Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Fifteen—The Cicerone

A ragged red-haired girl, nine or ten years of age, hugged her chin to her knobbly knees as she sat scrunched up on the edge of a great carved oak refectory table. The child eyed the golem of the Fata Morgana appraisingly. “You are a remarkably good job,” she said.

“Huh? Oh, yes. You are a little girl. Do I know you?” Biff’s attention had been elsewhere.

“You will get to know me,” said the little girl. “I am an aspect of the Orange Virgin.”

“Then, how do you do,” said Biff as he stared into the mirror. He saw the jagged peeling of strips of shiny painted-on mercury emulsion hanging from the reverse of the glass. Ah, there he was! He was balancing a cup of tea on one razor-creased knee, intent on saving his tennis flannels as he contended with a raspberry tart. There was an emphasis on form when one was invited to tea. Petit fours and cucumber sandwiches and a balancing act every time. Demitasse and tiny spoons, napkins on the knee. One liked to observe the niceties.

“Do you come here often. I mean...” Biff had trouble forming the words. He had never before had to speak with anyone other than the Orange Virgin. “I... I have never. This is my first time. Has this always been here?” He reached for another raspberry tart. It might be a long time between dinners. “Ow!” He bruised a knuckle on the glass. The tarts, the tea, the tennis flannels existed only in the mirror. Biff looked down; he was naked.

“The raspberry tarts. They’re not real,” said the child. Biff ignored her as he savored the taste of raspberries. “I am real. You have potential.”

“I have been told this,” said Biff. “I am to have an interview with my cicerone—a glorified babysitter from the way the Fata Morgana says it—one of those Morgana words that fills the mouth and bedazzles the brain.” Biff Bangtree wished he could perspire. Biff studied his reflection.

“You are beautiful,” said the Wise Child.

“Have you noticed? I don’t sweat,” said Biff.

Perspiration would be a healthy thing, agreed the Wise Child, as perspiration helped to cleanse one’s pores. “My goodness gracious, but you are infectious,” said the child. She had caught herself studying her own reflection in a polished steel omelet pan.

Tall, wide shouldered, narrow of hip, Biff leaned over the child, checking himself in the omelet pan, knees bent, bringing his face even with the girl’s in the field of reflection.

“Checking to see if you’re still there?” asked the child.

Biff was pleased his reflection existed in two places. But the child was beginning to annoy him. “All right, so I’m vain about my looks.”

“You are naked, Biff, you dummy. You really should consider getting out more. So few men have the profile to strut naked. But you know what they say: too many trips to the mirror and you are an environmental hazard. Killing the fish, abrading the genetic structure of generations yet unborn. Don’t suck at the mercury, there’s a good boy. There’s no one behind the glass. Just you in front of it.”

Biff gave one last primp, indulging a final denial of what he saw. Whether sucking the silver off a mirror or licking the shiny bottom off an omelet pan, Biff liked to look nice.

The Wise Child sat on the table, admiring. The great refectory table filled the center aisle of the kitchen. “You will drive the women mad with desire, Biff,” offered the Wise Child.

“Hi Guy,” said Biff to his reflection, feeling silly, yet in the grip of a checking compulsion, he gave his high chef’s hat an adjustment. With liquid joints and the easy grace of one born to admiration, Biff had the strut.

“And to think you make up all this nonsense by yourself,” said the Wise Child.

“Shouldn’t my teacher be here by now?”

There was a crunch and muted cursing from beneath the great refectory table. “Make things up?” said a voice from under the table. “Sounds very creative to me. We might begin your lessons with the study of creativity.”

“Oh, that must be your babysitter,” said the Wise Child. “He must be under the table.”

“I say, are you stuck?” asked Biff. He crouched to behold a creature made up of many other creatures. Porcupine, man, lizard, eagle, scorpion. The creature seemed as surprised as he was.

“Ours not to wonder why, ours but to do or die. Morituri te salutem. Ave atque vale. Hail Caesar. Hardly a cheery reflection,” said The Manticore. “Yes, I am stuck in the furniture. Here I am, sent out on a fool’s errand therefore I must be the fool. So glad to meet up with you. The Queen of Heaven is tight-mouthed with her allusions, even for a goddess. She always makes things so damned complicated...” The creature seemed to be continuing a conversation with someone behind it. Biff looked up; peculiar, there was no door in that direction.

