Chapter IThe Vicarians vs. the Icarians
Prester Vicarius, hierophant & tyrant of Aparthenia, suffering from cryptorchidism exacerbated by nonspecific paranoia & gas, had ordered all women between the ages of 17 and 47 to be executed, nuns & harlots excepted. As the doctors Hoxus, Poxus,
and Belchior therefore entered the walls of the city with their youth, the ward Apollodonis, they were witness to the alarming & grisly spectacle of maidens & matrons alike being dragged screaming through the streets. The three wizard-physicians and the boy had journeyed to the land of Aparthenia to visit the famed Tower of Mammon, there to consult the oracle & stars anent a dubious financial venture.
Grace before glut is little better than sympathy without evangelism.
"Crown of Typhon!" exclaimed Dr. Belchior in extreme vexation as one poor creature threw herself upon the neck of his camel, to which she clung in desperation as the Vicarian guards struggled to pry her loose. She had made a pathetically futile gesture at disguising herself as a decidedly dated Mithraic nun. Her diaphanous scarlet cloak & absurdly elevated sandals were hopelessly out of fashion. Everyone knew that your Mithraic nun wore the smartest habit of any sisterhood.
"Save me!" she implored the strangers.
"Although we are h-heartsick with empathy," explained the child Apollodonis with easy tears, "we can b-b-but p-pray for the intercession of the g-g-god of Unwieldy Impedimenta. We are simple foreigners bound for the Tower of Ma-mamammon, you s-see." Upon these utterances the eyes of the hapless woman opened wide.
"The Tower of Mammon!" she exclaimed & then began babbling in some bizarre, barbarous tongue, "Clan Larthals mini muluvanice..." At this, one of the soldiers, weary of resistance, thrust his spear through her neck. On her dying lips one word lingered: “Aisoi...”
"What was the nun's name?" inquired Dr. Poxus conversationally & with customary incongruous inanity. This courtesy was addressed to the soldier now ungripping the dead woman's fingers from the neck of his camel. How persistently she had clung!
"Why should I know her name?" he replied as, frankly sweating, he
laboriously sawed off her hands with a blunt poignard. "But it happens I do. Her Christian name was Menorah-Yehudah, although actually she was an Etrurian witch formerly y-clept Pandora." (In truth, the name of the now nude nun, none knew, was Nona.)
"And what in Tartary was she gibbering?" asked Dr. Hoxus, the group's linguist. (In reality, he barely spoke the little Latin and less Greek absolutely essential for literate Mediterranean travel.)
"Didn't I just tell you she was ex-Etruria? Who speaks Etruscan around here any longer?" At last the soldier had managed to loosen the woman & hoist her like a butcher with a side of beef onto his shoulder. "I advise you to abandon the streets, he concluded. "This is no day for sight-seeing." And thereupon Apollodonis, being a devout ascetic, blessed the tumult and they moved into the traffic.
The camels now picked their haughty way through the tohu-bohu of blood & smoke, making for the Inn of the Four Follies, which had been recommended to them by Dr. Poxus' friend Herodotus, the Hellene globetrotter.
"We must remember to ask the oracle what Klan larthals minny mulvenice signifies," mused Dr. Hoxus aloud. "Make a note of that, lshmael," (Ishmael was one of Apollodonis' nicknames) "on your wax tablet."
"Sh-sh--should I put eisoi down as well?" He was already pondering the orthographic dilemma of vowel precedence.
"Suit yourself, what do I care? Aha! There, I believe, is the inn. And none too soon either." And they pressed on into the courtyard of a great barn of a building that had certainly never seen better days and never would, judging by the number of flies, at least, enjoying the stableyard. An ancient crone, her age comfortably far past the limits of the gynecide, came to tether their beasts. Four times she spat in the cardinal directions as the custom of the house decreed.
