Friday, October 20, 2006

No Princess Need Apply Excerpt 4

alien romances

It wasn’t until they arrived at Covent Garden that she realized just how hungry she was. Getting into England had proved to be no problem. When you traveled with Rawn a passport was an unnecessary accessory. That wasn’t completely true, as Cardon, Ricci and Dalmer had been detained by polite Customs officials, but she had been welcomed into the country as the guest of His Supremacy. There had been a limo waiting, of course, and London traffic, as horrific as Washington’s any day, might as well not have existed as His Supremacy’s motorcade took them where she directed.

She was, as Rawn had pointed out, a “Supermodel”, over-paid and spoiled just because she had higher cheekbones than most people. She’d grown used to traveling in limos, but even though she was accustomed to traveling with a certain amount of luxury, she’d never known anything like this. She wasn’t sure if all the deferential treatment was something she could happily adjust to, or if it was something she ought to be appalled at. She didn’t think anyone had a right to having their every whim obeyed, no matter how much power they had.

And certainly not because they had higher cheekbones than most people.

She wasn’t just hungry, the five hour time difference left her with her usual case of jet lag even though she’d slept part of the way, waking up to find that her head rested comfortably on the emperor’s shoulder. Personally, she would like nothing better than to curl up for a longer nap, but the prospect of dinner at one of her favorite places in the world was cheering. Especially since she was thoroughly enjoying Rawn’s company, as long as she didn’t let herself think about who he was and why she was really with him.

It was after 9:00 PM local time when they reached the corner nearest their destination. Covent Garden market was long closed for the day, but there were plenty of people in the open area that held stalls during the day. The crowds stood outside the doors of pubs and were seated at tables in front of numerous cafes. The place was bustling, noisy with talk and laughter and all sorts of music spilled out from inside the buildings to blend in the night air.

“We’ll have to walk from here,” she told Rawn as the limo miraculously pulled into a parking space on the narrow street behind Covent Garden. She quickly climbed out of the backseat without waiting for the driver to open the door for her. Rawn followed her out into the warm night. “I usually take the tube here,” she told him as she led the way into the square.

“Tube,” he repeated as he caught her hand in his. “That would be London’s underground mass transit system.”

“Got it in one, Your Supremacy.”

“You don’t always travel in limousines?”

“Not if I can help it. Who wants to be that insulated from the world?”

They reached the cafe she wanted, and found an empty outside table. The table was about the size of a pizza box, but sufficient for putting a couple of plates on. It was efficient for the busy, crowded area, and gave an intimate closeness for romantic couples. It also insured that she and Rawn Ruan were seated close enough to carry on a conversation over the noise.

“But don’t people recognize you when you take mass transit? Or do you want the attention?”

Summer couldn’t keep from laughing. “Why would anybody recognize me without a professional makeup job if I’m not doing anything to call attention to myself? Or pester me when I’m just hanging out doing normal human things? Celebrities aren’t supposed to hang out with ‘real’ people. They aren’t allowed to be real people and celebrities too. If you act like a celebrity you get treated like one.”

“And how do celebrities act?”

“Celebrities only eat and shop and vacation, own homes and just generally exist at exclusive, high-priced, trendy spots, or on Entertainment Tonight.” She put her hands flat on the table and stated, with more annoyance than she’d intended, “I only play that game when I have to. I’m a person not a sound byte, okay? What do you want for dinner?” she added as a waiter appeared at their table. “I recommend the turkey pie.”

Rawn looked at her, almost contritely, from over the top of the menu. “I’m a vegetarian.” He ordered a salad. She had the turkey pie. They both ordered stout.

“I love British beer,” she confessed when two pints of thick, dark liquid were placed before them. “Not that I can indulge often.”

His eyes twinkled with humor. “You can’t hold your liquor?”

“I can’t afford the calories. But since I haven’t had anything to eat today, I’m safe to indulge a little.”

“Indulge all you want,” he coaxed.
She took a sip of the wonderfully malty dark beer. “That would put me under the table.”

“That sounds like a curious Earth custom. What would you do under the table?”

She eyed him critically. “I think you know all about Earth customs, and you’re just teasing me.”

“I’ve studied as much as I can,” he agreed. “But experience often proves different than theoretical knowledge.”

