Lunch on the company dime was at a sit-down restaurant—specialty burgers, curly fries and double-large sodas served in glasses, not paper cups.
They sat together on the outdoor porch, where they could smoke. Melissa had her Marlboros from her car.
“Stupid no smoking laws,” Bill complained. “Like we aren’t Americans.”
“Tell me about it,” Melissa said. She took a long, satisfying drag. Bill had learned she was twenty-four, dropped out of college, followed some band around for two years, ended up here for lack of a better place and lived with two roommates.
“This your only gig?” Bill asked.
She took another drag and exhaled it. “It is for now,” she said. “I tried working in an office but I don’t have the clothes.”
“They can be pretty strict,” Bill said.
“Yeah, they can,” she said, accentuating the ‘yeah.’ “Like, show one bit of cleavage and it’s, ‘Adios, slut.’ So I said, ‘Screw that,’ and came here.”
“Never sold before?”
“Girl Scouts. Can you believe it? Me in one of those uniforms? My sister said I was a total geek and she wouldn’t join.”
“I don’t know,” Bill said. “I really love the cookies.”
“Oh, I could kill for the cookies,” Melissa said. She sat back in her chair and blew a puff of smoke in the air. “You know the thin mint ones? I think I went up a pants size on those things.”
Bill prevented himself from looking at her middle. He still wasn’t comfortable with the rules in the office; better to stay quiet.
“But you’re not from here,” he pressed. That was as personal as he dared get.
She took a drag and shook her head. “Nah,” she said. “Main—ah, born and raised. I thought I would take a break from the northeast, from city life. I like it down here. It’s nice. You know your neighbors; people come over to your house and say, ‘Hi.’”
Bill grinned. He had no idea who lived next door to him at the apartment.
“So what’s happening with sales for you?” Bill asked, as their meal arrived. “Are you following the steps?”
She nodded, reaching for her burger. She had a healthy appetite for a girl. Women Bill knew were either fat or sweating every calorie.
“It’s like, I follow the steps, yanno,” she said, “but then they ask some stupid question, like, ‘How much money will I make in my first year?’ and I am like, ‘I don’t know—a lot.’”
Bill choked on a mouthful of beef. He almost felt like he was shooting pieces out his nose. He chewed and swallowed, feeling like a horse at a trough, and finally said, “You said that?”
“Well, the stupid card didn’t tell me what to say.”
She was referring to their script cue cards. You had a pack of laminated cards with numbers on them, and you could shuffle through them by number, so that if you were on card seven, and a client answered a question one way, then you went to card ten or, another way, card fourteen.
Newbies always got the cards mixed up, or read them and didn’t listen.
“I can show you a trick to that,” Bill said. “I used to have the same problem with that question.”
“Really?” she asked. The expression on her face seemed so grateful, as if she had asked him to cure her father’s cancer, and he’d just said he could. “That is nice. Thanks, Bill.”
She smiled a giant smile, putting him right on his guard.
“Yeah, not a problem,” Bill said.
They ate quietly for a while.
“So no kids, no woman, no fun—what’s up with you, Bill?” she asked, taking a bite of her French fry. “You gotta have something going in your life.”
“I do?” he asked. This had become way too personal, and he didn’t like it. “Why is that?”
She shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. “Cuz otherwise you live your life between commercials? What did you do at my age?”
“At your age?” Bill said. “I was at Woodstock, or telling everyone who would listen how great being at Woodstock was.”
“Really?” she said. “You were there? That is so cool. Was it really all, like, drugs and sex and cool music?”
Bill laughed. “Maybe in some peoples’ minds. It was mostly bad weather, too many people with too few facilities, and a bunch of people thinking they were going to save us. The music was good, though. That was the last time I saw ‘The Who’ live.”
“The Who,” Bill said. “Before your time.”
“Guess so,” she agreed. “Did you want to be a rock star?”
Bill laughed. “When I sing, wild dogs show up trying to mate. No, it made me want to hate the government and protest the war.”
She nodded sagely. “Korea.”
