This 16 October, half-past four in the morning. It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death--it is such only for criminals--but to go and join your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same steadfastness as he in these last moments. I am calm, as one is when one's conscience is clear. I deeply regret leaving my poor children; you know that I lived only for them, and you, my good, loving sister, you who have by your friendship sacrificed everything to be with us. What a position I leave you in!
Marie Antoinette lays down her quill pen. It has been hard to write with it, and the ink splashes the paper. Mindful of her dignity, she looks up at the jailer. "Monsieur, if you would be so kind, I require something to clean my hands."
In the candlelight, she sees the jailer give a nod, of respect and not a little surprise. A moment's absence, and he returns to the darkened cell with a tin tray bearing a damp towel. Marie takes it up delicately and wipes her hands.
"It is time," says the jailer, a shadowy figure in black, "Your Majesty."
Marie Antoinette rises. Just before he opens the door to her cell, the jailer blows out the candle, and she's plunged into darkness before the brightness The exhilaration surges through Lotte's blood. She sees the crowd screaming for her to die, hears their filthy, snaggle-toothed mouths as they scream rowdy taunts. The heady sensation of all eyes upon her makes her giddy, intoxicates her. She is the aristocratic Queen, she glides pure and perfect among them, she faces her fate with dignity and, more importantly, decorum. Power surges through her veins. She is complete.
Her heartbeat shakes her full body as she gazes towards the tall executioner waiting for her. The dark figure is hooded, sombre, standing as though carved in granite. The light floods her as she approaches.
"They're liquidating a cinema studio, Lettice! We can get the floodlights for a song, and probably all kinds of other props, too!"
"Well, I rather tend to let my imagination supply the props, but if it makes you happy…" Lettice looks at the light in Lotte's eyes. Hmm. They had better get as much of that studio's equipment as they can possibly afford.
As she mounts the rough wooden stairs, careful to raise her skirts to protect them from the dust and dirt of the common thoroughfare, she inadvertently trips and her foot in its satin slipper lands on the foot of the executioner. "Monsieur," she says with dignity befitting a Queen, "I ask your pardon. I did not do it on purpose."
He bows his head, and gestures respectfully towards the guillotine. She tilts her head back, and as Marie's eyes fall upon it, towering, looming up gigantic and menacing, the instrument of her death, a thrill takes Lotte, rocks her from stem to stern. All this – for her. She has never seemed so important, never felt so significant, as at this moment. The moment when she meets her fate. Her moment to die.
The hooded executioner stands there, silent, waiting. Lotte shivers, not now with the thrill of the fantasy but with the almost shameful embarrassment of her deepest desires being stripped bare, exposed thus to another person. She knows that all she has to do is say "Lettice," and the name will halt the game, but she hasn't yet, not in all the scenes they've played. Lettice knows just when and where to push, seems, sometimes, to know her better than she knows herself.
And it terrifies her.
"…Do you know," Lettice says carefully, taking a swallow of her Quaff, "I'm fascinated by executions."
She watches the convulsive movement of Lotte's throat, and notes how the other woman has to take a sip from her own glass before saying, "Really?"
Lettice nods. "It's not just the drama – the abrupt… cutting off of a life, as it were…" She notices the little jerk Lotte gives as she says "cutting off." Continuing smoothly, she says, "Have you ever imagined how the person being executed must feel?" Since Lotte seems quite beyond speech, she goes on, looking her full in the face. "Feeling so helpless. Being stripped of your rights, your pride – your humanity – and in the end, being stripped of your life. Imagine that kind of powerlessness. Having everything taken away from you."
"But some people go down in history precisely because they were executed," Lotte breathes.
"But until that moment," Lotte murmurs, "until the actual beheading – or hanging – you're being treated as worthless, and promised the ultimate punishment. You're treated as an object."
The hooded executioner motions to the guillotine.
