Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
"Sophia, table four's up," the heavy-set, floridly sweating man announced, reaching up to minutely adjust his hairnet.
"Thanks, Reggie," Evelynne said to the restaurant's head chef, and she took a moment in the relative privacy of the kitchen to twist her head around, feeling the stiffness in her neck dissipate a little. Then, with a nod and smile at the three cooks in the kitchen, she picked up the tray and headed back out into the main area of the establishment.
Isis, what a long day, she thought, casting a surreptitious glance at the clock and silently wishing it would move faster. It had been a good day so far—no major crises or faux pas on her part—but Evelynne was still unused to being so continuously physically active. Her previous "job", training to become the next ruler of her country, had frequently involved much longer hours, but was still primarily administrative in focus: meetings, phone calls, reading and writing reports, research. Certainly not the constant walking, running and carrying she was doing these days.
Of course, the efficiency with which she walked, ran, and carried had increased greatly since her first few days on the job, as had her patience and quick-thinking skills. And my knowledge of trivia and American quirks, she mused. She thought back to her second day, when a customer had called her over and asked for an orgasm. Evelynne had gaped, and been inches from slapping the unfortunate woman senseless, when her fellow server, Jean, had intervened and quickly explained that an "Orgasm" was, in fact, the name of a certain mix of alcoholic beverages, and that the customer was not actually propositioning her. Although the next day, when the same female customer had asked Evelynne for "Sex on the Beach", she had begun to suspect that there was some flirting going on. The day after that, when the same woman had looked Evelynne directly in the eye and asked her if she'd ever had a "Long Hard Screw Against the Wall", Evelynne had been able to look right back and reply that yes, she had had one the previous evening, and with a "White Russian", no less. It was a bit of a stretch, since only Ally's surname was Russian, but it had shut the woman up quickly. When Evelynne had told Ally that evening, her lover had collapsed to the floor helplessly in laughter… once she had finished blushing.
The practice of tipping had also been a stumbling block.
“What's the matter?” Jean asked as Evelynne slowly walked towards her through the restaurant.
“The couple who was just there, they left without their change,” Evelynne replied, concerned.
“Oh? What was the bill?”
Evelynne quickly checked the receipt. “$16.24.”
“And they gave you twenty?” She nodded. “The rest is your tip.” At Evelynne's puzzled expression she asked, “What, they don't give tips in Atlantis?”
“Oh, we do,” Evelynne said, still frowning. “So this is the gratuity? Did I do something wrong?”
“What, a four dollar tip on a fifteen dollar meal? Doesn't look like it to me. I'd say they liked you.”
“Oh. So, do people usually just leave money on the table? Or just don't take change?”
Jean looked at her, puzzled. “Of course.”
“All right,” Evelynne said, still obviously a little confused. “Where I come from you always give a gratuity directly to your server. It lets you thank them in person, and it's also just polite. If you just get up and leave you didn't appreciate the service.”
“Doesn't work like that here,” Jean commented. “Everyone's in too much of a rush to wait and thank someone themselves. Don't take it personally.”
“I won't.” Evelynne sighed. “I suppose I'm learning that the big differences in our societies aren't always the big things, but are more often the little nuances.”
The other reason this particular day seemed to be taking so long was tiredness. For some reason, Ally had found it almost impossible to get to sleep the night before, and while she had solicitously tried to avoid bothering her bed-mate, she had still tossed and turned enough to keep Evelynne awake for part of the night as well. The insomnia was a problem that plagued Ally erratically, without any kind of fixed pattern that she could determine. As she had told Evelynne one time, "It's like my brain gets going and just won't shut the hell up."
Still, Evelynne was used to working on little sleep, unlike Ally, whose unique neurochemistry almost seemed to require a full eight hours to function perfectly. She delivered the meal she was serving to the appropriate table, and bestowed a genuine smile on the customers, a sweet elderly couple—at least eighty, by Evelynne's estimate—who came by at least once a week. Evelynne had at first been a little surprised to see two obviously older people so comfortable in such an obviously gay-friendly establishment, and in such a generally conservative area of America, no less. She had hesitantly asked Narmin about it later on, and the manager had shrugged. "Muriel and Hank have been coming in practically since the week we opened," she had said, "and they've never said, 'Boo,' about it. It could be that they just haven't noticed, but I don't think so. We're not really subtle about it, and that Muriel's sharp as a tack, anyways. So I figure they just don't care." She had smiled. "My favourite kind of straights."
