Saturday, September 26th [Second day of the Festival of Nations], a few minutes before noon
Our booth on the green
Hull arrived a little early for his meet-and-greet at our booth and had given it a look over. He didn’t look especially enthusiastic, but his words were kind enough. “I think this turned out well, given the rush we were in. I looked around before I got here, and we will have to up our game next year! I can get some designers involved and we should be able to have a very professional-looking booth next year.”
“Uh, I’m going to be back in New York next year,” I said.
“Yes, I know that’s your plan, Mark. I wouldn’t be at all unhappy if you end up changing your mind. You are a real asset to have here.”
“Thanks, I think,” I said, shaking my head. I decided to change the subject. “What’s with the big pile of college brochures you brought?”
“One of my goals here is to increase understanding and trade between our world and theirs… well, for now, between the US and Feldaren. Having you and Joel here is a great start, but it’s much easier for college students to study abroad than it is for kids your age study abroad. Students who come for college and then return home bring ties to the US and to American values with them. Or they stay in the US, and we’ve got one more well-educated future citizen. Either way, it works out well.”
Joel had been handling the trickle of candy and souvenir sales while we talked, and chimed in to ask, “How would that work when the US government doesn’t even officially admit the Gate exists?”
“The way things are right now, it would only work unofficially and at a very small scale. I have a hunch that’s going to change at some point, and there’s a good chance that point sooner rather than later.”
“How do you mean?” asked Joel.
“I’m mostly reading hints from my superiors, so I can’t be more specific. It’s also a Presidential election year, so things could be very different come January.”
“Why would a new administration make a difference?” asked Joel.
Hull just shrugged.
“I haven’t thought about the election coming up since I got here,” I said, “but I just realized we won’t hear who won for almost a week afterwards.”
“Probably,” said Hull, “I’ll mention the election when I’m next in touch about the gate, just in case the Brotherhood wants to take the opportunity to keep up to date.”
“You really think they might open out of cycle for that?”
Hull gave a big grin and said, “I think they’re more interested in our side of the gate than they’ll admit publicly. That’s all I can say right now.”
I thought about asking what he meant, but before I could, the booth got busier. Unlike students, who mostly took our booth with enthusiasm for the candy and otherwise in stride, the adults had a lot more questions. Fortunately, Hull was there with us, and instead of having to give the visitors a capsule of how we got here, I could pass them on to him.
We did solid business as the lunch hour was approaching, and at noon we started hearing a PA system from the stage. There was a speaker welcoming everyone to the festival, and then they introduced a series of clubs’ presentations. Our booth was around a corner and facing away from the stage, but we were near enough to hear them clearly. Traditional dance from the Great Kingdom didn’t interest me, but the music was pleasant enough.
“I’m hungry,” said Joel.
“You want me to put a hot dog on the grill for you?” I asked.
“Nah, thanks though. I want to try something new today.”
“One of the booths over by the entrance had meat skewers.”
I nodded my head. “Nice, that sounds good.”
“If you two want to get some food, I can watch the booth for you,” said Hull.
We weren’t sure if it was OK to have an adult running the booth, but we didn’t expect to take long and some kebabs sounded very good.
The booth was at the corner almost opposite ours, at the corner of the green nearest the administration buildings. When we got there, it clearly wasn’t kebabs, but it turned out to be more interesting. Even from a distance walking up we could see their grill was large, with a vertical rack over it, and the skewers were as long as swords. Each carried a couple of big cuts of meat, which they would take thick slices off of as people ordered. One of the meats they were serving was clearly beef. The other two were lighter-colored and looked different enough from one another that I didn’t think they could both be pork.
As we approached, we saw that the booth belonged to a third-year homeroom – 3-K and was “Barbecue meat in the style of Teupla.” My sense of geography in this world wasn’t great for countries that hadn’t been part of one of the big wars of the last century; all I could remember was that it was a country in Toyeri, well east of the Great Kingdom.
