Doctor Hoxus Comes A-Cropper
Chagrined and nettled, they had just arisen to leave the oracular hall, when Vel Partunu materialized at their side in a gorgeous silver gown accentuated with rubies and carbuncles. Upon his august head reposed a treble tiara of gold & depicting Pan & [quoteright]his nymphs in full orgy. He leant upon a crozier of platinum and ivory. Dr. Belchior briefly considered grasping the priest's hand pressing it reverently to his lips, but decided the emerald gracing Partunu's thumb was far too bulky for him to bite out of its setting.
"Perhaps the visitors hanker to see the upper stories of the pylon to inspect our library, cloisters and brothel," he smiled (not quite obliquely enough, thought Apollodonis).
"Sore grateful are we, Holy One," replied Dr. Hoxus with as much obsequy as he could feign, "But our business with the oracle now having been concluded, we must depart at once."
"Tsk. Such unseemly haste. Men are not in peril in Aparthenia. Only women need such fear," he winked at Polly, "And some others. May I remind you that Diogenes, thinking to avoid the predictions (that was not our blessed oracle, but an earlier, inferior model) that he would suffer a fatal blow to the head, went out into the desert where surely nothing untoward could befall him in such an artless uncluttered locale. But it came to pass that an eagle flying overhead inadvertently dropped a tortoise upon him & cracked his skull."
"Intending no impatience," snorted Dr. Belchior, "But what has this colorful yet far-fetched fable have to do with us? How can we be 'reminded' of that with which we have had no experience? We have never been amongst Greeks & had nothing to do with that wooden horse."
"It has come to our delicate ears that you fled Greece under a cloud similar to that under which you plan to leave Aparthenia. Or had you meant, after all, to return to the IV Follies to settle your accounts? The Aparthenians, you will learn, do not imprison debtors any longer. We consider that to be uncivilized. We prefer to rehabilitate the criminals & set them to work. At present we are undergoing an eunuch crisis. Nobody, it seems, wants to be an eunuch any longer. I can't imagine why."
"Are you inviting us to remain, sir?" asked Apollodonis, already suspecting the truth of emancipation from slavery to new servitude.
"Let us say, my son, that you appear to have promise. I would like for you go into training. You must learn the art of ostentatious humility & not allow your natural talents to fade into unpolished stagnation."
"Y-y-y-you want me to be-become a pu-pope-priest?"
"No, something far more divine than that. But come, let us expatiate the details in my apartments where we may chat more commodiously."
Upstairs divested of crown robe, the Vel Partunu, presented a rather ordinary, if crepy-skinned, appearance, as he lounged easily upon grotesquely purpled floor-cushions, fingering a goblet of the gagging, syrupy date wine of Aparthenia. As he outlined his monstrous plan to use Polly in sacrifice during the coming religious celebration, he seemed to take on a less ordinary aura. Polly politely picked a pannier of polished pomegranates from the table, which fruitful omen passed unnoticed by all.
"But why me, sir?" pressed the boy, not baffled so much as piqued by curiosity. He could appreciate the honor such an offer carried, but not the particular choice itself. He had a way of seeing things too much, he feared, from the other's point of view. He seemed to himself, for instance, too young and ignorant for immolation. Why, he could scarcely tell one god's sceptre from another's, despite his devotion and piety. But Partunu was less concerned with Polly's modest spiritual qualifications.
"We need a good-looking human sacrifice for a change," he explained willingly enough, "You see, I am essentially a fundentalist, if not an evangelist. It's high time we returned to those old values. I am a Vicarian through and through, and proud of it. I believe the only way to save Aparthenia from dread civil war is through a triumphant return to religious observance. I intend to pack the pews, as it were, and to shore up the old, ailing temple, to reactivate order and cleanliness!"
"That is a neat order," Dr. Poxus agreed.
"You think the task too burdensome for me, do you? Yet it is I, and I alone, who sparked the so-called 'Osiris Freak' movement amongst the young, which will go down in history. A youthful, handsome sacrifice at this opportune tide will go a long way towards nipping rebellion in the bud. It will inspire the people to reaffirm indifference and our Vicarian way of life!"
At these words Polly began to balk in earnest. He did not care for Vel Parunu's idea in the slightest. It seemed much too ambitious and prideful. All the same, he decided, it might be wise to appear flattered. But then the temple guards made short work of everyone's strategems by whisking the boy off to the tower's dungeon.
Dr. Hoxus, attempting cowardice (never flee from Saturn!) ran through a guard's spikenard (Mars) by accident, thus fulfilling his horoscope. In truth the guards had meant only to escort the doctors informally to the side exit. Thus poltroonery perishes. So in a matter of seconds, the erstwhile ample quartet found itself on the street reduced to a lonesome duo.
