Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Omega's Folly: Chapter Fifteen
The hospital was hot, stuffy, and smelt like chemicals. Quentin hated it, and she had only just walked into the foyer. She fiddled with her battered black beret, then used it to polish the little wings on her left lapel. The nice thing about planes, or at least the ones in the Nation – Quentin hadn't seen the cockpits of planes in other countries, especially the type she flew – you needed two arms to fly them but not two legs. Flying was fun. Dodging the fighters trying to end supply flights wasn't, even when Turkey was able to spare a few of their fighter planes to beef up the tiny Amazon squadron. Quentin had a hole in her beret and a collection of cuts as proof of how close to success the enemy sometimes got. The enemy varied a bit. Sometimes Red, sometimes Blue. Hating Amazons and each other seemed to be the only thing the two alliances agreed on.
At last an orderly strode briskly towards her, rank insignia indicating she was a private, a small silver decoration indicating she was very good at her job. "Commander Halliday-Pontius?"
"Please come with me. You don't smoke, do you?"
"No." Quentin sighed silently, and reminded herself that it wasn't obvious by looking how she had lost her leg.
"Your cousin is still in serious condition. It is difficult for her to speak due to the recent removal of the ventilator tube and remaining lung injuries, and her eyes are still bandaged. All the same, she has made a marvellous, some would say miraculous, recovery. To borrow a cliché." The orderly grinned, the expression thawing her face startlingly. It faded after only a moment, however. "I wish I could tell the next person the same thing."
"So do I." Quentin agreed earnestly.
"Right now, your cousin has the room to herself, but that should change tomorrow morning." They had arrived at a reddish wood door via a series of corridors painted shades of blue and green. Medical personnel bustled up and down, only very rarely with empty hands. There were only a couple of patients to be noticed in this brisk traffic, however. "We're expecting casualties from the recent offences." With that the orderly opened the door for Quentin, then left.
The room was dim and quiet except for the rough breathing of the patient on the right side. Chris was lying quietly, her face turned toward the window. A small shelf beneath the window served as home to a squished looking radio as well as a few of her personal belongings in a cloth bag. The opera Don Giovanni emanated from the radio, crackling occasionally. The title character had just killed the commentadore. Chris' temporary bed had been set up to keep her in a half sitting position to ease her breathing, with an oxygen tank just visible at one corner. White bandages wound around her head, an odd counterpoint to a deep tan and a head of always unruly golden hair. It was just long enough that it had begun to curl a bit, and Quentin was among the few people who knew that Chris could grow a formidable crop of ringlets once her hair had got past the ten centimetre mark. Besides the bandages, the oxygen mask, and a few small, healing chemical burns on Chris' cheeks and forehead, there was no blatant signs she had recently survived a poisonous gas attack.
An odd, sucking noise made Quentin jump. "Are you going to stand there all day? If you aren't at least going to talk to me, go away and leave me to be bored to death in peace." Uncharacteristic testiness.
"Sorry Chris – I wasn't sure if you were awake." Quentin walked over to the bed and pulled up one of the uncomfortable chairs that sat on either side of the door of the adjoining bathroom.
Again the odd, sucking noise. "I'm awake." It dawned on Quentin that the noise was Chris inflating her lungs with an effort so that she could speak.
"Well, this is not a good thing." Quentin rubbed her face and put her head between her knees for a few minutes, a bit startled at how much the shock made her feel like passing out.
"It's that bad, is it?" With the usual preface.
"Yes, no – I mean, from what information I can glean, you are well on your way to making a practically full recovery. This here, with you obviously in pain and having such a hard time breathing, that's bad."
"Hmm." Chris picked restlessly at the blanket. "The test between India and England. Who won?"
"England, I think."
"Do you still feel faint?"
"How did you know I felt faint?" Quentin asked sharply. An Amazon had her pride after all, and fainting was embarrassing.
"Heard your breathing change."
"Oh. Well, no, I don't."
"Good. Do something for me?" All of Chris' sentences tended to come out in a bit of a rush, making as much use of her speaking air as she could.
"If I can."
"Take these bandages off and tell me if I still have eyes." For several long moments, Quentin sat frozen. "None of these buffoons will tell me." Still Quentin didn't move. "Dammit – did you put up with it when three hours after your surgery the doctor refused to tell you your leg was really gone?"
