Zevanardia and I decided to take a 30-day vacation. For what seemed years, we both had been racing hither and thither, running errands and performing chores. These were exciting errands and interesting chores, to be sure, but there is a limit to the amount of effort an individual, especially a frail one, like myself, can put forth. We simply needed to get our minds off all our business concerns, and just enjoy life, eating and drinking merrily, and giving ourselves a big infusion of nature.
So we decided to visit Porchuluna Island in the Western Ocean. This is a lone island and has nothing to do with Ungonesia, which is oceans and continents away. Porchuluna is well known for its wild beauty and lonely trails. There we thought we could enjoy ourselves, riding and walking, and renewing our 13-year romance.
We flew in a jumbo jet, or maxi-jet as we often say, from Mecnita to Mwalgoic Island, somewhat north of Porchuluna. We continued from Mwalgoic to Porchuluna in a mini-jet. Because of the great distance, over 20.000 miles in all, we were in the air some 10 earth-hours, not counting the time spent at the airport on Mwalgoic. We had reservations at the Grand Hotel of Porchuluna, so once we arrived at Vilagant Airport there, we were able to go quickly in a cab to our room, only five miles away.
The Grand Hotel stood in a clutch of exotic buildings a little outside the city of Vilagant, the capital. You could smell the roses, lilacs, frangipani and violets that were in bloom all around. And you could smell the fresh fragrance of newly rained-upon thatch on the roofs of some of the stone cottages in the vicinity. Here and there you could see a brake of bamboo or rhododendrons, and there were tall grasses damp with dew.
The first day or two, Zevanardia and I just strolled around the immediate neighborhood. We'd sit upon some benches beside a small lagoon where frogs croaked and dragonflies hovered and glistened, where bulbuls sang hoarsely and mourning doves cooed quietly. Then we'd walk down a dirt road, disappearing into the jungle for a short walk along some rank path before reappearing 100 feet farther on.
After that, we decided to rent horses to take us farther abroad on the countryside. At this time, we first heard of Porchuluna Caverns. So foolhardily dismissing the suggestion that we hire a guide, we merely bought some 150-volt Ungi superflashlights, and went alone to the caverns, to see what we could see.
If we didn't have a guide, we had a guidebook, and we consulted the guidebook carefully as we walked along the subterranean trails and paths. The caverns were full of stalagmites and stalactites, and there were yawning chasms here and there, but somebody had installed rails in most cases, so there was little to fear with our powerful flashlights, which lit up the chambers of the chasm like drawing rooms in an eerie mansion of yore. In some places, metal plates had been mounted and these gave the names of certain formations. For the most part, these names were fanciful and folkloric, like Johota's Elbow and Jucila's Stnading Corpse. but they were mentioned in the guidebook, and so were convenient.
At first, there were indications everywhere of the fact that these were well-trodden paths, along which a legion of tourists had made their way over the years, but gradually we began to feel ourselves in some less frequented area, where there were no markers and no rails. Wandering around thoughtlessly and inattentively, we finally admitted to ourselves that we were lost. We tried to retrace our steps, but unavailingly.
"Oh my God! What have we done?" I asked Zevanardia, who was always in possession of herself.
"I don't know, Sissy. I think we've gotten ourselves lost."
"What should we do?" I asked, confident that she would have an answer.
"All we can do is keep walking around, hoping and praying."
We walked around aimlessly for two or three hours, but were just as lost as before, and we were now getting tired too. Our cell phones wouldn't work in these depths, as we had neglected to bring more powerful phones, which we could have gotten easily enough, so we could only hope that the people at the hotel would miss us and send out a search party, but that would be the next day at the earliest.
We did have food for a couple of days, so we sat down and had a bite, but, to tell the truth, I had no appetite. I was in a dread panic, picturing to myself starvation in the caverns, and the discovery of our skeletons years later.
I sat on the floor of the cavern, leaning against what appeared to be a small pile of rocks. Suddenly the rocks began to slip, as if they had been part of a mini-landslide, and I went sliding down into a pit-like formation about ten feet deep. Though shaken and frightened, I was apparently unharmed, but when I tried to climb back up the pile of rocks, I couldn't do it. They kept slipping and tumbling, my handholds and footholds disappearing in the process, so that I got no more than a foot or two up, when I came careening back down.
