I may put one more after this. Un-copyedited. Changed the ending twice perfecting it…
The Fox and Hare was busy. It had been so busy of late that April felt obligated to inquire what evenings were less solidly booked. The host hadn’t wanted to answer at first, firmly insisting he would accommodate her at any time. He’d been equally stubborn when she had earlier suggested she wasn’t poor and in fairness to the other owners she should pay for her service. He’d pointed out that he was one of the other owners and he’d see it paid out of his share before he’s present her a bill. He was an owner, but a minor one. Making him pay would be even less fair so she dropped it. April couldn’t figure out why he felt so obligated to her. She’d never done anything special for him personally as far as she knew.
April inquired of the accountant finally and found out that Wednesdays and Thursdays late in the month were the slowest days. That appeared to be accurate since there were three empty tables, something she hadn’t seen other days. She was certain there wouldn’t be any open on a weekend. She was alone, everybody she called to invite having a commitment. Gunny off doing some security work. She took a table for two against the wall. The wall side was a nice upholstered seat and the other side empty because they brought a folding chair if somebody sat on that side.
The Caprice salad was a light appetizer. It would leave her hungry enough for the seafood fettuccine she’d had before and knew to be ample even for her appetite. A reduced alcohol dry white wine went perfectly and left her clear of mind even if she started on it before the main course. Her waiter was Jesse Duval. She’d first met him and his wife Helen almost a year ago. They’d been visiting Home for life extension therapy, something not legally available at home in Spain. They had returned to Home recently but insisted they were now Jesse and Helen instead of James and Elena Alphonses. They never broke their cover identity with her or anyone else as far as she knew. She knew they couldn’t do that with their doctor, but that was an entirely different matter.
There had been confused news reports after their return to Earth about high Catholic officials infected with something and a hunt for terrorists wanted for spreading an infectious agent. Since some of the common life extension therapies were administered using a viral carrier she and Gunny suspected the couple had somehow broken quarantine. If so they were smart to flee. The crazy Earthies felt inflicting a longer healthier life on somebody to be a heinous crime.
Jesse had applied to the Fox and Hare and gotten a serving job with ease. Not even mentioning April as a reference. He was good looking and projected good humor without it seeming strained. The host had confided in her that Jesse had already turned down a couple job offers from customers impressed with his manner. If they only knew he’d been responsible on Earth for managing a major charity. He was way over qualified to be a server and would make more from the sort of tips that were quiet confidence and overheard conversations than cash on the table. April had the sudden thought she should tell Chen who was running Jeff’s intelligence efforts to recruit Jesse. His wife Helen had landed a job with a small firm that did PR and advertising on Earth for space based clients. It would surprise her if they both continued working for others long term.
It was getting near the start time for the entertainment this evening. On a quiet Thursday it would be a singer or a pianist, not a band or a series of acts. Two of the empty tables filled and with just a couple minutes until the lights dimmed the last empty table near her in Jesse’s section was claimed by a middle aged couple.
They were interesting, no doubt at all they were Earthies, but they had all the signs of life extension therapies. Their apparent age suggested that they’d been older than was usual when they got treatment. Tourists were often well dressed, if Earth style, it wasn’t cheap to lift to Home after all, but these two were better dressed than usual. His jacket was perfectly tailored and April knew the little purse she carried was about five thousand EuroMarks. He carried himself with authority. Not the self-conscious ramrod stiffness of a control freak but the real self assurance of someone who didn’t know what it was to feel intimidation.
The host held the lady’s chair for her after switching it around so they both faced the stage. She was obviously used to having that done for her by how smoothly it went. The host went away and Jesse was serving drinks to the next table. Once rid of them he tucked the small tray under his elbow and turned to the newcomers. His face went through shock then fear and despair. He looked over each shoulder in turn seeming to be surprised he didn’t find hands on him. April saw something very unusual was happening and triggered her spex early to record the encounter even before he looked over his shoulders.
