena the grid owners,” said the other patron.

“Yeah, but only if an actual crime has been committed and there’s a court order,” said Usman. “Not for civil disputes.”

“I see you’ve thought about this,” said Ellison.

“I’ve been planning for months,” said Usman. 

Ellison reached into his pocket.

“I just want some breathing space, you know?” Usman sighed. “Is it so wrong to just want a little peace?”

“No, it’s not wrong,” said Ellison, dropping his hand. 

“Do you know what it’s like to have people hounding you all the time?”

Ellison nodded. He did know.

Usman waved his hand towards the exit door. “Out there, on the other side of the gate, in the real world, it’s just a constant stream of messages,” he said. “Do this, do that. Go to therapy. I’m sick of it.”

He took a sip of the ale the bartender brought over and grimaced. “This is foul.” he shook his head. “But anything is better than dealing with the old ball and chain and those whiny brats.”

“Oh, you’ve got children?”

“Yup, three of them. Good thing no kids are allowed on Krim!” Usman laughed.

Ellison stood up and took a step away, the turned back and slapped the paperwork on the bartop in front of Usman. 

“You’ve been served.”

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Krim Cross

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2. Mayhaps a petty chare

Ellison walked away, not glancing back. If Usman was going to stab him in the…

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