"No, okay, okay." Standing up and removing her jacket, then rolling up her sleeves, Quentin looked around uncomfortably. "There are no gloves or anything around? I'm afraid putting you at risk of infection or something."
"Don't know – try in the stand by the other bed."
Gloves acquired, Quentin carefully set to work on the dressings. The table also supplied sterile gauze and fresh roller bandages, so she felt reasonably confident that she'd be able to put on clean things instead of returning the old when it came time for rebandaging. Even though it was only three minutes or so, it felt more like hours before Quentin finished unwrapping the roller bandage around Chris' head. For each turn she had to carefully lift her cousin's upper body forward a little, careful not to bend her neck.
"You'd think my neck was broken."
"No, but your windpipe doesn't need to be narrowed by me bending your neck, to be sure." Sitting back for a moment, Quentin braced herself to remove the gauze pads. Four large ones, then the smaller, thinner ones. The last layer, effectively opaque in the dim light despite its thinness, did nothing to ease Quentin's nerves at all. Bracing herself, Quentin removed those too, and revealed a pair of eyes, their irises a milky grey and the pupils tight shut. "Definitely eyes there, Chris." A beat. "Not sure if you'll be seeing out of them, though."
"One thing at a time." Chris suffered being rebandaged again without comment. "It's quiet in the hall now. What's going on?"
"Seems they're expecting casualties. Long way to bring 'em, seems to me, considering where the battles were. The Blue army tried to take the Bosporus this morning, and the Red tried to break across the Turkish border with Armenia."
"Lovely." Chris picked at the blanket again. "What did the Armenians have to say about that?"
"They are Red allies, it seems."
"Rather mountainous there, isn't it?" Chris' forehead crinkled up where the bandages didn't cover it.
"Pretty rough, definitely. They're mad, all these people. Even they don't seem sure what they're fighting about." Quentin reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a small box. "Rations are tight, and probably you aren't up to eating or drinking much yet, but when you are, there's some real live orange pekoe and milk chocolate here."
"Tea." sighed Chris. "Will I ever get to drink it again?"
They chatted awhile longer, then, sensing that her cousin was tiring out, Quentin took her leave, promising to come back tomorrow and the next day. Then she would have to return to making daredevil supply flights over the Black Sea, Iran, and Iraq. For her part, Chris had no idea what she would be doing when she got out of the hospital. Chances were good the war would still be happening. Contrary to what most tended to expect, Chris was not an officer in the science division, working out antidotes and neutralizers to noxious gases and other chemical war vectors. Her reputation for skilled leadership and blowing up her laboratories had preceded her, and so Chris wound up leading a division of Amazons whose specialty was demolition. Even Tony Bellonis, the head trainer who had been loudly and pointedly skeptical about the pale, skinny new arrival to the Nation had been forced to give Chris some credit.
Deep into the night, Chris' restless dozing was interrupted by the door to her room thumping open. "Easy, easy – try not to jar her anymore than you have to. Right, you two, I want you on guard here at all times. Nobody but folks with the security clearance badge type M is allowed in here, period. Of those who have that badge, each and every time you call back to check the serial number and for a description of the person to whom it has been issued for that day. Hang those up here, lieutenant." The sounds of busily moving feet moved back and forth, left and right relative to Chris' listening point, clearly arranging a new patient in the second bed. "No, not like that. She has to be half sitting up, like blondie over there." Then quite a few people left, and the smell of new bandages and antiseptic caught Chris' attention, not just from the newly installed woman across from her, but also from someone now standing by her own bed.
"Hello, brigadier Halliday." Tony Bellonis sat down in Quentin's former seat.
"Hi." Chris managed.
A pause. "Damn. They weren't kidding about what that gas does to you." The distinct rattling of Bellonis' sidearm and tool pouch indicated she had tugged her tunic straight, a familiar habit. "To our left is an old friend of yours, got shot up in a Blue invasion attempt. Somebody turned traitor and let the Blue and Red know where the British cryptography labs were, apparently inspired by its refusal to join the Red or the Blue. Damned strange allies our Nation has, let me tell you. What's the expression – necessity makes strange bedfellows?" Chris shook her head. "Oh well – in any case, Our friend Jared Adams is a seriously injured and highly important person. Remember all the drills to teach your lot how to pick off an enemy by sound in the dark?"
