“General Lukomendrius Dungerame is in here,” the page said, opening the door.
Hot, steamy air washed over Geoffrey and he stepped back.
“Is that you, Geoff? Come on in!”
The general was soaking in a large tub, one leg hanging over the edge, in a small, wood-paneled room that smelled of eucalyptus and juniper, probably from the bundles of tree twigs hanging on the walls.
“The tub’s too small for the both of us, so you’re probably not trying to seduce me,” Geoffrey said.
The general glanced over at the door. “No, just wanted to make sure we had some privacy.”
Geoffrey walked the two steps from the door to the tub and sat down on the small wooden bench next to it.
“I got you what you wanted,” said the general. “Every scheduled attack for the next year. It’s in the packet over there.” He nodded at a small shelf back by the door, where a sheaf of papers, rolled up, tied with twine, was peeking out from a leather satchel.
Geoffrey started to stand up.
“Hold on,” said the general. “Let me explain something. Normally, there would be no way I could get you this kind of information. Enemies typically don’t schedule their attacks ahead of time, and, when they do, don’t share it with you. But this is Krim. Small. Corrupt. Incompetent. That information should keep you going for a year. Don’t let anyone know where you got it.”
“You’re a pal. Listen, I could use another favor…”
“No, wait, you owe me now,” said the general. “And I want something from you. I want you to put in a good word for me with Flame Bunyips. You’re good at that kind of thing. I’ve seen you.”
“Have you seen her saucy walk?”
“I have. And, again, why?”
“Ahh, I can’t explain it to you. Maybe four years in a human body will help you understand.”
“I’m hoping to get out of here sooner than that,” said Geoffrey. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Well, good luck with that. Meanwhile, you know what you need to do, right?”
“Right. I’ll put in a good word for you with Flame. Is that it?”
Geoffrey sighed. “Fine. I’ll get back to the council, then.” He grabbed the roll of papers on his way out.
Flame was waiting outside the atheneum when Geoffrey returned.
“It’s a madhouse in there,” she said. “Everyone is at each other’s throats.”
The sound of shouting from inside the room confirmed her story.
“I don’t think we can work together with these people,” he said. “They’re clearly unhinged. Ready to head down to the inn? I hear they have squirrel stew for dinner.”
“Hold on.” She narrowed her eyes. “Did you deliberately stir them up so you can get me alone? Why?”
“Because you’re a particularly nice person and I could use your help with something.”
“I don’t know. Should I help you?” she asked. “You just turned a bunch of people who were mostly civil towards each other into mortal enemies.”
“Well, that’s the kind of thing I could use your help with,” said Geoffrey. “Yes. I need your help learning to be a better person. Not in any way to help me cheat on an ethics test, no.”
“Cheat on a test?”
“No, definitely not cheat on a test. Help me pass it the good, honorable way.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Ahh, fine. First, go in there and clean up the mess you made.”
“And then we can go to the inn.”
“Maybe. It depends on whether you’re even worth spending time with. So far, you’re not coming off as particularly honorable.”
“Wait until I introduce to a friend of mine.”
He went inside the atheneum.
“You’re all still here,” he said.
Bartram and Abigail were yelling at each other, Ayoob was doodling, and Hephziba was hiding behind her display board. Geoffrey slammed the door shut behind him.
“Ouch,” said Flame from behind the door and pushed the door open again.
But the slam had worked. Both Bartram and Abigail were silent, and looking at Geoffrey.
“I said, you’re all still here.”
“Well, I’m paying for all this, so I’m not going anywhere,” said Bartram.
“I see you’ve discovered that you have lots of differences,” said Geoffrey. “Normally, those differences will drive you apart.” He glanced at Flame, who nodded encouragingly.
“But, uh, the differences can also bring you together.”
“For example, think about the sex cults,” said Flame, sitting down in her chair.
“Sex cults?” Bartram sat down as well. “Where?”
“Up in the mountains,” said Flame. “And Abigail is an expert on sex cults.”
“I wrote my dissertation on the Sacred Cult of Qualdir, God of the Underworld,” said Abigail. “Now I’m expanding my research to other cults.”
“If we can get the cults on our side, Heartburgh will be unstoppable,” said Flame.
“Right, right,” said Geoffrey. “See, there’s a difference that could be helpful. None of us know about sex cults, but Abigail does.”
“We could know about sex cults,” said Bartram. “Who says we don’t know about sex cults?” He crossed his arms and leaned back, but didn’t argue further.
“And Hephziba — can you come out from behind there — there are probably things other people know that you don’t know. Right?”
Hephziba edged around the display stand and sat back down in her chair. “Like what?” She clutched her maps in her hands.
“I don’t know, you tell me,” said Geoffrey.
“Umm…” She glanced around the table. Bartram glared at her. Ayoob looked up briefly from his doodling, then looked back down again. Flame smiled encouragingly.
“Flame,” Hephziba said. “When I don’t have a source for something we need, I ask her, and she asks somebody, and they know somebody, and eventually we find it. She knows everybody in the village.”
“I like people,” said Flame. “I like to help them.” She glared at Geoffrey. “Even if sometimes they might not deserve that help.”
