Click. The door to the waiting room unlocked. Fane looked up from his fifth round of counting the white speckle dots on the faded, black tile next to his left foot. To his relief, Zephyr popped his head in. “How you holdin’ up, kid?” The man slithered through the door crack and eased into a seat next to Fane.
Tension eased out of his system. If Zephyr was there, everything was fine. Fane gave his boss a half smile. “Dude, I’m six months older than you. I’ve been better. What did the doc find? They put me in a solitary and a brain scan.”
“You’ll be all right. Probably hit your head last night. The staff wanted to make sure everyone was safe while they checked you.” Zephyr handed him a dismissal grey form with a scheduled follow-up visit and instructions for using an anti-inflammatory for three days. Fane nodded at the precaution. Zephyr leaned back, kicking his legs out to admire the shine on his boots under the flickering light. “For now, even if it wasn’t your fault, we need for you to apologise to Prince Orlov. He didn’t start out with the best of impressions. Maybe we can salvage this relationship,” he confided quietly. A pointed glance to the door indicated a level of discretion required in the statement.
Fane’s eyes went round. He blanched. The New Punjab scout was supposed to be picking personnel for training. They were going to be a significant financial contributor that year. “Prince? Damn, I’m so sorry about this, Zephyr. Thanks for looking out for me. Am I gonna be in trouble with the higher-ups?”
“They’re gonna overlook it for now – after all, the party was sort of my idea, and the command had given me permission to fund it from the budget. If you really did hit your head, it couldn’t have been helped. You’ve never had a problem before today. We need to keep the support of Orlov here and now, though. If we can salvage that, then this can be swept under the rug. If symptoms happen again, though, we’ll probably need to have you back in Phys-therapy, m’kay?” Zephyr studied the edge of his fingernails and dug out a spot of grit.
Fane nodded. He was getting off easy. Zeph probably put in a good word for me to not be in major trouble with the brass. If all I have to do is put in some bit of an apology to this Prince character, then we should be golden. His stomach cramped. Contemplating facing the man left him nauseated.
He swallowed. When he got his apology over with, he’d never have to deal with the man again. Then he’d stop feeling weird and uncomfortable. Prince Orlov made him too nervous for his own good.
The soldier fumbled with the short hem of his tattered hospital gown. “Zephyr, do you know where’d they put my clothes?”
“Ah, yeah, they told me you’d need new.” His commanding officer squirmed in his seat. “Apparently, you had a problem when you passed out. Sorry, I left you. You seemed fine, and I figured I could return to the field. They said your blood pressure just plummeted or something after their draw. Something about a nerve thing triggering it. They said it sometimes happens if you come in dehydrated.” He pushed a check out bag across the floor to Fane.
“I’m so sorry about this.” Fane turned beet red. These’ll probably be coming out of my pay. He rifled through the material. “These aren’t uniforms.” He looked up at Zephyr quizzically.
“Your gym clothes were sent to the cleaners. You should be able to pick it up tomorrow after 1300. For now, I brought you clothes to meet up with Orlov. It’s after 1400, so we’ll have to have you in that quickly. We’ve got a guy waiting downstairs to take you to meet him. The Prince has a formal dinner this evening with the general, so we need to not waste his time.” Zephyr got up to leave the room.
“Yes, sir.” Fane pulled out a deep red blazer. The door closed behind his commanding officer with a thud. “W.T.F?” He held the garment up to himself.
Less than half an hour later, Fane sat in a black hover cab, watching signs flash by too quickly for his unsettled stomach. Swallowing, he hoped to ease the nervous roll in his gut.
He picked at his fingers, not entirely comfortable in the travesty Zephyr called clothing. It all fit, he had to give his commanding officer that, but it was not something he would have ever chosen for himself. The t-shirt sat below his collar bone. It was soft enough to be pleasant, but the edge of the hem was purposefully sewn backwards. The texture grated at him whenever he touched it by accident. His jeans, a dark wash, were freshly bought, and starched, which left his legs itchy. The leather shoes clamped around his toes like a cruel vice. The blazer sat tight around his arms. It was too much to ask him not to think about the fact there was no undershirt and the rest of his undergarments were completely wrong to the brands he usually kept.
