A light rapping at his door woke him. Thankfully he had slept through the rest of the night, and dreams had taken a hiatus, to his relief. “One minute!” he called as he scrambled to get up. The door opened to reveal the giant bodyguard, Ajay, peering in cautiously. Fane froze, halfway untangled from his sheets and the nest of a mosquito net that surrounded him. Ajay’s face softened when he saw Fane up. He walked in, his hands up playacting, like a man trying to calm a wild tiger.
“What?” Fane hissed, cautious. He was aware in that moment of his defencelessness, naked to his boxers. Ajay approached him and carefully untangled his mosquito net. “Thank you,” Fane said warily as he slipped out of bed. Ajay said something Fane couldn’t even make an educated guess at. He walked over to his wardrobe, keeping a keen eye on Ajay’s presence.
He pulled his khakis out of the extensive wardrobe that looked even larger with his lack of clothing. Shoving his feet into his trousers, he grasped for his shirt. A finger poked his back. He looked up, pissed off. “What?” he asked again. Ajay said something and prodded one of his scars, curiosity and concern plastered all over his face.
Fane sighed. He wasn’t in the mood to try to explain across a language barrier. He shifted away from the intrusive bodyguard and tugged on his white undershirt. Ajay poked him again and said the same thing. Fane could only guess the man was asking him what had happened. He pulled on his undershirt and tucked it into his trousers, eyeing the big man. Somewhat dressed, he stopped to look the man up and down. “Big fight,” Fane finally conceded that much information. Ajay looked at him, perplexed. Fane rubbed the back of his head, thinking. He sighed, exasperated. He did not want to explain this one to Shelly, but a translator would be lovely at the moment.
He decided pantomiming would be his best bet. “Big fight,” he reiterated, pointing at his scars. Then he proceeded to make a significant motion with his hands and said, “big.” Ajay stared off unfocused for a moment and appeared to visualise the word, repeating it. Fane dropped into a defensive position and curled up his hands like a boxer, and jabbed at the air. “Big fight,” he reiterated, making a punching motion to his face. Ajay’s eyes grew large and round. He walked around Fane once, prodding at a couple of rather nasty scars that surgery had not made better, mumbling words that Fane would give his left nut to understand at that point. Ultimately that was the most straightforward explanation he had ever had to provide for what had taken half his life’s memories.
Ajay relented, passing Fane the rest of his uniform. As he was slipping the shirt on over his undershirt, another knock came at his door. Hurriedly he tucked his shirt in and grabbed up his belt. “Come in!” he called, clasping the buckle as Shelly popped in.
“Oh, good! You’re up and about. I thought you were gonna be out for the next week, the way you were yesterday.” She walked in and put a hand to his forehead, checking to see if he had a fever.
“I’m sorry you had to see me like that,” he apologised. He went and pulled a pair of socks out of his drawers and took them back to the bed, where he sat down to pull them on.
“You’re fine. Well, hopefully fine. I mean, it happens to most of us visitors. I didn’t think it’d hit you that hard.” Her smile was grim.
“That’s what you meant yesterday when you said it’d take some getting used to,” Fane recalled his conversation with her in the cafeteria while they were talking about the food.
“The day before,” she corrected, “but yes, for a little while, it’ll probably be a good idea to keep to fairly natural foods that are minimally processed, like fruit and vegetables in a somewhat raw state.
“The biggy that’s gonna get you is the water. That one takes quite a few months to get your system used to,” Fane’s translator offered.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He tightened the ties on his shined black dress boots. Once properly outfitted, he took his hat and shoved it in his back pocket. A quick comb through his hair in the mirror and a toothbrush had him feeling closer to a human rather than a deflated whoopee cushion.
“Are you up for breakfast, or would you rather wait that one out?” she asked, accompanying him to the door. He wasn’t too keen on a repeat of yesterday, but he was famished. His stomach growled in reply.
“Come on, we’ll get you a fruit salad or something easy on the gut, ‘k?” Shelly motioned him down the hall. Ajay followed them out of the room.
“Wait,” Fane demanded, remembering to lock the door.
“I’m glad you left that unlocked yesterday. We wouldn’t have known you were so sick if you hadn’t,” Shelly translated for Ajay.
“I woke up not feeling so great and figured I’d leave it unlocked in case it got worse.” Fane pocketed his key. They proceeded through the polished hallway towards the stairs to take them to the basement level and the staff canteen.
Ajay asked a question as they descended the glass and stone staircase. At least Fane was beginning to realise when a question was being asked compared to a statement or a demand. Shelly stopped on the stairs as Fane descended another two steps before realising that his translator and correspondent had both stopped. Shelly was asking something back. Fane froze when he heard Ajay repeat Fane’s earlier pantomimed statement, “big fight.” Shelly shook her head. Ajay snapped at her, flustered.