"All too well."
Bellonis wrapped Chris' fingers around the handle of a thoroughly nasty little gun. "That's what you do should anybody untoward get in here. Don't try to be nice." She added a small cartridge of ammunition to Chris' other hand. "Do you know what your peculiar friend did two weeks ago?"
"She beat that fancy American computer that's supposed to be impossible to beat at chess now. All eight games she played – she won a game against the machine in a service raffle – seems to be the sort of prize odd mathematical ducks like her take to – and that was supposed to be it. Nothing else expected since she's no grand master, by the estimation of those who obsess over these things, mainly on the basis of her not playing on their professional circuit. So she got to play again, to see if it was a fluke. Then again, because she plays in shockingly unorthodox fashion. And still more after that, with the programmers trying to get the computer tuned up to beat her." Bellonis leaned closer. "I'm telling you this story, because before the building she worked in was broken into, Adams encrypted everything, its dog, and the kitchen sink, then uploaded copies to servers in the Nation. Trouble is, nobody can figure out how to decrypt it."
"Sounds like her." Chris smiled. Jed was famous for having notes illegible to pretty much anyone but herself, and a preference for it being that way. Chances were if someone else tried to decode the proverbial dog after Jed encoded it, they'd get an alligator.
"Right, I'm off. Oh – this Adams here is also a brigadier by the British military's estimation." Rapid steps heralded Bellonis' departure. Her urgent duties done, the sturdy Amazon was making her way to a triage station to have her injured arm looked over again.
"Oh good. She's gone." Jed whispered from her side of the room. "Nurse, I'll have tea, chocolate, and a shamefully gorgeous Amazon to cater to my every whim. Thank you."
Chris actually managed a soundless snicker. "There's no nurse, Jed." Dead silence.
"Yeah. Just getting over a tangle with the Blue Menace." Shifting so that her face was oriented in Jed's direction, Chris continued. "According to Bellonis you got shot up."
"Only three times. Don't know what all the fuss is about." Jed peered across at Chris, unable to see much between the poor light and her lack of spectacles. "Hurts of course – but considering the alternatives." Her eyelids flickered. "Just going to sleep a bit. If a nurse comes by, the request for tea and chocolate still stands."
"What about the shamefully gorgeous Amazon to cater to your every whim?" asked Chris.
"Have decided to forgo the catering – otherwise, she's already here." Jed replied peaceably.
The sound of drumming feet finally disturbed Benny enough to open her eyes. Under other conditions she would have had serious problems with this, but since she was cuddled up with someone she liked quite a lot, the owners of the feet could be forgiven their transgressions for the moment. Arion was kitted out in an extra pair of Jed's pyjamas, the blue striped things so profoundly crisp and new looking that Benny was quite convinced that Jed had never actually worn them. This had strong implications concerning Jed's position on sleeping in the buff. The pyjamas hung about Arion's thin shoulders and actually failed to cover her ankles as Jed was longer in the body and shorter in the legs than her cousin. Benny wore her green boxers and tank top together with a pair of silly green socks. Silly, because one day when a chance to nap under a tree had come up during a few days leave during the war, Benny's compatriot on the town had cheerfully drawn a cutesy face onto each of her heavy wool socks as she dozed, boots set carefully off to the side and upwind. The socks were on their last threads now, worn mainly for sentimental value, and the cutesy faces. It had felt very strange to get dressed for bed, very junior high sleepoverish. So she and Arion had a massive pillow fight and spent half the night gasping for air between fits of giggles.
The feet sound came again, and this time Arion protested. "What is going on over there, anyway? Do Jed and Chris run laps on their side of the house?"
"Don't think so. Sounds like an awful lot more than just them, though. Maybe another repair crew." Such crews tended to be a bit rowdy, especially once they decided to sing. Singing often happened during the most tedious parts of any given task, especially sanding. In this case, the verses tended to be punctuated by artistic patterns of swishing from the various bits of sandpaper. This had gotten a bit out of control in the case of the repairs to the walls of the solarium across the hall from Benny's room, and now there was a sort of window about half a metre to the left of the door that hadn't been there before. Sure enough, merry singing began to reverberate from the other side of the house. "See, that must be it."
