“Wait, you can’t go in there…” the page said.
Geoffrey shoved him out of the way and threw open the door.
The general was climbing out of the bathtub and his derriere, glistening with water droplets, was pale and flabby.
“Hey!” The general grabbed for a towel and turned around. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“The list you gave me was fake,” Geoffrey said.
“Well, that was quick. How did you figure it out? I mean, my sources must have lied to me.”
“You had the map upside-down,” said Geoffrey.
“I had nothing to do with it. Have I ever misled you?”
“When? No, never mind.” The general put a bathrobe on over the towel. “Consider this a free lesson. Actually, you should be thanking me.”
“Thanking you? For what?”
“For showing you that there are no shortcuts to becoming a self-actualized human being. I still expect to set me up with Flame.”
“No. And what makes you think that I can, anyway? My strength is more in the area of destroying relationships than creating them.”
“What about last month?”
“Euric and Frithila? That wasn’t a relationship. That was a hook-up. An affair that destroyed two alliances.”
“We can start with a hook-up. I can take it from there.”
“Sure. There’s always the chance that Flame is into guys who can’t read maps.”
“I told you, I didn’t make that list. Anyway, will you help?”
“No. There’s nothing in it for me.” Geoffrey turned to leave.
“How about altruistically helping a human being? Isn’t that something you want to practice? Please?”
The door hadn’t been shut all the way and the page darted off to the side when Geoffrey opened it.
Out of habit, Geoffrey raised a finger to his lips. “Don’t say a word about what you just heard,” he told the page. That should ensure that the gossip would fly fast and far.
He turned to walk down the hallway, then stopped. That was the kind of thinking that brought down two military empires on the World of Battle. One of them being the empire that actually hired him. If he brought down Heartburgh, he’d have to start over again from scratch somewhere else. He sighed. What was he doing?
He walked out the castle’s main entrance. Not the giant doors at the top of the front steps, used for special occasions, but the normal-sized door on the ground floor that opened directly to the courtyard in front of the castle. That’s where he’d been dropped off that morning. There was another pair of coaches there now, with armed guards monitoring the unloading of heavy locked crates.
“Careful with that!” Geoffrey turned around and looked up the stairs. Bartram stood at the open castle doors, motioning workmen inside.
Geoffrey started to walk away.
“Geoffrey Napadayushyi!” Bartram called out. “Where are you going?”
“To my inn,” Geoffrey yelled back.
“You’re going to be late for the Duke’s dinner.”
So that explained why General Dungerame was taking a bath in the middle of the day.
“I thought I was fired.” But Geoffrey turned back and walked up the steps.
“You’re not fired yet. Also, I’ve been thinking. You’re good at taking down empires, right?”
“In fact, you’re legendary. You can find weak spots anywhere and exploit them. You’re like a weasel. Weaseling in. Doing weasel things. Sniffing. Biting? I don’t know what weasels do.”
“Well, I’m not a biologist…”
“Well, what if you did it in reverse? Find our weakest spots, but then tell us what they were, so that we could fix them. Use your powers for good instead of evil.”
“For example, you could go out with Flame and talk to the villagers and figure out who’s about to betray us,” said Bartram. “She’s too nice. She doesn’t see the full extent of the evil that people are capable of. Not like you and I do.”
“I don’t mind helping her,” he said. That would mean hours spent in her company. Hours to get her to want to help him. Or, at least, feel like she owed him a favor.
“And then, once in a while, go and sow havoc among our enemies,” Bartram added.
“I guess I could do that.”
“Good. I spent a lot of money getting you here, and the Duke tells me I can’t get it back, so I might as well get some use out of you. Now go change for dinner.”
“My stuff is at the inn.”
“Not anymore. You’ve got a room on the third floor. I want you close, where I can keep an eye on you.”
Geoffrey walked in through the giant front doors, where the page was waiting in the vestibule.
“Dinner is in half an hour, Mr. Ashenhurst. Mr. Napadayushyi.”
“We’ll be there,” said Bartram. He stepped aside to let one of the workmen through, followed by a guard. “Take that straight to the store room,” he said.
“And you,” Bartram pointed his finger at the page. “Show Geoffrey here his new room.”
“Yes, Mr. Ashenhurst,” the page said, and led the way into the castle.
“What’s your name?” Geoffrey asked, catching up and walking next to the page.
Geoffrey turned and shook Olav’s hand. “I’m glad to meet you. You know everything that’s happening in the castle, don’t you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that…”
“Find me tomorrow when you’re off duty. I want to have a chat.”
“Sure.” Olaf led the way into the front stairway. As they started up, they met Flame heading down.
“Yes, he’ll be there for dinner,” said Geoffrey.
“I was worried that you’d been fired,” she said.
“No. Still here.”
“You know, you were good, earlier,” she said. “You tore us apart, but then you brought us back together. And stronger, too.”
“Bartram wants me to go out with you tomorrow.”
She raised an eyebrow, as did Olav.
“To meet the villagers,” Geoffrey added. “And if that’s what the Duke wants me to do.”
“That sounds nice,” said Flame. “You’ll love them.”
“Yes, I’m staying here at the castle now, so I guess I’ll see you a lot. We can get to know each other. Are you coming to the dinner, too?”
“No. The Duke is a hypochondriac and a germaphobe. All you have to do is cough loudly within earshot, and you’ll be disinvited.” She rolled her eyes. “I only go to the dinners if we have allies visiting, or village leaders.” She glanced at Olav. “I mean, I love the Duke. He’s a real character. His old campaign stories are great. I could listen to them all night. I just have to get up early tomorrow, you know?”
She squeezed past them and went down the stairs.
“So where are you going?” Geoffrey called after her.
“I’m staying at the inn.” She waved goodbye and disappeared down the next flight.
“If you want, I can bring you an urgent message half-way though the dinner,” said Olav.
“That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s offered to do for me,” said Geoffrey. “You know, if you ever need a favor… “