SOMETHING TO DO WITH UNICORNS
In a far away country where political change occurred only with a change of monarch not of like mind, there lived a wise and just king ruled by a beautiful queen called Beatrice. They had two daughters, one of whom was tall, willowy, and the epitome of her mother when she was young. The other, short, dumpy, and younger, was truly a tomboy in just about every way imaginable. She had straw coloured hair, direct piercing blue eyes, a dimpled chin, freckles, and only answered to the name
Freddie, because her real name was Freda and that seemed to be the natural way a name might evolve from kindergarten gardens.
The other daughter, Freddie’s opposite in every way, considered herself quite the lady, fully believed in the boy meets girl business and waited calmly impatient for Prince Charming, naturally handsome and probably stupid as well to come thundering over one of the rises that abounded the kingdom on a white charger. Her name was Princess Hestia, and insisted on her full title even when being woken up by her chamber maids at the hour of eleven with a cup of hot sweet chocolate. Later in life she was to become a diabetic, have bad teeth, refine an already acidic disposition and be called ‘the vixen queen’ behind her back even though she never became one. Perhaps Prince Charming was not that stupid either, for although he arrived in various guises many times and had many titles, there always appeared an excuse for him to go thundering over another rise somewhere else, and indeed this might have been the beginning of the just in time principle with regard to businesses of other than amorous flavour, but who really knows what flows in the minds of Prince Charmings anyway.
Freddie, who knew all about Prince Charmings and what they were really all about, would have nothing to do with them. Besides, very few of them could climb trees and not one of them had the same head for heights she had.
To complete the picture of this delightful fairyland, the trees, mostly oak, grew mighty, for all the trees in the land were the property of the king, and although decimated after being used for building stout wooden warships to defend the kingdom in ages past, recovered well during the long periods of peace since and no one, not even conservationists, dared to chop down even a sapling without permission.
The streams and rivers were full of trout and salmon, and the weeping of willows by their banks could be seen as far as the eye could see.
One day, the chief minister to the king, Edwardius, who had a small head, large ears and ambition in like proportion to the size of his self painted aureole, in a great state of agitation approached the king and requested immediate audience, whom at the time was practicing bowls by throwing apples close to the head of his least favourite courtier, William.
“Your Majesty, your Majesty!” implored Edwardius, stepping with great bravery between the king and his target for the briefest of moments. The king, startled, missed his intended target and hit William on the head instead, whom, standing on a small tell reputed to contain the bones of an ancient king’s dog, Gessler, uttered an indescribable sound. At the base of the tell was a plaque on which the words in
ancient Gothic script, said, “Here liest Gessler, tamed, the bailiff’s bane.” A legend based on this cryptic inscription and used for centuries by nurses when confronted by recalcitrant children was “You mind your p’s and q’s or Gessler’ll get you” And everyone, down to the tiniest toddler knew that Gessler was a hound who had to be put down because of repeated attacks to the personal throat of the king’s bailiff.
The apples of the kingdom were very large, very juicy, and the smallest of them were the size of bowling balls; and the one that had left the king’s hand a moment before was not by any stretch of the imagination the smallest. William fell off the tell and collapsed onto the ground a mindless heap.
“Well, Edwardius, dearest of doctors and the motion of my right hand, what is on your liberal mind?” the king remarked, his right arm palm outstretched beckoning William to rise up from the ground. “Is the treasury embarrassed for funds again?”
“A graver problem, sire, and one that threatens the safety of the kingdom!”
“What! Are we attacked? From what quarter? Have the generals been summoned? Are guards posted on the walls?”
“We are invaded, sire,” came quick reply. “But not from without. From Within! The Vestal Priestess Aemilia requests audience.”
Amazed, the king responded. “Is she without? Bring her in at once! She does not have to request audience to see me!”
Edwardius replied, ” She tends the sacred fire and cannot leave her station, sire. Nonetheless, she earnestly requests your presence at Capenna Temple.”
“Very well,” the king replied. And off they quickly went to the temple on the other side of the capital.
Once outside, the king alighted from his litter, and accompanied only by Edwardius, entered the temple, being assailed at once by fragrances burning in niche altars. Approaching the sacred penus chamber, the king stopped, and in the gloom on either side of the chamber door saw the bowed heads of five vestal virgins in bridal gowns weeping copious tears. He immediately thought of an ancient tale concerning
five foolish virgins, and indeed, they may well have been, but as not one of them had unlit lamps and were not present at the doorway to a wedding feast, assumed the reasons for their foolishness might be quite different. As not one of the young vestals took any notice of him, he, exasperated, went up to the nearest and tapped her on the shoulder several times with his staff.
The king, also Pontifex Maximus, and therefore titular leader of the vestals, was allowed to do this by a right he had given himself decades earlier, and even scourging, but not flagellation, was permissible in certain circumstances. The vestal, not more than fifteen years of age, looked up, saw who it was and
burst into even more tears. The king, always patient with those of younger temperament, requested she fetch her mistress quickly, who replied that she did not have a mistress called Quickly, and nor was that her name. Taking deep breath, the king repeated his request to this simple maiden but this time left out the adjective. After a moment or two of deep thought she left and entered the sacral chamber.
An interminable wait later, the door of the chamber silently opened and the aged Aemilia, principal Vestal Priestess, expression firm and iron jawed, emerged and advanced towards the king with regal tread. Being of Patrician birth and of no less lineage than the king, she bent her head the merest suggestion of a fraction when she stood in front of him.
“Aemilia,” the king said, acknowledging her greeting in like manner. “Not more trouble with the sacred flame, I trust?”
“No, sire,” Aemilia replied, with the faintest of wintry smiles, lifting the hem of her gown and holding it up for him to see. “No strips missing, and the sacred flame is still alight as you can see.” And indeed it was, for an indirect passage to the sacred chamber, completely flanked by mirrors in all of the known dimensions, imaged flickers and flashes generated by the labours of the sacred flame itself from deep within
the chamber. The king, admonished by fact and not wishing to question the honour of his equal at this time, then quietly asked the question, “Then what, my dear Chief Priestess, exactly is the purpose of my visit?” and heard the firm reply,
“The Sacred Flame itself is not out, but tenderers are getting hard to find.”
“How so?” the king asked, not a little puzzled. “My statistician tells me the population grows a little year by year. Surely we have sufficient volunteers?”
“Indeed we do, sire. But—-” and here the priestess sighed, “—– too many in fact—-but quality of choice is the issue here.” And upon this last remark, raised pointed finger to her chest then said, “TE”.
“AMATO,” the king replied automatically, pointing to his heart, to which Aemilia held up the second
finger, this also being response to sacred rite.
“CAPIO,” the Priestess said, making sign toward her head and holding up the triune of third finger raised. “Our state, sire, is that of purity, as you no doubt are well aware. Without that, our oracles are valueless. The choices of our calling are between the age of six and ten but still—–“
“You wish us to choose the vestals again?”
“No, sire. It is to the point I say they are easier to find, particularly in respect to damaged goods, but hard indeed to find that out!”
Shocked, the king’s mouth gaped opened wide, but quickly recovering his composure, said, “–and your helpers. Are they too—-?”
“Aye my lord. There’s doubt indeed and only one I trust. She tends the flame as I speak. It is my belief only two of us remain true to our calling. I am old now and if something is not done soon our time is done.”
The king pointed to the five bridal figures that stood apart from them.
“Sire. You know the law. I know they are no longer virgins. Entombment while alive is sure to be their fate.”
Abruptly Aemilia turned on her heel, snow white hair flowing as she turned, and just as she reached the door, turned and said, “—and I do not have to remind you –Vestalia– June the ninth—the time of ill omen—- is not far away!” She turned towards the entrance and closed the door firmly behind her as she passed through the sacred sanctum entrance.
Deeply troubled, the king quietly turned on his heel and his retinue, still dutifully outside the building, waited as he passed ahead then followed their lord and master at regulation distance in mid morning sunshine.
Back at the palace, the king relieved the hapless William from his vigil on the tell with a well aimed kick to the rump and took to pacing the garden courtyard, until Edwardius again confronted him, this time to tell him that the Keeper of Unicorns wished to see him.
