“I guess he’s not going to have his soup then,” said Jim, and sat down in Bartram’s chair. He leaned over it and breathed in the scent. “Beans and… turnips?”
“Skirrets,” said Quarta Pappa. “And garlic and onions, a little fennel.”
Jim slurped up a spoonful. “Tasty.”
“Is your friend really planning to walk all the way to Qualdir’s temple?” Quarta asked Geoffrey.
“I haven’t known him long enough to tell,” said Geoffrey. “But he’s mentioned the cult a few times in the two days I’ve known him.”
“It’s a long way,” said Quarta.
“Nearly an hour by coach,” added Jim.
“A lot longer if you walk,” said Quarta. “There are wolves out there. And bandits. He’ll probably die.”
Geoffrey shrugged. “Then we’ll be rid of him for a couple of weeks. And maybe he’ll decide not to come back.”
“That’s a little callous.”
“Like I said, I don’t know him well, and I’ve already been paid. I’m actually here because someone I do want to be friends with cares about this community.”
“You said something about a vet?”
“Flame’s been trying to get the Duke to hire a veterinarian,” said Geoffrey.
“A lot of us out here could use one,” said Quarta. “We tried finding someone in Krim City about a year ago but couldn’t offer enough money to make it worth anyone’s while.”
“What kind of vet are you looking for?”
“A heritage vet,” she said. “Someone knows how to work with sixteenth century tools and materials.”
“Like a reenactor?”
“Something like that. We don’t actually mind if they use more modern techniques. That’s the difference between Krim and the historical reenactment grids. Those other worlds are all about accuracy but you end up feeling like you’re living in a museum, not a real place. Here, we’re building a real community and we’re willing to do what it takes to keep our animals alive. And if it’s not strictly historically accurate, well, Krim City is hundreds of miles away. What are the grid admins going to do? Come out here and fine us?”
“Anything else you want me to tell Flame?”
“Well, she knows what animals we’ve got. Cattle, horses, pigs, goats, sheep. Chickens and ducks. Dogs and cats, too.”
“I’ve got a pet turtle back home,” added Jim, pushing away the empty bowl. “Thanks for the soup. I’ll go unload. I’ve got some mail for you guys. Some packages.”
“So tell me about the bandits,” said Geofrey. “How many of them are there? Are they small independent groups or are they coordinated somehow?”
Jim stood up and, as he walked to the door, said, “There are a few dozen. They mostly hide in the hills to the south of Heartburgh and attack caravans heading back to the city with gold or jewels. But there’s a group out here that’s mostly into cattle rustling. They don’t usually come into the villages.”
He tipped his hat at Quartas and went outside.
“The bandits like big battles and high rewards,” Quartas said. “They tend to stay away from small farmers or us here in the village. We don’t have much more stealing, and we’ll fight to defend what we’ve got.”
“We didn’t see anyone on the road from Heartburgh.”
“They don’t usually ambush the mail coach,” she said. “If there’s anything valuable in it, there are going to be guards. So the attackers might get injured. Out here, that means a slow, painful death and a two week trip to get back. But if they come across a single unarmed man in the middle of nowhere, they’ll probably take everything off of him. You’re a strategist, right? Can you help the duke clear the bandits out of here? We can defend ourselves, but we’ve got farms to take care of. We can’t go around chasing down the bandits through the mountains.”
“I’ll talk to the Duke about it,” said Geoffrey.
Once the situation with Flame and the ethics test was taken care of, he’d have some time to kill. He might go out and turn the bandits against each other. In Geoffrey’s experience, that was usually a much faster and more effective solution than putting a police force together. It could even be fun.
“Come on, let’s help Jim with the packages,” said Quarta.
Geoffrey couldn’t think of any reason not to.
Outside, the late afternoon sun was low in the sky, just above the mountain peaks to the west. The stables were a few years down the road. Jim had unhitched the horses and led them inside to take care of them.
Quartas pointed to the pasture just beyond it. “My sheep are back there,” she said. She walked up to the coach and opened the storage compartment in the back. “Grab a couple of these boxes,” she called back at Geoffrey. He did, then followed her past the stables to the next building. “This is the general store,” she said, “and post office, and bank.”
She put down the boxes she was carrying on the front steps and took out a heavy iron key.
“You’re the store keeper?” asked Geoffrey.
“And the postmaster. And the banker.” She opened the door and led the way inside. Geoffrey put down his boxes and walked back outside to go back to the coach but stopped at the top of the steps. He could see Bartram off in the distance, trudging along the dirt road that led further north into the mountains, carrying a suitcase.
The man had bribed Flame with a veterinarian just so he could come all the way out here and hang out with him, Geoffrey thought.
Quartas joined him on the steps and saw where he was looking.
“That’s a very sad and lonely man,” she said.
“You think so?”
“I think he’s desperate to connect with people and doesn’t know how.”
“He does know how,” said Geoffrey. “He spends money. He buys people military advisors. And veterinarians.”
“Does it work?”
Down the road, Bartram stopped for a second, put down his suitcase, and stared up at the slight hill in front of him. Then he wiped his forehead with a his sleeve and picked up the suitcase again, now with the other hand, and resumed his plodding pace. Soon, he’d be over the hill and out of sight.
“Do you have any other horses?” Geoffrey asked.
“Bessie and Luna,” said Quartas. “They’re in the stable.”
“Can I borrow them for a couple of hours?”
“No,” said Quartas. “But you can rent them.”