Marie kneels, the hard wood against her knees sending an undefinable shiver through her body, and bends her aristocratic neck to the stock. She feels the ponderous presence behind her, smelling of oils and sweat, locking the heavy wood around her neck. She is helpless. She cannot flee.
She is about to be stripped of life.
The 'blade' – noisy wood fitted with foam and foil, carefully fitted with a thousand safety features to avoid injuring the actors in it – slashes down at the speed of sound, and slams into the wooden frame with such force that the whole stage shudders, rocking from side to side. Lotte jerks with the impact and lets out a shocked little cry.
She lies there, in the stock, shaking, waves of passion pouring over her, struggling to process what has just occurred. It's the most realistic scene they've ever played to date. Lettice, standing there as the executioner, is magnificent. Lotte doesn't even recognize her.
The moment stretches, slows. Lotte is still trembling. It's at moments like these – after the axe has fallen – that every particle of her seems aflame, with a passion she can't name. It's not sex, it can't be sex: sex is cheap and tawdry, compared to what they've performed. But she can't deny that that's part of it, that she's hot and enflamed sexually, that her heart is pounding, partly, for release. It cheapens what they've done, she imagines, somehow. If Lettice knew of her feelings, she would be mortified.
Lettice is not releasing her.
Yet Lotte doesn't dare speak her name.
Moments pass. Roughly, the guillotine clicks open. Roughly, Lotte's hauled to her feet. Lettice stands before her. For more long moments, she stands, struck dumb with an emotion halfway between awe and fear, as the hooded figure regards her silently, looking into her face, and, she feels, into her heart. Exposing her. Stripping her.
She feels vulnerable. Naked. She wants to run and hide.
And yet, part of her feels her blood heat and her pulse quicken at the thought.
The hooded head nods. "You're ready, I believe." The voice is mysterious, unreadable.
For a mad moment, Lotte thinks it maybe isn't Lettice, that there's someone else behind the hood. Terror strikes her, and panic is just about to take hold, the sensation in her body like falling off a cliff onto sharp stones, when the executioner leans close. "If it gets too much, just call for me," comes the gentle whisper, and she quiets. Her pulse still races, but the stark fear is gone. Exposed, yes, but in safe hands.
Meekly, she allows herself to be led back outside the cellar door, to the small passageway where they've placed the writing-desk. Her heart is thundering in her ears: this is uncharted territory. They've never repeated a scene before; when they're done, they repair to the living-room for Quaff, having pledged not to indulge before handling dangerous props, and then – she would blush at the recollection if all her blood weren't already on the surface of her skin – repair to their separate rooms, Lotte, at least, to satisfy the cravings of her traitorous body, reacting to a pursuit that is – that should be, she thinks - purely adventurous, not sexual.
She reaches for the quill, but it's snatched from her hand. The unfairness of it stings, and she looks up at the hooded jailer. "But I have nothing to write with!"
"Write with your finger."
Marie Antoinette stands, drawing herself up with dignity. "But I shall soil my fingers!"
The jailer's hand shoots out, grasps the inkwell and slashes his hand through the air in an arc that sends the ink in a splatter-stream over Marie's gown. "You have no power here," he says, voice flat and hard. "You are nothing. You are not in charge; I am. Do you understand?"
The pounding of Lotte's heart reaches a crescendo, her blood heated to fever pitch. "I beg your pardon!"
For answer, the man folds his arms. "Undress."
Marie draws herself up to her full height, though Lotte feels like fainting. "How dare you?"
"If you do not," the man says, "we shall execute the children you hold so dear."
"Undress, now: Queen Marie Antoinette shall be paraded naked through the streets like a common whore, to divest the aristocracy of any illusions of pride!"
Trembling, Lotte's hands rise to the bosom of her gown. She releases the fastening at the back of her neck, feeling the already-loose zipper glide down her back.
"They're auctioning off costumes at the little theatre on the Common. I thought you'd like to have a look."
Lettice looks at the light in Lotte's eyes, and nods. "It might be fun."