“That sounds like something you might get out of a fortune cookie.”

He downed some of his beer before saying, “I did.”

Summer wondered if she should try to turn the conversation into an opportunity to learn things about the Kariins. Time to spy on the “Evil Empire” -- that was what she was here for. Except that there was no evidence she knew of that the Kariins had an evil empire. Maybe they were as nice as they claimed. Or maybe they had a really good public relations firm working for them. Maybe it was up to her to learn something about Earth’s polite invaders.

“What about you? Don’t you get recognized when you go out?”

He glanced around the crowded area of Covent Garden. “I don’t get out much. When I’ve met with your world’s leaders it has been in private and they have come to me. You’re more likely to be recognized than I am. My face hasn’t been on the cover of Vogue recently.”

“Or the cover of anything else,” she conceded. “How do you manage that? I’ve heard about you for months, but never saw you before today.” With a face and body like that, she almost added, you ought to be on magazine covers. People Magazine would name you sexiest man alive in a minute.

“It’s really very simple,” he answered. “When I do go out I have this little device that deflects any imaging equipment.”

Though she’d heard a news report on television and read articles online that complained about the Kariins use of this imaging shield, she thought gaining information about how it worked would be helpful for her country. “You mean it’s like a shield or force field or something that makes you invisible to cameras?”

“Something like that.”

Summer sat back in her chair. She had no idea how to go about asking for design specs or technical data. So she said, “I’m impressed.”

He rubbed a hand along his jaw, and ducked his head for a moment. “You won’t be when I tell you I forgot to wear it today.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No.”

“What? Don’t you have somebody on your staff to make sure you wear what you’re supposed to?”

“My staff’s job is to keep the Empire running, Summer. I’m supposed to be old enough to dress myself.”

Summer wondered if she’d just learned anything important that her government needed to know. Were the facts that the man was a vegetarian and that he didn’t have an inflated sense of his own importance something Washington would be interested in, even though she found them to be points in his favor?

She was glad he’d remembered to wear his anti-camera on previous occasions, and that she was dressed simply, with her hair loosely framing and shielding her well-known face. Despite attempting to lead a normal life, she did get recognized occasionally. She didn’t want her being on a date with His Supremacy to be one of those times. The waiter certainly didn’t recognize her when their dinners arrived, and Summer’s brief moment of paranoia passed.

They ended up sharing a companionable silence while they ate and watched the lively crowd. After the meal was done, she paid and then took his hand to cross the cobbled square to where a quartet of buskers were playing in front of the old church. These street musicians weren’t your usual folk or rock guitarists types, but comprised a full string quartet. While their live playing had to contend with street noise and amplified music blaring from a nearby club, they held their own. They were beginning to play a waltz as Summer and Rawn drew near. An area cleared in front of the musicians as several couples began to dance.

Rawn looked at her. “No,” she said. “I haven’t the faintest idea how to waltz.”

“And here I was hoping you might teach me.”

“Not a chance, Your Supremacy.” She wished she hadn’t jokingly used the title, because several people overheard and looked their way. Those looks were assessing enough to make her uncomfortable. She tugged on Rawn’s sleeve. “I think we should leave now.”

“Whatever you want, Summer,” he answered.

She wished he hadn’t used her name, but supposed she was being paranoid. He guided her back to the limousine. She wasn’t quite sure when his arm went around her shoulders, but she was quite content to walk, at least for a short distance, cradled in the crook of his arm.

Once inside the car he kept a gentlemanly distance. In fact, he grew quiet and still, and seemed to forget her presence as they drove through the city in the evening traffic.

Summer watched him closely. After a while, she said, “Are you talking to someone? Or listening to someone?”

“Listening,” he answered without looking at her. “They’ve caught up with me, and now I have to do Emperor stuff.”

She wondered how he was listening, and just what it was he actually did. Was his function more as a figurehead? Or was he really the ruler of the galaxy?

“Subcutaneous implants,” he responded to her unvoiced questions. He tapped a spot below his left ear. “Just under the skin here. I’m listening to a summary of a meeting my Chancellor attended in my absence. And it’s only eighteen star systems, not the whole galaxy. And yes, I really rule all that territory, but the benefits are nice and I get three weeks paid vacation.”

