“The Preparation is quite informal, just a little chat really,” the man, whose name was Lucien, told her.
“We don’t interview you. We take you to the door and leave you to the Two Appointed,” Poobalarayar added.
“Nothing to worry about – it’s just to weed out anyone totally unsuitable, anyone telling lies about themselves or anyone with ill intentions,” Lucien explained. That didn’t reassure Naishadha at all. She was indeed going to tell lies about herself and in their terms, she certainly did have ill intentions. Suddenly, despite what she’d said to Francis and to herself, she was scared. What if one of the Two Appointed turned out to be someone she’d interviewed for the “Herald”? If she was found out, what would they do to her?
She’d been conducted to an ordinary-looking house in a suburb of Port Herbert. Somehow although in decent condition, it didn’t really have a lived-in look. The small front garden had a neat, official appearance lacking in personal touches. One empty vase sat inside a window. She’d expected her two Proposers to leave her at the front door, but they took her inside and led her down a short corridor, through a lifeless living-room to an anonymous white door.
“We wait in the ante-room,” said Lucien. “Here is the door to enlightenment.” She wondered if she was meant to knock. Naishadha would not – but probably Charles would. She knocked. There was no reply. After a moment’s hesitation, she opened the door. The light was dim, the room apparently almost bare. Two men sat facing her at a table and on her side of the table was one more chair.
“Good – welcome,” said one man. “You’ve passed the first test.” He was a fat indigenous Malisun, by the look of him, and she had never seen him before. The other one was Derek Withers.
Do not panic. Fight. She half nodded to him and looked straight at the fat man.
“Sit down, please,” he said. “You are Charles Grimaldi?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You wish to be a Brother, I understand?”
“I do.” The fat man asked a few questions which would have been difficult if she hadn’t been meticulous in preparing her cover story, greatly helped by Francis Guillory.
“You look more than a bit like one of my…like someone I know at work,” said Derek Withers.
“Really? Where do you work?” she responded; but he was clearly not meant to reveal that. He struggled to find another way of asking what he wanted to ask. She waited politely, scared stiff inside but outwardly calm.
“You look a lot like a male version of someone called Naishadha Saini,” he managed. In his eyes she read uncertainty. It could tip either way.
“Oh yes,” she replied, “she’s my first cousin. Conceited girl – she’s a junior reporter on the Port Herbert Catholic Herald and thinks that makes her a genius. We do look a bit alike. I dressed up as her once when I was seventeen but it didn’t fool anyone and she was furious when she heard.”
“That sound like her all right – conceited, for sure,” he commented. Naishadha disciplined herself to show no sign of relief.
The questions continued, moving from personal details to reasons for joining the Brotherhood. It was surely going well.
“Well, Applicant – please go back and wait with your Proposers,” the fat man finally said. “We’ll convey the news as soon as we’ve reached a decision.” Naishadha thought it would be infuriating to put all this work into this elaborate deception and to succeed in deceiving, only to be rejected for some silly reason. The two Proposers smiled at her but said nothing. Remembering she was a reporter, she timed the wait. It was seven minutes, twenty-two seconds.
Derek Withers stuck his head round the door.
“Congratulations, Applicant. We judge you suitable. Your Proposers will prepare you and you will be summoned in the fullness of time to be initiated,” he intoned. She guessed he was not practised in the words and had learnt them by heart. Lucien clapped her on the shoulder.