When Jesse looked back at them the man made a small restraining gesture above the edge of the table, palm down. Jesse bent his knee and for a second April thought he was going to kneel before them, but the man made the outstretched hand flutter emphatically and frowned, which seemed to stop him. He was still frozen to the spot where he was standing, completely flustered and not responding normally.
The host getting the high sign from the bartender that something was amiss turned back. The woman saved any confrontation by getting up and hugging Jesse. She looked past him to the worried host and waved him away with a smile. She was a big woman, as tall as Jesse and held his elbows to his sides, leaned in close and spoke low to his ear smiling and visibly calming him. He finally gave a few nods of agreement though if he said anything it was too low for April to hear. When she sat back down he went off to the bar.
He must have gotten a drink order while the woman was close. He had just a few words with the host, looking embarrassed and leaving the host still looking dubious. By the time he returned and served the couple he seemed composed again.
April sent the video to Jeff’s man Chen, suggesting they should know the identity of this couple. She didn’t expect a quick answer. Sometimes it was several days before Chen responded to a message from her. This time he answered in a couple minutes, just as the lights started dimming.
“Jon’s people said they came in two days ago on the regular shuttle from ISSII. They are traveling as Ferdinando and Sancha Jimenez which seem to be false identities. A net search and Interpol inquiry shows no hits except similar names of historic persons.”
“Are the historic personages Spanish royalty?” April asked, having a sudden idea.
There was no immediate reply. A couple more minutes went by before Chen came back. “Yes, one of the kings in Spain before it was really one country, King of Leon and Count of Castile and his wife. The first of the kings of Spain to claim to be an emperor back in the early ten hundreds. Are you a big history buff or did you arrive at that by some other route? Sometimes you freak me out.”
“A different route entirely,” April admitted, but volunteered no more. “Would you please have one of your underlings find photos and brief biographies of the last two kings and queens of Spain and send them to my pad?”
“Sure. Any deadline on that?” Chen asked.
April looked at the couple. They seemed to be enjoying the lively pianist who was just starting, had some sort of wine and were sharing a small appetizer. They looked pretty firmly ensconced for a meal and the show.
“Within the hour if that is practical. If you need reimbursed for the research this is personal not mutual business with my partners,” April told him.
“That’s easy,” Chen said, ignoring her offer. “I’ll have it sent to your pad in a few minutes.”
Despite the misleading way he said it Chen didn’t hand it off to a research associate. He wanted to see this himself. When he looked he was surprised to find the Spanish succession was in dispute and some turmoil. There hadn’t been any big public stink about it, but apparently the current official head of state and his wife had retired. They didn’t say he had abdicated. It was much more mysterious than that and involved the ‘retirement’ of a number of other high government and Church officials.
Chen looked at the video April had sent him and the news service photos. It couldn’t be… They were far too young and the Crown and Church were death on Life Extension. But that nose! You could split logs with a nose like that. The sort plastic surgeons promise and could only approximate. Their children on the other hand were all accounted for in recent stories at very public activities.
He forwarded the files to April’s pad, appending information about the apparent chaotic state of the Spanish secession and hesitated to add anything. Finally he simply said – “Look at the nose.”
Indeed, it was a magnificent nose. Suitable for looking straight down if one chose to. The owner didn’t look to be minded that way. He was relaxed and eating a steak which was trying to hide beneath a pile of mushrooms. It amused April when she realized he was chewing in quarter time to the piano. She wondered if he realized it? The appetizer tray was gone and she noticed they only had a glass of wine not the whole bottle.
When Jesse check on her she didn’t need anything but she asked him, “What is the bartender’s name Jesse? Does he manage the wine too?”
“Yes, Mis Lewis. Festus has to wear the Sommelier’s hat too. We’re too small still to keep one busy full time, and their cellar here is rather small compared to many Earthside establishments.” He thought on it a moment… “In truth it’s small compared to some family collections.”
“Have him come speak with me when he has time,” April requested.
“Certainly, is everything satisfactory?” Jesse barely gave an eyebrow twitch of curiosity but didn’t ask why.
“Everything is lovely. I just need his expertise.”
