Flanda Regan paused as she made her way through the Great Hall. Everything seemed to be ready. It was to be the biggest ceremony yet. They were to confirm one thousand new ordinary knights, six hundred ordinary knights were to become knights of the second order and three hundred knights of the second order were to move on to the first order. One thing was going to be hard, though. Tamsin Lampeter, Tomik Lampeter's daughter was going to become the youngest knight ever.
Oh, Flanda knew she had a fantastic life as Head Knight. She loved her job. It didn't feel like work. Looking after all the other knights was a real privilege. She had to keep up standards and at the same time empower people to attain these highly set goals. It still hurt, though, fifteen years on, the way Tomik had broken off their engagement. He didn't love her any more, he'd said. She was sure really that it was because he'd never managed to become a knight himself. Then after just a few weeks he was engaged to Tamsin's mother and they were married two months later. Tamsin had been a honeymoon child. She was a sweet girl and Flanda had been pleased to oversee her training, yet those deep eyes of hers tortured her always; they were so like Tomik's.
Well, never mind all of that. It would soon get so busy here she would have no time to notice. Yes, the Hall was ready. The floor was polished. The windows shone. There were huge floral arrangements all around. The room was filled with the scent of the sweet-peas. The seats were numbered. The orchestra was warming up. Outside she could see the crowds beginning to arrive. The first ceremony would begin in forty-five minutes. Several of the knights were already robed up and looking splendid in their blue velvet cloaks. She was so glad that that had become part of the graduation uniform.
A noise from the ante-room caught her attention. Someone was in there. Maybe it was just her assistant. Why, though? She didn't need her. She was already robed and the lists were ready.
"Marita, is that you?" she called.
There was no reply. Should she call someone? She dug her nails into her palms and held her breath.
A young man appeared in the doorway. He looked harmless enough. He, too, was already robed up in the uniform of an ordinary knight, minus the bandanna that would be given to him during the ceremony. No threat, then, probably, but what was he doing here? All of the graduands had been told to wait outside until they were called in. Besides which this room was private. And how had he got through the door that was locked from the outside?
"Can I help you?"
"Maybe. It depends." He looked up at her through a curtain of hair. He couldn't quite let his eyes contact with hers. Why was he like this? Even an ordinary knight should have more personal confidence.
"Is there any way I can go straight into the second order?"
"Why do you think we should allow that?"
"Well I've been working on it for a while now. My instructor thinks I'm ready."
She wished they wouldn't do that. They really shouldn't start on the next level until the knight was established on the current level. Some were beginning to do it, though, and she hoped it wasn't just for the money. "You know you have to wait at least two years to graduate to the next level, don't you? You do need that time. Why are you in such a hurry?"
"It would help me to get a better job and it would impress my girlfriend."
Flanda laughed. "Fair enough. We all want to improve. You shouldn't need to impress your girlfriend, though. She should take you the way you are. But I'm wondering whether you should even be knighted at all if you're that impatient. Patience is a top quality for ordinary knights."
The young man went pale.
Flanda touched his arm. "I'm joking. Of course I won't stop you being a knight. I hope your ceremony goes well. Are many people coming to watch you?"
He now went red. "You do know, don't you, that some people buy their way up the ranks? That it's a matter of who you know and how much you can pay? You need to get that sorted." He stomped off towards the main entrance to the Great Hall. He turned towards her as he reached the door. "You do realise as well, don't you, how easy it was to get into that room? I should have done it sooner. Then I would have had time to change the records before you'd noticed I was there."
Then he was gone. She wanted to go after him but she couldn't move.
The six ceremonies proceeded without any other problems. Flanda couldn't enjoy them, though. Were people really buying their way to the top? Yes, she'd been concerned that some trainers were pushing people through a little too quickly. She'd been beginning to work on that anyway. But people actually paying to get a pass when they didn't deserve it? That was just not House of Clementine.
She looked out for the young man but it was impossible to recognise him: they all wore the same uniform, they all had the same floppy hair style that was fashionable at the moment and they were only in front of her for a few seconds. Well she hoped he'd be pleased to get his knighthood, even if it was only an ordinary one.
Processing that many knights was exhausting.
"Here, sit down," said Marita when they were back in the office at the end of the day." You look in need of a hot drink."