"Oh you poor thing!" said Zevanardia, "Let me come down and help you climb back up." It's true that Zavanardia was much more agile, athletic and muscular than I, and I was delighted that she was there to protect me.
However, when she had climbed down the rock pile to my level, she found that she could not ascend again either. The rocks were just too loose and labile. She tried again and again. ultimately joining me in despair.
All we could do was sleep on the lower level and await the arrival of a search party, if that sort of good luck should come to pass.
Zevanardia and I had no way of knowing whether, if we chose a direction in which to explore, it would lead us farther from or closer to an exit. So there was no point in sticking where we were, as if this had been safer than continuing aimlessly. We decided, in that circumstance, to look around a little, with an eye to rescuing ourselves of course, but also to discover what was there, assuming naturally that someone would save us eventually, and in aftertime, we could reminisce about our subterranean peregrinations.
As we made our way, suddenly a thin slab of rock fell before us spontaneously and shattered. Behind where the slab had stood, there was an opening, like the entrance of a tunnel. Traversing the short tunnel, we came into a vast chamber, larger than a stadium. Here there were few ghastly rock formations. All was relatively smooth and free of projections. The bottom of this large cavern was nearly flat. It looked as if there were a number of cells or cubicles carved into the rock. On closer inspection, we could see that they were not natural formations. They were deliberate carvings made by intelligent creatures, human beings no doubt. Each little cell was about 10 x 10 x 10 feet, and had a doorway and a window-opening giving onto the large cavern. Thus a row of these cells formed a little street, as it were. Half a dozen little streets formed a small checkerboard, like the grid of a village.
We saw what appeared to be some very crude utensils and furniture, some of original stone, the rest of petrified wood.
We were absolutely astounded that such a thing should exist. There was no mention of it in the guidebook. What could that possibly mean? Did the locals have some reason for concealing the existence of this underground city?
We felt just a little safer in the village, so we slept, or tried to sleep, there. I was so scared that I suffered nightlong insomnia, but Zevanardia seemed to sleep a little. She's not easy to perturb.
The next morning, after a bite or two of bread and cheese, we continued our roaming, and eventually found our way back to the small pile of rocks that we had slid upon. Still, in all this time, we had remained on the lower level. We had found no exit that would take us back up to the level that communicated with the lighted area. We tried again to ascend the pile of rocks but with no luck.
We idled where we were for several hours. It was already late afternoon of the second day when at last we heard voices calling. Zevanardia and I raised our voices to a veritable screech. We heard more voices, responsive it seemed. It sounded almost as if they had been yodeling. They did seem to be getting closer. Then we heard the echoing footsteps of a party of searchers. We cried out and shone our flashlights upwards. They saw the lights, heard our shrill voices and came right over, unrolling ladders with hempen stringers and cane rungs. These they let down the sloping rock pile, so that Zevanardia and I were able to clamber back up.
They chided us for having come to the caverns without guides, reminding us they'd offered to furnish guides. Shamefacedly acknowledging our own myopia, we nonetheless thanked our rescuers profusely.
Then, led by the search party, we went to the lighted area with the markers and rails, and out of the caves. Once outside, we mounted our horses, which were still tethered where we had left them. The search party went back in their own vehicles. A couple of hours later, we had made our way back to the Grand Hotel, where all the guests and staff members cheered to see us safe and sound.
The guides and the guests treated us as if we had been heroines rescued from before the face of danger and said nothing about our doltish improvidence. We all drank goblets of champagne and ate caviar hors d'oeuvre, laughing and chatting merrily.
We recounted our experiences as they listened intently. "Why is it," I asked, "that the guidebook doesn't mention the underground city?"
"Underground city? What underground city? There is no underground city there," replied the captainess of the guides.
"Sure there is," I responded. "There is a large cavern with a few dozen cells, all with windows and doors. There are various artifacts lying around too."
"You two must have been delirious with fear. You must have been hallucinating," said the captainess of the guides, when Zevanardia had confirmed that I had spoken the truth.