“This little booklet tells you some of the basic facts you need to be a Brother,” Lucien told her as they sipped green tea in a private room at a fashionable cafe. “Guard it with your life: the penalty for losing it or passing it to a non-Brother is death. It’s not often carried out, of course, and a simple case of leaving it on a bus would probably attract a lesser punishment. Most of the information is quite routine: I advise you to study it, but no-one will expect you to know it off by heart. Basically, the Brotherhood is organised into five Lodges – Port Herbert Lafayette, Port Herbert Royal George, Inalun-ogok, Fort Louis and Fort Biggs. We use the old names – Fort Biggs and not Behigges. Over all is a Council of Five Wise Spirits – one from each Lodge – and a Grand Infernal Master, who’s one of the Wise Spirits. You’ll be summoned, by means not to be revealed, to one of the Lodges for initiation, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion. There are the Noble and Ancient Rituals, mind you, which you have to undergo. I’m forbidden to give you any indication of their nature, but there’s nothing to worry about. We’ve only had one death of a genuine initiate in the last hundred years and he had a heart condition. Fancy a glass of wine?
“Excellent!” said Francis Guillory not long after. “We’ll have the biggest exposee in the history of the “Herald”!
The summons came nine days later in the form of a note inserted in her line-caught tuna bread roll. It was a bit wet, but she could decipher the instructions – a time and a place, the Pontius Vaarararnavaar statue, and a coded exchange. It was just getting dark when she reached the place and hanging around got her propositioned by a prostitute. Then a dark figure approached. It wore a raincoat and a wide-brimmed hat, so was ridiculously conspicuous in Malisu, even at night.
“The lion has lain down with the lamb,” the figure intoned.
“But only the lion has risen,” she replied.
“Come,” said the figure. The next thing was rather a let-down – an elderly Toyota. She got in. A second obscure figure blindfolded her. This was no surprise, but she couldn’t help experiencing it as threatening. She also thought it was slightly ridiculous, a matter of boys and toys. After all, they were presumably taking her to one of the Lodges, whose location was no secret, and after initiation, a Brother would go to the Lodge with eyes open.
The drive was quite long, but in all likelihood, they’d driven round and round.
“Time to get out,” said one of the figures. She was guided, still blindfolded, up even steps and heard a big door creak open. A second, smaller door was opened, she was guided forward and stopped and her blindfold removed.
She stood in a wide, tall room lit unevenly by lanterns and candles. Many bareheaded men stood in rows on either side of a wide aisle. She was in the middle of the aisle, flanked by men she recognised as her two Proposers. They were not the men who had taken her here.
A long way in front of her was a raised stage or dais with narrow, steep steps somewhat to the left. In the middle was a throne which glinted gold. To the right was something like an altar, intricately decorated. To the left – oh, God – was a guillotine. On the throne sat a tall, masked figure in a dark robe.
“Approach!” said a deep voice. She walked forward, trembling a little, to the foot of the stage. A figure had appeared to the left clad in a golden robe: she recognised Derek Withers.
“Climb the steps, Applicant, and present yourself to the Grand Master!” he ordered. She climbed the steps, aware that the effort necessary for each steep step might reveal her femininity even in those baggy trousers. She looked away from the guillotine and marched right till she was looking straight at the Grand Master.
“You come as a man?” he asked. She just managed to stop herself lying and saying she was a man.
“No, Grand Master, I come as nothing.”
“Do you abandon all loyalties and all law to serve the Brotherhood?”
“I do.” This was going exactly to plan, she thought. There were a few more easy responses to make and then the Grand Master launched into a bit of a speech. He had a cultured voice, she thought. She’d guess he was a man of high status and used to commanding. He was going on now about how the Meeting of the Five Wise Spirits on the thirty-second day of the hidden month in the year of the second Grand Mastership of Brother Solip had agreed to change the thirteenth rule. So? Was this whole thing mostly pompous waffle after all?
“…so it is no longer required of the Applicant to roll up his right trouser leg beyond the knee, or his left trouser leg if he has no right leg.” Good, thought Naishadha: even in this poor light, a shapely feminine calf and lower thigh might have been spotted.
“…instead, it is required of the Applicant that his trousers drop to his ankles.” Oh God – no! But perhaps in the poor light they wouldn’t be able to tell. Wait – of course! They didn’t mean bare-bummed and she was wearing male boxers. She should be able to get away with it. Derek Withers and a beefy Malisun or Indian Brother climbed up and stood on either side of her.