That had been another eye-opener. After being around her boss' flirting and genial leering for a week, it had been shocking when Narmin's husband had shown up for a visit. "Oh, Narm played as a switch-hitter for years," Jean had confided in Evelynne. "I'm pretty sure she hasn't touched anyone else since they got married, though." Jean had affected a desolate sigh. "Such a pity." Marc, Narmin's husband, was also one of the boss' "favourite kinds of straights," and Evelynne had found herself warming to the calm, mild-mannered man as well. In some ways he reminded her of Ally, with his unassuming demeanour, although Evelynne had also once seen him stare down a customer—a big, beefy truck driver—with nothing more than a glare. Of course, Ally could be particularly intimidating herself if she really had to be, she mused.
Despite her tiredness, the day was turning out well for the erstwhile princess, and she looked up to smile automatically at a new couple, a pair of men in lumberjack shirts who walked in as the chime above the door announced them, before going back to clearing the latest table. It was an oddly fulfilling sensation, she thought, as she continued the new routine of stacking the used dishes on her tray. She was used to working on projects that affected thousands, both directly and indirectly; always, of course, striving to find the solution that provided the most benefit to the most people. What she was doing now was a miniscule responsibility compared to that, but it was also a source of much more immediate gratification: getting a genuine smile as she delivered someone's food, the wide grin on a child's, or even adult's, face when she brought out a surprise birthday cake, even being completely ignored by some infatuated couple who only had eyes for each other. There were, of course, the more negative aspects—disgruntled customers, spilled food, an unexpected allergic reaction—but she was learning to take those in stride.
Now, as Evelynne walked back into the kitchen, she saw Narmin frowning over some papers at a table set along the far wall, but the other woman looked up and smiled as she entered, before beckoning the younger woman over. Quickly disposing of her load of soiled dishes and cutlery with Jordan, the dishwasher on duty, Evelynne made her way over to the manager.
"Sophia," Narmin greeted. "How are the mindless masses treating you?"
"Well enough," Evelynne replied, nodding. "I don't think I'm going to be on Mr Gerritt's favourite person list any time soon." She shuddered at the thought of a particularly abrasive customer.
Narmin laughed. "Actually, Ronnie Gerritt wanted me to know that he think you're the best waitress he's had in a long time." Evelynne gaped. "Don't worry about him. He's actually got a psych disorder that makes him literally incapable of being polite. It's a little like Tourette's Syndrome. So the more unpleasant he is to you, the more he likes you."
"Well, he must be about ready to marry me," Evelynne murmured.
Narmin winced. "That nasty, huh? Well, here's a hint: look him in the eye when he talks. You'll be able to see just how he really feels."
"Thanks. Is that it? I've still got customers out there." Evelynne nodded towards the doors leading to the restaurant floor.
"Actually, there was something. As I think you know, every June twenty-first we have a big Summer Solstice party here." Evelynne nodded. "Well, usually the day before we have a smaller get-together with just the staff and friends. We also try to have some sort of theme, usually something personal to one of the people here. So, I remember you saying that your girlfriend's birthday was June fifteenth, so I figured we'd turn this into her birthday party. It'll just be a chance to hang out, relax, and of course give everybody an opportunity to meet that mysterious girlfriend of yours."
Evelynne was surprised. The reason Ally had not spent more time around The Sixth Age was only partly due to one of Narmin's earliest stated rules. "I have no problem with significant others coming into the restaurant," the manager had said. "Just remember that this is a place of business, and when you're working you're working. So if they begin distracting you from other things, then it's time for them to leave. Otherwise, as long as you're not screwing on the karaoke machine, have fun."
The main reason was simply that Ally's own somewhat erratic work schedule tended to end, fortuitously, just as Evelynne's did in the early evening, leaving them time to walk home together, but without any real reason to just "hang out" at the restaurant afterwards. So Ally had remained largely an unknown to the highly curious and gossip-hungry staff at the establishment, made even more so by the fact that Evelynne had to be very careful over just how much she revealed. Anything too specific, or anything that made anyone think there was more to their relationship to a certain celebrity couple beyond a vague resemblance, could be disastrous.
