Stepney came back for Rob, just to make sure he'd go.
"I look like a sodding smurph!" He wailed.
"I don't know what that is." Stepney straightened Rob's tunic at the front. "You look very smart."
"Do I soddery." Rob sulked. "I must be on some really hefty dope out there if it's stronger than my not wanting to wear tights and a frock."
"Oh stop bitching. Lady Julia is looking forward to meeting you." Stepney pushed Rob through the door and Cripps closed it.
"Does she know the story from my point of view?" Rob asked carefully. "I'm just asking so I don't get on her nerves, that's all. I don't want to offend anyone."
"She knows the basics, yes. You have to understand how difficult this is for people to understand. I have a bit more insight and understanding because of my direct connection to Dinsen the Wise."
"So just think how I feel." Rob tugged his tights out of his backside. "I can't do this, Stepney. I don't know what to do."
"Use the cutlery and not just your face." Stepney opened the double doors to the hall and Rob froze in utter terror. There were around a dozen people seated at the long table and they all looked very grand indeed. The lady at the top of the table was obviously Lady Julia and she oozed elegance. She was slim and fair skinned with greying hair that was once very clearly auburn. He was also feeling rather hysterical when he saw the huge frame of Fenton Lions sitting at his mother's right hand. Six guards stood against the wall, McLintock included and the guard next to him also wore the Lions Crest on his leather tunic. This must be Eamon Grey, Fenton's personal guard. "Will you get in there!" Stepney rasped, digging Rob in the back.
"No! No Stepney I can't! Look at them ... aagh!" He shot forward and clutched his backside. "Was that you? What was that?" He glared at Stepney.
"Just a static bolt, you big fairy. Get in!" Stepney hissed. Rob minced along next to Stepney and sat on a vacant chair next to Lady Julia. Julia looked at him in surprise and Stepney was just about to get the static going again. Rob looked at Stepney, then at the empty chair on the other side of him.
"Pardon me." He coughed and sidled over to his own chair, Stepney took her seat at her mother's left side.
"Yes. Are you comfortable?" Lady Julia asked, getting to her feet.
"Yes, thank you ma'am." Rob mumbled.
"Good." She turned to address the guests. "Welcome, Noble families of Lawlim. I'm sure you're all aware by now of our guest, Master Rob Lancaster. It's true, we don't know of his purpose as yet, but we do know he's here by divine instruction from Dinsen the Wise herself. My daughter, Stepney, is working devotedly, as she always does, to carry out Dinsen's wishes. We must trust her completely and believe that Rob's purpose will be shown to us, via her, when Dinsen sees fit to impart that purpose. Please extend your hospitality to Rob in the way you'd expect hospitality to be extended to you. Eat well and have faith."
"Eat well and have faith." The diners reciprocated. Servants appeared from nowhere to serve dinner.
"How do I thank Lady Julia for the speech?" Rob whispered to Stepney.
"You don't. It isn't necessary, Rob." Stepney smiled at him. He was clearly very uncomfortable with all this and she really could understand his confusion. He was as confused with Stepney's explanations as she was with his.
"You sure? That was very decent of her." Rob leant to the side when a young woman came to put a huge slab of meat on Stepney's plate.
"I'll tell her you appreciate her words if you like."
"Yes, do that. Don't forget." Rob dodged to the other side and knocked the cutlery out of the serving girl's hand. "Sod!" He looked at the slab of meat, plus gravy as it slithered over the contents of the fruit bowl and plopped onto the tablecloth. "I'll get that pet." He told the serving girl and stood up to retrieve the slice with his own fork. Stepney's sides were aching with pent up laughter as she nudged him in the ribs and shook her head. "Huh? Do I just leave it?"
"Yes." Stepney squeaked. "Cheryl will give you another slice."
"Oh OK, if you're sure." Rob sat back down. "Sorry Cheryl. I've messed up the apples too."
"Rob, bugger the apples. Eat your dinner." Stepney still couldn't stop laughing.
