Stepping out of the sliding doors, a blast of dry heat swamped Fane. The glaring sun sparkled on the cityscape. He shielded his eyes, waiting for them to adjust. A line of hover-cabs sat idling in the loop. The roar of engines signalled another plane’s departure.
He spotted a cab with a man standing out front, a sign reading Anson told him where he was headed. He approached the man and showed his ID. The cabby looked at his sign and at the ID. Fane tried greeting him, but the language barrier proved difficult. He reached for his wallet, and the man waved him off. Fane only understood prisa Orlov. It seemed the prince had taken care of his bodyguard’s needs to get to the palace at least, having neglected to meet him at the airport, like he promised. The royal was probably too busy, having only returned the week before. There was no telling how much paperwork the man probably had stacked up.
Fane helped the cabby load his single suitcase into the trunk. He eased into the seat of the old cab. The old man came back around. He pulled the cab out of the lineup and drove into the city. Fane stared in awe at the crowded streets crammed with everything from hovers to pull carts. The ancient streets were a disaster waiting to happen.
An hour later, the taxi pulled up to the side gates of the palace. The cabby helped Fane unload his luggage while Fane presented his ID and paperwork to the guard. The guard spoke a spattering of English. How was he supposed to train these men if he couldn’t speak their language?
Orlov had been at his desk for what felt like the entire week since he got home. He barely took time to greet his parents formally before being sequestered off to the back wing of the palace to face down paperwork. It could sure pile up when he ignored it for three weeks.
It was already midway into the hottest month of the year. The Prince had the windows open in his office and was enjoying the wafting breeze. What he really wanted, though, was to be out at the pool. That sounded better than being cooped in the office.
He leaned in his chair, staring up at the twelve-foot ceilings. A knock at the door startled him. He glanced at the floor to ceiling double doors. “Come in,” he invited. The door opened to reveal his personal guard and Fane Anson. The guard bowed to the Prince before crossing the threshold.
“Your Highness.” Fane followed the guard’s actions, also bowing.
Orlov rose and came around his desk to shake Fane’s hand. “Forgive me for not meeting you at the airport like I promised. I’ve been under a deluge, as you can see.” Orlov waved at several stacks of paper on his desk.
“I had a feeling you were busy. Hope I’m not interrupting. I’m having a difficult time understanding many of the people here. I am sorry. I’m not fluent in the language. Brought a book and loaded some apps on my phone to help learn, but I’m not exactly picking it up fast. Is there a translator I will be using for training the men, or that I can hire out of the budget?” Fane got right to the point.
“I have had one prepared to work with you.” Orlov shuffled through his piles for a sheet and handed it to the guard at the door. The guard looked at it and fiddled nervously, not seeming to want to leave his station.
Orlov gave him a quiet command, and the man baulked with what Fane could only guess was a question, glancing warily at Fane. A chill dripped down Fane’s spine. Orlov responded more sternly to the man. The guard bowed sharply and left without a reply.
“He doesn’t trust me, does he?” Fane glanced at the man going down the hall.
“You are new in the palace. The guards are wary of everyone.” Orlov walked back to his desk.
“That’s good to see.” Fane remained where he was.
“He wanted to knife you to see if you actually had any proper training. He didn’t want to believe me when I told him he’d be turned into ribbons.” Orlov smirked.
“He could try it. I can’t guarantee the cleanliness of your office by the end of it.” Fane glanced around at the immaculate decor.
“I told him if he wanted to try it, he better bring the cleaning lady and a number for his preferred hospital.” Orlov flicked a pen over a sheet of paper, crossing out words.
“He seems the type that would, too,” Fane shrugged.
“I’ll introduce you when he returns. He’ll be bringing Shelly. She’s working here as an intern from the New Americas. She’s researching the history of the city. Should be able to work as a decent translator for you.” Orlov picked up another sheet, giving it a glance. His lips flattened in annoyance.
“Where do you need me to start?” Fane walked to the window to survey the grounds. Orlov had dropped into an intense document and was a minute coming back from it. Fane returned to his initial position in front of the desk while the Prince contemplated the form.
“I won’t have you start for probably another week. There’s a couple events I need you to be present at. I’ll have to schedule with the King and Queen to have you formally introduced and commissioned.” Orlov looked up to a pair of clipped heels announcing the approach of two people. Fane eased to the side of the door, glancing down the hall.
The guard was returning with a slight woman and another man. Fane met Orlov’s eye. Orlov nodded to him. Fane relaxed his stance, his hand coming away from his side. The guard entered the door, bowing again, his eyes searching out Fane. Orlov greeted him as was customary. The woman nodded her head in the Prince’s direction.
