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Darius, curled up in his little box of straw in the gatehouse, awoke to Frederic, the guard on duty, barking out, "Halte! Qui va la?"
"It's Mrs. Hayes with the virgins," responded a woman in English. "Sir Francis is expecting us."
Darius rose, quivering as he stretched the kinks out of his back, and leapt from his box. A lady stood silhouetted against the setting sun on the other side of the portcullis barring the arched entryway. She was plump and matronly, her steely hair mostly hidden beneath the hood of a long red cloak.
"What is the watchword?" demanded Frederic, whose English, like his French, bore a pronounced Swiss-German accent. He was, like the two dozen other guards charged with maintaining the peace and privacy of Grotte Cachée, a Swiss mercenary, members of a breed prized throughout Europe for their discipline, skill, and prudence. So discreetly did Frederic and his brethren fulfill their responsibilities that the chateau's guests rarely noticed them, despite their rather garish red and blue striped uniforms.
"Do what thou wilt," she said with a sigh of annoyance. "Now, will you kindly raise this bloody thing and let us pass? We're late as it is, and Sir Francis doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"The cart, it must go 'round back to the stable," said Frederic as he cranked the windlass that operated the portcullis's pulley system. There came a battery of creaks and groans, underscored by a high-pitched metallic grating that Darius could only hear in his present feline incarnation.
Slinking beneath the big iron grate as it rose, he crossed the drawbridge that spanned the dry moat. On the path out front stood a cart full of prettily attired young women, gazing up at Château de la Grotte Cachée as if awestruck.
"Leave your shawls and mantles in the cart, lasses, but don't forget those fans," Mrs. Hayes ordered. "Necks high, shoulders down, arms curved lightly outward. Pinch your cheeks and plump up those bubbies."
The cartman repeated the instructions in French as he handed the girls down from his vehicle. They were young and creamy skinned, fresh little peaches in dainty lace caps and frocks of dimity and flower-sprigged lawn. They giggled and whispered as Mrs. Hayes ushered them through the gatehouse and into the chateau's enclosed courtyard, their gaits naively rustic, their skirts swishing against Darius as he followed along. They all wore exactly the same scent, an all-too-common eau de parfum redolent of rosemary, bergamot, and orange blossom, no doubt supplied by Mrs. Hayes.
"They await you in the withdrawing room next to the chapel." Frederic pointed toward an arched doorway in the castle's west range.
"What ho," said Mrs. Hayes when she noticed Darius. "Seems a little gray ghost has thrown in with us." She squatted down to pet him, but he dodged her before she could. He could mingle with the chateau's guests on those rare occasions when curiosity got the better of him, such as this evening, so long as he was careful to steer clear of actual physical contact. "Skittish, are you? Aye, but you'll fit right in with the rest of these coy little pusses."
The girls fell silent as they neared the fountain in the center of the courtyard, a stone pool surmounted by a statue of a man and a woman joined in carnal union as water sluiced over them from a jug held aloft by a handmaid. It wasn't the sculpture, indelicate though it was, that had stunned the girls into silence, Darius knew. It was the gentleman kneeling over the edge of the pool with his gold-shot silk coat thrown up and his breeches around his knees, grunting in pain as a lady in an ornate silver half-mask whipped his buttocks with a length of rattan.
"God's balls!" he cried. "Have mercy, my lady."
"Is that you, Your Grace?" asked the whoremistress. "Came all the way to France for a good caning, eh?"
The prostrate gentleman, a duke judging from the term of address, raised his head and grinned like a basket of chips. "Mrs. Hayes! I see you've brought the cherries for the banquet."
"Did I say you could speak?" demanded the masked lady. "You shall take a dozen more strokes for that," she said as she brought the cane down with whistling speed.
The duke emitted an ecstatic little moan even as he reached between his legs to frig himself.
"Fie!" His tormenter smacked the offending hand with her cane, saying, "You may spend when I say you may spend, and not a moment sooner."
"As you please, my lady," muttered the duke as he lowered his head and raised his rosy ass.
"Come, poppets," said Mrs. Hayes as she led them, along with Darius, through the arched doorway and into a little vestibule.
A burly guard, one of the expansive retinue who'd accompanied the chateau's current guests from England, said, " 'Tis high time, Mrs. Hayes. I was thinkin' you'd been set upon by bandits."
"Sorry, Tommy. Two of the wenches tried to hold out for more money, so it took a bit of dickering to get them to come."
"Aye, but they'll all come before the night's through," Tommy snickered.
