A twisted tale of Life, Politics, and what some might consider cruelty to animals ...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chapter 5

I was jolted awake (though gently) while still sitting in that chair sometime later by Lorelei, as she cleared her throat while standing quietly and politely beside the desk. Now some may wonder as to why, with all that was happening, I was asleep? The answer of course, was that I was asleep because I could be. The truth of the matter is that I have always had the ability to fall asleep wherever and whenever I get the chance. It's a talent that I picked up through years of travel, while working long and sometimes rather inconvenient hours. Like any other soldier, a road warrior must learn to eat and sleep whenever he or she can in order to survive. I can sleep sitting in airline terminals, on airplanes while flying, in cars (not when I’m driving, thank you), or just sitting at my desk.

They say that Thomas Edison used to catnap both in and underneath his roll top desk. It was this behavior they say, that allowed him to be such a productive an individual. Of course they also say that Edison was a ruthless and cantankerous old bastard, and occasionally a shameless crook who was perfectly willing to steal a good idea if he couldn't come up with one himself. I don’t know which if any of the stories are true or even why it should mean anything to anyone, but it's great trivia.

I find that in spite of the ease to which I manage to sleep in awkward positions and places, that the transition from sleeping to waking is never quite as easy, and this was no exception. In fact, you can usually count on me flying half way out of the chair that I'm in (with of course the exception of when I am wearing a seat belt) before recalling my surroundings and the situation and settling down. In this case, recalling my surroundings and situation caused me to fly out of the chair again, this time completely to my feet. Perhaps too polite to notice and unimpressed by the demonstration of my cat-like reflexes, agility, and leaping skills; Lorelei did her best to hide a smile while seeming to enjoy my frantic demonstrations. She did however allow me time to fully regain my composure before guiding me out of the library; and did so without the benefit of comment. 


Parting with the library was bittersweet, as my need for restorative rest had overcome my desire to further explore the shelves in that room. Books have always fascinated me as I said, and as I hoped that I would be around the Manor House long enough to get a chance to return and delve into this room's secrets. What titles, familiar and otherwise, might I discover in my explorations, I wondered? What adventures in fact and fiction might lie at my very fingertips I were only to allow them to lead me on. What language would they be written in, and would I be capable of dissimulating or deciphering any of it? These idle speculations would have to await another opportunity however, as I was presently in no mood to even look at a book. Another of those Lorelei smiles (this one no doubt at my expense) had captured me, and the lady once again commanded my undivided attention as she led me from the room and down a hallway.

Would you like to join everyone for a glass of wine before dinner?” she asked.

Now this was exactly what I was hoping for. A chance to spend some additional time in the company of a beautiful lady, and perhaps gain some insight into what the heck was going on around here. Besides that, I like wine. I know that you've already heard me say that I enjoy a beer now and again, but I don’t think that such an admission is necessarily incompatible with the concept that I might also enjoy of a good glass of wine. There are in fact, any number of ways to enjoy beverages both fermented and distilled varieties; and I have never restricted myself to one type in particular. 


Wine has always been something rather special for me however, and something that I am seldom willing to pass up when the opportunity presents itself. I suppose that it's because like life, no matter how much you manage to learn about it, there's always something that comes along and surprises you. I had been attempting to build at least a small storehouse of knowledge of this time-honored beverage (and a similar storehouse of the beverage itself) during a number of years of travel and sampling. In doing so, I discovered that like so many of the paths that we follow, that it's not the destination but the journey that makes the effort worthwhile. Now please don't misunderstand. I cannot and do not consider myself anything of an expert on the subject by even after these efforts, but I have managed to acquire enough knowledge to know what I like and don't like in a wine; and the ability to communicate those desires in a way that allows me not to completely embarrass myself in public .

Having said all of this however, wine was not the only or even the primary reason that I eagerly accepted the invitation that was offered to me. The company of the lovely Lorelei would itself have been enticement enough (though I had no motives but the highest, and no illusions of my standing with this lovely lady), but the prospect of meeting ‘everyone’ made the offer of an adult beverage of any type quite probably necessary, if not absolutely essential, to my purposes in gaining some knowledge of the lay of the land.