The rough, gloved hands reach out and yank Marie's dress down. The fabric scrapes down her oversensitized skin, sandpaper, fingernails. The lace-trimmed cuffs, fastened with pearl buttons, stay at her wrists; first one leather-gloved hand, then the other, grips her vulnerable forearm and wrenches the sleeves off her hand with a ripping sound, popping the buttons, stinging the join where wrist meets thumb. She knows her jailer doesn't care, and that sends a curl of excitement through her very core. The rest of the dress is ripped off her, discarded on the floor with her dignity.
Rough hands grip her partlet, and she jolts as the linen is torn off her neck. Marie tries to hold on to her pantalets, but those too are torn off her, and she stands naked and trembling, in nothing but her satin slippers. And her wig.
The looming, dark figure swings the door open and the light blinds her once again. Only now, it touches her whole body, every fine hairlet on the surface of her skin standing up and responding to the heat and warmth and brightness, the roar of the crowd flooding over her in waves, intoxicating her brain. In a cart she is paraded through the streets of paris, naked, neck, shoulders, breasts, thighs, belly, buttocks, all, all on display, all kissed by the air and the sun, all about to be destroyed.
The rough leather glove grips her bare upper arm as she's paraded, naked, through the streets. She is no longer a middle-aged woman of no importance: she is Marie Antoinette, of royal blood, young, beautiful, radiant – she is the doomed queen, stripped of dignity, of pride, ultimately of life, and yet - and yet, she's also beloved, adored and treasured enough to have all this done for her, to make her fantasies come to life, to be able to open the darkest recesses of her mind and heart, the closed doors of her own self so closely guarded that she scarcely knew of their existence, to another person, to lay bare her hidden soul and find nothing but fulfilment within.
The man pushes her towards the looming form of the guillotine, silhouetted by the glare of the harsh midday sun. "Hands on your head," he growls. "Legs apart."
Behind her, Lotte feels a feather tickle down her back. She squirms, nearly breaking position, but is ordered to be still. She had thought her skin could not be more sensitive, but the feather's touch ruffles the peach fuzz with a direct line to the nerves, teasing down her back, her buttocks, her inner thighs, until she's writhing and moaning shamelessly. The hooded executioner steps around her, applies the feather to her nipples, tickles down her stomach with it, then pricks her pubic curls painfully with the feather's sharp base, causing her to tilt her head back and cry out. "Look, people of Paris, on your queen! See what a slave she is to her passions!" the executioner bellows, and the crowd roars.
"The local radio – those independent young people – they're selling off some of their recordings of sound effects. Water, crowd scenes, laughter, explosions…"
"It might be useful to get some if we can, mightn't it?" Lettice says softly, waiting for Lotte's enthusiastic nod. "After all, they might be good for amateur theatrics. And who knows when we'll find things like this again."
"Now, down! Meet your fate!"
The rough-gloved hand is planted on Marie's back, and she is thrust down, bent over to place her neck into the stock of the guillotine.
Just before Lotte's knees hit the hard wood, a pillow is tucked under them.
The tenderness of the gesture almost makes her weep, senses all heightened as they are. Lettice's hand steadies her for a minute, makes sure her knees are cushioned by softness, and it says, sweet and clear, For you, this is all for you. Everything for you.
And then, Marie's neck is locked in, and the man's hands are parting her thighs, gloved hands squeezing her flesh. "Take it, whore of Austria! Take it as you die!"
Gripping the sides of the guillotine, terrible instrument of fetishized death, Lotte lets her throat open and release an animal cry as, slowly, she's stretched and opened by a thick cock driving into her.
"Our wares are all despatched in flat boxes wrapped in discreet packaging. The contents are undetectable to the postman or any inquisitive neighbours."
Lettice peruses the postal-order catalogue for long hours before making her selection. She knows they'll both need it eventually. Not at once; but Lotte, once her eyes are opened to her own hidden desires, is going to give Lettice a job and a half keeping up with her, she just knows it.