Fane walked back up the steps to Shelly. “Translate for me?” he asked gently, resting a hand on her shoulder.
She turned to him, red cheeks and glossy eyes betraying her emotions. “What happened to you?” She demanded.
“I ate some food that disagreed with me,” he evaded her question.
“No, the scars we saw,” she reiterated.
“Just as big man said, ‘big fight.’” Fane shrugged, turning back to the stairs.
“He says you’re a liar,” Shelly called down to him.
Fane’s skin chilled as his gut fell to his feet. With that many scars, no one could say he lied about that. He might not remember much past the hospital, but what was for sure was that he put up a fight against something. “And his mother was a dog,” Fane shot back.
Shelly shook her head. “He said you were tortured.”
Blood drained out of his face. “What makes him say that?” Fane was suddenly grotesquely curious about the man’s knowledge.
“I didn’t see it yesterday, but he said you had consistent patterns on your back similar to caning. He said some of your wounds are typical of cigar burns, and-” The woman checked her word with Ajay again, “a fairly extensive brand,” she translated for the man.
Fane turned from probing eyes to watch the sunrise through the glass in the stairwell. The view of the landscaping did nothing to distract him from blood-red clouds. “I don’t remember any of it. I woke up in a hospital and don’t remember anything else. I joined the military after, and that’s all I’ve got, ‘k?” He descended past the landing to the next set of treads. Shelly translated for him, a wash of horror barely masked in her tone.
“He told you a lot more about the types of scars I have, didn’t he?” Fane asked bitterly, his voice echoing in the stairwell a story below them.
“Yes,” she called back.
“I don’t want to know what they are, and I’d rather not talk about it.” Fane hoped they would drop the topic. Shelly relayed his demands to Ajay.
“I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m trying to understand who you are,” Ajay told him, Shelly translating, when they caught up with him.
“What are we doing today?” Fane asked, trying to turn the topic.
“I was supposed to see to you getting clothes. The Prince looked into your wardrobe and determined that you would need something different,” Ajay motioned them forward.
A pit dropped in Fane’s empty stomach. Orlov looked in my closet? How intrusive can this impertinent bastard be? Fane clenched his jaw, knowing that he was in no position to protest. It was true that he didn’t have decent materials for this climate. He had his two sets of uniforms, then a couple pairs of jeans, three plain, if worn t-shirts, a button-up, and his undergarments. That was kind of it. He didn’t have much of a social life off base that warranted too many changes of clothes.
Ajay pointed them to a secondary hall from the main. “We are to meet the Prince for lunch after outfitting you at the armoury. Following that, I will give you a tour of the barracks and introduce the commanding officers and the men you will be personally training. Once finished, a tutor will be meeting you over tea to discuss lessons.”
“Lessons?” Fane exclaimed. So Orlov does think I’m a complete imbecile.
“It will do for you to speak and read the local tongue if you have any hope of improving your correspondence with the men you will be in charge of,” Ajay growled.
Fane desisted. “Oh. Right. No, that makes sense.”
Ajay nodded, then proceeded to rattle off the rest of his to-do list. “Following tea and tutor, you will be meeting His Majesties for a formal dinner.”
“If I’m meeting Prince Orlov for lunch, why does he need to see me at dinner?” Fane asked, curious.
“He didn’t mean Prince Orlov. When we speak of His Majesties, we are talking of the King and Queen,” Shelly explained.
“Prince Orlov is one thing; he at least is aware of the culture I came from. Can I get a culture tutor rather than a language tutor?” bemoaned Fane.
“That can probably be arranged. Prince Orlov’s father is from Neo-Russ. He is aware of the differences in culture, so you needn’t be embarrassed at the dinner,” Shelly sank down next to him, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, but…” Fane tried to protest. Ajay picked him up by the arm.
“He says you’ll be fine. If you act with the discretion you did in Orlov’s office the other day, his parents will have no problem with you. Oh, and you’ll meet up with Prince Orlov’s siblings,” Shelly made that an afterthought.
“Siblings?” Fane croaked as they continued to the opposite side of the building and the stairs leading to the basements. He really hated these kinds of meetings.
Shelly nodded. “He has two older brothers and an older sister. He’s the youngest of four.”
“I didn’t know that. Well, he mentioned a sister, but I didn’t know he had more.” Fane held the door as they stepped into the cafeteria.
“Yep. Prince Abhi is the oldest. He is married and has three kids of his own. They live in the palace grounds off to the south end. He is in line to inherit the title of King when His Majesty passes on. The second oldest is Prince Param. He married last year, and he and his wife are expecting their first child at the end of the warm season. Then there’s Princess Kavia. She married last month and has been away on honeymoon. She got back four days ago. This is sort of a formal meet and greet for you and kind of a return party for her” She pointed out foods in the buffet that she figured wouldn’t immediately poison the poor soldier. Fane, to his amazement, came away with quite a bit of food he would be able to eat.