“Okay, Flame, your turn,” said Geoffrey. “Who’s the most different from you?”
“Other than you?” she looked around the table. “Probably Ayoob. We haven’t talked much.”
“And… and he’s got a big-picture view.”
“That’s true, I do,” said Ayoob. He pushed the paper he was doodling out into the middle of the table. “I was looking at your maps,” he said, nodding at Hephziba. “There’s a mountain range between us and Garthram. And there’s a pass right here.” He pointed at the paper. “But you don’t show anything beyond it. All the other passes are mapped out.”
“I haven’t talked to anyone yet who’d been there,” she said.
“Do you think that’s strange?” asked Ayoob.
“I’ve only been here a couple of weeks,” said Hephziba. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence.”
“You think Garthram is killing everyone who goes through the pass?” asked Bartram.
“Or taking them prisoner,” said Ayoob. “We should know soon enough. If people were killed, they’ll respawn and eventually come back here again. If the pass is open, we’ll eventually talk to someone who’s been through it. And, well, if not, we should probably send someone out, check it out.”
“That’s very… strategic of you,” said Abigail.
“I said I was a game designer,” said Ayoob. “I design military strategy games. I might make a game based on what happens here.”
“See?” said Flame. “We’re all valuable. We all have something to offer.”
“Fantastic. We’re good then?” He looked around the table and everyone nodded back, Bartram more reluctantly than others. “So I can now go have dinner at the inn. Flame?”
“Not tonight,” she said. “Maybe later. Also, you haven’t told us what you have to offer the group.”
“He’s a brilliant military strategist,” said Bartram. “I told you. That’s why I hired him.”
“That’s why the Duke hired me,” said Geoffrey.
“But what exactly do you do?” asked Flame.
“Yes. What kind of military strategy do you do?” Ayoob looked up at him. “Tell us.”
“Well, uh. Fine. I’m not a military strategist.”
“What?” Bartram banged his fist on the table. “You brought down empires. You were so good that World of Battle kicked you off the grid. I spent good money on you.”
“I make people hate each other,” said Geoffrey. “I make coalitions fall apart. Send me into enemy ranks and they’ll be at each other’s throats within a week.”
“That seems like cheating,” said Abigail.
“It might seem like it, but it’s totally within the rules,” said Geoffrey. “They tossed me off the grid on a technicality. But all I have to do is spent a little time here on Krim — or any basic physics grid, really — and pass a simple test. I’ll be back on World of Battle in no time.” He glanced at Flame. “A very simple test.”
“So what you’re saying is that there’s no reason for you to be here in Heartburgh at all,” said Flame. “You should be over in Garthram destroying them from within.”
“No, that would be bad,” he said. He needed to stick close to Flame to convince her to take the test for him. If he was in Garthram, turning people against each other, he’d lose his chance. And, judging by past experience, it would all end with everyone at Garthram hating him and running him out of town in tar and feathers.
“I want to help you here.” He took out the packet of papers that the general gave him.
“I have the schedule attacks for the coming year.”
“What schedule of attacks?” said Flame. “Why would anyone schedule attacks a year in advance? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Well, Krim is dumb,” said Geoffrey. “People do dumb things here.”
He untied the packet and rolled it out. There were several pages, with dates, times, and locations, and the name of the group that was planning the attack.
Flame leaned over and picked up the first page, then the second. “The first attack is two months from now.” She looked up at the group. “I can’t believe someone would schedule attacks two months in the future.”
“Let me see,” said Hephziba. Flame passed the pages over.
Hephziba read the first page, then the second, then came back to the first, then reached over and grabbed the rest of the papers. Then she pulled two maps out of her stack.
“This is the map of groups who are friendly to us,” she said. “There are people from these areas coming and going all the time, and we have trade with them.” She passed the map to her left, to Bartram.
“This is a map of our enemies,” she said. “We don’t have trade with him, and they’ve attacked us or our allies.” She passed that map to her right, to Geoffrey.
“In that schedule…” — she pointed at the papers that Geoffrey got from the general — “our enemies are attacking our friends, and our friends are attacking our enemies.”
“And sometimes our enemies attack each other,” Flame added.
“Now look at the maps,” she said. “Whoever made up this list was holding one of those two maps upside down.”
“What?” Geoffrey grabbed the pages back.
“The first attack was the Sneob Smaria bandits attacking the Leswana village,” said Flame. “That could happen.”
“I see where you’re going with this,” said Ayoob. “The Sneob Smaria usually operate to our north. Leswana is to our south.”
“All the battles are like that,” said Hephziba. “What are the odds that in every single attack, the attackers go after the target that’s the furthest away from them?”
“So whoever made this list knows nothing about Heartburgh,” said Ayoob.
“Or is a complete idiot,” said Flame. “Why in the world would someone make this up? Even if they got the maps right, we’d know after the first attack that the list was wrong.”
“But not for two months,” said Geoffrey.
“Did you make up this list?” said Flame.
“Are you here to help us, or to destroy us from within?” asked Ayoob. “It’s cool with me either way. I’m just curious.”
“You’re fired,” said Bartram.
“You can’t fire me,” said Geoffrey. “I don’t work for you. I work for the Duke.”
“Trust me, you’re fired.”