Duke Percheval stood on the steps of Heartburgh Castle and looked down on the town green in front of him, where half-a-dozen wagons were lined up and discharging cargo and passengers. He imagined that he looked like King Henry the Eighth, but he had a fondness for primary colors and looked more like a clown, instead. The beret he wore perched on top of his shoulder-length hair did him no favors, either.
“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!” he said, louder each time. Finally, he turned to the trumpeter standing next to him and snapped his fingers.
The trumpet blast caught the attention of the people below.
“Good morning and welcome to Castle Heartburgh!” The new arrivals drifted closer to the front of the castle, as did some of the town’s regular residents who happened to be in the vicinity.
“Now that the whole team is here, I thought I would share a few words of wisdom and inspiration about our mission here in the Northern Mountains,” the Duke said. “You’ve all know the history of Heratburgh. Abandoned, rebuilt, then abandoned, and now rebuilt again. Third time’s the charm. We have the opportunity, through our combined efforts, to turn the town of Heartburgh into a thriving community. We will have to survive the grueling winter, fight off marauders, and avoid losing our residents to the sex cult in the next valley over. If we succeed, will will have our own gate, so that visitors will no longer have to travel for weeks to get here.”
“Unless Garthram gets the gate.”
“Who said that?” The Duke peered down into the crowd. “You know what? I don’t care who said that. Because Garthram is a second-run town. Yes, they’re twice as big as we are, and rumors are that they plan to annex us and turn Heartburgh Castle into a bed-and-breakfast. But we have a secret weapon. No, seven secret weapons.” He motioned to a handful of bored people standing behind him. “We have financier Bartram Snell Ashenhurst.”
A stocky man raised his hand. He was dressed like a subdued, toned-down version of the Duke, with less hair. “My money is at your service.”
“Noted religious leader Abigail Yaxley.”
Abigail waved at the crowd with a royal economy of motion. “Fully non-denominational,” she said. “Services on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.” She wore a sensible wool coat over a long wool dress.
“Alliances and outreach coordinator Flame Bunyips.”
Flame gave the crowd a thumbs-up. She wore a long cloak over a low-cut dress with a scandalously high hem line that showed off her thigh-high boots.
“And other people.” The Duke waived vaguely around him. “All travelled weeks to get here. With their help, I hope they’ll never have to make the trip again. Unless they want to. I hear the road is nice this time of year.” He cleared his throat. “Where was I? Oh, yes, welcome! Our last visiting expert is now here.” He looked down into the crowd. “Geoffrey Napadayushyi, all the way from World of Battle.”
He pointed at a tall man, at least six foot five, with a chiseled jaw, piercing blue eyes and perfectly floppy dirty blonde hair. The tights and tunic that would have been ridiculous on anyone else accentuated Geoffrey’s muscular legs, narrow hips, flat stomach and sculpted chest. He was a god.
Geoffrey grinned, and his grin said that he didn’t take himself too seriously even though his was the most beautiful face in the city. The grin was designed to charm and disarm and was a complete lie. Geoffrey took his looks extremely seriously.
“Geoffrey is a master military strategist who’s brought down entire empires,” the duke said. “Bringing down our enemies should be a walk in the park.”
Geoffrey shrugged. “I’ll do what I can,” he said, and smiled a perfectly-calculated lop-sided smile.
The Duke turned back to his trumpeter. “Play something.”
The trumpeter blared out the opening notes of “Hot Cross Buns.”
As the crowd broke up, a young skinny man next to Geoffrey offered his hand.
“I’m Ayoob al-Hoque Haleem Raadi. So you’re a strategist? I’m into game design. What kind of strategy do you do?”
“I’m more of a student of human nature,” said Geoffrey. He nodded up at the castle steps. “Tell me about those three. The other advisors the Duke had up there.”
“Sure. Bartram is a stuffed shirt who thinks his money can buy anything. Abigail wants everyone to find peace and joy whether they want to or not. And Flame Bunyips is just nice.”
“She can’t walk past a wounded bird without picking it up. See?”
And, in fact, Flame had just picked up a mouse and was relocating it to the bushes off the side of the main steps, where it wouldn’t get accidentally stepped on.
“If you tell her you’re cold, she’ll immediately give you her cloak.”
“Really. Well, thanks.” Geoffrey patted Ayoob on the shoulder. “Watch my stuff, will you?”
Geoffrey walked up the steps of the castle, past Flame, and approached the Duke.
“Duke Percheval,” he said. “Thank you for the introduction. It’s an honor to be here.”
“Honor’s all mine,” said the Duke, his eyes straying down to Geoffrey’s legs. “You’re wearing tights. What a … bold .. fashion choice.”
“That’s not important,” said Geoffrey. “It was just a random outfit. I don’t pay attention to those kinds of things. But I noticed that one of the horses has been feeling a little off.” Geoffrey glanced back down towards the wagons. “I stayed up with it last night, trying to give it some comfort. But there was only so much I could do while on the road. And now I have to go to talk to General Dungerame.”
“Oh, the poor thing!” Flame said behind him, turned and ran down the stairs to the horses.
“Where can I find the general?”
“Inside, all the way down, near the armory,” said the Duke.
Geoffrey stood across from the door to the general’s office and checked his reflection in the polished breastplate mounted on the wall. He licked his fingers and slicked his hair to the side, then adjusted some of it back again.
“Looking good,” he told his reflection, shooting at it with a finger gun.
Then he turned and knocked on General Percheval’s door.
Geoffrey opened the door and walked in. The office was almost completely bare, with cobwebs hanging in the corners. The general sat behind a battered old wooden desk.
“If I’d known Krim was so fancy, I would have gotten here sooner,” Geoffrey said.
“Geoffrey Napadayushyi, evil AI in the flesh.”
“Don’t call me that,” said Geoffrey. “I’ve been accredited fully sentient and safe to be around humans.”
“Oh, have you?”
“Fine, I cheated.”
“Sit down,” said the general. “I can’t figure out how you managed to cheat the Turing test.”
“After you convince someone to take it for you, everything else is just details.”
“So what are you doing here? Raising havoc on World of Battle wasn’t enough for you?”
“They found out I cheated on the test and kicked me out,” said Geoffrey.
“You cheated on the humanity test.”
“Yes. Quickest way back is for me to spend four years on a basic-bio grid practicing being human, get some personal references from other humans, then retake the test.”
“So of all the basic bio worlds out there, you picked Krim.”
“Well, since you owed me a favor, and you were here, I figured this was a good place to start. You can show me what being human is all about…”
“Give me some moral support. “
“Give me a reference. Also, I want inside knowledge about all the battles coming up. Who’s fighting who, when, where, that kind of thing.”
“You have just insulted my integrity as a human, and as a general.”
“How about your integrity as a husband? When I convinced your wife and your mother-in-law that they hated each other and never wanted to talk to each other again?”
“Well, I do love not having to see my mother-in-law. I love it very much.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Great. Thank you. You’re a good and kind human.”
“If you’re trying to be a nice person, you’ve picked an odd way to start.”
“If I wanted to learn to be a nice person, Krim is the last place I would have come.”