“Vietnam,” he corrected her, angrily. “Cripes, what do they teach you kids in school?”
“Not a lot,” she said. “Which is how I landed this great job. So, you can show me how to sell?”
“Yeah,” Bill said.
“And can you tell me something else?” she asked.
She looked right into his eyes, and Bill thought, Here it comes, oh, boy. This is her whole angle.
“What?” he asked.
She looked down, and looked up, and said, “What is it we’re selling? Because I have been selling it for three days now, and I have, like, no friggin’ idea.”
* * *
Glynn knelt alone at her personal altar, dedicated to Adriam.
Most Uman-Chi worshipped Adriam. Some preferred Eveave, and most of them were women. Glynn felt as if the god-mother forced justice on those who didn’t need it. Most Casters were men, Uman-Chi men worshipped Adriam, and so did she.
“Oh, Adriam, who is great and wise,” she intoned. “Clear my mind, my burdens and past. Give me the moment, that I might serve thee in it.”
She spoke the litany, and imagined herself alongside a stream. Her mind became a pitcher, and she emptied it into the clear water. The thoughts became fish that swam away.
Out poured the worry that she was not up to her challenge. Out poured the male Casters who judged her. Out poured the thorny beast of a fish that was her hatred for the Conqueror. Out poured her longing for her father and her brother.
And in her stream, a great, white fish with jagged teeth and long, whale-like flippers devoured all the others, and looked up into her vessel, hungry for more.
And that was not good. If she could not clear the stream, then she could not have the moment. If she could not have the moment, then she could not cast.
In her mind’s eye, she knelt by the stream, she lowered her top, and she leaned forward. Her breasts dragged the water, its cold embrace bringing rise to her nipples, and she nourished the white fish.
It looked hungrily to the pitcher and, seeing nothing, addressed her breast. She felt the pull within her as the beastly thing suckled, the pain of its teeth on her soft flesh.
Being an enchantress, a woman who cast spells, made Glynn rare in and of itself. She had come to the Ultimate Truth at the unprecedented age of 90. With precious few women to learn from, Glynn’s methods were, by necessity, mostly her own.
To create, she’d realized, a man gives from himself.
To create, a woman gives of herself.
She bore the pain. She nourished the fish and, when it had its fill of her, it swam away without a backward glance. Her stream ran clear, sweet and free, and her mind reflected it.
Her non-corporeal energy floated out from her body, in her imaginary world and in her real one. She looked down upon her two selves, pristine in the dream and real in her little chapel, alongside her rooms in the royal palace.
She saw the little imperfection in the skin beneath her shoulder. She touched it, and connected her lifeline back to herself. She reached out with her power, into the cold air of a day in the month of Adriam, and wrapped the city in her ethereal self.
She would do this every day, many times a day, exhausting herself and, at the same time, defining her strength. Each day saw her a little stronger, a little better, a little more able to disperse herself.
When the time came, she would sing. If she lost the song, if she lost the thought, she would use this newfound power to dispense the energy she released. Giving of herself, she would save her people and her city.
Transitioning herself from caster to conduit, Glynn Escaroth of the Family Escaroth prepared herself for singing.
* * *
Melissa sat at her cubicle, squeezed in front of her work station. Her headset made her ear sweat, her top made her boobs sweat and Bill’s hamburger-breath settled in her nose. She scrunched in between him and her desk, in a space too small for more than one. Bill’s big ol’ belly took up a lot of room—most of which she needed.
She felt frustrated. She did a job that seemed stupid to her, getting people to work from home selling ‘products,’ to other people who worked from home. Personally, she saw it as a sucker’s bet, but people sure sold it and people sure bought it, and if they could do it, why couldn’t she?
Someone picking up the phone startled her back to reality.
“Hello, Sir,” she said. The Teleminer program on her screen told her this was Edward Befram of Hershey, PA, that he was 35-50, and that he owned his own home. “Is this Edward?”
She girlied up her voice like Bill had shown her. She called him Edward, not Mr. Befram, so he would warm to her. What man didn’t like a call from a girl?
