After the formality of waiting at a coaching house, the eventual venue was again a large country house, about a third of the way back to Shaftsbury from Salisbury. She was met at the door of a central hall by the Thomas de Vere. He explained there would be a Roman theme and they would be required to get into costume. Ximene and Thomas were amongst the first arrivals.
Ximene looked around. The room was unadorned almost sterile in appearance. Pure white walls and ceiling contrasted with the intense black of the massive beams which supported the arched ceiling. The room was furnished in a most unusual way. Immediately in front of Ximene were a set of steps. The steps gave access to a wide walkway which ran the length of the room and terminated without any further change in level in a stage which stretched from wall to wall. Along the side walls were two rows of well upholstered couches. The first tier was on a platform at the same height as the walkway and stage the second tier was another three feet above that the second tier was accessed from steps at the sides of the stage. Clearly the couches were meant to provide a good view of the stage. What was most unusual was that the walkway also performed the function of a table. Both sides of the walkway were set for the meal and some cold dishes were already in place. There was still a corridor down the middle. Ximene wondered who would walk down the corridor and under what circumstances!
When all the guests had arrived a gong sounded and everyone filed out of the main hall heading for one of two bedrooms which had been set out for a change of costume. Ximene found that now she was in the mainstream of activity he was totally acceptable and personally comfortable. She immediately struck up a conversation with a dazzling blonde, who introduced herself as Faun. Faun was only too pleased to give Ximene more information
“Tonight, Eagle, is a man’s night. The ladies, by taking part in a competition, will provide the entertainment. These evenings are alternated with ladies nights when the men enter into competition and provided the entertainment.”
“The men tend to get too competitive but watching them cover themselves with oil and fist fight naked is quite entertaining”
Ximene was most interested. She remembered the sessions fighting with john Stanley when she became his sparring partner during his recovery from injury.
“And will the ladies fight, tonight?” She asked
Faun gave Ximene a very incredulous look.
“Good gracious me no! It is a competition and there is a very generous prize, but it is very lighthearted. Tonight is mostly about taking your clothes off as decorously as possible”
She smiled delighted at the thought. Ximene found she instinctively liked Faun who continued to explain how the society worked.
“The aim is to have a meeting every week. Twelve or thirteen meetings with the same partner. Most nights are however just opportunities to meet each other and eat together. Every member had a partner of the opposite sex. The idea is that partners provide support for each other. It is a bit like marriage except that partners are not necessarily sexual partners, though sometimes it does turn out that way. Once every quarter there is a special night at which attendance is compulsory. At that meeting partners can and often are changed.
Faun was distracted by the need to apply make up. Looking around Ximene concluded that from the amount of attention which was being paid to the application of body make up and body paint, there was a general assumption that before the end of the evening bodies would be on display. Faun and Ximene agreed to help each other with body paint. Faun explained that the theme of these games was chosen carefully so that the costumes were appropriate to the game. With the body paint in place they started to don their costumes.
Each girl had four triangles of silk. All four were the same pastel colour but there was little repetition. However Ximene’s costume was white and she noticed that two other girls were donning white costumes. Two of the triangles were attached by a pin thrust through loops on the back of the button. Draping these over one shoulder they were pulled across under the opposite breast and fastened at the other side with three similar buttons. The other two triangles were then draped over the opposite shoulder and fastened similarly on the opposite side. The result was a close imitation of a roman toga but held together by eight buttons. The costume also included a pair of open flat shoes with ties which enabled them to be laced to mid thigh.
Faun explained that what was to occur was in fact a game of chance interspaced with games of skill. It was all structured to ensure that nearly all the ladies lost all their clothes but there would be a winner. The winner would be the last girl left with any buttons. The prize for the winner was fifty pounds, truly a fortune. Many of the ladies entered into the spirit of the game by coiling and piling their hair to imitate the roman style. As this could not affect the outcome of the game Ximene realised that there were many different objectives on display.
When they returned to the room the men were waiting for them. Ximene had become accustomed to the fact that the meal at these meetings although delicious, was extremely light. She now realised that what she had experienced at the previous meeting was the way meetings of the society were normally conducted, not something devised for newcomers. Frequently though the meal there were movements round the table so that by the time brandies had been served she had sat next to and talked to everyone in the room. She enjoyed both the concept and the conversations. She felt really comfortable in this environment.
In the latter stages of the meal she could feel the tension growing however. She felt it herself. What was she involved in? What would she be required to do? The ladies withdrew to the couches at the sides of the hall. Ximene made sure she sat next to Faun. Alongside every couch was a table with a full selection of drinks. On the tables in front of every lady was a stack of cards.
The men remained at their seats by the walkway which had served as the dinner table. Ximene realised that her first assessment of the tiered couches was wrong. It was not to provide a good view of what was happening below. It was so that those below had a good view of what was happening above! The game had not yet started and yet already she felt exposed.
A man at the end of the asked that everyone should take their seats so that the game could commence. He asked every lady to shuffle the cards which lay in front of her and then place their upper card in the holder provided so that he could see the selection. The cards had no devices or blazons on them. They were white on the side facing up but had a series of primary colours on the back. Ximene did as she was told the card she placed in the holder was red. Looking around Ximene could see the results of the selection for the couches on the opposite side of the room. As was to be expected virtually every colour could bee seen but there was some duplication of green. The man at the end of the walkway then carefully shuffled the pack with lay in front of him and picking the top card placed it in the holder in front of him. Everyone in the room could see his selection it was yellow. Immediately amid busts of giggles and outright laughter four ladies rose to their feet. One at a time they removed one of their buttons.