Biff got passing notice. “Hiya, Your Worshipfulness. The lad and I are going to have jolly times together.” The apparition was speaking to the Destroyer, Biff realized. The statue with the necklace of skulls had followed him. Receiving no response, the Manticore spoke to Biff—a blue sizzle and a whiff of ozone, radio smells: “Well, I seem to be on the job already. Look at this—pants but no pockets.” The Manticore had been stuffed into a set of plaid golfing knickers. “The Fata Morgana must have been distracted. Neat bonnet though.” The Manticore tried to turn around and view its hindquarters. A horned Viking helmet was perched on a ruff of quills that encircled its face; its legs and feet were vaguely a lion’s though covered with scales.

“What happened to your skin? It’s all black.”

A smile displayed rows of fangs. “Odd you should notice that. Damned if I know. This is a first time for both of us; I’ve never seen all of me before either. I seem to be in disguise, but you picked up on the pigment right away.” Holding the helmet at arm’s length, the Manticore tested the point of one of the horns with a fingertip. “Got to hand it to you—you’re real observant.” Any intended sarcasm was lost on Biff. The finger was quickly pulled back. A drop of greenish fluid welled up at a puncture. “Best to play it safe; you never know where these things have been.” The Manticore put the finger in its mouth. Biff approved of this.

“I guess the horns are to keep us thinking.” He sucked his finger for a while and looked at the Destroyer, then at Biff. The Manticore decided Biff was his best bet for conversation. The finger was removed. “Behold, my lad: the Hat from Hell. Far be it for the Fata Morgana, Orange Virgin, etc., etc. to send her humble operative into hostile territory defenseless.” Holding the horned hat before him and at the height of his head, he advanced on Biff. “An investiture. You desire this chapeau?”

Feeling his way around some incidental furniture, Biff backed away. “No, no. No.” Biff shook his head from side to side.

“So be it, then—no takers—another idea whose time has went.”

The stranger allowed the helmet to pivot on the axis of his middle fingers until the horns pointed down. “Ave atque vale. Sic semper offensive headgear.” He dropped the hat and it struck trembling, each horn embedded a full inch in the floor. “That I should be here at all and uttering such things is, in itself, a patent absurdity. My mistress seems to have packed me with a compendium of phrases for all occasions, and inflected in an argot to compliment my aspect. You have met my hat. I am the Manticore. Call me Manny.”

The stranger walked forward, hand extended. Biff hesitantly took it and asked, “Are you a private eye?” The radio had told him of the adventures of Sam Spade; Nick Carter, Master Detective; The Thin Man; The Fat Man; Johnny Dollar, The Man with the Action-Packed Expense Account; and Mister Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons. They were ‘operatives.’ They did things, went places. Biff Bangtree knew he would look neat in an ice cream suit and a snap-brim fedora or summer-weight Panama hat.

“Could be, kid, could be.” The Manticore held Biff’s hand longer than was customary with handshakes; but Biff could not know this, for this was his first. The grip grew tighter and tighter as The Manticore’s steely gaze held Biff’s eyes. “You’re not human, are you?” With that, The Manticore wrenched off Biff’s hand.

Biff was dumbfounded, shocked and struggling; people were not supposed to behave this way. The Manticore’s hand—a stiff arm with five powerful splayed black fingers and a flattened palm the size and weight of a manhole cover—in the middle of Biff’s chest kept him immobilized while the sundered part was examined at length, turned over and over.

“Good work. She do it?” A tilt of the head indicated The Destroyer. “Furniture you can’t sit on. Must be art. Can’t say that she adds much in the way of comfort to the old place.”

Comfort. The word brought memories of steaming bowls of oatmeal with cinnamon and sugar mornings, baked apple with brandy and a dollop of whipped cream evenings. Biff nodded eagerly, trying to get past the fence of fingers and back together with his property. The stranger spoke in conciliatory tones. “Yes, yes, of course it’s yours. Just having a little look-see.” The Manticore dropped his guard and, as Biff fell forward, seized his forearm with a paralyzing strength and slapped the hand back in place, locking it on with a quick quarter-turn and reverse.

Biff wiggled his fingers. The Manticore had wrenched him apart, then reassembled him. In spite of this abrupt behavior, Biff was encouraged. “I am experiencing Life. It has begun and I am on my way.”

