"So there you are," said Arboth. "That's all you need to do to become a knight of the second order." It was that simple? Kaleem had been reluctant at first to take on the knight training as Arboth had suggested. Then he'd realised with his trip to Zenoto coming up he'd better do it first if he was going to. It was important to understand about the House of Clementine, even if the problems on Zenoto were more urgent.
"You look puzzled," said Arboth.
"I can do this though I've not even become an ordinary knight?"
Arboth shrugged. "You have all of those qualities anyway. A Peace Child would, wouldn't they?"
"Maybe. And you say all. That's a lot actually." The video clip had gone on for what seemed an age.
"Yes but you can do most of those things already."
"I can, yes. But how can those knights who pay for their progression keep up their pretence?"
"Well we don't exactly flaunt our knight skills when we're in ordinary company. We just get the award and that's that."
"How can you keep up standards if your knights haven't been properly trained?"
"It's difficult, yes. It's a fundamental problem. But your standard will be all right. Are you ready to take the test? It would be good to get it done before you set off for Zenoto."
"I guess. Can we just go through the fencing one more time?"
"Oh I'm sure we can. Try with the epée."
Kaleem took the longer weapon. The two of them were soon engaged in a circular parry. Shortly after that Kaleem found himself able to touch Arboth's chest.
"Well done," said Arboth. "Now will you take the rest of the test?"
"Gladly." Kaleem sat himself down at the console and started answering the questions. Twenty minutes later the dataserve pinged.
Arboth nodded. "97%. Pretty good. You could graduate."
"I don't feel ready to be a knight, though. I don't really feel as if I could belong to Clementine. I still don't really understand it."
"What is it exactly that you don't understand?"
"Well, there seems to be so much about it that is good: very high standards in everything, happy workers and really good health care and education systems. Yet you have drug problems and there is corruption within your knight training system."
Arboth shrugged. "Doesn't that happen in most organisations?"
It did. Arboth was right. But there was something else he couldn't quite define. Then there was the suspicion that the House of Clementine might somehow be connected with all the strange things that were going on Zandra and Zenoto. Perhaps it would soon be Terrestra as well.
Arboth touched Kaleem's shoulder. "Once you become one of our knights you could find out more."
Well, it would be a sure way of getting to the bottom of everything. And it was very much the type of thing he'd done before. There was still a lot he didn't quite understand though.
"Well?" said Arboth.
Kaleem nodded. "All right. Let's go for it."
Kaleem adjusted his House of Clementine knight's graduation tunic. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. Yes, it certainly suited him. The blue cloak was especially stunning. These uniforms were very attractive. Perhaps that was one of the reasons so many people wanted to become knights.
"Thank goodness I made it," said the young woman who stood next to him.
"Oh, just an ordinary knight."
"Still an achievement."
She shrugged. "The first step on the ladder."
"But why is becoming a knight so important? Isn't being part of the Order enough?"
"It's easier to stay in the Order if you're on the knight ladder."
Kaleem nodded. He understood that. "You have a point. Were you born into the Order?"
"Yes, but I've seen some of my cousins being forced to leave. I don't want that. You're an incomer, aren't you?"
"Yes I am. I think sometimes it's easier for us."
"You're probably right. You have a better understanding of how dreadful the outside is."
"Oh, I don't know about that."
He would have liked to continue the conversation but they were now being marshalled into ceremonial hall.
The graduation ceremony was a bit of a bore. Two hundred young people were knighted. There were no swords on shoulders these days, nor did they have to kneel down in front of any important person. Quite simply, names were read out and they trooped in front of one of the senior trainers, who handed them the bandanna that completed their uniform. A holograph of a fencing foil hovered over the head of each graduand and an electronic voice confirmed their status as a graduated knight.
He thought about the conversation he'd started having in the robing room. Why was the fear of the outside so great? Was is just that being part of the Order was so good? How could you know if you'd not experienced anything else, as was the case with that young woman he'd spoken to? Was this simply fear of the unknown? How did people get expelled to the outside?
As soon as the last of the knights had moved past her the senior trainer stepped forward and began to make a speech.
"I won't keep you long, I promise," she said. "I know you are all anxious to celebrate with your friends and family. I would like to thank you for taking on this very important work. I hope that you will all consider your knighthoods not just as something symbolic but that you will go on to use your skills to champion the principles and ideals of the Order and keep the Order safe. That you will be proactive in identifying those who should be asked, or indeed, compelled to leave. We must keep the Order pure. Some of you will work on the outside but if you live according to House of Clementine principles the Order will always be your sanctuary and we welcome also your efforts in identifying individuals who should be invited to join the Order."
A shiver ran down Kaleem's spine as everyone started clapping. It was those age-old issues of inclusion and exclusion. He knew too much about all of that by now to feel at all comfortable with it.
The clapping died down.
"Thank you," the chief trainer continued. "Now if you would all like to make your way into the banqueting suite, refreshments have been made available for you."
Kaleem mingled with the others. He had invited no friends or family to the ceremony: his involvement with the House of Clementine had to remain top secret. He helped himself to a glass of clementine juice and took one of the sweet pastries. He looked out for the young woman he'd been speaking to earlier but he couldn't see her anywhere. He knew exactly what he must do now. He must make himself disappear. He drew himself in, bowed his head slightly and kept his eyes looking down to the ground. He was in his invisibility mode and glided through the crowd without being seen. He kept his ears open.
"Well we're definitely insiders now," he heard one young man say.
"Yes, it's really hard to get rid of knights. Thank goodness. It's barbaric out there, I've heard."
"Not for me, thank you. Having to queue to see a medic. Sharing wands. Riff-raff in the classroom."
"Now we get to keep them in order."
Were they all like this?
Kaleem moved round the room.
"Will you go back outside now?" he heard another say.
"I hope not but I might have to," his companion answered. "I hope not, though. They're barbarians out there."
"Well at least we don't get any of the scum here."
Unbelievable. Surely this went against the code of conduct of knighthood anyway? Kaleem carried on walking across the room.
"I can't wait to get stuck in. To help other people to do their best. Help to promote the Clementine standards."
The girl must be one of the youngest knights ever. About twelve, perhaps? And her friend, also a knight of the second order, didn't look a lot older. The other girl was nodding vigorously. She caught Kaleem's eye as he walked past and he found himself dropping his invisibility and grinning at her. At least those two were being positive. But what would even they do if people didn't conform?
Kaleem decided it was time to go. There was work to be done here, he could tell. What, though? And would he have time with everything else? Could it be the House of Clementine that was interfering here and on Zenoto? Or was this just something else he would have to worry about?
He moved quietly across the room, then into the lift, down and out of the building. It was late spring / early summer by now. Pleasant time of day for jogging.
He glanced back up at the floor where the ceremony had taken place. No one would guess. No one would realise what Clementine was. It just looked like any other corporate event. Didn't that prove that they had something to hide? What though? His investigations so far had really got him nowhere.
He set off. By the time he'd reached the corner he had a steady pace. One foot in front of the other. Up and down. Breathing in and out.
After about twenty minutes he had to stop. He had a stitch. He bent down to relieve it. Then he remembered his time in Terrestra before the disease had taken hold. There had been fear then as well about letting outsiders in. Had that been the same? Had even that been to do with the House of Clementine?
His communicator buzzed. Rozia. He changed direction.
I must take care now. The Peace Child is beginning to understand. Though of course he doesn't understand what he is understanding. I am real. He will have to learn that at some point.