Tuesday, December 23, 2008

74. Il Comte di Bestemmia

After the goblins sealed Merlin and his party in the vault of Il Comte, once again, he gave up hope of ever escaping. Their attempts so far had led nowhere, and the flaws in Gringotts security they had found were now repaired. Four years had skipped by, thanks to the few drops of Tomorrow Tonic that had splashed on them. So, he began the painful task of accepting reality: namely, the reality that he would most likely never see the outside of Il Comte’s vault again.

Ironically, deliverance was at hand for all of them: for Merlin; for Rigel (though he had been turned into a one-year-old child); for the four runaways from Durmstrang who had accompanied them on many of their adventures; and for the three Italian clown wizards who had been drinking their way through Il Comte’s wine cellar in search of the one bottle that contained a genie.

It was Jaan who first remembered that Rigel’s wand—hornbeam, with an augurey tail-feather core, eleven inches, bendy—was still in the robes he had been wearing when he changed from a grown man into a tiny child.

Of course, when he remembered this and explained it to Slavik, Slavik’s mind immediately jumped to the pocket universe storage locker that was also in Rigel’s robes. This contained a portable hole, a silken ladder, and various other magical goodies that would surely help them all get out of the vault...

But when they searched Rigel’s robes, the wizards’ excitement and hopefulness turned again to bitter despair. No one could find a pocket universe storage locker. It seemed that it only presented itself to Rigel’s fingers—and Rigel was now at an age where he could hardly understand what a pocket universe storage locker was, let alone attempt to use it.

So once again it came down to that last, unused wand. Jaan held it up triumphantly and asked a question in his own language. Slavik translated, “We get one spell with this wand. What shall it be?”

“Accio genie!” said Don Pagliai and Signor Subito at the same time. In his excitement, the maudlin mime named Signor Boccachiusa began skipping around the room, laughing soundlessly.

“You’d best take shelter,” Merlin warned, before Jaan executed the spell.

A cork shot out of a champagne bottle, deep among the rows of wine-racks into which the clowns had been making steady inroads. At once, Don Pagliai uttered a stream of oaths in Italian, followed by the words, “Of course! How diabolically clever. We never seemed to be in the mood for champagne!”

Instead of bubbles, the open bottle gushed forth copious amounts of glittery vapor that gathered on the floor and soon filled the whole vault to a depth of about two feet. Then, with an even louder POP, the genie emerged. It looked like a huge gilded man, whose girth crushed several racks of wine bottles, and whose height forced him to double over with his back wedged against the ceiling. The wizards were forced back into a corner opposite the vault door. Now, unless they could get what they wanted out of this genie, they were truly trapped forever.

The first thing the genie said was, “Blimey! That’s more like it!” And he spent the next few minutes groaning, stretching, and flexing his flabby limbs. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be out of that bottle. Can anyone spare a drop of drink? I’m fairly parched, that I am.”

Nervously, Anatoly handed over his goblet of wine, which barely wet the genie’s palate. Still, by the time he had swallowed it, the genie seemed a bit less crowded between the floor and ceiling. Slavik, Karl, and Subito offered their own cups, which the genie gratefully drank, smacking his lips. Soon he was able to stand with only his head bowed beneath the ceiling. Then he belched, and thanked everyone for their kindness, and asked for directions to the loo.

“Wait a moment,” said Don Pagliai. “Haven’t you forgotten to give us our wishes?”

“Oh, bother the wishes,” said the genie. “Can’t a body enjoy his first moments of freedom without being nagged for the bloody wishes? I tell you, a genie’s life is hard. It’s all business, business, business—except for a thousand years wedged inside a bottle, now and then. It’s enough to drive a body to drink!”

“I sympathize, truly,” said Don Pagliai, looking as angelic as a purple-haired fat man in a clown costume can. “But just think about it. If you grant us just one wish, you can have this whole vault full of fine wine all to yourself—and if you happen to fall into a bottle, there won’t be anyone around to stick the cork in.”

The genie scratched his thin thoughtfully.

“We’ll throw in a magic picnic blanket that never runs out of food,” Merlin added.

“We have a deal,” the genie said, snapping his fingers. “What’s your wish, then? Let’s get this over with.”

“That’s our sentiment exactly,” said Pagliai. “That you would send me home with all these friends of mine—that is my wish.”

So much for Merlin’s attempts to stop Pagliai from stating his wish so quickly and carelessly. He was still making “stop” gestures at the fat clown when the dank vault vanished and he found himself, with all his companions, standing in an enormous hall. Bright sunlight poured in through windows high in the walls, illuminating portraits and statues and tapestries. Fluted columns, a ribbed ceiling, and a shimmering expanse of tiled floor surrounded him, making him feel very small. In every direction he could see large trees in planting pots, singing birds in cages, richly woven rugs, and expensive vases full of flowers. And in the center of the room, a devilishly handsome man of some forty-five years lounged on a fainting couch, gazing into a hand-held mirror, attended by a house-elf bearing a tray laden with sections of fruit and cheese.

The house-elf saw them first, but said nothing. Its eyes narrowed, and its tall ears flattened against its head, but that was its only reaction to the appearance of eight men and a baby in the middle of the great hall.

“Ah, me. Dear me. Dear me!” the man sighed, still fascinated by what he saw in his mirror. The silk ascot around his throat bobbed up and down with emotion. “Have I ever mentioned, Ombra, how deeply I care for myself?”

“Si, signore,” the house-elf said. “But signore...”

“I have never met anyone so remarkable as me,” Signore went on heedlessly. “I am simply superb. My equal in elegance, in power, and in worthiness to lead cannot be named. Literally! But enough about him. It is myself with whom I am concerned.” The ascot bobbed again. “You see? Whenever I think of myself, I get choked up. There is nothing that I wouldn’t do for me—nothing!—no matter how difficult—no matter how painful—no matter how wicked...”

Overcome with emotion, the Signore buried his face in the folds of his rich, velvety robe.

The house-elf took this opportunity to introduce the guests, who were just now trying to sneak behind the Signore with Don Pagliai in the lead.

“Signore Maledicto,” squeaked Ombra. “The clowns have returned, and they have brought company.”

“Indeed?” Maledicto looked around and brightened at the sight of his long-absent clown servants. “Pagliai! Subito! Boccachiusa! How I have missed you! And who are these others? Apprentices, perhaps?”

“With your leave, we will depart from this house,” Don Pagliai said bravely, and then added, “Signore.”

“What!” cried Signore Maledicto. “And fail to partake of the largesse of Il Comte Maledicto di Bestemmia? By no means!”

With a snap of his fingers, Il Comte’s fainting couch and mirror vanished, replaced by a table covered with rich wine and food. Clowns, runaway Durmstrang boys, and Merlin alike shuddered at the sight. They had no wish for another morsel of Il Comte’s hospitality.

“No,” Don Pagliai said simply—though by the sound of his voice, it was the only sound he could get out without gagging.

“But I insist!” said Il Comte, and he snapped his fingers again. The other wizards felt themselves forced down into deep, cushiony chairs, from which they could not rise. Laughing cruelly, Il Comte seated himself at the head of the table, with Ombra standing at his elbow. “I am so eager to know what you and your friends have learned, Pagliai. I swear that the wine will not stop pouring, and good things will continue to be served to you, as long as you talk. Now: what did you find in Gringotts? Eh?”

Rigel, pinned to Merlin’s lap, wriggled and whined. For once, Merlin knew exactly how he felt.


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[Originally posted 12/16/05]

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