Within the Pyramid
¬ęSEVEN MILES TO BABELON¬Ľ the misspelled¬† signpost informed them. It was lucky, though, that the lazy signmaker had not [quoteright]bothered to go that far before posting it, because someone (?) had forgotten once again to pack any water bags. The map had told that there they would find the key to the door of the Great Tetractys Pyramid. And so they were eager to travel quickly. Thus, they found themselves at the fabulous walls of that ancient metropolis much sooner than they had anticipated.
The walls beside the main gate of Bab-ilu were covered with Nilotic blue tiles sculpted with reliefs of fabulous bulls,¬† lions, griffons, sacred cockroaches,¬† crocodiles and other marvelous animals. Even from afar they could see the unfinished ziggurat housing famous linguists, all of whom Dr. Poxus claimed to know personally. Hundreds of feet it towered into the sky where it vanished in the haze and smog. Luxurious gardens hung from the polychromatic stories of all the buildings and every tree could be found there: palm, cedar, shittim, mock-maple. But it was the traffic in the streets that most commanded their attention. Everywhere were chariots, camels, merchants, beggars, soldiers, foreigners. On every corner some show dazzled the eye: fire-eaters, slave auctions, gaunt fakirs thrusting wicked-looking nails through their cheeks, dervishes, story-tellers. Peacocks roamed everywhere unmolested, strutting and screaming. Besilked courtesans astride strange beasts toasted the saints with silvern goblets of suspicious wine. The din was crashing. In short, it was the kind of place where things still happen.
Icarus led fiancee and wisemen into a picturesque tavern, "The Clean Rest Rooms." Inside, the Babylonians in drunken carousal were noisier and thicker than Thebans. They found a greasy counter at which a company of inebriated used chariot salesmen were snoozing and promptly stacked them onto the floor. Then they sat down & ordered a round of wine ‚ÄĒ and tepid Nile water for Apollodonis.
"This is where I came in," moaned Icarus, "last time, to meet Vitellus the Egg Merchant and smutty picture-dealer." No sooner had he uttered these words than a swarthy, pock-cheeked Babylonian appeared at their side. He carried a packet of carved tile playing cards depicting abstract, stylized, almost pornographic arabesques and flashed them at the group. None were uncontrollably aroused by them, although Polly examined them minutely for violations of the anti-pictorial laws.
" 'Ave you to see feelthy Easter eggs?" whined the peddler. That, however, was not the correct password. The correct password was "Ina ili rabu Ahuramazda," but people were always ready to find a reason to overlook the worst grammatical errors committed by those they like, while those they do not like are sent to the vat for nothing more than a pawky little murder.
Icarus himself ignored protocol and blurted, "You have the key?" For he knew that this rat would be willing & avid to sell any key (or his own mother) to the first buyer. This proved true.
"No key. Sold key to rich, fat tourist."
"Vel Partunu!" exclaimed Icarus, knowing this description could fit only the damned priest! "Up, everyone! He has preceded us! We must waste not one precious grain of time. He's probably half way up the pyramid by now."
They scrabbled to their feet & raced for the camels. If Vel Partunu laid his manicured hands on the treasure, the revolution could kiss itself goodbye in its own juice. But the camels, slow enough ordinarily, today would not be rushed at all. They liked Babylon, where the heat and noise & flies soothed and coaxed them into cozy, unending naps. It was with but molasses-like torpor that they even rose to their feet & once up exhibited even greater reluctance to move. Their arrogance was disarming.
"Damn the camels," shouted Icarus, dismounting, "And full speed ahead!" Whereupon he raced over to a spanking new sedan chair whose owner was niggling with a nearby merchant over the price of Smyrna figs (which, it must be admitted, at 86 talents apiece was outrageous). Clambering aboard, he directed them all to waste no further time. They lifted the conveyance¬† galloped off.¬† Polly, Dr. Belchior and Dr. Poxus ran faster than they had ever run in their lives, while Icarus shouted directions from inside.
Almost at once the owner of the sedan chair bleated a falsetto scream and gave useless chase. Past gawking slaves and near-motionless beasts of burden they flew, carrying Icarus out through the gate and once more into the desert. Fortunately, the four "horses" were fresh and the sedan chair was streamlined. So they made good time on the journey from Babylon to the pyramids. There they arrived precisely at the stroke of midnight on the Eve of St. Agnes; and sure enough, the door to the pyramid lay wide open!
Ignoring a new star blazing in the southern sky, foretelling the Nativity of yet another dreary Messiah, the wise men and friends scurried inside.
NEXT: Chapter VIII - "Polka Dots and Hippopotamoi"¬†
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