There was a short line, and when we got to the head of it, the menu was short – the three kinds of meat were beef, pork, and lesser drake – and you could get whatever combination you wanted on a plate. I tried all three; Joel skipped the lesser drake. There was another booth nearby selling drinks, and with some of the local Wiz-brand cola we settled on an open spot on the green to eat.
“How’s the dragon meat?” asked Joel.
“I think I’m supposed to say, ‘it tastes like chicken.’”
“No, actually. It’s not bad, kind of like the sibbat they had at lunch a while ago, but stronger flavored. You want to try a piece?”
“Thanks, I’m good.”
I shrugged. One of the music-and-dance groups finished while we were eating, and the same person we’d been hearing between groups came over the PA and said, “Next up, we have the Troupers, with a preview of their Fall performance.”
“Hey, that’s Gwen’s group,” I told Joel.
A group of girls came up on stage wearing identical dresses in the same blue and grey color pattern of our uniform, and as they walked towards center stage, Gwen stepped out from the group and then started opening a letter. Over the PA, a boy’s voice came on to narrate: “A young woman caught in a world of duty and expectation, Isabella’s life is turned upside down.”
Looking down at the letter, Gwen – in character as Isabella – said, “I will never accept this,” and crumpled the letter. She threw it to the ground. One of the other girls, a blonde, stepped towards her and reached out as if to ask, “are you OK?” and then Gwen shrugged and the group hurrying off the other side of side of the stage.
They exited and two actors came on; both were dressed in what looked like old fashioned military uniforms, much like Dormer’s masterpiece theater outfits although in darker colors rather than his bright red. One of the two was a bit taller, and his uniform more ornate. As they reached center stage, the same voice came on to narrate: “She’ll face danger at every turn.”
The shorter one stopped, picked up the crumpled paper, and handed it to the taller one, who in turn went on to say, “Is that how it is, Princess? There is nothing you can cherish that I cannot take away,” and they marched back off the stage the way they came.
The narrator continued: “She’ll find unexpected allies, as she fights for her freedom and her family.”
Gwen, the blonde actress, and a boy wearing a school uniform not matching our colors came back on stage, as if he were leading them away from something. Two actors dressed as thugs followed them, and when the first group reached center stage, the boy turned to fight them. “Run, both of you!” he shouted, as he faced down the two thugs. Both girls hurried off stage to one side, while the boy and the thugs fought their way off the other.
A few moments later, Gwen, no longer wearing the uniform dress but instead a loose blouse and pants, pulled the boy – doing a less-than-great job of playing unconscious – onto center stage from the back, and then knelt by him sobbing quietly. The taller of the two men in uniform from earlier approached from the side of the stage, and Gwen on seeing him pulled a sword from the boy’s side and stood up.
The man in uniform drew a sword, as well, and as the two approached each other, the narrator came back on the PA, and said, “The Troupers present their performance of ‘The Lost Princess.’ Come see the classic tale of love and sacrifice, playing October 28th through November 1st” and then in a much more casual tone, “For you first-years out there, that’s the week after midterms.” The boy who had been playing unconscious stood up, and all three of the folks on stage bowed and left the stage.
The regular announcer came back on and introduced some folks from the orchestral music club, who started in on a pleasant, fast-paced piece of music.
“Do you miss being in band?” I asked Joel.
He didn’t respond, and I finished up the last of my plate of food. When I finished, he was still just sitting there lost in thought. I asked him, “You OK, Joel?”
“Eh, actually I’m a little creeped out,” he said. “I think that might have been about my mom.”
“They changed her name and never mentioned where she was from… but I’ll bet she disappears in the end, and that what she’ll ‘never accept’ is a forced marriage.”
“Was that last part public knowledge?”
Joel shrugged. “I didn’t think so, but I don’t have much to go on.”
“If it is about your mom, that’s a pretty weird coincidence.”
“I hope it is a coincidence. I’m going to ask Dormer if he knows about the play,” said Joel. “Even if it is a coincidence, the last thing we need is people making a random connection between it and a certain transfer student.”
“I hear you. If he doesn’t know anything, maybe I can ask Gwen about it after our next practice?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” he said.
We took care of our trash and then headed back to the booth.