She picked up the caution in his voice—already on to her. Bill raised his eyebrows, prompting her to move forward.
“I called because I heard you were looking for a change in your life?” she asked, making her ‘provocative statement.’ She had made that up on the spot. Bill grinned a wide, wolfish grin. She felt some of the anxiety drain out of her—she was doing ok.
“You heard that, huh?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. Now she caught herself warming to this person, too. “I called because we don’t have a rep in Pennsylvania, and if you’re looking for a change, we’re looking for a rep.”
Bill nodded. The man seemed interested. She flashed through her cards, giving him little bits of information, making him ask for more. In five minutes he had asked her how he could get more information on this, and she set up the program to send him a mail packet while updating his contact. He wanted her to call him—this was a good lead.
She clicked off after her prospect did, and looked at Bill, feeling six feet tall and super-charged.
“See how easy?” he asked her.
She couldn’t help herself—she hugged him. She felt his body go rigid like iron, but it didn’t bother her. She pressed her cheek to his beard and her breast to his chest, and gave him a squeeze.
“Well, um, uh, good job,” he said, when she let him go.
She adored the shyness, the gentle chivalry. A boy her age would have had his hand on her ass or worse—not Bill. He turned his body a little away from hers, not wanting for her to know she had excited him. Of course, she wouldn’t have noticed otherwise—she wasn’t a perv or anything. Now she warmed to him even more.
“Again?” she asked him.
His eyes widened. He thought she was going to hug him again. She found it so funny—he was so cute. Not Brad Pitt cute, but teddy bear cute.
Her teddy bear, at least so far as training went.
* * *
Glynn had always seen dinner at the Uman-Chi high court as a tedious but necessary part of her nobility. Sometimes she longed for the tables of Men and Uman, who fed at the board like pigs at a trough, cramming their faces and belching, then leaving every bit as quickly as they could.
Several hundred nobles attended, dressed in the white of Casters, the blue of Merchants, the red of Warriors and the green of Artisans. Protocols over half a millennium old dictated where they sat, each space defined by their favor in proximity to the King, who entered last, ate first, finished last and left first.
House Escaroth sat sixty-five seats to the right hand, a respectable accomplishment but not spectacular for a High House. The favor of the Escaroths came into question with the death of her father and her brother ten short years before. Her father had sat seven to the left—left-handed not being optimum but seven seats being very respectable.
House Escaroth boasted no males by birth now. This doomed the house unless a member of a high house changed his name.
Today she entered the banquet hall to see the entirely unacceptable Earl Vendan Yelf of the Inner City standing by the Escaroths’ traditional chair. This man’s house had been responsible for the area around the stadium for the Fovean High Council during the Conqueror’s sack of Outpost IX—his earldom had become a shameless failure.
Even if she must be replaced, to be replaced by that!
But one place remained open, on the right, four seats away from the head of the table.
No! Impossible! Four seats?
She walked by the place setting, twirled elegantly, and took a glance at the symbol for the house assigned here.
The Proud Falcon, in the colors of the female. This place had been reserved for her.
Such honor stunned her speechless, even if her face described none of it to her own Uman-Chi people. A Caster remains in control, she reminded herself, even when bone weary.
She took her place behind the seat. The other nobles chatted and danced, taking mincing steps and buzzing about her, her song, her preparations, her house. They floated before her eyes like a dream! Adriam had not simply smiled, he had positively beamed at her.
She spoke to none of them, but held her elegance simple, her chin and her dignity high. To her left at seat five was comfortable Chaheff, her mentor, ignoring her as he swelled with pride at her accomplishment.
Without flourish or preamble, in the nature of her people, his majesty Angron Aurelias entered with the royal train.
His heir, Avek Noir, followed on the right behind him. He would sit one seat to the right. Next came the former heir, Ancenon Aurelias, who would sit one seat to the left. Both wore the white robes of Casters, however like D’gattis, Ancenon’s robe bore a strange hook symbol and a dot, his in purple.
