Melbourne found the cave surprisingly warm. The Court, who Melbourne learned was the name of the gang, was exceedingly hospitable. The women of The Court, clothed in a cross between tribal regalia and the latest Paris fashions, floated stoically about the cave with tea trays and books from the West.
Melbourne sat in front of a fire as he nursed a cup of Darjeeling tea. The floral porcelain of the cup felt cold and hard on his lips. He would have preferred the soft, pliable feel of a primitive water bladder. Shadows danced on the cave wall, pointing him to the ornately carved bookshelves resting against the stone. The glow from another fire, further down a passage off the main cave room, flickered on the wall. Sandalwood incense carried on the light notes of a Harp escaped from the passage.
“What is this place?” One of Melbourne’s men asked. Young and nervous, he clung to his flame rifle.
“From what I can gather, a little piece of civilization in the middle of nowhere.” Melbourne took another sip of tea.
“But how did they get here? How did they get all this stuff?” He motioned to the bookcases, to the marble statue of Venus, to the Persian rugs, to the bust of Socrates sitting snuggly within a wall indentation.
Melbourne carefully placed the teacup on the ground beside him and shifted his legs to the side. “They’re raiders, they’re traders, they’re black-market dealers. Something. Think about it.”
The young soldier, about to ask another insufferably annoying question, froze upon the sudden arrival of Kanishka. “Good evening, Gentlemen. I trust you are finding your accommodations adequate?”
The boy nodded quickly and scrambled to the other side of the cave to join his cautious, yet intrigued comrades. Melbourne snorted, “Sorry about that. And yes, your base is very…nice.”
Kanishka smiled wide, sat down cross-legged beside him. His goggles and face covering removed, a completely different man now faced Melbourne. The firelight shown bright enough to reveal the stranger’s olive skin flecked with unexpected patches of freckles. Melbourne found his features exotic; especially with the long dark hair bore highlighted with auburn. Instead of the black-brown eyes he’d expect to see on a dark-featured person, Melbourne was startled to find light hazel eyes where the rain-covered goggles had once been.
“This is why I stay covered most of the time.” Kanishka said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.” Melbourne abruptly felt heat in his cheeks. He returned to his tea, trying to diffuse the awkward moment.
“My mother was English, my father was Indian.”
Melbourne desperately tried to pull words from the damp cave air, but nothing came to him. He had never heard of such a thing.
“The Queen would like to meet you.” Kanishka offered. Melbourne was sure the man had been grasping at the same air.
“Of-of course.” Melbourne took the last swig of tea; it burned his throat. He drank it too fast like he used to do as an impatient child.
“One moment. Let me see if she is ready to receive you.” Kanishka stood and disappeared into the sandalwood-perfumed passage.
Melbourne stood and dusted off his trousers and coat. He turned to a baroque, gold-framed mirror on the adjacent cave wall. Started by his disheveled reflection, Melbourne ran a hand through his half-damp flaxen hair. He leaned closer to find his cerulean eyes red-rimmed, seemingly irritated from the sandy air. His face looked ruddy, dirt-smeared. He felt he was in no condition to be put before a Queen, even if she wasn’t the real thing.
- - - Nichole Beard is in the process of earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. She is a little too obsessed with Star Wars and most other things deemed nerdy. She is working on her first novel, a historical fiction piece.