About the time Fane lost all semblance of knowing where he was in the city, the cab took an offramp, did a roundabout and pulled up to an understated building. Mansardic in design, the old mansion had been converted into a two-story luxury shopping centre, with the first-floor west rooms turned into a high-end coffee shop. The hover cab dropped its ballooned black skirts to settle three feet lower to the pavement for ease of exit.
“You sure this is it?” Fane opened the door to the cab.
“Yer off’cer a’ready paid for the address.” The cabby showed him the address token and waved him out the door.
Fane nodded his thanks and extracted himself from the worn backseat. His stomach dropped into his toes as he studied the coffee shop. He sure as hell was not qualified for this kind of place. One would have to go to finishing school to know how to hold a cup properly.
For a second, standing outside the taxi’s door, he contemplated turning tale and going AWOL. He could last on the land. He knew where to find food. I don’t actually need to do this, right?
Just before he had wholly formulated his escape plan, the hover cab filled it’s skirts and glided off. A cold wind caught at his collar, sending a chill down his spine. He had no real idea where he was in the city, and he had to go see this Prince and apologise for a problem he had caused. Today is not my day.
He took a deep breath, puffing out his chest. He breathed out to his fullest to release the tension in his shoulders. This was why Zephyr had made him wear such clothing. He pulled at the hem of his blazer, settling the shoulders squarely over his vintage band shirt. At least it contributed to his physique nicely. Even if every single element of it made him want to strip in the middle of the street to be free of it.
He tentatively placed one squeaking leather-clad foot in front of the other and ascended the building steps. He paused to contemplate escape once more before opening the door to the building and letting himself in. The hallway was short with a lift and circular stair at the back. To his left, the coffee shop entrance, to his right, a bakery.
He glanced through the glass door of the coffee shop, checking to make sure the platinum-haired man was waiting. The New Punjabi scout sat analysing a newspaper, his coffee steaming, in a corner overlooking the window to the street and the door to the shop.
Fane opened the door. A small bell rang above his head. Sharp amber eyes met Fane’s storm blue. The Prince nodded his head to a chair across from him.
Entering; Fane’s shoes clicked loudly on the vintage wood floor. He walked to the Prince’s table and stopped at the proffered chair. The soldier bowed gently at the waist to acknowledge Orlov’s station, finding it easier not to look at the royal directly. “Prince Orlov?”
“Do sit, Anson,” Orlov greeted. Avoiding the man’s honey-coloured eyes, Fane swallowed against the sizzle of pain running up his left side as he watched the Prince’s lips instead. He slipped into the glossy wooden chair. Where do I look? I can’t meet him on the same level. Eyes make me uncomfortable, and if he realizes I’m reading his lips while he’s talking, he’s probably going to get mad. Guys tend to. Damn. I’m nervous and all I’m getting is white noise in my ears. This keeps up, the tenituous will kick in. Breath. I need to calm down. Easy to say if my scars would lay off for a bit.
“I must apologise, Mr Orlov, for my behaviour earlier,” Fane pulled himself out of his spiral long enough to get his tongue to preform some form of social etiquette rule.
“Coffee, Anson?” Orlov waved over a waiter.
The man clipped over in a tightly fitted grey suit, his raven black hair swept back with a pound of pomade. “Your order, sir?”
Fane sat, blinking at the waiter, at a loss for words. The conversation he had constructed to have with the Prince shattered with the question of what he was supposed to drink. He hated coffee, the caffeine upped his anxiety. Tea was bitter without sugar. His dietician had pulled him off that to test an idea. “Cafe breve, vegan? Please,” Fane requested, not entirely sure what he had ordered but hoped it sounded sophisticated enough for Orlov.
“Almond or cashew?”
“Right away, sir.” The waiter smiled and left.
