The door to the athaneum popped open. “The Duke is going to be a few minutes late,” Olav the page told the waiting council members sitting around the conference table.
“He’s probably meeting with a foreign ambassador,” said Hephziba Primrose Livilla Massey. “Running a small kingdom in the middle of nowhere must be very challenging.”
“No, he got stuck in his bath again,” said Olav and disappeared back down the hallway.
“What I don’t understand,” said Flame, “Is how the Duke found a whole bunch of people to be staff in this castle. At the inn, the innkeeper is also the cook and the housekeeper. And if you want to eat, you have to go to the kitchen and serve yourself.”
“He pays well,” said Hephziba. “Also, his family owns an asteroid mining company. If Heartburgh can get a gate, he promised jobs to all of us. I can be a logistics coordinator on Vesta.”
“Do you really want to work for a mining company that hires people based on their ability to draw baths?” asked Ayoob.
Hephziba crossed her arms. “Do you know how many applications I sent out? I couldn’t even get an unpaid internship. At least this way, I’ll get a foot in the door.”
“Where have you been the last few days, anyway?” asked the General. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about some supply issues.”
“I was down in Gegorport,” she said. “Resolving those supply issues. Did you know that they’re actually planning to build a port?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” said the general. “Good for them. And us, too, I suppose.”
“See, Abigail’s shrine worked,” Flame told Geoffrey.
He grimaced. “Sure. And does Steuan’s faith healing work, too?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said.
“Who is this?” The general asked.
“A big lying jerk,” said Geoffrey.
“No, he’s wonderful,” said Flame. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know lying jerks,” said Geoffrey.
“That’s true, he does,” said the general.
Flame frowned. She was going to say more to defend her new boyfriend, but Geoffrey interrupted.
“Speaking of jerks, we might have a problem with that motivational guy,” he said. “I’m worried Ohoudulus was a plant.”
“Ohoudulus the Unliving? The team builder? Why do you say that?” asked Abigail. “He did such a nice job getting the city to root for our soldiers.”
“Well, first of all, his name is a dead giveaway,” said Geoffrey. “But there were also a few things he did that made me suspicious.”
“I think you were just jealous,” said the general. “And annoyed that the Duke made you his assistant. But even assuming you’re right, there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“We can make contingency plans,” said Geoffrey. “And do a post-action review. The Duke loves post-action reviews.”
“You’d have to convince him that he might have been wrong to hire Ohoudulus in the first place,” said the general. “And the Duke doesn’t like to admit mistakes.”
“Maybe there’s someone else here, at this table, someone with a less fragile ego, who can step up and take responsibility instead,” said Geoffrey.
“I’d be happy to do it,” said Ayoob. “But I had nothing to do with getting Ohoudulus to come here. Bartram, you’re the one who hired him.”
“Hmm, what?” Bartram looked up from the book he’d been leafing through.
Flame scooted over and checked out what he was reading. “He’s looking at porn,” she said.
“It’s a catalog,” he said. “I’m doing research.”
Flame snorted. “Researching what? Women’s lingerie?”
“There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with your gender expression.” Abigail patted him on his arm. “Finding out who you are, and being true to that, is all part of being human. As the Lord Krishna once said…”
“If you must know, I sent away for a female companion,” Bartram cut in. “But I’m worried that she might not look like her woodcut. Medieval printing is so… medieval.”
Abigail pulled her hand back and pursed her lips.
“How about you, Luke?” Geoffrey asked the general. “Why don’t you talk to the Duke? Just admit that you might have been wrong. He already thinks you’re the one who suggested the idea. “
“I don’t know why,” the general said. “I don’t have any memory of it. I must have been drunk.”
“Either way, he thinks it was you,” said Geoffrey. “So take credit for it, and then admit you might have made a mistake.”
“I don’t know…”
“Maybe Steuan can help,” said Flame. “He’s incredibly brave. I’m sure he won’t mind telling the Duke some harsh truths. I can go get him.”
“No, no,” said the general. “I’ll do it. No need to get outsiders involved.”
“Like Geoffrey said, the Duke already thinks it was my idea.” The general leaned back and slapped his thighs.
“Glad that’s settled,” said Bartram and turned to the next page in his catalog. He held it out to Flame. “What do you think of her?”
“Ugh,” she said. “She’d freeze to death. And there’s no way she can walk on cobblestones with those heels.”
“You wear heels,” he said.
“I wear heeled boots. It’s totally different.”
The Duke walked in a couple of minutes later, his hair still damp.
“Good, you’re all here,” he said. “Hephziba, are you ready to make your report about Geoport.”
“Gegorport,” she said. “And yes, I’ve brought some charts.”
“Hold on, before we do that, we need to do an after-action review,” said the general.
The Duke sat down. “Why? What happened?”
“There’s a slight possibility — slight, mind you — that the team-builder I recommended we hire may have been an enemy agent,” said the general. “Very slight possibility. But one we need to address.”
