Geoffrey Napadayushyi, professional drama stirrer-upper in exile, walked into Heartburgh’s finest dining establishment, the Drunken Pie Inn, located just outside the entrance to Heartburgh Castle.
Flame Bunyips, the Duke’s alliances and outreach coordinator, looked up from her breakfast. “Looking for a fast horse out of town?”
“No, I’m actually just here for breakfast,” he said. “Do you mind?” He gestured at the seat across from her then sat down without waiting for a response. “What’s good today?”
“Eggs Benedict. Quiche Lorraine. And asparagus and prsciutto omelette.”
“Really?” he looked down at her plate and raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, that’s why I’m having the gruel.”
He turned around and looked at the board hanging over the bar with the words “breakfast menu” written in charcoal. The options were eggs, porridge and fried skirrets, and both the eggs and the skirrets were crossed out.
“Fancy,” he said.
“So why did you come all the way down here when the Duke puts out a fancy spread every morning?”
“I’m just looking to eat in piece without being proselytized,” he said.
“Who’s proselytizing you?”
“Abigail has started to take her job seriously. She keeps wanting to know if I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart.”
“Or sacrificed a goat to Zeus yet.”
“Ooh, we’ve got to nip that in the bud,” said Flame. “We’ve got a shortage of livestock in Heartburgh. Encourage her to sacrifice something else.”
“She’s also set up a prayer wall. She wants all of us to put little prayers on pieces of paper and stick them in the wall.”
“This morning, I saw her setting up a shrine in the great hall, right next to the buffet table, to the sea goddess Phra Nang.”
“It was a row of stone phalluses with ribbons tied around them. She said that Phra Nang grants blessings to sailors and fishermen going on long sea voyages. And she likes penises.”
“I really don’t see anything wrong with that,” said Flame.
“The closest beach is at least a day’s ride away. We don’t have any fishermen or sailors in town.”
“Give her a chance,” said Flame. “Maybe that’s what Heartburgh needs — a sea port.”
“Don’t tell me that you believe in random gods intervening in people’s lives. On Krim, of all places. If gods were real, wouldn’t they prefer to hang out with real people, not computer simulations?”
“First of all, we are real people. Even you aren’t just a computer simulation. We’re all sentient. We all have souls.”
“Quantum standing waves creating the illusion of self-awareness generated by changing electric fields in the chips that host our virtual identities.”
“Well, you say standing quantum wave. I say, soul. Maybe that’s your problem. You don’t believe in anything.”
“Are you saying that you have to believe in stupid stuff in order to be a good person?”
“No, of course not. I know plenty of very ethical, very moral atheists,” she said. “I myself am agnostic. I believe in the possibility of something bigger than ourselves, but I’m keeping my mind open as to what exactly that is.”
“Well, I don’t. And I’d rather not do any of the things that Abigail is trying to get people to do.”
“So don’t do them.”
“It’s annoying. And I’m tempted to say something that will drive her away, which would be disruptive.”
“And you’re trying not to be disruptive.”
“Right. I’m learning to be a better human being.”
“So that World of Battle will let you back in, and you can go back to being a bad human being,” Flame said.
“I mean, no. I do want to go back to World of Battle. But I will take the lessons I learned here in Heartburgh to heart. I will return a better, kinder, more sympathetic person.” Geoffrey didn’t add that he expected his new inter-personal skills to make him even better at tearing people apart. She didn’t need to know that.
Flame narrowed her eyes. “I’m having trouble believing you,” she said. “You want to go back to your old ways, don’t you?”
He reached for her hand. “Not if you help me become better.”
She pulled her hand away. “Maybe you should go talk to Abigail and learn a little something about faith and religion.”
“She’s too heavy-handed,” he said. “I’d rather learn by example. You’re nice and kind by nature and you don’t force your opinions down people’s throats.”
“Go see Abigail. She can find a good religion for you. Or at least a spiritual practice. I mean it. Shoo.”
“I stand corrected,” he said.
The door creaked open behind him and Flame looked up, then gasped. Geoffrey turned around and saw that a newcomer had just walked in. The man was barefoot and wore loose pants and a vest over a naked chest. His black hair flopped casually over one eye. He wore an earring, and had a small carry sack slung over a shoulder.
The front desk was deserted. He turned, locked eyes with Flame, and grinned. “Can a fellow get a bed around here?”
She blushed and jumped up, knocking over the chair she’d been sitting in. “I’ll go get the innkeeper for you,” she told the newcomer. “There are plenty of empty rooms. The one next to mine is free.”
He walked over. “Steuan Raollet.” He held out his hand. “Shaman. Alternative practitioner. Naturopath.”
She shook his hand. “Flame Bunyips,” she said. “Peacemaker. Mediator. Emissary. Come on, I’ll help you. The innkeeper should be around here somewhere.”
Geoffrey watched them walk away, then pulled over Flame’s half-finished plate of porridge and considered slitting his own throat.
If he died, he’d go back to Krim’s welcome area. He could pick a new avatar. His current body was designed to be optimally attractive in a generic way, not specifically attractive to Flame. Obviously, she liked her men with more muscular chests and longer hair and two days’ worth of stubble on their chins. But if he did that, it would take him at least two weeks to get back to Heartburgh, traveling overland from Krim City. If he could find transport right away. And if bandits didn’t attack and kill everyone in the convoy.
If he was absent for two weeks, or even longer, Flame could decide to go off with Steuan, traveling the world, helping him with his faith healing. Or, worse yet, they might leave Krim altogether and go to other grids. He might never find her again.
No, he had to stay in Heartburgh and find a way to undermine their relationships. It wasn’t Abigail he needed to drive away. It was Steuan.
Fortunately, Geoffrey had a very particular set of skills.