"Welcome to the Four Follies, Wise-men," she croaked, noting the Chaldee symbols on their cloaks and conical caps. "Although 'tis a weirdy day for traveling. Be he the Messiah?" (Here pointing a gnarled finger at Apollodonis). "Anyway, whatever ye be, be thankful to the gods that ye have that between your legs to save your necks."
And assuring her that they all did indeed appreciate being of anatomical rectitude, they lost no further time in putting the portal of the inn between the carnage without and their backsides within. Then they seated themselves with much relief at a rough-hewn table near the hearthstone.
Apollodonis said grace, piously admonishing them that "Grace before glut is little better than sympathy without evangelism." After that they fell to humbly on oxhead, olives stuffed with garlic & honey, candied carp's eyes, locust larvae, cold mutton soup, unpasteurized (and fragrant) goat's milk, oversweet date wine, and trencher after trencher of very rare pork. For each portion a special dish had to be set aside for one god or another: here an olive for Athena, there aphrodisiac peppers for Bacchus. Here a breadstick for Priapus, etc.
Whilst eating they lapsed into an uncharacteristic silence, ruminating, I'm bound to imagine, over the wonders of the day. There were even few complaints over the food (indeed, how could there be?), although Dr. Poxus did confess that he missed, now & then, the simple sanduicia balonia of their native Rome and afterwards Dr. Belchior would insist that he was still hungry. Since, however, the good doctors and their charge are still prandially occupied, we shall take advantage of the opportunity to provide a few details about this eccentric caravan for the Reader.
The boy, Apollodonis, was by far the most interesting of the crew. He was a lad just wading through the waters of postpubescence. His flaxen hair, spiraling with curls, proclaimed him a native of the Northlands, but his huge, black, innocent eyes & olive skin suggested the Near East. There was about him an unwritten-on character, not just the old newness of youth, but something more archetypical. His was an elemental naiveté, verging on the simplicity of the idiot, & yet he was very holy. He was, in fact, a devout, reverting to prayer at the the drop of a cow. And if prayer was his mantle, chastity was his staff and he gave daily instruction in saint-craft to the doctors. Where he had picked all that up even the gods probably knew not.
The doctors had not always been a trio. They had been thrown together long ago during a purge of physicians in their native village. Thence they had escaped together into exile. They had come upon the infant in the desert, where he had been left for exposure. His uncommon beauty had inclined them to think that when his maturity waxed they might pass him off as a hermaphrodite for religious and other lucrative purposes. So they had invested in his adoption to be raised jointly as their communal slave, secretary, and possible brothel-seed. They conferred upon him the happy name of Eupraxapolloedonis later shortened to Apollodonis, for luck - Polly, affectionately. Even such a lesser jaw-breaker, though, lay far beyond the paucous wits of the elder magi, who could hardly remember the Latin for "rubber baby buggy gunkers," and they usually referred to him as Jonah. When they couldn't remember that, Ishmael This polynymic boy proved, as he grew, to be a useful & willing apprentice & the doctors were adequately complacent about their chattel. All the same, apprehension sometimes seized them at his impractical candor and his utter lack of any wordly affectation whatsoever. Nor, it must be confessed, did his praying go far to alleviate the tedium of daily living.
Being the eldest of the group, Dr. Belchior, as crotchety as he was wrinkled, was prone to absent-mindedness, if not actual senility. He was expert, of course, in the administration of carminatives & enemas and could drive the devils from the most bloated and veined of bellies. But he was good for little else save the casting of (unreadable) horoscopes and when not on the road spent his time in fruitless alchemical research. Once, he had narrowly escaped beheading when the Emperor Chrysostome's vizier, the bloodthirsty Kizzadeth of Egypt, had caught him adding fortuitous gold to the royal crucible. Claiming to be nearing a breakthrough in the successful transmutation of gold from common ox dung, he had been receiving annual grants for research. He had explained to Kizzadeth that he was simply using an ordinary iron pyrite technically known as "apprentice's gold" - as an experiment in catalysis. By mimetic magic alone he would, he said, attempt to "fool" the gold into crystallizing. And hearing that "scientific" exposition, Kizzadeth was grudgingly appeased. He allowed, "Since a fool and his gold are so easily separated, while the head and neck somewhat less so, the latter would seem unworthy of the talents of my executioner, who hath gaudier figures to cut." Belchior was, however, banished from court for fraud. Since then his mind had gone zigzagging downward.