"You are utterly captive. This is the day of your death," the sonorous voice intones as poor Marie is used shamelessly before the rabble of Paris, used not by a king or an emperor, but by a common executioner.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" is all that comes out of the woman's mouth.
"Watch, Paris! Watch as the famed Queen becomes a slave to my pleasure alone!"
She's on the edge of the little death, the edge of death itself. Could this moment, right now, this stroke, this pressure and friction of that mass pushing into her, be the last thing she will ever feel but for the momentary pain as the blade bites into her neck? As her head tumbles into the basket, as her vision dims, will she look up past the bloody stocks to see the executioner's face clenched in orgasm as he pumps his seed into her still-twitching body? The thought of it makes her cry out, on the verge of the little death. And she knows that at any instant the blade may fall, and, face-down in the guillotine, she has no way of seeing, no way of knowing.
She trembles, on the verge, her mind half-gone, her body nearly unmade. Lettice understands, and thrusts harder, and Marie shrieks, starting to orgasm, and the executioner pounds her harder still. And Lotte screams, knowing that while any given thrust is entering her, filling her, slamming into her, the hand may be pulling the lever, and over her moans, over the orgasms her traitorous clitoris is pouring through her, will she even hear the smooth sound of the falling blade?
"Well may you scream, whore! Scream, as you die!"
The thick cock pounds into her even as her hands are gently disengaged from the guillotine she's gripping for dear life as she shudders with a pleasure so intense it's like death, and then there's a thundering sound, a sound like death, like destruction, and the great iron blade of the guillotine breaks free, and drives home.
And at the humiliation of her body betraying her with pleasure in the very moment of her death, the thought that her corpse, the twitching carrion untouched by your mind and your thoughts and your soul, is vessel enough for his orgasm, Lotte howls like a beast, decorum gone and civilization unmade, and she howls and shudders and writhes and flails for what seems like a lifetime, till her body finally gives out from the strain and she collapses, half-unconscious.
"God," Lettice says shakily, swiping off the executioner's mask with the hand she's been using to hold Lotte's limbs in place lest she do herself an injury. "God, Lotte. I knew you'd wear me out, but this is ridiculous!"
She opens up the stocks, heaves the still-twitching Lotte off the guillotine, and takes a second to jam her own fingers between her legs and bring herself off. "Ohhh," she sighs in pleasure—"Oh!" she gasps as an aftershock hits, shaking her all over. "Good Heavens."
Stuffing the pillow she used for Lotte's knees underneath her own head, then pillowing Lotte's head on her arm, Lettice arranges them both as best she can on the floor of the makeshift platform. She can't move another step, not if you paid her. Her eyes drift shut and she's more than three parts asleep when a soft voice beside her ear says, "How did you know?"
Sleepy as she is, Lettice feels her face curve into a smile. "There are signs," she says. "You just have to read them."
"How… interesting." Lotte's voice is as slurred as though she's drunk a whole barrel of Quaff. Then, suddenly, her body jerks, and she bursts into tears.
"Lotte!" Lettice pulls her close, presses her cheek to Lotte's. "What's wrong? Did I hurt you, love?" She clamps her mouth shut. The endearment just slipped out – but now's not the time, anyway – "What's wrong?"
"Don't worry—about it—sometimes—I do cry—after—after I've…"
Lettice exhales. "You frightened me." But Lotte's still sobbing, and Lettice wraps her arms around her. "There, there. Shh."
"It's all right. Shh."
"No. Listen. If I'd never met you, Lettice. I tremble to think. I might have lived my whole life out, never—" She's overcome, and can't go on.
"Oh, pet." What's an endearment between friends, anyway? And then, Lettice can't help smiling. "You started it. You came to me first."
They have a pact by now: whoever's not on the block makes the tea.