“Well, what is it, Rosa?” the king asked.
Rosa, a diminutive being who loved her unicorns more than life itself and knew her equine onions, was, apart from the king, the only person in the kingdom who knew the secret formula for unicorn horn oil, a very necessary ingredient essential for the successful conduct of the annual unicorn race, which was a major tourist attraction for the kingdom.
Without this oil, unicorns could not be persuaded to run in any desired direction by even the most virginally experienced of riders. The king well understood a saying common in his kingdom, “no oil, no race”, particularly with reference to money and horses, and had made the formula of this oil a state secret, even contemplating the minor deification of Rosa. Or perhaps a knighthood, at least, for this time was long before such accolades lost their real value with regard to personal merit.
Rosa, ushered in without ceremony, stood before her king, bits of straw sticking out from her coveralls and pervaded by that all encompassing bitter-sweet aroma of untamed hornéd horse.
“Trouble with your girlfriend again, Rosa?” asked the king, who well understood her ways. By way of answer Rosa burst into tears.
“It must be a late Spring,” thought the king, inwardly bracing himself mentally to cope with yet another waterworks display.
“It’s the unicorns,” blubbered Rosa, noisily blowing her nose into a Thai silk hand-kerchief just handed to her by the king.
“What about them?” demanded the king, suddenly extremely alert. The annual unicorn race was due to start soon and anything affecting them could well affect his treasury. Rosa began to blubber again, and said, “It’s the unicorns.”
“Yes yes,” the king replied, testily. “You’ve already told us that much. What about our unicorns?”
“We don’t have enough for the race.”
“Enough what?” snapped the king, quite forgetting his reputation for mildness in manner.
“Unicorns, sire,” sniffled Rosa.
This state of affairs was serious. The race required a minimum of four unicorns, each one representing the cardinal winds, and was the final celebration of week long religious festivities.
“Last year—” Rosa began.
“Yes. Go on?”
“Last year there very nearly wasn’t a race! And the year before that was hard. Very hard. The unicorns are getting harder to handle, sire, and I’m not sure I can do it for much longer.”
“What happened last year?”
“Last years winner, Sprinkles, kicked the stall doors down and started to run away when some riders came to visit. They didn’t have permission to come near the stalls, but I had some horn oil in my apron so I threw it to her face. Some drops must have fallen on her horn and she stopped and I took her to another stall. Talk about lucky! And that was on the day of the race!”
“So how many unicorns are in the stalls now, Rosa?” She gulped, looked to the ground, and muttered,
“Two, sire. And another one ran away this morning.”
“Right.” said the king, rapidly coming to a decision. “You are to keep oil on their horns from now on until the race.”
“Sire!” cried Rosa. I can’t do that too much! It wears off after a while. I’ll never be able to hold them like that until the race!” The king, realizing some definite attitude therapy was required, went up to her and asked gently, “Then what do you suggest instead?” but receiving no audible reply, remarked, “you must do it. Use as little as you can. In the meantime, you must search for the missing animals, if you haven’t already started. And keep searching!””I have been looking, sire. They are not in their usual places.””How many do you have to help you?”
“Just the riders, sire. I cannot trust anyone else.”
“Alright. I’ll try and arrange some vestals to help you. I know we had at least twenty unicorns some years ago and they must be somewhere. Now go and make sure there are no more escapees.”
Rosa left, thankful for not being blamed for their disappearance.
“The odds must be evened,” the king thought, not at all sure if even one vestal could be spared to aid in the search, and mentally made note to make sure the royal bookie took note of his odds desires at that very hour; shortly after was observed pacing up and down the garden path while thinking about the vestal problem. As far as the fallen vestals were concerned, it was indeed regrettable that they should undergo entombment, for the king considered such an act scarcely charitable, and indeed a very poor use of resource, but there had always been this problem of what could be done with damaged goods and common to all the trades and the oldest was by no means an exception.
At this point the circus, which was becoming a popular form of entertainment, impinged itself on his mind. “Of course! The lions! And that will cut down the feed bill very nicely!” for the king was already thinking of ways to underwrite the possible failure of the unicorn race. A start, no matter how small, could only be a step in the right direction.
The next day the king sent for his racing minister, Heinz, an inordinately thin individual with fleshy lips the size of dinner plates and a voice like a cheese grater used for paring rocks. His idea was to suggest to Heinz that perhaps horses could be used instead of unicorns to make up the numbers, but Heinz, on being told this after being summoned to the palace, vehemently shook his head.
“The unicorns will never stand for it, sire,” he said. “They’d gore any horse near them like a pig on the spit. Oil or no oil. We uh—-” and here Heinz found it necessary to move closer to the king to tell him in a whisper he knew of a certain influential person who tried to fix a race in this manner long ago had
been trampled and speared by the enraged beasts. A vehement “No, sire. No!” ended that suggestion.
Tactfully, the king changed the subject and asked him about his horses, for he knew the man before him loved them. As for unicorns, well, he only had to stable them once a year but the rest of the time?
‘You had to be a virgin and being married twice didn’t help that state, you know,’ Heinz remarked, who then moved even closer to the king and whispered with a wink, “Race four horse one tomorrows’ four fifteen!” Heinz’s advice in these matters was unusually sound, for he knew the king knew who had really tried to switch horses for unicorns, and it wasn’t as historically long ago as made out. Nor had anyone of note been gored, unless a two line comment in the local news about the recent unfortunate lancing of an inconsequential strapper silly enough mount a hobby horse armed with raised lance broom handle in the presence of knights who took their duties very seriously could be considered notable news. The king, who thanked him for his tip, asked him for the name of the horse, which, although not necessary for bet emplacement, anonymity ensured the relatives of the horse could not be compromised in any way and therefore never usually mentioned.
“It’s one of my brood mares. I called her Heinz,” came the chuckled reply. At that moment the king realized Heinz had named a dam after himself and not his king, a decided lack of decorum, but easily forgiven because the horse won a substantial amount of money for him since Heinz had had the foresight to place a bet on his behalf without him knowing. After the race was over, the king knighted
Heinz and even considered like treatment for the horse, but changed his mind after much Neronic tribulation. At Heinz’s investiture the king had to raise his sword twice so as to touch Heinz’s shoulder, having missed the first time because of Heinz’s lack of girth.
Rosa, now carrying out the king’s command, was unavailable for comment regarding the missing unicorns, although gossips in every village were only too willing to tell the king’s messengers where she had been, but could never really say where she was. The matter serious, the king created a unicorn situation room where any information regarding the whereabouts of these important creatures could rapidly be collated. Even though Rosa was not herself present, it quickly became apparent to the king
that she was, indeed, on their trail, for all intelligences regarding her whereabouts were represented on a wall map by small pins pointed to passage to the outer reaches of the kingdom where the hustle and bustle of human forms who were not virgin was the least numerous.
Even so, the king felt the situation sufficiently serious enough to form a unicorn contingency committee with hq. at the unicorn situation room itself, whose function was simple. Their job was to discover the reason for the unicorns’ inexplicable flight from the kingdom, which, after all, had ceded to their every whim and fancy for hundreds of years. Except one, it turned out later, but this was not to be discovered for some time. Inevitably, accusations that quangoism was alive and well in the ruling class began to circulate and there were even rumours that unicorns no longer existed. In the meantime, with regard to the vestal problem and their declining numbers, the king undertook a plan to secure the services of what available virgins there were in regard to the complaint made by Chief Priestess Aemilia, whose prediction, if such it was, could have dire consequences to the kingdom if governmental decrees were based on inaccurate oracular pronouncements. Because Aemilia had such grave doubts concerning quality, he requested, nay, demanded her presence at such choosings so as to weed out undesirables who did not meet the required standard. When she repeatedly failed every single applicant, some of whom even the king himself deemed satisfactory after much physical inspection, it became obviously necessary to discover the reason why this occurred; the king himself was beginning to have doubts regarding the efficacy of Aemilia herself. Perhaps the effects of lead piping on the brains of those fortunate enough to afford the luxury of using them to pipe their water supply was the cause? But then again, her acerbic wit did not appear to have become diminished over the years at all, and considering the abnormally high success rate Aemilia had had regarding her previous choices, perhaps indeed the only reliable means of successful detection in the kingdom was her instinct and mind.