In his youth, Dr. Belchior had been plump, but merry. Despite his girth, which was considerable, he was a master of impersonations & impostures, and could do anything from (a somewhat rotund) Cleopatra to the Bull of Pasiphae. With advancing years, however, the merriness faded when it was impeded. And this was often. He would complain, "I must be extremely comfortable or else I am just miserable." And when discomfort arose he became a veritable spate of spleen: loud, cruel and vulgar. His patients (such as there were) referred to him as that "mountain of volcanic lard" -although mountebank would have been equally near the mark. His sciatica alone, from which he had suffered for decades, was sufficient to put him into unnecessarily cynical moods. He had been treating it since its inception with a series of homeopathic simples such as bee venom and scorpion's ichor. On days when it flared he would pounce upon a rage if his tea were less than piping, and a single sneeze could depress him for hours afterward. Once he had nearly put out the even more elderly (I realize, Good Reader, that I've said elsewhere that Dr. Belchior was the eldest of the doctoral triumvirate...but I'd forgotten Dr. Poxus, which is easy to do) Dr. Poxus' one good eye (his Norn eye, he called it) because this same eye had shrewdly observed him through its purblind haze, dropping a sly obol into his pocket from a fee that had been meant to be split by all.
Dr. Poxus, on the other hand, who was long of beard and highly redolent of perspiration, garlic, and sundry careless hygienic habits, was himself a paragon of charm (that is to say, deception), ingenuity (swindling), imagination (woolgathering), artfulness (cheating), shrewdness (chicanery), Magick! (Fraud!), and finally, wit (or sarcasm). He claimed for himself proficiency in every skill, but truthfully had none in any save trickery. He so excelled in guile that we might naturally expect to see him the leader of our little family, except for his most salient quality of all, sloth.
One uneven gift that he did seem to possess, to a minor degree and at odd moments, was the art of fanciful engineering. Therein he had learned much from the Peloponnesians of the property of amber, or, as they called it, elektron, plus some forgotten & taboo techniques from fabled Atlantis itself. Many a curious trinket had arisen from his fingers for the amusement of them all during tedious treks through the deserts and over the mountains of Asia Minor.
One of his more notable successes was a device for amplifying speech, called "The Voice of Experience." This was a box small enough to be held in the hands and shaped somewhat like a Gothic arch. Manipulated by certain feats of conjuring, it reproduced human voices from a remarkable distance. Such is true wizardry.
In their sundry travels, the magi had spent a good deal of time among the Pelasgi. There they had picked up many things, including various diseases. It was in Athens that the mephitic Dr. Poxus had once shared a public close-stool with Herodotus & upon that chance and singular communion built the fiction that they were friends of the bosom. Moreover, by some brazen logic, knowing one celebrity so informally thus conferred upon him an acquaintanceship with all other celebrities as well. Still, the brief proximity to Herodotus inspired him strongly enough to educate himself a bit. So he had eavesdropped occasionally while amongst the peripatetics in Athens. These conversations were limited to those between two minor sophists of the agora: Hippomenes (Horsepower) the Poet and Phosphorus the Elder. The more important sophists had generally shooed the unsavory Poxus away.
Today we owe it all to the "Voice of Experience" that there remain even a few scraps recorded of the conversations between Hippomenes and Phosphorus - miraculously preserved down through the ages. Here is a cogent slice from one such sophisticated dialogue:
The Peripatetics' Dialogue
Phosphorus the Elder: You assert that a weed hath life?
Hippomenes the Poet: Yes.
Phos: And that every goose hath life?