Lettice's tastes are is a little bit different from Lotte's. This week she's a barwench punished in the stocks for speaking too boldly to a member of the aristocracy. Hands and head in the holes, spread-eagled and trapped, she is forced to endure the insults and jeers of the passing villagers. One man comes up to her and smears her face with an overripe tomato, then roughly sticks his tongue into her mouth as she curses and rails at him. "That'll teach you to respect your betters," he says, fisting his hand in her hair and pulling it hard, making her cry out as he savages her mouth with his rough kisses, leaving her lips swollen and raw from the friction of his rough stubble.
The first man has barely gone when there's the voice of another behind her, deeper, more powerful. "I have the inclination to see what the wench looks like divested of her clothing," he says.
"No! You bastards!" shrieks the girl as her dress is pulled off her body, her breasts falling free, then her belly, then her bottom, upturned perforce due to her position in the stocks. Her skin stands up in goosebumps, chilling all over, as she feels the gaze of the village on her bare flesh.
The man laughs. "The instructions were explicit: 'Do as you will with her until sunset.'"
"No, no! You can't mean this!"
"As we will, girl, it said, 'as we will'. And what I will is to make you feel this." The head of a thick cock slides between the wench's nether lips, making her buck and scream.
"O, please! I'm a virgin! It will hurt me terribly!"
Instead of the respite the girl hopes for, there's a baritone chuckle. "Nothing that gives me more pleasure than a young girl's cries during her deflowering."
Lotte is careful as she pushes into Lettice – she's done this before, but not for the world would she hurt her. The young girl's scream, though, makes the odious man from the village guffaw. "Sing for me, girl! Sing louder, now!" He reaches round and roughly grabs her breasts, eliciting shrieks of outrage and shame. "Such soft paps! So sweet! Come, lads, and watch a deflowering as it should be performed!"
His filthy thumb and forefinger pinch the poor punished wench's nipples, and gales of bawsy laughter rise from the assembled villagers at her howls of distress. "Please! Please, good sir!" she entreats in her pain and humiliation. "It pains me so!"
"Why what pains you, girl?" He accompanies these words with a mighty thrust. The girl shrieks again at the sensation of the thick rod impaling her, the hot flesh of some unknown man, probably a smith from some foundry.
"O!—O! do not make me say it!" she begs, writhing, pinned between his punishing cock behind and his cruelly pinching fingers before.
"If you don't say it, why then I'll just go on doing it," the horrible man says cheerfully, giving the already sore, throbbing nubs a twist that draws a scream.
"O! O, my…" the wench breaks down in sobs of shame. "My nipples, sir."
Another gale of raucous laughter. "Ha! So," the thick cock begins to thrust inside the defenceless girl, pushing her up pitilessly against the hard wood of the stocks, "this," he pulls on her nipples, stretching her breasts so that Lettice nearly faints with the excitement and arousal of it, "pains your nipples, does it?" More shrieks of laughter at the girl's humiliation from the assembled villagers.
"Whore!" He lets go of her breasts, but draws from his pocket a pair of clothespegs that he fastens on the hardened tips of her sore, abused paps. At the renewed sharp pain, the girl lets out a wail, and the combination of shooting pain, the penetration and the sensation of being humiliated so by a brutish stranger in the village square push Lettice so close to the brink that she whimpers in her own voice. Hearing it, Lotte's hands grip the naked girl's waist, pistoning into her with the heartless brute's hard cock, saying, "Here! Receive your just desserts! This fucking is your punishment! Scream for me, whore!"
And Lettice does, so loudly that it's just as well they're in the cellar lest the neighbours call the police. She shudders, and shudders again, and again, and so many times that she loses count. Dizziness overtakes her.
She's only dimly aware of being released from the stocks, cradled in Lotte's arms as her friend leans back against the stocks. "There, there, love," Lotte says, soft, comforting, although Lettice doesn't need to be consoled after her pleasure as Lotte does. "Ssh." Lotte kisses her forehead. "Sshh."
Still floating in a haze, she feels Lotte remove the clothespegs and then gently start to apply cream to her wrists and wrap them in gauze. "Your poor hands," Lotte murmurs. "You always bruise your wrists. If you'd just let me pad the wood…"
"It's all right," Lettice smiles, eyes still glazed. "It makes it – more real for me. Makes me feel it more, enjoy it more."
