The Royal Season had managed to convince the Krim Chamber of Commerce to lend them the Storm Bug, a man-of-war with gunports set low in ship’s broadsides.
The Chamber had probably added up how much money the Royal Season had spent on Krim over the past few months, Ellison thought, and calculated the odds of them coming back if their clients were never recovered.
Ellison packed lightly for the trip. He mostly brought alcohol, on the assumption that if the best cure for a hangover was to never sober up, then maybe the same principle would apply to sea sickness.
Welton Layton, Krim’s assistant grid manager, joined them. He was the last one on board, barely making it in time before the ship set sail.
Clinio Lind’s entire security team was already on board. The Royal Season had officially concluded its season the night before with an anemic ball missing half its participants, so there was nobody left in Krim City for them to protect.
Ellison heard that the entire Royal Season administrative roster had immediately decamped, grabbing anything vital and leaving everything else behind for the locals to clean up. But given how much money they’d spent, and the fact that half of the Singletons had been kidnapped by pirates, Ellison didn’t think that any of the property owners were going to complain.
Clinio had also managed to hire most of the city’s free mercenaries. Many were happy enough to get out of town and away from Rodge Bannister’s roving press gangs. Rescuing a couple of hostages from a pirate cult probably seemed a lot more fun than spending weeks slogging through the desert then fighting a brutal war in the foothills of the northern mountains.
Welton joined Ellison on the upper deck to watch the ship’s departure.
“Did you finally convince the board to take the gun smuggling seriously?” Ellison asked him.
“They always took the gun smuggling seriously,” said Welton. “Too many firearms ruins the medieval feel of the game and hurts user numbers,” he said. “The problem was convincing them to investigate the Lamacoln memory gate.”
“So what finally did the trick?”
“Nothing,” said Welton. “I took some vacation days.”
“You couldn’t just pull the gate’s records?” Ellison asked. “Don’t you have a database somewhere that shows everything that went in and out?”
“That would be a privacy violation,” said Welton. “The board takes the privacy of its biggest paying customers very seriously.” He paused. “Actually, we take everyone’s privacy seriously. It’s the main selling point of the grid. That, and the realism. I can’t pull the records without proof that they were violating the terms of service. I can’t get proof that they’re violating the terms of service without pulling the records. So I’m heading out there in person to see what’s going on.”
They two of them watched Krim City get smaller behind them as the Storm Bug sailed out of the port and west through the Bay of Krim to the ocean.
“So. What brings you to Krim?” Welton asked.
After an uncomfortable pause, Welton added, “So, do you want to go play cards or something? See if there’s any food in the galley?”
The two of them wandered down and found a corner to sit in. Welton seemed reluctant to join the mercenaries, who were particularly loud and boisterous.
“They look like they’re having fun,” Ellison said as someone slapped down their hand to a mixture of equally loud cheers and groans.
“Well, I’m not really one of them, am I?” Welton asked. “They’re residents. I’m more like, like a local god.”
Ellison raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t mean that I’m a god,” said Welton. “But, you know, I control things. Like, when you’re a manager, and your employees are off having fun. You don’t want to show up and ruin it for everyone.”
“And I bet everyone is always asking you for favors,” Ellison added.
“That, too.” Welton sighed. “Sometimes I think about maybe getting into another line of work.”
Ellison looked at him more carefully. Back in his previous life, Ellison’s job was to help connect people with new careers. Or, more specifically, to collect big payments from large corporations with deep pockets in return for convincing high-value job candidates to sell their souls for money. But when he first started out, he was all about helping people find meaning and purpose.
“I don’t think you really want to leave,” said Ellison. “You like this place. Maybe you feel a little isolated from the people, but not like a boss. More like…” Ellison thought a little bit. “More like a parent. You’ve watched this place grow, haven’t you?”
“That’s true,” said Welton. “I have been here for a long time.”
“Maybe you can make friends with other virtual world administrators,” said Ellison. “Isn’t there an association of grid masters somewhere you can join?”
Welton laughed. “Do you know what the other grids think of Krim?” He shook his head. “Like dog poo stuck to the bottom of their shoe. The reason I can’t leave and get a job somewhere else is because Krim is a permanent, indelible, foul-smelling stain on my resume.”