"I'd prefer just a cold clementine juice. You don't have to serve me. I can get it myself."
Marita shook her head. "You've been on your feet for hours and it looks as if you've got something on your mind. Even the Head Knight is supposed to rest from time to time."
Well yes, it was good to relax into the soft armchair. She shivered though when she thought about how easily that young man had got into their office and how he'd tried to amend the records. That sort of thing just shouldn't happen in the House of Clementine.
Marita came back a few seconds later with a large jug of clementine juice and some fruit segments. She placed the tray on the small table next to Flanda's chair. "This will raise your blood sugar. Eat and drink."
Flanda smiled at the older woman. Marita was a good sort. She always managed to do exactly the right thing.
"And now - tell me what's on your mind."
Flanda sighed. It's nothing. I just think we'll have to go for smaller ceremonies but more often. That was just too big today." Perhaps she shouldn't trust even Marita.
Marita nodded but something in her eyes suggested that she didn't quite believe what Flanda was saying.
Flanda stared at the document in front of her. This must be the millionth time she'd gone through the records and still she couldn't see anything that suggested there was any real bribery going on. Yes, what she did see here confirmed that some trainers were rushing some knights up the levels, and they were probably doing this for extra pay. That ought to be reasonably easy to fix though she was so tired now she couldn't think how.
"Nothing?" asked Marita.
Flanda shook her head.
"Well you need to stop now." She offered Flanda a fruit tea. "I've added some cold water so you can drink it straight away."
Flanda sipped the drink gratefully. Yes, Marita knew her so well. It was just the right temperature and just the right strength. She felt herself both relax and wake up as the tangy clementine-flavoured drink slipped smoothly down her throat.
"What about paying them more and giving them a bonus for producing the very best quality in the new knights and making sure that they really are worthy of the new levels?"
It was obvious really. Marita was always so pragmatic. It couldn't really be that simple, could it? She sighed. "I'm sure they'll still find a way of cheating."
"But it might make it easier to pinpoint."
Flanda nodded. "I suppose we could try it."
"I'll get some suggestions drawn up."
"Superb," said Flanda. "They are so nearly ready. Two more months, perhaps?"
The trainer grinned. "That's what I thought."
Flanda nodded. She looked around the sports studio with a sense of satisfaction. She was glad they'd introduced fencing for second order knights who wanted to progress to the first order. That couldn't be learnt too quickly. Now that the trainers were being paid properly all of the knights were making a steadier progress. The studio had been another of Marita's brilliant ideas. Flanda loved watching the trainees. This all now seemed to be working.
There was a soft knock at the door and then it opened.
"I think you'd better come and see this." Marita's face was flushed. She certainly wasn't her normal calm self.
Flanda followed her as she walked briskly towards the office. She was frowning and her lips were pursed.
"What is it, Marita?"
The older woman shook her head. "Unbelievable."
They arrived at the office. There were some papers spread out on the desk. Marita pointed to what appeared to be a letter.
Flanda read it quickly.
Dear Madam Regan,
You may remember me from my approach to you before my graduation as ordinary knight. I am pleased to inform you that I am now well into my training as a knight of the second order and am glad that I am doing this the right way. However, I also have to inform you that there is still one person accepting bribes. I have evidence of this. I would like to meet with you to discuss this in more detail. I look forward to meeting with you soon.
There was a knock at the door.
Marita nodded. "That's probably him. I took the liberty of contacting him and asking him to come in."
"Okay. Let's see what he's got to say."
Flanda recognised him as soon as he got into the room. He was clearly a bit more mature now and his hair style was much more sensible. He had the proper bearing of a knight of the second order. He must be almost ready for graduation.
"Well," said Flanda, "what have you got to tell us?"
Arten Mitren took a deep breath. "Tomik Lampeter has been accepting bribes from knights who want to circumvent normal training."
Flanda clutched the sides of her desk in an attempt to stop the room from spinning. "You know this how?" she just about managed to ask. How could he anyway? He wasn't even a knight himself.
"Because he offered me a place as a knight of the second order. He said he could alter the records. I turned it down of course. I just thought you should know."
Flanda nodded and sat down quickly. How could he do this? How could Tomik threaten his own father's order?
