Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Slaves of Sleep - Chapter Six - Palmer Putters Around and Talks With an Astrologer

This chapter is called "Zongri" even though the bulk of this section concerns Palmer making a discovery and wondering some more about his condition.  But I guess "Palmer Putters Around and Talks With an Astrologer" isn't a very compelling title for anything.

The "strongroom" Palmer-Tiger is locked into turns out to be at the top of a tower, and is more a decadently-decorated bedroom than a proper prison.  Alabaster floor under thick woolen rugs, golden tapestries on the walls depicting great battles, a plush bed as big as a courtyard, a silver staircase leading to the roof, and so on.  Amusingly, Palmer is just as jaded by this point as we are, and "had seen too much of late to be so very amazed with the furnishings of the place or at the fact that it was very strange to be imprisoned in such splendor."  It's nice of Hubbard to admit that people can in fact get bored of gold and diamonds, though this just raises the question of why he felt the need to so heavily rely on the stuff to make things in his stories fancy.

Palmer checks out the roof in case there's a ladder or something, but no, there's no escape.  There is, however, an array of antique astronomical instruments, which are of course crafted in gold and diamond and mother-of-pearl and sigh.  Palmer is an experienced sailor and knows how to use an astrolabe, so hooray, he's found a way to contribute while being carried along by Tiger's passions and personality.  I guess Tiger never learned how to navigate despite his long history of naval exploits.  Good thing he didn't, though, because otherwise what exactly would Palmer bring to this scene?

Anyway, Palmer is surprised that such an ancient instrument is decorated with a modern star map, measures the sun's position on this and compares it to that, and is rather surprised to learn that, according to the doohickey, "It was his own Today, the Today of the earth!"  So he hasn't been transported centuries into the past, despite finding himself in a medieval society whose cutting-edge weapons are inaccurate muskets.  "This place was heir to the glories of yesterday and yet was astoundingly very much in today!"  Which is to say, it's culturally and technologically stagnant, but stylish about it.  Y'know, just like insert location name here.

Having determined that it is in fact Now, Palmer turns these sophisticated stargazing instruments to their secondary purpose - peeping.  He aims a telescope low and scans the great city of Tarbutón to "possibly ferret out any modern touches."

Frenchman, Irishman, Jew and Hindu.

Wait, Hindu is more of a religious identity than a nationality, isn't it?

Englishman, Russian, Chinaman and Greek.

And how exactly can you tell whether someone's English or Russian just by watching them through a telescope? 

Nubian, Indian, Carib and Spaniard.

So we have Hindus and Indians.  Huh.

White man, brown man, yellow man, black man.  Every nationality was there,

I'm not sure whether the red man should be offended or relieved at being overlooked here.

strangely clothed but unmistakable of face.  Pulling carts, sorting bales, buying food and running errands.  Loafing and sweating and gossiping and weeping.  Laughing, drinking and swearing and dancing.  Millions of them!  Women sunbathing upon flat roofs.

Ahh, so that's why these telescopes so readily swiveled away from the stars.

Unsuspected women soaking in rays aside, it's a lively town featuring a great mix of cultures, so Palmer can spot the domes of mosques and steeples of churches and towers of pagodas, as well as... wait, why isn't everyone in this world  Muslim?  It is after all ruled by jinn straight from Middle Eastern folklore, and even an ifrit whose spent thousands of years in a copper jar knows the good news about Muhammad.  And since the guy who stuffed that ifrit in that jar did so thanks to some tangible supernatural powers, that would be a pretty strong argument to follow his religion, wouldn't it?  I can understand Christians and Jews getting a pass as per Islam's tolerance of other Abrahamic faiths, but what about these Eastern religions?  For that matter, why isn't Palmer having a crisis of faith right now?  He's getting slapped in the face with a lot of evidence that he may have bet on the wrong horse.

Whatever, let's advance the plot.  Palmer's gaze falls upon a particularly large temple perched atop a hill, where a procession of ifrit priests escorts a naval officer's coffin, followed by a whopping hundred human women in white robes, spreading petals along the route.  And Palmer is astonished to find that "there in the midst of those beauties was Alice Hall!"

So, like, are everyone's Genie World counterparts located roughly in the same region as they are in the world of humans?  So everyone in Tarbutón has a counterpart in Seattle?  Wait, no, we just talked about how diverse this city is, and while America is pretty multicultural I'm not sure Seattle is that multicultural.  Then I guess Palmer keeps getting extremely lucky to spot the doppelgangers of the few people he knows.