"This is pathetic!" Fenton snapped suddenly. "You really need to grow up, Stepney. Will you excuse me please, mother?"
"Fenton, finish your meal, please." Julia said quietly.
"How can I enjoy my meal with such buffoonery going on?" Fenton glared horribly at Rob who was busy tucking into his roast pork.
"It was an accident, Fenton." Stepney spoke up.
"Me?" Rob glanced up from his plate. "Yes I'm sorry about that. I didn't see ..."
"Why you thought inviting him was a good idea, I do not know." Fenton snorted.
"I didn't. Dinsen did. He has apologised, Fenton, even though he didn't really have to." Stepney glared right back at her brother.
"Stepney it's fine." Rob tried to get her attention.
"Didn't have to? He shouldn't be here at this table, Stepney! That's not just my opinion and you know it isn't!" Fenton snapped.
"Oh that's right! You asked the advice of your councillor! Fenton, Hersh Rigman is a bigger bigot that you are. Rigman's advice doesn't mean much to me and I requested Rob's presence because he's a tool of Dinsen the Wise! You want an argument? Go have one with her." Stepney really hated Fenton when he was like this and he was always like this after listening to Councillor Rigman.
"You always play the Dinsen card, Stepney. Either ask him to leave, or I will." Fenton got to his feet and so did Stepney. She only came up to his chest.
"If I do play the Dinsen card it's because I have the blessing to do so. Leave him alone, Fenton." Stepney certainly wasn't backing down. Rob eventually unfroze from his shock and was just about to intervene when Lady Julia stood up between her two offspring. She was even shorter than Stepney but she still seemed to fill the room.
"Sit down!" She ordered and both siblings did so immediately. "You are both an embarrassment to me and to the House of Lions. I beg forgiveness from our guests on both your behalves. Stepney, you are the high priestess of Dinsen the Wise and you should be above petty squabbles with your brother, especially in public. Do you understand?"
"Yes ma'am." Stepney said quietly.
"Fenton, if I thought Rob was unfit to sit at our table, he wouldn't be here. Save your opinions to those who care to hear them. Is that clear?"
"Clear as day. Excuse me please." Fenton didn't even wait for a reply, he barged from the room. Eamon glanced at Lady Julia who nodded her agreement for him to follow her son.
"Please, everyone, continue your meal." Julia resumed her seat.
"Shit Stepney I'm so sorry." Rob whispered. "I should have stayed upstairs. I'll apologise to your mother too whether you think it's necessary or not."
"It isn't your fault, Rob. Fenton and I shouldn't be fighting in front of guests and certainly not at my mother's dinner table. I could kick his fat arse all over Lawlim at times."
"Well I didn't mean to aggravate him. Who's this Rigman bloke?" Here was another one that wasn't Rob's creation.
"Hersh Rigman. He's Fenton's senior advisor and councillor. He's a pedigree Lawlim from about six generations and he's a trouble maker. McLintock can't abide the man and Eamon's not too keen on him either and he's Lawlim. He used to go out into the woodlands purposely to torment the humans out there. McLintock witnessed it himself. Infuriating things like taking all the buckets from the villages so they couldn't use their wells and collecting all the eggs that their fowl had laid then throwing them from the cliffs. Just nasty vicious things by a nasty vicious man. Little shit." Stepney snapped.
"Hell stop swearing. I'm in enough trouble." Rob smiled at Lady Julia who thankfully smiled back. "So why does Fenton listen to him?"
"Because he's a big numb bugger." Stepney said flatly and Rob sniggered. "Fenton is a brilliant man, Rob. He's intelligent and he's a strategic genius, as well as a natural and charismatic leader. When it comes to judging peoples' characters, he's as thick as a gruel sandwich. He thinks that to be popular among our people, he must behave like a complete arse. He thinks that's what our people want because the likes of Rigman tell him that's what our people want."
