“This is exciting,” said Hephziba. She looked around at the other members of the Duke’s advisory council. “Come on, why is everyone so glum? The Duke said he had something important to talk to us about. Maybe we’re about to be attacked. I know it would be awful, but, honestly, it’s been a little slow lately. I’m king of looking forward to some excitement.”
“You missed last night’s witch burning,” he told her.
“That’s not technically accurate,” said Ayoob. “No witches had been burned. You didn’t miss much.” The game designer went back to doodling something in his notebook.
“I was in my room, organizing my notes,” Hephziba said. “I want to be ready when we go into battle with our enemies.”
“What enemies?” Geoffrey rolled his eyes. He’d been involved in more than a hundred war councils and several major wars during his time on World of Battle. Compared to that, being in Heartburgh was nothing but tedium. His skills were completely wasted here. He’d been in town for nearly a week now, and the closest thing he’d seen to actual military action was an accidental run-in with a gang of bandits. “I brought my maps,” Hephziba said. “Nobody else was doing it, so I went to the barracks and talked with the soldiers about any run-ins they had with enemy forces.” She nodded at General Lukomendrius Dungerame. “Thank you for your support.”
The general blinked slowly, grunted in agreement, then shaded his eyes with his hand. “Can someone draw the curtains?” he whispered.
He must have been drinking again the night before, Geoffrey thought.
Hephziba rushed to the window. “Maybe, Flame, I could talk to you about what you’ve been hearing,” she added as she pulled the drapes closed.
Flame Bunyips lifted her head up. “Sure,” she mumbled and dropped her head back onto her arms.
She’d just been dumped by the town’s new faith healer.
“You’re better of without him,” the general told her.
“You only dated him for one day,” Geoffrey added.
“It was a very intense day,” said Flame.
“Still, you barely know him,” Geoffrey said. He looked around the table at the other advisors. He expected the general to agree with him, but Luke was now massaging his temples, his eyes squeezed shut in apparent pain.
“Maybe I’ll just go home,” said Flame. “What am I doing here, anyway?”
“You’re helping create a community,” said Geoffrey. “Hey, do you want to show me around town? Introduce me to the people here? It could fun. Take your mind off things.”
“Why do you care?” she asked him.
“Because Heartburgh is growing on me,” he said, though it wasn’t. “And you care about this place, too.”
“I don’t have any place else to go, anyway,” said Flame.
“See? You belong here,” Geoffrey told her. “All of us do.”
“I certainly do,” said Hephziba, sitting down. “What about you, Bartram?”
Bartram Snell Ashenhurst, the financial advisor and the chief funding source for the Duke’s plan to grow Heartburgh, had been silent all morning. His new girlfriend had abandoned him the day before after Bartram had run out of things to buy her. Heartburgh didn’t offer many shopping opportunities.
Some people considered her a gold-digger. But Geoffrey thought that they were a good match.
Next to him, Abigail Yaxley was also quiet. Her attempt to start a new religion to help unite Heartburgh didn’t go well, and an innocent man had almost been burned alive. She stared down at her hands. She’d been rubbing her fingers for the past few minutes.
“Guess what,” said Ayoob. “I saw the Duke with a new guy this morning. Handel something. Some bad pun.”
“I once knew someone named Handel,” said Flame. “His name was a bad pun, too. Handel Wittcair.” She spelled it out. “Get it? Like with care? That was on a different world, though. Emura. A fantasy startup. It was my first community building gig.”
“How did that go?” asked Ayoob.
“It went great,” said Flame. “Emura was a huge success.”
“I’ve heard of Emura,” said Ayoob.
“Did you know, I almost invested in that world?” Bartram finally spoke up. “I could have made a fortune. Well, another fortune. On top of the fortune I’ve already got. That’s one of the reasons that the Duke and I brought you on board, the fact that you’d worked for them.”
“Well, it wasn’t all me…” Flame began when the door to the athaneum swung open.
“And this is my advisory council,” the Duke said, sweeping in. He was followed by a short balding man in a monk’s robes.
“Everybody, meet Handel, the marketing monk,” the Duke said. “Handel, meet General Lukomendrius Dungerame, who heads up our military. Bartram Snell Ashenhurst, who handles financing. Abigail Yaxley, our spiritual and religious leader. Hephziba Primrose Livilla Massey, our logistics coordinator. Flame…”
“Flame Bunyips!” Handel interrupted him. “As I live and breathe! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
Flame looked him with confusion. “Do I…?”
Handel laughed. “I probably look a little different now. Imagine me a foot taller. With a mustache and hair on my head. Maybe the wart on my nose is throwing you off, too.”
She shook her head.
“We were very close once,” Handel told the Duke. “Back on Emura. I guess I wasn’t as memorable to her as she was to me.”
“Oh, you two already know each other,” said the Duke. “That’s fantastic. I have grand plans for Heartburgh, you know.”
“You told me,” said Handel. “Bring in more residents, more merchants, more creators. Built it into a thriving regional hub, and get a teleportation gate of your very own.”
“That’s right,” said the Duke. “I’m hoping you can bring in some of that Emura magic. Sprinkle your marketing fairy dust all over the place. Metaphorically, of course. No actual fairy dust in Heartburgh.”
“Right. Krim is a basic bio world,” said Handel. “I’ve become very much aware of this over the past two weeks. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had a magic wand and could just wish myself over here. But I want to reiterate that most of Emura’s success wasn’t my doing. I was just a lowly marketing assistant back then, one who’d spent too much on his appearance and not enough on brains.” He gestured at himself. “Clearly not making that mistake now.” He laughed. “But, back then, I was pretty much useless.”
“Good thing Emura had Flame,” said the Duke. “To build the community.”
“Flame?” asked Handel. “Why do you say that?”
Flame slid down slightly in her chair. “Oh, shit.”