Lotte looks shyly at the floor. "You did? Um, think it was… all right?"
"You must be joking." Lettice, beaming, leans over and plants a big kiss on Lotte's cheek. "It was magnificent." She pauses, mischievous. "I… just feel like a cup of tea now."
Lotte rises creakily. "Oh, all right."
My God, when Lettice let fall her coat to reveal that red nightgown… All the courage and flamboyance of the world was in it. The clinging red silk left nothing to the imagination. She was magnificent underneath: the slight sag of her beautiful bust, nipples slightly puckered beneath the thin fabric, the soft curve of her belly, the silk even clinging closely to the slight dimpled indentations that textured her thighs. Every flaw, every imperfection that never graced the pages of a magazine was proof positive that bebeath the skin was living tissue: alive, real, there. Lotte was stunned, shocked: but beneath that shock was the wild urge to run her hands all over that body, glorified and heightened by the bright red that clothed it: to drink of that courage, the courage that cast off drab wool and planted bright satin in its place. And beneath that, flesh. Skin. Bone, muscle, beating heart.
She leans back as the kettle boils, even now captivated by the wonder of it.
When Lotte laid herself bare, took off her wig... that was when Lettice knew.
"You must be joking." Lettice lays down the book that Lotte has procured, Two Years Before The Mast.
"I want to do this."
Lettice looks hard at her friend. In the two weeks since the police left, Lotte hasn't asked that they play a single scene. Lettice has been letting her get over it, but now, looking at her friend's sunken cheeks and pallor, she knows she should have intervened sooner.
"You're feeling guilty," Lettice accuses.
"Certainly not! Well, all right, so I am. So what? I am guilty. You've done so much for me, Lettice, and I have—"
"Don't reduce it to that." There's not a little indignation in Lettice's voice. "We have done many things for one another. I'm no benefactress."
"I betrayed you!"
"You didn't. You told the truth in the end—"
"After I had nearly turned you over to the police because my own cowardice wouldn't allow me to speak up!"
"I thought what you said was brilliant! You saved us both!"
But Lotte falls silent.
"I won't do it, Lotte." Lettice shakes her head at her friend's impassive mien. She crosses to the kitchen, puts the kettle on, then comes back to stand in the doorway. "There's no need."
"Oh, but there is. I need it."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"It'll please me. You know I like pain."
"Liar. Not like this."
"I won't rest until I'm—" Lotte flushes, looks away. "I want a real punishment. I'm sick of playing pretend. I want it, I'm willing. Won't you do it for me?"
"I shan't. I shan't hurt you willingly." The kettle whistles, and Lettice turns back, going into the kitchen. She busies herself with cups and saucers.
Lotte follows her. "Then I suppose I shall have to place an advert in the personal column, and find someone to do it for me."
Lettice stills. She lowers the kettle back to the hob and turns to face Lotte. Her friend's face is set, impassive. "You really mean that."
"I'm not happy with it at all. At all."
Lotte steps closer to Lettice. "I can't seem to fall asleep. I keep thinking of how I nearly, nearly—"
"It's the only way I'll be able to find some sort of peace!" Lotte bursts out. "Please, love." Shamefaced at her outburst, she takes Lettice's cold, bony hands in both of hers, and looks down at their clasped hands. "I have to be able to face myself," she mutters. "Please."
"I don't like it."
Lotte fingers the cat o'nine tails, a realistic creation that's a relic of Ealing Studios, not the lighter ones that are used on the actors but the hefty period-correct piece used for close-ups. She curls her fingers around the weighted leather handle, runs the long tails of knotted rope through her fingers. "It's very authentic. I've seen some in museums just like this. Of course, they were in poor condition."
Lettice sees how lovingly Lotte is stroking it, and sighs. Sooner or later it will have its place. Whether Lettice likes that place or not, well, not every historical event is pleasurable.