It wasn’t long before April saw somebody else take over at the bar and Festus disappeared. She thought he’d gone on break or even off shift until he suddenly popped back up beside her table standing at attention like he was going to be presented a medal, or stood before a firing squad. Looking at him she realized he’d gone to the kitchen and removed his apron, cleaned up a bit, combed his hair and put on a fresh shirt. She’d never spoken to the man so why had he gone to all that trouble?
“Miss Lewis? Jesse said you’d like to speak with me.”
April scooted over a little and patted the seat beside her. “Just April is fine. You needn’t be so formal with me. This won’t take long but sit down a minute please. I’d rather not attract attention. With you standing there and the pianist between numbers we’re the most obvious thing happening in the whole room.”
“I think the help are invisible to most people,” he objected. He did sit however, but not too close. April moved closer because she intended to speak quietly. He was surprisingly thin close up. She hadn’t noticed from a distance. The long sleeves covered it a bit, and his face didn’t look thin, it just sort of long and hound-doggy. He seemed uncomfortable so she got to the point rather than torture the poor fellow.
“The middle-aged couple toward the stage and a bit to our right seem familiar to me. I think they are Spanish. I’d like to send them drinks and I thought it would be a nice surprise to send something Spanish. They had wine already with dinner.” April looked and the woman’s glass was gone and his had just a bit left. “Could you suggest something else to send to their table as a gift?”
He looked much more comfortable now that the conversation was on ground he knew. “Spanish liqueurs tend to be very strongly flavored and people usually love them or hate them. So that’s a risky thing to send to their table if you don’t know their tastes. We only have one that has a strong flavor of sloe berries. It will just kill your palate for anything subtle after. But we have a Spanish sparkling wine made by the same process as Champagne. It’s called Cava and we have both Freixenet and a few bottles of Codorníu. The ones we have are just slightly sweet and very appropriate for after dinner. People buy the Freixenet because it has a fancy bottle.” That appeared to amuse him. “However, I like the Codorníu. It’s served very cold and we have it chilled and ready if you like.”
“That would be perfect. Please send a bottle to their table and tell them it is from Dame April Lewis.” She discretely handed a folded hundred EuroMark bill to Festus below the table and he took it readily with nod of thanks.
The staff waited until the pianist finished the next number before wheeling a Champagne bucket to their table. It was a Magnum. She hadn’t thought to ask. That was a lot for two people. The man, Ferdinando or whatever his real name was looked surprised and then amused. After a few words with Jesse he looked at April and made a gesture and face to indicate the Magnum was huge. Then he waved her over to their table.
Jesse already had a chair and was putting it beside Ferdinando opposite his wife. By the time she got there and sat down Jesse had the cork out and presented it. Ferdinando waved it off and after a taste had Jesse pour for all of them. It was new to April and pretty good. The pianist returned then. Jesse stashed the bottle back in the ice under a serviette, and they put off any conversation until she did a few songs and had another break. She was pounding out some jazz that would have to be rude to shout over. Jesse returned to refill them and April leaned over and apologized.
“I didn’t think to ask them what size of the Codorníu they had. It might have looked like I sent the Magnum to pressure you to invite me over. I didn’t intend that.”
“My dear, you worry entirely too much about looking too forward. I’ve seen pushy in every form and magnitude. Some to dwarf this bottle. You radiate neither the self importance nor the devious smoothness of the obnoxious. You also sorely underestimate my capacity for Champagne when it is this good. I am however used to drinking it with little sweets to nibble. I wonder if they have something?”
“They have baklavas,” April offered. “Everything else is big or messy and needs to be eaten with a fork or spoon.”
“That will serve,” Ferdinando agreed
“They have the duel here, dear,” Sancha said from his other side. “Don’t let a Frenchman hear you call it Champaign or we’ll be getting up at the crack of dawn.”
“Is there any real rule that you can’t sleep in and try to kill each other at a decent hour?” Ferdinando asked.
“That’s a really interesting question,” April allowed, looking surprised. “I think it’s just tradition. I admit when I called a fellow out I just automatically told him he could apologize or meet me in the morning.”
