The Pope was younger than I expected. He was quite far away and he was hard to see clearly standing in the nasal cavity of a giant skull, but just from his movements I could tell he was a youngish man. Maybe even in his twenties.
He had yellow hair that flopped about and a big smile full of blindingly white teeth. He wore a bright white robe with a flowing golden cape. It could all have been fake—not hard to put on a wig and get some Day-Glo dentures made—but the way he skipped about, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd below, I got the impression this wasn’t someone who was going to come out making Stalinesque speeches about fighting for the Motherland. This was a fun-size Pope.
The crowd shifted closer to the Mega Temple, not done with their shopping, but happy to take a break for some entertainment. And it was entertainment. Horns were blaring, drums were playing, coloured flags were waving, and a team of sub-popes were running around throwing things out of baskets for people to catch.
We found ourselves being swept along, keeping to the rear in case we needed to make a break for it.
I’d been present at a number of rallies by this point. Leaders liked to do these outdoor meetups wherever we went. Put on a show, be provocative, get the people going. You could usually feel the desperate need in the people, wanting whatever bullshit their leader was pitching to be true. But here, it was a little different. People were interested, they wanted to hear, they were nodding their heads to the beat, which you don’t see at many fascist events.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed a voice from all directions, it felt like. “Please welcome, the man on God’s right hand, the pope bringing you hope, His Eminence Tupooooooor Haisman.”
The cheering and whistles were enthusiastic without being all Nuremberg about it. The Pope came out to the lip of the stage (which was the top lip of the skull the temple was in the shape of) and raised both arms in acknowledgement. The music died down, but kept going so you could keep your feet tapping or, as in Flossie’s case, keep swinging your hips.
“Thank you,” said the Pope, his words carrying all around the square. They’d really worked out the acoustics. “Thank you, friends. Welcome, welcome. Bless you all!” There was a round of cheers. Pope Haisman smiled graciously, pointing out individuals in the crowd, blew them kisses and mouthed personal messages. He was working it.
“Thank you. I’m here again to bring you the word of God.” A hush descended. “And that word is YES!” Cheers again. “Yes, you are blessed. Yes, you are special. Yes, you are watched over by the Golden God and you are a five-star man, a five-star woman, a five-star child.” He pointed out examples that could have been anyone, which was the intention, I suppose. Make everyone think he meant them. “Can you feel it? I know that you can.”
He paused as a sub-pope came running over to give the Pope a towel to wipe off his sweaty brow. He threw the towel into the crowd. It was some distance from us, but it looked like the crowd mostly parted to avoid getting hit by the towel.
“They are fighting in the West. Trying to bring war and death to the land.” There was some booing and hissing. “But we don’t want to fight, do we?”
“No,” called back the crowd.
“No, of course we don’t. We want to be happy. And you can be, with the new Golden God lottery. And here is our very first winner.”
A couple of female sub-popes, dressed in similar white gowns but without the cloaks their males counterparts had, came out from behind the Pope, escorting a nervous-looking man between them.
I glanced at the others. They looked apprehensive, as would be expected. When a religious nutter held a lottery, it tended to be a golden ticket for the chopping block. Ritual sacrifice was all the rage when it came to getting your cult its own page in the Big Book of Fucked Up Shit. It also helped keep the doubters in line.
The man, who was dressed similarly to the people in the square, blinked repeatedly and didn’t seem to fully know where he was. The women guided him to the front where the Pope waited with open arms. He hugged the man.
“What’s your name?”
“Emdor the clog-maker,” said the man in a shaky voice, bobbing his head in a series of small bows.
“Well, Emdor, let’s not waste any more time. What has he won?”
More women came out in a cluster, running down the stage. They peeled away to reveal a very colourfully dressed man, his red, yellow and blue robes flapping about as he ran.
I tensed. Was he the executioner? A psychotic clown of some kind who laughed as he cut people’s heads off?
The lottery winner, Emdor, didn’t seem too upset. He was still huddled over with nervousness, but he seemed to be smiling.