The Duke drowned.
“I take full responsibility,” the general said, glancing at Flame. “Odds are, Ohoudulus was exactly what he claimed to be. But if he wasn’t, then we might have had a significant security breach.”
“I don’t have my debriefing notebook,” said the Duke. “Does anyone remember what the first step was?”
“Yes,” said Hephziba. “I took notes when we had one the first day I got here.” She pulled out a heavy binder.
“Right, that was when that cow got loose in the courtyard,” said the general. “We lost some good men that day.”
“The first step was to reconvene,” said Hephziba. She looked up. “We’re doing that now.” She turned the page. “The second ‘R’ was for ‘Reset the tone.'”
“Right,” said the general. “This is a safe space. We’re not blaming anyone. Feel free to speak.”
“The next step is to review the objectives,” said Hephziba.
The general looked at Ayoob.
“We need to establish what Ohoudulus may have seen and learned during his time here, what the worst case scenario is if he had been an enemy agent, and what steps we need to take to protect ourselves if he was.” Ayoob nodded at Geoffrey. “You spent the most time with him.”
“At first, I thought that he was incompetent,” said Geoffrey. “He seemed determined to humiliate people and turn us against each other. But then he turned things around, and then I thought that maybe he was better at it than I thought.”
“Well, teamwork and morale building isn’t exactly what you’re known for,” said the Duke
“But disruption and morale lowering is,” said Geoffrey.
“So if he was actually trying to disrupt us, wouldn’t he have pushed harder to get you back on this council, instead of telling me you needed more training?”
“He didn’t know who I was,” said Geoffrey. “When he found out, that’s when he suddenly changed his mind and said I was a team player after all.”
“No, he changed his mind because of my smooch,” said Bartram, looking up from his sex cult orgy etchings. “He was impressed by your love for your fellow man. You owe me one.” He blew an air kiss. “My lips can move mountains.”
“Anyway, for a while, it seemed like he was deliberately trying to set the fighters against each other,” said Geoffrey. “I had to step in a couple of times when he was interacting with the troops to keep them from killing him. Then, at the end of the day, when it was just him and the troops, no audience, he tried to get people to say what they hated most about each other.”
“That’s a team building exercise?” asked the Duke.
“I was at a nonprofit leadership retreat where they did that once,” said Flame. “It didn’t go well. But in the afternoon, when he organized the archery and swordfighting contest — that was great. The whole town came out to watch. Everybody loved it.”
“And he got a chance to see exactly how good our soldiers were,” said Geoffrey.
They sat in silence for a minute.
“So who was he working for?” the Duke finally asked.
“Garthram,” said the general. “They’re bigger than us. They want the gate and don’t want us to get it.”
“You think they’d really send someone to spy on us?” asked Flame.
“Well, my cousin Nigel is the Grand Duke over there,” said the Duke. “I wouldn’t put anything past him.”
“So he might now know everything about the castle layout and our military capabilities,” said Hephziba. “That was the third step, refine. Now we recap. What do we, as a city, do next to protect ourselves?”
“We need to keep an eye out for suspicious newcomers,” said the general. “What do we really know about that faith healer, anyway?”
“He’s kind and gentle,” said Flame.
“And very handsome,” said Geoffrey. “That’s suspicious in and of itself. Anyone who deliberately makes their avatar attractive, instead, of say, strong or intelligent, has some kind of scam going.”
“Well, maybe that’s his original biological template,” said Flame. “He could have been born like that. Krim lets you use your physical body as a default option at no extra charge.” She looked at Geoffrey. “You might not know that, not having had a physical body.”
“Either way, we should keep an eye on him,” said the general.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” said Flame.
“No, I didn’t mean…” said the general.
Flame stared him down and he trailed off.
“I’ve got another idea,” said Geoffrey. “I think Abigail is right. We need religion.”
She smiled. “Yes, I’ve always said…”
“We need a state religion,” Geoffrey interrupted. “Something that will get everyone in Heartburgh unified. Maybe something militaristic.”
“Oh, I don’t think we need to go that far,” said Abigail. “Religion is about peace and love for your fellow man.”
“Well, actually,” said Ayoob. “If you look at history, religion was often used as a tool by rulers and military leaders. In fact, there are few wars where religion didn’t play a role of some sort. Even in countries that officially separated church and state — the United states in the twentieth century for example — there were military chaplains embedded with front-line units.”
“All we need is a charismatic leader,” said Geoffrey. “I nominate Abigail.”
“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a messiah…” she said.
“It could be a sex cult,” said Bartram. “Those are very popular.”
“First thing we do, is we declare that faith healers are heretics,” said the general.
“We can burn them at the stake,” added Geoffrey.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Abigail. “But I can go into the woods and fast. I’m sure I can come back with some visions we can use.”
“I’ll be your first disciple,” said Ayoob. “I’ll misinterpret your visions to serve our military purposes. It’ll be fun.”