With that formality over, Fane settled in his environment. He’d have to bite the cost of whatever it was that he probably wasn’t going to drink. He had shoved enough into a savings account to afford his own house outright at this point, but that was beside the point. He turned his attention once again to Prince Orlov. Fane paused for a minute, trying to recall the script he had formulated during the drive in the cab.“How would you like for me to address you?” he finally stuttered. That was not in the plans!
Prince Orlov gave him a condescending glance. “Mr Orlov is fine. In your western society, it is too strange to walk around being addressed as Prince, I assume.” He sipped his coffee.
“Yes, Mr Orlov, sir.” Fane carefully constructed his hand placement on the table to offer a level of familiarity without being closed off.
“Sir is for my father, please,” Prince Orlov smiled reassuringly.
Fane shifted subtly. He mimicked the ease on Prince Orlov’s face, hoping for a matched relaxed presentation. “Mr Orlov, I must apologise for earlier. It seems I was not well, which did not make a good impression for either of us. My commanding officer informed me of such an error after I was released from hospital. I would rather not make the relationship between New Punjab and my command strained. Is there a way for me to reconcile this?”
The waiter showed up before Prince Orlov, placed a delicate china cup in front of Fane, and asked, “is there anything else you gentlemen will be needing?” Fane shook his head, and Orlov waved a dismissive hand. The waiter tipped his head in response and left.
“I think it is I who must apologise, Mr Anson.” Prince Orlov set aside his paper.
Fane, having reached for his cup, hesitated. “Mr Orlov?”
“I made a snap decision when I first saw you at the assembly. You appear to be a much more respectable person than my initial impression. I would rather not let such an error on my part affect our working relationship during this scouting mission.” Prince Orlov’s teeth gleamed.
Fane’s heart beat harder. He picked up his cup to divert his attention. “My commanding officer and I would agree with you.” He sipped the tangy liquid and grimaced. Coffee had never been his thing.
“Not up to your standards?” Prince Orlov smirked.
Fane glared at his cup. He had hoped maybe luxury coffee would have a better taste. “I guess I’ve never been one for coffee.”
“Do you like tea?” Prince Orlov took a sip of his coffee.
“I’m more of a hot chocolate person.” Fane looked up from his cup, horrified. He had never told anyone that. A scarlet blush swept up his cheeks. Prince Orlov snickered. Fane was mollified. “Don’t tell anyone, Mr Orlov.”
“A person’s drink is a person’s drink,” placated Prince Orlov. Fane squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, taking another sip of the bitter brew. Prince Orlov moved to signal over the waiter. “Would you rather a different order?”
Fane shook his head and blew on his coffee again. “No, it’ll be all right. I may have a penchant for sweet drinks, but I’m also not one for wasting money. I’ll drink what I ordered; it’s all right.”
“That’s a good attribute to have, Mr Anson. Liking sweet drinks.” Prince Orlov paused, looking out the window. He seemed to have forgotten the world around him. A brightly painted red room limosine hover passed by the window, it’s bass system vibrating the windows of the cafe. Prince Orlove returned his focus once more on Fane. “My grandmother used to make sweet lassi for my sister and myself. I have yet to find a decent shop here selling the speciality.” A nostalgic smile slipped across his lips uncensored.
“You must have been very close.” Fane rubbed his right foot against his left Achilles to distract from the radiating pain singing from his shoulder to his thigh. He was going to make it through this meeting looking like an average person if it killed him.
“She kept us occupied while mother and father were busy with work. She’d sneak us Gulab jamun after dinner if we helped her with her gardens that day.” Prince Orlov’s was a genuine smile, not a politically calculated grin, and it was making the white noise in Fane’s ears worse by the second.
“That sounds like fun,” mused Fane, still trying to consume his brew.
They both sat in awkward silence as rush hour traffic filled up the lane outside the window. Three black hover trucks and a blinking neon ad-van brought the soldier back into his skin. Fane, white noise dailed back to a manageable level, set his coffee cup down. “I’m sorry for all this trouble. I was told that your time must not be wasted, that you are going to the general’s formal dinner. Is there anything you require of me to make amends for earlier?”
