Subject 15: Ch 15

“Come on! We need to get going!” Shelly popped into the room unannounced. The instructor and Fane flinched, glancing up from a children’s workbook. “What’s wrong?” Fane rose, his hands clearing every vest and pocket in succession as he subconsciously checked for his armaments. Shelly grabbed him, pulling him towards the library door. “You’re supposed to be meeting with His Majesties in fifteen minutes. I got distracted and forgot to come get you half an hour ago. I’m so sorry!” She pushed him from the room.

“Tomorrow at three?” Fane called back to Mr Sachdeva before he lost line of sight of the door.

“Tomorrow! Good luck!” his teacher called back, waving goodbye to Fane.

“Come on, the lift is here.” Shelly pulled Fane towards the doors. Fane’s senses all suddenly screamed red alert. He put on the brakes. “The stairs are over here, I’ll -” he tried to back away from the shoeboxes of death.

“No time!” coerced Shelly, keeping her grip tight on him. She had already changed, hurriedly, into a bright lime green and watermelon pink sharara. Her hair hung about her shoulders, shining a soft walnut. Large gold hoops blinked in and out of the curling tresses.

The door to the lift was already opening. Fane’s heart squeezed tight, and a cold sweat gathered between his shoulder blades. He stumbled into the tight airless chamber with her. He’d have to remember to find out the times he needed to be somewhere and never miss it again, he chided himself as the door shut with a bing. Shelly pressed the top floor, and there was a shift in the lift mechanism. He clutched down tightly on her hand. Shelly glanced at the hand and back up to the soldier’s face. Fane’s eyes were fixated on the changing number of the lift. He was holding his breath.

The door slid open, and Fane immediately pressed out, practically dragging Shelly with him. She jumped a step and was in stride with him as they dashed down the long hallway to his room on the other end. At the door, Fane fumbled for his key before getting the lock to pop. Inside he was confronted with all the bags and boxes they had purchased earlier.

He halted in his tracks, his brain suddenly deciding to stop working. Shelly rushed for the packages. He knelt down next to her, helping her untangle price tags holding the clothing captive. Shelly pulled out a navy blue and white shalwar kameez suit. She tossed them at him and dug out a new pair of leather jutti.

He held the clothes, watching her stand back up quickly. “The hell you doing? Get changed! Come on!” Shelly reaching for Fane’s shirt.

“Woah, woah, woah. I’ll get dressed! Get out!” Fane pushed her to the door.

“I have nine older brothers. I don’t care. You’ll be late, and you’ve probably never tried to get into one of these.” Shelly started after him again.

“Well, slow down, or you’ll cut yourself.” Fane pulled one of his throwing knives to explain more. 

Shelly grimaced and sighed. “Fine, get yourself decluttered and if you need, I can jump in and make sure you look correct. You have to hurry. Got it!” Shelly scuttled out of the room.

Fane dismantled himself, laying out his weapons on the side table. He pulled off his clothes and approached the new costume. The loose silk trousers went on quickly enough and tied with a drawstring. He stuck his arms into the top and realised that it was incredibly see-through. He pulled out his pocketed compression tank and tucked it into his new trousers. Well, this’ll work to my advantage, he mused as he eased his side knives into their slots. 

“Are you done?” Shelly popped back in.

“Not quite.” He finished slipping the last knife in its sheath.

“How do you plan on using those under your kameez?” Shelly asked, holding the long asymmetric shirt to him. A drape of mother-of-pearl buttons ran down the right shoulder to the hip.

He took it from her and tugged it on. “Probably toss the shirt if I have to. If I have to continue wearing stuff like this daily, I may have to make some modifications.” Fane watched the mousy woman in the pink and green sharara expertly slip pearl buttons through loops. This had to be too extravagant and underdressed for meeting the Prince’s parents. “Are you sure this is appropriate? Aren’t I supposed to be representing my -” Fane picked at the sleeve. It was loose enough that he could slip his arm sheath on. He immediately reached for it.

“Hey!” Shelly protested. She wasn’t done with his buttons.

“I -” He grabbed the black band and shoved the arm of his shirt up to begin buckling it on.

“Jeez, I’d ask how many of those things you have on right now, but it’s probably better I don’t know,” she grumbled.

