At Castle Heartburgh, breakfast was served buffet-style, in the great hall on the ground floor, on the north side of the castle. The food was on sidebars on the west side of the room, directly across from the staircase. Windows opened out over the training yard.
There was porridge, and bread, and stew left over from last night’s dinner. It wasn’t the worst food that Geoffrey had ever had. The two-week-long trip from Krim City to Heartburgh took that prize. Last night’s dinner was probably also bad, but he had drunk a lot of ale and had trouble remembering all of it. Which was probably a good thing, considering how long winded the Duke got about battles he’d been in years before, on worlds that no longer existed.
Krim proably wouldn’t exist for my longer, anyway. Geoffrey’s headache was unbearable, and on top of that he also felt nauseous. No reasonable virtual world allowed this amount of physical discomfort. World of Battle certainly didn’t. There was a reason that basic bio worlds were so rare. Nobody wanted a truly realistic simulation. Sure, people said they did. But did, they, really? No. No, they didn’t.
If this was what having a physical bio was like, Geoffrey was glad that he’d never had one, that he’d been born online and never had to suffer from stubbed toes, or splinters, or hunger, or hangovers.
Until he came to Krim.
He pushed his bowl of porridge off to the side, put his head down on his arms on the table in front of him, and waited for the world to stop spinning around him.
Geoffrey opened one eye and peered up at Olav, the castle’s page.
“Drink this,” Olav said, pushing a mug of something towards him. “It will help with the hangover.”
Geoffrey lifted his head and looked into the mug. A yellow ball floated in an inch of brown liquid.
“Don’t look at it, just swallow it,” said Olav.
“Is it poison?”
“That’s too bad.”
Dying and having a nice break from Krim would be good about now.
He picked up the mug and tossed it back. “Argh.”
“It’s raw egg and whiskey,” said Olav. “A Heartburgh speciality.”
“I’d rather have been poisoned.”
“If you die, you’d have to make the two-week trip back here again,” said Olav. The page sat down across from Geoffrey. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“I don’t remember.” Geoffrey put his head back down. “I think I wanted us to be friends.”
“Really? Wow. That’s great,” said Olav. “You’re famous.”
“You’ve heard of me?” Geoffrey mumbled into his left elbow.
“Well, no, but the Duke was telling us all about you.” Olav suddenly jumped up. “Get up, the Duke is here.” He pulled at Geoffrey’s shirt.
Geoffrey sat up and swiveled in his chair.
Duke Percheval descended the stairs on the east side of the room with a bounce in his step, with no sign that he spent the previous evening drinking. Like yesterday, he was dressed as if he was King Henry the Eighth about to graduate from clown college. Today, the primary colors of the Duke’s outfit made Geoffrey’s eye’s hurt.
Halfway down the stairs, the Duke stopped and looked down on the people in the great hall. Geoffrey looked around as well. He hadn’t paid attention when he first came in.
Financier Bartram Snell Ashenhurst was at a table on the other side of the room with Abigail Yaxley, the religion expert. Ayoob, the game designer, was sitting on a couch eating a pear. Hephziba, the logistics coordinator, was at the buffet table with Flame Bunyips, who did something with alliances and outreach.
“I see my whole advisory council is here,” the Duke said. “I hear you’ve named yourselves the Heartburgh Six. I’ll just call you the Six for short.” He clapped his hands, then his eyes fell on Flame. “Mx. Buyips, I missed you last night.”
She coughed into her hand and the Duke flinched.
“Never mind, that’s fine,” he said. “In fact, maybe you shouldn’t be in the castle today, either.” The Duke looked around at his advisors, narrowing his eyes when he came to Geoffrey. “The rest of you look a little under the weather, too. You know what would help? Some fresh air. I think I’ll have breakfast up in my quarters.” He turned and went back up the stairs.
“For a minute there, I thought he was going to give us quests,” said Ayoob.
“This isn’t a game,” Flame said. “Krim is a place where where people live real, meaningful, lives.”
“Except for the fact that it’s virtual, not real,” Ayoob said.
“And I hate to point it out, but most people here on Krim don’t have much meaning in their lives,” said Abigail. “You find true meaning in God, or the higher power of your choice. Not in drinking and battles.” She sniffed and carried her plate to a free table.
“Lives here on Krim are just as meaningful — or meaningless — as anywhere else in the universe,” said Flame. “People work, laugh, fall in love, build homes and create families…”
“Without children,” Ayhoo said.
“…with goats and chickens and cats.”
“They also keep cattle, horses, and sheep,” added Hephziba. “I’m doing a livestock census now. I should have preliminary results next week.”
“I’m sorry, Ayoob, but I have to side with Flame on this,” said Geoffrey. “Games are fun. If Krim was a game, it would be fun to play. Like World of Battle. Krim is all pain and misery.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s all pain and misery,” said Flame. “There are good parts.”
“I think Krim is one of those games where people compete to see how much they can stand,” said Ayoob. “Like a hot dog eating contest. Whoever sticks it out the longest, wins.”
“Then they have it all backwards,” said Geoffrey. “Whoever sticks it out the longest, loses.” He pushed away the porridge, stood up, and staggered over to Ayoob’s couch. “Don’t mind me,” he said as Ayoob got out of the way. “I’ll just close my eyes and lie here for a while.”