If, as is a conversational commonplace in Semirinal, the gods do not regard the city with favour, history reveals no reason why this should be so. To be more precise, history reveals, rather, a myriad of speculations as to the cause of this supposed divine disapproval, none of them officially approved as reasonable by any clerical body with any pretensions to political influence. Many of these hypothetical accounts have been collected over the ages during which the city has stood, and the majority of them - the Minor Theodicies, as they are known - are to be found in a particular archive room of the Lepontine Library. Access to this room is officially simplicity itself, as any citizen who can give reason to the custodian may browse any collection in the library to their heart’s content, for the Lepontine is a library of record - indeed it is the finest such extant since the destruction of the collection at Angyra - and all documents within it are public matter. One might, therefore, assume that any infrequency of browsing of the Minor Theodicies would be a mere consequence of the citizenry’s indifference and the much-lamented decline in scholarship. One would, however, be mistaken.
The custodians of the Lepontine, including Antris Cassano, the custodian of the Blue Serene Receptaculum, as that archive room is known, are only mildly scrupulous in their duty of safeguarding the city’s documents. Clean hands, an earnest whispered request in an educated tone, and a lack of any risky matters such as inks, sources of flame, and possible places of concealment usually suffice to gain admission wherever one will. Where that is insufficient, a deftly palmed obol, the promise of poststudial refreshment at a nearby tavern or, exceptionally, a whispered password given by one of the city’s cabals will suffice. All excepting Antris Cassano. Ask Antris for access to any other of the materials under his protection, such as the Hundred Logoethic Tomes, or the original treaty of Ashcantovar, and he will oblige you with the quiet grace that typifies one grateful to another who appreciates the worth of his charges. Enquire as to whether one might study the Minor Theodicies, and you will be told that such a collection does not in fact exist, and that one would do better consulting the various temple libraries of Semirinal. Request, then, access to the Blue Serene Receptaculum, where, you insist, you have heard that the Minor Theodicies are stored, however, and he will at first deny that any such room exists. Pressed, he will then claim that it is used as nothing more than a storage area for indecipherable scraps and flakes of documents, quite worthless for any scholarly purpose. Pressed further, and encouraged with the customary - we shall not call them bribes, but rather the perquisites of office - he will lead you reluctantly, expostulating in an anguished whisper, up into the attics of the Lepontine, where he will show you, apparently with quiet satisfaction, just such a store-room as he has described. Most intended perusers of the documents will at this point give in, and Antris will lead them, apologising softly, down from the attics and into the Grand Atrium, where he will bid them his usual mild farewell.
Should you instead, as Bosco the Scholiast does at this point, heft the elderly Antris some eight inches into the air by slipping a hand under his jaw and heaving him up against a wall, following this up with a detailed litany of what would happen to the said Antris if he failed to reveal the true location of the Blue Serene Receptaculum, and that forthwith… I should not recommend this method, for I am myself an academic and have been custodian of many precarious things in my time, but it is the only time I know of that Antris has actually been induced to admit someone into that particular archive. Not that Antris is frequently disturbed by any such requests; as you might suspect, such materials would be of interest only to the scholastically-minded, and then only to those with a particular curiosity in such matters.
The Blue Serene Receptaculum is a room of modest size, and apparently now quite devoid of that celestial colour indicated by its magnificent name, though perhaps at one time its walls were of azure hue. It is, however, serene in a way that an archive undisturbed by readers can be, and quite as dusty as one might expect. There is a low table, conveniently situated so that light will fall upon it for most of the day without too bright a glare; a comfortable couch; a wall-mounted phosphorus for when the daylight fails; and many shelves. These shelves are for the most part stacked with cases holding scrolls of papyrus and with bound tomes of vellum; naturally there are also some few incised stone slabs of the Ephetic period and, curiously, one small antediluvian syrinx, so badly chipped that nothing intelligible can be heard when it is blown. There are no printed documents therein, though a few such may be found elsewhere in the Lepontine, for of course the deities of Semirinal postdate the Devastation, all protestations of the priests of Vermiline notwithstanding.