“About ten knives at the moment, and a Glock at my back.” Fane touched the spot at the base of his spine to check it still sat where he could reach it.

“Great, just great, he-man.” She nudged his jutti to him and pushed her hair out of her face. He slipped the leather on, feeling so many levels of underdressed. He couldn’t recall the last time he had worn something other than military-issued boots. She brushed his stray locks back into shape, trying to wrestle down some unruly curls forming with the growth. He reached up to run a hand through it, not helping. Shelly bit her lip and sighed. “It is what it is. Come on. Let’s go.” She urged him out of the room.

Setting in on the other side of the compound walls, the sun turned the beige stone into glittering orange and gold flecks. The servants had opened windows to catch a cool breeze, leaving the palace smelling of jasmine and floor polish. Shelly and Fane’s shoes squeaked on fresh wax.

“We’re heading to the main dining room on the first floor.” She pulled him back down the hall towards the lift. Fane had tried to make a protest, but Shelly wasn’t hearing it. “You’ll get yourself all out of alignment and hot and sweaty. No, now come on!” she shouted at him.

He licked his lips, loading into the lift. This was not where he wanted to be twice in one day. His grip on Shelly’s hand tightened again, getting into the tiny box. 

“It’ll be all right. I was nervous meeting the King and Queen the first time too. They’re nice people, though, so don’t worry too much, okay?” reassured Shelly. That wasn’t what had Fane nervous. He closed his eyes as the floor descended. The ringing in his ears was almost unbearable.

The lift rang on the first floor, and the door eased open. Fane breathed in the gust of fresh air. He absolutely hated lifts. Shelly wasn’t giving him time to contemplate his hatred of tiny spaces, though. She bustled him down the hall, then another, and one more right. At a pair of gold-leafed, carved double doors, she stopped him. 

She straightened his tunic once more, making it sit more comfortably at his shoulders. Then she turned to herself, pulling her skirts into order. She flipped her hair over her shoulders, her massive gold earrings falling forward to frame her face. “All right,” she breathed in slowly, “I’m abandoning you here. They can all speak English excellently. You’ll be able to talk with them fine,” Shelly said.

“But you’re dressed so nicely. You’re not joining me here?” Fane asked. He was one step from begging her not to leave him to his fate.

“I’ve got a date,” she blushed. She knocked at the door, and a butler opened it a crack.

“I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Fane whispered as he was handed off to the butler. 

“Yep, see you for breakfast.” She waved and dashed off.

Fane swallowed, trying to calm down. The butler, a no-nonsense man with a grey moustache and a thin stature, ushered him into the foyer room outside of the dining room. “Mr Anson, I presume?” he asked crisply.

“Yes, sir.” Fane took a page from Prince Orlov’s playbook and put on an aura of entitlement.

The butler regarded Fane’s transformation with an approving nod. “Very good, sir.” He turned to the door and opened it, announcing Fane’s arrival. 

The dining table swam into focus. It had to be able to seat at least twenty, thirty people without difficulty. The room was white marble and rose gold, the table a polished mahogany. An older man in seafoam green sat at the head of the table at the other end. To his left was a well-dressed lanky woman with grey stripes; to his right, a comfortably dressed elderly man. Then spread along the length of the table was a swarm of people.

Fane swallowed back his nerves when he sank into amber. His heart slowed. It was all going to be okay. The tension fell off his shoulder, leaving him light and relaxed.

“Mr Anson.” The salt and pepper man at the head of the table stood up to greet him. Fane could only pray he had any sense of etiquette at this point. How the hell am I supposed to greet royalty at what is obviously a family gathering and a bit casual at that? Though everyone’s clothing was elaborately embellished, he recognised that it wasn’t extravagant enough to be considered formal wear. He bowed at the hip, keeping his arms stiff at his side. “Sir,” he greeted. He wasn’t entirely sure but figured the man addressing him was the current King and not the elderly gentleman at his side.

The man, who Fane suspected was the grandfather, was in his early eighties probably. A burnt umber kurta made his face paled, his short platinum hair melted into his skin tone. Aquamarine eyes studied him, unblinking. Fane restrained himself, keeping from fidgeting. 

“It is a pleasure to meet you. May I introduce my family to you?” The man in seafoam continued with his introduction. Fane wished he wouldn’t. He had a hard enough time pronouncing the local dialect. Having to actually remember Prince Orlov’s siblings and parents’ names were going to be a completely separate thing.