Anyway, Palmer shouts "Alice!" like there's a chance she can hear him from three miles away, and then a voice behind him says "You called?"  It's a positively ancient ifrit astrologer, fangless and gray-haired, who politely expresses his hope that "the fate you found was not too unkind."  His name is... not given, come on Hubbard.  But since he answered Palmer's outburst, let's call him Alice.

Palmer and the royal astrologer spend a page making measurements while the old jinn jots down data and makes his predictions.  The results make Alice break into a sweat and stare uncomfortably at the human - either he's wrong and he'll be the laughingstock of the court, like the time he predicted a noble would be nice to a girl he instead ended up killing, or some human is about to do "awful things in a land of the Jinn."  Alice also talks about how lucky Palmer is to not have to live for a hundred thousand years, but when Palmer presses him on the issue, the astrologer reveals that he doesn't know the specifics about when Palmer will kick it.

"There is no certainty.  I shall not alarm you.  You may die.  You might not die.  But what does it matter.  If you do, it is you who will lose.  If you do not, the lives of many Jinn will pay the toll.  But I am old.  Why should I care about these things.  Ahhhhhhh, dear," he sighed, rising.  "And now I must go down all those stairs again and give my report to the queen."

So there, dramatic tension secured.  Palmer might die, or he might do something incredible and ruin or claim the lives of lots of jinn. 

Alice the Royal Astrologer also reveals that Palmer isn't in just any room, but one of Queen Ramus' bedrooms.  As soon as the old ifrit leaves, Tiger's immediate response is to start bouncing on the royal bed like an eight-year-old.

"Not bad," said Tiger.

"Stop!" cried Jan.

"Oh, boy.  All we need is some dancing girls and a keg and what a time we'd have!"

"How can I think of such a thing at a time like this?"

"Hell's bells, why not?  A short life and a hot one and let the devil have a break.  It's not every day he gets such a recruit as Tiger."

"Blasphemy from me?"

And so on.  It's another page and a half before our protagonist hops off the bed, so feel free to assume that he's jumping up and down while having this conversation.

But yeah, Palmer's talking to himself again, which is to say he's whining while Tiger is in control of his body.  Tiger expresses his religious views, i.e. "Who am I to be bowed by anything?", and boasts about his vices, his love of women, and particularly one girl at the forbidden Temple of Rani.  When Tiger starts speculating over what he'd do "for the likes of that sweet mouth, but for the slimness of that ankle..." well, whatever gets your motor running, dude.  As long as she's into it too.

Anyway, it seems that, in another one of those cosmic coincidences, Tiger has his eye on the same girl as Palmer, though the latter insists that "She is sacred!" and cuts off Tiger mid-lusty rant.  Tiger admits that alright, maybe he does love the girl, but "What could be more sacred than to burn the joss of desire before that cupid's bow of a mouth?"  He's not going to love her platonically, he's going to get physical about it, and if Palmer disagrees he can try to stop him.

So Palmer jumps off the bed - finally - and whirls around as if to confront someone, though since he's the only one in the room he ends up looking a bit stupid.  He reflects on the past day or so and realizes that, "like the camel that stuck his head in the tent," and there's the camel comparison again, he's losing control of Tiger's impulses by degrees, so soon "he who contained the Tiger would be contained by the Tiger."  Even now he can feel Tiger laughing at him, and Palmer dreads the thought of such a chaotic hedonist taking control.  That is to say, taking control of the body Palmer inhabits in the World of Genies, or Tiger's body in other words.  It's not like we've seen Tiger try to take over Palmer's body back in Seattle.  Really, Tiger should be angrier about this noodly twerp coming in from nowhere, taking control of his body, and temporarily forcing him to miss out on glorious pranking opportunities.

The body first and then... then the heart?  Who had the Tiger been?

An audacious but accomplished sailor and general ne'er-do-well.  Didn't you notice all those bit characters coming up to talk about how Tiger saved them during the Battle of This or That?

How had he become submerged at all?

Zongri's Curse of Eternal Wakefulness.  Geez, Palmer, try to keep up!

Happily, even if our protagonist has forgotten how he ended up here, he's about to get a reminder.  A guard opens the door and demands the prisoner's presence in Queen Ramus' audience hall, and Tiger follows him down, all the while musing about how funny it would be if a marid guard tripped into the guy in front of him and sent the formation toppling forward like dominoes.  Tiger has a very unsophisticated sense of humor, you might have noticed.

And then, when Palmer reaches the audience hall, he's stunned to find an ifrit he recognizes, an ifrit glaring hatefully at him, an ifrit who is none other than the dreaded Zongri!  And since he appears two sentences before the end of the chapter, that's decent justification for naming the segment after him, isn't it?

Tune in next time when we recap the plot and get introduced to the story's game-changing magical doodad.

Back to Chapter Five, part two

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