Prince Orlov levelled a gaze, pulling Fane’s storm blue to his amber. Fane’s heart dropped into the pit of his stomach. He wasn’t sure what the man across from him was thinking. Prince Orlov tented his fingers over his coffee cup. “Come with me to dinner.”
“Sir?” Fane’s voice broke.
“I don’t have anyone going with me, and I had an invitation for two. Join me, and at the end of the evening, we’ll call it good,” Prince Orlov offered.
Pain ran up Fane’s side as his face warmed. He worked at maintaining his composure this time. “There must be someone more befitting of your position, sir. I’m only a lowly enlisted man.”
“Maybe, but it’s short notice, and I don’t see anyone else around to kidnap and take with me.” Prince Orlov smiled a toothy grin.
“If it would not inconvenience you terribly? I-I’ll join you,” Fane agreed, sure that he wasn’t going to be able to get out of this one. Glancing at his outfit, he paled, realizing he lacked proper attire for a formal dinner. He looked up, terrified. A mischievous glint crept into Prince Orlov’s eyes.
Tension rose in the back of Fane’s neck. Is he messing with me? Prince Orlov beckoned the waiter over for the tab. Fane automatically reached for his wallet, only to realise Zephyr had forgotten to return it to him with the bag of clothing. He didn’t even have his phone.
“Don’t worry about it.” Prince Orlov motioned off Fane, not noticing that Fane was without his wallet.
“Really, I-” Fane started to protest. At the very least, he needed to call Zephyr to drop off his personal effects.
“It’s outrageous to ask you to pay for this when I chose the location. Leave your money.” Prince Orlov handed over a gold card to the waiter.
“Thank you very much, Mr Orlov.” Fane drank down the last of his coffee. Count down to a bout of anxiety.
Prince Orlov folded his paper carefully and slipped it into an inner pocket of his suit jacket. “You’re well-spoken for an enlisted man.”
“I understand the station to which I’m addressing and am making my best effort to speak of a quality I assume you expect.” Fane set his cup down and laid his hands in his lap to hide his need to rub at the soft spot between his thumb and forefinger. New environment, bad clothes, possible jerk to entertain for an evening. And that coffee was disgusting. Two, three days in a row of crap. Karma better be giving me something nice for all this.
“I appreciate that.” Prince Orlov signed the receipt and slipped his card back into his wallet. “Shall we?” Prince Orlov motioned Fane to the door.
“Sir?” Fane asked.
“Please, Mr Orlov, if you would, Mr Anson,” Prince Orlov reiterated.
“Yes, Mr Orlov.” Fane followed Prince Orlov out the cafe door, and down the mansion’s stairs to an idling hover cab. He encouraged the Prince to slip into the car before following him in.
Prince Orlov gave the cabby an address to a glamorous hotel that Fane had only heard of on travel shows. “I must change for the party. I figured it would be imprudent to have to go all the way back to base to have you leave when you got there,” mentioned Prince Orlov as he settled in.
“Is the dinner at the general’s house?” Fane asked. He knew there were quarters on base for the General, but the man also had a residence in the city.
“No, we’ll be meeting at the Crystal Dining Hall.” Prince Orlov crossed one leg over his knee, a toe tapping.
His profile flickered in Fane’s periphery. The man wore cologne. It was a subtle scent. Citrus and spice. A darker perfume emanated from his glossy locks. That radiating pain was liable to burn Fane from the inside out. He sat back, forcing his attention away from his senses to contemplate where Crystal was in the city. He drew a blank. Long fingers with a meticulous manicure kept slipping past his guard. Needles seared across his scars. He mused at what his tombstone would say. Respected comrade. Complete basket case.
They rode on in silence until they reached the Prince’s hotel. The red headed soldier followed him into the lobby to the lift bank. “I’ll wait down here.” Fane pointed to a set of lounge chairs.
“If you don’t mind.” Prince Orlov strode away when a lift rang the floor.