However, modern medical technology had arrived and was about to have far reaching effects on the old order whose architects, having succeeded in their endeavours regarding the sanctity of their race in times past, would now have to reinforce old tactics gained from bitter experience to foster the innocence
required for the maintenance of civilized behaviour between the upper and lower reaches of lower and upper man; much to the embarrassment of those who wore cassocks and waved chasubles about, whom, although aware chastity was in their charter, somehow had little to say concerning public morality and even less regarding their own.
Being Pontifex Maximus, and Chief Priest over all his dominions both male and female, the king formulated an idea, but first, in order to ascertain the gravity of the situation, summoned his State Statistician and demanded reason for his conclusion regarding the increasing population size. To aid him in his calculations, the king enlisted the aid of a meretricious tax collector, one Boucherius, who had earned a certain notoriety by manipulating loosely formulated taxation laws for the benefit of the kingdom’s treasury. The use of such an honest imaginative man, a labourer in every sense of the word, could only benefit the honest conclusion to earnest enquiry.
And Boucherius’ conclusion? The population was in fact, falling, not rising and in like proportion to the rise of taxes in percentage points, a sure pointer to the potential bankruptcy of the country.
Impending his own doom, the Chief Statistician declared by way of defence his analysts had taken the formula used in population calculation to the second decimal place and not the third, which explained why there was a decrease and not an increase in population numbers. The king, used to such wiles,
countered with the remark that in his kingdom his ministers took complete responsibility for their departments and the actions of any underling concerned, even if it meant personally overseeing parking
spaces allocated to work chariots, the cafeteria wine allowance, and even such trivia as to the size of chisels to be used in making official stone tablet memos if necessary, was the sole responsibility of the minister concerned and definitely not the departmental tea lady’s.
Upon hearing this, the minister began to nervously finger his toga throat clasp, and then countered with the suggestion that surely it was in the king’s mind to commence his previously suggested immigration policy and this would redress any imbalance?
Indeed it would, the king replied thinly. “I am sure Vox Populi would appreciate the casual importation of the swords belonging to Goths, Vandals, and the Hun from without our borders and call them toothpicks.”
The king had no intention whatever either of fuelling the views of Ruxtonius, an extremely vocal senator whose views on racial purity were well known.
The very next day, just as dawn appeared over the horizon through the usual daily smog, a pale orange sun signalled the start of a martial day as the State Statistician was hanged with little ceremony for lying and incompetence, followed shortly after by his wife, his sons, his daughters, his known and unknown concubines and mistresses, along with nurses, maids and kitchen turnkeys, which could be considered worse than the fall of the House of Usher if only ghosts could be found there to hang as well. The king, usually benevolent to an unreasonable degree, was, according to his nature, most unreasonable but just, and Blind Justice, according to the custom of the time, swayed the scales, but the crocodile of custom’s styles waved its tail and caused the wind of change to blow. Deepened by remorse, but aware of regal responsibility, the king also hanged the statisticians gardeners and set fire to their charges and levelled all the buildings on the estate just in case the virus of dishonesty had spread to the plant and mineral kingdom as well.
After all, was it not Claudius’ predecessor, nervous of eating anything prepared by
human hand, died of unknown causes after eating fruit from his own garden? Serpents venom might have had something to do with that but who supplied the venom to which particular serpent was an open question.
Double checking Boucherius’ figures, the king personally verified the accuracy of them, which tied in with his own questions regarding the kingdom’s embarrassing surplus of teachers to the young and the terrible wastage of skim milk poured down into drains on school-days because there were not enough children to drink it.
Privately he thought it was wasted because of the thin taste after sampling a pint or two from different places during a tour of inspection, but was assured the children thought it very tasty and knew it was good for them. And it was certainly good for the coffers of the privately run Bovine Produce Corporation, which made handsome profits out of the butter and cheeses made from the skimmed off product the
dairies produced and then made even more profits by selling the remainder to a gullible public on the pretext that the thinner the milk, the better it was for those with weight problems; and many a female anorexic, totally unsuited to child rearing or anything else for that matter, made good livings advertising such wares in public forums by showing off their figures as an example of what this thin food could do to
them inviting like minded idiocy to join them in this clatter bone anorexia dance towards extinction.
The day after the State Statisticians’ public execution, the king decided Boucherius’ time had come and nearly hanged him as well, reasoning that cupidity and boundless ambition were dangerous bedfellows, but decided that he should carry out a further census assignment instead, that of counting the circus lions’ teeth. By hand and individually.
Unluckily for Boucherius, an unfortunate oversight occurred in that he was introduced into the lions arena just before feeding time. And their meal, blessed prior to departure and delivered live daily by tumbril from the dungeons was delayed for over an hour, due to a transport strike caused by some irresponsible idiot throwing newly minted previously unreleased large denomination coins freehand in the direct path of the cart at request from the king, which were eagerly grabbed by passers-by and also the
drivers. The king, observing Boucherius’ last moments from behind the relative seclusion of a brocade curtain, was curious enough to ask one of his courtiers attendant why the man deemed it necessary to point to his ventricles, testicles, wallet and watch prior to despatchment down a leonine throat, to be told that Boucherius was indeed a man of principle and could be counted on to count his possessions
right up to the last moment.
Handed a bloodstained tablet thrown out of the arena immediately prior to his demise, the king saw a perfect tally tablet listing not one, but all the molars of every lion in the arena, being far more than originally requested. For a very short moment the king regretted his imperial command to this unfortunate, but changed his mind after realising that to the people of the kingdom his action in this regard was indeed a most popular one, and anyway, by now there was only the bloody remnant of
Boucherius’ wallet being thoughtfully masticated by a satiated lion to indicate he had ever existed. Later on this article would be retrieved by an arena attendant and its contents hopefully examined for riches, but alas, nothing was found except a card with a severely mangled series of letters and numbers and a logo belonging to a certain landlocked country that catered to uncertain banking activities.
The attendant, deciding the wallet had nothing of value, threw it back into the lions arena, and at the next feeding time it became an hors d’oeuvre to the first lion that discovered it, for this lion had become addicted to wallets by now, especially those smeared in gore.
Present at the next meeting of the contingency committee, the king was most amused to hear various theories propounded as to why unicorns were vanishing from within the kingdom.
“They’re almost extinct!” declared one member.
“Nonsense!” bellowed another. “They are better educated these days and do not need us any more.”
“Perhaps they are infected and need some herb—“
“Peace and quiet? The city is noisier than it used to be—?”
“Are we working them too hard?”
“What! One race for religious purpose per year, all the food they want, air conditioned stalls, free
medical attention and pampered by virgins all year round! What sort of work load is that?”
“We could offer them money—“
“—Then it would be correct to call them public servants,” intervened the king sweetly, “—and we have far too many as it is, I assure you. No, no, my friends, the answer is, I fear, much more basic than those we have just heard from those whose heads contain ideas. While we are all, we assume, in agreement about the intelligence of these animals, it is our contention that these creatures can tolerate our presence on minimal basis only. It is my belief that we as a society no longer meet their toleration limit!”
“Sire?” said the committee president. “In what way?”
“Gentlemen! Whom among you are aware of the needs of the Vestals at this precise moment?” The members, all seated, turned and looked at each other muttering various suggestions, some behind hand shielded whispers which were not fit for public airing in any company, and later, some behind locked doors that enticed a certain company from uncertain companies engaged in paying nefarious bills.
Possessed of keen ear and inwardly amused at these and other remarks the king called the meeting to order after a longer than usual pause by banging his staff of office, a short implement gilded with the usual sorts of jewellery and gilt to be expected on the table. Suddenly aware of the gravity of the meeting, all members present faced the king. Aware of the timing of the moment, he then asked the
“What is it the Vestals have that we do not?”
“Capacity to divine?” offered one member.
