Dr. Belchior was just on the point of approaching one of the guards of the palace — with an ill-conceived plan to mesmerize him should he prove the suggestible type or to bribe him if he leaned more towards independence. The "Voice of Experience"
had taught him that all guards were either one type or the other. But suddenly a beautiful young woman came to them from out of the shadows. She was far too glamorous to be mistaken for any ordinary person. Her figure was so much more than modishly slender, her dress so ragged and disdainful of shape, her earring so brutal and her coiffure of many bright colors so painstakingly disheveled, she must be a princess of some kind. And so she was.
I am Princess Ooma, the niece of the tyrant.
"Magi," she smiled democratically as she came towards them, "I am Princess Ooma, the niece of the tyrant. If you are going inside may I have a word with you first?"
"How old are you, my dear?" inquired Dr. Poxus with wonted non-sequitur — amazed that she was staring at him with...desire?
"Seventeen next full moon. Well past my first flowers," she blushed, pressing her nubile body boldly close to the old man, "Old enough to know that I like very mature men. I am, in fact, of the gerontophile persuasion. The hoarier the whorier, is my precept."
"Well, I'm not all that old," preened the venerable antique.
"Yes, you are," she giggled, inserting an exploratory finger under his chiton.
"Eh? What under the...l mean..." floundered the octogenarian.
"Yes, I am just under the wire to avoid being arrested and executed, is that what you were going to say?" she frowned winsomely in sudden remembrance, "You must know that the royal family, however, is exempt from such purely gubernatorial whimsies. Nevertheless, my uncle's reason has gone so far into the garden that he has of late taken to glaring at me with what looks like an impatient eye. In any case, I could hardly live in sympathy with such unwarranted discrimination against my poor sisters, Lesbian though I am far from. But this is not what I wanted to discuss with you."
She then explained that she had known of their presence in Aparthenia from the start had been secretly following them all day. She had been looking for people she could trust and since they were foreigners, she was certain they would lean towards tolerance of insurrection. She would help them get inside if they would return her a favor. There was, it seems, a marble bust of Vicarius, too big and heavy for her to carry by herself and for which purpose she could hardly seek the assistance of the guards or servants. She wanted them simply to steal it for her.
"Madness even to meditate upon!" expostulated Belchior, "Who would answer to the thief? Besides, surely the disappearance of one lone bust could have no effect on the tyrant's vanity. Certainly he could easily commission a replacement twice the size? No, let us rather pray for peace."
"On the contrary, Prester's conceit swoons at the protuberance of a hair from his nose! But there is a reason other than the puncturing of his vanity that I must have the bust. I intend to sell it to raise money for a journey I must go. By the way, there will be a respectable sum left over for you as a tip."
This was convincing argument for the magi & they promised to give of their best. Dr. Poxus, indeed, already smitten by the girl's confession of a perverted lust for elderly men, would have offered his help out of gallantry alone. So it was that they allowed Princess Ooma to lead them past the guards, who did not bar the way for those accompanying a member of the royal family, but who did scrutinize them with professional feigned indifference. Then she conducted them through a twisting snake of a labyrinth designed to annoy assassins, to her uncle's splendid chambers.
This evening Prester Vicarius was in one of his moods. The chef had fetched him an underdone bird. His dancers had subjected him to an intolerably gimmicky choreography that he had seen several times before. His major-domo was coming down with something Vicarius was convinced he was going to catch it himself, whatever it was. Worst of all, a messenger had brought him the unwelcome news that seditious graffiti had broken out on the temple wall itself.
it proclaimed to the world in the current, frank vulgate of the rabble. Moreover, it was written with imported Tyrrhenian dye that would never come off. Vicarious, not entirely in jest, had asked for the heads of all — chef, majordomo, dancers, and messenger alike. Now he found himself short-handed & that added all the more to his annoyance.
