“This isn’t going to end well,” Bartram told Geoffrey.
“You’re right, Flame is going to find out.” Geoffrey could see how it would play out. Flame Bunyips, Heartburgh’s alliances and outreach coordinator, would find out that Geoffrey hadn’t been injured in battle at all, and that she had provided medical care under false pretenses. She would conclude that Geoffrey was not worthy of her help in the future. She would decline to help Geoffrey cheat on his ethics exam.
He looked around the table. None of them were simultaneously capable of passing an ethics test, enough of a bleeding heart to help him take it, and also gullible enough to be convinced that the cheating was justified. Neither the Duke, nor the General, nor Ayoob would jump at the opportunity to help him. Bartram might, because the man was lonely, but he’d probably flunk the test himself.
“Strictly speaking, we didn’t lie,” said Bartram. “We were, in fact, beset by bandits. And we did, in fact, suffer injuries during our trip. We just didn’t tell her the whole story.”
“It’s going to get back to her,” said Geoffrey.
“This debriefing is a safe space,” said the Duke. “Remember the second ‘R’ — ‘reset the tone.’ It’s all about honest and open feedback. Your privacy is assured.”
Geoffrey glanced at the general. “I’m sure some people would take the first opportunity they had to have a private chat with Flame and tell her the amusing story of how Geoffrey really got the slash on his shoulder.”
“Heh,” said General Lukomendrius Dungerame. “I was totally planning to do that.”
“We’re going to have to take proactive measures,” Geoffrey told Bartram. “I suggest we join the troops for their next military exercise, and ensure that we get our fair share of real battle injuries.”
“Really, is that necessary?” said Bartram. “If someone here tattles on us, we’ll confess, throw ourselves at her mercy. Women love that kind of thing. I’ve had give wives. I’m an expert.”
“I’ll try to hold off telling her as long as I can,” said the General.
The Duke gestured at Geoffrey to proceed.
“We weren’t injured fighting with the bandits,” said Geoffrey. “On the way back to Heartburgh, Bartram had Jim stop the coach so he could relieve himself. In the dark, he fell down the bank into a dry riverbed.”
“I may have had some gin in my suitcase,” said Bartram.
“I tried going down after him, but I was laughing so hard that I tripped and fell hard against a pointy branch.”
“I might have shared some of my gin,” said Bartram.
“And the bandits?” asked the Duke.
“We did meet the bandits,” said Bartram. “They ambushed us as we were departing the temple. Then Geoffrey went to work. You should have seen him.”
“What did he do?” asked the general.
“Well, actually, I’m not exactly clear on what happened,” said Bartram, and turned to Geoffrey. “Maybe you should explain.”
“I just suggested to the chief bandit that he should order his men to be careful with the horses,” said Geoffrey. “I heard the other bandits call him Stan. Jim, the coach driver, later told us the man’s full name was Mad Dog Stanfield. By his reaction to my suggestion, I could see that there were some power struggle issues in the group.”
“I didn’t see any reaction,” said Bartram.
“Exactly,” said Geoffrey. “Then I mentioned that Luna and Bessie were Quarta’s horses. She’s the village elder in Cleig Grijan. A couple of bandits reacted to her name.”
“I didn’t see the chief react to that, either,” said Bartram.
“He didn’t. But two other bandits did. A woman wearing a bandana, and another bandit who had no teeth. I later asked Quarta about them, and she said they were probably Bandana Chaya and Toothless Garret. Didn’t you see the looks those two gave each other?”
Bartram shook his head.
“From their murderous glares, I surmised that there was a rivalry between the two. Possibly for Quarta Pappas’ affections. Or maybe for her soup.”
“I didn’t try the soup,” said Bartram. “So I can’t definitely say whether the soup is worth killing for.”
“Then I turned to the biggest bandit, he was standing a bit to the back, face and arms covered in scars. And I asked him why he wasn’t doing what the chief told him to.”
“But the chief hadn’t even said anything yet,” said Bartram. “You antagonized him for no reason.”
“I just wanted to confirm a suspicion,” said Geoffrey. “And I did. Then I turn back to the chief and I said that I only had one thing that had any value. Who should I give it to? The chief told me to give it to Mumbling Escott. So I threw him the apples. And he swore at me, and I said that Quarta gave me the apples. Is this how he felt about her? Then Bandana Chaya and Toothless Garret each punched him.”
“Then the big guy with scars stepped in to break it up,” said Bartram.
“Then they all started fighting with each other and we left,” said Geoffrey. “I believe that there were already significant tensions in the group. If they had better group cohesion, it would have been harder to set them against each other.”
“Sounds like you two collected some useful intelligence,” said the general. “Ayoob, can you take notes?”
The game designer started to shake his head then stopped. “I am kind of interested in the group dynamics. But general, wouldn’t you rather have someone under your military command gather and coordinate all the intelligence?”
“Good point. I’ll assign someone to help you.”
“That covers the fourth ‘R’ — ‘refine,'” said the Duke. “Capturing the key lessons learned. And it brings us to the last ‘R,’ ‘Recap.'” He glanced down at this notebook. “We’re supposed to summarize lessons learned and figure out the next steps.”
“Don’t travel unarmed into the mountains?” asked Bartram.
“No,” said the Duke. “The lesson is group cohesion. The bandits didn’t have it, and were brought down. That means we need to get some.”
Bartram frowned. “Isn’t that why we did the bonding?”
“It was a start,” said the Duke. “But we need to do more. That’s why I hired a morale and team building consultant. He arrived late last night and you’ll all meet him at today’s drills. I expect everyone to be there.”
“You hired a team building consultant?” asked the general. “Without consulting me?”
“You’re the one who suggested it,” said the Duke.
“I’m not much of a team-building guy,” said Geoffrey. “May I be excused?”
“No. If you’re going to be wandering around Heartburgh, I want to make sure you’re a good team player. Unless you want me to send you to Garthram?”
Geoffrey was tempted. Destroying Heartburgh rival city from within would be fun. But it would take him away from Flame. “Maybe later,” he said. “If all else fails.”
“Good idea,” said the Duke. “You’ll be my secret weapon in reserve. Meanwhile, if you see any chinks in our cohesion, let us know.” He stood up and picked up his notebook. “See you all at drills.”
“Did you really tell the Duke to hire a team building consultant?” Geoffrey asked the general as the Duke left the room.
Lukomendrius winced. “I might have been a little drunk.”