Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Eight—Electricity Comes to the Star Chamber

The house that was a city grew and, as is the way with cities, buried its past beneath an ever advancing present. In the cellars of the Queen, where three corridors met to form a Y, three stone heads graced the capital of a buried pendentive. They were figments, and existed nowhere in nature. They were the past and they were buried. They had been surrounded, enveloped and eventually forgotten in a subcellar of the great masonry sprawl as addition after addition was piled over them. The settled dust of thousands of years had raised the level of the floor and grown hardened by the footfalls of passing errands. Lime leached from all the stories above had marbled the black granite walls and joined with the dust of the floor to form a polished cement. The heads were malign at first glance, a dead craftsman’s nightsweats and horrors: vaguely a cow, a goat, and a manticore. Each had some resemblance to the beast it portrayed—and not without an idiot twinkle—but seen through a glass cast with a ripple in it, reflected in a mirror with peeling silver. From the clustered heads a tongue thrust well into the corridor at ankle height, a peril to trip the unwary.

Mineral deposits had whitened the Goat’s tongue and striped his head so that his tongue appeared to have paused in the fastidious licking of an ice cream cone. The Goat’s dead eyes were rolled back, hollow stone pupils positioned to stare up the kilt of any passing visitor. This was a nice effect, although by accident of positioning rather than of prurience, for the level of the floor had risen. In former times he had been out-of-doors and his gaze had been heavenward, away from the temptations of the earth and the flesh, an allegorical figure. Some sincere soul had in ages past painted a green trim line at shoulder height perhaps as a guide suggesting direction though there were only two available, thither and yon. It was a nice touch, imparting an institutional hominess. But all it evoked was a thought that perpetual wanderers in these depths might be in need of cheering up.

It had been a long time between entertainments. The Cow, the Goat and the Manticore entered into silent transports as Lamprey and Tawse one day appeared. Or night, the difference here was moot.

The well diggers were sweating and cursing, trailing wire behind from a spool they carried threaded through with a pikestaff. The requisite paperwork had been completed and the quartermaster had sent them into the dark. Today the generator was down and Lamprey and Tawse were denied the consolation of even the rudimentary dimness of a work light. They stumbled ahead, the carbide headlamps on their miner’s harness etching shadow pantograms on the walls. Tawse foresaw an interminable future as a supplementary and semi-permanent work detail for the Lady. He turned to his partner. “This place is not natural, not rightly of our world: reeks of the Dancing Lords. It gives me the creepy-crawlies.”

“It seems to be three chaps with their heads stuck in the wall,” said Jack Lamprey.

Tawse winked at the three heads. “Gladdening the hearts of the tormented then, eh?”

“Who’s this fella?” said Lamprey. “Ain’t he but a mean-looking cuss?” Even a holy scholar inured to deciphering the identities of obscure saints in isolated shrines where all the images looked alike but for their associated implements of martyrdom would have been hard pressed to peg the Manticore right off.

Tawse tumbled right away. It was the Manticore. “This one, f’rinstance, is a man-dragon. If he was real there’d be a scorpion’s tail tucked away on the other side of the wall. But he ain’t real, not now. He’s a figment.” Tawse patted the comforting immobility of the solid rock. Striking a light for his cigar on the Goat’s tongue, he held high the guttering stump of a wax match and, puffing blue mephitic clouds, studied the Manticore.

“One wonders what presumptions they were guilty of to offend the Queen of Heaven. Poor old duffers.”

“Nah, they’re not even human. They never lived at all. These are decorations from the time of the Dancing Lords.” Tawse was proud of his memory.

Lamprey stared, pondering the faces in the wall, then stooped to pick up a hand maul. “According to Herself, modernity indicates auxiliary lighting against an unspecified emergency. Love it or hate it, we’ve bought ourselves a task and the sooner we’re through, the sooner we’re home. Shake a leg, we’ve got five more of these things to get up. Then we can be back up top with our well and our woolies.”

Lamprey leaned into it with a will, swinging the maul while Tawse held the drill. They punched two mounting holes into the blank stone, pressed in lead slugs and bolted a battery and lamps in place. They then picked up the spool of wire and prepared to disappear further down into the dark.

“Hoy, hold up a bit.” Tawse set down his end of the pikestaff. As a final gesture to the fears that grow best alone and in the dark, he returned to install the now defunct butt of his stogie between the Manticore’s bared fangs. “Ain’t he quite the dude.”

They laughed uneasily and departed, trailing their wire behind. They had been here long enough. There was a numbing air in the labyrinth down the stairs, and most who went once avoided a second visit.

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