I therefore followed docilely beside the lady down another corridor to what looked to me to be the lobby of a good hotel (minus the check-in desk). There were small groups of tables and chairs throughout the room, though none of them looked particularly comfortable. Truth be told, the people gathered in the room didn’t look any more comfortable than the furniture. The feeling again, was nothing that I could put my finger on, but was there nonetheless ... and I have learned to trust such things. They were all well dressed (Thank God for the clothing that I had been left.), and maybe on the verge of being overdressed to my eye. 


There were surprisingly few uniforms to my point of view (as I understood them at least); since I would have expected that when any group got together in the Manor House that the military would have made up the lion’s share of the guest list. In fact, a quick count in my head caused me to discover that those who were attired in uniform barely accounted for a quarter of the crowd. As for a description of the rest of the group gathered, women seemed to be the predominant gender at this gathering (though not by much), and most seemed in their adult years, without being old. While still being distracted by the lovely Lorelei, I couldn’t help but notice that most, if not all of the women present were extremely attractive. (Oh sure, the men were handsome too, but spending too much time with that thought did nothing for my self confidence.) The women were not dressed in an overly formal way (dresses, but not gowns), and it seemed that a number of those who were in uniform were in fact, women.

This discovery did not disappoint, shock, nor surprise me; as I have no problem with the concept of women in the military (equal opportunity, remember). I found their willingness to serve commendable, and their appearance in the uniform of this place quite lovely in a formal sort of way. The truth of the matter when considering the fairer gender for either government or military service is that women have often proven themselves as effective, if not more so than men in many situations; while being far less prone to testosterone judgments (for obvious reasons) . While history tells us far too little of that value in the past of our own world (after all, most of history has been written by men); that lack of documented record, along with many other things regarding women in general, is becoming more a matter of myth rather than genetics or fact. (It was the engaging personality, skill, and courage of Dolly Madison for example, that made the presidency of James Madison much of the success that it was; in spite of his being the 'Father of the Constitution'.) 


I was attempting to take in all of this in at a glance as we entered the room, and found that I had immediately and unconsciously put up my guard. Please understand that doing so without knowing or understanding the customs and mores of society in this place, my first concern was in not in embarrassing myself, but in committing some breach in manners. Breaches of manners, when they occur in the presence of governments or royalty, have often led to such things as charges of treason, duels, and any number of other nasty things that have ended either a promising career or an equally promising life. As such, they are not to be taken lightly.

I need not have been concerned at my safety anyway, as Lorelei had taken over as my guide and protector as we made our way into the room. While briefly introduced to a few of them, I found myself able to stand in the midst of this gathering without too much immediate participation. I was handed a glass of something from a waiter, and was pleased that at least the type of glass looked familiar.

Wine glasses are mostly considered trivial things. They are assumed to be an affectation of something there merely to perform the job of any other type of glass in containing a liquid. Anyone who has spent any time in learning about wine however, can tell you how important that the proper glass is to the experience. I won’t bore you with the details of glassware at this point, but will not give up the right to do so at some future date. 


I will tell you however, that the wine that I was served would have been considered nectar in a paper cup. It was pale green in color, which while not a color that is not generally associated with a wine as we know it, certainly did not detract significantly from the experience. While the color caught me by surprise at first, the bouquet was so lovely that I couldn’t resist a first sampling. Smell is an important part of the taste of wine, as most who enjoy it will tell you. Not only can the smell of a wine be pleasurable in and of itself, but the sense of smell also has a direct impact on the sense of taste. This is usually why the wine glass is so important. It's the shape of the glass that concentrates the aroma of the wine so as to allow you to enjoy the combination of sensory inputs. Sorry, I promised not to bore you with the details, didn’t I? This wine smelled of apples and honey (which tends to make it sound more like mead rather than wine), with something else that I never really did figure out. It was light and well balanced, and seemed to gently remind me that I would want something to eat soon (though not right away). It caught me off guard enough that I wasn’t really paying attention to the latest introduction or particular conversation that Lorelei had stopped the two of us to participate in, or the people that we were having it with.

“… And where exactly is America?” brought me startlingly back to my senses.