"Well, if you think it's that authentic, then clearly we've got to preserve it."
"Still." Lotte adjusts her sailor's breeches, giving the once-over to Lettice's sea-captain garb. "It's authentic, isn't it?"
Lettice inclines her head grudgingly.
Lotte steps up to Lettice, takes her by the elbows. "You have to know that I want this," she says, "else it won't work. Do you?"
Lettice swallows. "I do."
Lotte steps back, waits for Lettice to be ready.
Lettice pushes the cellar door open and shoves Lotte in.
The raised platform this time is pushed over to the window, closed and shuttered, planks hammered over it like the entrance to an old ship's gangway. Glaring floodlights focus on the center. The Captain, Thomas by name, pushes John, the sailor, up the steps towards the gangway. On either side of the gangway, at shoulder height, at the fullest spread of each of the sailor's arms, are wrist-irons. The sailor raises his hands voluntarily, and the Captain clamps the irons shut. Lettice is careful to close the irons so that the fabric of Lotte's shirt protects her wrists. Then, the Captain steps back, and rips the sailor's shirt open from his neck to halfway down his back.
The good sailor John turns back, and asks the Captain, "Have I ever refused my duty, sir? Have you ever known me to hang back, or to be insolent, or not to know my work?"
"No," says the captain. "I flog you for your interference - for asking questions."
"Can't a man ask a question here without being flogged?" asks the bound sailor.
"No! Nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel but myself!" And with that, Lettice turns and lashes the whip down half-heartedly onto Lotte's back. She does it again and again, until finally Lotte turns to her.
Lettice drops the whip instantly, is at Lotte's side in a heartbeat. "What is it? Did I hurt you?"
"No. That's just it."
Lettice bows her head. "I'm sorry—"
"No. No, don't be sorry." There's fire in Lotte's voice. "You have passion, Lettice. You can be anyone you want to be. You're an actress."
"But if I hurt you—"
"I can call on you when I need. Now just listen to me. Place that piece of wood between my teeth, you've forgotten." Lettice does. "Good," says Lotte, a little thickly. "Go outside, do what you must to be Captain Thomas, and come back in here. I shall wait."
And Lettice obeys.
It's the Captain who swaggers in through the door next, and Lotte sees it. Puffed up with his own importance, sadistic and vindictive, he strides up to the bound sailor and delivers a cut with the cat-o'-nine-tails that makes Lotte gasp. She bites it back, though, for if Lettice were to know, she would break character, and this has been hard.
She knows it's a betrayal of Lettice's confidence to remain herself while Lettice becomes someone else, but it's the only way she feels she can atone for her earlier betrayal. Modern-day punishments won't satisfy her anymore, not with the scenes they play every week, not with the heightened senses that grace every aspect of their being. She must be flogged, she knows, for her treason, for the fact that she once thought of abandoning Lettice, for letting her – good God – be tried for murder.
The third blow lands. It's hard and bruising, but not enough, not nearly enough. This isn't about sex, this is atonement. "Swinging half round," Lotte mutters.
Lettice obliges, putting her body behind the blow. It breaks the skin, and Lotte can't help a shriek, the piece of wood falling out of her mouth. Lettice drops the whip, retrieves the wood, looks at Lotte with entreaty in her eyes.
Lotte shakes her head. Again.
Lettice places the piece of wood back in Lotte's mouth. It's easy to fit her teeth into the teeth-marks already indented into it. "If you want to know what I flog you for," she shouts, trying to get back in character, "I'll tell you. Because it suits me! That's what I do it for!" She follows it up with a mighty blow, cracking in the cellar like a pistol-shot, raising welts instantly and drawing blood and bruises where the knots strike the flesh. Lotte writhes, but she hasn't called Lettice by name yet, so she lays another stripe on, changing sides so as not to cut up one side rather than the other of Lotte's back. "Lotte."
Lotte just nods. "More."