Bosco’s first activity upon entering the Blue Serene Receptaculum, after renewing his threats against the hapless Antris should anything ensue to mar his studies, is to shut the door firmly. He then removes his clothes preparatory to anointing himself with a certain unguent reputed in Ar-Shaham to enhance the comprehensive ability, and then spends perhaps a half hour on his back contemplating the Ineffable Navel, for Bosco is, though obviously not Ar-Shahamian by birth, at least publicly devoted to the Opal Maiden. Terminating his devotions and resuming his clothing, he next inspects the shelves for what he is almost certain he will find, and, indeed, after some assiduous searching, he locates his quarry, a large thick book, which he takes with him as he seats himself on the couch.
The preparation of indexes, as any scholar will tell you, is grindingly dull. Let one new item be added to a collection, and the whole of the index should, in an ideal world, be remade. Added to that, scholars, though generally devoted to their subjects, are only human, and generally elderly humans at that, who must husband their energies for the most critical tasks. One solution is, of course, to bring in junior scholars and even, at a pinch, mere scribes, but, lacking the necessary scholarly expertise, they often mar more than they make. The index to the Minor Theodicies is somewhat better than most, though hardly a shining example of the craft, and it will take Bosco a deal of diligence before he is able to locate within it even a hint of the existence of the materials he had hoped were there contained. The deities - thank the deities, indeed! - or, rather, the materials pertaining to those deities - are indexed in substantially alphabetic order, with those few deities of such outlandish origin that their names are not easily expressed in the script of Semirinal tucked away together in an appendix. It takes Bosco, therefore, only a little time to locate those leaves of the index which refer to controversies surrounding the goddess Hu, his particular interest that day. Finding the particular resources he seeks, however, is a matter of patient slogging through the entries of the index.
Bosco, as his name would indicate, is an outlander, though no city has troubled itself to claim him as one of its natal sons; indeed, most would repudiate him with a sneer; Bosco himself is perhaps understandably reticent when discussing matters pertaining to his origins and thoroughly disreputable early life. Despite that, by means no doubt nefarious or at least of the most dubious legality, he has somehow managed to accrete the necessary thousand oboli and purchase second class citizenship of Semirinal, and therefore his admission to the Lepontine is entirely proper and within the letter of the laws. Being, among his other and less savoury accomplishments, an excellent scholar, and having mastered the mnemonic arts of Ar-Shaham, he has no need of writing materials, as his mind is more than capable of storing, digesting, collating and retrieving far more than is contained in the Minor Theodicies; nor, indeed, are such things permitted to be brought within the Lepontine, lest any documents should be damaged by inky fingers. And so he commences his research.
‘Impieties of the priests of Hu’ and ‘A response by the priests of Hu’ he relegates to a position of the least importance, as he is quite sure that the documents referred to he has already seen elsewhere. ‘The temple at Nar-Ghal improperly oriented’ causes him to smile; yes, indeed, the Minor Theodicies also contain ‘A modest proposal to reorient the temple’. Modest perhaps in the great scheme of things, thinks Bosco; but hardly practicable, as the priests there found out to their cost. The ‘Schenodic Tracts (3 volumes)’ he already knows, though in what he believes to be a corrupt form, and he mentally notes them for later perusal, as also he does the ‘Twelve Refutations of Elmyra’. Not that the Council of Elmyra was particularly worthwhile, but who could say what those nettled by accusations made there might not let slip in their responses? Then follows a lengthy section on the controversy over which fats and oils might properly be used in the worship of Hu, including ‘Butyromancy (incomplete)’, ‘Hu displeased by olives’, ‘Mutton fat not heresy’, and ‘Elaiomancy heretical’, none of which interest Bosco a whit, for the magnificent Hu could have her arse smeared with yak cheese for all he cares.
And so on, and so on: for such is the existence of the scholar.