Extending her hand, Mrs. Hayes said, "Fifty quid apiece, as usual, plus my traveling expenses."
Tommy made a quick count of the girls, then pulled a sack of coins from inside his coat and handed it to the procuress. "Come along, then."
Unlocking the door behind him, he gestured the group into the chapel withdrawing room, a candlelit chamber furnished with silk settees and low marble tables. The centuries-old tapestries that normally graced these walls had been taken down and replaced with paintings depicting men in white monks' robes disporting themselves with nubile, half-naked nuns. Over the central dining table, where a crystal chandelier normally hung, dangled a lamp shaped like a batlike monster with an erection almost as big as itself. A carved wooden sign hanging over the doorway to the chapel read Fay ce que voudras: "Do what thou wilt," the motto of England's Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, better known as the Hellfire Club.
About two dozen gentlemen and half as many ladies occupied the room, some standing and some reclining, all exquisitely attired. The ladies, he saw, all wore silver brooches inscribed Love and Friendship on the bosoms of their deeply décolleté gowns. Two of them had their gowns half-unlaced, exhibiting embroidered satin stays so low cut as to display their breasts in their entirety. One lady's gown had been fashioned with a skirt that opened to the waist in back; her petticoats and panniers had likewise been split to reveal tantalizing glimpses of flesh every time she moved.
The perfumes and scented accoutrements of the assembled company–handkerchiefs, sachets, and powders–merged in a flowery-sweet miasma. There were two maidservants, as well, serving wine and such aphrodisiacal delicacies as oysters, caviar, almonds, pine nuts, and figs. They all turned to watch as Mrs. Hayes ushered in the young women, but the only man who was mannerly enough to rise was Darius's fellow follet, Inigo.
"Bonsoir, mademoiselles," Inigo said with a bow. The charming young satyr was attired for the evening in a gold-embroidered satin coat of some dark hue which Darius's feline eyes couldn't quite place–something reddish or brownish, most likely. His unruly curls were caught in a ribbon at his nape, leaving just enough on the sides to cover those telltale ears. He captured Darius's gaze and winked.
Darius winked back.
The rest of the gentlemen appraised the procession with a frankness that would have seemed grossly rude under ordinary circumstances. Two ladies lounging side by side, one wearing a mask trimmed in peacock feathers, conferred behind their fans as they pointed to this girl and that. Darius swiveled his ears to home in on their whispered comments. ". . . in the yellow stripes, with those big blue eyes? Wouldn't you just love to bend her over your knee?"
Darius wove his way between the ladies' rustling silk skirts and the men's white-stockinged legs to the doorway that led to the chapel, where he was less likely to be noticed and pestered. If he'd thought about it, he would have made himself invisible before coming in here; it was the safest course of action in a room this crowded.
"Mrs. Hayes! You are late," said a gentleman seated at a dining table in the center of the room as he snapped an enameled snuffbox shut. He was a gangly fellow of perhaps forty, with a long nose and a pale, oddly soft-featured visage. Like some of the other men, he wore a wig, but his was by far the most ornate and heavily powdered.
"My apologies, Lord Sandwich, and my compliments," said Mrs. Hayes with a little curtsey. "Pray, where might Sir Francis be? I was to deliver these charming lambs to him personally."
"The chief friar grew weary of waiting and retired to the chapel to make ready for the mass. These are the virgins, then?"
"Yes, and please you, m'lord." Herding the girls into a semicircle, the better for viewing, Mrs. Hayes announced, "For your delight and diversion, gentlemen, eight unpolluted and intact maidenheads, fresh from the local villages. In the roseate bloom of youth, each and every one, virgin rosebuds as yet uncropped. I have tutored these innocents myself in the many and varied arts of love, the better to enhance their defloration during your rites of Venus."
The whoremistress clapped her hands twice, a signal to the girls to execute awkward curtseys, glancing at one another as if to make sure they were doing it right. From the way they jostled each other, it was clear they were unused to the wide, hooped skirts in which they'd been outfitted for their presentation.
Scanning them with a critical expression, Sandwich said, "Intact, you say?"
"Pure and unsullied, one and all."
"We shall see." Lord Sandwich snapped his fingers at the girl closest to him, a buxom beauty with coppery hair, and signaled for her to approach. "Come, come," he said, pushing his chair away from the table so that there was room for her to stand before him.
"Step lively, Nadine," urged Mrs. Hayes as she prodded the girl.
He gestured her closer until she stood between his outstretched, cat-stick legs. "I shan't hurt you."
