“We’re royally screwed,” said one of the Royal Season guards. There were about a dozen in the room. Ellison had interviewed all of them before, when looking into the kidnapping of one of the Singletons earlier that season. Now many more of the Singletons had been taken, not to mention the Royal Season coordinator and some of her key staffers, and he still had no clue about who was behind it, or why.
Clinio Lind, the Royal Season security chief, stood slumped at the head of the waiting room, leaning slightly against the desk behind him. The room was normally the main reception area of the Gold Travel Agency, but the Royal Season had rented the whole building. The walls were covered with maps, as well as etchings, wood cuts, water colors and oil paintings of Krim’s notable landmarks and travel destinations.
Clinio tapped on the desk and looked over at the guards, then counted them.
“Yup, this is all of us,” said one of the guards on the other side of the room. Ellison recognized him as Mad Eyed Brendon, who’d helped rescue Wynefrede Aumberden a few days ago. Mad Eyed was leaning against the front window, which was almost entirely covered with travel posters.
“All of us from the main ship, anyway,” said another guard.
“So there’s still hope.” Clinio pushed away from the desk he’d been leaning against and started pacing. “There were two other guard ships. They could have discovered the attack, boarded the Santa Marina, and took care of the traitors.”
“Or they could have been bought off,” Matilda said from the doorway that led out into the entry hall. “Like the sailors. Switching sides because someone else pays you better is part of the whole Krim role playing experience.”
Clinio shook his head. “Maybe that’s the case on Krim. But most of our security hires are from off-world. And over the past few days we’ve been replacing any of the local talent we had. So none of them are going to care about accumulating Krim gold. I mean, who’d want to stay on this grid voluntarily?”
Several of the guards laughed.
“This is the worst grid I’ve ever been on,” said one. “And I’ve fought on hundreds of grids.”
“Still, you had to hire people with medieval weapon and fighting skills,” Matilda said. “You don’t get good by taking Facepage classes.” She cast a professional eye over the guards. “World of Battle?”
A few of the guards nodded and Matilda sniffed.
“No offense,” said Ellison, “But World of Battle fighters have also been known to switch sides.” He stepped back so that Matilda was between him and the fighters. “Or so I’ve head.”
“I’m from Sword, Sorcery, and Sea Serpents,” one guard added.
“Have any of you been approached?” Clinio asked. “Any offers of money? Even if they were asking you to do something trivial or harmless, it could be connected.”
All the guards shook their heads, though Ellison noted that a couple were a little slow to react. He made a mental note to talk to them later.
“So let’s hope that the two guard ships haven’t been taken and that they’re fighting off the attackers now,” Clinio said. “With any luck, they’ll have everyone home by sundown.”
Mad Eyed Brendon turned and peered through the glass. “Hold on,” he said. “I think I see Galwell and Cleeve.”
“They were on one of the guard ships,” said Clinio. “On the Niner, I believe?”
“They’re coming in now,” said Mad Eyed.
Ellison leaned out the door and saw Galwell and Cleeve come into the entry. He moved out of the way to let the two guards enter the meeting room.
Galwell, who was the more heavily armored of the two, paused to catch his breath but Cleeve walked right up to Clinio. “I’m sorry to report that the Niner has been sunk,” he said.
“Tell us what happened,” said Clinio.
Cleeve looked around. “I see they got all of you,” he said. “Sorry about that.” He sighed. “It was the middle of the night, but the moon was out and it was mostly clear. We were nearing an island when a lookout spotted an unfamiliar ship. We thought it might be another tourist ship on its way back, but we all went on alert, anyway, and signaled back to the Santa Marina.” He paused. “There was no signal back.”
“That’s when we first knew that something was wrong,” said Galwell, who’d finally stopped gasping for air.
“We moved to intercept the new ship,” said Cleeve. “Then more of them showed up.”
“Where was the Pinter?” asked Clinio.
“They were on the other side of the Santa Marina,” said Cleeve. “But we had line of sight and sent them a signal. They signaled back.”