"Why don't you come back with us? Perhaps we can find it again."
Quincosha, the captainess, didn't want to bother with such a project, as she felt she knew that there was no such city. But we kept urging and pressing, and finally she agreed to go with us. When I explained that the city was located in an area where there didn't seem to be any evidence of frequent visitors, she instructed Dippala and Ostingga, two other lady guides, to load a two-thousand-yard reel of unbreakable nylon cord in the back of an off-road vehicle they had at the hotel.
An hour later, the five of us had entered the cavern and found the mini-landslide we had slid on before. Quincosha fastened a rope to a boulder up above, and we all rappelled to the lower level. Wandering around more or less at random for what seemed hours, with the two junior guides disentangling the nylon cords that we would perhaps be depending on, we finally caught sight of the entrance to the city.
"This is impossible," said Quincosha,"I've been this way a hundred times. I've never seen this opening before."
"Well, this slab just fell over spontaneously," I explained, "It had been standing before the opening before, so that you could not see the opening or the city."
We entered and toured the city. The three Porchulunan ladies were utterly dumbfounded. They took dozens of photographs. Afterwards, using the cord, we traced our way back to the mini-landslide and clambered back up, grabbing the rope.
Everyone at the hotel was amazed to learn that there was an underground city in Porchuluna Caverns, which had remained undetected all these centuries that Vilagant had been in existence. Quincosha went about exclaiming her astonishment again and again, seemingly terribly embarrassed that two amateur spelunkers had done in an afternoon what she had failed to do in ten years as a guide.
Party after party of guests from the hotel went out in off-road vehicles or mounted on horseback to visit the underground city. Guides accompanied them to show them the way. Temporary lighting was installed so that flashlights would be unnecessary.
As I mentioned, Zevanardia had been appointed editress-in-chief of Cissi's Newsletter, now Ung's most prestigious and beauteous periodical. Her assistant was Ellennamandia, my long-time friend, proprietress of Cissi's in Piljandar and former captainess of the Piljandar Swans. Zevanardia wanted Ellennamandia to compose a front-page article to be published soon in the newsletter.
In our room, Zevanardia sat at our desk and wrote a detailed account of the accident whereby we had made the discovery of the underground city in Porchuluna Caverns. She also wrote as thorough a description of the city as our knowledge at that time would permit. I proofread her articles. Then these were mailed electronically to Ellennamandia, back in Gvagma Tower, along with a couple dozen photographs, of better and worse quality. Ellennamandia was instructed to put together a whole-page article, arranged in the most esthetically-pleasing way. She was at liberty to edit Zevanardia's correspondence, if she saw fit. Then the article would be carried in an upcoming edition. However, we told her we'd prefer that she understate our role in the discovery, detailing our deeds but de-emphasizing our names, lest it appear that our ownership of the newsletter was being exploited by us for reasons of vanity.
I called Ajinblambia, who said she would instruct the University of Mecnita and the Museum of Mecnita to assemble a team of geologists, archeologists and other experts to organize a scientific expedition.
Within three or four days, Vilagant had become a beehive, and the peace we had sought was lost. We did stay for two or three more days. It was exciting, of course, but we still wanted a week or so of solitude and tranquility. Therefore, we went incognito to Chorbend, another town in Porchuluna, relaxing there for a few days.
Finally, we flew back to Mecnita, feeling rejuvenated and energetic once again. It was a very happy occasion reuniting with Ezmeraudia and Nunu in Bo House.
By the time we got back, it was almost mid-'404. The windmill and the waterwheel were already turning and attracting goodly numbers of casual visitors. Their construction had been very swift, because we had been able to redeem a lot of building materials and mechanical parts from the older mills around the countryside. One of the mills was grinding corn. The other was sawing wood. These, of course, were not commercial activities. They were merely part of the general sightseeing we were fostering right there.