The mark of the Daff Kanaar—mercenaries currently turning Fovea into a war zone.
Other members entered in the train, but they were lost on her. Angron wore the ceremonial Black Cloak of Change, reserved for funerals, weddings and those who changed house, but no one had died or would be marrying.
However Ancenon wore the Proud Falcon on the golden circlet that held back his hair, in the colors of the male.
The next hour passed as a blur. Servants piled food high before them; they picked their favorite portions from their favorite plates. Glynn was voracious; she had extemporized her being several times, and on the last effort Chaheff had spontaneously attacked her, forcing her to throw out his energy into the Bay, making the water boil and the fish die in Adriam.
“She is of a healthy appetite,” Angron commented, having waited politely for her to swallow, that she could easily respond.
“She fills the air with her power,” Ancenon commented before she could, the proximity of his chair making this his prerogative.
Now any other could answer, but did not, and so she did.
“I am honored,” she began, in perfect etiquette, “and am graced,” she added, in response to Ancenon, “and remark that the food is excellent. I have found the training exhilarating and uplifting under Chaheff’s tutelage.”
Angron nodded, and acknowledged her perfect manners.
Angron spoke no more to her during dinner, but from that point on she must consider Ancenon her brother, an Escaroth, and her house saved. Its prestige rose, her prestige rose, her whole life changed with the color of a cloak. Ancenon would address her at a time he deemed appropriate, probably after the meal.
She would sing and, in so doing, she might die. Ancenon’s conversion ensured House Escaroth would live on. This told her much about his opinion of her chances and of her abilities.
A lot to digest with dinner.
* * *
The girls in the ladies room were giggling—well, like girls. Probably why Melissa hated that expression. However, they got quiet when she came in.
That meant she had to do mirror time before she peed. She did the obligatory primp and refresh to her own image, and then reached for a lipstick when she saw she was fading.
“So how’s the archeology going?” one of the girls, Amanda, asked her.
Melissa threw her a dark look. “Digging the fossil, you mean? Grow up.”
“I dunno, Melly,” Trina, one of her girls, said. Trina was a leggy Spanish girl who always had ponytail hair. They shared rent, but she could still be mean if she wanted. “Spending a lot of time with that guy.”
“Yep, sure am,” she said. She put down the lipstick and checked her lips. They were good. She turned back to the three girls.
“He’s nice,” she said, lowering her chin in challenge. “He helps people here, which is pretty cool of him.”
“Well, yeah, seeing as he gets paid for it,” Amanda said.
The third girl, ‘lexis, chimed in, “Doesn’t explain you chasing him out to the smokers’ lot.”
“I’m sorry, ‘lexis,” Melissa squared off on her, faking real concern, “where were your numbers this week?”
“My numbers?” ‘lexis drew herself up to the challenge.
“On the board?” Melissa asked. “You know—the one you can’t make it on to?” She waved her hand. “What am I even wasting my time with you, bitch. They’re gonna can your sorry ass.”
Trina raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Whoa,” she said.
“Really,” Amanda added. “Like, chill out, girl.”
“Like, no, girl,” Melissa squared off on Amanda next. “You’re right after her. What are you, like, one sale for the week? I probably made that while I was in here.”
Trina put her hand on Melissa’s forearm. “Really, girl, what’s with you?”
Melissa turned to her. “Well, these bitches piss me off,” she said. “What do they care if I learn from Bill—are they learning from anyone? Can they even make it here?”
“So, you’re just learning from him,” Amanda backed down. Melissa had a lot of friends here. She went to The Mill three happy hours a week, with and without her girls, and the boys lined up to talk to her. Amanda must have thought to get her props by teasing her and now felt worried she’d find herself on the outside for going too far.
“I am not just learning from him,” Melissa pushed right back in her face, surprising herself with how angry they’d made her. It had occurred to her this would get back to Bill, and then Bill would get shy, start being afraid of her, and she wouldn’t be able to talk to him anymore.
So better to address it now, and let the right word get around.