“Her Majesty, the Queen, and my lovely wife, Harita.” The man smiled; a fiery passion flitted across his expression as he motioned lovingly to the woman in grey stripes. She smiled knowingly at Fane, dark amber eyes testing his shoulders and neck. A chill ran down his side at her glance. He nodded to her. The king moved on to the elderly man next to him. “My wife’s father, Gagandeep.” The king bowed gracefully towards his father-in-law. Gagandeep nodded appreciatively to his son-in-law and cast a soft smile towards Fane.

Fane followed the motion of the king’s hand towards the closest of his children. “Abhi, the eldest and heir apparent. His wife Orpita and my three grandchildren, Tamasi and Tamira, and little Fateh.” He indicated three squirming children, a pair of six-year-old twin girls and a tiny boy who could be no more than two years old. Abhi was tall and thin, taking after his mother. His hair, shorn short, was pitch black; his eyes were a deep cherry wood. He looked older, more in his late thirties, maybe early forties. His wife was small and well rounded. She regarded Fane with something akin to distaste. Fane knew immediately to be wary of the pair.

“We have Param and his lovely wife Rabia; may the heavens bless them,” The King motioned to his next son. Rabia was round in late pregnancy and looked uncomfortable. Param was shorter than Orlov and Abhi but sturdy, taking after his grandfather. He wore a pair of gold wire frame glasses. His hair was gelled back. The second Prince reminded Fane of an accountant. Param’s wife was stunning. Her face was made for the modelling business. Fane suspected that was probably something she had done in the past. She looked familiar enough to him that he suspected that was the case. She smiled pleasantly enough but was more distracted with pressing on her stomach. The baby was probably kicking.

“And my dearest daughter, Kavia and her new husband, Vaikunth, who just returned from their honeymoon. I hope to welcome you here during our time of celebration as an esteemed guest that my son says will aid us in bettering our defences.” The King smiled warmly. Kavia was absolutely beaming. She seemed young, reminding Fane of a schoolgirl who had experienced her first kiss. She was lithe and petite. Vaikunth shared that same inexperienced look. He was heavily pressed into his suite. His features were cobbly at best. A bit of soft weight road around his cheeks and neck, showing he led an inactive life. The doe-eyes that Kavia had for the man, though, told Fane that she was in love and had no regard for his aesthetics. Vaikunth beamed a pleasant smile at Fane, what appeared to be a true, genuine smile.

“Welcome,” they all said in unison. A shiver ran down Fane’s spine. That was odd, but probably a practised greeting the family had. 

“Please, have a seat,” the King motioned toward Orlov. Fane nodded, keeping his reactions buried deep. Now was not the time to falter. He was in unknown territory, and it would not do to shame the Prince or cast doubt on his command by making some kind of mistake. 

He bowed once more before proceeding to his seat. The butler moved it back for him and slid him in. Fane kept his fear buried deep, a mask of indifference plastered to his face as the butler laid a napkin along one of his legs and left. He only faltered in his nonchalant facade by glancing uneasily to the youngest Prince, his employer. The man returned his look with a gentle breath in and a soft breath out, encouraging him to breathe.

Fane glanced through his periphery at Ishan’s hands while Tamasi and Tamira tried to introduce themselves to him. The Prince’s hands were gently folded in his lap. Fane returned the girls’ introduction politely. At best, with the various sets of cutlery and utensils spread before him, he figured he’d need to watch what Ishan did to keep from looking like he was raised by pigs.

“You needn’t be formal with us. We wanted to meet you and learn a bit about you. It would do for you to familiarise yourself with those who come in and go out of the palace regularly, would it not?” the Prince extended to Fane but directed the statement more towards his father.

“By all means, please. We are here to celebrate Kavia. I hope that we will get along.” The queen leaned over to see Fane along the line of people seated at the table.

“I appreciate you extending your invitation to me during such a personal time,” Fane replied, hoping that would be a fitting reply.

“I’m thrilled Ishan was able to find you as readily as he did. It’s fortuitous for us that you accepted his invitation to relocate here,” Abhi stated.