“Anson, this is Shelly Patrickson. She is pursuing her degree here on Neo-Sikh history and its relation to Old Punjab and the origination of the ancient Sikh.
“Shelly, this is Sergeant Anson. He is here on loan from Eand as a formal trainer to our guard. If you don’t mind, during your off time, would you be willing to act as translator for him?” Orlov asked the small woman. Fane knew he was short for a guy at five foot six. Shelly was barely clearing five feet on a good day in six-inch heels. Mousy shoulder-length brown hair, wire-rim glasses, and a pout of a smile told him all he needed to assume. She extended a hand to Fane. “Nice to meet you. I hope we can get along,” she smiled.
“A pleasure.” Fane shook her hand, returning the polite smile.
Orlov continued his introductions, “Ajay Bhichar. He has been with my family since I attended preparatory school. He has been my personal guard for the last few years. Ajay, this is Sergeant Anson who will be improving our men’s shooting skills.”
Fane extended his hand cordially. Ajay grasped it, a snide smile spreading across his face, pulling the redhead off balance. Fane went with it, dropping the shoulder of his extended hand, ramming it into Ajay’s shoulder. From Ajay’s side, Fane pulled a long knife that had been sheathed there. It was probably more ceremonial than actually helpful, but it’d do the trick. He pushed up, jamming his head into Ajay’s jaw, startling the man back. Ajay let go of Fane, pulling himself away, landing squarely in the room.
Fane braced himself, allowing the man space. He glanced to Orlov. The Prince watched the two intently, his fingers templed over a stack of papers. Fane tracked the movement of the rest of the room in his periphery. Shelly had her hand to her mouth, trying not to scream. The other man, a servant, stood at the door, terrified.
“Prince?” Fane called out as Ajay flew at him, a round house forcing Fane to spring back. He slid down and forward. He did not want to wound the man Orlov relied on so heavily. He was not partial to these types of interactions either.
Fane shoved his shoulder into Ajay’s raised leg from the roundhouse kick. Rising up, Ajay’s balance went out from under him, and both Fane and the guard collapsed to the floor. Orlov stood up from behind his desk, watching his guard intently.
“Prince Orlov! Tell your man to back down if he wants to still be able to reproduce!” Fane struggled with Ajay, who had realised what he intended to do.
Orlov uttered a stiff command. Ajay froze up, snarling at Fane. “Small bastard!”
Fane understood that much of the insult, but the rest of the tirade the man lashed out was in a different language. “You don’t listen well to your commanding officer, you fucking giant!” Fane landed an elbow into the soft spot between bone and knee cap. Whatever Ajay screamed next, he knew he was being cussed at. Fane shifted, getting around the man until he had a knee in his sternum and a knife pointed at his eye. “Stand down!” Fane commanded.
Ajay laid passively. Orlov issued another command. Ajay replied.
“Shelly, would you be so kind as to start translating,” Fane hissed.
“Um…what…uh….” Shelly stuttered, glancing between the three men.
“I appreciate the fact Bhichar here has enough guts to test me, but he better not make a habit of it,” he sneered, grinding his knee into his adversary’s chest. She hesitated. He flicked a glance at her ashen face. She cleared her throat and started talking.
He assumed she was at least telling Bhichar what he said. Bhichar answered her. “He said he doesn’t want you around. You make him uneasy,” Shelley translated.
“Chips to him. His boss brought me in. Why does he not want me around?” Fane demanded. Shelley directed the question. Bhichar hissed a reply. Shelly turned bright red. “What did he say?”
“Don’t kill the messenger,” Shelley hedged.
“You aren’t the asshole in the room right now.” Fane stared the man down.
“He said ’cause you look like a woman and a woman can’t protect a man,” Shelley cringed.
Fane smiled maliciously. “Dude, you gotta meet some of my comrades.”
Bhichar laughed and replied.
“Women are secondary, never to take the blood of a man if we are to continue the loop of destiny,” Shelly explained, her face going warm, but her voice went flat and irritated. The glare she threw the guard was not lost on Fane.
“Bhichar, you’ve got some fucked up biases.” Fane got up, disgusted. Bhichar grabbed his leg to keep him from walking away. Fane flopped down on his stomach, full weight. Air left Bhichar’s lungs in a wheeze. “I’d rather not self-defence you into a grave right here, old man. That’d be so shameful.” Fane tried to back away once again while Shelly translated.
Bhichar’s answer was much longer than Fane expected. He waited for Shelly. Her reply was significantly shorter than his. “He’s already ashamed,” she told him.
