Geoffrey walked out of the front entrance of Heartburgh Castle with his overnight bag. A couple of changes of clothing, a few jars of skin care products, hair pomade — just the bare essentials. He hoped that Flame would bring anything else they would need for the trip. After all, she’d been on Krim longer, and knew her way around.
The coach was already waiting in the courtyard below the front steps, but Flame wasn’t anywhere around.
Bartram poked his head out of the passenger compartment. “Geoffrey, you’re here! You made it!” The financier hopped out. “It’s going to be a great trip. The Duke wants us to go to Cleig Grijan and talk to village elders, but the sex cult isn’t that much further. We can pop up there. Do some male bonding, take in an orgy.” He patted Geoffrey on the shoulder. “It will be fun.”
“I’m not much of an orgy enthusiast,” said Geoffrey. “They’re a little too sticky for my tastes.”
“That’s fine,” said Bartram. “You don’t have to join in if you don’t want to. Sometimes, just sitting back and watching is the best part. Less strain on the joints, too.”
“Anyway, I thought that Flame was going to be heading up north,” said Geoffrey. “Is she coming.”
“She told the Duke that she had to go do something else,” said Bartram. “It just came up suddenly. But we’ll have more fun without her, just us boys.”
The driver strolled up, coming from the directions of the stables, carrying a couple of heavy canvas bags. “We’ll be off soon,” he said, tossing the bags into the back of the coach.
“What are we waiting for?” asked Bartram.
“We’re taking a few packages up to Cleig Grija,” the driver said. “Since we’re heading up there, anyway. Shouldn’t be more than a few minutes. I’ll just go and get us some provisions, in case the trip takes us longer than we thought.” The driver went around to the side entrance, the one that led to the castle kitchens, just as Flame came through the main doors.
“Never mind, there she is now,” said Geoffrey. He waved at Flame. “I guess she’s coming, after all.”
“What?” Bartram turned around.
Flame saw them and waved back, then walked briskly down the steps, her heels clanking on stone surface.
“I want to thank you again before I go,” she told Bartram, then suddenly leaved forward and hugged him. “You’re a saint. I’ve been asking the Duke to hire a vet since I got here. It’s going to make such a big difference. I really appreciate it.”
“Well, I didn’t have much to do with it,” said Bartram, glancing at Geoffrey. “Just agreed to foot the bill, that’s all. He really didn’t need any convincing.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t get anywhere with him,” said Flame. “Of course, I don’t have your deep pockets.” She playfully punched Bartram on the shoulder. “You’re all right.”
“Are you coming with us?” asked Geoffrey.
“Can’t,” said Flame. “I need to get a job description together. I’m thinking of hitting the biggest farms in the area, find out what exactly they’re looking for, vet-wise. I’ve heard the complaints, but I want to get some specifics. What kinds of problems are they having? What are the most common diseases or injuries that their animals get? What experience should the vet have? What supplies do they need to bring with them?”
“Those are all good questions,” said Bartram. “But talk to some of the smaller farmers, too. They might have different needs. When we come back, I’ll send a letter off to my business manager in Krim City and he’ll find just the right person for the job.”
“How soon do you think they’ll get here?”
“Probably no longer than a month,” said Bartram. “Hopefully, he won’t have to recruit off-world. If it does, then it might take a little while longer.”
“Well, the sooner we start then, the better,” said Flame.
She started walking down to the inn, then stopped and turned back. “Have a good trip!” She waved at them. “See you when you get back.”
“You bribed her not to go with us,” Geoffrey told Bartram.
“Of course not. She’s been trying to convince the Duke to sponsor a vet since her first day here, but he’s been more focused on military preparedness. Have you seen the soldiers training?”
“So what made him change his mind?”
“Well, I might have had a little something to do with it,” said Bartram. “But the Duke now understands that for Heartburgh to become successful, we need a reliable food supply. We can’t just keep importing everything from the south.”
“And it’s just a coincidence that he changed his mind today?”
“I know. What are the odds?” Bartram breathed in deep. “And what a great day for a ride, too. Just smell that fresh air.”
“Listen, we’ve got a few minutes before we head off,” said Geoffrey. “I’m going to go down to the inn. I left something there that I might need on this trip.” He adjusted his bag on his shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
“We’ll wait for you,” said Bartram.
“No, you don’t have to,” said Geoffrey.
“Well, we’re not going to leave without you,” said Bartram. “Otherwise, what’s the point of a team-building, male-bonding exercise?”
“What about Ayoob?” asked Geoffrey. “Can’t he come with you?”
“He’s holed up with Dungerame. They’re planning something. Strategic, I’m sure. Probably something expensive that I’m going to have to pay for.”
“Maybe you should be with them, then.” Geoffrey backed away.
“Oh, come on, there’s a sex cult,” said Bartram. “How often do you get to see one of those? It’ll be fun. If we’re lucky, we might get to see a human sacrifice.”
Geoffrey began walking down towards the inn.
“I brought three bottles of whiskey!” Bartram yelled after him. “Just the two of us, on the open road. Bartram and Geoffrey. Geoffrey and Bartram. The two campaneros.”
Geoffrey continued walking.
“I’ve got mushrooms,” said Bartram. “Probably psychedelic. Maybe a little poisonous. Come on, loosen up a little. Don’t go.”