Ferdinando looked at her closely to make sure he wasn’t being played… “And what terrible thing was this fellow doing to drive you to put your life on the line?”
“Well, it was more like putting his life on the line,” she insisted. “You had to be there to understand how we got to that point.” She could feel herself blushing and just hated that. It also didn’t satisfy Ferdinando, who wasn’t taking that as an answer, just silently giving her the old fish eye… “This fellows body guard jostled me but it escalated from an earlier disagreement.”
“As a matter of fact, he was littering,” she admitted. It sounded so stupid now.
“Well, I can see why the hallways are so spotless,” he said.
Jesse delivered a tray of various shapes of baklava. After Ferdinando selected April got one with pistachios.
“Call them anything she wants, dear,” Sancha counseled, laying her hand on his arm. He nodded a grave acknowledgement to her that it seemed a wise course.
“It’s not like that,” April objected. “I haven’t – shot anyone – in ages,” she temporalized.
“And I’m sure your restraint is appreciated,” he acknowledged. Which didn’t sound sincere somehow. “You called yourself Dame. We’d say Doña. Do you limit the use of the duel here to the upper class as the English did?”
“No, that question came up before the Assembly already. A woman from Central on the moon wanted to challenge a resident of Home to a duel. They considered the question and the overwhelming argument advanced was that the duel is a fundamental right not a privilege granted by the state. There were issues. This particular challenge seemed unjust to many, but they allowed it rather than lose or limit the custom.”
“That is interesting. Who eventually won, and how did people feel after the fact?”
“The lady called off the match. So far every duel called has resulted in a yield, an apology, or the person decided to accept exile rather than yield or fight. I don’t doubt we will see a duel eventually with an ending everybody sees as a bad. But it was generally agreed the duel addresses things the law doesn’t deal with well. The Assembly has made very little law so far, so custom has to address many things.” April stopped and was frowning.
“You have a thought?” Ferdinando prompted her.
“I’m trying to think how to explain. On Home I’m not Dame anything unless somebody calls me that as a courtesy. Or more likely is trying to get my goat, since I had a hard time accepting a title and my close friends used to tease me about it pretty hard. We have no royalty or peerage on Home, all that has to do with Central on the moon. My friend Heather is the Sovereign of Central and declared some of her close friends and subjects peers. That’s why they started calling me Dame Lewis, although Jon says I’m more like a Baronetess. I have no time or inclination to learn all the titles and differences, and Ja… uh, a friend, said they are all different in each country and changed over time anyway. What does it matter now anyway, if it isn’t attached to something real like the land?”
“Indeed, the study of titles of nobility, heraldry and your personal genealogy can be an empty exercise in self importance if it’s just a vain attempt to find some way to elevate yourself with no real personal accomplishment or merit. Does your status then attach to something real as you said? If you’ll forgive me please, what was happening off Earth wasn’t of much interest to me until quite recently.”
“Well, my land. I have land at Central and more importantly cubic. The surface is harsh and exposed to risks. It easier to dig deep than on Earth. It isn’t much benefit right now but it will be. Right now it’s more obligations. I support Heather and help any way I can. We were allies long before she decided to go grab land on the moon.”
“Allies?” he asked. “At what?”
“In business, and then when Home rebelled and in war with North America. I owned the armed merchant the Happy Lewis with my brother. The hostilities started when we had to fight our way back from ISSII on the Happy. We took out the Chinese ship the Pretty as Jade and the USNA James Kelly. Later I sent the Happy to support Heather. When the North Americans tried to enter her territory to arrest a bunch of her people and take them back to Armstrong she need it.”
“And, with your help, how did she resolve that?” Ferdinando asked, nibbling on a sweet.
April blinked at his question like she didn’t believe it. “You really don’t know what’s been going on up here do you? She killed them. All of them. And bombarded Armstrong tit for tat. Took out their field control with a ten kiloton weapon and a ship sitting there after they cluster-bombed her landing field and burned a hole straight through the Happy Lewis for us.”