Fane snorted. “Should be, going after a man his boss hired in good faith.” Fane wanted to land a solid bone-crunching punch to the man’s face but decided better of it.
“Why don’t you kill me, he asks?” Shelly responded after another comment by the man lying on the antique Persian rug.
“A: that’s illegal. B: that’s a mess I don’t want to clean up. C: because the bruises you’ll wake up to tomorrow will remind you to listen to what people say. It’s better to listen and learn than it is to die stupidly for stupid reasons that have no application in today’s society.” Fane stepped back to stand near Orlov. “I purposefully left your face and visible skin alone. That way, you won’t be shamed by your own men, you dick.” Fane handed Bhichar’s blade over to the Prince. Orlov waved him down and gave Bhichar another command. The man finally dragged himself off the carpet and bowed low to the Prince with what sounded to be repentant statements. Orlov replied to him.
Bhichar approached Fane. The soldier watched the bodyguard, wary. Bhichar extended a hand and snapped a few words. “He’s asking you to forgive his mistake and to work with him in fulfilling Prince Orlov’s mission of improving his men’s tactical abilities,” Shelly translated.
“If I have my way, I’ll train you,” Fane directed his statement at Shelly, “to the point where you can beat his ass if he pulls this stunt again. Respect women, dude.” Fane extended a hand and shook it, still cautious. He wasn’t keen to injure the Prince’s man outright; it was annoying to have to prove supremacy, though. Orlov sucked on his lip, trying to hide a smirk.
“Shelly, Ajay, show Anson around. It will not do for our trainer to get lost in this maze.” Orlov waved them out of his office. Fane nodded to Orlov and followed Shelly and Ajay out of the room.
“Where shall we begin?” Fane turned to Shelly.
Her stomach growled in reply. “How does the place we get lunch sound?” She smiled broadly at him.
Fane rubbed at the pinch in his stomach at the mention of food. “Are there customs I need to be aware of here?”
They plodded through the beige stone corridors. Ajay snapped something that Fane missed. Shelly responded with a tepid jumble of words to which Fane sighed. What does the giant want now?
Ajay snorted at Shelly’s reply, straightening back in what Fane could only describe as disbelief or maybe scepticism. Fane narrowed his eyes, analysing the man closely.
“Are there food habits, like pointing at things with chopsticks or stuff like that?” Fane asked again. Shelly put a finger to her lip, thinking. “Well, we could sit down later, seeing as you have the week before taking over your post, to go over some customs. For now, I think they’ll forgive indiscretions,” she finally replied, stopping in front of a small metal fire rated door.
“I’d appreciate that. I’d rather not offend people if I can help it.” Fane opened the door for Shelly. The petite woman smiled, walking through. Ajay looked at him oddly, not understanding the action.
“One thing.” Shelly caught his attention as they walked up to the buffet line.
“Yeah?” Fane whispered, distinctly aware that he was getting some odd looks from the kitchen staff.
“No matter what you do, don’t eat anything with your left hand,” she whispered. Fane side-eyed her. “There’s a lot more, but for now, people see the left hand as usable for things like washing your feet, or bathroom stuff, kind of dirty unsavoury things. Oh, and don’t drink from another person’s cup,” she muttered to him quietly.
“Next question,” Fane asked quietly when they got midway through the line.
“What’s up?” Shelly grabbed several little plates.
“I’m on a plant-based food plan for reasons. Is any of this, you know, vegan?” He asked. Shelly raised an eyebrow at the foreign soldier before turning back to the food on the counter. She asked the cook a series of quick questions, who smiled knowingly and pointed to a number of the plate options. It became evident to him the staff colour coded the plates. Green had no dairy or meat. White had dairy. Red, orange, yellow, and blue were different meats. At least he’d be able to navigate the food line without help if the code held true daily. “Thanks,” Fane whispered as they made their way down the line.
They left the counter, their trays covered with a myriad of tiny plates, and settled at a long table. “What is all this?” Fane asked, perplexed. He couldn’t identify a single piece of food as anything he knew, even at its individual components. Shelly gave him names for each dish, reprimanding him for pointing at the various dishes with his left hand. He would have a steep cultural learning curve to battle if he wanted to be useful and not embarrass the Prince.
Fane waited and observed Shelly and Ajay before eating. It was better to blend in quickly. Shelly waited for Ajay to take the first bite before proceeding. Fane decided it was probably better to take Ajay’s lead. He asked Shelly if there were gender disparities in some of the customs. She was surprised by his forethought. “Would it be better for me to take my cues from the Prince or Mr Bhichar here?” he asked.