“Let what was hidden be revealed!” the Grand Master ordered. The two Brothers moved in and seconds later Naishadha’s trousers lay round her ankles. She heard steps. A third, weedy, white Brother approached with a big lantern. No, please…
He held the lantern close to her round and very feminine bottom. But the boxers were quite loose, not figure-hugging like Y-fronts.
The first two Brothers pulled her boxers down.
There was a long silence. She fought her natural instinct to put her hands in front of her pubes. The Grand Master was staring at her, but the light on her front parts was not good, so maybe he hadn’t noticed. The Brother with the lantern was sufficiently distracted to allow hot metal to touch her buttock. She screamed. She then tried to be impassive, but it was too late.
“Grand Master, we have a problem,” said Derek Withers.
“So I see, Arquebustier,” said the Grand Master. “Seize her!” There was no point in resisting. “Take her to the appointed place!” the Grand Master ordered. Her shoes and trousers were removed. Her boxers clung round her ankles as she was moved. They were marching her to the guillotine! But she was too proud to cry for mercy. “Prepare her!” the Grand Master said. Her neck was rested in the curve of the guillotine block and her torso was roped fast to the terrible machine. Even now she was uncomfortably aware of how her bottom was sticking out.
“Brothers, a spy, a cheat and a liar has been unmasked,” the Grand Master intoned. “The punishment for one who spies on our mysteries is laid down in the Book of Rules; but she has not only spied on what should not be seen by unbrotherly eyes; she has lied to us. Brother Arquebustiers – the moon has risen over the field of blood!” They seemed to know what this meant.
Naishadha wondered whether she would increase or reduce her chances by telling them she was a journalist on assignment. On the whole she thought it would be best not to tell them.
“Brother Grand Infernal Master,” Derek Withers said, “this girl is a journalist with the Port Herbert Catholic Herald.” The audience reaction suggested this did not make her more popular.
“In that case – search her!” the Grand Master instructed. All three men did that enthusiastically until Derek’s hand emerged with a small black device which he held up theatrically.
“A sound recorder!” he announced.
“Destroy it!” said the Grand Master. There was a crunching noise. Derek Withers sniffed his fingers rather noisily. “Proceed!” said the Grand Master.
Naishadha tried to compose herself for death, but there were two problems. One was that she wasn’t at all confident what she’d be reincarnated as, given her life up to now and given the present circumstances. The other was that she really didn’t want to die.
The beefy Brother released something and the guillotine blade fell. It hurt and for a moment she thought it had killed her. But it was made of wood. Derek Withers was standing in front of her smiling.
“The moon and the field of blood mean this,” he said. He flicked the object so she could see better what it was. It was a flail. The grip was about a foot long, with grooves for a better grip, and from it snaked six twisted cords with tight little knots at the ends and halfway.
It was an exact copy of one she’d viewed with feminine anger at the National Museum, in the display about the court of Malisu’s last king, Inalunaran III.
“Enough talk!” the Grand Master warned. “Commence!” Smirking, Derek walked slowly round behind her and after what seemed to her an age, let fly. Fire shot through her bottom in several places and she screamed. There was an appreciative murmur among the assembled Brothers. The next shot was not delivered with such force, but was angled up from lower, to reach the most sensitive parts of her bottom. A stray cord found its way between her legs. After two more Derek reluctantly gave way to the beefy man. Her desperate cries echoed around the vast Brotherly hall. Each time he struck, she felt the pain could not get worse – and each time it did. After that, four strokes from the weedy man should have been blessed relief, but he targeted her long, lithe, brown legs – one on each thigh and one on each calf.
She was sobbing now. She was sobbing in front of these smug bastards and they were enjoying it. She saw the weedy man pass the flail to someone else, who took it away. What was next? The Grand Master had risen from his throne and come close to her. He carried a cane.
