“I appreciate what you’re trying to do here,” the Duke told Ohoudulus. “If we don’t improve morale, we’re going to lose the few soldiers that we do have.”
“And we have a heart enough time recruiting people to come out here as it is,” added the general. “If fighters go back to Krim City and bad mouth us, we’ll have nobody.”
“And without defenders, Heartburgh has no hope of becoming a viable economic center,” said the Duke.
“You don’t need to explain that to me,” said Ohoudulus. “You can trust me to get the morale up to where it needs to be.”
“Can you do that without making the troops strip naked?” The Duke nodded at the female soldier sitting on the side of the training grounds. “And while including all the women?”
“You’re asking me to work with one hand tied behind my back,” said Ohoudulus. “I can try, but there’s only so far you can go if you insist on them being fully dressed.”
A few steps back, Ayoob leaned around Geoffrey and caught Bartram’s attention. “How did the Duke find this guy?”
“He asked me to have my business manager hire someone,” Bartram said in a low voice. “Ohoudulus was the only one willing to come out here.”
“I think it may have been a mistake,” said Ayoob.
“You’re right,” said Geoffrey. “I’ve never seen anyone on World of Battle hiring a team-building consultant, but I’ve seen plenty of incompetent unit leaders get too heavy-handed. One of my favorite tactics was to find these guys and help them get into positions where they could do the most damage.”
“Did anyone ever stop you?” Ayoob asked.
“Once in a while people would figure out what I was doing,” said Geoffrey. “But more often, the idiots would get stabbed in the back by their own men.”
“Maybe the Duke will see the danger and send Ohoudulus back,” said Ayoob.
Meanwhile, the Duke had finished negotiating the terms of engagement with Ohoudulus, turned around and called Geoffrey over.
“Ohoudulus will be working with the troops to instill an esprit de corps,” the Duke said. “I want you to join them.”
“Join the troops?”
“I want you to shadow Ohoudulus and learn from him,” said the Duke. “Your strength is in tearing groups apart. But while you’re here, I want you to be part of our family. Watch him, do what he tells you.”
“For how long?”
“Until Ohoudulus says you’re ready,” said the Duke.
Geoffrey frowned. “Are you sure…”
“It’s just that, to be frank, I’m a little worried after what you told us today, about the bandits,” said the Duke. “I knew that was what you did, but hearing about it, directly from you, well, it was a little disturbing. But maybe you’d prefer to be out in the field? You can go out, join the bandits, destroy their organizations from within. Or head over to Garthram and put your talents to work there.”
It would be fun to help Heartburgh’s rival city tear itself apart. Geoffrey looked around. His talents were wasted as long as he stayed in Heartburgh.
Then his glance fell on Flame. Well, there was one reason to stay.
“I’ll do it.” He clapped the Duke on the shoulder. “I’ll learn to be a team player.”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing a team player would say,” the Duke said. “I’m already proud of you.”
The rest of the onlookers drifted away. “I’m disappointed the Duke is keeping the guy around,” said Ayoob.
“Well, I’m disappointed there isn’t going to be any nudity,” said Flame. She lifted a jug she’d been carrying. “I even brought the oil.”
“Were you planning to sprinkle it on their soldiers as they wrestled?” Ayoob asked her as they walked back into the castle.
Geoffrey didn’t hear her answer. Instead, he followed Ohoudulus to the field to gather the troops back together.
“Our first team-building exercise is going to be a three-legged race,” said Ohoudulus. “But it’s not three legs, but…” he counted up the troops. “Four teams, six people on each team, so seven legs per team.” He turned to Geoffrey. “Do you see that wooden box by the doors? Can you get it and bring it over?”
While Geoffrey fetched the supplies, Ohoudulus explained the rules. Each man — or woman — would tie their left leg to the right leg of the person to their left, and their right leg to the left leg of the person to their right, then the team would race across the field.
“If your team makes it to the finish line first you get a gold star,” said Ohoudulus.
“Is it real gold?” asked one of the soldiers.
“No,” said the team-building consultant. “It’s just metal.”
Geoffrey, back with the box, put it down on the ground next to Ohoudulus and looked inside. There was a pile of gold-painted steel stars at the bottom of the box, under dozens of fabric strips.
“My assistant will pass out the ties,’ said Ohoudulus.
“What are we supposed to do with these stars?” asked another soldier.
“We’re going to put up a display board in the barracks,” Ohoudulus said. “We’ll list all your names, and the stars will be a visible indicator of progress, team cohesion, and morale.”
As Geoffrey passed out the ties, he could hear the grumbling.
“What are we? Back in kindergarten?” said one.
“I haven’t showered in a month,” said another. “Can someone please stab me and put me out of my misery?”
“If we stab each other, we’d be back in Krim City. The Barley Mow Inn has a new beef pie on the menu.”
“I’d stab someone for a beef pie.”
In a few minutes, they’d be talking about stabbing Ohoudulus.
Geoffrey finished passing out the ties and pulled the team-building off to the side. “Are you sure this is a good idea? A three-legged race is a little humiliating for people who are professional soldiers.”
“You just don’t understand the motivational power of gold stars,” said Ohoudulus. “Watch and learn.”
Geoffrey sighed and glanced at the troops. Several were starting to develop a murderous look. None of them looked like they were going to participate in the race, and nobody was rushing to their legs to those of their neighbors.
“Listen,” he said, pitching his voice just loud enough to carry to the fighters. “These men — and women — are too experienced and capable to be taken in by gold stars. Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take your stars, sharpen their points, and make them into throwing stars.”
Ohoudulus shook his head.
“And you’ll be their first target.” Geoffrey reached into the box, took out a star, and tried to bend it. “These feel like good steel,” he said. “They’ll be deadly in the wrong hands.”
Geoffrey glanced over Ohoudulus’s shoulder at the troops. Their previous angry murderous look was changing to a new calculating murderous look. Geoffrey put his hand on Ohoudulus’s shoulder. “Do not let them run the race. I’m trying to protect you.”
“I’ve run hundreds of these kinds of exercises,” said Ohoudulus. “Watch, and don’t get in the way.”
“Yeah, don’t get in the way,” called out one of the soldiers. “If we want to run the race, we’ll run the race.”
Geoffrey stood back as the soldiers organized themselves into teams and tied their legs together.
At least they had a common enemy now. Ohoudulus. Geoffrey was sure that, by the end of the day, the man would be used for target practice. At least they’d be rid of him.
Geoffrey walked back to the terrace, which came up about waist-high. Someone had brought a chair out and the Duke was sitting in it, watching the proceedings.
“This is going pretty well,” the Duke told him.
“I doubt it,” said Geoffrey. “Ohoudulus is probably going to be dead by morning.”
“He better not be,” said the Duke. “And if he is, I’ll know who’s behind it.”
“You. I can see you don’t like him. I meant it when I said that I expected you to learn from him. You can come back to the council when Ohoudulus signs off.”