At the moment he was watching a Mystery Play. In this religious allegory one of the characters, Cheap Thrills, wearing a red dress, was attempting to be seductive. Now the tyrant was provoked to the peak of pique, so when Ooma and the Chaldean-clad magi entered the room, he was fit to be slapped.
"These gentlemen have come to remove the foreskin of fate & rede your fortune, Uncle," Ooma announced poetically. The doctors scowled their disapproval at once. Fortune-telling! How utterly tawdry!
Well, my fortune had better be perfectly brilliant!" grumbled the monarch, trying to choose words that had no sibilants in them (When wroth he had a tendency to lisp), "We were just planning to retire!"
"Your majesty," Dr. Belchior hastened to edify, "I must have time to prepare your nativity and progressed horoscope. First, I'll need your name & birth-date."
"What?" screeched the tyrant, "You prefume to queftion our age don't even know our furname? O Tempora! O Moref! Fhit! If everyone an amateur thefe dayf? No difipline! Cookf who can't cook, danferf who can't danfe and now aftrologerf who have no fenfe of the fitneff of thingf! Abfent yourfelf at wumph!"
And exhausted by the countless and preposterous outrages of the day, he deigned not even to wait for them to leave, but raised up his gross bod from his dining couch in order to exchange it forthwith for his bed — not neglecting petulantly to overturn the banquet table standing in his way. It was obvious to the doctors that any chance of persuading such a precious as this to release Apollodonis lay in the realms of fantasy. After Prester's exodus, they explained to Ooma why they had come to the palace in the first place. To this Ooma gave her assurance that she could easily obtain his release if they would consent to doing yet another small favor. She wanted them to take her with them out of Aparthenia into the desert.
"But now you are asking me to add kidnapping to our crimes?" Dr. Poxus shook his head in alarm as much as in palsy.
"Hush! It isn't abduction if I go willingly. What cowards you both are. Eheu! At any cost, here is uncle's bust." And she indicated a great marble head in the likeness of Prester V. It was the tyrant's sculping, alright: the pinched mouth, the fat jowls, the glabrous pate, the porcine eyes. It was certainly no oil painting! They heisted the huge, ugly thing off its pedestal & to tiptoe across the room with it. Unfortunately, as Ooma reached around Dr. Poxus to lend her small assistance, her touch electrified the old man. His heart fluttered and his arms turned to spoilt custard. The head fell to the floor with a titanic crash and burst into so much flying shrapnel. Quickly outthinking the others, Princess Ooma fled behind an adult tapestry to hide.
Vicarius & his soldiers were infuriatingly prompt to reappear. Almost at once the Captain of the Guard noticed, among the ruins, the presence of many large, dried Aziza mushrooms: the forbidden narcotic! Only the week before Vicarius had outlawed these wondrous vegetables, calling them "Narfty toadftoolf!" inasmuch as they seemed to him for some lewd reason to mock his infirmity.
"We didn't know they were inside," Dr. Poxus stupidly tried to rationalize, "We were just taking the bust..."
"Juft taking OUR buft? How monftrouf!" cried the tyrant, quick to take offense. "Affaffinf! What nexft? Arreft thefe thievf!"
Thus it was that the poor doctors joined their ward Appolodonis sooner than they had anticipated. The boy hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry when he saw hope of possible release exchanged by fate for temporary company. In penance, he spent the night praying on his knees in the damp, flea-infested straw. The magi sank mercifully into dismal comae.
The next morning Princess Ooma visited them with some halvah cupcakes in a gingham napkin. She bore both good and bad tidings.
"Larth has been assasinated," she told them first.
"Now, who again in this Larth?" asked the lovesick Dr. Poxus, not really paying attention.
"He was, dear love, the leader of the revolution," replied the beautiful princess. "The Vicarians hired some mad devil of a scapegoat to strangle him last night at the public baths, so they could claim they have been too lenient with criminals."
"We are s-s-s-sick with g-grief," sighed Polly. The princess looked at him. Long.
