The hall grew silent. Even the soldiers at the back of the room who’d been taking bets on the outcome of the hearing stopped arguing about the odds.
“I don’t know what to say,” the Duke finally said. “I’m disappointed. I was lied to when I first hired you. And then I was lied to again today.”
Abigail stood up. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying. The stress is getting to her. I move that you strike the witness’ testimony from the record.”
“No, I know what I’m saying,” Flame said. She started to get up from her chair, but Geoffrey stopped her.
“Hold on,” he said. “Before anyone makes any final decisions, there’s one more thing I want to say.” He stepped away from her and addressed the audience. “I’m probably the youngest person here. I’m twenty three years old. Before coming to Krim I spent my whole life on World of Battle. My parent — who’s now serving time for what he did — decided to sneak an AI onto the grid to give him an edge. And since World of Battle doesn’t allow any virtual assistants in-world, he ran the code on a human brain simulation chip.”
“Isn’t that how babies are made?” Abigail asked.
“That’s what they told me,” said Geoffrey. “It took a couple of years for me to become sentient. I don’t remember much about it.”
“But your father didn’t do it on purpose, did he?”
“Not at first,” said Geoffrey. “The prosecutors said that by the time I was ten, he knew what was going on. But he liked having an in-world virtual assistant too much to stop.”
“That’s all very touching and tragic, but what does that have to do with Flame’s lies?” asked the Duke.
“What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t get a chance to do the normal things that people do. Make friends. Go to school. Embarrass myself in public. Abigail, how old are you?”
“That’s not a very polite thing to ask someone,” said Abigail. “But I’m one hundred and seventeen.”
“In all those years, did you ever do something so embarrassing that you don’t want anyone to know about it?”
“No, of course not.”
“Would you lie about it to hide it from people?”
“No, because there’s nothing like that.”
“So you don’t mind if I show the Duke a copy of a file…”
“No, stop,” said Abigail. “I thought you weren’t going to do this. Yes, I did something that I don’t want people to know about.”
Geoffrey turned to Hephziba, but she started talking before he could say anything. “I’m only fifty. But I’ve already done lots of embarrassing things. I’d rather not talk about any of them, thank you very much.”
Geoffrey looked up at the rest of the audience. “Is there anyone here who hasn’t done anything embarrassing in their life? General Lukomendrius Dungerame, how about you?”
The general looked down. “I’m going to plead the fifth on that one.”
“Bartram Snell Ashenhurst, when I was on World of Battle, I frequently met people who had money and relationship issues, who were in the world to hide from lawsuits and process servers. You remind me of those people. Could it be that you yourself are on Krim to avoid civil lawsuits?”
“I’m on Krim because I believe in this world,” said Bartram. “I believe in Krim, and, more specifically, I believe in Heartburgh. The lawsuits are a complete coincidence.”
“And Duke Percheval,” Geoffrey began.
“You don’t have to keep going,” said the Duke. “I see where you’re headed with this.”
“Haven’t you yourself had some youthful indiscretions?” Geoffrey continued. “And some more recent ones, too?”
The Duke looked away and didn’t say anything.
“What did Flame really do that was so bad?” Geoffrey asked. “She trusted people she shouldn’t have. And kept on trusting people. She thinks the best of everybody. That’s not a bad quality to have in someone building community and partnerships. And she was embarrassed about her mistakes. That means that she can learn from them.”
“Well…” the Duke began.
“She didn’t do her background checks,” said Geoffrey. “And do you know who else didn’t do background checks?”
“Right, right, let’s move on,” said the Duke.
“People come to Krim to create new lives for themselves,” said Geoffrey. “Well, not me. I just want to get back to my old life on World of Battle. But other people. All you people. You’re here to start over. Or maybe just take a vacation from your real lives for a while. You shouldn’t be condemning Flame for doing the same. Let’s forget about the background checks. We don’t need them. Give people a chance to prove themselves here and now.”
“Hear, hear.” Abigail stood up and applauded, followed quickly by Hephziba and the general. The rest of the audience slowly joined in.
The Duke frowned at the crowd and held up his hands. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re asking me to just trust people? What if they’re secretly working for the bandits? Or gathering intel for Garthram?”
“I have some experience in this,” said Geoffrey. “And the fear of spies is just as dangerous as the spies themselves. Maybe more so. It creates distrust and divisions. And no amounts of background checks or investigations can keep spies out completely, they just create the illusion of security. A dangerous illusion. You’re better off assuming that your enemies know what you’re doing, and just focus on doing the right things.”
“Are you sure about that?” asked the Duke.
“I’m sure that if I wanted to undermine Heartburgh that I would get people to stop trusting each other, to start seeing everyone else as a potential enemy and spy. So if we want Heartburgh to succeed, maybe we should do the opposite. Plus, we don’t have much of a choice, do we? It’s not as though there are a lot of people who want to come and work in Heartburgh.”
Later on, as the servants rolled out barrels of beer and wine to celebrate the conclusion of a difficult hearing and Flame’s reinstatement as alliances and partnerships coordinator, the general pulled Geoffrey off to the side.
“Did you really mean it, what you said about the spies?” he asked. “That’s the fear of spies is more dangerous than the spies themselves?”
“No, of course not,” said Geoffrey. “A spy can stab you in the back then open the gates for the enemy to come in and sack your city.”
“I lied. I didn’t want Flame to leave Heartburgh.”
“So we should still be watching for spies?”
“Yes. In fact, someone should spend time with Flame and meet her contacts. Someone with a healthy sense of mistrust and suspicion.”
“You mean, someone like me?” the general asked.
“Well, I was thinking more that it should be me. Don’t you have an army to run?”
“And you have a job, too. Whatever it is.”
“I think vetting Flame’s contacts for potential threats falls under my responsibilities,” said Geoffrey. He looked across the room, to where Flame was laughing with Abigail and Hephziba. “I think the two of us are going to be spending a lot of time together.”