“I expect that is so. You are certainly naive, but right on the money.” Wings behind his back, the Manticore was having a stroll around the room. “Glad you think so. Not the most auspicious start, but a start. Definitely that.” The Destroyer looked on implacably. “This your old Mum, eh?”

The stranger let his eyes roam over the distant ceiling where painted fluffy cloudscapes interspersed with gilded beams. Feigning unconcern, he then quickly swung around trying to catch the statue’s eyes following him. She stood unmoving. “Her intent must be decorative.” The Manticore poked the Destroyer’s belly with a finger and jumped back.

This strange creature must be the teacher Biff had been told to expect.

“In the absence of any firm direction, your apprenticeship begins here.”

“Uh, I am learning to make a quiche.”

“A quiche baker, eh? She didn’t tell me that. Seems a lot of bother, but if that is the destiny the Queen of Heaven has mapped out for you.” The Manticore turned his back, absorbed with the immobile goddess. “You are what you are, my boy. But this...”

Biff was dismissed; he hurried to catch up with the conversation. There had been a question—his old Mum. “Uh, yes. She is, but not all of her. The rest of her is in a radio.”

“‘Sir.’ You may call me ‘Sir,’ and I know what a radio is, you boob. At this moment the Queen of Heaven is on a Piranesi staircase through a wall with no backside and on a spinning orb a ninety-degree turn from nowhere. She is stranded all the way from Tuesday, much as I was. This one here is stiff as a cigar store Indian. Or would be if I knew what a cigar store Indian was. It is the place of the Fata Morgana to be constantly refashioned by the eye of the beholder. It is her place to be everywhere at once and at all times, whereas we stand on an endless linear now surrounded by the wreckage of the past. You and I are dots on a line. She is the line, and she will return. You didn’t know that, did you, young laddie-buck?”

Biff hadn’t the slightest idea what the stranger was talking about. What was this that he was supposed to know? He found the stranger’s way with words confusing, but he seemed to be implying that whatever he was doing here had to do with Biff’s future, his career. Biff gave it a test.

“Uh, were you in the radio? You mean Morgana won’t be coming back? What is a cigar store Indian? Can you make a quiche?”

“No. Yes. This. And perhaps.”

“What?”

“What, ‘Sir,’ please. As a golem you are a fine job of work, but a bit of a rattlebrain. Pay attention when I talk, boy. I can whip up the damndest most glorious quiche you ever laid tooth to and will show you how, but you must first ransom your credibility by giving me your undivided attention and cooperation. It’s you and I, young laddie-buck that, in the absence of her puissant loveliness here, are left to carry on all manner of good works.”

The Manticore grasped the Destroyer by the nose and started her spinning. The creature got down on all fours and, as the Destroyer spun faster and faster, picking up momentum, slid one hand under her whirling feet to gauge clearance. “You’ll excuse me, but I found her presence disquieting.” He dusted off his hands as the Destroyer spun faster, her increasing velocity creating a fearsome roar. But there was no wind, not even a perceptible breeze. The Manticore produced a cigar from within his ruff of quills and patted his golfing pants in search of a pocket with matches. He was pleased. “Your basic gyroscopic effect.”

Slowly, gracefully, the Destroyer began to sink into the floor, leaving a neat, polished borehole.

“Wow! Where did you learn to do that?”

“True, boy, true. Impressive it is—neater than a quiche and no cleanup after. And were her apotheosis to return without warning, she could do me much mischief. Believe me, Biff-me-boyo, she doesn’t feel a thing and with her out of harm’s way, I can devote all my energies to the matter at hand. To wit: your education.”

“Uh, I’m afraid you’re going too fast for me. Could you slow things down a bit? That was a neat trick, though.”

“Slickness, my boy, is a learned response. It’s all in the presentation. I don’t do tricks; you do tricks. What you see happening, what you apprehend to be marvelous goings-on, are a mere window dressing. The dazzled beholder must look behind the flash to find the form, the substance. It’s all in the interpretation. I do what I have to do and you will follow along as far as your limited perceptions allow.”

The stranger was implying he was a conjuror, or a god.

“Right on both counts. And your thoughts are as transparent as your vacuous, sculpted, aristocratic face. Close but no cigar.” He flourished his stogie. “I am conjuror sufficient to our needs and the messenger of a goddess. De minimis—a little hocus-pocus goes a long way. This has been your first lesson.”