Phos: Then a philosopher must also have a life.
Hipp: Ah, esteemed Phosphorus, here you assume. A man & a stone, being the extreme ends of that rainbow we call Vitality, cannot properly be said to have life at all, in the same sense, that is, as the "median" creatures. Naturally, if a man be without style or taste, thereby comporting himself as a swine, then we might allow him that life of which you speak. Similarly, if the stone be the stone of the Philosophers (which as we know is gold, after all) then it too may be said to breathe.
Phos: Then, paradoxically, a man can only be alive if he is dead? As a stone is dead? And thus lives?
Hipp: That depends on what you mean by "living."
Phos: Well, living! Having pizazz! At one's ease, even.
Hipp: Wrong, shining Phosphorus, all wrong. Observe yon hetaira a woman of many tints and essences, with sandals that imprint on the sands "Open All Night!" Think you that she is in the life?
Phos: By the horns of Pan I dare not linger over such Procrustean cuckoldries. That is no hetaira, sir, that is my wife!
Hipp: Very well, quod erat demonstrandum...
* * * * *
To be sure, despite such original jokes, much of this heady discourse rose far above the mental capacity of poor Dr. Poxus, whose formal education and familiarity with Greek slang were nil. But he claimed to understand the gist of it.
The last member of the assembly is of little consequence, since he will not be with us long. It will presently be clear to the Good Reader why there is no need to describe Dr. Hoxus, because his horary chart shows Saturn & Mars afflicted in the 4th House, Moon in Scorpio and Sagittary intercepted. All ancient astrologers, save our intrepid trio, would have recognized without hesitation what such convergences invariably foretell.
Meanwhile, the party now gathered beneath the roof of The Inn of the IV Follies, seeking asylum from the gore-gorged tempest without, were just now picking their teeth-and incidentally unable to pay for their supper. Their ingeniously transparent plan was to sneak out of the hostel during the antelucan hours whilst everyone lay asleep. Generously, they had bought (to be placed on their bill!) wine for everyone in the inn, including the innkeeper & each of his slaves - from aristocratic chef down to pinhead stable-boy. The wine would underscore the depth of everyone's slumber as they made good their departure by stealth. They had made similar exits before, traveling the same circuit - in Memphis, Syracuse, Utica, etc.
What they could not know, however, was that at this very moment in the land of Aparthenia there was a good deal of unrest. Had they been better informed they might not have been quite so easy over skipping out on their bill and burning the only safe bridge in Aparthenia behind them. For the Inn of the IV Follies was the secret meeting place of the Aparthenian underground!
The unrest in Aparthenia could be traced directly to the tyrant, Prester Vicarius himself, and to a handful of rich, power-ridden nobility calling themselves, with that restraint of imagination typical to the well-born, the Vicarians. These Vicarians were universally despised both by the Bohemians and the rabble classes, and a revolutionary subculture had been limpidly snowballing for years. Empty & leisure-prone, the Vicarians devoted all their yawns to the theatre and to the gladiatorial arena and were ill-disposed to any movement whatever, either social or physical. They had recently instituted a period of lex-et-ordo to forestall riots & demonstrations among the young and malcontent. Their mottoes were "Brush after every meal!" and in prosaic Latin:
VICARIVS EST SVPER
The revolutionaries, on the other hand, spurning mottoes as reactionary, were inspired by one Icarus the namesake of the mythical aviator himself! Knowing that half the world is composed of cowards and the other half of lazy oafs, Icarus taught that civilization nearly always drifts into despotism as surely as scum boils upward. So the Icarians were activist and original-minded, feeling instinctively that rebellion and individualism are two horns of the same goat.
In secret the leaders of the Icarians spoke the dead language Etruscan to elude discovery and persecution. Obviously, wouldn't one speak a dead language to avoid attention? Naturally, of these trendy political and social currents the magi were completely unaware. Still, this was the plain nature of the wasps' nest into which our nonesuch troup had stepped.