“Try one level deeper, Camillerius. Think of the situation as being more local in origin. You know the story of the goose that lay golden eggs? Camillerius, not Patrician by birth, could only nod, an most unusual situation, for comments made by that person were mostly politically laborious to hear.
“It is very simple, Camillerius. Overstimulate the goose and no eggs appear. Much like raising local taxes, as I am sure you know.” The king knew Camillerius well, having arbitrated in more than one debate between this local administrator and dissidents in that area, having found it necessary to order judgement in dissidents favour to avoid revolt.
“What is it you mean exactly, Sire?” questioned Camillerius.
“What EXACTLY is it you were before you became political, Camillerius?” demanded the king.
Camillerius, thinking hard, prolonged the silence for as long as possible, then countered with the suggestion
“Ahem. It was perhaps virgin, sire, in respect to your experience in political matters?”
“Quite so, Camillerius, and no doubt long before Malta fever blighted your brain in regard to listening to the wishes of your councillors and their people,” responded the king. “And so too it is with regard to our unicorns and our Vestals. All of us are because of station virgin in some way or another, not necessarily
in fact, perhaps, but certainly in word, thought or deed. They, no doubt, can be cured of their malaise.
No doubt as you were—–?”
“Bravo!” exclaimed Badenpowellarian, hurling a cloth cap, his mark of office, high into the air and catching it adroitly when it fell into his outstretched hand.
“With respect, Sire—” exclaimed a junior member of the meeting, who took his duties more than seriously.
“Yes yes. What is it?” This mode of expression, used much before, was tiresome to the king, but being a creature of habit and knowing his verbal weakness allowed economy in self expression to continue.
“Just what has this got to do with unicorns?” said junior member demanded, who had not understood a single word of the preceding dialogue.
“Do sit down, junior member. Are you by any chance a v—-” and here the king coughed slightly.
Said junior member blushed and said not one word.
“I see,” the king remarked, making note of what he had not heard.
“—but the unicorns!”
“Quite right, junior member. Like you, virgin in every respect. What is your name?”
“Hmm,” responded the king, suppressing a smile. It seemed the parents knew the child.
Turning his attention to the rest of the committee, the king declared it was high time all the members of the committee got off collective behinds and went to the Royal Stables to see the situation at first hand, being sure that not one member would have done so to date. As expected, not one hand was raised in refutation. As the stables were situated in the hinterland around the city, the king had had the foresight
before the meeting began to ensure transport for all the members, and supplied to each person a new type of footwear capable of withstanding the sorts of substances to be found in stable yards. On arrival, the group alighted from their litters after struggling with their new footwear, for much difficulty was
experienced in telling the difference between right and left foot, a not uncommon dilemma faced by politicians of any rank. However, after clomping about for a minute or two in their new wooden shoes and discovering that feet were indeed protected, all the members, even those whose eyes were normally closed, looked about the stable enclave.
The unicorn stable was enormous. Down the centre of the building and open at both ends was a central passageway that could easily afford the movement of two chariots side by side down its entire length. The door to each stable, made of stout timbers and bound with iron straps from top to bottom, sealed off any possible view of the animals within. At each entrance was a large sign warning any newcomer to stay
away, and the group could hear the sounds of kicking against the stable doors as they approached closer.
Caution being their natural temperament, including the king’s, the group moved around the compound savouring the usual barn-yard aromas with upturned noses, and keeping well away from the stable, were soon on the other side of the building to examine the piped water supply that came from the aquaduct that ran in straight line from mountains far beyond and marvelled at the simplicity of this system that ran in a straight line for some distance. About to turn back, the group were disrupted from polite chatter by a shout, and turning to face the stable, were appalled to see one of their number coming towards them as fast as his wooden shoes would allow through the passageway of the building. All raised their voices in warning, but Innocentius, for it was he, took no notice and walked steadily towards them on unsteady feet. No one
had noticed his absence when they left the litter area, and as he was now in the centre of the building.
Shocked, all stood in silence fully expecting to see the doors of the stables containing unicorns kicked down and him killed quickly by sure aimed hoof hammer and spear point horn. Steadily the clip clop clop of wooden shoes echoed down towards them, but as to the sounds of door kicking hoofs, not one sound was heard.
Innocentius truly was his name; and before all to see was presented the solution of how to find new vestals from the population, let the unicorns decide a simple answer.
On returning to the city, the king drafted a proclamation, offering large amounts of gold, unconditional pardons for misdemeanours both grave and inconsequential, plots of land, rare foods, exotic spices, slaves, and whatever else could be considered of value to the people for their presence along with their daughters at the Royal Stables for Vestal selection, which would be made between the hours of ten and
three o’clock every day. To prepare for this, the king enclosed the entire stable compound with a high fence, behind which prudence dictated discrete presence of the military just in case fevers ran too high, for the king well knew that the offers made would attract all kinds of mentalities, not the least of which would be the presence of lowly matriarchs more knowledgeable with matters of money and the lack of it
than concern for the long term honour of their daughters.
Then, too, there was always the possibility of the fair who kept all knowledge of the real estate of their personals away from their parents by medical means of repair and even downright deceit, and for them too there was no escape, just visible raised spear points of the myrmidons discreetly hidden behind what would soon be called the ‘maiden’s defence’ wall made sure of that, but their presence formality only, for none who dared enter this place could escape the final and awesome authority of the hornéd unicorns.
On the first day, the king made clear the choicings allowed to all of the five fallen vestals who were given choice of testing the new selection method or being buried alive even after protesting vehement innocence. All, without exception, ashen faced, chose to test the new selection system and there was a qualified practitioner skilled in the arts of measuring TSS present at all times to aid in counselling the guilty and record the general knowledge gained for the benefit of all in later times.
All these Vestals, now securely chained and still in bridal gown, though somewhat soiled after weeks of copious tears during confinement, were led out of the small enclosure compound to meet their final fate and the first to go was chosen by Aemilia, who told her since this was a new tradition, it was to have her name, should she pass the test or fail, for her name had ancient value that was no accident inscribed upon a stele made of marble that was to be the naming at the the entrance of this grove.
It was this vestal, led by the aged Aemilia, who now quietly said to her
“Now is your opportunity, daughter, to prove your innocence. The Royal Stables are before you. Walk through the passageway before you without hindrance from the unicorns within and your freedom is guaranteed by Royal decree. Go now, and may your vows protect you. If you live, I will meet you on the other side, for I will not be far behind.”
The young girl, tear stained and face begrimed, looked at her mistress as if to farewell her mother, and slowly walked unaided to the passageway, followed at discrete distance by Aemilia, whom all the people outside had seen earlier walk through the passageway to the other side and shortly after return without harm so all present knew her bona fides were in esteem inside this place.
This being the first test of this kind of selection ever held, the people surged forward, but then remembering the potential danger of the situation, surged back, fell silent.
Upon entering the passageway, Aemilia went to one side and released a drape rope hitched to the side of the building as the girl continued on her way. The heavy drapes hung high now fell to the ground now obscured all view from front and sides, and were to remain in place until the choosings were over and only opened for a moment to allow the sight of failure should that occur, an order for the viewing made
by the king who knew that open government in matters of this kind was better than closed doors to feed the insatiable fire of rumour.
Some of the crowd, whom in a spirit of hope, curiosity, or simple bloodlust had bravely advanced to the exit side of the passageway and ready to run away immediately, waited quietly as the voung vestal went inside and disappeared from view. Shortly after muffled sounds of violence were heard, much hoofstamping too amidst the sounds of horn clash and repeated sighs of death when horn speared flesh in ceremony of a repeated mating frenzy just like that very moment the vestal knew her loss of purpose as new opened hymen window viewed new worlds of no return.
This being the first time of the choosing, Aemilia appeared and drew back the curtain and there, crumpled on the ground, lay the vestal on her back, arms folded in repose and as the flow of red ember fed desire died its flow slow spreading stained the vestal bridal gown from entry points made by the spears of hornéd horse, but any sight of them that made it was nowhere to be seen.