"I'm not so sure." murmured Arion, listening intently. "They're singing about wigs and finery."
"I'm serious, wigs and finery, shoes and linen." Unable to quell their curiosity, the two women piled into non-sleeping clothes and went to see what the neighbours were up to.
The foyer and first landing off the stairs in Jed and Chris' side of the house were pure chaos, and considering the size of the area, that was something stunning. Amazons bustled up and down constantly, some of them carrying various pieces of clothing, others with papers and books. The latter appeared to be rather official sorts and even a few of the Queen's Guard. It gradually became clear that these were, respectively, women in charge of protocol who were briefing Jed to perform some part in the coronation, and an honour escort. "But why must I have an escort? It's not as if I'm a dignitary. No no, that colour is far too pastel. And why are these tailors here? I have perfectly good formal dress." Jed tried to escape a determined woman who managed to lasso her about the body with a tape marked in centimetres and floogles, allowing a measurement of her chest.
"Thirteen floogles, very impressive." the determined woman winked. The floogles were a legacy of a flubbed order to a company that produced measuring tapes of all sorts, steel, fibreglass, cloth, almost anything. In fact, they now had a sideline in licorice and certain types of wind up bubblegum beloved by children. During a reset of the printing forms, which were cunning things with two sets of expanding and contracting points that could be locked in place in a range of units limited only by the size of the form, someone had forgotten to lock down one of the sets of points. The end result was that they expanded, contracted, and smeared at random throughout the printing of thousands of tapes. The horrified manufacturers had asked hesitantly if they could just discount the mistake instead of reproducing the lot. To their amazement, this was agreed to, since the Nation had gone metric long ago. Someone named the unpredictable gradations on one side of the tape floogles, and the new designation had stuck.
"Floogles indeed." Jed muttered with a snort. Being a physicist, even a joking suggestion of the use of floogles for any sort of measure bugged her. This suggestion of inexactness led to a reflexive check of her five watches.
"The escort is traditional, and if you attempt to wear that tattered suit you wore to your last graduation ceremony one more time, it's liable to disintegrate on the spot." Avi said sternly, watching curiously as one of the Amazons managed to clap an adjustable scale onto Jed's foot in order to measure her shoe size.
"Ah, Jed – help?" Chris dove behind her partner, struggling to fend off another of the tailors. "This one keeps trying to pinch my behind."
"She keeps trying to what?" Jed did have a bit of a possessive streak. The tailor in question uttered an alarmed squeak and hurriedly retreated.
"You do understand what you're supposed to do this evening?" Avi interrupted before things could get much more out of hand – she hadn't anticipated the corps of tailoring Amazons being quite so aggressive, but it seemed they had encountered some member of the Adams clan before. One of them began chasing Ygrainne, who had come along with Avi with no idea what was going on. Their steps clattered back and forth across the landing. The reason for the chase wasn't quite clear yet.
"Yes, yes, hold the staff, swing the staff, walk the triangle, make a meep noise, go sit down." Jed growled impatiently, trying to repossess her arm from the woman who was measuring her wrist. "I have studied our ceremonies you know."
"Make a meep noise?"
"I was just kidding about that part. Would you let go?" This directed at an Amazon who had hold of one of her ankles for uncertain reasons. Ygrainne careered past her, made it through the gauntlet of protocol Amazons, down the steps, and out of the house. The protocol Amazons in particular were looking for a few other people to participate in the ceremony, and members of the Adams family were notorious for ducking their obligations when it came to ceremonies of any kind.
"Look, this coronation is a very significant one, and it is important things run smoothly. There's no place for your well known eccentricity and iconoclasm." The stress had put Avi into wet blanket mode. A number of the tailor Amazons noticed Arion and Benny, and soon they found themselves being measured, poked and mildly harassed to choose what sort of style their clothes were to be made in.
"How long is your inseam, miss?" one of the determined tailors asked Benny.
"Short." Benny answered tersely. "Look, I can't really afford..."
"There's no need to worry about that. You need proper clothes for Academy functions anyway. The first suit is always paid for by it." Jed piped up from the landing, fending off a woman holding up a pair of designs featuring bellbottoms.