He waved at the borehole where the Destroyer had all but disappeared. “Right now I am happier with that old trout down the hole. You and I must have some time alone. Look at me.”

Biff looked at the Manticore.

“I inspire trust, do I not? Come; be honest. If I am to be your tutor there must be no barriers of doubt between us.”

“You don’t look like I had imagined.”

“You were expecting me?”

“Not exactly. You said you were an ‘operative’. I know about private eyes.”

“I’ll just bet you do. Ah-ha!” Scooping a packet of wax matches from a tabouret near a bronze brazier, the Manticore tried to light up his cigar. He squinted with concentration; the little wax matches burned quickly. A second guttering match end fell to the floor. “Ahhh...” The Manticore coughed, exhaling a rich blue cloud of banded Havana.

“Are you sure you should suck it in that deep?” Biff was delighted: this was a tough guy, although not quite as he had imagined Dolby Jenks, Space Ace would look.

“A habit long deprived, me laddie-buck, though even with cement lungs caution is indicated.” A series of ecstatic puffs, and his eyes rolled back beneath the forest of quills. “The universe is about getting boiled with its socks on and here I am speaking, living, breathing. And puffing on this admirable stogie. Whoa! Hey, there, I do believe I just felt my tail. Let me give it a check. Yes, definitely, I feel something there.” He turned his head around, body following, but came up short against his quills, knocking the ember from the tip of his cigar. There was a smell of burning. “I don’t suppose you have another match?”

Biff shook his head.

The Manticore sighed and stuck the cold cigar behind one ear. “Later, then. We are going to play a game together, you and I. You, because you seem real but are not, and I, who am not but seem real. A paradox and a conundrum, what a pair of private eyes we shall make, eh? Close your jaw; its hanging there betrays your astonishment. A gentleman is never astonished. And I shall make of you a gentleman, or at least an intimate bore, close and confiding. Ah, how you shall charm the ladies, but don’t forget the breath mints.”

Placing an index finger at the top of Biff’s head as a pivot point, the Manticore took Biff’s right hand in his left and, their arms extended together, began shuffling his feet.

“This is dancing, a social grace. The sinister and the dexter, left and right, working together to their mutual betterment. The spirit of cooperation, much as you and I will help each other. Now—just how much of what I have said do you remember? Don’t strain yourself; just offhand, what do you immediately recall?”

“Uh, that we are dancing, charming ladies and boiling socks, sir. Why are we cooking the socks? What are ladies?”

“A dismal start. But at least a start, this in itself is promising. You and I are castaways here in Morganaland till we can work effectively as a team: the old school try, give em what for, and appended bullshit. I shall play cicerone to your Caliban. Know what that means?”

“Uh, no, sir.”

“You will by the time you stop spinning.”

The Manticore whipped him like a toy top and executed a handoff, leaving Biff spinning on his heels. As he picked up speed, bright stationary objects in the room became continuous ribbons of color.

The Manticore stood back and admired his handiwork. “Man of clay, you are back again on the potter’s wheel, Caliban’s centrifugal womb. This time, however, only for a few adjustments.”

Biff hugged his arms to himself for fear of their flying off. The spinning was hauntingly familiar; he felt the pangs of birth again as the contents of his head pressed out against his ears. “Is this really necessary?”

“Not in the least. It simply keeps you from asking stupid questions till we’re all through and tidy. See? Already that was a perceptive question.”

Biff felt his ear on the move again. He was picking up speed and the roar of his cyclonic tunnel made the Manticore shout to be heard.

“You are a boob! We shall un-boob you, then! Oh, stop that damned spinning, it gets on my nerves.”

“But, but...” There was a sudden stop and the traveling ear flew off.

“But, but...” The Manticore mocked. “You sound like a farting ungulate. Now, what is a cicerone?”

Biff didn’t feel any smarter, just dizzy. “I still don’t know.”

The Manticore retrieved the ear and handed it back. “Yours, I believe. The Fata Morgana has eons to play around with as do I and, it would appear, you. But I am easily bored, nothing personal. I find freedom exhilarating and, frankly, want to step out.” The Manticore turned and walked away. “Come, let us have a converse. If memory serves, there will be a game park outside. The Dancing Lords were proud of their manicured lawns and arboriculture. Quite conducive to creative reflection.”