“You’re reading my mind!”

“No. You’re thinking too loud.” He finally turned his attention to her. He gently touched her cheek. “Don’t be frightened. I only catch the occasional surface thought, and only if it’s directed at me. It’s nothing to be alarmed about. It’s more like conversation than mind reading, really.”

Summer was considering jumping out of the moving vehicle. “Don’t do that!”

He sighed. “All right,” he promised. “I won’t.”

His voice soothed her, so did the light touch on her cheek that was the softest of reassuring brush of fingers, comfort and caress at once. It was a touch she instantly wanted to feel again. Or wanted to respond to by touching him back.

Summer kept her hands in her lap, but found that she did believe him. It was hard not to believe him, he always sounded so reasonable, reassuring and honest. She was used to people who sounded sincere but were totally untrustworthy. The naive girl from Michigan had been hurt and betrayed too many times on her way up in the modeling profession to take anyone at their word or at face value anymore. Summer had trained herself never to completely trust anyone, and she truly hated the necessity of being so wary. Especially with Rawn looking at her with such sincere concern in his marvelous blue eyes. She was afraid not trusting him was going to be hard.

“Excuse me,” he said, and went back to intently listening, his unfocused gaze aimed straight ahead.

Summer sat in silence, alone for all intents and purposes. She found herself remembering the music the street musicians had been playing, and wishing that she and Rawn had chanced a waltz. She was as distracted by her own thoughts as Rawn was by his work. Until they reached the airport and the limousine was suddenly surrounded by a noisy crowd.

This was nothing like the cheerfully indifferent crowd they’d been part of in Covent Garden. These people were armed with minicams and microphones and cameras with blinding flashbulbs, and their attention was solely focused on herself and Rawn. Fear sent a shudder through Summer as she recognized that she was caught in a full media feeding frenzy. She’d watched this happen to others, always confident that she wouldn’t let it happen to her.

“You should have worn your invisibility thingamajig,” She told Rawn as he came out of his trance.

He looked around as the car was slowed to a crawl by the crush of aggressive reporters. “Oh dear. Sorry about this.”

Summer felt her insides twist with fear. Flashbulbs went off almost continuously, lighting the night like the worst of thunderstorms. When the limo door was opened for them, the dark eye of a minicam lens was instantly thrust into her face. It seemed far more alien than the man who helped her from the car, then put his arm around her as the mob surrounded them.

“At last the world gets its first real view of the Kariin Emperor,” she heard a reporter say into a microphone, his tony British voice full of disdain. “Only to find him on the arm of auburn-haired Supermodel, Summer. Can it be that the new ruler of our world has the same shallow taste in women as rock stars and movie idols?”

After that remark cut her to the bone, Summer deliberately tried not to hear anymore. The questions and comments came thick and fast as Rawn guided her through the surrounding throng. She wondered where airport security was, and, not for the first time, where Rawn’s bodyguards were. Emperors ought to have bodyguards, if only to keep the media at bay.

She and Rawn were at the airplane’s boarding gate before Cardon, Ricci and Dalmer shoved their way through to give them some shield from the reporters. Her gaze met Cardon’s briefly, and she mouthed ‘thank you’. He nodded, and firmly put himself between her and a shrilly shouting woman reporter.

Summer took a step into the breezeway that snaked from the building to the plane’s doorway when someone asked her, “How did you meet His Supremacy, Summer?”

After stoic silence as she made it through the gauntlet, she shouldn’t have responded when she was very nearly out of their sight. Instead, she turned around, tossed her hair and looked directly into a camera’s eye. “He ordered me out of a catalog,” she said, then sprinted onto the plane.

4 comments:

  1. Susan, I'm thoroughly enjoying this and I really hope you continue. I'd love to see it published ~ you've got great conflicts developing and I really like your characters (including the multi-agency security team detailed to escort her)

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  2. "He ordered me out of a catalogue," is a great line.

    Best wishes,

    Rowena Cherry

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  3. david gray3:12 PM EDT

    Oh, I'm big time hooked! And I find I'm rather beginning to like His Supremacy.

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  4. I love this story, keep up the great work , can't wait for the rest of it

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