Teenage girls emerged from the hidden kitchen, and Quentin stared at them. Gowns were bright and light in weight, quick to catch the florescent lighting, throwing photons back at the lustful world. Lovely and delicate, their sole purpose was to run up the aisles to the front, passing behind his back and on the other side of his table. Quentin felt shame for staring, but every other man was more obvious than him. Stopping short of the altar, the girls produced little notebooks and pencils, bending low to ask each leering man what meat he desired. Answers were supplied, along with jokes and a few uninvited touches. Then the girls tore off the pages, folded them into pointed roofs, and set the instruction on the feasters’ empty plates.
At a distance, these were busy intense happy girls who gracefully avoided the worst of the grabs. But by the time they reached Quentin they had become too young for catcalls, and everybody was weary of the game.
Quentin's waitress was buxom and red-faced, what with blush and blood. Her voice was robotic, listing his choices even after he had plainly told her, “Lamb.”
“What was that?” she asked.
Her writing was angry and illegible, and Quentin’s roof was crooked.
The men on his right seemed to know each other and acted as if they knew her. She repeated the menu and wrote and then moved on, and then the fellow on Quentin’s left spoke with an utterly unfamiliar accent.
Quentin looked at him.
The stranger repeated one word, smiling.
“Pardon?” asked Quentin.
His companion was the blackest man in the world, short and slightly built, and with the patience of a natural teacher, he once again tried to explain what he had told Quentin twice already. “Djinns,” he said. “The girls are.”
“Oh, but not really. They are just pretending to be.” And with that, he broke into a long laugh that didn’t end until he noticed Quentin’s persistent confusion.
“They’re visiting spirits.” The little black man leaned close. “Enticements. Lures. As soon as they collect the men’s desires, they will go to the women’s tables, proving that their husbands have escaped the djinns’ clutches.”
“Levi,” said the little man, offering his hand.
Quentin took it and tried to shake it properly, offering his first name.
Levi nodded, pointing at a woman’s table. “She and you?”
He might have been pointing at Farah. So Quentin nodded, asking, “Who did you come with?”
His new friend didn’t seem to hear. Staring at Farah, he shook his head absently, one hand fiddling with the note before him.
A new group of women emerged from the kitchen, pushing squeaky carts loaded with covered steel bowls of what Quentin presumed to be food. They were not djinns. In their fifties and sixties, they looked like fat happy cooks. But the lack of beauty didn’t stop the men on his right from shouting their approval in Farsi.
Quentin looked at Levi.
Sweet as can be, Levi smiled. But not at Quentin. The smile was meant for the man sitting opposite him, and still smiling, Levi said a few deeply unfamiliar words.
The other man was Bengali or Malay. Or he was something else entirely.
Quentin looked at Levi. “Where did you come from?”
“Illiniwek,” he said, pointing east to the neighboring province.
“Not today. I mean from before.”
“I’m Frankish,” Levi said, and then winked. “Why? Do I not look Frankish?”
Quentin laughed before offering his guess. “You came from Great Sahul.”
That earned respectful silence.
What Quentin wanted, suddenly and ferociously wanted, was to ask his new friend about that dry little continent with its deserts and hopping opossums, and the history full of little wars between stunted colonies and the poor Flint-Age Natives. Levi was an object of utter fascination.
Yet before the interrogation could begin, Levi offered his own weighty question. “Why aren’t you in the army?”
Quentin didn’t have time to answer.
“You are a smart man, yes?” Levi was a smart man, judging by the twinkling eyes and the clarity of his voice.
A vague nod seemed easiest.
“Your government wants your mind more than it wants your trigger finger.”
Quentin didn’t say, “Yes.” But he didn’t dissuade him either.
Leaning close, Levi whispered, “I hear rumors about you.”
“You work in special projects. Thought problems of considerable importance.”
“What have you heard?”
“Inquiries into the future,” was how Levi described a stranger’s life. “A professional seer, you are.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Quentin said.
But before they could speak again, clearing up misconceptions, a woman with a missing ring finger started spooning brown lamb and boiled vegetables onto Quentin’s plate, her tobacco-infused voice telling him, “Eat. Eat, eat. Eat!”