Author’s note: I removed the book Bartram was reading in the previous installment and replaced it with a catalog. A very special catalog.
“So this is where Flame’s faith healer is staying?” General Lukomendrius Dungerame asked Geoffrey as the two approached the Drunken Pie in.
“Steuan Raollet, yes. And he’s staying in the room right next to Flame’s.”
“That doesn’t bode well for me,” said the general. “He’s very handsome, you say?”
“I’m sure they’ll be up to hanky-panky in no time,” said the general.
They paused as a coach pulled up in front of the inn and Bartram ran out to meet it. He opened the door and a woman in a giant, frilly, pink hat leaned out.
“Be a dear and take care of the luggage, will you?” she said and tossed him a coin.
She looked him up and down and pasted a smile on her face. “How wonderful. Then I want my coin back.”
“Maiden Ermyntrude? It’s me, Bartram Snell Ashenhurst.”
He helped her out of the coach. “You room will be ready in a few minutes,” he said. “We can sit down and have some lunch while we wait. I’m sure you’re hungry after your long trip.” He held her arm as she climbed out of the coach.
She stepped down and pulled away from him.
“She doesn’t dress like her picture,” the general said. “Bartram showed me the woodcut and she was wearing lingerie and stiletto heels.”
Instead, Ermyntrude wore a heavy wool cloak, a high-collar dress, broad skirts, and, under all of that, very flat, practical boots.
“The last thing I want to do is sit down,” she said. “I’ve been sitting for hours. Correction. I’ve been sitting for fourteen days.”
Bartram looked around. “Well, I can show you the town.”
“Hold that thought,” she said and walked around to the back of the coach where the driver was unloading her bags. “Careful with that,” she told him. “There are some very expensive sex toys in there.”
As she gave instructions to Bartram and the driver about how to handle her luggage, Flame and Steuan came out of the inn. Geoffrey pulled the general off behind the coach before they saw them.
“That’s the faith healer?” the general whispered. “You’re right. He’s very handsome. We should kill him.”
“He’ll just get a new avatar — an even more handsome one — and be back in two weeks,” Geoffrey whispered back. “Then he’ll tell Flame we had him killed, and you’ll lose any chance you might have had with her.”
Not to mention that it would destroy any sympathy Flame might have had for Geoffrey himself and, with it, any possibility that she might help him pass a certain ethics test by taking it for him.
“We want to have someone else kill him,” Geoffrey whispered. “But in such a way that it doesn’t get back to me. To us.”
Flame was pointing out various local destinations to Steuan. “There’s the castle,” she said, pointing up the hill to her left. “The main market is down that way.” She pointed down to the hill to the right. “Those are mountains all around us. They’re full of bandits, sex cults, and spies from Garthram. Also homesteaders. What do you want to see first? The castle or the market?”
“I can’t believe she’s willing to bring a possible spy into the castle,” the general whispered. “Right after we had our security debriefing, too. The woman is addled by lust.”
“Let’s go see the market,” said Steuan. “I’m always looking for new herbs.”
As they walked away, Bartram and the coach driver exited the inn and the driver led the horses off towards the inn’s stable yard.
“I want to see the market,” Ermyntrude told Bartram. “There are a few things I’ll need you to buy for me. I didn’t realize just how far from civilization I was going to be. If they don’t sell them here, you’ll have to send for them.”
“Certainly, Ermie honey,” said Bartram.
“Call me Mistress Ermyntrude,” she said, and set off at a rapid pace after Flame and Steuan.
“I thought it was Maiden Ermyntrude,” said Bartram, hurrying after her.
“Well, two weeks ago it was,” she said.
Bartram glowered at the driver as he walked past the stables.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” the driver said. “I just do the run to Gegorport and back.”
Once Bartram and Ermyntrude got a little ways away from the inn, Geoffrey and the general set off after them.
“So what’s your plan for Steuan?” asked the general. “Look him. With that bare chest. It’s freezing up here. Who does he think he is? Aladdin?”
“First, we learn everything we can about him,” said Geoffrey. “What are his habits? His likes and dislikes? What skills does he have? What’s his personality? How does he interact with people?”
“Now you sound like you want to date him.”
“I’m looking for weaknesses.”
“Like almost anything. If he likes to go to a particular place, well, maybe some bandits could show up there and take him captive and keep him for a while before killing him.”
“I like it,” said the general.
“If the bandits treat him badly enough, he might never come back to Heartburgh again.”
“That’s good, yes, that’s good.”
“Oh, say, he likes to eat mushrooms. There might accidentally be poisoned mushrooms in his stew. Wouldn’t it be a shame if the faith healer got sick and died a slow painful death?”
“That would be a shame.” The general smiled and his stride became a little bit bouncier.
“Or, say, Steuan has spent time in Garthram before. Or chats with someone who’s known to be a Garthram sympathizer. Will Flame still want to spend time with him? Especially if it looks like he was hiding his past from her? But that’s just off the top of my head. Once we know more about him, we’ll be able to make specific plans.”
“So we’re just going to follow him around?”
“We should probably take turns, so he doesn’t get spooked,” said Geoffrey. “But we can’t take too long, either. If Flame gets attached to him, and he decides to move on, she might leave Heartburgh with him.”
“But what if Steuan makes her happy?”
Geoffrey looked at him. “Oh, that’s a good one.”
“I know, right?”
And they both laughed.