"Certainly," Evelynne agreed, even as all this flashed through her mind. "I'll have to ask Ally first, though. She really isn't all that comfortable around crowds. I don't think she'll mind, but I ought to make sure."
"Okay, sure. Not a problem if she doesn't want to. I'm sure we can come up with another excuse to party somewhere." They both grinned.
"Claire, how's it going?" Ally asked as she approached the woman on the bench, although the other woman wasn't alone this time as she usually was.
"Ally, hi," Claire replied brightly, grinning up at her new friend. She turned to introduce her companion. "This is Corey, my roommate. Corey, Ally."
"Hi," Ally greeted, shaking the young man by the hand. "So you're the infamous Corey. I saw you a few times a while back, but it's nice to actually meet you."
"Ooh, 'the Infamous Corey,'" the friendly young man replied. "I like it. It makes me sound so bad-ass." He ignored Claire's snort. "And so you're the equally infamous Allison. You know, we should team up together. 'The Infamous Duo.' It's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?"
"Oh, it has potential," Ally agreed. She saw Claire's eyes rolling and chuckled. "So, is there room for me to squeeze in here somewhere?"
As Claire and Corey set about making room on the bench, Corey said, "Darling, you can squeeze in anywhere you'd like. Trust me, Claire won't mind." He saw Ally's mildly befuddled look, and Claire's violent blush, and his brows rose. "Oh dear, did I just let the pussy out of the bag?" His tone was only mildly repentant. "Our dear Claire here is one of Sappho's daughters herself, as I believe you are as well."
This time it was Ally's turn to blush, as Claire looked undecided whether to strangle her friend or just melt into a puddle of embarrassed goo and slip away through the nearest sewer grate. "Yes. No. I mean, yes, I am, but I didn't know—I wasn't sure. Claire never said—"
"Claire, Claire, Claire," clucked Corey. "Now, just because Ally dear is already taken is no reason for you to hide yourself away. It's unhealthy."
Ally smiled wryly at Claire. "You tell him everything, do you?"
"Apparently so," Claire muttered, refusing to make eye contact. "I don't know why. It's not as if he has any tact or anything resembling discretion." She remembered telling him when she had first discovered that Ally was gay, followed a short while later by the revelation that the other woman was already involved, deeply so, if the way she talked about her lover was any indication. It had been, and continued to be, disappointing to know that a compatible potential partner was already out of reach, but she also couldn't help but respond to Ally's obvious devotion to her partner. It was heartening, and at the same time disappointing, to know that that kind of love truly existed, and she always found herself listening raptly whenever Ally began to speak about her Sophia.
"Believe it or not, I know the feeling," Ally replied. "There are certain things I will never tell my mother because I know she will tell her friends. Or worse, my friends. She has absolutely no concept that certain things that I did when I was three are simply out of bounds." She shuddered. "It's horrible."
"Ooh, I like your mother already," Corey said gleefully, unwrapping his sandwich. "We simply must meet. Where does she live?"
"Specifics, please," Corey said. "There's a whole lot of Canada up there." He saw Ally's poorly hidden scepticism. "What? Can't I know a bit about Canada? I even know that you have ten provinces and three territories."
"Sorry," Ally said, shaking her head. "British Columbia."
"Oh, so you can take the bridge from Saskatchewan," Claire piped up guilelessly. She laughed when Ally narrowed her eyes, uncertain whether she was joking or not. "Oh, relax, I know where British Columbia is," Claire reassured her. "It's a suburb of Toronto, isn't it?"
"I give up," Ally exclaimed to the sky, looking upwards and gesturing emphatically, as both Claire and Corey laughed.
The rest of their lunch time passed in a similarly enjoyable manner, until finally Corey looked at his watch and sighed. "Well, no rest for the wicked," he grumbled, handing the refuse from his lunch to Claire, who separated it into the appropriate recycling piles with the ease of long practice. Standing, he held out his hand again. "It was really good to finally meet you, Ally. We'll have to do this again some time. Oh, and remember that if things don't work out between you and your girlfriend, Claire here is ready, willing and able." He grinned at his friend's spectacular blush, even as she tried futilely to shut him up. "Heck, she wouldn't even mind getting in on a little threesome action. So you remember that."