"Now it is essential for me to reach Icarus at once. That was why I needed the sacred aziza mushrooms."
"Why, then what we really wanted all along was the drug!" suggested Belchior, thoroughly scandalized. We didn't want your bust at all!"
"For shame," added Polly.
"Oh, come now," the princess scowled, "Who's buy that gargoyle? Besides, it weighed a ton! Anyway, this drug gives Icarus superhuman strength — incidentally, for your medical information, doctors, the mushroom, when used as a personal suppository, is an excellent cure for constipation, too. Icarus is in the desert completing the invention of his flying machine. But one bite of these darlings & he won't need mechanical help. Why, that Nazarene, whatever his name is, will have to turn in his wings. We must get Icarus back here to launch the Revolution! Larth, before he died, entrusted some important papyruses with me that I am to deliver asap. One is a map of the great Tetractys Pyramid, wherein Icarus will find treasure enough for the financing of n revolutions and an engine for his machine. I must also leave some other scrolls by the Dead Sea to be picked up later on."
"You expect this Icarus to do many things," suggested Dr. Belchior.
"Not only those feats, sir, but he is also the only man in the world who can translate the heiroglyphics of the hitherto uncracked Rosetta/Milhaus tapestone. That will undeceive the people about how slyly the tyrant has been abusing them."
"But what can we do?" objected Dr. Belchior, "Poor Ishmael is slated for religious apotheosis tomorrow at cockcrow, whereas they've charged Dr. Poxus and myself with possession of aziza, a capital crime. To think we should be accused of such a paltry offense as drug traffic!"
"Paltry?" protested Ooma, "The Egyptian priests say that everything in the world is the mushroom in one way or another. It is the shape of war clouds, the canopy of the pharaoh, the frame of the temple door. But enough of phallic imagery. Tonight you shall leave this place — provide you do exactly as I say. Yet you must promise, by your organs, to take me with you into exile!"
And to this they now readily concurred, having no other choice.
She remained with them for a time, trying — to the education of Apollodonis — to arouse Dr. Poxus (in vain) and helped them pass the hours by listening to excerpts from "The Voice of Experience":
Hipp: Another question burns my tongue like hot quicksilver.
Phos: You may ask one more. Let it not be, however, "How many water nymphs may dance on Neptune's trident?" I've heard that one before. Nor also, "Is Existentialism here to stay?"
Hipp: No. I wear upon my foot a sandal. Is this not true?
Phos: I know not yet what you mean by "sandal", nor even "foot," for that matter.
Hipp: Let us say, to begin, that a foot is a foot and a sandal a sandal.
Phos: Consider a sandal a sandal as said.
Hipp: Now. This sandal is no other than this sandal?
Phos: Yes, yes. Please move up at least to Noah and the Ark!
Hipp: It cannot, by any madness, be that sandal, can it?
Phos: I don't know and care less.
Hipp: Then, since it is no other, how can we call it "sandal?"
Phos: any case, it isn't a sandal, but a charioteer's boot, which I am sorry to see you sporting within the Agora itself. It smacks of sexual pretensions and low taste. Besides, the things are too thin for your real charioteer, so it is a fake boot.
Hipp: How can I prove it not to be a sandal, when you insist it already is not?
Phos: Oh, let us forget our differences over a cup at the Lip of Dionysus. Herodotus is back in town and goeth there of an evening to tell of the strange, true beasts he has seen in faraway lands. There is one they call in Greek "The Swinging Ostrich" and another called the Beast with Two Backs and still a third called the shrieking rhinoceros, or nose-horn.
Hipp: Don't change the subject. Can it be that you fear my logic and would escape truth in the hubbub? Pythagoras has said, "There's safety in numbers!"
Phos: Just as any parrot may sing the melodies of Polyhymnia, so any oaf plagiarizes the logic of the sages.