“Oh my… I obviously have some catching up to do. If your Heather holds her nation by the sword I must respect that. It’s all that matters in the end. Your Heather, are you intimate with her? Do you speak without formality?” he corrected at her odd expression.
“Well sure. We go back too far for that to change. She is all formal when she holds a court, but not between us or with Jeff.”
He nodded. “Then you are not just Doña or Baronesa, you are Grandeza too.”
“Ha! If I run out of titles I have an old boy in Tonga who calls me Pilinsesi. Our boat captain said that means princess. I liked that better because the princess is always well regarded in fairy tales.”
Then the pianist returned so April felt she had to be quiet again, but her theme changed a bit and instead of the lively numbers of her first set she toned it down to quiet background music you could speak over discreetly.
Sancha leaned close to her husband and April leaned in close too as it was obvious she wished to speak across him. “Might I ask why you addressed James as Jesse when you asked for the baklava?”
“Ah – he must have been too shook-up to introduce himself to you. He’s now Jesse Duval and his wife is Elena. If you knew them… in a previous life, it would be a kindness to forget that. Surely you understand?” she said, pointedly.
“Oh dear. I didn’t think to introduce us when I spoke to him. I’ll correct that. He was acting so strangely.”
“What my wife isn’t saying is we are not under the same pressures as Jesse and… Elena? They are actively wanted as criminals and I can see why they might feel the need to start a new life. We on the other hand were invited to retire as unsuitable persons,” he said with some anger. “We will never be charged with anything. That would be most uncomfortable for both the secular and religious. But one of the conditions for fading graciously away and being generously pensioned was not to raise a fuss among our peers or in the media. So we would rather not be interviewed or even the subject of paparazzi photos and speculation.”
“I believe he was looking around after seeing you because he expected your security to snatch him away. I think they are both constantly looking over their shoulders a lot still, not sure if anyone will bother to pursue them this far. One of my uh, sources, an intelligence officer really, said things in Spain appear unsettled. It makes me ask. Did you not pick a successor?”
“Anyone I picked would have been tainted by that fact. They are still watching everybody closely, terrified that they will turn young. Such a terrible thing!” Neither would I give them the satisfaction. It would have been almost a blessing upon their actions. Just like your Queen Heather, let the one who can hold it snatch it. I doubt it will come to arms but it is still a contest.”
“I’m evil enough that it amuses me,” Sancha admitted.
“Well, you know all the characters and can appreciate the inside information. You should write it as a play after it all runs out.”
Sancha looked shocked, but Ferdinando laughed heartily. “They’d deserve it,” he agreed.
“Thank you for meeting me,” April said. “I need to head home. I’m in the public directory, if you need any help acclimating to Home give me a call. I grew up here after all.” She had a sudden urge and patted Ferdinando on the arm before standing. That was probably against some protocol with royalty, but it felt right.
“Well, it’s a refreshing change to have someone offer to help us instead of seeking favors,” Ferdinando observed.
“I think it was sincere. She is amusingly innocent to think princesses lead idyllic lives,” Sancha said wistfully.
Jesse returned and offered a refill.
“No thank you. James, We are informed you are Jesse and Elena now. Be aware We are Ferdinando and Sancha now. You’ve always been such a good youngster. You conducted Our business faithfully. We have no ill will towards you. Your ‘accident’ is perhaps the best thing that has happened to Us. You may expect to see a lot more of Us. We may settle down here.”
Jesse looked relieved. “Thank you for speaking plainly. It will be my pleasure to serve you. In any way I can,” he made clear.
“Why don’t you offer the Cava to the chef?” Sancha suggested. “It seems a shame to waste half of it and he can use it in sauces and such.”
“Yes, and we are done for the evening,” Ferdinando added, laying a bank card on the table edge.
Jesse made a small negating gesture. I already marked your tab paid when Miss Lewis sat with you. We never charge anyone who keeps company with one of the owners here.
Sancha sat shocked. The young girl being an owner here was so far outside her experience she revised the opinion she was about to express to her husband. “Do you know, I think the rest of it might be true too,” she told him after Jesse was out of earshot.
“My dear, I don’t think we’ve heard the half of it.”