Fane stilled under the conversation, aware something was about to happen. Footsteps outside the door had alerted him. He watched out of his periphery, keeping his eyes trained on Prince Abhi. He didn’t want to appear rude if he could help it. The door opened, and staff walked in with plates of food. He remained on alert, not recognising any of the personnel. Domed plates were laid out before everyone. At a silent signal, the domes were removed to reveal a variety of dishes. No one had the same thing another did. The twins and Kavia squealed excitedly before they could smother their excitement. The King’s eyebrow arched, a smile tugging at his lips. 

“Ishan, were we having fun with the kitchen staff?” the queen mused as she raised a fork to what appeared to be a cheese souffle.

Prince Orlov returned the amused smile his father was trying to suppress. “This is what happens when you leave me to run the kitchen staff this week.” The Prince gently tapped the shell of a pie. It cracked beautifully, revealing minced meat. An Irish pasty. Instantly, Fane was salivating. He turned to his own plate, realising everyone was given a favoured food. Fane relaxed when he took a moment to study what was on his plate. Tofu Pad Thai. Oh, there is a god, Fane thought to himself. Everything looked familiar. It smelled correct. It looked safe. “Hopefully, this’ll work,” Prince Orlov whispered to Fane. 

“Thank you.” Fane graciously took a bite. That first mouthful was like tasting heaven. Something he could safely eat. The vegetables were crisp. The seasoning was absolutely perfectly balanced. It was as fresh as one could get. He figured he could die there and be complete.

“It is our understanding you will be working with our man Ajay and Shelly as your translator beginning next week,” Param engaged in conversation after biting into something a fire engine red. Fane wasn’t even going to take a flying guess as to what it was, other than it was drawing beads of sweat on Param’s forehead. It had to be a spicy death wish.

“They have been of immense help already in preparing me for work next week,” Fane replied, raising his fork to his noodles.

“Is it true you can split a bullet along a blade?” one of the twins interrupted, excited. Fane flinched under the question, his tine hitting the edge of the fine china. “That’s right.” He plastered an approachable expression on his face quickly.

“That’s so cool! Daidi, let’s watch him do it!” The girl tugged on Abhi’s arm. 

The man smiled down at her, amused. “Is it really true you can split a bullet?” Abhi turned to him, his voice sliding like snakes across the table. He was cunning, this one. Fane knew it by looking at the man’s eyes. He had a diplomatic glint to his face, but his eyes held a form of judgmental dismissiveness Fane recognised. He had seen that look before. It had always come from upstarts that ended up in the hospital whenever they physically provoked him. Fane kept his composure, knowing he was about to be turned into a sideshow freak for small children’s enjoyment.

“It would be my pleasure to show you at a time of your choosing.” He let his warped smile come out for a second. Ishan’s fork scratched at the plate. Fane held Abhi’s eyes, not wanting to back down from the man. The heir-apparent’s eyes were like Ishan’s, an amber that could look almost feral in their contempt. A glinting smirk crossed Abhi’s lips as he said, “tomorrow before breakfast?”

“I’ll have doughnuts prepared,” Ishan mumbled.

“I like chocolate,” Fane muttered back.

“Hundreds-and-thousands?” Ishan let his volume come up.

“Sure, why not?” Fane returned Prince Abhi’s grin with his own twisted promise of death. The man paled. That was what Fane wanted. He had waited for that look, that look of utter contempt to drop as he realised what was in the room with them.

The man dropped his egotistical gaze and turned to his daughter. “Are you ready to get up really early, Tam?”

“Yes, I can do it, Daidi!” she was visibly vibrating.

“Let Ajay know your set up after dinner, and we’ll have it ready for you in the morning.” The king was bemused with the antics of his grandchild. He was not concerned about the battle of wills that was being fought over the dinner table.

“When would work for you? I’m not familiar with your schedules yet,” Fane directed the question once more at Abhi.

“Four would do fine,” Abhi tried to bring back his contemptuous gaze but dropped his eyelashes to study his plate when Fane gave off that grim reaper impression he pulled with people he didn’t like. 

Is he trying to make me back down with early hours? Four is when I regularly get up and go for an hour run. That is gonna be cake walk. “I look forward to it.” Fane finally allowed himself to eat. This would get this challenge out of the way early. It was almost always inevitable to have someone try to start up some kind of shooting test just to eat dust.

Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.

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