Ally finally pried her tongue from the back of her throat, where she had nearly swallowed it. "Uh, yeah—I don't—We don't—I—" Finally giving up, she let her breath out in a rush. "I'll keep that in mind," she said finally, realising that any kind of denial on her part would only spur the young man to further heights of teasing and innuendo.
"You do that," Corey said firmly, grinning in triumph. "The delights of aisle seven call. Later." With a final wave over his shoulder, he headed back to work.
Ally took a long swallow of her apple juice, giving both herself and Claire a few moments to recover. "So, that's Corey," she said finally.
"In the flesh. Look, I'm really sorry about that. He just gets—"
"Don't worry about it," Ally dismissed the apology. "I have a friend like that in Atlantl. The only difference between them is that Larr—Larry's innuendo is more subtle and refined." She caught herself on the name just in time. While she thought it unlikely that Claire had ever heard of Count Larrell, affectionately referred to as "Lecherous Cousin Larrell" by Evelynne, she decided not to take any chances. "Well, that and Larry's completely and utterly heterosexual." She frowned. "As far as I've seen."
"Yeah, well, Corey's definitely in a class of his own," Claire said awkwardly. She knew that Corey's situation was, in fact, significantly more complex, but wasn't about to trot out that particular can of worms.
"On that subject, why didn't you say you were, you know, gay? I mean, I've talked about Sophia enough that it's hardly any secret where my preferences lie. It's not like you had to, of course, but you know what I mean."
Well, I couldn't tell you at first because I didn't know just where you stood on the subject, Claire thought. And then I couldn't tell you because it was too embarrassing for me to have this huge crush on you while you're clearly in love with someone else. "I dunno," Claire said, shrugging and refusing to make eye contact. "It just never seemed like a good time, y'know? Besides, it's not like I'm really a practising l-lesbian right now."
"Okay." Ally shrugged. "Although I'd think that Corey would be constantly trying to set you up."
"Oh, he does," Claire admitted. "But, well, with this…" She trailed off, gesturing to her multicoloured face and body.
"With what?" Ally asked blankly.
Claire stared at her incredulously. "This. You know, my condition. People seem to have a hard time getting past it."
"Oh! Sorry. It's just that I think it's kind of cool, actually." Ally shrugged again, embarrassed.
Claire stared at her again. Damn it, are you trying to make me fall for you? she asked silently. "Um, thanks. Not everyone seems to feel the same way, though. Or they do, but for the wrong reasons," she finished enigmatically, ruthlessly suppressing that particular memory.
Ally looked at her quizzically, but chose not to pry. "Okay. Well…" She trailed off uncertainly. Claire jumped when Ally smacked herself lightly on the forehead. "Oh shoot, I should have asked while Corey was here."
"Well, it's just that Sophia's work is throwing this party next week, and they want to turn it kind of into my birthday party. Yeah, I know, I hardly know any of them, but, anyway… So, I was wondering if maybe you and Corey would like to come along? Like I said, I hardly know anyone, and I'm really not that great around strangers, and I was kind of wanting to have at least a few people there that I know. So, would you like to come?"
Claire was looking at her like she'd just offered to buy Bolivia. Damn it, why does it have to sound like you're asking me out on a date? I know you're not, but, damn, I wish you were. "A-are you sure they won't mind? S-Sophia won't mind you bringing along a couple of total strangers?" Yes, remember Sophia, her girlfriend?
Ally shrugged again and smiled wryly. "Actually, she suggested it. She knows we're friends, and she knows I have trouble getting comfortable with new people." She smiled fondly. "She's always looking out for me. Anyway, everyone else is apparently going to be bringing along a few friends and significant others. So I guess it just comes down to whether you want to go or not."
"Okay. When is it, exactly?"
"Next Wednesday, starting at eight. It's at the Sixth Age. You know where that is?"