"Academy functions." muttered Benny, as one of the tailor Amazons carefully measured the breadth of her shoulders and the lengths of her arms. Arion was trying to be patient, but having so many touchy strangers all but stuck to her was clearly getting on her last nerve.
"But I like thisone!" Jed told one of the Amazons holding up two hefty books of patterns.
"Yes ma'am, but..."
"No buts, I like this one." Jed's chin jutted stubbornly and she folded her arms. Her last nerve had already been flattened by the sturdy boots of the protocol Amazons. By now Avi had walked over and was peering at the patterns in question herself.
"Which one do you like?"
"That one." That one was a pair of crisply pressed black trousers with pointy toed boots, a double breasted short jacket, and one of the side pinned cloaks especially favoured by northern Amazons. A touch of red and silver at the fastenings, sleeves, and collar marked the only colour.
"Why are you arguing with her? This is sedate for an Adams chosen outfit. Do what she says!" Jed had turned up in her plum purple suit and three alarm red shirt with yellow stripes often enough that few people didn't remember her well. Those few who didn't remembered the shirt.
"The Queen will be wearing a somewhat similar outfit..." 'Queen' was carefully emphasized in the way that always meant the third, and eldest Queen.
"Only somewhat. Use this one." Avi briskly overruled any further objections by grabbing the pattern in question. "And anyway, Jed is directly descended from one of our better known Queens, so we can find a protocol justification if we really have to."
With that the chaos was over, Arion and Benny having made their choices rather more quickly. The visiting Amazons began to disappear out the front door, taking their various accoutrements with them, leaving five women on the landing. The tall priestess sat down on a small seat set into one wall, trying to sort out what remained on her 'to do' list. Jed and Chris argued cheerfully over whether or not to have a cup of tea, even though they already knew the answer to the question. Occasionally Benny and Arion contributed new perspectives on old points, each more absurd than the last, until they had been fully drawn into the mock conflict themselves. The whole thing had just managed to veer off into a demonstration of how to walk with an empty teapot balanced on one's head when a wild ringing interrupted them. Avi juggled her cell phone a few moments before finally getting it open and positioned properly.
A voice declared gravely, "Her majesty the Queen, Halliday-Pontius forenamed Quentin Solevius, is suffering deeply from the lack of her holiness the high Priestess of Artemis, named Ionnidis forenamed Avi Christine's physical and mental presence."
"Errr," Avi blinked a couple of times. "You're not that upset about me being gone so early this morning, I hope? The commando tailor raid went well." She winced and crossed her fingers.
"That depends on whether her majesty the Queen receives proper gratification within a reasonable time. Professor Arion Adams would refer to this call as a priority interrupt."
Understanding dawned. "Oh – Oh! Give me twenty minutes – no fifteen..." she started dashing down the stairs. "...ten."
"Five," purred Quentin. "I have the hearse, you know where I'm waiting."
Avi swallowed audibly. "Your things should be delivered by three o'clock."
"Perhaps you should rename the hearse." Arion suggested as the double doors thunked shut.
"To what?" Jed asked in puzzlement.
"How about the shaggin' wagon?"
"No comment." Chris interrupted, clapping a hand over Jed's mouth. "We had just agreed on tea."
Teetering precariously on a pile of books on a chair, Benny reached for a battered tin box perched on top of one of the shelves that graced the walls near her desk. This box had arrived in a small noisy envelope that Arion had gazed at curiously when she had brought Benny's shipment from the post office nearly three weeks ago now. For whatever reason – Benny put it down to the lingering effects of fever, putting the thing up on the top shelf had seemed a good idea. The pile of books teetered in its turn under her feet, so she tucked the box solidly under one arm and climbed down.
On the bed she had laid out her 'coronation clothes,' a sleek, dark green suit with dark boots and a crisp white shirt. It was the vest, hung seperately on a padded hanger from a hook in the ceiling, that was the coolest part. Made of some shiny material that felt almost like silk, with all sorts of spiralling designs worked into it, shimmering from blue to green depending on how it was turned in the light, the tailor surrendered it into Benny's hands with a visible reluctance.