“Is Prince Orlov engaged?” His chest tightened under the sudden thought. He couldn’t explain the feeling, only that it was uncomfortable, and he wished to not know the answer to his question.
“Not yet. He apparently has driven away every woman his parents have ever tried to have him see. He left to Oxford to actually avoid an arrangement and tends to travel every time they bring it up,” Shelly whispered conspiratorially.
“Well, if he’s last in line to succeed the throne, I guess he doesn’t feel the need to be tied down and reproduce right off the bat, huh?” Fane devoured his meal, pleased with the sweet flavours after a day of no food.
“I don’t blame him. They were pretty bad matches all the way. Shelly bit into her pastry. The tightness in Fane’s chest dissipated. Oddly, though, his side was burning again.
After clearing out of the cafeteria, they followed Ajay to the garages. There he pointed out a slew of vehicles at their disposal for the morning. Fane waved him on, unsure of what they really needed if they were going clothes shopping. Many of them were luxury class vehicles, some antiques back to the invention of the automatic wagon. Ajay, realising Fane was going to be an indecisive scaredy-cat, motioned him into the back seat of a black Bentley Mulsanne.
Fane eased in gingerly, aware the leather interior was probably worth more than his yearly salary. Chrome and varnished wood gleamed under the garage’s lights. Shelly clambered in on the other side. Ajay slid into the driver’s seat, and they all buckled up. Ajay said something, and Shelly grabbed Fane’s hand.
Fane looked down, perplexed. “What?” he whispered.
“Ajay is a demon of a driver,” Shelly whispered back. Fane looked up at the man’s ten and two, concerned at the casual placement of loose hands. His trepidations were not ill-placed when the car pulled out of the garage with a jarring jolt. Fane pressed back into the upholstery as they bumped and jostled out of the compound, at what Fane felt was the speed of light, down the manicured drive and out the gates.
The high-speed driving didn’t last long, though. Once the car hit the city centre, Ajay slowed to almost a crawl. Traffic was atrocious. An hour later, they found a parking spot in a high-class shopping area.
Fane drew in a steadying breath. “Ajay,” he approached the man before they got out of the car. “I can’t afford this area,” he hated himself for having to say it to the man. Ajay blinked at him, perplexed. “I don’t make a lot; I can’t afford clothes here,” Fane reiterated, wondering if Shelly hadn’t appropriately translated. Ajay answered in a clipped sentence that Fane looked to Shelly for. “Prince Orlov is paying for you to be here; your necessities will be covered by the palace,” Shelly explained, just as perplexed as Ajay.
“He doesn’t have to,” Fane tried to protest as Ajay opened his door.
“If you are having dinner with his folks, you sure as hell are gonna let him do anything he damn well pleases,” Shelly hissed in his ear. Fane wanted to baulk but knew he was trapped in this. He morosely followed her out of the car. They trailed behind Ajay to the first of the stores. He walked into a wall of freezing air. Air conditioning. Oh god, that was heaven. Even if they put him in a wedding dress and garter, he wouldn’t care if he could stand in that air conditioning for the next week.
Once he stopped basking in the freezing air, he focused on what was in front of him. Rows upon rows of bright fabric jarred his vision. Dresses. That was his first impression. However, the manikins in the centre of the aisle were most definitely male. Oh, he thought to himself, they’re the same things Prince Orlov wore to the formal dinner with the General.
“Kurtas, Salwar suits, we’ll find you something,” Ajay told him.
A man came from around a counter to shake Ajay’s hand. Ajay prattled off a couple of formal greetings and motioned to Fane. Fane stepped up and looked to Shelly for help. “He wants him to take your measurements. Go follow him.” She shoved Fane to follow the store worker to a three mirrored corner. The man was about the same age as Fane, tall and broad like Ajay. He was well-groomed, his skin smooth and cared for. Manicured fingernails gleamed in the lights. Fane gulped, feeling out of place. The man took out a measuring tape and proceeded to take every meticulous measurement possible. By the end of it, Fane figured the tailor knew his body more intimately than his surgeons. The man nodded his head as he mused to himself before disappearing into the racks.
“Shelly, how much clothing am I expected to come away with?” Fane asked nervously. He hated trying on clothes with a passion. If he didn’t have to confront his skin in a day, he was happy.
“You’ll need formal wear for the parties. Then there’s sleeping wear, swimwear, training clothes, appropriate clothing to meet with your tutor. There’s clothing if you decide to visit any of the holy sites. Informal clothing that can be worn in town during the day. Club wear if, for some reason, you have to accompany the Prince to the nightlife side of the city. We’ll be here for the morning.” Shelly studied a list Ajay handed to her. Fane started deeply considering going AWOL and turning into a naked hermit in the no man’s land of the mountains. If only he could creep his way out of the store and somehow blend into the crowd long enough for Ajay not to find him.
