Geoffrey left the atheneum and spotted Olav the page in the hallway. “Where did Flame go?”
“She’s in the north tower,” Olav said.
“Hold on, I’m coming with you.” Abigail came out into the hallway, followed immediately by Hephziba, Ayoob, and the general.
“I’m sure we won’t even need a hearing if she just explains what happened,” said Hephziba. “I can’t believe she would lie on her resume.”
“Handel is probably the liar,” said Abigail. “I mean, he’s a marketing guy. That means he lies for a living, doesn’t it?”
“What I want to know is why the Duke picked me to serve on the jury,” said the general. “I could be doing something more useful.”
“I think he just went around the table,” said Ayoob. “If you’d switched seats with Geoffrey, you might have been the defense attorney.”
“I would make a much better defense attorney,” the general grumbled, following the rest of them to the north staircase. “Geoffrey has lived his whole life on World of Battle. Geoffrey! Have you ever even seen a trial before?”
“No,” Geoffrey called back.
“Have you seen one in a movie? Or read about one in a book?”
“Flame is doomed.” Abigail paused on the stairs and turned to look down at Ayoob and the general. “Maybe the two of you could help Geoffrey defend her?”
“I was pre-law,” Hephziba said. “But I studied contracts. I don’t know anything about defending people in criminal cases.”
“Well, this isn’t a criminal case,” said Abigail. “If this was a real court, it would most likely just be a civil matter. I’ve watched a lot of legal dramas.”
“I think between the four of us, we might be able to figure out a way to help Flame out,” said Hephziba. “And you know what? She’s the nicest person I’ve met. If the Duke lets her go, I’ll quit.”
Geoffrey stopped climbing the stairs and turned around. “You’d leave Heartburgh?”
“She’s my friend,” said Hephziba. “That’s what friends do for each other.”
“She’s my friend, too,” said Abigail. “The Duke can’t afford to lose both of us.”
“Well, I don’t work for him, so I can’t quit,” said Ayoob. “But I can go anywhere else to do my research. Abigail, where would you go if you quit?”
“Well, I like the northern mountains,” Abigail said. “Maybe Garthram.”
“The Duke would hate that,” said the general. “Fine, I’m in. If she goes, I go, too.”
“That’s all of us, then,” said Geoffrey. “If the Duke fires her, we all quit, and he loses nearly his entire council.”
“Except for Bartram,” said Abigail.
“Well, Bartram is friends with the Duke,” said the general. “I don’t think he’s all that close with Flame, personally.”
“Aren’t you friends with the Duke, too?” asked Abigail.
“Some things are just more important,” the general said.
Geoffrey made a mental note to talk with Luke later. In his experience, the general wasn’t normally a man of principle. If he was willing to quit, there had to be more to the story.
He resumed climbing the steps.
The north tower looked over the northern mountains, offering a useful vantage point from which to watch for attacks. If this was on World of Battle, there were would be a landing platform at the top of the tower for dragons to use. On Krim, however, the only thing the tower was topped with was a roof. What a waste. Mountains were the dragons’ natural habitat. What self-respecting world didn’t have dragons?
The last few flights of the staircase were wood instead of stone, and steeper. They had entered the tower itself. The top flight led to an open hatch. Geoffrey poked his head up through it and saw Flame huddled on a windowsill, staring out over the mountains.
She must have heard them coming, but she didn’t turn around.
“Flame,” Geoffrey said, and climbed up the rest of the way. “Flame.”
She continued to ignore him, so he walked up and put his hand on her shoulder. “We’re all behind you. If the Duke makes you leave, I’ll leave, too.”
“We all will,” said Abigail, dusting off her skirts. She looked around. “When was this place last cleaned?” The room was dusty and there was a pile of old broken furniture in a corner. “I bet there are spiders.” She joined Flame at the window. “But it is a great view. If there are any mountain spirits, this is a great place to commune with them.”
Flame finally turned around. “What are you going doing up here?”
“We’re here to support you,” said the general. “I didn’t buy a word of what that Handel guy said about you.”
“We all know that marketing people are all big liars,” said Abigail.
“I can’t let you guys sacrifice yourselves for me,” said Flame. “I mean, you barely know me.”
“We know enough,” said Abigail. “Didn’t you stay up all night with the farmer and his lambs?”
“You went to Cleig Grijan with me to find a new milk supplier,” said Hephziba. “Then you took care of me for two days when I got sick from eating those mushrooms.”
“You never did anything for me,” said Ayoob. “But I’m feeling swayed by peer pressure.”
“If you leave Heartburgh, you might miss out on getting together with the love of your life,” said general.
Flame got down off the windowsill. “You mean, Steuan? Do you really think he’s the love of my life?”
“Well, actually,” said the general. “Oh, never mind.”
“Just tell us what happened on Emura,” said Abigail. “What was the real story?”
“Yes, I’m sure Handel got it all wrong,” said Hephziba. “I don’t know why the Duke was so quick to believe him. I mean, we know you. You would never lie about your history. But I’ve got to say, I’ve always been curious about why you picked the name Flame Bunyip when you came to Krim. Was that your character name on some other world? But I don’t mean to pry. Sorry.”
“No, you guys are right. You don’t know anything about who I was and what I did before I came here,” said Flame. “And you wouldn’t want to know.”
She walked to the hatch. “I can’t let you guys sacrifice yourselves for me.”
“Wait, don’t jump!” Abigail grabbed her arm.
“I’m not going to jump.” Flame shook her off. “I’m going to go tell the Duke that I quit.”