"Yeah, I can find it." Claire was silent for several long moments as she thought. Shit, this has all kind of potential for disaster. Ally doesn't have any problem with what I look like—she thinks it's "cool", how amazing is that?—but I don't know about the other people who will be there. Still, I've heard that bar is a pretty interesting place, so maybe it'll be okay. I don't think Ally would invite me to something like this if she thought I'd be shunned or anything. On the other hand, even though, or maybe because, she's "cool" with me, she might not really understand how some people react. Which might possibly be awful for me. Still… She sighed mentally. I like being with her. Finally making up her mind, Claire said, "Okay, I'd love to come." I'll be blowing off a math tutorial, but screw it. Besides, I really want to meet this Sophia. I think.
"Well, that was unpleasant," King Jad muttered, wiping his hands together as though trying to rid them of some vile substance. "But at the same time highly satisfying."
Meghan Doherty kept a straight face, certain whether it would be inappropriate to add her own comments to her King's, even if they were ones of agreement. Even though she agreed wholeheartedly, she was still quite aware that she was only a servant, while he was a Diarch of her country. Besides, it was against her upbringing and training to openly criticise one of the Nobility, even one as far in Royal disfavour as Count Bransen.
Soon-to-be ex-Count Bransen, actually. The recent meeting which had taken place in this office, and which Meghan had been both honoured and disturbed to have attended, had been for the King to inform the imminent ex-Noble of his lack of future. She knew that the King had been frustrated at his inability to properly chastise Bransen for the latter's inflammatory, bigoted remarks at the latest ill-fated Conclave, but he had been far too busy rebuilding and restoring the government, Guard, and emergency services to act. The fact remained that, as Bransen was one of the only twenty percent of the seated Nobility to survive the recent massacre, both the King and Queen had been hesitant to create any further disruption by seeking his removal from his position.
That had been before Bransen's own Advisory Council had petitioned the newly-installed Duke Emil of Lyonesse to have the Count's title stripped on the grounds of gross incompetence. Duke Emil was the Heir of the late Duke Hassan, who had died in the fighting, and while he had so far demonstrated much of his father's conservative streak, he had likewise been instilled with the same high sense of responsibility towards both his office and his people. Additional impetus had come from no less than three quarters of Bransen's Barons, many of whom were also just coming into their inheritance, who had come forward with reports of Bransen's attempts at bribery, strong-arming, and generally trying to influence the new balance of power to his own ends. And while a degree—even a high degree—of powermongering was normal among the Nobility, Bransen had finally crossed the line where his peers were willing to tolerate his actions, and into the area where they were actively disrupting the functioning of the government. He had been using petty County Proclamations, minor points of governance that did not have to be ratified by his Advisors, to create a lot of highly unnecessary work for his Barons, then underhandedly snuck off with bits of their power while they scrambled to mitigate the damage.
And so Duke Emil had come to his Monarchs seeking their support and approval in stripping Bransen of all his titles and power, something which the Monarchs in question had been only too happy to give.
King Jad had summoned Bransen into his office where, in the presence of Queen Cleo, his Internal Politics Advisor, Legal Advisor, Master of the Guard, and Meghan Doherty, he had delivered the bad news. The Count had obviously felt himself nearly untouchable at first, certain that his Lieges would be unwilling to add to the chaos by removing someone of his putative experience. That certainty had faded, along with his oily charisma and false humility, as it was explained just how grossly he had exceeded his bounds. He had been red and nearly choking with impotent rage by the time the King had dismissed him summarily, almost as though Jad was flicking a piece of dirt off his coat. Sir Adun had been required to escort the shaking Noble to the door.
The actual stripping of Bransen's power would be handled shortly by Duke Emil and his Advisors, but it was traditional for the unfortunate Noble to be informed beforehand by the King and Queen themselves. After that it would be a matter of Count Bransen's immediate Barons selecting one of their own to take his place. By Law and tradition, if they could not make a decision within three days, Duke Emil would, in consultation with the King and Queen, summarily make his own selection, thus minimising the amount of disruptive backroom dealing and power brokering that could take place.
"You're right, Jad," Queen Cleo agreed from her place in a nearby chair. She looked faintly disgusted herself, but was obviously controlling it with the experience born of years of diplomacy. She didn't say anything more, in deference to the presence of the Advisors present.