Aemilia walked round the fallen vestal several times, slowly sprinkling fresh laurel leaves around her, then laid a laurel wreath around her forehead making prayer no one else could hear for those words were not for those of normal hearing, then, turning to one side where a small offering table had quietly appeared, took from it a lit incense flame in holder slowly waved it round her until the incense flared and
all including onlookers in this scene disappeared in a sea of burning laurel smoke that cleared slowly to reveal Aemilia, head bowed before a laurel tree grown quick by the building side and of the fallen vestal there was no mortal sign for now she was the laurel tree.
Aemilia turned to the offering table once again and in one hand a knife and in the other a flower with a thorn upon its stem turned to all around and with raised voice and extended arms in supplication exclaimed
“By the power invested in me as Maid Royal Vestal I dedicate this place as grove to virtue and truth without shadow and its true name will be True Meaning of the Rose!” and then she cut the thorn away from that artful flower, turned directly towards those gathered round, held the thorn up high then scored her forearm deep to let blood flow free then let the thorn fall to the soil around the laurel tree still wet with the blood of the vestal for she it was who gave this grove its name and on the stele mantle high and glowing in the stone were runes that gave the meaning to the naming of the rose.
Upon completion of this inaugural opening, one overbearing matron, Isobellia by name, known by many and feared by some for her continual interference and meddlesome behaviour in their personal affairs, thrust her daughter, a diminutive person of no great mental stature and therefore easily controlled, towards the
passage entrance with a rude blow and said “Now daughter!” whom, spinning off her mother’s arm, flew towards the passage entrance to get away from her, but she, unfortunately, not understanding the requirements involved, entered.
Innocence being not of unicorn standard, there was the briefest of commotions inside which shook the building for a moment, then all became quiet.
“Oh,” said the crowd in dismay, taking a few steps backwards. The crowd on the exit side then understood the purpose of the ropes attached to a manned windlass, for shortly afterwards the remnants of the second failure emerged, scooped up by a plank embracing the width of the passageway. After its pitiful load had been seized and placed somewhere discrete, the windlass capstan was turned in the opposite direction and the plank, attached to ropes at its rear as well as the front, was dragged back into the building for further duty. When word of this second sad disaster spread
into the crowd at the front of the building, the large corps of parental volunteers and their charges thinned away rapidly, for now was fully understood the full meaning of the grove’s name, and many a quick protesting exchange between parent and daughter was heard accompanied by slaps and yelps and even the occasional kick to rump for truth was the only victor here and pride must pay a fearful price.
As the king had not made entry to the compound the boundary of agreement and therefore irreversible, the full price of riches attainable in this manner after failure spread rapidly throughout the kingdom, which was exactly what the king had intended to weed out the usual influx of time wasters known to choke out any endeavour ever made.
When the last of known and possibly trainee masochists had reluctantly ended their sightseeing for the day, the king, resident to the last, turned aside where Aemilia was seated and said, but not directly to her,
“Ah, fallibility,” emitting a mock sigh.
Aemilia, who had been expecting such exchange after her initial protegés’ successful failure into immortality as a laurel tree, said after a moment of reflection,
“A small part of human nature, sire.”
The king sighed again, victorious. Aemilia silently ground aging teeth and thought of the possibility of verbal revenge, to which she knew the king by nature would have difficulty in succumbing. But he surprised her by asking, “What, in your experience, my lady Aemilia, does this state of virginity mean to you, and to what do you attach its importance with regard to human affairs?” All she could say by way of return was “This state, so necessary for our divinations, sire, represents the future and mirrors its desires with regard to experience of the present. So what to us is done caused by actions of the past becomes undone when futures’ time is come. In short, sire, we are nothing more or less than the eyes of a mirror. The lighter the heart, the clearer the eye, the cleaner the glass. As for myself——,” she paused for a moment, looked to one side and for an instant the king saw the face of a young girl and he moved to touch her but changed his mind when he imagined she moved slightly in recoil.
“As for myself, sire, I have to say I have no regrets, and I do not for one moment miss domesticity. It is a quite natural desire for children, I suppose, especially for women, but as there are so many belonging to others, the necessity of the biological is a task I am thankful is not mine. And you must know that very few vestals marry when their duty at the temple is finished.” She got up to leave, and motioned her
companion vestal, now recovered from her ordeal, to follow her, saying,
“Come, vestal, the sacred flame awaits our passionate embrace.”
As no others had come through the test, the day ended with vestal strength increased by only one, a situation that left the king greatly disturbed, for volunteers were still required to aid in unicorn location; so the king convened a meeting of the members that night to see what could be done.
The next day all apothecaries and physicians were summoned to appear, by force if necessary, before the unicorn committee to be given instruction regarding their attitudes towards those members of the public requiring revirginification, and were told that such practices were to cease immediately even if requested on religious grounds prior to marriage. There was great uproar over this announcement,
especially from those whose practices had no other function and were great source of revenue. With such delicate skills, they were told, it should be possible to diversify without too much fuss into an area such as cosmetic surgery, perhaps? Surely those present realised present day desires tended towards smaller breasts, broader noses, thicker necks and wider hips and that their skills could be utilized better in that direction?
After much muttering there was a general agreement among them all, and to cement this, the king routed this rabble of quacks into an organised guild of physicians and apothecaries, something that had never been done before, but before any individual could enter, had to memorize and recite the Hippocratic Oath, understand what it meant and take a personal morals test regarding the balance between desired and affordable fees then work among the poor for five years to understand the meaning of economy.
Those who did not pass were allowed to work in mortuaries where their ethics could do less harm and on a pay scale similar to that of a butcher’s.
As for the reason for this virgin trade, the king and his committee members come to the sad conclusion that the young of their society had somehow become exposed to influences that did not regard the mental virgin state a necessary one. The king summoned senior theologians to aid in the debate, but as very few had not been affected in one way or another by unsavoury remarks in coffee houses or public baths regarding their park bench behaviour towards strangers, and only one appeared,
a crusty octogenarian of most decidedly prophetic disposition turned up to the committee meeting.
Impatiently waving away the helping hand of a junior person, he slowly advanced towards the centre of the chamber and turned to face the members, the king centre most of them all.
“So. Am I, old as I am, to debate with this petty gathering of mighty intellects singularly or plurally?”
“Perspicatius—,” the king said, unoffended, raising his hand for silence. “— you know why you are here,
and all of us present are thankful for your presence here today. As only you have seen fit to see us, we
do not wish debate. What we wish to hear are your views regarding our virgin population and how their numbers may increase and be preserved!”
“Hum,” the octogenarian replied, then chuckling, remarked that it was in their power to create the increase if need arose, surely? “Unfortunately, I myself cannot help you in this endeavour, for I am beyond the age where the marriage of duty and family obligations have such power!” Not all the members present understood his remark, but dutifully laughed when the king guffawed.
“Ah, Perspicatius, truly you live up to your name!” the king remarked, wiping tears from his eyes.
“However, the lead in time after such a successful endeavour is too long, and our need is paramount.
We do, however, see the long term benefit to your suggestion and will act upon it.”
“That will do no good at all!” Perspicatius declared. We are already doing that in any event. If you carry out such a campaign the effects will be much worse than a lack of virgins! Look around the kingdom and see for yourself! There is sufficient water and other natural resources to maintain a population in a manner that is both comfortable and civilized, but if you increase its size pollution of the earth and water
will result in disaster to us all! The land can only support a limited number of us and that is that. I fully realise that what I have to say is anathema to the entrepreneurs amongst us, but surely even they can see the sense in what is being said?” He paused for a moment, adjusted his leaning posture on his staff and continued, “Look at Bondius or Skacius! Such successful men are they! And I am sure that
there is present amongst us at this very moment a desire for successes such as made by these men.”
Perspicatius looked at each member in turn, and some, unable to meet his gaze, turned their heads away. He went on. “Ask yourselves how many carriages these men have between them. There are thirty of us present at this meeting at least and at least twice that number could be carried by what they have.
And what for? If aphorisms still be made today, I would say this ‘One man can only drive one chariot at a time!’ And what of the others? They are the signature of vanity and nothing more or less than that.
Now let us return to this matter of virgins and what can be done about it. You, sire, require their presence in order to conduct the annual unicorn race. This is good for religious festivities and also your coffers, is it not?” The king nodded assent. “Then their existence is socially desirable, is it not?”