"I know a few people like that." Rob nodded. "Clever as all hell but no common sense whatsoever. The bloke in the same flats as me, Wayne, has a university degree but he thinks everyone will like him more if he rolls around with the scum-bags being one of the lads. Actually, I'm a bit like that too." Rob sighed sadly at the realisation. "Oh I'm not brilliant at anything and I'm not outstandingly clever but I do join in with the idiots just in case that's the only Rob folk will like."
"How do you know if no one's seen the real Rob? They might like that one better. I do." Stepney smiled.
"You have no choice, remember?" Rob grinned and tapped his temple.
"Ah yes. We all belong to you. I forgot." Stepney laughed. "So do something with Fenton, will you? According to you, you changed my bust size from a triple E to a C so change his attitude from cack-for-brains to my-sister-is-in-charge."
"Stepney?" Lady Julia got her daughter's attention. "The guests are starting to retire. Excuse us please, Rob."
"Yes of course." Rob got to his feet as Stepney and her mother went to stand by the door to wish the departing guests a goodnight. He spied McLintock and edged his way over to him.
"That could have gone better." McLintock observed.
"Tell me about it." Rob grimaced and extracted his leggings from his backside again. "I swear I apologised a million times, McLintock. That meat business was a total accident. I feel a total arsehole now."
"No need. Actually it was the girl's fault. She was serving from behind rather than from the side." McLintock nodded.
"These naffing leggings are serving from behind." Rob grumbled and had another tug and his legware. "Lady Julia was a bit embarrassed though."
"Lady Julia is an excellent politician. Not much embarrasses her for long." McLintock nodded to where Lady Julia was chatting and laughing with her guests as if nothing had happened.
"I don't think I'm at the top of Fenton's friend list."
"Me either." McLintock laughed. "Wrong species."
"Stepney seems to think that his advisor influences him too much." Rob commented. He felt a strong compulsion to find out about these Lawlims and humans that he knew nothing about. Maybe then he'd regain some control over his life.
"Hersh Rigman. He's not the exclusively good influence that Fenton thinks he is, no. Having said that, Fenton's an adult man and Rigman can't order him to do anything. Fenton is from the Noble House of Lions, and that's slightly higher in the pecking order than Rigman's family House."
"I didn't know all that." Rob was starting to feel a depressing sort of resignation.
"Why would you? You've only been here five minutes." McLintock shrugged his shoulders. "Do you still think we don't exist?"
"I have no bloody idea." Rob said wearily. "All I can do is go along with everything. If I go around spouting off about inventing you all, I'll end up on a raft headed for the barrier. If I'd ran around at home ranting on about realms and magic I'd be locked up. I don't know which realm is real, McLintock. Not any more."
"Why can't they both be real?" McLintock looked puzzled.
"Well ... er ... actually I don't know." Rob laughed. "So you find it perfectly normal that a goddess from this realm has been revealing bits of it to me without me knowing? That would be the only way I'd know what I know about the place, such as your names."
"I wouldn't say normal exactly. Dinsen is a divine being after all. I accept that we aren't meant to know every reason for her actions and decisions. She isn't answerable to us. Do you not have a deity on your realm?" McLintock asked.
"Just one and he's a male one. Not everyone is so unconditionally devoted though. Here in Sheltion, and more so in Lawlim, you have magic given by Dinsen. You see it every day and it's nothing extraordinary for people to be able to do magic. That's undeniable proof that your deity exists, in whatever form. We have none of that. We have humans and that's it. We have no magic, no miracles, no divine intervention. We see a disaster ever day where thousands are killed. We see wars involving whole nations with ten times the number of Lawlims on the west coast. Dinsen rescued her people ten years ago and she's been doing it ever since with that barrier. No one rescues those people on my world. No wonder they've lost their faith." Rob leant against the wall and wondered where all that had come from. He'd never had an opinion on religion in his life.
"That's tragic, Rob. I don't understand why you'd cling to the reality of such a world. This one isn't perfect, but we have our focus and our reason yet you insist that yours exists and this one doesn't. I mean no disrespect, I just don't understand." McLintock said.