Carefully prying open the tin box, Benny began sorting through it, poking at first one thing, then another, clearly looking for something both specific and small. The sound of something heavy being dragged across the carpet in the corridor outside interrupted her.
"Urrrrgh." The sound stopped temporarily. "Unhhhhhergggg." It started again. "Unnhhh – urggghhh – oooof." More sliding, a sudden stop. Some more laboured sliding, and a loud, "Hoof!" The large object, which turned out to be a good sized piece of bulky furniture from the solarium, slid through Benny's bedroom doorway, stopping just before it hit her toes. Arion had fallen flat on her face in the hall when it got away from her, but now she collected herself and walked in, dusting her hands. "You won't believe what's in here."
"No doubt." Benny shook her head a little. "Thought you were showering and getting dressed?"
"I am. I mean, I was. But this caught my eye and..."
"You don't want to go to the coronation, do you?" Benny felt a bit disappointed.
"Of course I do, of course, it's just – The way to get over nerves, generally, is to have no more time to weasel out of things, then struggle into new clothes and go to face ungoddessly numbers of people." A hopeful smile.
Running her fingers over the vest, Benny glanced past it towards her gangly friend, cobalt coloured glasses askew from her fall in the hall. "Okay – so what's in this thing, whatever it is?"
"Well, it's a sort of, finished box." Arion took hold of a pair of handles and carefully slid the broad door on the side of the box upwards, revealing a complete set of books by the famous Basilas of author fame. "These things are more important – Benny, these are all first editions. These books are hugely popular, too. Thirty or so of them help clutter the shelves of my office."
"Oh yeah?" Benny pulled out one of the books, glancing at the blurb on the back of the jacket. "Fantasy novels. Go figure."
"They're very good." declared Arion, glancing at her watch.
"Time for the showers?"
"Mmmmhmmm. Good of you to let me use the facilities here, otherwise it'd be a near thing, getting to the coronation on time."
"I could hardly sentence you to showering at those grisy facilities at the Academy, although admittedly they are better than any general use showers I've seen elsewhere." Benny took a breath, and stepped forward to give Arion a kiss on the lips. Just to soften the shock, since Arion seemed to believe no one knew about her unorthodox living arrangements. "Arion, I do realize you live in your office." The other woman shuffled awkwardly. "Who is this X. Adams, really? If you don't have enough elapheboles to get your own place, it can't be you."
Arion sat down carefully on the end of the bed. "Curses, you've figured out my nefarious scheme." She sighed a little. "The X. Adams of moneybags fame is an accidental fiction, to which everyone, even the dour Waldbilling, seems to subscribe. Due to a misunderstanding of an authorization form I signed as a trustee of the Pseudo Athena Travel Fund, with the result that here the fund is known as the X. Adams Travel Fund, and no one believes a word I say about it. Now for the irony." She pulled off her glasses and polished them on her shirt. "Rich I most certainly am. However, all of my money was made in Germany, where it sits in escrow pending one of two things happening. The German military authorities charge me with desertion or something more nasty for fleeing my army post to the Amazon Nation, or the German government gives me a medal. Then presumably, my gains will be declared not ill gotten, and I can have them." She put her glasses back on. "Except another war is about to start, so..."
"You fled to the Amazon Nation?" Benny interrupted, sitting down beside her.
"Oh yes." Arion laughed softly. "On a technicality. Dingbat that I am, it never occured to me to do something about my dual citizenship. Being a citizen of Germany means you must report for two years military service, or the moment you set foot in the country you must choose between arrest and imprisonment, or a frog march straight to the nearest bus or train to the nearest military base."
"Wow, great choices there."
"Oh yes. Of course, going to prison didn't sound too nice, so off to the base. The basic training wasn't bad, except being yelled at all the time stank. Add to that, they simply couldn't get me molded into the sort of carbon copy recruit marching around with bad haircuts in nasty boots they wanted. Finally got dumped into a brig – the only woman there, amongst a lovely selection of nasties who learned quickly that I kick very hard and punch harder. One day it got too much, so I hauled ass over the back wall and managed to get out of the country. Bluffed my way onto a plane heading here, and that was that." She sighed ruefully. "Lost my place in Holland just after the war finished, and just before my accident. Wish I could have shown it to you."