“He’s my friend,” she said. “I like Bill, and the person who ruins that, I am not going to like—I’m not going to like that person a lot, bitch.”
She stabbed Amanda right in the collar bone with her right index fingernail, literally driving the point home.
“Do the math, ‘manda,” she said, looking right into her eyes.
Trina immediately changed sides, turning her body to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Melissa. Trina could be mean, but not stupid. She had also learned a lot from Bill, and she probably liked how easy paying the rent had become.
“If you were smart, you would be listenin’ girl,” she said. Her Spanish accent usually presented itself when she was angry, and it did now. “Bill puts people on the board. Don’t be messin’ with my meal ticket, ‘neither.”
Melissa gave Amanda a last look, turned and headed for the stalls. She could retreat, after a few grace-saving comments to her friends, with most of her dignity intact.
Which was good, because Melissa felt the tears coming on, and she didn’t need anyone to see it, hear it or be a part of it.
Melissa’s mother had died when she had been a little girl. Her father didn’t know how to raise a daughter, and didn’t have a lot of places to turn.
It galled him to buy pads, or any of the other things girls needed. She had to learn how to put on lipstick from a cosmetics girl at Sears. Her monthly cycle had been a trial and miss nightmare. She had no idea how to date.
In the middle of college her sister got busted and her father pillaged her college fund to pay for her defense. Lysette got five-to-twelve in Warren Correctional Institute and Melissa got to learn how to wait tables.
That’s when she met Mike. He looked so handsome it almost made him beautiful, with a line so smooth she’d been hooked before she knew it. They went from dating to living together to moving to Portland in record time, he pursuing his career and she pursuing him.
Mike had been her first love, which was the only thing they had in common. He cared about himself alone and, when he couldn’t make it in Portland, he bailed with all of their money, and not so much as a good-bye.
She’d had to do some things she wasn’t proud of after that, before she turned her life around and come here. Three years had passed since then, and she still didn’t trust handsome or young men.
When she was pretty sure that the ladies room was empty, she got up and left the stall. Who stood at the counter checking her makeup but Eileen?
“You okay?” she asked.
She took a look in the mirror, her mascara a disaster. She sighed and got out her compact.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“If that’s an allergic reaction to Old Spice,” Eileen told her, touching up her curly hair with her fingernails, “you better stay away from Bill.”
Melissa laughed despite herself, wiping away the streaked mascara.
“I noticed he was wearing it,” she admitted.
“I know you did,” Eileen said. She took a sideways glance at the younger girl, one that Melissa didn’t miss. “He is doing a lot of things different. Eating with people, eating better, I think he lost a few pounds thanks to the salads.”
“Well, you shouldn’t let a man eat the crap he eats,” Melissa said, then caught herself.
She had cared for her dad that way, while she could.
She looked at Eileen, and Eileen focused right on her.
“I’m not going to tell you how to live your life,” Eileen said, which of course meant that was exactly what she wanted to do. “But keep in mind that men get funky as they get old.”
Melissa got her eyeliner right and looked at Eileen. “Funky?”
Eileen nodded, and washed her hands. “Men get a strange idea about what their chances are and who loves them. A man over forty-five is one hundred times worse than a boy under seventeen.”
“Oh,” Melissa said. “You mean crushes and junk?”
Eileen nodded. “Be careful,” she said. “He’s a good guy, and he is scared to death he is going to be made fun of or worse by you kids.”
Melissa knew what she meant. “I just like him for a friend,” Melissa said. Well, it might not be a complete lie.
“Uh, huh,” Eileen said. She dried her hands on a paper towel and tossed it into the receptacle.
“Make sure he knows it,” Eileen warned, and left it at that.
* * *
Ancenon Escaroth had been born Ancenon Evoprosee, of a respected house, where he as third son had a brilliant career ahead of him as a hanger on, had he wanted it.
He had not.
When his older brother Haldan had joined the Casters, and his next older brother the Merchants, Ancenon had taken it on himself to join the priesthood of Adriam, a rare and usually ignominious destiny, as priests did not normally seek more power than that of a god.