Relieved, Fane headed toward the chairs. However, he thought better of it and walked over to the reception desk to ask if he could use their phone to call Zephyr. It was late enough that he knew his commanding officer would most likely answer. If anything, he’d at least leave a message letting Zephyr know that he’d need cash for the cab fee to get back to base.
At the third ring, Zephyr picked up. “Abbadelli speaking.”
“Zephyr, it’s Anson,” Fane told his chief.
“Ah, Fane, how’s it going? Did Orlov take it okay?” Zephyr asked.
“Um…I think he took it okay. He invited me to join him at the general’s formal dinner,” Fane whispered hurriedly under the scrutiny of the concierge.
It took a moment for Zephyr to reply. “Well, all right then. I guess this will be good news then for our working relationship with New Punjab.”
“I have a problem,” Fane pushed on.
“What’s up?” A crash and a curse skipped through the phone. “Sorry. Dropped my phone. What’s up?”
“I don’t have my wallet or phone. I don’t have any way of paying my cab fee back to base when this is done. I’m at the Ryme Hotel. I don’t even know where the base is in relation to this place. I can walk back when I get hold of a map…but-” Fane mentioned hurriedly.
“Crap! Sorry about that, Anson. Completely forgot to put them in your bag. I’ll get your wallet and phone dropped off with the coat check at Crystal,” Zephyr reassured.
“You know where the dinner is?” Fane’s sighed with relief.
“I’m going with Gabriella. I can drop them off when I get there,” Zephyr answered.
“Gabriella?” Fane glanced at the receptionists staring at him and returned his focus back to a smudge of ink stain on the marble counter spelling out Daphne. He rubbed a thumb over it, testing if it would come off. It did not.
“A woman I’ve been seeing the last couple of weeks. You met her at the party. Oh, you may not remember because you drank almost an entire liquor store, I forgot. How are you feeling, by the way?” Zephyr diverted.
“I keep getting pain in my side randomly. Not sure if a bump to the head is supposed to do that. My scar hurts way too much to be a good thing.” Fane wiped his fingers on his jeans, cringing at the sensation of high startch against sweaty palms.
“It’ll take a while to wear off, probably. You might have some side effects for a couple of days,” Zephyr soothed. “For now, we can’t have you randomly dropping on us in the middle of drills, so you’re excused for a couple of days. The dinner shouldn’t aggravate you too much, but take it easy, all right?”
“Sure, I’ll take a bit of a rest. Let me know when you need me back,” Fane requested.
“We’ll have you go back to the hospital for another scan at the end of the week if those pains are still surfacing. When Doc clears you, you can come back,” Zephyr reassured.
“Yes, sir.” Fane shoved his fidgeting fingers into the deep pocket of his tight jeans.
“Right, we’ll see you in a few; gotta go get that monkey coat on.” Zephyr clicked off the line. Fane placed the handset back in its cradle. He lucked out that Zephyr was going to be coming. Now he wasn’t going to have too much of an embarrassing situation trying to catch a ride back to base that evening. He thanked the receptionist and returned to the lobby’s sofas.
Less than fifteen minutes later, Prince Orlov appeared dressed to impress. Fane sat, stunned at the royal’s beauty. He was resplendent in a white and red sherwani. Magnificent embroidery work in gold scrolled across his chest and shoulders. Red churidars wrapped around his lean legs, setting off the red in his sherwani. A pair of red and gold emblazoned jutti caressed his feet. “Wow,” escaped Fane before he was able to catch himself. “I’m sorry,” he quickly apologised, scuttling to his feet.
“I stopped at the reception. They called a cab over for us already. Shall we?” Prince Orlov motioned to the door.
“After you.” Fane held the door for the man. He hoped Prince Orlov would not notice the pain he was trying to hide. Fane didn’t know what it was, but he’d have to push through it. Following the Prince to the idling cab, the soldier waited for him to slide into the far side before seating himself. Hopefully, dinner with this man is not going to kill me.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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