The two women had then separated so that Arion could do battle with the high sided tub and the taps, and Benny began clambering into her new finery. She had just stomped around the room, then tried to move the cabinet – box really didn't seem the right word for it, only to find it completely immovable – when Arion reappeared. Benny had already been in gape mode in disbelief over the sheer mass of the piece of ugly furniture she couldn't budge, so seeing Arion dressed up simply unhinged her jaw.
Like Jed, Arion favoured rather old fashioned clothes, but where her cousin's verged on the mediaeval, her own seemed to have come straight out of a rather clean cut version of the mythical time and place 'real cowboys' inhabited. Brown, square toed boots, pressed dark blue jeans, a vest surprisingly similar to Benny's own, and a long reddish brown leather jacket over a homely cotton shirt. The leather was suede, and the shirt made of a soft cotton with a distinct, ribbed weave. Between all that and the shift in their relationship, Benny was extremely hard pressed to keep her hands to herself.
"Wow." she declared succinctly, having dealt with the jaw unhinging problem.
"Thanks." Arion grinned crookedly. "Isn't it your turn now? Better hurry, or our favourite comedians will leave without us."
They met up with Jed and Chris in the nearly overgrown driveway of Omega's Folly, where Chris was using a crowbar in a struggle to unfold the convertible roof of her car. Under other circumstances, being windswept and dusty would have been quite unproblematic, but in this case, especially without the hearse, the roof would have to be in place. This still left the question of the windows, however.
All of this effort was mooted by the arrival of Quentin and Avi in the hearse, the former scowling like a thundercloud, wrapped as she was in a nasty grey robe. There was a long tradition of the Queen being crowned keeping her coronation clothes completely secret until the very event. This tradition had slipped Quentin's memory, so she was stuck with the heavy grey cloak on over her clothes, hiding them and making her extremely uncomfortable due to its scratchy weave and excellent insulation properties.
"In you get folks." Avi called from the driver's side, and the others managed to do this, even Jed, who was busy gaping at Chris. Entirely contrary to expectations, Chris had chosen a gorgeous, shimmering silver dress and a pair of demure sandals, and done up her hair in raucous spikes. She was strikingly beautiful in it, bouncing and cheerful as always. Her partner had settled into a happy daze, and was completely oblivious to Avi, who was trying very hard to get the physicist to repeat the steps in her part of the coronation in twenty words or less. Jed kept answering "Less."
When the hearse had growled and coughed its way onto the main road, the Queen's Guard fell in around it on motorcycles. Armed with serious weapons in all cases, and four of them held pennants representing the four directions. Their riding uniforms were no different from usual except that they were newer. Denim and leather jackets with blue jeans and steel toed boots, with neat green shirts. They were jokingly referred to as the plainclothes force that just couldn't quite manage it.
Benny quietly watched the trees as the hearse passed them by, idly noting several different species, and the nearly invisible space that represented a road to nowhere. At some point Arion tangled their fingers together, and Benny unconsciously rubbed her thumb against the side of her lover's hand as her eyes drifted upward to pick out the constellations. Eerily, Mars glowed like an angry red eye, and Jupiter in baleful yellow tagged along behind but higher in the sky.
"Pfft – ignore those two ninnies, Benny. The Moon will come up right over here soon, and Venus is stubborning it out for a bit yet." This from Avi, who had noticed the direction of the other woman's gaze during her latest abortive attempts to get Jed to listen to her. The last glow of the setting Sun was still holding the sky several shades above deep royal blue, and Venus was indeed visible.
"You speak of them as if they were alive."
"Symbolically speaking, they definitely are." Avi commented. "Even in this time of light pollution and air pollution, people never quite forget that Mars is supposed to herald war and bloodshed, Jupiter is usually associated with a grumpy old jerk, and Venus and the Moon belong to Goddesses of love and the wild."
"A different way of looking at it." Benny murmured thoughtfully.
"I wish Mars would bugger off." Arion's voice was a bit higher than normal, the prospect of the auditorium full of people beginning to make her sweat. Her hands, the nonconformists of the works, had gone quite cold.
"It'll be dark, Arion, you'll hardly notice the rest of the audience." Quentin said as convincingly as she could manage. She was suffering from a bit of stage fright herself.