Set deep in a recessed arch was a small oaken door with heavy iron nails studding its crossbucks. The door’s arched top was no higher than Biff’s chin. The Manticore undogged the latch and stepped through. “Hold your head low, boy. Whoa-oo!” He clutched wildly at a rickety scaffolding that creaked as he scrambled to recover his balance. He had walked out into thin air high above an empty moat. “A demonstration of the ever-present unforeseen which surround us. A cicerone is a guide, a teacher helping you find a thread of meaning in the commonplace. This, for instance, was a surprise.” He regained a desperate composure. “Don’t look down. The last time I looked down from high on a parapet, there was dry land out this door. Dry and level. I see things have changed and not for the better.”

Trying to appear unruffled, the cicerone—scorpion, eagle, serpent, porcupine, and lion with the face of a man—walked out onto a plank no wider than a single footfall, grinning broadly. The plank bowed precariously under his weight. “Truly limber lumber. But dry and cured. It should hold.” He balanced in the middle of the plank and jumped up and down a few times. There were creaks as the timber butt advanced and retreated almost to the edge of the doorsill. “Close enough, but only one at a time. Follow me.” The Manticore sauntered forward through the air. The trelliswork swayed and bounced. As he reached the other side he called back, “Well, what’re you waiting for?”

Biff gulped, closed his eyes, and charged across.

Safely over, Biff looked down. It was a good sixty feet to a hard landing. The caked and cratered mud of the exposed moat bed was littered with construction debris and decaying kitchen leavings, some recent and green, some older and gray. Fumes arose; the accumulation was distressingly high; a rat scuttled away. Biff caught at his ear and hurried to catch up with the Manticore who was gesturing expansively as he strolled ahead over a well kept greensward.

“I have plans, me laddie-buck. Freedom is a new feeling to me. We are destined to strut, you and I, but there are some problems. For the time being I am looking after the interests of a considerable and, ahem, distant employer. But I am about doing great things, and you shall be my assistant.”

Biff’s heart—and he had a heart, for he was anatomically correct—leaped within his bosom. “Is that like a job?” He remembered the radio. “Like a Dolby Jenks, Space Ace, in the real world?”

*  *  *

They strolled until dusk. The Manticore expounded while Biff grew reassured listening.

“Art—music, poetry, the fletching of arrows, well wedged clay thrown on the flying wheel into perfect proportions—is all inside of itself. As we practice art we pretend we are reinterpreting the world around us, getting outside of ourselves. Words talk to words, nothing grander. Art practices us even as the hoary general, shaking with delirium, his boots full of piss, calls for the charge. The soldiers shoot each other; they do not cook quiches. A sloppy expedient—the imitation of life. The Old Ones, the Dancing Lords, did it all the time; I know all about it. It is safe within a discipline, think you? Dreams are about dreams but they can lure you in, even as music explains nothing even as it makes you a part of it, a slippery pole to nowhere.”

The Manticore knew everything. There was trouble and they were going to fix it. They were partners, like the private eyes on the radio. When they arrived again at the weathered bridge of planks, Biff walked right across, eyes open, scattering a flight of carrion crows who wrestled tidbits from the garbage below.

*  *  *

All was not as they left it.

“Up, bup, bup...”

“There you go, the farting ungulate noises again. I would have hoped our times together would have imparted some self-assurance. Talk in sentences, lad.”

“Bup, bup, bup…” If the cicerone had had sleeves, Biff would have been tugging at them.

“S’matter boy? Uh-oh.” The Manticore executed a slow pirouette in time to observe a whiskered pink muzzle rise over the side of the Destroyer’s hole. It was speaking.

“You are here to welcome me to your sunny shores. Yes, that’s it, how foolish of little me.”

From out of the hole rose a small spotted pig with the easy grace of an absolute monarch treading gently through a crowd of deserving poor. “No, don’t move; I want to remember you always with your jaws hanging out like that. Sorry to ruin whatever surprises you had planned but your gloomy lazaret was, well... dark, so I thought I’d come on up and join the fun.”

“Well, I am almost impressed.” The Manticore, who was frightened, decided not to show it in front of Biff.

