“You looked very different on Emura,” Flame told Handel. “You were… taller. And…”
“I know, I know, I was a lot more handsome,” said Handel. “But one thing I learned from that experience is that when you’re choosing an avatar, you’re better off picking one with a brain instead of just going for looks. All I wanted to do back then was have fun. Remember how hard we partied?”
“I don’t remember all of it,” said Flame.
“Exactly. What was the point? When we both got fired, I took the opportunity to take stock of my life. I went back to school for some advanced coursework, did some internships. Now when someone hires me to do marketing, I deliver what I promise.”
“Good for you,” said the Duke, clapping Handel on his back. “Have a seat and we’ll give you an idea of the kind of problems we’re facing.”
“Before we do that, we should probably do an after-action debriefing about what happened last night,” said Ayoob. “Things went very wrong. We should find out why and how so we don’t make the same mistakes again.”
“That’s easy,” said Abigail. “I shouldn’t have listened to Geoffrey when he suggested that we start our own religion. And I shouldn’t have listened to you about how to organize it.”
Geoffrey bit back a sarcastic comment. He had a feeling that anything he would say would make the situation worse. He was very good at making bad situations worse, and was trying to restrain himself while he was in Heartburgh. It was a temporary sacrifice. If everything went right, he’d back where he belonged soon enough — on World of Battle.
“I admit, I made mistakes,” said Ayoob. “But I’m willing to learn from them.”
“Nobody cares about what happened last night,” said Bartram. “It’s in the past. Nobody got hurt. But I have a more serious concern.” He turned to Flame. “You were fired by Emura?”
Flame shifted in her seat. “Well, it is a complicated story…”
“Oh, I’ll tell it, I’ll tell it,” said Handel, ignoring Flame’s angry stare and the way she was shaking her head at him. “It was hysterical. She found this group of new residents. A whole crowd of people who were all willing to pay premium prices to become early residents. And, guess what? They turned out to be this gang of griefers. As soon as they were in, they started harassing other residents, but cleverly, so we couldn’t tell at first what was going on. Pretty soon, employees were quitting right and left, other residents were fleeing, and they had to hire a forensic team to find out what had actually happened.”
Flame slid down further in her seat.
“Go on,” said the Duke.
“Turned out, she forgot to vet the griefers, took their word about who they were. And she spent all her time with them, neglecting the rest of the community. But man, did those griefers know how to party. Remember the time with all the goats?”
“No,” said Flame.
“You have to remember that,” said Handel. “The griefers must have sent fifty goats rampaging through the king’s castle in the middle of the big founders ball. How many investors did they lose that day?”
“I don’t remember,” said Flame.
“Hey, we were all young and stupid once.” Handel turned to the Duke. “Am I right or am I right?”
So, it turned out that Flame was a bad judge of character. That was excellent news, since Geoffrey himself was of bad character.
“I’m confused about something,” Bartram told Flame. “I distinctly remember my business manager writing me about how instrumental you were in Emura’s success.”
“He may have misunderstood some things,” Flame said, in a barely audible voice.
“He sent me a copy of your resume,” said Bartram.
“There might have been some typos on it,” said Flame.
“It was hand-written.”
“I have very bad handwriting.”
The Duke cleared his throat. “Am I to understand,” he said, “That you obtained this job under false pretenses?”
Handel finally picked up on the mood of the room. “Oh, man.”
“You know what, I don’t have to take this,” said Flame. She pushed her chair away from the table and stood up. “I have too much self-respect to be treated like this. Like a common criminal. When all I want to do is help Heartburgh.”
“Well, hold on,” said the Duke, but Flame ignored him and walked out of the room.
“I can’t have that kind of dishonesty on my advisory council,” said the Duke. “We’re going to have to let her go.”
Geoffrey sat up in his chair. If Flame was fired, who was he going to manipulate into helping him?
“Let her go?” asked the general. He stopped rubbing his temples. “Who here hasn’t fudged a few lines on their resume? Put a slightly more positive spin on things than maybe was absolutely warranted.”
“Good point, Luke,” said Geoffrey.
“But if she lied about Emura, what else is she lying about?” asked Bartram. “She could be working for the enemy.”
“I can’t possibly believe that,” said Hephziba.
“No, Flame is sweet and innocent,” said Abigail. “I don’t think she has a dishonest bone in her body.”
“Except that she lied to us,” said Bartram.
The general leaned forward. “Are we going to believe Flame, whom we’ve known for weeks now…”
“Three weeks,” said Bartram.
“For three weeks now,” continued the general. “Or some random guy who just showed up today?”
Handel cleared his throat.
“She didn’t deny it,” said Bartram. “And why would Handel lie?”
“Handel could be the one working for the enemy.” The general stared at Handel. “Have you ever been to Garthram?”
“No, why…” Handel began.
“Wait a second everybody, this is going to far.” Geoffrey stood up. “Before we start throwing accusations around, everyone needs to step back. Take a breath. This is a big accusation. Bartram, how many other community managers did you find who were willing to come here?”
Bartram pursed his lips, then finally said, “None.”
“So we shouldn’t be making any decisions that could jeopardize this city.”
“What do you suggest?” asked the Duke.
“A formal hearing,” said Ellison. “An inquiry. We’d hear both sides of the case, evaluate the evidence. Take some time before making a final decision.”
“Fine,” said the Duke. “Bartram, I appoint you as the prosecutor.”
“Abigail, Hephziba, Ayoob, Luke. You’re on the jury.”
“Geoffrey, you’ll be her defense attorney.”
“But I’m not…” Geoffrey began.
“I’ll be the judge,” said Duke. “My decision will be final.” He tapped his fist on the table like a gavel. “The trial begins tomorrow.”