Cissi's Press was now complete. The huge cylinders were already turning at thousands of revolutions per minute, and the newspapers were spilling out as if from cornucopias. Ajinblambia had been taking steps to get the citizenesses of Ung to go paperless. She was putting the whole periodical online and it was perfectly legible with a special purse-sized electronic notebook. Paper circulation had come down from 25,000,000 to 10,000,000 copies a day in the past couple of years. but Cissi's Press in Gvagma Village had a capacity of only 5,000,000 copies a day, so we were still relying on Rupsnoir Press in Dorgdid to supply about half our volume. What was being sought was a paper circulation of 2,000,000 or fewer copies, and that was foreseen for '405 or '406. In the meantime, this compromise would have to do, but afterwards Cissi's Newsletter would be 100% self-sufficient with the facility in Gvagma Village alone.
I invited the chacelloresses and chancellors of the municipality of Mecnita to visit the new press, and while they were in Gvagma Village, to attend a performance of Gvagma Robot Theater or a fashion show in the Temple of Fashion, or to make a visit to the Institutes of Lacemaking and Haute Couture, if they hadn't done these things already. On this occasion, we opened Rose Verandah IV, a new restaurant in the area of Cissi's Press. At the present moment, except for the press, there wasn't much to draw people down to this location at the southeast end of Gvagma Village, but we were anticipating other additions in the next year or two that would bring crowds that way to give the restaurant new life.
Ellennamandia had proposed, knowing that Cissi's Press had been on the very point of opening, that the story on the discovery of the underground city on Porchuluna Island be carried in the premiere edition printed there, and so it was. But as I say, we were still depending on receiving copies from Dorgdid, which tempered our exultation somewhat.
Glad tidings were coming from New Ozgingd too. The apartment complex was nearing completion, and would be moving girls in right on time, which was day 259. the first day of the season for the volleyball teams in the New Chiliad.
I talked to Dorina, the directress of Sky Pictures Company, to see if she could create a video to display in mid-air over Cissi's in New Ozgingd. So far, we had been projecting only still pictures--like a picture of a sewing machine or a bra--to suspend over the giant apparel factory of which the complex was a residential annex for employees. Dorina said she could do it. So I had her make a video in which both the apparel factory and the apartment complex were visible. Above them, a lovely girl in a charming brief little gown known as a romper did graceful glissades, expressive of joy and delight. Everyone loved the video, which could be seen every evening in the darkness. It could be discerned during daytime hours too, but was fainter and translucent.
The name of the girl who danced in the video was Jenni. Jenni was a very beautiful girl who worked right there in Cissi's in New Ozgingd and would be moving to a new apartment in Cissi's City. When Dorina and I had been discussing the video, in the lavish showroom at the giant lingerie factory, a couple of weeks earlier, Dorina had asked, "Why don't we shoot the video right now? I have the camera right here in my bag." She picked up a large bargello tote bag made of embroidered flames varying from canary yellow to coffee brown, with varnished wooden handles, and began rummaging through it, finally producing her camera.
We would have her don the pink romper...
She and I stepped out of the office to choose at random an attractive young lady from among the employees. We would have her don the pink romper, with a deep vee neck, shirred riff and pleated skirt. We would ask her to glide around a bit in the show room, assuming a variety of poses The room did have furniture and drapes, but it didn't matter, as Dorina said she'd remove the background in any case, for enhanced clarity when we projected the video in mid-air. This was how it came about that we shot the little movie as we did.
Jenni came off magnificently, and Dorina and I were delighted, but the whole filming had been impromptu, without any conscious attempt on our part to make a star of Jenni or to imply that she was somehow the belle of Cissi's. She was just a gorgeous, cooperative young lady.
Many of the other girls at the factory were jealous though. "Why should Jenni be the belle of the ball? I'm just as beautiful as she?" their faintly pouting lips seemed to say, though, of course, they would not utter such sentiments aloud, not in Mecnita anyway, for Mecnita's girls are all paragons of politesse and etiquette about such things.
I explained that this had all been extemporaneous, but most of the girls didn't seem satisfied with this. So finally I offered to hold a beauty contest among all the employees who wanted to compete. They loved this idea, especially when I talked about the possibility of a whole bevy of queens and prize money to boot.
The logistics of holding a beauty contest among 6000 beautiful girls was distinctly problematic.
