Geoffrey, Abigail, Hephziba, Ayoob and the General all followed Flame back down the stairs, arguing with her not to quit just yet.
“Let us talk to the Duke,” said Abigail. “We’ll convince him to drop it.”
“Or Geoffrey will put up an amazing defense and the Duke will never bring up Emura again,” said the General.
Flame looked back up at them. “I don’t want to be tried,” she said. “The whole idea is humiliating and dehumanizing.”
“She’s got a point,” said Abigail. “I wouldn’t want to be on trial, either.”
“Well talk to the Duke,” said Hephziba. “He’ll come around.”
Flame shook her head. “Have you seen how stubborn he is?”
But by the time Flame got to the ground floor, the others had worn her down and she relented. “I’ll go back to my room and sleep on it,” she said and went back to the Drunken Pie Inn.
The rest of them went back to the great hall, where the servants were already putting together the usual lunch buffet of bread, cheese, and meat left over from the previous night’s dinner.
The Duke sat at his usual table, right in the center, chatting with Handel and Bartram while he waited for his food to be brought to him.
The advisors gathered around the Duke’s table and began to press Flame’s case as Handel picked up a beer and tried to hide behind it, sinking down into his chair.
“We should cancel the hearing,” the general said. “Flame is upset, and it’s not going to many any difference one way or the other, anyway. Even if she fudged her resume a little, what’s the harm, really? We’ve all seen her in action. She’s an asset that we can’t afford to lose.”
“The only other alternative is to send back to Krim City for a full background check,” said the Duke. “I knew I shouldn’t have blindly trusted Bartram’s manager.”
“He didn’t do background checks because we didn’t ask him to,” said Bartram. “This is Krim. Asking people for their real identities is not something you’d normally do. People come to Krim to get away from their real lives.”
“If someone comes to work for me and claims to have relevant off-world experience, then he should have checked,” said Duke. “If not a full background, then at least check their references. The only problem is, it will take two weeks for a letter to get back to Krim City. Then another two weeks for the answer to come back. That’s at least a month. More, if there are any delays. I don’t want someone I can’t fully trust to have full run of the castle, and of Heartburgh, and to be privy to out strategic discussions. It wouldn’t be prudent.”
“But she’s harmless,” said Abigail. “You just have to take one look at her. She doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body. She’s all about helping people.”
“But how do we know?” asked the Duke. “If she lied about her background, what else has she lied about? I do not like being lied to.” The food arrived, and he waved them away.
They gathered in the hallway outside.
“This is really bad,” said Hephziba.
“I just wish we knew what really happed on Emura,” said Abigail. “Why won’t Flame just tell us?”
“She should,” said Ayoob. “It’s a great story.”
Abigail turned to him. “And how do you know?”
“Ummm…” Ayoob glanced off to the side. “Because of what Handel said?”
“You know something,” said the general.
“No, I don’t,” said Ayoob.
“Did she tell you her secret?” Abigail asked him.
“No, she did not,” said Ayoob. “And even if I did happen to know something, I wouldn’t tell you. It would be a violation of her privacy.”
“Have you overheard something?” asked Abigail, leaning in toward him.
Ayoob backed away, shaking his head.
“He’s got a chest of documents in his room,” said the general. “Did you research her before you came here? Why?”
“Are you stalking her?” asked Abigail.
“It’s nothing like that…” Ayoob began, but the general was already heading for the stairs.
“Maybe there’s something in Ayoob’s research that will help you clear Flame’s name,” the general told Geoffrey.
The five of them went up the stairs again, though this time only to the third floor, where most of the guest rooms were located. Ayoob brought up the rear, complaining about the privacy violation.
“If you’ve got research about Flame, then you’re the privacy violation,” Abigail told them.
Ayoob’s door was locked.
“If you don’t open it, I’ll send for someone to open it for us,” said the general. “I’m sure the Duke…”
“Fine, fine,” said Ayoob and pulled out his key.
Ayoob’s room was almost pathologically neat, despite the fact that the housekeeping staff rarely made an appearance in this part of the castle. There was a heavy chest next to Ayoob’s desk. Abigail immediately headed for it and flipped up the lid. It was full of neatly labeled file folders.
“He’s got a file on everybody.” She looked up at Ayoob. “Why do you have a file on everybody?” She rifled through the papers and gasped. “You’ve even got a file on me.” She pulled out her file and stepped back.
Hephziba took her place and pulled out a file as well. “And here’s one of me.”
Abigail flipped through the pages. “How did you get all this stuff? You’ve got my real name here. How did you even find that out?”
“I think we’ve found the real spy,” said the general.
“I swear, it’s nothing like that,” said Ayoob. “I bumped into Bartram’s business manager at a bar. When he found out what I do, he offered me a gig, to come up here, be one of the Duke’s advisors. Officially, not what I’m doing now. I turned him down, but he caught my interest, so I came to see him in the office. I asked him whom I’d be working with if I took the job, and he showed me your resumes.” He glanced at Geoffrey’s. “You hadn’t been hired yet, so I haven’t seen yours.”
“I didn’t put any of this stuff in my resume,” said Abigail.
“But you put in some of your off-world experiences,” said Ayoob. “That was enough to figure out your real identity. And once I had that, I just ran a standard background check.”
He looked around the group. “I did that for all of you. Except Geoffrey, of course.”
“Well, I’m sure I’ve got nothing to hide,” said the general. “I’ve led a blameless life.”
Hephziba bent down, pulled out another folder, and passed it to the general.
He opened it and visibly paled as he read. “We need to burn all of these,” he said, slamming his file shut.