The stone stairs continued around and around, down below ground, growing narrower and narrower, until the sleeves of Stan’s robe dragged against the wall with each step. Finally, the two men reached the last stair and came out into a vast black space. Ahead of them, a single candlestick burned brightly upon a round stone table. Gary stepped toward it, as Stan paused upon the stairs. Gary turned around to face him. “Come on,” he whispered. His voice echoed into the distance.
Stan followed Gary toward the stone table. The ground beneath his feet was cold, but the air was uncomfortably warm. The dark void surrounding him made him feel tiny. He looked around, into the nothingness, and shuddered as he saw, or perhaps imagined, a faint pair of dots flash—eyes watching him. He quickened his pace and caught up with Gary. The air murmured around him. Next to the table were two wooden seats. “We sit here,” said Gary.
The two men sat. Gary removed his hood; Stan removed his. The hair stood up on the back of Stan’s neck. He leaned over to Gary. “Will the meeting begin now?” he whispered.
“Soon,” whispered Gary.
“Who are we waiting for?”
Gary glanced sidelong at him. There was fear in his eyes. “They are already here.”
Gary and Stan sat still at the table for two minutes, and then the air seemed to shift. Slow, heavy footsteps padded toward them in the darkness. Stan pulled his robes close around his neck and looked around to try and see who approached. Gary exhaled a slow, trembling breath. Across the table, a face emerged from the shadows. By the light of the candle, a great, fat man wearing green robes stood opposite them. It was Les Grenidge. His face was red, and he breathed heavily, as though merely walking had been a struggle. He leaned his giant, pudgy fists on the table and glared at Gary and Stan. “You two have been very silly boys,” he said in a slow, raspy voice.
“Uh, Mr Grenidge,” said Stan, “I just want to say what, uh, what a pleasure it is to finally meet you.”
Les’s eyes narrowed, and he growled under his breath.
“Thank you for the invitation here today,” said Stan. “I certainly, uh…” he looked aside to the prime minister, who stared straight ahead and shook his head ever so slightly. “…What I mean is…” He turned around and jumped in his seat at Les’s hulking round figure right beside him, towering over him. “Oh, ah, ha-ha! You snuck up on me there, Mr Grenidge. I was just saying—”
“Stop talking, Stanley,” said Les.
Stan went to speak again, but stopped himself when he saw the rage brewing in Les’s eyes. Les peered at him; his tongue flicked out and licked his top lip. A silent minute passed. Stan looked down and fidgeted with his robes. Gary stared straight ahead.
Les adjusted the robes at his bulging belly and leaned down toward Stan. “Stanley, my boy,” he said, “our meetings here at the Lodge are a different sort to your meetings in state parliament. You are not in charge here. I am. When you sit at this table, you will not speak unless I tell you to speak. Look at Gary. He is the prime minister of the country, but here he is, sitting quietly. He is here to receive instruction. I am going to offer you instruction, Stanley, and I want you to listen. I hope that is clear now.”
“Yes, Mr Grenidge,” said Stan. “I can assure you I will do everything in my power to—”
A jolt of pain shot through Stan’s head, and he found himself lying on the floor, staring up into darkness. His face throbbed like a child was jumping on it. He tasted blood in his throat. Les’s beetroot face appeared above him and hissed, “Get up!”
Stan sat up, half dazed, and put his fingertips to his nostrils. Blood gushed from his nose. He looked to Gary in confusion. Gary just stared ahead. Stan climbed back into his seat. He touched his nose again and winced. He sniffed and whimpered.
“Bloody hell,” muttered Les. “Don’t you cry.”
Stan’s bottom lip quivered. He sniffed and huffed a blubbering breath.
“Stanley, look at me,” said Les.
Stan sniffed and looked up at him.
“You see this?” said Les, holding up his cabbage sized fist. “If you start crying, I am going to be very f**king annoyed. If I have to hit you again, I’m not going to hold back, all right? I told you to listen, and that’s all I want you to do.” He glared at Stan.
Stan peeked up at him, composed himself, and nodded. “As state premier, I pride myself on—”
Les snarled and cocked his fist. Stan cowered and squealed.
“You stubborn little sh**!” growled Les. “I’ll bust your head open!”
Stan threw his hands up in defence and shook his head frantically. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and blood streamed down his lips and chin.
“Are you going to keep talking?” said Les.
Stan whimpered and shook his head.
“Not another word?”
Stan shook his head.
“All right then,” said Les. “Sit up, wipe your face, and stop that bloody whining.”
Stan sat upright, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his robe, and tried to steady his breathing. He sat still and stared ahead like Gary.
“Well, would you look at that,” said Les. “I think you and I are on the same page now, Stanley.”
Stan nodded but said nothing. He stared straight ahead.
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