I knew that the question had been directed at me, but I needed an extra second or two to connect it to anything, let alone discover the source of the interrogatory. It was one of those lovely young ladies in uniform that I had noted earlier, who had asked the question. She was about 5’8” tall, with blond hair and eyes that stopped me in my tracks. To this day, if you asked me about the color of those eyes, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. They were one minute blue, and the next more gray, and they seemed to change from moment to moment with her mood. I found myself captured in them and wandering in thought. Why did this country have so many good-looking women, or did I just happen to be meeting the only ones that they had? Was all of this a distraction being used to set me up for the kill? Were my shoes shined?


It seems that well- shined shoes are critical whenever meeting women, especially ones that you want to impress. There are conflicting theories on the subject, one that has something to do with the concept that a man can show an image of neatness and honesty by having shined shoes. The other, equally ridiculous, states that in fact the whole thing has something to do with the fact that women like to buy and wear shoes so much that they tend to notice them not only on other women, but on men as well. Personally, I think that this may another of those unanswerable questions.

Proving how difficult it was for me to function in these kinds of situations (or that idiocy had long ago become second nature to me in the company of women), the reply of, “I wish that I knew,” seemed to fall as flat as the arches that these particular shoes were trying to support.

He’s funny,” she said smiling, “I like him.” was what brought my attention fully and immediately into the moment. What is it about men that the smile of a woman, almost any woman, which when directed at them, can bring him fully and immediately into the moment? Is it a starving ego needing to be fed or one of nature's ways of insuring that the species doesn't die out? Is it nature or nurture that has caused such a simple thing to have a huge impact on our behavior? Maybe it doesn’t really matter, but if any government could discover and bottle it, they could rule the world. My father, always a man who charged straight ahead and ignored the whys and wherefores of a situation, settled the handling of such situations for me years ago by telling me that, “Son, if you can’t be amazing, at least be amusing.” OK Dad, that’s good enough for me even if I didn't understand what you are talking about most of the time. Lorelei gave me the hint of an ill-favored look as she waited for a further explanation; but I knew that I was blundering forward, confounded by my accidental success. 


No, I’m serious,” I continued, too disconcerted to speak anything but the truth. “I don’t really know where I am, except for the name of this place, and I may be wrong about even that. I assume that it's not part of my world, since nothing of what has happened to me since I got here happens anywhere in the world that I'm used to; but I could just as easily be wrong about that. While I'm certainly pleased to be in the company of you two lovely women (I told you I had manners.); such occurrences lead me to believe that I am just as likely dreaming as anything else. As a consequence, I find that I'm probably the most confused person here. So when I say that I really don’t know where America or the rest of my world is I'm not in fact being flip, but as forthcoming as I know how to be.”

Curious,” was her only reply as she smiled again, this time doing so into her own glass of wine.

Nonsense” Lorelei chimed in with a more full-throated laugh, “I know most of the people in this room; and I would be willing to place any bet that you care to that there are a great many people here more confused than you are. Their only advantage is that they are simply confused about different things than you are at present, are completely ignorant as to their confusion, and have the additional excuse of having been so for many years now.”

Well Lorelei,” I replied with a slight bow and a grateful smile, “since you seem to be so sympathetic to my present state of befuddlement, perhaps you could start correcting it by introducing this rather attractive and interesting person to me.”

She could, but she won’t,” came the reply. “Besides, I prefer to introduce myself, if that wouldn’t discomfit you further or be too intimidating for you. My name is Angela, and I am a major in His Majesty’s forces here in Macundo.”


There are rare times in any man's life when the Bard appears to be with him.(Or even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while. Take your pick.) This particular person intrigued me for reasons that I didn't fully understand. Impressing her with my wit seemed therefore be an admirable goal, in spite of the fact that I normally fail miserably in such attempts. Since 'fools rush in' and all of that however, “You, kind lady, could be nothing less than a major in any service,” was the reply that found coming out of my mouth, much to my surprise.

The curtsy and smile (again behind the glass) that I got in reply were well worth my accidental effort at gallantry (or cheap humor), and my dumb luck at having achieving it with a woman who would appreciate both the truth and irony of it without having it go to her head. Having for almost a minute succeeded in keeping this woman’s favor and attention, I was utterly convinced that my next utterance would completely undo everything up to that point, so I somehow managed to keep silent.