"He'd rather she hurt him–eh, Sandwich?" some wag remarked.
"Lift your skirts, then," Sandwich said.
Nadine greeted that command with a blink of bewilderment.
Mrs. Hayes said, "They only speak the parleyvoo, your lordship."
"Soulevez votre robe." Indicating the girl's skirts, Sandwich flicked his hand, cloaked to the fingertips in frilly lace cuffs.
Nadine looked around at the raptly attentive audience, cheeks blossoming with color.
"I'll have that one," someone remarked. "I do so love it when they squirm and blush."
"I daresay they've been well trained to do so," someone else observed. "Is that not right, Mrs. H?"
Ignoring the taunt, Mrs. Hayes stepped forward and started lifting the young woman's dress, but Sandwich slapped her hand away. "What's the chit being paid for, if not to do our bidding? Soulevez-le, mademoiselle."
Closing her eyes, Nadine gathered her skirts and raised them to her knees.
"Oh, for pity's sake," Sandwich growled. "Plus haut. Like this." Leaning forward, he grabbed her hands and forced her to raise the mass of dimity, stiffened petticoats and panniers chest-high, leaving her naked from the waist down.
"By Jove, her cunny's as red as her face," someone chuckled.
"A ripe little split apricot, just begging to be licked."
"Be a sport, Sandwich," said an Italian-accented fellow who was craning his neck to see. "Turn her 'round so the rest of us can have a peek."
"Unlace her! Let's have a taste of those apple dumplings."
"All in good time, gentlemen." Nudging the girl's slippered feet apart with a high-heeled shoe, Sandwich parted her red-tufted slit and pushed his middle finger in. She sucked in a breath, her eyes shut tight, as he probed that which had ostensibly never felt the touch of a male hand.
"Right. She'll do." Pointing to a row of nuns' habits hanging by hooks in the robing alcove behind him, Sandwich told her, in French, to change into one of them, leaving herself completely unclothed beneath. He instructed one of the ladies, a Mademoiselle de Beaumont, to assist the virgins in their disrobing, which for reasons beyond Darius's ken prompted much appreciative laughter.
"So soon?" asked Mrs. Hayes. "It took me all day to get them properly flashed up, and now you want them to take it all off?"
" 'Tis your fault for being late. They need to be ready for the banquet as soon as the mass has ended." Sandwich beckoned to the next girl in line, who lifted her skirts without being asked and barely flinched during the examination. "You may take your leave, Mrs. Hayes. I'd say we have the matter well in hand here."
He inspected the girls one by one, pronouncing them either intact or "close enough," before sending them off to the alcove to disrobe in full view of the guests. The gentlemen–some of the ladies, too–opined liberally on their various charms as they unlaced their dresses and peeled off their underpinnings, assisted by the fair-haired, French-accented Mademoiselle de Beaumont. A few of the maidens struck Darius as remarkably blasé about the lewd exhibition, one or two genuinely embarrassed. Others appeared so overwrought despite their cooperation that he suspected they were acting the part they'd been taught to act.
In any event, their spectators seemed appreciative enough. Several of the men stroked themselves as they took in the little performance. Darius noticed Inigo ushering a pretty little thing from the room, his front trouser panel already half undone, one hand fisted around a wine bottle.
A strikingly handsome man lowered his raven-haired lady companion from his lap to the floor between his legs and unbuttoned his knee-breeches to free his erection. Those sitting nearby watched with undisguised interest as the lady licked and fondled the rigid organ. "Brava," they praised when she swallowed it to the very root, causing the recipient of her ministrations to clutch her head, moaning, "Ah, Lili, but you are a talented wench."
On a red silken couch in the corner, two men positioned the lady with the split skirt on her hands and knees so that one of them could roger her from behind as she took the other in her mouth. A bewigged gentleman whom Darius recognized from newspaper illustrations as Frederick, Prince of Wales, bent a masked lady over the back of that same couch and canted up her petticoats. He lubricated his weapon with spittle and slammed it into her so hard she shrieked.
"Good show, Your Highness," praised a bacon-faced fellow in a too-tight, fancily embroidered coat who'd come over to watch the bawdy tableau while working himself off. "Give her a taste of the royal cutlass," he grunted as he thrust into a lace handkerchief. "Stab it in and twist it! Split the wench! Spank her arse! That's it, good and hard. Aye, that's it . . ."
"What have we here?" The voice was male, softly deep, German accented–and far too close.
Darius's whiskers thrummed a warning just in time for him to leap away from the hand that was about to scoop him up.