Here's what I decided: In each of the ten buildings that made up the complex, there was a small auditorium for movies, glee clubs, amateur theatricals and the like. I would have every girl who cared to compete draw a number at random. I'd have 50 contestants in each of the auditoriums for 12 nights. When one fifty was competing, another fifty would form the audience, judging the contestants by secret online ballot. The next evening the original audience would become the contestants, and the previous contestants would be the new audience. So we would end up with 120 semi-finalists. Then after a few more eliminations, the one and only beauty queen of Cissi's in New Ozgingd would be chosen. By the most remarkable coincidence, Jenni was chosen Miss Cissi's-in-Ozgingd. She won five drachmas as a prize, while each of the semi-finalists won one drachma. A drachma is worth about $1000 in earth-money.
A story was carried in Cissi's Newsletter. Beauty contests were an innovation in Mecnita at that time. Who runs a beauty contest among nearly 100,000,000 angelically beautiful ladies?
Nonetheless, beauty contests came into vogue soon after JennI's picture appeared in Cissi's Newsletter. All over Mecnita, girls and ladies started staging unrehearsed little beauty shows, in fashionable street attire, intimate apparel, volleyball uniforms and ballet costumes. This was all done in the merriest, most fun-filled way, often with snacks and refreshments. Sometimes they would sing and dance, or play tag and hide-and-seek. I had authored a craze.
In the meantime, archeologists and geologists had poured into Porchuluna Caverns, and were preparing a study and survey to be published in the near future. They were also designing a museum exhibit that would be in the Flant of Geology in the Clasc of Mecnita. You might say that Flant means branch museum and Clasc means trunk museum. But Nuu has a larger vocabulary than English's, by a ratio of ten to one at least, so when we need a word, it is there.
Uranium-lead dating pointed to the year 3000, more or less. Our current year was 103,404. They said that there was no evidence upon which to predicate an hypothesis that Porchuluna had been continuously inhabited during those 100 millennia. Further investigation and testing might reveal more.
Also, the scientific party had unearthed some inscriptions, which generated excitement in learned circles. Monetary rewards were being offered to anyone who could provide a credible decipherment.
Tourism to the island had caused an economic boom there, and hotels and restaurants would soon start appearing like mushrooms. We would be hearing more about developments there in the next few years, it seemed.
This was happening by coincidence at the very time when beauty contests were becoming all the rage, not only in Mecnita but in many other places around the realm. So it came to pass that Porchuluna Island held a beauty pageant, and Quincosha, the chief guide, had won. I had noticed, of course, that Quincosha was statuesque and had a lovely face, with sandalwood complexion and lips of carmine or maroon, large brown eyes and high cheeks. Her straight black hair hung to the waist. However, so many women in Ung are near-goddesses that I was not terribly shocked to find a beauty like her on the lonely island, and never gave it a second thought. Now that she had been named Miss Porchuluna, I became suddenly aware of the justifiability of her being chosen.
I contacted her, requesting that she and the other guides film a travelogue of Porchuluna Caverns. When the movie was ready, I would have her come to Mecnita to preside the premiere in one of our cinemas in Gvagma Village. We now had Gvagma Cinemas I, II and III, as well as the Gvagmarium, our pentesthetic theater. This would give her an opportunity to meet some of our royals and other important personages, and form a special friendship with Eldor Palace.
She liked the idea and somewhat later would actually honor us with a visit.
On the moon, the first fully organized volleyball association would play a schedule exactly like that of our New Chiliad. They began on day 259 of year '404 would finish on day 236 of '405, whereupon they would send a team to compete in the Oriflamme Games. The association would sprawl over four kingdoms--Ufzu, Vrandz, Shwea and Liscarn.
I was hoping to get the queens to seek to institute diplomatic relations with some of the other kingdoms on the moon, but, at that time, no one knew for certain their state of development or their attitude towards foreigners. These are things the ladies would have to have their first delegations learn. Hopefully within a few years, the other realms also could be made a part of Ung.