The entire situation could have become a serious communication problem, but was quickly resolved when Lorelei asked to be excused to her other duties as a hostess. (Hostess, that meant that she was someone or was with someone in the royal family. Oh boy, I hope that I hadn't done anything too stupid!) While certainly disappointed at her departure, I quickly realized that anyone who rated the title of hostess at a party like this was undoubtedly way out of my league on the social scale anyway. Besides, Angela was still at my side, did not appear to have any current interest in other company, and did not suffer at all in the comparison. (The truth of the matter was that, as I was to later discover, this hand-off had been planned by these two before the gathering had begun.)


As for me, if I might pause to wax a bit poetic over the subject at this point, is that it was like losing the sun, and keeping the moon. The light of the first was blinding and forever out of reach, though tempting nonetheless. The light of the other, while slightly less bright and more cool, was far easier to bear and more in some strange way, more comforting.. (Pretty over the top, huh?) Having basked in the light of both for a time, I found that the world around me was still illuminated in a way that I could perceive, but that I had been unaware of prior to that moment. Everything was in sharp focus, in a way that it may never have been before. The center of all of this illumination was Angela, and I couldn’t help but feel that she knew it. She saw it in my face, as I’m sure that she would see it in the face of every man around her. When she suddenly realized that I could see it too, a slight blush rose to her cheeks; and I knew that I had to be blushing furiously at the same time.

Am I that bad?” I asked, hoping to break the spell of the moment, and hoping as well that my current state was not as obvious to the rest of the room.

Well, I must say that I think that you’re doing remarkably well to this point, even if only half of what you’ve said is the truth. Yes,” she said more firmly, “I would have to say that you’re doing rather well considering that you just got here. I’m just trying to decide if it’s courage, intrepidity, or blind, stumbling ignorance.”

Oh ignorance definitely,” I replied quickly, not knowing why and recognizing it was nothing but the truth based on what you already know about me. Quite frankly, I had been drowning in ignorance from the moment I had come to this place. I had refused to give in to self-pity however, and knew instinctively that this woman would have little or no sympathy for any display of it. My only recourse was to stand firm and not give ground to it, or to this woman. Her beauty not withstanding, it was increasingly important to me that I earn her respect, and I knew that I couldn’t do that if she perceived me as a coward or a fool.


Oh I hardly think so,” she laughed. “An officer is required by nature and training to be able to be a good judge of people, and I'm a damn good officer. But let’s take a closer look at you and see what we have. I would put you at 6’1” or 6’2”, brown hair, blue eyes, and weight about 225 now. While it looks like you’ve been in better shape in your past, you don’t look very far out of shape even now. You have a good, honest face; but I have to say it’s a bit of a baby face, isn’t it? Have you ever considered growing a mustache or a beard?”

I had one is school,” I replied smiling at her description, “but it always seemed like more work to keep it trimmed than it did to shave, so I abandoned the practice. I often let it all grow out when I go on holiday, if that’s any consolation to you; but it usually itches. The truth is that I find that the whole concept seems like some kind of affectation to me, and that decorating myself with facial hair is more embarrassing than flattering in spite of the fact that I think that I have the kind of face that might be better covered up in some fashion.”

Ah, I see,” she continued, seeming to look at me as if she were evaluating this statement from a cadet standing at attention in formation. “Now we must add modesty to your list of character traits as well. All in all, you seem like you might be quite good material to work with. This could get quite interesting.”

I was sure that I was blushing furiously once again (as if you wouldn’t have been), but was saved from further comment or embarrassment by the announcement that dinner was served. Instead I offered Angela my arm, after watching many of the men around me do the same, and together we entered a separate, and more formal dining area. I was rather surprised to find that rather than the full formal affair that one might have expected under the circumstances, that this one had been set up with a buffet table along one wall. We took our place somewhere back in the line, and slowly made our way forward with the crowd. I know that I should have been doing something to engage my dining companion with something in the way of clever repartee, but I was suddenly at a loss for words and quite sure that anything that I would say would destroy the moment.