The members of the escort ahead of them began leaning into the turn, and the hearse turned off onto an unfamiliar road cut in a straight line to Themiskyra. It represented an astounding feat of engineering, constructed not of layers of gravel and asphalt but a bed of cobbles levelled with mortar and covered over by smoothly interlocking stones. The result looked unyielding and solid, but was surprisingly elastic, allowing it to survive the majority of the local earthquakes with minimal damage. One section ran over a swamp, and this had sunk out of sight a couple of times, but come up out of the muck with the help of grappling hooks and cranes to be reset in its place. Similar stretches of road all over the Nation, along with bridges that could be collapsed into the rivers and gorges they spanned in minutes were part of the last line of defence should someone be lucky enough or insane enough, to attack it. Given the existence of airforces, this was still a possibility.
Such dark thoughts were only in the very back of Benny's mind, if they were anywhere at all. It had wandered over to the coronation and everything she had read about previous ones in history. The auditorium would only have so many people actually crammed into it, and the rest would watch it on screens set up outside. Those who got to sit in the auditorium itself were those who were participating in the event, the ruling council, and thousands of women chosen by lot. If a woman had seen the last one or two coronations, her name was removed from the draw to give others a chance. Thankfully the arrangements generally worked out well, as the number of women in the Nation had been in the several millions before the most recent rumblings of war, and now expanded significantly since then. No specific number was officially known, as this tended to keep hostile countries off balance and unsure of what they would be facing if they tried an attack.
Jed began humming a tune, and after a few moments she switched to singing softly. She was singing in Turkish, so she wasn't terribly understandable. The rolling syllables were pleasant, however, and most of the other occupants of the hearse had begun to doze off when the vehicle stopped abruptly, chucking Benny almost out of her seat.
"Good heavens – we have simply got to start feeding you better." Chris declared with cheerful vigour, carefully straightening her spectacles. The last glow of dusk was still visible low in the sky, and now they could see Amazons milling around many holding mats over their heads as the rain began again after a short reprieve during the afternoon. Avi pulled the hearse in under an awning in front of the busy auditorium, and they all climbed out to wait for a few minutes. Benny watched in fascination as the fast moving clouds seemed to silently snap shut on the glowing west, then hurtle across the sky, gathering up into thick piles that first blocked out Mars, then Jupiter, then Venus, until finally only a muted, roundish glow marked where the Moon hung. The rain changed from spatters to a fullfledged pour. Luckily, things had never been paved fully, and there was enough grass, so a stroll between buildings was damp but not muddy.
An Amazon who looked a bit crisp and pressed herself yanked open the auditorium door. Observing who was who, she gathered up Jed, Quentin and Avi, then whisked them away. This seemed rather a bad idea, until Chris, having hidden her tinted spectacles away somewhere on her person, led Benny and Arion deeper inside the building.
"This corridor forms a sort of donut around the auditorium." she explained, peering at a small piece of paper in one hand. At some point Chris had put on a pair of clear lenses, and now she began reading the labels over the doorways they passed. It took some time before Benny realized the markings weren't numbers but directions, and that Chris had led them all the way around a full cycle already.
"Chris, what the hell are you doing?" blurted Arion, outraged now that they had walked past Phaedra a second time.
"We came in by the south door, and ideally we should have come in by the main door, which faces east." Chris replied imperturbably. "So you make up for that by going around counterclockwise, being as this is evening now and the Sun is down, once, and make an offering. See?" She had picked up a small wooden ladle from by a charming little pool that the building was constructed around. Chemical deposits revealed the water's inlet. Dipping a ladle full of water, Chris took a sip, then carefully poured the rest onto the rock where the rest of the flow also ran across before following a thoroughly asymmetric path across the floor and out the other wall. Since the whole floor was made of wood, and both Benny and Arion had been distracted and nervous, neither of them had noticed it when they walked across the little bridge across the stream before.
"I don't believe this, Chris, you're a scientist!"
"Being a scientist doesn't mean you aren't spiritual, and what this bit with ladle does is show respect. So does the extra walk around. There are many good practical reasons for what we just did." Chris watched her compatriots go through the water ritual. "The walk helps people settle down more than anything else. Practically everyone will come in through the south door tonight."
- Much nastier people than the Blue Meanies, but luckily equally fictional.