The colourful clown threw up his hands and glitter rained down. “Jackpot!” he screamed and the crowd went wild.
“Only the first week,” shouted the Pope, “and we already have a jackpot winner!”
Men came running out carrying a chest. They placed it at Emdor’s feet and flipped the top open. I couldn’t see what was in it, but Emdor’s delighted face was bathed in a golden light. He began jumping up and down joyfully as the music rose to full volume again.
It was quite a production. The music, the colour, the euphoric dancing. It felt staged and most likely designed to get people to buy more lottery tickets, but then, that was how they did this sort of thing back home, too. It wasn’t particularly malicious, it was just show business.
“Tickets for next week’s draw are on sale now!” shouted the Pope over the racket.
“Ah wonder how much he won,” said Flossie.
“I must say,” said Dudley, “I don’t know if I approve. Seems like gambling.”
Some people consider gambling a harmless bit of fun. Others think of it as a vice that can only lead to misery. Personally, I would never lay a bet on anything that came down to random chance because the only luck I believe in is bad luck. If other people want to throw away their money, that’s up to them.
“Maybe Ah’ll buy a ticket,” said Flossie. “You never know.”
“No,” I said. “You won’t.” When I said I didn’t care what other people did with their money, I meant people outside of my immediate circle. Those people who might drag me into shit by acting the role of degenerate gambler could shut their lucky lotto pie holes and do what they were told.
“It’s mah moonay,” insisted Flossie. “Ah can do what Ah want with it.”
“Dudley, talk some sense into your woman,” I said. “You said you could keep her under control, so do it.”
Flossie turned on Dudley. “Did you say that?”
Dudley looked horrified. “Huh? Me? Ah... me? No, no, I would never, I mean, of course not.”
Obviously, he’d said nothing of the sort to me, but it was a handy way to distract Flossie. Why wait to hold an intervention after someone ruins their life (and by association, mine)? Get the boot in early, I say.
“Let’s go before things turn nasty,” I said. People were being quite jolly around us and there was no sign of any unpleasantness on the horizon—which is exactly when the bastards like to strike.
We wandered off back to our inn with Flossie berating a stoic Dudley while Claire and Maurice did their best to keep Flossie from laying into him too hard. Poor guy.
“Don’t you think,” said Jenny, “that the Pope didn’t seem that bad?”
“Really?” I said.
“I’m not saying he isn’t faking everything and fooling those people into wasting their money, but compared to the other people we’ve met in his position, he was quite… I don’t know… cool.”
“Cool? You think he was cool?” I didn’t really disagree with her, I just liked making her feel uncomfortable. I got to do it so rarely. “Are you thinking of joining his congregation?”
She smiled at me. “I only follow you.”
A sweet thing to say if it hadn’t sounded so much like a threat. I didn’t think she was in the market for a new cult leader, but then I had no idea what her religious leanings were. I’d spent a lot of time with her, obviously, but never bothered to ask her about her beliefs. I’d just assumed there were the typical C of E, be nice like Christ sort of thing that you didn’t bother people with.
Far better than the other option, the true believer who goes around telling people what to do.
She could have been a Mormon or Jewish or a Jedi, for all I knew. It didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t her god I was attracted to.
“He did put on a great show,” said Flossie, having lost interest in using Dudley as a punching bag. That was the great thing about him, he just tanked the abuse. Gave you hardly any satisfaction.
“When has there ever been a mainstream entertainer that didn’t turn out to be fucking underage girls and/or boys?” I asked. “Never,” I added before anyone could answer. “Deviants with stage presence, that’s all they are.”
“He’s not an entertainer,” said Claire. “He’s a priest.”
“And you think their numbers are any better?”
“I’m just saying,” said Jenny, “he’s not what I would have expected. If all he wants is money, maybe we’ll be left alone here.”
She did have a point. A hopeful, optimistic one. “No. They’ll find a way to mess with us.” I looked around as we approached our lodgings. There were a couple of druids hanging about. “If not directly, some faction or other. Don’t get sloppy.”
A pointless thing to say to a group who saw sloppy as a high-water mark they could only dream of attaining.