Lettice raises the whip high and swings round as the book says, landing a blow that makes the 'sailor' writhe; and, staring into the big floodlight till she's half-convinced it's the light of the sun, she flogs the sailor mercilessly, shouting, "Don't call on Jesus Christ. He can't help you. Call on Captain Thomas! He's the man! He can help you! Jesus Christ can't help you now!"
Again and again the cat falls on the sailor's shoulders, until he's twisting and writhing in his cuffs, unable to bear the pain. And still Lotte won't say the word. "Lotte, please."
"Fuck you, Captain."
Fine, if that's the way of it—The Captain raises the cat, and flogs the sailor until he can no longer stand, until his upper back is all scored with welts and peppered with black-and-blue bruises, while here and there, small cuts trickle blood. "You see your condition!" taunts the captain. "Will you ever give me any more of your jaw? Will you? Will you?" And he lays into the sailor again. He flogs the sailor until the man bellows in his agony and writhes like a man possessed, and finally, finally, after God only knows how many blows, a small voice whispers, "Lettice."
Lettice flings the whip aside and lunges for the cuffs, supporting Lotte as she undoes them. They collapse in a heap on the floor, Lettice with her back against the wall, holding Lotte in her lap facing her, so that nothing is touching her lacerated back. "Oh, God, Lotte, why in heaven's name did you do that?" Over Lotte's shoulder, Lettice can see the sharp relief of the welts, thrown into deep shadow by the angle of the floodlight, her stomach turning at the glistening hints of blood. "Come on. I've got to disinfect those cuts, and put some cream and maybe get a dressing on, and…"
"Not just yet." Lotte's voice is exhausted. "Let me just… sit here and feel it a minute. Get my breath back."
Lettice rocks Lotte, feeling the beaten body shaking. "Why, Lotte?" she murmurs into her friend's sparse hair. "Why?"
"This shouldn't be…" Lotte murmurs urgently into Lettice's shoulder. "I shouldn't… it wasn't—but I need…"
"What is it, love? What do you need? Let me help. Just tell me what you need."
But Lotte shakes her head, burying her head into Lettice's front with what, after all this time, Lettice can tell is shame. Now why would Lotte be ash…
"Lotte, if it—if it got you excited, you're in good company. It's all right."
"But—but…" Lotte mutters, "it was supposed to be punishment."
Lettice grimaces. "It was. Don't ever make me hurt you like that again." She reaches playfully for Lotte's center. "Need a hand?"
Lotte wants to resist, she really does, but the fire in her back is shooting fire through her veins, and no sooner does Lettice touch her than she goes off like Guy Fawkes Night, fireworks exploding before her eyes.
When it's over, she breaks down.
"Darling, darling." Lettice is solicitous and sad, and that's Lotte's fault, too. "Are you in very much pain? I can—"
"No, it's not that," Lotte sobs, and once she's started, she can't control her weeping. "This wasn't meant to be about… about sex. But then it changed somehow, and…" And she sobs and sobs and sobs. "I don't understand."
Lettice rocks her softly. "There are some things, perhaps, about oneself that one is meant never to understand."
Lotte merely clings to her, and cries. "I'm weak. I betrayed you."
"Weak? So am I," Lettice shrugs. "I rather like being weak with you."
"Don't—joke," Lotte sobs. She knows it's the excitement talking, and tries to take deep breaths, to calm down.
"There, there, love." Lettice kisses her forehead, the sparse hair on her head. "We're together, that's what matters. We'll conduct our tours and go on holiday and have tea and biscuits. And go on Mystery Tours. Outside, and in here. Indoor tours, for E.N.D. members only. Private tours. And if we find something we didn't know was there, well, that's the whole fun of a Mystery Tour, isn't it?"
Lotte sniffs, hard, and blows her nose into Lettice's shirt. "When you put it like that," she gulps, "it almost sounds all right."
Lettice kisses the top of Lotte's head and strokes her thinning hair again and again. "Of course it does," she smiles. "Of course it does."