"Me either. I'd be surprised if either of us could understand this. You're alot like me, McLintock." Rob smiled at his Sheltion counterpart.
"Odd you should say that. Eamon Grey commented on that too. Can't see it myself." McLintock sniffed. "Lady Julia. Lady Stepney." He nodded politely at the approach of the two women.
"Master McLintock." Lady Julia nodded in return. "Rob I hope this ... performance ... hasn't given you a bad impression of us." She gave Stepney an icy look and Rob shuddered. This lady was very much in charge here.
"No of course not, Lady Julia. I feel responsible for causing a fuss." Rob said awkwardly.
"You didn't. Did he Stepney?" Another withering look at Stepney.
"I told him that! Rob I said it wasn't your ... yes OK. No he didn't, mother." Stepney grimaced.
"Don't worry, I'll speak to Fenton too." Lady Julia smiled at Stepney. "My main concern is that Rob doesn't think we're a bunch of savages."
"I don't think that at all. Lady Julia? I feel a bit of a let down really. You've been so good with me here and I feel a bit ... useless. I don't know what I'm supposed to do." Rob said in dejection.
"Nor does anyone else." Lady Julia shrugged. "Does that upset you?"
"Not upset as such. I just feel like everyone's depending on me and I haven't a clue why." Rob tried to explain.
"Mother I did try to explain. Rob's realm is ordered by its people, not by the goddess." Stepney said quietly. "Waiting for the instruction of a deity isn't something he's ever known. He's not upset, just bewildered."
"You can say that again." Rob agreed. "She's right, Lady Julia. McLintock and me were talking about something similar just now. I'll just wait it out and see what happens."
"As we all do." Lady Julia said. "McLintock, would you please go and extract my son from wherever he is and extend my invitation for a drink? Thank you. Good night Rob. Trust Stepney at least." She exited the room like a breeze.
"I'll go and summon Fenton from the Sea and Cloud." McLintock said ruefully. Good night to you both." He also made his exit.
"You're mum gave you a dogging then?" Rob sauntered towards the other door with Stepney.
"You bet she did." Stepney said ruefully. "There again, I asked for it and Fenton asked for what's coming to him. I can't believe I let him provoke me like that."
"Thanks for sticking up for me." Rob held the door open for Stepney. "If the lads heard me saying that to a little squirt like you I'd never ever live it down."
"So I'd have to sort them out too." Stepney sniffed. "Cripps is staying with you so just ask him for anything you need."
"I will, yes." Rob opened the door to his room. "Stepney? You're all right, you are."
"Oh I'm better than all right. Sleep well." Stepney set off back along the landing.
Cripps had a bedroll made up by the fire and was sitting on it reading when Rob walked in.
"You're staying in here?" Rob said in surprise.
"Of course." Cripps put down his book. "Can I get you anything before you retire?"
"No I'll be fine." Rob replied. "Oh no." He help up a billowing nightshirt with a V neck and long sleeves. "I'm not wearing a bloody nightie! I'll sleep in my boxers."
"I gave all your other clothes to the maid to be cleaned properly. Boxers?" Cripps asked.
"Never mind. So I've no undies? Great. I'll sleep in the buff. Er ... maybe not." He changed his mind when he remembered he was sharing his room with a fifteen year old boy. He ended up under the counterpane, wriggling down the bed while his nightie ruched up under his armpits. "How do girls sleep in these things? You OK down there Cripps. I feel a bit bad about you sleeping on the floor. Are you warm enough? This bed has a hundred blankets on it."
"Thank you sir, but I'm just fine down here. I'm not old enough to entertain you in that way but I could have a word with McLintock." Cripps got himself comfortable on his bedroll and Rob squeaked in alarm.
"No! I meant, do you need one of these blankets! Ack! Oh and do not have a word with McLintock, absolutely and definitely not. I'll shut up, I think. See you tomorrow Cripps." Rob gave a final cringe and pulled his nightie so it covered his chest at least.