* * * * * * * *
Ooma confessed that if she must choose between two such reactionary philosophies, she supposed she was more Phosphoric than Hippic, which neither astonished nor not astonished none of them. Then, after having eaten all of the halvah herself, she whizzed away to prepare their escape.
All that afternoon they watched Larth's funeral from the dungeon window. The Royal Propagandist spoke for weary hours through a giant horn to the people, proclaiming: "The nation mourns the passing of a great hero, etc..." and the hearses — Larth's numberful retinue, as custom demands, had committed mock-suicide — rolled by interminably to the accompaniment of cornu, cwth & tambor in largo (or presto) tempo. Occasional petals from the funerary bouquets, fluttering through the bars, were their only windfalls in crepe that day.
At sundown, as she had sworn, Ooma sneaked again into the dungeon with another napkin. This cloth held not halvah now but another supply of the sacred narcotic mushrooms, which she instructed them all to chew carefully 28 times before swallowing. Within just a few minutes old Dr. Poxus became possessed of an extraordinary fire & approached Ooma with unmistakable intention.
"No time for that now!" she scolded.
This unexpected temporization seemed to have an immediate, if not fatal, effect on the relic. He underwent various changes of color across the physiognomic spectrum, from red to violet, waxing unaccountably palsied and walleyed. At length, thudding to the ground, he progressed tweakily from coma to corpse. Clearly, he had been given an overdose! Dr. Belchior & Polly, again reduced so quickly from intrepid trio to doughty duo, confronted Ooma.
"This is your drug culture! The tyrant's propaganda is right. Aziza knocks them dead!"
"Nonsense. It was my dazzling beauty alone that drove him past further somatic control. There is no time for contumely; come!"
"I refuse to leave," insisted Polly, "until we have decided upon the funeral arrangements. I think he would have liked a spray of antheria, don't you? And we mustn't forget to pack his funerary urn with plenty of sanduicia balonia, his favorite nutriment. They say the voyage across the five rivers of Hades gives the departed shade a hearty appetite. We must do the right thing, you know.
Ooma, nevertheless, prevailed upon him to settle for a short, extemporaneous eulogy reluctantly he began:
"D-dear friends, on this m-m-momentous eve, let us remember the m-m-maxim that suspicion is the m-mother of m-m-morality and..." "Ooph!" came a sudden cry from the floor, interrupting the sermon. It was Dr. Poxus, not dead after all! "What a dream I had," grinned the old fool, "it was almost real."
"Why you are all wet!" Polly pointed out where Dr. Poxus had been asleep in the damp straw.
"A wet turkey never dances past moonset," winked Dr. Poxus.
"Well, you had better!" insisted Ooma, helping him to his feet, "Before the mushroom fades."
She led the companions to the door. Silently, swiftly and with remarkable ease they overpowered each of the guards in turn. The guards seemed to be moving like slue-footed snails through the thickest honey. Soon they were outside under the free sky itself!
"I purchased camels this afternoon for each of us," Princess Ooma informed them, referring to the six hypozygotes lounging in luxurious filth alongside the tower, "from the camel-merchants, Giddyap, Gimel, Golem & Mohamet. Their names are the same. I had to walk a mile to find them. Only, unfortunately, I had thought for a moment, since Dr. Poxus had seemingly gone to his reward (paltry though it probably would have been), that I should have an extra two for myself."
"Why would anyone need the esurience of three whole camels?" asked Polly.
"For my excess luggage, you silly embryo. Do you expect a princess to travel without ointments, ornaments, ostrich plumes, nose-brooches, hash-holders, pampers, incense, personal vibrators, moon-oil, firni, or hyssop?"
"Tsk!" replied the lad, "Vanity is the very vagina of venery!"
Then they mounted their camels as the sun's penultimate rays glinted jaggedly from the tiny minarets of Aparthenia's bedouin quarter the muezzins began their salty vesper cadenzas. They were well into the desert before the hebephrenic moon rose.
NEXT: Chapter V - Olive Oil From an Olive Tree