Tomik still took her breath away. Tears pricked at her eyes when she remembered how they had first met. There was a lump in her throat that she couldn't swallow. She'd gone over it so many times before and here she was still trying to figure it out. Why had he suddenly turned against her?
He smiled. His dark eyes were looking straight into hers. He lent forward and stroked her cheek. He shook his head. "You just don't get it, do you sweetie?"
He pulled her towards him and she thought he was going to kiss her. He didn't. He whispered in her ear instead. "Just can't have you making better progress through the Order. It's not right. But oh my goodness, I still want you." Now he was going to kiss her.
And now she wasn't going to have it. She pushed him away. "Why are you accepting bribes from trainee knights? Why are you ruining your father's order?"
Tomik laughed. "If I can't get what I want I'll make the whole thing look like a sham. Besides it gives me great satisfaction to see young people graduate without having to go through all the nonsensical hoops you and my father have devised. And you have to admit: it keeps you well supplied with knights."
"Just how many are we talking about here?"
Tomik laughed again and looked up to the left as if calculating. "About one third of them."
Flanda thrust the fencing foil towards Tomik's face. She was appalled to hear him scream and to see blood pouring from his eye. She hadn't meant to hurt him that much.
"Bitch! You'll pay for this." He tried to stem the flow of blood. "Marita, send for the Guard," he called.
Marita appeared at the door. She went white and put her hand in front of her mouth. She turned and hurried away.
Flanda sank to the floor.
Kaleem had never been to this side of this town. He was astonished that anything like this could exist on Zandra. Zandra was the smart forward-thinking planet. There was not supposed to be any poverty or any class distinction. All were welcome. Normally.
It must be near a rubbish dump and a sewage farm. He could smell both at once. The road here had potholes in it and there were weeds coming through the cracks in the pavements. How could that happen? At least, he reflected, his father would be fascinated. Plants normally had to be forced on Zandra. Here they were growing freely.
The Shack, as Clem had described it, was made of some sort of metal. It had huge holes in the roof and the walls and looked as if its protective covering needed replacing. He'd never seen anything on Zandra be allowed to decay so much. He shivered as he remembered how Terrestra's Z Zone used to be. Well, it was much poorer than this. But why was this even here? He just didn't understand.
He'd better go in, he supposed. It would be dark in there if there was no electricity and he suspected there wouldn't' be.
He pushed open the door and walked in.
"Glad you could make it." As soon as Clem spoke the lights came up and Kaleem found himself standing in a vast space full of dataserves and big screens. A lot of humans and droids were very busy processing information.
Of course. The Zandrians were always so clever at that.
Clem laughed. "Fooled you, did it?"
Kaleem nodded. He ought to have realised.
"Well, Kaleem, we thought it was about time we were a bit straighter with you. We haven't really told you all that we know about the House of Clementine. Yes, we weren't lying when we said it has always tried to control Zandra and Terrestra before that. We just weren't honest about exactly how much."
"Kaleem. You called me Kaleem. How did you know?"
Clem smiled. "That's what happens if you go fooling around with Hidden Information. You get found out." Clem shook his head. "Anyway, I kind of recognised you. Not so much by the way you looked but by the way you acted."
Ah well. It was out in the open now. Perhaps it was better that way. "So are you saying that the House of Clementine is behind what's happening now?"
"We think so."
"The brown tunics? The racists? The questions about human rights?"
Clem nodded. "Yes, all of that and more."
"Yes more. But let me introduce you to Sofia. She will take you through the history. We want you to know everything."
"Sofia? She doesn't have a code name?"
"We don't bother with those here."
"So what's your real name?"
Clem laughed. "It actually is Clem. Short for Clemens. Ah, here she is."
Kaleem gulped when the young women appeared in the doorway. She could have been Saratina when she was younger. Her face was distorted in a similar way though her body was a little straighter. She held her hand out to receive the Zandrian hand shake. Kaleem fumbled and shook her hand the Terrestran way. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "It's just that ..."
"You're wondering about this?" She pointed to her face.
That was different from Saratina for sure. She spoke clearly. Whatever had damaged her face had not affected the inside of her mouth.
Kaleem felt his cheeks burning. "It's just that I knew someone else ... ."
"Well mine was a birth defect."
That was unusual on Zandra.