Borrowing an idea from Swusha Park in Piljandar, I decided to have a swannery built in Gvagma Village. As I envisioned it, the swannery would be a little lagoon, after the pattern of mother nature, with a brook bringing in fresh water and removing stale. On the banks of the lagoon, I'd have throngs of tall yellow-flag irises, always in bloom in Mecnita, with mighty floss-silk trees extending their florid boughs overhead in some parts, and with an open sky in other parts, so that the swans could have sun or shade, as they preferred. If a few egrets or herons should visit the lagoon, it would present no problem. I imagined a little footbridge with rails, all of aged, bleached wood, to give it a rustic look. So visitors would be able to stroll by and observe the magnificent white birds in a placid, stately environment.
The swannery was a very simple matter, as we would be able to use the same brook that turned the waterwheel in Southeast Gvagma Village, a hundred yards northwest. Excavation and landscaping would be done in a matter of 20 or 30 days.
One evening at about that time of the year, Zevanardia and I were lying on our large canopy bed. We were not embraced. We merely lay there supine, talking quietly, like two doves cooing.
"Sissy, don't you think that the five-drachma prize you awarded to Jenni was a little paltry. In Mecnita, five drachmas is not a great deal of money."
"Well," I answered, "the beauty contest was just a lark. It was merely a spur-of-the-moment little pastime. I don't think that Jenni was offended or disappointed in any way. After all, she is still ahead of where she would have been without the contest."
"You're probably right, but with all the thousands of talents in the coffers of Gvagma and Cissi's, you'd think we could be more lavish with the girls who helped us build this empire and help us keep it prosperous."
"Oh, I suppose you're right. But it would embarrass me to have to apologize to Jenni for being such a cheapskate, giving her more money to compensate for it."
"I can certainly understand that. You definitely should not humiliate yourself before your girlfriends. I suggest instead that we plan on holding bigger and better beauty pageants in the future, with more generous prizes and more publicity."
"How would we do that? We don't really have a facility for staging glamorous extravaganzas like that. Holding them in the mini-auditoriums of Cissi's City on a regular basis would be impractical. It worked out fine for this one occasion, but I wouldn't want to make a ritual of this."
"I agree 100%, but what I'm suggesting is that we build a Palace of Beauty in Southeast Gvagma Village, in the northwest corner, near the boundary with the original Gvagma Village. There's nothing there right now. We'd be a little less than half a mile northeast of the totem pole and the swimming pool."
"What kind of building do you propose?"
"Something like an outdoor theater in the round, only larger, or an open-air stadium."
"What if it rains when we have an event scheduled?"
"Well, I suppose we could have some sort of movable canopy or arcade that we could roll out, but what I'd rather do is postpone a rainy pageant. We absolutely want the ladies to appear in radiant, glorious sunshine, don't you agree?"
"We can do both--have a canopy or arcade and be willing to postpone--the decision depending on the circumstances of the day."
"So you assent to this idea?"
"Oh, by all means, but let's take it up with Ajinblambia tomorrow. We may need her approval and her backing."
"Oh, you and your Ajinblambia! You must be the most serviceable maid-in-waiting that she has in the Kingdom of Ung!"
"I'm just teasing. We'll go to her at Eldor Palace tomorrow, if she'll let us. Incidentally, how do you think we can finance a project like this?"
"I think our equity in Gvagma's numerous properties will suffice to collateralize a mortgage, and I can probably get a loan guarantee from King Ajinblambia, especially if she likes the idea, which I think she will do, in view of the harem she maintains in Eldor Palace and her well-known passion for beautiful women."
"Yes, I know about that, but I'm talking about raising the prize money we'll need to give to the winners of the contests."
"We could charge an entrance fee."
"No, I don't like that."
"We could raise prices of intimate apparel ever so slightly. Even a surcharge of a quarter of one percent would probably be enough, and customers would never know the difference."
"That seems like the better idea."
With that, our conversation ended. I tried to roll over on my left side with my back towards Zevanardia, but she rolled me back around and pounced on me, kneeling on all fours, like a tigress over a gazelle. Next she had grabbed my wrists and pinned me to the bed.
"Oh, no!" I squealed.
"Oh, yes!" she squealed responsively.
It was well after sunset, so when she loosed her grip for a minute to press the switch on the nightstand, the room went dark. She took my wrist again, and before I knew it, I was clasped in her embrace.
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