In the priesthood Ancenon had come to the Ultimate Truth, and then combined the power of a Caster with his existing teachings to make himself a rarity among a rare people, the only priest and Caster among them.
From there, he’d been adopted by the King himself and married to the King’s daughter, taking on the name Aurelias and enjoying the title of Heir for more than 100 years.
Then had come the Conqueror, and the Daff Kanaar, and a fall from favor that cost him his title of Heir, his prestige among his people and the favor of his own wife, who in his absence laid shamelessly with their Uman servants. It had been a matter of time before another, with an infusion of gold which Ancenon knew well had come from Outpost V’s hidden treasury, had replaced him, and Ancenon had become an Aurelias in name only.
Today Ancenon lost that name, and became an ‘Escaroth,’ the sole male of a dying house responsible, at least, for a portion of the city wall. His new ‘Proud Falcon’ could be seen from Outpost IX’s southern towers.
Contagious in the Conqueror’s weird sense of humor, he allowed himself a smile as he contemplated flying the purple hook of the Daff Kanaar beneath it. Walking beside him through the stone halls of Outpost IX, to those southern towers, his new sister took note.
She raised her left hand and turned her wrist out in the form of the Inquisitive Relative, and said, “You are in good spirit, Lord Brother.”
He nodded and, still walking, put his knuckles to his hips and informed her, “I was considering my house.”
For every condition, etiquette defined over centuries by the Uman-Chi, shared only among themselves, differentiating them from lesser races, lesser species, persons to whom form was barely more than excusing their own farts in public.
“Are you familiar with our proud history, brother?” Glynn asked him, placing her left hand in her right palm at her waist before her, in the position of the Eager Teacher, Supplicating.
He nodded. He’d studied their scrolls. “My concern for you, sister, is more for your future than your past.”
She smiled, and returned her hands to her side. “My song?” she asked him.
“I regret I cannot hear you sing it,” he said, “however my cousin, D’gattis, will attend in my stead, as I am unavoidably detained.”
Glynn extruded her lower lip for just a moment—an actual younger sister deprived of an older brother’s approval. He extended her his elbow, to walk beside him as Equal Companion, all he could offer her at this time.
Because of my ambition, your father and your brother were killed, he thought to himself, walking beside her. Both were friends of mine. In penance for that ambition, I take their names now, and extend their house’s life.
She took his arm, this young girl, so promising, so full of Life among the Uman-Chi. Every one among them knew Glynn, the youngest of the Casters. Her father, of the Caste of Warriors, had been so proud to claim her and her extraordinary abilities.
Some among them thought her the answer to the Conqueror’s wife, Shela Mordetur. Ancenon knew better. He’d never seen Power represented so clearly in another. Shela wielded a magic Uman-Chi had no answer for. Power where their grace could be overwhelmed completely by her raw might.
Ancenon’s ambition had cost him much, and rewarded him much more. Angron ruled Trenbon but, with his companions beside him, Ancenon could actually buy it out from under him, or take it by force. Ancenon had incurred great debts along his path, and the lives of the Escaroths were high among them.
He would do a lot of things to repay that debt, however watching Glynn Escaroth die was not one of them.
* * *
By the end of week two as Trainer: Bill Howard, the other employees just assumed they could go anywhere with him, ask him for advice on any topic, and that he would answer any personal question about his past life, having kids, why guys were horny jerks or how to close a sale, including what it was okay to say.
Melissa praised his wisdom, kept him at arm’s reach at all times and kept the number in their new-formed clique increasing. The answer to any question became either, “Bill said,” or “You should ask Bill.” Of course there followed a steady stream of advice on his clothes, his hairstyle and his beard, which his new friends alternately hated or needed to manicure in a different way. When Melissa found out he bought his trousers at Target, Bill thought for a moment she would cry.
He impressed himself by wearing cologne for the first time in five years. By that second Saturday, however, he’d been properly groomed, manicured and styled, and left no question in anyone’s mind that he had graduated from trainer to ‘pet,’ mostly Melissa’s.