The king, thin lipped, nodded again, uneasily. “Then why are you not educating the young with particular regard to the seven deadlies and the dire consequences to themselves if they are unable to understand or control these forces within themselves?”
“That is not our function,” the king said. “That is a matter for religion and—-“
“Religious instruction! Quite right!” interrupted Perspicatius. “And, quite naturally, you are chary of mixing affairs of state and religious practice.”
“That is true. Quite true,” the king replied.
“So. Just so.” Perspicatius paused for the necessary theatrical moment, then continued on ” but you do have power over the educational standards of the country? No, Sire? Sire! Of course you do! If you and
your senators can see the need to create that most laughable of posts, the Chief Minister of Racing, then surely it must be in your power to create the post of Chief Minister of Public Morals! And if it is not possible to teach the disciplines necessary to control the forces within the human mind because of religious respectation, then you must allow such instruction by trained priests of whatever calling to occur within your schools. If such instruction is not available, then true democracy of learning must be
allowed to occur so such teachings can be regained. If the priesthood cannot do the teaching because of divisions of belief and of practice, then the priests had better go back to school to learn their letters properly! And—,” Perspicatius halted, then muttered darkly “—-they would be well advised to spend more than a little time studying their own seven deadlies so they do not pass their passions onto others
in a manner detrimental to their charges moral strength.”
Perspicatius, tired by his speeching, fell silent.
At this point the king felt need to remark “Perspicatius. We did try the post you suggested. Surely you remember Ronaia? Do you not recall the laughing stock we became to the countries adjacent to our Southern borders because that person considered ——“
“That flat earther!” hooted Perspicatius, tears streaming down his face. “Wasn’t that about the time when some lunatic declared he had invented a chariot that could run on water, had no need of horsepower but had to be towed by another chariot to its public demonstration?”
“Quite so,” the king admitted, after the listening committee members had stopped laughing. “But that was long before my time.”
“But not so far from our time that as we speak we have to listen to drivel from the Children’s Entertainment Tribunal concerning the reality or otherwise in which a furry hopping marsupial carries on its skipping practice in a manner they consider unrealistic!” shouted Perspicatius. “What nonsense this is! What does it matter if the portrayal of this animal belies its real intelligence!!. Where is the child within
the hearts of this tribunal? And where on this earth is their imagination?”
“They, uh, have changed their minds over this matter,” ventured a committee member.
“Oh have they indeed?” sneered Perspicatius. “More likely backed away covering their behinds with their hands. They need much more than potty retraining!”
“How so?” enquired this same member.
“Dress them in nappies, stick a dummy in their mouths so they cannot place their feet in them and put ‘em into a creche for six months! declared Perspicatius. “If that does not teach them the basics of child- like behaviour and thinking nothing ever will! And how did these myopic individuals ever get to be keepers of children’s morals? What are their credentials? I’ll lay you odds the job’s well paid and that is
the only credential they appreciate!”
“We could change it,” the king said.
“Then make the remuneration each tribunal member receives be one penny per year. I am sure you will find those not overly concerned with the morality of their office will find somewhere else more to the liking of a morality that pays!”
“Outrageous!” declared one member, getting to his feet and waving a clenched fist in defiance. There were low mutterings of agreement among the members.
“Is it, Lewisius?” replied Perspicatius. “Is your outrage due to principal or your need to defend a relative in another organisation? Is your service in this committee free of honorarium and dedicated to the service of us all?”
Lewisius made no reply and hung his head in shame.
“And you, sire, what quality of service have you had from this committee of prime intellects? Precious little, I’ll warrant! Are they paid?”
“They are,” replied the king. “And according to usual fee scales.”
“Ah. The same that means a man and his family could live comfortably for one year that one of these—-” and here Perspicatius waved at the committee “—-gentlemen will receive for meeting once concerning this matter of unicorns and the slight matter of their lack of presence. Why, on my way here this very morning I distinctly saw at least a quorum of unicorns trotting down the main avenue discussing the weather because of effective decision making! Bah! And how many times has a meeting
occurred? Sire, pay them nothing and I guarantee you your unicorn problem will be solved that much faster for decisions will be made the quicker once members realize the time they use is theirs and theirs alone to waste!”
“Indeed you have a point, Perspicatius,” the king replied, “—-and I am sure the treasury will appreciate your point of view. However. There is always the risk that no members may be found to fill the vacancies that may result.”
“Well, sire, it is within your power to make such a presence mandatory, is it not?”
“It is. But resistance would be extreme.”
“Ah yes, I see that. However—” at this point Perspicatius coughed to emphasize his point “—-if the common man or woman has no choice but to appear when called upon to serve as jurors at your courts with limited compensation with regard to income loss and loss of personal liberties, should not these worthy persons also suffer to the same extreme with regard to public service? ”
“But who would pay attention to our investments and our professions? Are we—–” enquired one concerned member.
“—-Use the same infrastructure set up by you that enables you to be here with us at this moment,” interjected Perspicatius acidly. The king, who appreciated his remarks to no small degree, remarked
“Perspicatius is right. If Plebeians suffer gladly for the good of the state then Patricians can also. From now on all present will appear gratis. Since no moneys have been paid so far for your appearances,
amounts due will be returned to the state treasury retrospective to the date this tribunal began.” There was general uproar at the king’s pronouncement, but he remained firm and excused not one of the members, whom all without exception requested immediate relief from their duty. It seemed that all of
them had sick relatives or pregnant wives requiring constant servicing.
Restrospectivity. The king sudenly liked the sound of that word. Taxation. The king liked the sound of that one even better. Bingo! Beaming to all, the king thanked Perspicatius profusely for his help and excused him from addressing the tribune further.
“I’ll send you my bill, sire,” Perspicatius said. The king, about to remonstrate, changed his mind upon realizing that volunteers could not be taxed in any way. Yet. But as to the question of retrospective taxation, that was a different matter entirely, and if the unicorns could not be made to appear in time, that idea seemed to have merit. Retrospective taxation. Nice idea that. The king almost wished that he
had thought of it himself.
He knew he could deify himself if he chose to without difficulty, but to be remembered as the monarch who created a taxation system that could profit from past actions twice or more times, firstly by the laws
at the time of the tax and a second or more times by altering the laws so it applied to past taxation periods required serious thought.
The king dismissed the tribunal as there was nothing further to discuss.
He himself was anxious to ponder over his newfound idea in his favourite garden and could not wait to get there.
That night the king slept badly; ghastly spectres of tax-payers past and present assailed every dream with flesh flayed bones and with admonishing arms raised in malnourished protest, and in the hours between birth and death
welcomed with open arms the grim reaper, whose smile, although bony, appeared to have more welcome in it as they flew off a cliff together supported by nothing at all.
The next morning, surprised, the king awoke to find himself still alive, but every muscle ached and his eyelids drooped like leaden curtains, but after a few hours meditation recovered sufficiently to meet a foreign dignitary, whose purpose, he later discovered, was to solicit trading alms, for this Antipodean
representative served a bankrupt government whose officers did not understand that the value of their coinage lay in the willingness of the people they purported to serve was in direct ratio to their willingness to work.
After much bumbling talk from dignitary Kea’ Ting! regarding the welfare being of his subjects state, the free medical treatment they had to pay for and a superannuation system that had tax creamed off it more and more without protest because the people could not keep up with the meaning of new expressions invented to disguise its name, the king realized he had met just the right person to impart his new idea of retrospective taxation to, being of the opinion it be better to impart the idea of hope than nothing at all in regard to this persons infantile request, which he had no intention of agreeing to; but gave him a an energy efficient clock of ancient design, being made of an hollow hourglass shaped piece of glass partially filled with sand to add to his understanding of time and was called the Quango Clock .
It was with great difficulty the king imparted the concept of turning over the hour-glass so time could begin again, but had no such problem adding the idea of retrospectivity to this seamy leader’s ideas concerning revenue, who repeatedly and at great length attempted to demonstrate his mastery of understanding time and what it meant to revenue gathering morality by showing how well it flowed when the hourglass was lain on its side.