“I would prefer to believe you two perpetrators didn’t chuck me down that hole out of spite, but someone has to accept responsibility for this high-handed treatment and you’re it.” The pig floated to the center of the old oak refectory table and touched down on point, balancing on the tips of all four trotters. “Explain yourselves, please, and don’t be tedious. Thus far your definition of fun has been sadly lacking.” The pig—a spotted china with a tight brushy tip to her tail—stretched, sat, and raised a desultory hind leg to scratch an ear.

“You have the advantage,” offered the Manticore. “You know us but we do not know you. I do not recall chucking you in the lazaret, if this is what has you exercised.”

The pig hopped down from the table, made a circuit of the borehole, then sat down and licked her crotch. “I thought it was an excellent likeness, too. Everybody is a critic.” Looking up from her grooming, she addressed Biff. “You, mud man—switch my wickets if you aren’t the sanest of the lot. Miss your old Mum, eh?” Biff looked nervously to the Destroyer’s hole. “Your protégé, Manticore, is made of finer clay than most people, and you would be advised to use him gently.”

“You have a name for me, madame swine, but I as yet have none for you,” said the Manticore. “I should be impressed, I know, but I fear I find you little more than a preposterous ball of porcine adorableness.”

“You do not realize who I am? On a scale of one to ten, I find you likewise deficient.” The pig curled back her lip, showing rows of white teeth, long and sharp, then twisted around to worry a something at the base of her tail. “You will be receiving no references. I am not a happy camper. However, a beneficent, charitable nature allows me to overlook the accommodations in my pit of durance vile.” The pig finished her grooming. “You really don’t know, do you?”

The Manticore tried to recline on a couch, but gave it up, his scorpion tail kept getting in the way. Instead, he perched on a stool. “Well, you are not a tourist. Your hostility would indicate that you have been bushwhacked and abducted. Not by us. This is all very sad, but we did not throw you into the hole. You are pretentious and irrelevant. Your continued presence will contribute little to the progress of our great work.”

“‘Great work’ is it now! And it is I who am deemed pretentious. For all you know, I am a messenger of the gods, an unrecognized blessing on these, your frowsty shores. Oops, sorry! You moved and here I’m all out of film. Your time is up and you are presumed guilty.”

“I, too, am sorry, but you will have to go. No hard feelings, nothing personal.” The Manticore hopped off the stool and lumbered forward as the pig executed a flanking maneuver around the far end of the table.

“We have had a battle of wits which you, Sir Manticore, have lost, not even knowing we were engaged.” She turned to where the horned Viking helmet was embedded in the planking of the floor. “Come.”

Her eyes crossed slightly as she concentrated. The helmet trembled and strained and, with a squeal of a rusty spike exiting old oak, it popped free and settled on her head. She charged the Manticore, neatly stapling his ankle to the wall. “Oh, yes, I was listening as you dithered about. And I consider it poor-spirited for you to have dumped my likeness down a hole. And who am I? I am the Fata Morgana. I have been wrestling in Limbo with the god-king of otherwhere. And now with you. A full day. By the way, I love your pants”

The Manticore tested the strength of his bond, tugging gently at the helmet. The horns were stuck fast. “Will you always be a piglet? Or do you get a rematch? Of course, then you might end up as a sofa or an end table.”

The pig paced a tight semicircle in front of the Manticore, whose seat on the stool Biff had commandeered. “Snappy cracks, and my, my, just look at you.” The pig executed a four shouldered shrug. “You will have to do better. As a teacher you were unique and available. I make use of what is at hand. I admire that in myself—I am resourceful. Imagine my surprise when you two decided that I was in the way and popped me down that hole.”

Biff spoke. “Uh, why are you a pig?”

“I thought you’d never ask. His Wonderfulness has been having His little chuckle.” There was a ‘pop’ and the pig disappeared. The Fata Morgana, Orange Virgin, etc., etc. was leaning back in a chair, feet on the table. Biff stared at the place on the floor where the pig had been. He crawled about feeling the tiles. They were warm. “Perhaps I should have stayed a quadruped,” said the Orange Virgin. “You’re really quite cute bent over on all fours like that.”

“Would you mind awfully, while the lad is down there, having him help me with this staple?” asked the Manticore.

Morgana nodded and Biff pulled the helmet out of the wall. “I can’t leave you two together alone for a few hours and you are hatching a revolution. Wonderful! This is just the spirit I hoped you would show.” Biff and the Manticore relaxed as relief washed over them.