Three stores and three hours later, the car’s trunk held a plethora of boxes and bags. Fane had never owned so many items in his life. Most of the outfits were strange to him, though culturally accurate to the area. He rested his head against the headrest of the backseat in the Bentley and let out an overwhelmed sigh, exhausted. What he wouldn’t give for a shooting range or a long float in a cold pool.
They headed back to the palace. There, a set of servants bustled away the boxes and bags from the car. Shelly and Ajay ushered Fane out of the vehicle while a different man came and pulled the car around to the garage. Fane got the sense they were in a rush to have him see the armoury before meeting the Prince for lunch.
Through a set of hallways in the west wing and down two flights of stairs into a lower basement, Ajay led them to a pair of double fire-rated metal doors with an electronic code lock. Fane watched silently, memorising the key instantly. The door clicked, and a prickle of excitement ran down his back. Now this place, he could be happy here.
Inside, though less equipped than the armoury on base, was at least well-stocked in a variety of weapons. They ranged from some pretty impressive RPGs to what he suspected were ceremonial trishula. His palms itched with the desire to handle the unfamiliar pieces in the collection.
“We still have to meet with the Prince for lunch, so you’ve only got a few minutes. For now, you at least know where the armoury is. We’ll get you your own key later today so that you can get access when needed. At the moment, you’ll need…” Shelly looked at the list, her eyebrows gathering in a knot. Apparently, the words were unfamiliar to her. She sounded some of them out as best as she could, but they weren’t quite making sense to either Fane or her. Ajay looked perplexed.
“Who made the list?” Fane asked after looking at the paper for a time. The whole thing was in the wiggling script he could not even pretend to guess at.
“Prince Orlov did. He has a list for almost everything. I think he couldn’t actually breath if he didn’t have a list telling him to breath,” Shelly grumbled, pulling out a set of other lists to double-check she didn’t have the wrong one.
“Can I pick up what I’m used to using, and we can check with him during lunch if I need to switch out?” Fane offered. He had already spotted a couple good throwing knives, boot knives, and a back sheath he’d feel comfortable using.
Ajay shrugged, figuring it would be fine. Watching Fane wander away from the arranged guns to the racks of knives, though, was concerning for the man. “I thought you were called split-shot,” Ajay demanded, watching on as Fane packed himself out with a slew of sharp blades.
“Just ‘cause I’m good with a gun doesn’t mean I like carrying around a ton of them. Knives are a lot quieter.” Fane shrugged, finding the back sheath too loose. He sighed, disappointed. He left it in the storage bin in which he had found it. Ajay handed him a shoulder holster and a pair of Glocks.
Fane handled them gingerly, thoroughly inspecting them. He walked over to a table occupying a corner of the room and pulled out a cleaning kit he had spotted in the shelves near the table. He laid the pair of guns down and disassembled them.
“What are you doing? We still have lunch to attend with the Prince,” Ajay demanded, flicking a glance to his watch and the armoury door.
“You randomly hand me a pair of guns I’m not familiar with; of course, I’m going to inspect them. I don’t feel like finding out they are jammed when it becomes necessary for me to use them,” Fane snapped, too focused on his work to deem it appropriate to look up when replying. He was getting used to speaking with Ajay through Shelly.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Ajay cautioned.
“It won’t be a lot of time.” Fane’s fingers crawled across the various parts of the guns. If this was what it was like to play with a lover’s skin… he mused to himself. This was familiar territory. This was where he wanted to be. The feel of cold metal, the smell; it was home. He could live in the armoury. Maybe he would ask for his bed to be moved down here.
Less than ten minutes later, Fane had both of them back together and holstered. “How’d you learn to clean like that?” Ajay asked in surprise. He had seen people disassemble and reassemble a gun in seconds, but this man had thoroughly dismantled, cleaned, re-mantled, dismantled, and re-mantled once more until he was happy the mechanics slid smoothly. A switch flipped. Fane settled the pair of newly cared-for guns into the holsters under his arms. His stature fell away into easy confidence, his spine straightening, his shoulders loose. A smile slid across his face as he turned to stare at Ajay, fixing him with an ice-cold stare. The smile was stitched on, not his own. It never reached his eyes. His eyes toyed and played with Ajay, testing the tensile strength of the man’s skin. Clad in deadly metal, the man changed from pitiful and apologetic, a measly child to walking death. Shelly shivered under the shift in persona. “You learn. Shall we?” Fane motioned the two out the armoury door with his unusual, twisted smile gleaming under the lights, a glint in his teeth reflecting the metal shining under his arms.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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