As there had been no word of Rosa’s whereabouts for some days, the king sent out messengers to find out if she had been at all successful in her search for unicorns. They returned the next day with no news, having been completely unsuccessful in their search to locate her. In reality, however, they were not at all keen to find her, for they had all witnessed the fury exercised by the stabled beasts more than
once and held them in great respect.
Princess Freda, who had been sitting on her father’s knee while he told her a bedtime story in the middle of the afternoon after her sister had slapped her for making derogatory comment during one of her frequent bouts of preening in front of an enormous gilt mirror, heard about the loss of the unicorns for the first time while the messengers related their sad news. After the messengers had left to search
again at the insistence of the king, Freda interrupted her father when he attempted to finish the story, saying that she had just thought of an adventure and wanted to tell her friends about it, and when he asked her what it was she refused to relate, saying it was a secret. As Freda’s tears had dried by now and she needed no more comforting, the king allowed her to go, saying she must not go too far away
and to be back by supper time. Freda pretended not to hear and ran off to see her friends.
At the newly named Grove of Rose, the last live fallen vestal, securely chained, was being led out to the passage, but at the last moment broke away and begged to be buried alive instead, as all but one of her companions had failed the test and been killed. After some humming and harring by officials this was allowed and she was led away to her internment, viewed with some misgiving by those present whom had passed their test that day, all of whom were led off to a special enclosure to await the
pleasure of the king, who had decided that those who passed would be sent to Rosa to aid in unicorn seeking, if the messengers ever found her, which they did after some delay.
The races were due to start in the next few days, and already the city was being spruced up for the religious festivities, the temple elephants were festooned with ancient gold and silver ornaments, every house and garden washed and cleaned, persons scrubbed and dressed, and most importantly of all, the way around the sacred race track levelled and graded by the constant attentions of rakers and
rollers under the consistent attention of Heinz, the racing minister, who had commandeered all the bowling green experts he could lay his hands on for the job.
The king, on his final tour of inspection, saw the state of the race track was in readiness, but had already consoled himself with the fact that the race was most likely to be merely a two unicorn event with low odds and therefore a waste of time. Just as he was about to leave for the stables to see how many virgins had been garnered, a messenger rapidly came up and whispered in the royal ear.
Princess Freda, his beloved Freddie, the best climber of trees in the world, was missing. Queen Beatrice, along with Princess Hestia, leaned over to hear. Hestia looked supremely happy at hearing the news, and the king, noticing this, remarked to his queen,
“Beatrice, my dear. As this will be the last day for any member of the public to enter the stables to pass their test, why don’t you take Hestia over there and show her the way in?”
Hestia’s expression became somewhat graven when she heard this, but royal com-mands being what they were, arose along with her mother and her Prince Charming of the moment, left the dais and proceeded to the stables. Closely watching, the king noticed Hestia’s footsteps dragging as they got closer, until at the point of no return the queen and Prince Charming stopped, waiting. Desperate, Hestia turned to her mother and making mute appeal, suddenly collapsed to the ground in a dead faint.
Quickly waving the usual bouquet of smelling salts pertinent to such situations, the queen hissed in her ear
“So, daughter. And what have you got to say for yourself, eh? You are going to hear some words. And you are going to understand both of them. Stand up, do you hear?”
Prince Charming, who was no fool and realized what the matter was, had up until this moment been quite happy elevating this maiden of his choice on the highest and finest mental pedestal his imagination could create, for such gossamer finery reality never knew clothed this Venus of his dreams.
Politely and quietly he excused himself from ensuing nightmare about to happen, and summoning his page in economic terms, quickly rode off towards another sunset even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Hestia, whose nose had been resisting the strident bouquet of the smelling salts with some difficulty, suddenly sneezed after he turned on his heel and left without a backward glance, but there
was no escape, for her mother roughly grabbed her arm, yanked her to her feet and dragged her away to the royal chariot. She was going to find out which particular Prince had been covertly charming to her daughter, of that there could be no doubt whatever.
According to ancient custom, the heralds of the city announced the beginning of religious festivities at sunrise with trumpet blasts that reverberated down every lofty corridor and dinghy alleyway throughout the city, closely followed by braying rams horns, drumbeats and cymbal clashing; such musical cacophony preceding the start of the holy relics procession carried in litters or on the backs of horses
and elephants gorgeously arrayed in multi hued trappings and finery that followed each other trunk or nose to tail as they made way around the limits of the city; cheering and genuflecting inhabitants, whom, thronging the streets, parted to allow them through casting flower petals in their path as they went.
The relics, of great antiquity and important to various beliefs, consisted of such things as body parts sliced off by devotees from holy men long dead and preserved in golden casks, tracts reputedly written by them, and even realistically painted coprolites that were used in theological debates from time immemorial to prove the existence of such beings by the virtue of their shape. And along every
sidewalk, hawkers, some of whom were known as sellers of opium and other common substances such as roasted peanuts and flowers and aphrodisiacs had changed their garb for the day into ones of religious flavour and made a killing selling indulgences, bits of holy wooden relics cut from the tree a holy one had died on centuries before, and even scraps of clothing supposedly used as burial robes, not to mention plaster casts of the last footprint another holy one had made before leaving the bounds
of earth forever, and even a golden casket that contained, so it was claimed, the last holy fart ever made by a holy being but none were willing to test its properties for ancient rumour said the one who sniffed it last had died in agony, the philosophical question being was it the holy being himself who had died such a death or another?.
Trade was good that day, for it was well known any kind of fervour did much to aid the unzipping of wallets normally firmly closed by thrift.
The king, seated on his dais in its usual place in the centre of the city and surrounded by dignitaries of both political and religious hue, including Aemilia, had still heard no word from his messengers regarding the whereabouts of his beloved Freddie, and, worse still, none whatever of Rosa.
The race, due in two hours time, was still short two unicorns.
It was near the hour of one, and, according to custom, the king, his queen, Aemilia and all attendants ascended the dais to take their places at the head of a huge banqueting table groaning under the weight of every delicacy imaginable situated in the centre of the main public square, and to which every citizen of every hue, including beggars, by right could sit if they so chose and were quick enough to grab.
Those unlucky milled around and leaning over the heads of those seated, reached out for what they fancied and moved on, like motes in a sea of swirling humanity that pulsated with the power endowed them by their deities that day, for none were involved in fracas of any kind as all appeared in good humour and no one took offence. After this communal event, the king and his retinue moved to another
dais, this time to over view the priesthoods of every faction, whom, some with shaven heads, pigtails, centre cuts or bouffants or wearing funny hats, wore clothes of every colour and description according to the strengths of their beliefs; all proceeding in their respective groups past the dais and onwards to the racetrack, which event was to be the final for the day.
Heinz, in official capacity and wearing humpty dumpty clothing with a helicopter cap on his head marking his office and increasing his physical presence many times, greeted his monarch and retinue and led them along the entrance to the Royal enclosure, while those following peeled off in their
thousands through the turnstiles to pay their tithes for rite of entry.
Just as they became comfortably seated, a messenger, full of agitation, rushed past the Royal Usher , whom waved in by impatient wave of hand and kneeling by the king’s side, whispered into the right hand Royal ear.
The king, fully attentive, leaned his head more the better to hear what the man had to say, and as he spoke, a Royal smile began to spread from ear to ear. At that point a trumpet blasted interrupted their deliberation, for the first event, a three legged horse race, was about to begin. These animals, inbred for centuries from a legendary sire called Fast Lap never beaten in any event, all had only one front hoof
and body shapes both light or heavy according to whim or theory of the owner as to speed and to agility.
The king, who bet on Beedlebomb, won.
The next race, for novices, was indeed memorable and two races had to be run with a decider at the end, for nuns, in their last year of training, well attended the race as riders, and looked very effective riding side-saddle with habits flapping in time with the thundering of hooves as they passed the winning post singing “Knees Up, Mother Brown!” at the end of the final race in a good humoured dig at their Mother Superior. Mother Superior’s name was Brown. She had a sense of humour too, and fed them the finest bread and water for a week or two afterwards. After the last horse had passed the winning post, the crowd stood up and cheered in preparation for the next event, the unicorn race, which had to start at the fourth stroke of four exactly in accordance with the rites on the fourth day of the fourth month
of the year.