"Buggery of Beelzebub!" exploded Dr. Belchior, "How dare they incarcerate the slaves of foreigners in this heinous land? We must extricate the boy from his fate! We may need him to help raise money for Dr. Hoxus' wake. But what can we do? They've even confiscated our camels!"
"There is a secret trick to everything, " intoned Dr. Poxus importantly, "The knack lies merely in finding it."
"We must act quickly," replied Belchior, assuming command once again as thought limped towards him, "Our courageous course is clear. We shall go to the tyrant and inform him that the Vel Partunu, is scheming to usurp the throne!"
"How do you know that?" marveled old Poxus, struggling to keep up with Belchior's long mental strides. "He seemed to me a bit on the patriotic side, if anything."
"If an ass, my wretched colleague, were to survive to your years he would be hailed as the Methusaleh of asses! What does it matter whether what we say be true or not? Priests are always hatching one egg of treason or another. We have merely to claim that we overheard him whispering to his henchmen."
"How simple a thing is once it has been explained," sighed the ancient magus, "But what if the innkeeper has already spoken to the hierophant & asked his soldiers to arrest us? Besides," he continued, "What if we should, after all, be subjected to the indignity of telling fortunes, like dirty gypsies, in order to pay for our supper?"
"The continued braying of an ass lends neither codicil nor counterpoint to what has already been brayed. All we need say is that we felt it such an urgent patriotic duty to warn Vicarius that we had no time for such trifles & had to spend our last shekel on a chariot to reach him without further delay. Now, all that remains for us is to approach the palace under cover of darkness, in order to avoid obstacles. Once within the tyrant's presence, we shall be quite safe. But for now we need somewhere to hide."
So they passed the afternoon mingling with the crowds in the gladiatorial arena, cutting as many purses as they could, just in case — through some unforeseen affliction of Mercury — they should find themselves obliged to pay the innkeeper after all. It never occurred to them that they had merely to remove their conical caps of stars and signs of the zodiac and their gaudy Chaldean cloaks and they would instantly have been adequately disguised as ordinary rabble. Once shorn of their paraphernalia they were as undistinguished as the dullest Vicarian. Such deceptions, however, lay beyond the innocence of Earth's early centuries.
They were much amused by the show, which was a novelty for them. This particular presentation was a battle between some of those peculiar "fliers" advertised over "The Voice of Experience" and an exceptionally fearsome collection of wild beasts who had been starved & goaded to dramatic heights of savagery. The result was gratifyingly realistic. Before being attacked by the she-bears, panthers and rabid wolves, one of these odd persons delivered a brief, barking sermon on the value of narrowness of mind. He talked much nonsense which the magi found too modernistic and undisciplined to be funny (aren't new philosophies candles any longer? Must they all be snuffers?). He told a tale about a person named Saul who felt his name was too Jewish, so he had changed it to Paul. This preached the snobbish doctrine that only the upper classes could become members of his sect.
Then he went on to constate that some of the people believed, perhaps erroneously, that the next world was the mirror opposite of this one in every respect. So that if, for example, a man desired his issue to become winged angels in Paradise, then in this world he should crush the lucky sons and daughters under a heavy stone.
But the ending was good. Belchior & Poxus joined in enthusiastically when the crowd applauded as one wily panther sneaked up behind him & cunningly nipped off his head as deftly as a milkmaid plucks a daisy.
And the finale was better still. An epicene scholar by the name of Euphemistes, accused of the crime of writing lewd verses about Vicarius, was ferried across a small, artificial lake to a tiny island in the center of the arena. There he began a ringing recital of the odes of Obloquies, the dullest of Greek poets. Some of the more literate influential members of the audience sat nearby in garlanded canoes, the better to listen.
Just as everyone began falling to sleep, a group of ferocious, gaunt lionesses descended upon Euphemistes & proceeded to tear him to pieces. The audience in the lake clapped laughed with glee — casting bouquets of roses at the unfortunate performer. Soon their tears of laughter turned to tears of dismay, however, as an enormous school of crocodiles, suddenly unleashed by the circus-master, succeeded in capsizing their flimsy craft, knocking one and all into the water. This was undoubtedly the finest show that our good doctors had ever beheld.
When night fell they easily attained the palace without detection. Since, however, they had been reduced to stumbling around trial and error fashion, in order to avoid the red-light districts (where the soldiers were pretending to be looking for non-harlots in hiding) and since they had therefore gone blindly in a complete circle, they could not imagine that the porch to the palace was in reality but the back door of the temple! The Aparthenians, being sufficiently penurious, believed that one high-rise per city was more than enough to house both priest & tyrant, there being so little difference between them anyhow.
Next: Chapter IV - Princess Ooma
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