Wynefrede never did learn the end of Nigel’s story, as the queen announced that dinner was about to be served. An army of servants invaded the ballroom and escorted each of the guests to the dining room next door.
“Jeesh, is someone getting married already?” Benedicta whispered over Wynefrede’s shoulder.
And, in fact, the room did look like it was set up for a wedding, with six large round tables each featuring elaborate floral centerpieces. Each place setting came with a name card. Wynefrede seat was next to a man she hadn’t met yet. She couldn’t remember if she’s seen him at in the ballroom, or at any of the other Royal Season events, but that didn’t mean anything.
He was dressed strangely, in a gray wool suit. He looked like someone from the nineteenth century, not the sixteenth. But then again, Wynefrede was no expert on fashion. Or maybe he was so rich that Royal Season’s fashion rules didn’t apply to him.
He didn’t look happy to be there. Wynefrede found that to be a very endearing quality.
“Can’t wait to get out of here?” she asked him as a servant walked around the table pouring wine.
He glanced at her place card. “Wynefrede Aumberden,” he said. “I recognize your name from today’s paper. All lies, I hope?”
“No, they got me dead to rights,” she said. “I’m guilty.”
“Getting your final flings in before settling down to blessed monogamy?”
“Sure,” she said. “Why not? And you? You don’t look like the other gentlemen here.”
“I’m not one of the gentlemen,” he said. “I’m one of the administrators for the grid. Weldon Layton.” He passed her a business card. “How do you like it here so far?”
“I liked the leper hospital,” she said. “But it would have been nice if it had more lepers.”
“I’ll make a note,” he said.
“And I’m looking forward to seeing the battle tomorrow.”
“Glad to hear that,” he said. “Other than that, any problems? Anybody making you feel unsafe?”
“The guards are always there,” she said. “If anything, I’m feeling a little stifled.”
“Any unwanted attention? Have you seen anyone suspicious following you around or asking about you?”
“Not that I know of,” she said. “Hold on, are you trying to figure out who the Nightingale is?”
“Well, yes, but frankly, that’s the least of my problems,” he said. “The gossip columns are just a petty nuisance.”
“But instead of dealing with your real problems, you’re stuck here with us.” She accepted a roll from another servant and cut into it with a bread knife. “I guess money talks.”
“The Royal Season is pumping massive amounts of money into the local economy,” he said.
“So what would you be doing if you weren’t here?”
Weldon looked around the room. “I guess there’s no harm in telling you,” he finally said. “We’ve had a recent spate of disappearances on the grid. We’ve been getting requests from people off-world asking for news about their friends or loved ones. We can’t tell them anything, of course. Privacy concerns. People often come to Krim to get away from their families. But the numbers are unusually high. Try not to go anywhere alone, and tell the others here to be careful.”
“Well, what’s the worst that can happen?” she asked. “If someone kills us, we’ll just come back with a new avatar.”
“No, we don’t worry about people getting murdered,” said Weldon.
“So what is it, then?”
“There’s a lot worse than death that can happen on Krim,” he said. “You should check your terms of service for all the details. For example, you could get taken prisoner and be used for torture practice or sold into sexual slavery. You could be kidnapped and indoctrinated into a cult. Forced to work in the mines. People think that they’ll just kill themselves, but it’s not that easy. There’s a human instinct to stay alive.”
“And the grid allows this to happen?”
“It’s one of our selling points,” he said. “Each time someone complains about some horrific experience here on Krim, new user registrations go up. We file suit under the anti-spoiler laws, of course, and shut the complaints down. But we take our time about it. But there’s a balance. You want the dangers to be real enough that people feel some excitement about coming to Krim, but not so widespread that they actually start affecting the user experience for too many people. For example, about a year ago, we had someone going around taking potshots at tourists. That’s not something we want to encourage.”
“So you think there’s a cult of some kind kidnapping people?”
“Could be.” He shrugged. “But we generally keep a close eye on the cults. We haven’t seen any upticks in cult activity lately.”
“Can’t you just look up the missing users in the database and check their locations?”
“Not without a court order,” he said. “We’re careful to follow privacy guidelines.”
“I had no idea,” she said. “I thought if you owned a virtual world, you could do anything you wanted with the databases.”
“If you have your own world, and don’t care about anti-spoiler protections or privacy protections, then sure, you can do anything you want,” he said. “But if you’re running a commercial platform, it’s nice to have those legal protections.”
“You sound like a lawyer,” she said.
“I’m not. I just had to attend a lot of compliance seminars.”
“Oh, you poor man,” she said. “What do you do for fun?”
“I leave Krim, go home, and do normal things,” he said.
“There’s nothing on Krim itself that you enjoy?”
“I’ve had this job for more than ten years.” He sighed.
“If you changed jobs, what would you do?”
He picked up his glance of wine and took a sip. “Frankly? I’ve been getting a little curious about ancient medicine. There isn’t much of a call for it here on Krim. If people get too sick, they just go out through the gate and reset their avatars. But I’m fascinated by the ancient medical procedures.”
“Have you ever seen a trepanation?”
“Well, since you ask…”