But Welton’s small, wry smile belied his statements. He loved being on Krim, Ellison thought.
“So why aren’t you playing cards?” Welton asked. “You’re close with Matilda Scarletstrike, aren’t you?”
Ellison looked over at her table. Matilda was in her element. She lorded over a table on the far side of the galley, whooping when she liked the look of her cards, swilling back tankards of beer. The mercenaries around her were a little more relaxed than they usually were, Ellison thought. Probably because Matilda was refraining from stabbing anyone. After all, they were on the high seas. Anybody who got killed was gone for the duration of the trip, and they didn’t know how many pirates they were going to be facing in Lamacoln.
“What I don’t understand is how she makes friends with everyone,” said Welton. “I mean, she kills a lot of people, doesn’t she? We get complaints all the time. But then people go right back and get killed all over again. It’s like she’s got something about her.”
“It’s all in the wrist,” said Ellison.
“The stabbing. She says that a good stab is all in the wrist.”
“Oh. Well then.” Welton stared at the card players. “Anyway, I’m going to head back to my cabin,” he finally said. “Catch up on my reading.”
After he left, and the card players finished a round, Matilda caught his eye and came over.
“Listen,” she said, sliding into the empty chair Welton left behind. “You know about the problem I’ve got.” She lowered her voice. “The restraining order?”
“Well, I have a feeling we’re getting close to finding Finnbogi,” said Matilda. “He probably isn’t going to be too happy to see me. I don’t know if I’ll recognize him, but he’ll definitely recognize me.”
“Well, I don’t change my appearance,” said Matilda. “But I don’t know what Finn looks like right now. From what I’ve heard, his Royal Season avatar looked nothing like his regular appearance back in real life, and all I’ve got of that is a vague description. It could be anyone.”
“I’ll know him when I see him,” Ellison said.
“Yeah, well, tell him that I’m sorry,” said Matilda. She paused and looked around, then grabbed a beer from one of the other mercenaries. “He was my best friend, you know?” She reached out and put her hand on Ellison’s shoulder.
“Finn and I, we used to do everything together,” Matilda said. “We were like this.” She held up her hand, two fingers twisted together. “Then there was a minor disagreement.” She hiccupped. “Over a girl.”
“How long have you have you been drinking?” asked Ellison.
Matilda looked up at the ceiling. “Well, me and the boys got here last night, guarding the ship, you know, in case we were attacked to keep us from leaving. So, about fourteen hours? Yeah, about that. Or twenty. Hard to keep track. But, you know me, I don’t need to be sober to fight.”
“Finn and I fought all the time,” Matilda said. “But in a friendly way, you know. But then things escalated a little bit. I did some things I’m not proud of. Finn did some things. I did some worse things. Finn got anger management counseling. I did a few worse things. Finn filed a restraining order. Apparently his therapist convinced him to prioritize his mental health.” She grunted. “If I ever lay my hands on that interfering…” She trailed off.
“So did you ever consider counseling?” Ellison asked her.
“That’s what the judge wanted to know,” said Matilda. “But you know me. I don’t go in for that foo-foo stuff. I found a better way to deal with anger. Constructively.”
This was news to Ellison.
“I get angry at someone, I kill them,” Matilda said. “Easy, peasy, problem solved.” She leaned in. “That’s my secret to staying zen. I don’t hold grudges. I disembowel someone, and move on.”
She wiped a tear from her eye.
“I miss Finn,” she said. “I was hoping he’d be hanging around Krim somewhere. And we’d pump into each other, and he’d recognize me. And I’d see that he recognized me and I’d know it was him, and we’d laugh and laugh.” She suddenly reached out and slapped Ellison on the shoulder again. “Instead here I am, all alone. You’re my only friend.”
Ellison flinched away. “Well, we’re not friends so much as…”
Matilda narrowed her eyes at him.
“Hey, what about all those guys?” Ellison nodded back at the table of card-playing mercenaries.
Matilda looked at where he was pointing. “My mercs!” she said, with a surprised expression on her face. “I was wondering where they’d gone to.”
“They didn’t go anywhere.”
Matilda raised herself up from her chair and leaned in towards Ellison. “They’re my only friends, you know.” She stood up, knocking her chair over, and walked towards them. “I love you guys!” she yelled at them. “Deal me in.”