I contented myself with casually looking around the room to get the lay of the land, while stealing occasional glances at my beautiful companion. Angela seemed content to let the conversation lapse for a bit as well, smiling and nodding to people that she knew as we slowly moved forward towards the tables of food. In spite of the day’s confusion, I found that I was rather hungry. Looking back at the day’s earlier events, I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast (a meal that I had eaten in my own world). Now I was in a strange place full of complete strangers, and to top the whole thing off I was getting ready to choose from a buffet full of food that looked like nothing that I had ever seen before. I didn’t know whether I should risk embarrassment at my ignorance, gamble on potential adverse food reactions and face possible food poisoning, or simply settle for prospect of slow starvation.

My concern about what I might be capable or willing to eat was easily dispensed with by accepting Angela's help, and making sure that I only allowed myself small portions of things that I saw her serving herself. Before I knew it, I had filled my plate to an acceptable level, without appearing to be a glutton. There were a number of tables in the area that we were to dine in, all of which seated ten people, and I let Angela lead us in the direction of one. At some point, I noticed Phillip and Lorelei were were sitting together in another part of the room. I hadn’t even seen him enter the room, but the fact that Lorelei was his dining companion came as no real surprise to me, and explained a good deal about her prior knowledge of my arrival and situation. 


The table that Angela chose for us was empty when we first approached, but we were not long left alone. Six of the other seats became occupied soon after I had seated both Angela and myself. I soon noticed that Angela had pulled her chair rather close to mine, and while at first it gave me a warm glow, it likewise put me further on my guard. Somehow I got a clear message that her proximity was a show of concern and attempt of protection, and not some girlish display regarding our blossoming friendship. The waiters had switched us to a wine with a lovely lilac shade and the flavor of a well-aged Cabernet, and I was busy making my way through a rather tasty meat-like substance whose only recognizable feature was that it was brown, when my attention was redirected.

Haven’t seen you about before,” a voice sneered from Angela’s left.

Though no name was mentioned, my newly arrived state made me the obvious target of such a comment. Unsure of both my standing in the present situation, and that of my potential protagonist, I chose to tread carefully.

No?” I replied simply, and looking over saw a man so a man so painfully thin as to appear almost two-dimensional. I couldn’t tell his exact weight, though early assumptions would have put it him in the 98 lb weakling category. Sitting down, his height was equally a mystery, but he appeared neither overly tall for short. In spite of knowing next to nothing about this person however, and based only on his appearance and the tone of his voice, I decided that I probably didn’t like him. 


A lot of times people tell you to not be taken in by first impressions, but I have always found the opposite to be the case. Whether it's that the world has been wrong about this method of personality analysis all along, or it's a particular talent that I am gifted with I don’t know; but I do know going with my first impressions is usually my best move. At the very least, going with my first impression saves me the time of going for a second impression with a person that I know that I am eventually going to dislike. With this guy, a hundred impressions wouldn’t have changed my mind; as it seemed quite likely that this guy would have been listed in the local reference guide, cited as an example under the category of bad news.

Wearing a black suit, vest, shirt, and tie certainly didn’t help the image that his tone and manner had created. He reminded me of nothing more than one of those black painted wooden caricatures of a person that people occasionally lean against a tree in their yard for some reason that I had yet to fathom. Looking more closely at him now, I was also fascinated by the fact that while he appeared to be eating with gusto, he didn’t seem to be enjoying any part of the meal that he was partaking of. His wraith like appearance and the constant and frenetic movements that he made with his arms in feeding himself lent him an almost sinister appearance, like a spider spinning a web around a trapped fly. First impression now fully formed and fully established in my psyche, I rather liked the baiting answer that I had given by accident.

No!” he repeated, his pique showing with the obvious color in his face.

Well I expect that you'll be seeing me around, at least for a while. My name’s Sean by the way; and yours is?”

Randall, Grand Duke Randall,” came a rather haughty reply through clenched teeth. “I am surprised that you did not know that!”