Shelly turned the question to Ajay. The guard blinked, surprised, before responding to Shelly. “He said he would be willing to help you learn.”
“He won’t make me do something super foolish, will he?” Fane glanced at the big man, sceptical.
Shelly filtered the question. Ajay sniffed dismissively. “It would embarrass him more if you were to embarrass the Prince.”
“Fair enough.” He bit into an unknown morsel. His eyes widened as tears sprang to his eyes. His ears rang, and he felt like he had shot hellfire into his sinuses. Shelly glanced at him in surprise when he reached for his cup quickly, his face burning red. Ajay pretended not to notice. Fane fought all he could not start coughing. He was already drawing enough attention from the others in the room.
Once his throat was calmed of the intense heat, he warily approached his food once more. “What of this is that spicy?” he asked, nervous.
“Um…” Shelly looked at her plate, perplexed.
“You don’t notice, do you?” Fane realised.
“You get used to it,” she offered. “Actually, quite a lot of the food is straightforward stuff. It isn’t as heavily spiced as you’d find down near the coast.” She glanced surreptitiously over at a board that had a bunch of what Fane saw as scribbled wiggles. He’d need to wrap his head around the script soon. “Ah, that explains it,” Shelly mused. Fane blinked, waiting in confused silence. She seemed to be reading the gibberish, not exactly quick, but methodically enough to glean something useful out of it. “Seems like they are greeting a new cook and letting him show off his home specialities from Low Maharashtra,” she explained.
Fane nodded, sucking in a sigh. He might stick with fruit for a couple of days.
“Ah…well,” Shelly coughed politely, suddenly uncomfortable, her eyes dashing away to the wall.
“What?” Fane asked, putting his fork down.
“It’ll take a couple months for your gut to get used to the food,” she muttered under her breath. Fane wasn’t sure where she was going with that. All he knew was that the food here could sure put his kimchi love affair to shame.
“You see, you probably haven’t eaten a lot of local cuisines, have you?” Shelly asked.
“No, can’t say that I’ve ever eaten anything MidIndia or MidEast before. If you don’t count tabouli,” he qualified, hopeful. “Curry on the isles isn’t like it is here, I’d think.”
“I don’t think that counts,” giggled Shelly.
“I’m more of a veggie burger and chips kinda guy, with a bit of sauerkraut and kimchi here and there for flavour,” hedged Fane.
“You might like the bandh gobhi matar if you like pickles that much,” she offered reassuringly.
“Do they carry bread and butter pickles?” he asked.
“I can see what I can find.” She winked at him as they finished their food.
Ajay sat, quietly observing the two communicate. Fane glanced at the guard. “Is he gonna be all right?” He asked Shelly. Though the man was reasonably large, Fane knew he had scored a couple good wounding hits. “Do we need to stop by somewhere for him?”
Shelly turned and approached the question carefully. Ajay sniffed at the question, dismissing it with the flick of his wrist. “I guess not,” Fane muttered to himself. Sometimes body language was enough to communicate everything.
“So, what got you into this?” Fane went to motion to the room but figured against it. It was gonna be a challenge keeping his body language in check.
Shelly leaned back in her chair, thinking. She looked at him for a good solid minute before leaning forward again. “Why do you want to know?”
“Trying to be polite?” he responded.
She frowned, her bottom lip sliding under pearl teeth. “You’ll probably find out sooner or later, so you might as well laugh at me sooner rather than later.” She met his eye. He quirked an eyebrow.
“I got caught up with this guy. My ex. He was from the area. We dated through school. I met him back when I was getting my bachelor’s. So, we went through our BA and Master’s together. Then he applied for uni here at home, and I scored a grant that let me study out here. I figured it was all going pretty good. I’d get to see him, and I’d get my PhD., go on to become some great professor teaching anthropology, get married, and have a great life with this guy. When I finally flew out here to start my research, I had a heck of a time finding my boyfriend. When I finally did hunt him down, I found him married off already, had a baby to boot,” she confided.
“Bastard,” Fane grumbled.
Shelly withdrew in surprise. “What?”
“Dick move on him. He didn’t even have the gall to tell you what was going on?” Fane pressed.
“I forgot you weren’t… I’ve been here so long that I’m used to being dismissed and blamed for the fallout. I wasn’t prepared for someone to take my side of things,” Shelly blinked.
“I’m gonna probably have a hard time,” Fane mumbled, a headache forming at the back of his head.
“Should I show you the rest of the grounds?” Shelly asked, getting up to put her tray away.
“At the very least, I need to know what I do with my plates.” Fane rose with her.