Ximene suddenly realised had a clear perception of what the game was about. She also saw that around the walkway men were gambling on the outcome! The second round was held immediately. Ximene’s next card was yellow. The card at the end of the walkway was red. A different group of girls stood up and removed buttons. Two of their number had lost buttons in the first round however. Faun was near enough to Ximene to talk.
“Now the fun begins” she said.
A curtain was opened at one side of the stage revealing a target. The two girls who had lost two buttons descended on to the stage amongst cheers of encouragement, both were smiling broadly and one of them waved briefly to their partner. Clearly they were enjoying themselves. A bow and a quiver of arrows were placed on the table in the middle of the stage. Again Faun explained
All they have to do is hit the target. If they succeed they get a button back if they fail they loose another button! One lady succeeded, the other failed. They walked back to their couches and adjusted their dress according to the outcome. The lady who had now lost three buttons now had two of the triangles of silk simply hanging from one shoulder. As she went to sit down her dress was now extremely revealing. Unabashed she again waved to her partner.
So the game progressed. From that point on each competitor got the chance when she had lost an additional two buttons to recoup one of them by firing an arrow at the target. Ximene soon got her first chance having lost two buttons and won back her button easily. The firing point was gradually pulled back until they were shooting across the full width of the stage. It seemed to Ximene that some competitors did not try very hard she soon found out why! Eventually one lady was left with only one button. This meant that she had two triangles of silk hanging from one shoulder. She was to all intents and purposes naked. She missed the target. There was no point in removing the last button she simply pulled the last remnant of her costume from her shoulder and amidst great applause bowed to the audience. She then walked, very deliberately carefully putting one foot immediately in front of the other, down the walkway. She had one hand on her hip and her head was held high in the air. She suddenly stopped and pointed to one of the men sat below looking up at her. He rose to his feet and walked alongside her to the end of the walkway and held her hand as she descended the steps. They embraced briefly and left through the main doors in the direction of the bedrooms.
No wonder some of the girls were not trying too hard! The first lady to loose her clothes got first choice of the available men for the night. Faun broke in with another explanation.
“We do not have to choose our partner, though many ladies do. If we do not want to have sexual relations with anyone then we must walk off the end of the walkway without pointing at anybody. We will then return to the couches and continue to socialise. Of course it is also possible later to change you mind.”
Another thought occurred to Ximene.
“When picked in this way are the men able to refuse?”
Faun shook her head.
“No it would be considered very bad form, what then happens in the bedroom is another issue of course!”
Ximene was intrigued that the women were effectively in control. There were similarities to her own upbringing in this. She wondered if, although there were no religious overtones in anything she had seen in this society, it was possible that it might have had its origins in a Cathar Sect?
Obviously the game was designed so that eventually each competitor stood virtually naked in a classical hunting pose. Because of her prowess with the bow Ximene found herself as one of the last two competitors. By now the couches were still fully occupied. Very few of the ladies had chosen to go directly to a bedroom. Most of them were watching the end of the contest. Ximene, by this stage had only two buttons left, meaning that her right breast and left thigh were totally exposed. Despite this distraction she was beginning to enjoy herself. Now there were only two girls left the rules changed now the inners on the target came into play. Each girl was given three arrows for each round. At the end of the round the one with the lowest score lost a button from this point on there was no reclaiming of buttons. It really was a game of skill. Every arrow was greeted with cheers from the audience. Ximene remembered John Stanley telling her how her had enjoyed the applause of the crowd at his first archery contrast. Ximene now understood exactly what he had been talking about even though this was a frivolous light hearted contest . Ximene shook her head. John Stanley again. Would he never leave her alone? She determined that she would enjoy the rest of the evening without John and her memories of him. She was going to give way to the excitement of the moment!
The other lady was good but in the end good enough. Ximene had still retained two buttons when her competitor was final naked. Ximene stood back as the other lady made her way down the walkway down the steps and made her way up to the couches were she was welcomed by a group of her special friends. There were now only one man sat at the side of the walkway, Thomas de Vere, Ximenes sponsor. The man who had been running the competition told Ximene that her prize of fifty ponds would be held in credit but she gave a meeting’s notice it could be given to her in money. He then explained that as she was the winner it was expected that she would now remove the remnants of her costume and travel down the walkway and return. As she did so she could feel every eye in the room upon her. She was most conscious that Tomas de Vere was looking up at her. She could have crept down the isle hiding as much as possible from his view. She decided not to. She decided to enjoy her moment of triumph. She strode down the walkway alternatively holding her hands at full stretch above her head and the clasping them under her hair at the back of her head. She was received by widespread applause and just a little cheering.
On her return to the stage a small gold tiara was placed on her head. She looked down the walkway. Thomas de Vere was still sitting there. She was about to make her third pass in front of him and had made up her mind to point at him so that she could find out if he was as much fun as Joan claimed he would be.
The organisers voice cut through her thoughts.
“Mercury” Thomas de Vere nodded.
“Mercury”you are this delightful young ladies sponsor. Your task is now complete. As you know our rules do not permit and sexual contact to occur with anyone who has not chosen or been chosen as a partner. It is time therefore for me to escort this young lady to her bedroom where she can come to no harm. She has made a sparkling entry to our society and next week there will be spirited bidding from those who wish to be her partner. For the present however she must be held safe and isolated from sexual activity. Once again she found herself locked in a bedroom. It was worse than previously. She burned inside and out with sexual passion and she could hear the subdued sounds of other people indulging in sexual activity. The final ignominy was that all this had happened on St Valentine’s day!