The inn was called The Bull Rush, which I only realised when we got back. It was owned by a married couple who never seemed to be in one place for very long. She dealt with the guests and organising the staff. He disappeared into the kitchen and took care of the food preparation.
I watched them as we waited for our dinner to be served. They occasionally crossed paths, but I never saw them say anything to each other. It didn’t look awkward, though. The opposite, actually. It looked comfortable.
I could see myself in that sort of scenario. My own place, just getting on with it. Someone I trusted to deal with customers while I pottered around in the back. Of course, I’d have to learn how to cook first.
Jenny was staring at me.
“Yes?” I asked her.
“Nothing. I like it when you feel like this.”
“Settled. Even when it’s only for a second. It’s pleasant.”
Pleasant. There’s how you want your girlfriend to see you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that particular sensation, but it rarely gets the job done. Buddhists and people who lean that way believe in contentment as a way to fully experience life. It’s like socialism—would be great if it worked, but people.
Of course, if you had everything you wanted, then being content is great. But manufacturing contentment to make you happy with what you already have, not really a great way to stop yourself from feeling hungry or cold.
We ate, we went to sleep (eventually) and we prepared to go back to see Arthur. If I’d been content, I wouldn’t need to upgrade my powers. I could ask for a job washing dishes and live off the leftovers people didn’t want. It was sort of tempting.
Flossie spent most of breakfast bitching about the cold water and how small the tub in the shared bathroom was. She went on and on about what a nice bathroom Arthur had at his place. I fantasised about being a hermit on a mountain far away, and received a kick under the table.
We set off and I immediately spotted the druids on our tail. Animal, vegetable or mineral, they had no idea how to blend in. As we approached the busier parts of the city, I stopped and turned around.
I went up to the closest druid (there were about six I’d seen skulking about). He feigned ignorance of who I was and became very interested in a tree, which may have been a relative.
“Hey? Didn’t Arthur tell you to leave us alone?”
The druid seemed surprised I was talking to him. “Who, me? I’m not doing anything.”
“Yes, but if you keep following us around the Shriners are going to notice, and then they’ll wonder what’s going on and want to investigate. If you’re going to keep following us everywhere at least be subtle about it. Put on a disguise. Camouflage yourself as a bush or something.”
The druid looked down at himself. He was wearing a very unassuming brown robe.
“I thought I was being discreet.”
“There’s six of you with exactly the same bald head and beard, all sneaking around in formation. It sticks out. Try to look a bit different from each other.”
You couldn’t really miss them. They were like some sad goths who thought they were expressing their individuality by all dressing exactly the same.
The druid looked a bit downhearted. “Different?”
“Leave him alone,” said Flossie. “He can’t help it. That’s his uniform.”
I looked at Dudley who quickly pulled Flossie away before things ended up with him in the firing line.
“Have a meeting, see what you can come up with,” I said, and then I left the druid to think it over.
“Did you ask him why he’s thinking about broccoli?” said Claire.
“You ask him,” I said.
“I can’t,” said Claire. “It’d be weird.” She began shoving me. “Ask him.”
I looked to Jenny for a little assistance. Nothing. I tried Maurice. Blanked. I was on my own. The druid was watching Claire trying to push me towards him, confused, as you would be.
Claire womanhandled me forward. “Hey, wait,” I said to the druid. “If you don’t mind, she has a question.” I slipped to the side and Claire stumbled forward.
“Um, I, um.”
It was great to watch. I couldn’t stop smiling. Jenny wasn’t amused, probably because she was having to deal with secondhand smug.
“Er, I was wondering,” said Claire, shooting me dirty looks, “if there was something to do with broccoli you felt strongly about.”
“Broccoli?” He looked at her like she was a complete idiot. Glorious.
“Yes, um. You know, green, like a tree, sort of. But not really, more like a… a brain.” Claire’s eyes opened wide as the realisation hit her. “It’s a big, green brain!”
The druid suddenly looked terrified. He turned and ran, an effect Claire had on a lot of people.