“YOU!” The Manticore felt flattened against the wall by the force of the goddess’ invective. “You are a pompous, overblown mucker-about in the closets of deceit. Fomenting discord, are we? I am proud. Yes, proud of you both. You are so inept as to make able shock troops should I call you to my aid in the isles of unwisdom.”

“I-i-i-isles...”

“Of unwisdom. Just a figure of speech. The Other Side, you know. I was getting comfortable as a pig.” Morgana shrugged. “I found having four shoulders so expressive. Well, soon enough again.”

The censer pot of a bronze tripod that had been sedately glowing in a corner shot forth a shower of sparks, the thurible swinging on its chains. “Yoo-hoo, anybody home?” The voice came from the glowing coals; a funnel of sparks rose and scattered against the ceiling tiles. “Having a family gathering, I see. I thought since we had broken the ice, so to speak, I could just pop over for some fraternal interaction.”

“Who is that?” Biff walked to the brazier and held his hand over the coals.

“My putative adversary, and unbearably chummy. Hot, darling, no. Don’t do that, you’ll smell up the house. Yes, El, of course. Why stand on ceremony. Do you have something to say or are you just passing through?”

“Tush, Morgana, there you go again, painting me with too black a brush. I just stopped by to impart a bit of friendly advice, some intelligence that will save us both a lot of needless bother further down the road.”

“Don’t be facile, El; I am sure there are a plenitude of demands upon your busy schedule. Speak your peace and go.”

“Someday you will thank me for this, Morgana, believe me. Your priestess is careening around over here and with a supreme lack of direction. I know she is yours: she is wearing the moonsign of the Fata Morgana but hasn’t the slightest what she is about. Hardly your style, my dear.”

“She’s there already? This Linda, Linda...” The Orange Virgin blocked her mind from an attack by the sky-demon. He would discover the existence of the duplicate Linda. This would not do.

“Winkelman, Linda Winkelman. My dear, I do these things for you and you can’t just go and forget. She is yours. No wonder she has forgotten her name when you’ve forgotten it too. Or so it seems. Did you feel my touch?”

“Forgotten. She’s there? Touch?”

“And decidedly not ready. You see, my dumpling, I know everything. She has attached herself to one of the less distinguished of my flock, A crony of this Harry Pease of ours. She is flopping about like beached squid. I sense a gap between action and intent here. Have you been into the raspberry again, Morgana? I have been so looking forward to this, having you over—exacting blood for blood, wreaking havoc: the Eumenides charging about, flailing at whole populations, extirpating them all for the sins of their king. I love it. Just like old times.”

“Keep talking. Your enthusiasm persuades me to stay home and forget the whole thing.”

“Ever the ingénue. Pish-posh, Morgana, you are as curious as I am.”

“Wait a minute. If she is there and I didn’t send her, then she must be one of yours. She and the pig-killer, too.”

“A nasty innuendo, the way you phrase that.”

The Manticore shuffled anxiously; his cigar had gone out. He approached the charcoal brazier for a light. There was a shower of sparks and he jumped back.

“Butt out, fuzzy. Your mistress and I are talking. Go stick your head in the stove.”

“She shouldn’t be there yet, “said the Fata Morgana. “I had only prepared her way. There was a dream-sending...”

“To her boyfriend’s dog. You sent a dog on a god’s errand. What’d you expect him to do? I don’t know where you found this woman, and I don’t want to know, although something tells me I will be intimately involved with her before we are through. Anyhow, she is there, on the ground, and you had better go recruit her, albeit after the fact. She is here to do your bidding—go bid her. Hustle your buns, Oh Princess of Light and Love.”

“El... you told me about the dog, Prince. I only introduced myself.”

The brazier assumed a disinterested tone. “Get to your knitting—dragoon the wench and get her straightened out. Read her whatever articles of initiation your witches need to know. She is here right now, all sneakers and granola. Exact your vengeance. Get the job done and get out. Let Me get on with My life.”

“I shall have to catch her before she leaves. Oh, how I hate this. Life was simple and beautiful and because you let things slide it is becoming all a mess.”

“She’s waiting for her baggage. Send it.” The brazier flared. “It was your pig started this, Morgana.”

The brazier sputtered and went out.

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