‘Master Gur desires his scribe Elphidas’ brings Bosco up short. Fallacious and negligible as much of the preceding material might appear, such personal comment, whether intended boastfully or accusingly, and particularly when directed at a renowned scholar, seems to him unlikely to have much, if any, bearing on the appropriateness with which Hu was, or was not, venerated in Semirinal. He notes it as interesting, though. If nothing else, he may use it as light relief if such a volume exists, rather than being a mere scribal interpolation. So he progresses, hour on hour, walking the dust of elderly controversy, stalking his particular prey with restrained lupinity. As the light fails, he calls for a custos to attend him, who turns out to be a youth of pleasant aspect, fair and with the slightly-slanted blue eyes that mark him as probably a native of the region, though a little scrawny for Bosco’s taste in boys. Cutting short the youth’s protestations that the Library must soon close, for it grows near to the tenth hour, Bosco flips him a quarter-obol, telling him to return in short order with bread and cheese and wine, for he intends to remain and to work in the Blue Serene Receptaculum until his beard reaches the floor if need be, and, if he would be so good, to light the phosphorus, for it is of an antique design with which Bosco is unfamiliar.
The youth, trained to acquiescence, as Bosco has counted on, complies with much obsequiousness, returning perhaps half an hour later with a flagon of acceptable wine, two fairly fresh wheaten loaves, a hunk of goat’s cheese, a clean bedroll and a hopeful expression. Bosco, meanwhile, his vision improved by the soft glow of the phosphorus, has made steady progress through the index of disputes pertaining to the proper worship of Hu, taking careful mental note of the documents he must consult, the order in which he shall consult them, and cross-references to other possibilities. He pats the couch next to him, sets aside the index, and asks the usual questions of his companion: his name, his origin, his history, his future plans. Demido, for such it seems is his name, is barely fifteen, and, as Bosco has surmised, a child of Semirinal. Orphaned young and thus a drain upon the city, he would have been sold into bondage had not a sharp-eyed scribe been passing through the fleshmarkets and, remarking the child’s obvious intelligence, purchased him as an apprentice for a trivial sum. Now Demido works for his master half the week, and the rest he spends in training here at the Lepontine; when he obtains his legal majority at the end of next year, he intends to work as a scribe if the library has no need of him, and eventually buy his freedom. He gratefully accepts a little bread and cheese, but politely declines the wine, as his master has forbidden him strong drink.
So much, so ordinary; Bosco has heard the like many a time, and he pays, it must be said, the barest socially acceptable attention to Demido’s words, his mind being pre-eminently occupied with scholarly matters, and since Demido knows little of the worship of Hu, and has never before entered the Blue Serene Receptaculum, asking him for any useful knowledge would be a waste of breath. Still, the bread and cheese is good, and the wine - well, Bosco has tasted worse, after all, so he nods and smiles, and deftly parries the boy’s questions while seeming to be the most open and honest good-hearted scholar that ever walked upon the terrestrial globe, though perhaps the wine looses the strings of his tongue, for he touches a little upon the reasons why this dusty archive is of interest to him.
The sky beyond the window has deepened now to a soft ultramarine; the repast is over, and Demido stands, a little uncertain, glancing from Bosco’s face to the bedroll and back again, not with the presumption of a whore, but with the anxious expression of one who has been used before and wonders what further duties shall be required of him this night. It is that uncertainty that softens Bosco’s heart, for, as I have said before, he prefers his boys dark, husky and strapping, and Demido is none of these; but he remembers times when he has felt much the same, years past though they may be, and purchasing one’s freedom is no small matter; a generous appreciative morning gift might well be acceptable where apparent charity would be yet another insult to be swallowed, and besides a solitary night would be cold, so he chuckles and nods, and Demido smiles, taking from a pouch at his waist a bottle of, no doubt, some scented oil. The boy is warm in the darkness now that the phosphorus is extinguished, and Bosco bears him down to the bedroll where Demido proves himself no innocent and yet no whore.
They call orgasm ‘the little death’, and so Bosco, now happily sated with perfume, sweat, wine and passion, hardly suffers from the narrow stiletto in its caressing passage between his ribs.