Bitter 186

Freddy led the way with Britta and Stan walking side by side behind him, talking quietly.

“He looks a bit nervous,” said Stan. Freddy was marching resolutely, but there was a definite sag in his shoulders that seemed to be getting more pronounced the closer they got to their destination.

“He has a difficult family life,” said Britta. “You should know what that’s like.”

Stan gave her sideways glance with one eyebrow raised, but made no comment on the matter. “I don’t know how you find these people. With this ability of yours, you could at least dig up someone who knew what they were doing.”

“Then they wouldn’t need us, would they?”

“You have a point, I suppose.” Stan readjusted his sword belt as he walked. He had a long rapier that kept tripping him up, with an elaborate golden basket hilt that dug into his waist, making him wince with every step.

The house they were going to loomed up ahead of them. It was an impressive building, larger than most of the others on the street, and they were all on the grand side. Not quite like the stately homes she’d been to on school trips, but clearly a step up from the more functional structures that populated the town. If most of the buildings had been repeated from the three or four templates, this one had been designed as a one-off.

There were other areas of New Town that had expensive looks to them with fancy gardens and smartly dressed servants. Britta had done a small tour at the start of her new game strategy and seen them from the outside, and occasionally through their large windows. This was the first time she’d be going inside.

There was one main difference between this area and the other rich parts of town—the guards.

The wealthy districts had more patrols. Town guards in clean uniforms. But here, the patrols weren’t wearing any uniforms. They did however all have identical daggers on their belts, just like the one Freddy had. And they were all bald.

There was no mistaking they were watching over the place, but they also looked like the kind of people they should be protecting the place from.

“Aye, aye, Freddy boy. What you doing here?” said a squat man with a nose that looked like it had been broken many times, from many different angles. He was in a pack of four equally-roguish men hanging on a corner.

“Visiting Aunt Ginnie,” mumbled Freddy without stopping.

“Taking your boyfriend to meet her?” said another. They burst into raucous laughter.

Britta found it strange to hear them being homophobic. Had the devs programmed that into the game to be more realistic? Or, since this wasn’t the normal game world she was in, did that mean the system had developed prejudice on its own? It was possible, and these were the sort of men who would make jokes about nancy boys to act more tough, but it was still a bit unnecessary.

“Keep walking,” said Stan. She realised she had slowed down and Stan had a hand on her shoulder, keeping her moving.

“Or are you going to feed the pretty boy to your aunt? She’ll eat him alive.” More laughter followed.

Freddy stopped and turned to face them. He walked up to the one who had just spoken. The man opened his mouth to say something leery but never got the chance. Freddy’s large forehead smashed into the man’s face.

“Anyone else got something to say about Aunt Ginnie?” he asked them in a flat, emotionless voice.

“No, no, sorry, Freddy.”

“Just a joke.”

“Idiot took it too far. Deserved that.”

The apologising and back-pedalling was profuse and rapid. Freddy turned away and continued on his way with the Britta and Stan rushing to keep up.

They reached the front gate which had another two ruffians guarding it. They had seen what had happened across the street and didn’t bother with pleasantries. They just opened the gate for Freddy.

Freddy knocked on the large brass knocker and the door was opened by a butler dressed in black tails.

“Master Alfredo, welcome home.”

“Hello, Jagger. My aunt’s expecting me.”

“Yes. This way please.”

He led them through a tiled hall into a large room full of what looked like antique furniture to Britta, but to the people who lived here it was probably very modern.

The butler left them to wait. Freddy sat down on a chair that should have had a velvet rope around it and a plaque telling you who made it and how it changed the furniture industry. He looked miserable.

“We should have a better idea of our next move after this,” said Stan. “This is just reconnaissance. Give us a picture of what we’re up against. Might not even be anything useful here at all. Might blink and you’ll miss it, so keep your eyes open.”

Britta stared past Stan at the wall behind him, her mouth slightly hanging open.

“What’s wrong with you? Have you never seen a nice house before? This isn’t even that impressive. Come on, snap out of it.”

Britta raised her hand and pointed. Stan turned to look. His mouth fell open.

On the wall hung a portrait. It was an oil painting with a gold frame. The painting was of a proud and well-dressed dwarf. A very familiar dwarf.

“Isn’t that…”

“Yes,” said Britta. “It’s him.”

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