Monday, December 22, 2008

32. Uncle or Aunt Leslie

Concepts contributed by: Jade & Angelbot

Merlin's story continued:

"Rigel was handed from one hooded, masked figure to another. They were so heavily cloaked that I couldn't tell witch from wizard. I followed as nimbly as I could, dodging through the bustle of the castle corridors, past doorways marked with signs like 'Curse R & D,' 'Store-Brand Poisons,' and 'Glamours, Illusions & Hypnopropaganda.' Through some of those doorways I could hear chains rattling, winches straining, and far-off moans or screams. It was difficult to keep Rigel in sight, but I just managed it.

"Finally, he was shown into the presence of an extremely obese wizard or witch--who did not bother to mask his or her face--but sat with its hood thrown back on an enormous, sagging chair in the middle of a firelit room. All around him or her were tables loaded with pies and pasties, and his or her fingers and jowls were stained with juices of many colors. The walls were covered, not with family portraits, but with sentimental photos and paintings of food: bowls of fruit, baskets of fried chicken, loaves peeping out of linen napkins, mounds of sweets. I suppressed a shudder as I faced the gigantic glutton who seemed to be in charge of Vold-Mart.

"The wizard who had led Rigel into the room bowed low and addressed the seated witch or wizard, who went on eating as if no one was there. 'Hail, Uncle or Auntie Leslie,' said the wizard, sounding amazingly unembarrassed by the fact that even he did not know whether that mountain of fat was male or female. And in a voice thick with half-eaten food, yet neither particularly high-pitched nor particularly deep, the butterball replied: 'Well met, Number Seventy-Three. What morsel have you brought me today?' I must say, it pleased me to see the breath catch in Rigel's throat.

"Number Seventy-Three explained that Rigel had responded to the call for volunteers for a very sensitive project. Uncle or Auntie Leslie smacked his or her lips and said, 'Very good. Have you explained to it what we shall require it to do?'

"'No, Uncle or Auntie,' said Wizard Seventy-Three, graciously.

"'Every morsel that is brought to me,' the monstrous creature said to Wizard Seventy-Three between mouthfuls of pudding, 'is given one opportunity to prove that it is a person, worthy of being addressed as a person, and entrusted with duties and invited to feast with us. Those who fail to prove their worthiness may still prove useful, either as test subjects in one of the product-development areas, or as food for the hungry things that live in our dungeons. Though, heaven knows, we try to keep them hungry, we must feed them from time to time or they will become useless to us. Now let us see. Shall we ask it to remove one of its own kidneys with a grapefruit spoon, and then eat it raw?'

"Wizard Number Seventy-Three watched Rigel closely, as did I. Rigel trembled, his eyes darting here or there, like the eyes of a trapped animal that knows it cannot escape, yet seeks an escape route all the same. Otherwise he remained still.

"'No, I believe that was how Number Fifty-Eight proved herself to me.' Uncle or Auntie Leslie began to gnaw on the roasted leg of some enormous bird which, I felt certain, was not a turkey. 'I do find repetition tiresome. But that is neither here nor there. I have a truly inspired idea. It shall break into a vault at Gringotts for me. Vault 1,066 to be precise. A vault that contains potions preserved since the time of Yves the Leper, who was William the Conqueror's magical adviser.

"'Yves is said to have made potions that were essential to the conquest of this island but too dangerous to remain in use, too alluring to be entrusted to the care of Muggles and mortals and corruptible wizards. Some say there was a potion that made the drinker immune to criticism; or that a certain cream, when rubbed on the tips of Norman spears, made them speed toward the hearts of the Saxon enemy. But the most charming anecdotes concern a Draught of Amorality, which, when taken before doing anything messy or morally complicated, could quiet the drinker's conscience and make him get on with it. I daresay that would be an invaluable asset in our efforts to raise an army for--ahem. I seem to have gone off topic.

"'The greatest potion-master since the Norman invasion, as I was saying, took great pride in his work, and so he could not bear to dispose of what was left over when its purpose was fulfilled. Yet, strange as it may sound, he scrupled against allowing it to be kept in continual use, or selling his brewings to some other likely fellow. As soon as William had conquered, his wizard seems to have lost his kidney--to turn a phrase--for the finer things in life, like inflicting fear and pain, becoming rich and powerful, and getting untold thousands to do his will unquestioningly. The poor man lost his nerve and decided that, dear as his potions were to him, he did not want anyone to use them. Anyone!

"'So Yves locked his treasures in one of the deepest vaults in Gringotts Bank and threw away the keys. Even the goblins cannot open the vault, because it is buried under the hoard of an ancient dragon, who in turn is buried under the rubble of a collapsed tunnel, a close-woven network of befuddling charms, and a lake of acid that would reduce a man's body to a quivering blob of jelly as soon as look at him. However, I am interested in what may be in that vault. The morsel will get it for me in six weeks or less, or die trying. If it does either thing, I will honor it as a colleague. If neither, I will tear it limb from limb. Now send it away, Number Seventy-Three, there's a dove.'

"Number Seventy-Three marched Rigel out of the room. The poor lad looked as if his life had already been forfeit, walking with heavy limbs and bowed head. Down several flights of stairs to a large hall in which fires burned in a dozen hearths the masked wizard led him. Someone tossed a fistful of Floo Powder into one enormous fireplace and shouted, '____ Manor,' the name of the place where Rigel lived. I hopped into the swirling green flames beside the boy as the masked wizard pushed him in. I knew it would be hard to find another way out of the castle. And besides, it was imperative that I see Rigel's father instantly and offer him my resignation. For if I was to follow Rigel to the depths of Gringotts Bank, it wasn't only his life that was forfeit..."

[Originally posted 12/10/04]

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