“We fired a warning shot at one of the new ships,” said Galwell. “If they were tourist ships, they would have turned away.”
“They didn’t,” said Cleeve.
“How many were there?” asked Clinio.
“They had four ships,” said Cleeve. “Three looked to be about the same size as our ship. One was larger.”
“The three small ones were caravels,” said Galwell. “The larger one was a carrack.” He saw the skeptical looks from the other guards. “I spent a few years on the Spanish Main. I know my sailing ships.”
“Anyway, we fired our cannons at the pirates as soon as they were close enough,” said Cleeve. “And we also had some archers on board, who started shooting a bit later.”
“But there were more of them than of us and we weren’t getting any support at all from the Santa Marina,” said Galwell. “The battle didn’t go well.”
“We sunk,” said Cleeve.
“What happened to the Pinter?” asked Clinio.
“Last I saw, they had a white flag up,” said Galwell.
The other guards swore but Clinio raised his hand. “Hold on, that might be a good thing,” he said.
“How?” asked Mad Eyed. “If they surrendered, that means that they had sold out, doesn’t it?”
“No,” said Galwell. “They were outnumbered.”
“This way, if they’re taken prisoner, they can find out who took them and where they’re going,” said Clinio. “The longer they can stay alive, the more they can find out.” He looked around. “This means we might have a lead. Or, at least, a chance to find a lead.”
“It’s not the only lead we have,” said Ellison.
Clinio turned to look at him. “Oh?”
“We’ve got Clare,” said Ellison.
“She already told us she doesn’t know anything,” said Mad Eyed.
“No, but whoever disguised themselves to look like her had some skills,” said Ellison. “They fooled everyone else.”
“They didn’t do that much,” said Mad Eyed. “I only saw the captain once the whole time I was on the ship. She said a couple of words then went straight to her cabin and stayed there.”
“Still, she looked convincing enough to fool Clinio and all the rest of you,” said Ellison. “At least for a few minutes. And she fooled the other sailors on the ship.”
“So explain it to me,” said Clinio. “What would it take to convincingly disguize yourself as someone else on Krim?”
“You’d need to create an avatar that looked as close as possible to your target,” said Ellison. “They must have studied her really well. And Krim doesn’t give you full customization. You can base your avatar on your default personal or professional avatars but, beyond that, you have to use Krim’s configuration features. It takes some skill to get an avatar looking even vaguely the way you want it to look.”
“The fake Clare looked perfect,” said Clinio.
“They probably got as far as they could with the customizer, then did the rest with makeup,” said Ellison. “That also takes a great deal of skill.”
“Then they kidnapped the real Clare and took her clothes,” said Clinio.
“And faked her walk and voice,” said Ellison.
“You did notice that there was something off about the way she moved,” Clinio grudgingly admitted. “I should have listened.”
“There wasn’t anything you could have done by then,” said Ellison. “And they were very close. Whoever impersonated her must have studied her closely for a while.”
“And you have a lead on who this could be?” Clinio asked.
“There are four people on Krim with the skills to pull this off,” said Ellison.
“The Gang of Four,” said Matilda. “But they’re all locked up. Last I heard, they were all happily being tortured.”
“Happily?” Clinio asked.
“Well, Danmak the Bonekeeper is happy,” said Matilda. “He’s the torturer.”
“He’s the Armforge Guild torturer,” Ellison clarified. “The Gang of Four is being held prisoner by the Armforge Guild.” He paused. “Or they were being held. One of them, at least, might not be held any more.”
“Are you sure it’s one of these four?” Clinio asked.
“I’m certain,” said Ellison. But he was more than certain. He knew exactly which one of the four it was: Gervis Gefroi, the guild’s old stablemaster.
“You think he escaped.” Clinio started pacing again. “Escaped, or was killed. Or was deliberately released.” He slammed a fist into the palm of his other hand. “I’m going to have to go and have another talk with the Armforge Guild. That Rodge Bannister is really starting to get on my nerves.”