Kaleem shook his head. "I'm sorry for staring."
"Not a problem. Yes, unusually they didn't detect it when I was in vitrio but they have managed to build me a bionic mouth." She opened her mouth and pointed to a set of metal and plastic devices. "They offered me facial reconstruction but I turned it down. I kind of like this. It gives me some character. Much better than typical Zandrian good looks. Shall we?"
He followed her along the corridor and into a small windowless room. A hoversessel came over to him and Sofia nodded that he should sit down.
"In this little room we have all of the records that we could find of the House of Clementine. Sit back and enjoy the show."
The holo presentation started. It was truly impressive. But if they were operating outside of normal society how did they get the money for this? And where was the hard evidence?
"You see," said Sofia, "it started on Terrestra, centuries before we colonised." A vehicle pulled by horses rumbled out of the screen. It was decorated with a branch bearing seven clementines. "It seemed quite benign in those days. In fact, they did a lot of good. They educated poorer children. Then it started going wrong."
Kaleem did notice the subtle changes as they worked through the Terrestran centuries.
Sofia nodded. "You can see that they encouraged the poison cloud – they kept hidden the types of fuel available to Terrestrans and encouraged the use of the ones that would guarantee climate change. And by the time the colonies were formed they were influencing pretty well everything."
"But they weren't' necessarily evil, were they?"
"No. But it is worrying just how much influence they had. We're sure they're connected to the brown tunics and the racist incidents that are happening now. That is bad and probably getting worse."
Where was the evidence, though? "You know, this just looks like a pretty little story put together for tourists or college students. Is it all based on critical evidence?"
"Oh, it most certainly is." Her jaw was tense and her lips were pursed.
Darn. He'd irritated her. He ought to be able to do better than this. Wasn't he supposed to be the ultimate in diplomats?
Sofia closed down the holo presentation
"You read Figurescript and Wordtext, don't you?"
"Here's your critical data then."
Kaleem watched as file after file loaded on to the screen. Yes, it was all there. Goodness, they'd worked hard at this.
Someone cleared their throat. Kaleem turned to see Clem standing in the doorway. "So, you can see how widespread it is?"
"I most certainly can."
"Will you work with us more closely now?"
Why not? What else was he supposed to do? He shrugged. "I need to keep away from the normal channels for a while."
"You do, don't you?" Clem laughed. "Well, there's plenty of work needs doing. We need to find out what they have planned, where they're getting their people from, how they're maintaining their influence, how they're infiltrating into our society, why they're doing all of this. Most importantly as well: who is behind all of this."
"How are you going to do all of that?"
"Well it's already happening. We have agents in the field. Some people out there aren't quite what they seem."
"And you think there is just one person behind it all?"
Clem nodded. "Person. Or maybe entity."
Kaleem shivered. "What do you mean exactly?"
"This is something really huge. Maybe the biggest thing that has happened ever to humanity. Well, are you with us?"
"Yes, of course I'm with you. But what exactly do you see me doing?"
Clem laughed. "You don't get it?"
Kaleem shrugged, shook his head and raised his hands in the air.
"Well young man, we want you to find out exactly who or what is at the bottom of all of this. You're the best person for the task."
Kaleem's personal communicator buzzed. How could they reach him if he'd been cut off?
Clem nodded that he should answer.
Kaleem stared at the communicator. There was neither a face nor a symbol on the screen.
"Anonymous caller," said the tinny voice.
"Answer it," said Clem. "If they've found you it must be important."
Kaleem nodded. "Accept," he mumbled. Was he about to be called in and at best reprimanded though more likely to be incarcerated?
"You're needed. I know you've done something you shouldn't have. But have you seen what's been happening in the last few hours?"
Nazaret had managed to find him again.
About the Peace Child Series:
Everything about Kaleem marks him out form the rest: the blond hair and dark skin, the uncomfortable cave where he lives and the fact that he doesn’t know his father. He’s used to unwelcome attention, but even so he’d feel better if some strange old man didn’t keep following him around.
That man introduces himself and begins to explain the Babel Prophecy – and everything in Kaleem’s life changes forever.
Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown.
She edits CafeLit.
She writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation
She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing
See other episodes: https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/search/label/The%20House%20of%20Clementine