“The work of the Arquebustiers is good but the Brotherhood seeks completeness,” he cried. Between his four cuts there were long delays, as befitted a man of standing and gravity. Inevitably, the strokes cut across the marks from the flail. When he stopped she went on crying. He waited till her sobs declined to miserable snuffles.
“Let the final act be delivered!” cried the Grand Master. Was she to die after all? That worm Derek Masters was smiling at her. He was… oh, no! Well, it was not a fate worst than death, but getting raped by that utter slug was almost as bad. And…oh, no, no, no! Not up there! Derek! Please! Stop! After her bum, her girl thing. And then – no, she would not. Or she would and then bite. But then they would kill her. Oh, suck. Oh. Splutter, squirm, sob.
“Release her, clean and cream her, give her a Supplicant’s robe and cast her out into darkness!” the Grand Master ordered. She was taken what seemed a long way to washrooms ornately decorated with strange symbols. The washing was done thoroughly by several brothers headed by Derek Withers. The creaming turned out to involve the application of soothing cream, done rather enthusiastically and for a long time. She tried not to think about this: it was better to think about her situation. Francis must have heard what was happening up to the point they’d crushed the recorder. Luckily they hadn’t realised it was transmitting as well as recording. They also hadn’t realised it had given her position. But what could he do if he arrived? There was every chance the police would wash their hands of a matter which could involve very important people. There was also the question of what the Grand Master had meant about casting her out into darkness. She hoped it was just an overblown way of saying “Chuck her out in the night!”.
She waited a long time for the robe. It was thin and white. It resembled a child’s night-dress and went no further down than her mid-thighs.
Casting her out into darkness did mean chucking her out in the night. It was done quite gently, but then no violence was needed. Behind her she recognised the bulk of the Port Herbert Lafayette Brotherly Hall. A drunk lurched towards her. She ran down a narrow street.
At the end a car was waiting. She stopped and stood waiting for her fate.
“Oh, my poor girl! Come on – into the car!” said Francis Guillory. He put a hand on her shoulder and steered her in to the front passenger seat. There were two men in the back. “I thought I might need more muscle than I can summon up nowadays. Mike Halloran you’ll recognise and this is Bernard, my nephew.” He released the handbrake, checked his mirror and put his foot down.
She blurted out all she could on the way. He kept his eye on the road, with frequent glances at the mirror, but she could tell he was listening. Eventually he asked,
“Does Withers know where you live? Your real address, I mean, not the one we fixed up for young Charles. That one you mustn’t return to.”
“Officially, no, but it wouldn’t be hard to wheedle something out of Sachi. Anyway, he’s I.T. and I’d guess he’d, well, easily get at the personnel records.”
“So for the next few days, in case they haven’t finished with you, we need somewhere else. I thought so. That’s why we’re driving for my weekend chalet.”
Later, as they listened on the veranda to the Tricoloured Frogs, the Lotus Rats and the Irregular Cicadas, he repeated,
“Oh, my poor girl!” She rested her head on his chest. He stroked it. Later still, the Lotus Rats were listening to the strange noises from the veranda., grunts, moans and creaking cane furniture.
Next morning, she would have insisted on getting him breakfast, if he hadn’t already got it. But this was going to be difficult.
“This can’t…” they both began simultaneously. He raised his eyebrows; she laughed.
“Not so hard after all, then,” she said.
“I have a wife, after all,” he replied. “But that story about you going to Delhi…there is some truth in it. Our man in Delhi is about to retire. I don’t have a replacement lined up. I’d like you to go there for maybe six months, maybe a year, fill his shoes but also talent-spot a permanent replacement. Would you like that?” She would.
“Oh, and I think Mike Halloran would like to see you before you go.”
Later, swimming in Devastation Bay, he thought,
“I really should give up this game before long. I’ve achieved my ambition and I’m old. It’s time for another Grand Master.”