“Ah, that’s easy, here, follow me.” She led him over to a bussing station where he sorted through the dishes. Ajay snorted at them again.
“What’s his problem?” Fane asked, irritation slipping across his back. Ajay had left his plates on the table, and a woman in a kitchen uniform had come up to clear them away.
“He feels it’s a man’s entitlement to leave the dishes where they are, that a woman, in this case, the poor lunch lady, should be responsible for their handling. I give her props. She deals with the staff. We’re supposed to take care of this side of the counter, and she takes care of that side, but Ajay…” She raised her shoulders and shook her head, her lips thin. A frustrated, unguarded snort sent her hand covering her mouth and nose.
“I want to ask him something when we get away from the people,” Fane mentioned to Shelly quietly. Shelly turned and told Ajay when he joined them. The immense bodyguard shrugged, seeming to be amused at the little people’s antics.
They walked through the halls until Fane was thoroughly lost, only to find a secluded reading room and an alcove-like room overlooking a courtyard. Fane closed the door softly behind them. He turned to Ajay. “Shelly, this’ll be a straight translation. Don’t get too involved in hedging, all right?” Fane asked, studying the man. Shelly nodded and expressed the intention to Ajay. The man snorted at the exchange.
“Ajay, I’ve got a question for you,” he said. Shelly began translating.
“What?” the tall man asked.
“Are you going to judge me for the courtesies I extend Shelly?” he asked.
“Of course.” Ajay leaned against the wall.
“Have you ever left the country?” Fane asked.
“Many times with the Prince,” he replied. “I was there. Watched you and him when he had you pulled out of line. I sat in a back booth at the coffee shop. He had me circle Crystal while he walked around with you.”
“Did you treat the Prince differently because of the customs of the area you were in?” Fane persisted. He would come back to revisit the idea he was being followed by Ajay later when he had the mental space for it.
“No,” Ajay replied.
“Did you have people treat you oddly because of that?” Fane pressed.
Ajay blinked. He went to answer, quelled under the glare Fane threw at him. “Yes,” he swallowed the admission.
“But it felt right to you to continue extended the regular customs you were used to extending to the Prince, rather than adopting the local customs?” Fane was knit picking his point.
“I don’t see why you should know,” Ajay blustered, coming off the wall.
“Because, where I come from, we show women a type of respect that isn’t familiar to you specifically, apparently. We open doors. We pull out a chair for them to sit down. They teach freaking etiquette classes for this kind of thing and charge stupid amounts of money for them.
“For now, because I am still new here, and because Shelly and I have such similar cultural understandings of each other, I will continue to extend to her the cultural dictations that my people deem is appropriate to show to her and is not detrimental to her position. If you’re going to have a problem with me doing that, I will seek conference with the Prince to find a different working partner who will not undermine me in front of the other recruits. Got it?” Fane snapped.
“Why are you soft on her? Intending on bedding her?” he asked. Shelly stuttered over the translation, turning beet red.
“Say that again about her, and I’ll make you eat your tongue. She’s my translator. She makes my communication with you possible. If I disrespect the one thing that makes me able to talk to everyone else here, that shows I have no ability to respect anyone else. If you ever talk about her in such a vulgar way again, I will no-holds-bar drop you into the deepest septic pit I can find in the area. It doesn’t matter what’s between her legs for her to be useful. The thing between her ears is what she is here to use, and the Prince has assigned her to translate for me. Common courtesy will be adhered to accordingly. If I catch wind of any form of disrespect from you or any personnel I am in charge of…” he trailed off, a cloak of death settling over him, making him seem bigger and more terrifying than Ajay expected. A cold shiver ran down the bodyguard’s spine as the air in the little room dropped twenty degrees.
“You can’t expect me to start treating her like you treat her,” protested Ajay.
“I can expect you to hold your tongue when it comes to disparaging remarks that will undermine her position, and in turn, mine. Sniffing, snorting, laughing, vocalisations, eye-rolling, and other body language can quickly destroy a person’s authority. You don’t want your Prince’s name being sundered?” Fane’s teeth clicked.
“You aren’t what I expected at all.” Ajay finally broke into a softened, placating smile.
“I get that a lot,” Fane shrugged, that prickle along his back shifting under his jacket. “Do we have a deal, Ajay?”
The bodyguard sighed, taking in the room as a muscle twitched in his jaw. “I’ll try not to jeopardize your position through thoughtless actions.”
“That’s all I ask.” Fane opened the door to the alcove. “Shall we continue the tour?” He motioned for Shelly to exit. Ajay followed them out, watching the two quietly.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
If you would like to tip the author, check out the following buttons: