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"I don't know how you do it", said Adam, putting his cards on the table "I'm glad we're only playing for matchsticks, or I'd have nothing left by now".
"Well you've heard the phrase lucky at cards unlucky in love", said Joby, pointedly.
Kieran was pacing up and down the central aisle of the air-buggy they had hired to fly to Woll's place. Ever since leaving Toondor Lanpin he had been engrossed in some Ministry papers that had recently arrived in the town. They were what had been salvaged from the wreckage of the Ministry H.Q at the time of the mass exodus from the earthquake. Up til now they had been in Krindei, being sorted out by the Ministry men who had fled there.
Joby and the others were rapidly beginning to wish the papers had remained buried in the wreckage. Many of them were reports detailing the worst aspects of Codlik's regime, and Kieran had been like a cat on hot bricks ever since getting his hands on them. The reports on the state of the City hospitals were the worst. Tales of mental patients being subdued with tear-gas, and of dying patients being referred to as "natural waste", with orders that if they died penniless they were to be disposed of in a fashion appropriate to this description, as it would save money. A bitter legacy of Codlik's so-called Code of Caring.
"You are not supposed to be smoking on this aircraft, Patsy", said Adam, as Kieran brushed past him one more time.
"So what?" Kieran barked "What can they do? Open the focking door and chuck me out?!"
"That could be arranged", said Joby, dryly.
"How you lot can sit around without a care in the world I don't know", said Kieran, flapping a wad of papers aggressively "Have you read this? Have you?"
"How can I?" Joby exclaimed "Everytime I go to read it you snatch it out of me hands and start shrieking about it!"
"Codlik and his men are Nazi's", said Kieran "Focking Nazi's. Evil".
"Oh come off it", said Joby "I admit they've made some right howlers, but evil's pushing it. I can't think of Codlik as a Nazi, he's such a pillock for a start!"
"That doesn't mean anything", said Kieran "Just because he's a dork doesn't mean he can't be evil. Someone once said after meeting some top Nazi's that he couldn't get over the banality of evil, and that applies to this lot too".
"But it's over now", said Adam, firmly "Over. It's too upsetting to keep chewing over it. All we can do is ensure they aren't allowed to get away with it again, and that's what this meeting at Woll's is all about. We have to learn from the mistakes of the past and put it all behind us".
"I can't let them get away with this!" said Kieran.
"You are seriously getting on my nerves, you are", said Joby, jumping to his feet "If you don't shut up and sit down, I'll fucking chin yer!"
"He'll calm down", said Adam, after Kieran had slunk to his seat "Eventually".
"Once he gets a bee in his bonnet that's it", said Joby, sitting down again and shuffling the cards "God, this is depressing. Like his president days all over again. I don't think I can go through all that again. I mean, look at us all travelling on this thing. It's not exactly the hay-cart and the Watering Hole is it?"
"It would be too cold for the hay-cart", said Adam "This is convenient, that's all. Joby, you mustn't be concerned, Kieran's not venturing back into the presidency".
"I really hope not", said Joby, with great feeling.
On arriving at Woll's place, which was now surrounded by a snowy landscape, the Indigo-ites were taken into a small downstairs room and then left there. This room contained only a table and a padded leather armchair. One wall was entirely taken up with a mirror.
"Why have they brought us in here?" said Joby "I feel like I'm about to be executed".
"This certainly wasn't what I was expecting at all", said Adam, apprehensively.
Lonts immediately made for the armchair, and threw himself on it. He started sucking his thumb and waving Snowy about contentedly, until Julian came along and turfed him out so that he could sit down instead.
"You lot haven't stopped bellyaching throughout the entire journey", he said, getting out his cigar case and selecting one.
"How would you know?" said Joby "You were snoring your head off for most of it!"
Ransey had been suspiciously inspecting the mirror, and was considerably taken aback when it suddenly slid open to reveal a large reception room on the other side. This room was packed with various Ministry men and Codlik. All of them standing there facing them with drinks in their hands, as though they were about to launch into a rendition of 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow'. The Indigo-ites stared back at them in bemusement.
"Yoo-hoo!" said Julian, waving his hand facetiously.
"What's all this performance about?" said Joby, irritably "Why couldn't we just walk into the room like everyone else?"
"Yes it does rather feel like Sunday Night At The London Palladium", Adam sighed.
Codlik came forward, beaming all over his little face.
"Welcome!" he enthused "Welcome to the first meeting of the Board of Independent Governors. This is a truly historic occasion".
"You've got a bloody nerve, Codlik", said Kieran, advancing on him ferociously.
"It is you we have to thank for expounding this magnificent idea", Codlik bravely tried to continue.
"Never mind all that!" Kieran snapped, and he slammed a copy of the Health Report against Codlik's chest "What have you got to say about that, eh? How can you sleep at night, knowing that newly-deceased human beings are being referred to as 'natural waste' ..."
Julian hauled him to one side.
"There is a time and a place for everything", he hissed "And this is not it. This should be a festive occasion, and you're making it about as jolly as an IRA knee-capping session!"
"I want to know what he has to say about this", Kieran hissed back.
"One more aggressive word and I will kill you with my bare hands", said Julian, heatedly "How about that for an historic start to the meeting?! His Grace The Vanquisher Of Evil killed by an ageing aristo who had been driven too far by his exasperating ways!"
"Kieran, I can assure you that was all a beaurocratic mix-up", said Codlik, coming over to them "The methods of that particular department had only just been brought to my attention at the time of the quake. I had been fully intending to discipline the relevant staff for gross misconduct".
"Discipline them?" said Kieran "They should have been fired, put on trial!"
"I couldn't do that", said Codlik "I couldn't do that to Ministry employees. It wouldn't look good to the public. The newspapers might have said regrettable things about us. Sadly, that isn't something that will ever be a concern again".
"How do you mean?" said Kieran, curiosity dampening out his anger.
"The site of the main newspaper offices was one of the areas worst hit by the quake", said Codlik, gravely.
(Divine judgement were the words currently going through Kieran's mind).
"I trust you'll mention this in your prayers", said Codlik.
"Oh I will", said Kieran, ambiguously "I will!"
"I'm not normally one to make jokes over a tragedy", said Kieran, a couple of hours later "But for once I'll indulge meself to the full, and go hang the bad taste! I've always felt, in our time and in this, that the world would be a lot happer, and a far more contented place, if all newspapers were outlawed. And now the Almighty has done it for us! No more mawkish excessive sentiment, no more bending of facts, no more bullying by sneering, narrow-minded bigots, no more sanctimonious and filthy disregard for other people's privacy. This is truly a happy day!"
"Oh I dunno", said Joby, feeding Kieran from a bunch of grapes "We've still got Fradie and his shitty reviews for our local rag".
"But Fradie doesn't have the power that those bastards had", said Kieran.
The reception had ended a short while before and everyone had gone to their rooms to rest for a few hours, before the commencement of the state dinner at midnight, to which everyone, governors, performers, locals, had all been invited. The Indigo-ites had been allocated a corridor of rooms on the first floor of the west wing. These rooms oozed comfort and expensive tastes, and yet were curiously gloomy. The decor was overly dark, with too much brown pannelling and heavily-shaded lamps. Thick carpets and flock wallpaper deadened a lot of sound, and the windows were so enshrouded in netting that it was a chore simply to look out. All the rooms were strung out in a line and led into one another like a railway carriage.
Kieran and Joby had the end room. Kieran was lying on the large, springy bed whilst Joby sat next to him, wearing a white fluffy bath-robe, one of a dozen that had been laid out for them. The others had opened up all the doors and were milling about in various stages of undress. Bengo had started the wind-up gramophone they had brought with them from the Indigo, and Tamaz was currently doing a strip-tease by it.
"Little tart", said Joby.
"I think Bengo's enjoying it though", said Kieran.
Bengo was clearly appreciate of Tamaz's routine (and this wasn't entirely from an artistic viewpoint!). When Tamaz got down to his lacey drawers, Bengo impulsively seized him and picked him up in his arms. Then he noticed Joby scowling at him and sheepishly carried Tamaz across the room to him. He sat him down next to him and backed away as though he was leaving the presence of some august Mandarin emperor.
Tamaz was clearly very excited by Joby's scowling jealousy, and was yodelling and flicking his tongue about, in between taunting him. Joby responded by putting him across his knee and giving him quite a thorough spanking. He then tipped Tamaz onto the floor and rolled over to kiss Kieran. Tamaz whimpered and climbed up onto the bed, wilfully fighting his way through until he was lying in the middle of them.
"There's just no ignoring him is there!" said Kieran.
Near the back of Woll's house, in the lea of the mountains, was a small building which served as a chapel for the people of the house and the surrounding area. On Christmas Eve it stayed open all night, and at eleven o'clock Kieran had slipped across to get in his prayers before the banquet started.
Joby had arranged to go across and collect him in time for the meal. As it took twenty minutes just to navigate the maze of stairs and corridors out of the house, he had set off in good time. Tamaz had insisted on going with him, and hadn't even objected when Joby had said he would have to postpone changing into his ballgown until they got back, as it was simply too cold for it outside.
"C'mon, keep up", said Joby, as they trudged through the snow "I don't wanna be all night farting about out here".
"I'm trying to keep up", said Tamaz, indignantly "But it's not easy. I'm still sore after what you did to me".
"I didn't hit you that hard ... did I?" said Joby.
"Alright, I'm sorry", Joby sighed "It was only a bit of fun. The others are always doing that kind of thing. I didn't mean to hurt you".
"So I should think", Tamaz pouted "I felt completely helpless".
"That will be the day!" Joby exclaimed "The idea of you ever being completely helpless!"
They linked arms and walked towards the chapel, the windows of which were lit up in a very inviting way.
"The mountains bother you at night, don't they?" said Tamaz, looking up at the huge, sinister black bulks.
"They always did", said Joby "I think it's because they shut out so much of the sky. It's like looking at a drawing that's had great chunks cut out of it. I don't know how Woll can live this close to 'em. I'd live in permanent fear of avalanches if I was him!"
They reached the chapel and carefully opened the main doors, so's not to disturb those inside. Kieran was alone in there, spreadeagled face-down on the floor in front of the altar.
"He's dead!" Tamaz gasped.
"No, it's one of his praying poses", said Joby "Let's sit on the back pew until he's finished".
Tamaz made a great show of picking up a prayer cushion from the floor, plumping it up and ostentatiously putting it on the hard bench before sitting down gingerly.
"Alright, don't lay it on with a trowel", Joby muttered, out of the side of his mouth "I said I was sorry. Anyone'd think you had a boil!"
They both waited patiently until Kieran had finished. Then he came and sat on the pew in front of them, and they all chatted for a few minutes.
"We'd really better be getting back I suppose", Kieran sighed "We're probably already late as it is".
"Do we have to go to that stupid banquet?" Tamaz scowled "Why can't we all just go to bed together and leave them to it?"
"I've rarely had a more tempting offer", Kieran smiled "But I'm afraid I have to go. Codlik's right about one thing, it is an historic occasion, and I really should be there. If I don't go I'll kick meself for years after".
Tamaz suddenly began to cry, and knuckled his eyes in that way he had.
"Don't take it too seriously", Joby muttered to Kieran "He's getting back at me for earlier".
"No I think he seems genuinely distressed", said Kieran "Tamaz, what is it? Tell me".
"All these governors", he sobbed "They all hate me. They were there when I gave birth to the lumps. They want to hang me. I can't see them, I just can't".
"Now then, ssh", Kieran grabbed Tamaz's hands "We'll be with you at all times. You have our protection, Tamaz. I won't let them harm you. I think most of them will be fine, but obviously I can't guarantee it. But whatever any of them say you have us to turn to at the end of the day, and you should take strength from that. I know I always have".
"It's better you see 'em than you hide away", said Joby.
"Joby's right", said Kieran "Whatever happens tonight we'll make it up to you".
"Yeah", said Joby "When we get back to Toondor Lanpin I'll buy you something, something expensive".
"I was also thinking that we could have another adventure", said Kieran "Like we did recently".
Tamaz was slightly mollified by this, but he still felt too highly-charged for comfort. He was genuinely afraid of facing the Council of Governors, even though he trusted Kieran to protect him. Also his recent chastisement had shaken him quite a bit, mainly because he hadn't been expecting it. Now he felt simply like whimpering and curling up with Joby in a warm room.
They all walked back to the house through the snow, and were relieved to enter one of the side doors, which led into a stone corridor, the far end of which disappeared into the distant gloom.
"What a bloody great barn of place", said Joby, knocking the snow off his boots "Even if I had all Woll's money, I wouldn't want a place this size!"
"Reminds me of a tale I heard about Buckingham Palace in Victorian times", said Kieran "A young lad, a street urchin, got in through one of the back doors and managed to live in the place for a year before anyone got wind of him".
"In this place he could probably live to a great old age and no one'd know about him!" said Joby.
They walked part of the way down the corridor until they came to a flight of back stairs. Standing on them, to their utter astonishment, was Woll! He had been conspicuous by his absence so far, and now he looked more like a distracted ghost than the master of the house. He wore a faded orange dressing-gown, and carried a candle which had gone out, leaving his face in shadow.
"Aren't you coming to the banquet, Woll?" said Kieran, knowing this was a futile question.
"After all, you're paying for it", said Joby.
"That doesn't signify", said Woll, absently "I will probably see you tomorrow instead".
He sped past them, and disappeared into the darkness at the end of the corridor. Joby shivered, as though someone had walked over his grave, and shepherded the other two upstairs. They hurriedly changed into more formal clothing. Kieran was back in his trademark white silk pyjamas, and Joby put on a morning coat and grey silk cravat, an outfit identical to what most of the other Indigo-ites were wearing. It had been Adam's idea for the eight of them (other than Kieran, Tamaz and Finia) to wear the same outfits, because he felt it wouldn't be a bad idea to stress their sense of unity in front of the Ministry contingent. Julian had snapped that he didn't see why they had to dress up like Siamese twins in order to prove this, but Kieran, who had also initially been sceptical, was now delighted with Joby's rare transformation into smart attire.
"We could get married like this, you and I", he said "And have Tamaz as our bridesmaid!"
They found their way to the dining-room. This huge area was completely occupied by a long table which stretched the whole length of it, seating of couple of hundred along both sides. No detail had been spared. The chair-backs (each and every one of them) even had wreaths of pink roses (greenhouse-grown) festooned over them.
Everyone else had started on the meal by the time they arrived, and they had to enter the dining-room with the eyes of all present upon them. Codlik was seated at the far right end of the table, and Kieran had been placed at the other end, although they'd have needed radar to communicate with one another!
Kieran was relieved to find that spaces had been left on either side of him for Joby and Tamaz, with Adam and Lonts immediately beyond that. Julian had been put halfway down the table, in between Brinslee and Dolores, who was the only woman governor.
"Thank God", said Kieran, sitting down "I thought I might have been marooned on me own somewhere".
Lonts was next to Tamaz, and immediately took him under his wing, sensing Tamaz's terror at the way everyone seemed to be looking at him. Adam meanwhile had removed his jacket and cravat, and was eating in his shirt-sleeves, saying that he wasn't used to wearing so many clothes. On the other side of him Finia was wearing a very fetching pink chiffon number with spaghetti straps. His tiny hands were having trouble managing the cumbersome, heavily gilded cutlery though.
"I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to eat with these", he said "Or dig the garden with them!"
"Never mind Finia, you look good enough to eat yourself", said Kieran "Like a stick of liquorice wrapped in candy-floss. I just want to sink me teeth into you!"
"Don't let Codlik hear you talk like that, Patsy", said Adam, teasingly "It probably offends his Code of Caring".
"I've heard quite enough tales about that for one day", said Kieran.
"So, you deigned to turn up then", said Julian, appearing out of the blue "I was beginning to think you'd done another runner".
"You're not supposed to be down this end", said Joby "Not whilst the meal's in progress".
"Oh Jules has no idea how to behave at a posh dinner", said Adam.
"I don't call this posh", said Julian, dismissively "It reminds me of a school refrectory. I keep expecting someone to start a bread roll fight".
"Yes, you probably from what I remember", said Adam "Anything to get a bit of attention".
"It might help to take me mind off this", said Joby, spooning up his pea soup, reluctantly "It's cold".
"It wouldn't be if you turned up on time", said Julian.
"Go back to your place, Jules", said Adam "Where on earth is Hillyard, why isn't he keeping an eye on you?"
"Too busy ogling the stewards", said Julian "He hasn't put his tongue back in since he came in here! Anyway, I had to escape for a little while. Brinslee's taken to touching me up under the table. I feel like I'm being molested by an overweight tortoise!"
"I wouldn't have thought you were his sort", said Joby "He tends to go for eunuchs normally".
"Yes, and you're certainly not one of them, Jules", said Adam.
"Obviously the close proximity of me is driving him wild", said Julian "Just be thankful I'm keeping him occupied, or he'd be up here pestering Finia and 'little Lonts' as he keeps referring to him. Which must be one of the misnomers of all time!"
Lonts finished vigorously wiping his soup-dish with a bread-roll, looked round and announced "the next course is coming round!"
Julian went back to his eat, and plates of boiled white fish in a cream sauce were handed out, what Joby disparagingly (albeit accurately) referred to as "invalid food". He got short-tempered with the fussy silver-service style of handing the vegetable dish to him over his shoulder.
"How can I serve meself when you insist on holding it up by me ear?!" he barked at the steward "Put it on the table, and we'll help ourselves. God, we never used to have all this performance when we lived at the H.Q".
"You reminded me of Julian's grandfather just then", said Adam.
"Well I can't stand it when they make such a song and dance about serving up a meal", said Joby "I keep thinking it's gonna end up all over me".
"Tamaz could put it down his cleveage", said Kieran "Like he did with the asparagus!"
"Apparently the old Queen Mother, you know, one of the Windsor mob", said Adam "Used to hurriedly spread her napkin over her vast bosom as soon as the footman hove in sight, to 'protect the royal jewels' as she called them".
"The royal jewels?" Joby exclaimed "Jeez, that lot had an inflated idea of themselves didn't they!"
"The Royal Family as a whole, or the Queen Mother's tits?" Adam giggled like a young boy.
"You'd have got drummed out of the aristocracy saying things like that", said Joby.
"Nonsense", said Adam "The true aristo's had no time for them. Thought they were foreign upstarts".
"Whereas the rest of us were just bored stiff with 'em", said Joby.
"Who are you talking about?" said Lonts.
"Polar bears", said Joby "An extinct breed".
After the meal everyone spilled out into the entrance hall, which ran the width of the building and had an impressive mosaic floor. The Indigo-ites made for a collection of sofas and chairs in a niche at the foot of the stairs, next to a grand piano. Coffee, brandy and cigars were all circulated in generous quantities, and Kieran glanced across the room every so often to make sure Codlik was still trapped in a nest of governors.
Lonts, Finia, Bengo, Tamaz and Toppy went upstairs for a little while, to walk around the gallery which circled the hall on all sides, and which offered a bird's eye view of the gathering below. Tamaz felt less nervous up here, although Finia still held onto his hand occasionally for moral support.
"I'm alright really", Tamaz mumbled at one point.
"Lonts seems to think you might still be a bit upset over earlier", said Finia "I know Joby can be a funny guy sometimes, but he's crazy about you. Anyone can see that".
"I don't mind what he does to me", said Tamaz "It's that lot down there who get to me. The way they keep staring all the time, and then I see them mutter to each other".
"It's not easy", said Finia "I've had that all my life. If it gets to me really bad I just think to myself 'stuff you, baby'. It's not much, but it helps. And also remember that in spite of their bad thoughts, you're still standing".
"Toppy gets like those people sometimes", said Lonts, who was standing nearby "The way he gossips about others".
"No I don't", said Toppy, hurt.
"Stop stirring it, Lonts", said Finia.
"Yeah, we all have to stick together", said Bengo "Not go bullying each other".
"Lonts is always bullying", said Toppy.
Lonts looked as though he'd quite cheerfully hurl Toppy over the bannisters.
"You can both stir it sometimes, can't you!" said Bengo "Come on, let's all go and have a sit down".
They went over to a large, squashy sofa in the corner, and piled on it like a heap of coats at a party. There, they all dozed quite contentedly for some while.
Kieran was playing a few chords on the piano.
"I can't remember anymore of it", he said "And I doubt I could play it if I did! Me piano-playing's not up to much".
"Shame, it was quite restful", said Adam "What was it?"
"I can't remember the title", said Kieran "All I know is it was written by one of me fellow country-men".
"That accounts for why it sounds like a Guinness advert", said Joby.
"You're a bloody philistine, Joby", said Kieran.
"Not at all", said Joby "I've always liked music. I have very diverse tastes".
"Are we still talking about music?" said Kieran, facetiously.
"Very funny", said Joby.
"Jules has always been musical", said Adam "At school he had a wonderful singing voice. Everyone said he sounded like an angel. Such a shame he's never sung much since".
"My voice broke that's why", said Julian, dryly "Although I can give you a little tune if you like. 'Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are!'"
"Don't call us", said Joby.
"It should be carols as it's now Christmas", said Kieran.
"Yeah it is", said Joby "Christmas morning. Let's go back to our rooms and open the brandy we've got. We can barricade the doors to keep Codlik out!"
"Whilst shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated on the ground!" Julian 'sang'.
Lonts shouted something unintelligible down from the gallery, and then whooped, bouncing his voice off the stone walls and ceiling.
"Do not be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen", said Julian "It is only the mad earl in the west wing".
"More like the mad Eskimo in the west wing!" said Joby.
Bengo suddenly came sliding down the bannisters. When he realised there was a marble pillar stuck right at the bottom, he gave a shriek of alarm and jumped off, landing ungainly on top of Adam on the sofa.
"For heaven's sake, Bengo!" Adam shrieked "You could have caused serious damage!"
"I'm sorry", Bengo panted "But I couldn't resist the bannisters. We haven't got any I can slide down at home".
"I think we'd better be off", said Ransey "The neighbours look as though they're about to complain".
"Oh the solace of bed", Julian cried "The rough male kiss of blankets".
"No sign of Hillyard anywhere", said Joby "I suppose he's getting his leg over a steward".
"In that case he will find there is no room at the inn when he returns", said Julian.
Hillyard found his way back to their suite only with much difficulty, and a hair-raising walk through the slumbering house. Like most of his casual pick-ups, his brief liaison with the steward had been exciting and fun at first and then, after the pressure had been relieved, it quickly became cold and tedious. At six a.m, two hours before dawn, he had made his excuses and slipped away.
He silently cursed Woll for having such a huge place, and began to think he would be condemned to wander its stairs and corridors forever. Everything was either intensely silent, or there were myriad private noises coming from behind closed doors. He found the main hallway where the reception had been. Now it was empty he was struck forcibly by just how cavernous it was, and how his footsteps echoed uncomfortably all around him. It was big enough to hold an entire camp-site quite adequately. He didn't like being alone in it.
It was with quite some relief that he re-located their suite, only to be faced with the immediate prospect that there was nowhere for him to sleep. None of them had formally allocated bed space, as these things tended to sort themselves out. He went into Julian's room at the far end, and found him curled up with Bengo. Toppy was occupying a truckle bed by the window.
"Can I slip in beside you?" Hillyard asked Julian in a low whisper.
"There is no room, now piss off!" Julian snapped.
"Oh Julian!" Hillyard wailed "I haven't got anywhere else. Toppy's got the truckle bed".
"Good, you'd be too bloody fat for it anyway!" said Julian.
"But it's freezing out here", said Hillyard.
"So die!" said Julian, and he thumped his pillow aggressively.
Hillyard muttered under his breath, but was too cold to stand and argue. He wandered into the next room, but felt he'd rather expire from hypothermia than ask Ransey if he could bed down with him and Finia. He went into the next room, which was occupied by Adam and Lonts. There at least was a sofa in here, and he resigned himself to an uncomfortable sleep on it, wrapped in Adam's coat. So ended the night before Christmas.
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