Very glad to meet you sir,” I said with a cheerful smile, not admitting my actual ignorance to this fact beginning to enjoy this bit of play-acting. The man’s insufferable bad manners and boorishness could not easily be excused in spite of his apparent rank (and whatever it meant). I couldn’t help myself in continuing to challenge him, in spite of the fact that I appeared to be jousting with someone of noble lineage. “I don’t think that I said that I didn’t know your name sir. I only meant to properly introduce myself, as any gentleman of manners will do when he first meets another in any social situation.”

I need no lesson in manners from you sir!” came the sharp retort.

I certainly never meant to make it appear that I was giving one,” I replied. “I was merely attempting to answer your questions as directly and honestly as I am able. I'm not quite sure why such statements should seem cause offense. I am sorry however, if in making them, you found them or me in any way offensive.”

The color of his face continued to deepen, and I swear that he was on the verge of sputtering. The increasing volume of our conversation now seemed to be drawing some attention from some of the other tables in the room, and I noticed a combination of concern, anger, and amusement in some of the looks that I was now receiving. In spite of my early plans at a safe and conservative approach to this place, I was unaccountably enjoying the fact that I seemed to be getting to this character, whoever he was. His poor behavior seemed to draw a similar response from me, almost without thought. Regardless of the potential disaster that might lie before me, I wanted to continue this rather stimulating and challenging conversation when a sharp blow to my shin brought me up short. Swallowing my pain, along with whatever comment I hoped to make, I turned to Angela. 


Would you care to take a walk Major Angela?” I asked, with a gritting of teeth that might at least pass for a smile. “I appear to have developed a rather severe cramp in my leg whose pain has quite caused me to lose my appetite. “ She nodded sweetly, and I rose to help Angela to her feet. “You will excuse me ladies and gentlemen,” I said bowing to my new friend (whose anger was hardly being mollified by my sudden departure) and the rest of the table, and limped out of the room and onto a terrace that Angela pointed to, with the lovely major gripping my arm in such a way as to make it almost as painful as my leg.

You are a wonder!” she said breathlessly as we exited the room to a set of gardens. “I don’t know if you are incredibly stupid, foolishly brave, or working on some monstrously complex strategy that involves placing yourself in serious personal danger. I must say however, that you do take some chances.”

Do I get to vote in this discussion of my virtues or flaws by any chance?” I asked, genuinely intrigued by what appeared to be a real concern for me.

No, you do not! Don’t you know that Randall is not only the Grand Duke, but the Prince’s uncle, and that his son is the prince’s major rival for the throne?”

No I didn't, not that I’m sure that it would have mattered to me. That guy has manners more suited to a stable hand than to royalty, makes me want to check to make sure that my wallet is still in my pocket (I did and it was by the way), and looks like something from cheap horror movie. Look,” I said, raising a hand to what would have undoubtedly been an addition to the lecture on my social gaff. “I have a sore leg, I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I didn’t even get to finish that lovely glass of wine at dinner. Quite frankly, all of those things tend to leave me rather cranky. I’m sure that you have any number of things that you need to tell me about my lack of social graces, the humiliation that I have heaped upon myself, and the potential danger that I am now in; but could you do that in such a way so as to at least get me something to eat and another glass of that wine? ”  86

"Come one," she said laughing, Let's find you something to do with the hole in you face other than to get yourself in trouble.  When you've managed to stuff yourself sufficiently that some level of your good nature and wits return, we'll find your room and get you off to bed.  Tomorrow will be a busy day."
(I felt another blush coming into my face from that the last part of her comment brought to mind.  While I wasn't trying for one, I knew that there was likely a silly grin stretched across my face as well.)  "Madame," I rejoined, my mood improving immediately wit the potential of the prospects that awaited.  "Do you think it proper for an officer and a lady to be escorting a man to his room on the very first night they meet?"

"No I do not," she replied, "but I doubt that you have enough brains to find your way to your accommodations by yourself, even if this were a one bedroom home.  And I for one have no desire to have you wandering the halls all night, rattling around like a ghost and keeping both guests and staff awake with your continued lunatic behavior.  As for any other considerations, you have nothing at all to worry about sir.  Your honor will be safe enough with me tonight," she said with a smile returning to her face as well, as she escorted me back into the Manor House through a doorway different from the one that we had just left.
"I was afraid of that," I replied, continuing to grin foolishly for no reason that I could readily discern.

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