The King caught her subtle signal, and turned smiling to his Advisors. "Nathan, Elizabeth, thanks for this. I won't keep you any longer."
While not subtle, the two Advisors accepted the dismissal gracefully. "Of course, Sire," Elizabeth Grissom, the King's elderly Internal Politics Advisor, said, bowing. "If I may remind you, Enku Tladi will be seeking several minutes of your time this afternoon."
"Ah yes. What did he want again?"
"I believe he is wishing to discuss relinquishing some of his duties as Aide to Count Avalon's Regent, Sire. He stated that he felt his abilities could be more useful elsewhere. I am uncertain of his specific intentions."
"I see. Thank you, Elizabeth."
"Of course, Sire," Advisor Grissom repeated. "Your Majesty." She bowed to the Queen, and then exited the room, Advisor Nathan T'Near following behind.
Receiving a slight nod from his King, Sir Adun followed them out and shut the door behind him.
Once alone, Queen Cleo relaxed enough to give a full-body shudder. "Thank God that's over," she exclaimed. "I feel like I need a shower."
"Likewise," the King agreed. He turned to Meghan, who was still standing a little uncertainly nearby. "I'm sorry you had to experience that, Meghan."
"That's quite all right, Sire," the servant demurred, while the Queen spared Jad a wry smile that she couldn't see.
Despite her other exceedingly admirable qualities, Meghan Doherty was still a Palace servant, and both Diarchs knew very well that as such she was an incurable gossip. When it came to true matters of state secrets, she had already been proven to be beyond reproach, but both Jad and Cleo were fully aware that before the day was over a reasonably accurate version of the events that had just taken place would have already spread throughout the Palace. By the end of the week versions would have travelled to most of the Nobles' retinues, and from there to the ears of the Nobles themselves. While in public the Diarchs would have to treat Bransen with at least a modicum of respect, how they truly felt about him would be well-known. As would a number of details concerning the ex-Noble's activities that could not be discussed officially, for various reasons. And all because Meghan Dougherty had "just happened" to be delivering some correspondence to the King when Bransen had arrived.
"Now, please sit down, Meghan, and tell me what my daughter has been up to."
The King was much more free with his speech while in this office than he had been a few weeks ago. In the intervening period a group of Guard bug-sweepers, men and women personally guaranteed by Sir Arthur Ramirez to be beyond suspicion, had practically dismantled the office and put it back together, declaring it as secure as possible. Actually, they had discovered three listening devices, but they were almost forty years old, and obviously the remnants of some long-defunct bit of espionage. They still went through the office at least twice a day with bug-sweepers, ensuring that what occurred in the office stayed there.
"Thank you, Sire," Meghan said, lowering herself into the chair. "First, both Ev—Her Highness and her Consort are well. I believe they are under some stress, but I would be, too, in their situation."
"I'd be worried if they weren't," Cleo said quietly. "So what are they doing? Last time you said that they had moved into an apartment."
"Well, Madam, they are settling in, I believe. They have also… gained employment."
The King's bushy brows rose speculatively. "Given the resources they have available, I wouldn't have thought Alleandre would decide she needed to work. Still, I suppose she might feel it's necessary to blend in."
Meghan looked uncomfortable. She cleared her throat uncomfortably "Actually, Sire, Her Highness and Her Ladyship have apparently both found employment in the civilian sector."
Jad gaped, while Cleo blurted, "What?! Doing what, exactly?"
The servant looked even more uncomfortable, flushing and refusing to meet her Diarchs' eyes. "Her Ladyship is tutoring, I believe, Sire, and Her Highness is a… personal server in a dining establishment."
There was dead silence for several long moments. "Are you trying to tell me that my daughter, the next Queen of Atlantl, is currently working as a waitress in a restaurant?" The King's voice was overly calm and controlled, although his face betrayed his shock and bafflement.
There were a few more minutes of silence. "Well," King Jad said finally, his tone now displaying his considerable efforts to understand this situation, "at least she's not working in a bar somewhere."
Meghan Doherty reddened further and coughed. "Well, actually, Sire…"
Continued in Chapter 5
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