In the centre of the racing ring and separate from any other beast, was the unicorn enclosure, sealed off from public view and guarded by a ring of every available virgin that could be found to prevent unauthorized access. The king, getting more concerned as time progressed, sent away a messenger every five minutes, and a progression of them returned at regular intervals shortly after.
After the public had been cleared from the first ten rows of the grandstand for safety reasons, the two unicorns, whose numbers had still not increased in spite of strenuous efforts, were led by their riders and closely attended by their guardians, approached the starting gates, which had been quickly decked with garlands and streamers to celebrate the most celebrated race of the year. A large hourglass, closely
attended by senior priesthood and in clear public view, appeared almost empty of sand, for race start time was very close. The king, extremely aware of timing, had a runner standing by to indicate his betting desires to the Royal bookie at the last possible moment. The unicorns, champing nervously at the bit, nodded their heads rigorously up and down behind specially designed starting gates with a
vertical slot in the centre to accommodate their horns, which could be seen ceaselessly moving up and
down from the grandstand. Their riders, already mounted, leaned forward to placate their mounts while out in front, the Chief Unicorn Oiler, dressed in gaudy costume and sporting a pointed hat similar in appearance to a unicorn’s horn stood by with a long handled paint brush doused with horn oil applied from time to time if the motion of the horns became too frequent for public health and safety.
Aemilia, dressed in ceremonial robes for the occasion and wearing a ceremonial pointed hat worn only for this race, took up position in a rostrum high above the track holding her staff, which, if held horizontal, meant the race was due to begin. Standing ceremonially, Aemilia held the staff after arranging some flags in order according to rite. The crowd, ebullient as usual, had quietened down after observing Aemilia mount the rostrum, for this was the signal the race was about to start.
The king, who had just had another visitation from a messenger, contrary to the faces of the crowd, turned his the other way towards the entrance of the racetrack. He still had faith that Rosa would appear in time with extra unicorns to make up the numbers. The crowd, whose numeracy was great, had not missed the empty stalls at the starting gate, and much subdued hubbub occurred as a result, for it was well known low numbers meant low return of income from a bet.
Suddenly, at the entrance the king espied a cloud of dust coming rapidly towards him, and after they passed through the entrance gates, saw a collective group of the singular messengers he had sent off at intervals during the last few hours. Time was short. Too short. Reluctant, the king beckoned his runner, who came over and bending down, wrote down what his master commanded, then rushed away
towards the Royal Bookie, whose stall could clearly be seen for it had a miniature version of the Royal flag fluttering overhead and the words “Royal Bookie. By Appointment” written in Gothic letters on a placard underneath. The crowd, who had similarly acted, were seated, and when Aemilia suddenly
raised her staff bearing arm up high, momentarily hushed. The messengers, signalled to disperse after entrance, melted into the crowd still standing and went to place their bets just before the bookies closed their bags.
Aemilia’s arm suddenly went to the horizontal, and the whole area hushed into silence. The priests on watch at the hourglass, stood immobilized, and one, standing a little to one side, had his hammer ready to strike the four gong strokes to signal Aemilia the precise moment that the race should start.
Suddenly a loud galloping of hooves was heard clattering at the gates, and as one, everyone in the arena turned to face the entrance and saw seven, ten, fifteen, no, twenty two unicorns, ridden by diminutive riders at breakneck pace and led by — Freddie? It couldn’t be! The king, taken completely by
surprise, stood up and cheered, and the crowd did likewise as Freddie, leading all her missing companions and followed by the long lost Rosa all wheeled together to enter the racing stalls. Never in living memory had so many unicorns been gathered together in one spot, for the sacred numbers, all representing the winds and their attendant breezes, each had a unicorn to represent them this day.
Quickly attendants dressed each rider in a different coloured jacket, and immediately ushered them into their racing stalls, moving faster and faster for the first and second gong strokes had sounded, then followed by the third.
There was stillness at the starting gate, for time appeared stationary in the moment before the fourth gong stroke sounded.
Almost in slow motion, Aemilia’s staff holding arm raised, the fourth gong stroke reverberating across the arena. And the golden staff glinted as it fell, temporarily blinding everyone who saw it. As the gates opened outwards, the unicorns, as one, flew forwards and all were all in line abreast so meticulously not one keen eye could see who was the leader for all were equal nose to nose.
The crowd, recovering composure as the unicorns flew past, gasped.
All their riders were seated on their mounts wearing blindfolds, and as far as could be seen not one rider, some as young as six, appeared to have nervousness among
themselves for they had great rapport with their mounts, who unerringly carried them at great speed without upset of any kind. Three times these magnificent creatures flew past the winning post exactly all in line, and just as they passed the third and last time arranged themselves in groups of four line abreast, led by the North, South, East and West cardinal wind riders, followed by descending ranks of breezes, all
exactly in line, and all the way around this last time did not alter their order one whit until they passed the winning post, the crowd with one voice cheering with great gusto even after the race had finished until finally the king stood up and raised his upraised palms for silence.
The race now over, the king immediately sent for the Royal Bookie, ensuring his immediate appearance and most assuredly ensuring his non disappearance, for he could see the Royal Bookie’s pavilion flags quickly coming down while its owner fluttered about casting nervous looks over his shoulder and appearing very anxious and ready to depart. Apprehended by two of the king’s most trusted myrmidons, whom, holding him
firmly by the arms, escorted the Royal Bookie to the king.
“Here is my ticket,” the king said. On it, for all the world to see, had been written the four major winds as winners, odds so great that no one who bet that way could ever hope to win. The Royal Bookie, sad faced, reluctantly took the ticket, and knowing what was written on it, did not look down and looked even sadder as he faced the king. Observing implacability in action, he reached into his shoulder bag and slowly started counting out paper money. A lot of paper money. He continued until the bag was empty, relieved he did not have to leave a debtor, for, true to his profession, he had played the odds in such a way to cover an event such as this, no matter how painful it was to bear. This did not happen every day.
“‘By Appointment’ carries occasional responsibility,” remarked the king after counting was complete.
“Yes, sire,” replied the Royal Bookie glumly.
“You wish to continue under my patronage?”
“Yes, sire,” he mumbled. Although numbed by loss, the chance of future profits could not be missed and the thought of this pot of future gold put a little colour into cheeks.
Aemilia, still flushed with the excitement of seeing the race from her unique perch, appeared on the dais just as the Royal Bookie left the scene.
“A good day for the Royal coffers, sire?” she remarked, eying the pile of money tottering on the table.
“All in a good cause, Aemilia. Although I have to say I have never seen a race such as this. Never. I think the Royal Poet might have something to say about it, and hopefully not in anything less tuneful than blank verse. I cannot remember the new description poets give to their craft these days, but it does not do much for me, I must say.”
“It’s called ‘language poetry’, isn’t it, sire?” offered Aemilia.
“Yes. I think that is what it is called. Anything less tuneful to the ear than a bucket of stones being shaken up and down seems to be labelled under that name. You may as well say what we are saying now is ‘language poetry’,” replied the king, who, changing the subject, asked
“Was it your idea to have the riders blindfold, Aemilia?”
“No, sire, it was not. And I could not find out who asked them to. The riders could not say anything either. Possibly divine intervention might—-?”
“That had occurred to me. But still——” he stopped, then continued “What on earth is the public going to make of it?”
“Give it a name? Make it a regular event?” she suggested.
“I don’t think regular jockeys would take to being blindfold. Their life is hard enough as it is,” he replied.
“Still, you may have something there. Now then, what points are present we could make an issue of?”
The king, deep in thought, began stuffing bank notes into his treasure chest, then remarked to no one in particular, “What, indeed? Those maidens were, after all, handicapped, were they not? I suppose being blindfold does constitute that, does it not?”
And that, dear reader, is possibly how the Maiden Handicap, a regular feature of the horse racing calendar, may have come to grace us before the grandstands of our stages. Perhaps.
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