This is a continuation of the story of Jack, who wanders the world getting into various scrapes. But lately the scrapes have become more mysterious and worrying, especially where his new friend Pin is concerned.
For more from Jack’s world, see links below.
I was only after a free dinner when I found myself standing under the Mirror of Milanish, balancing fiendish in-laws and heavenly sweetmeats. Which just goes to prove that even a free dinner comes with a price.
Pin and I had walked a long time through a silent forest when at last we came to a road. “Thank God,” said Pin, but I was less delighted.
“Look.” I bent and pointed at some chalk symbols on the protruding roots of the trees. “These are territory markers,” I said. Pin spread his hands. “Bandits,” I said. “Keep your eyes open.”
“It’s not as if we have anything worth stealing,” Pin said.
He was right. After our last adventure we were the owners of the clothes we wore and nothing else. “That won’t help,” I said. “If this is the forest of Milanish, the bandits will regard that as a personal insult to their honour, and kill us.” I’d been here before, not enjoyed it, and vowed never to come again. Oh well. Good intentions are what makes the world go round. Also gravity, or the mighty will of the Great Able, if you believe that sort of thing.
“Oh.” Pin glanced around, his freckled face paler than usual.
“Just walk quickly. This road leads somewhere.”
We stepped up the pace, and sure enough, the trees began to thin out, and at last we reached the edge of a town.
“Milanish,” I said. “Home of the world’s best merchants and traders, and therefore home also to the world’s sneakiest thieves and conmen. Keep on your toes.”
It was a nice-looking place, with houses made of golden stone, and a huge stone temple to the Able in the centre, with a domed roof and fat stone pillars around the outside. Here we helped ourselves to the drinking fountain by the entrance, found a couple of empty stone benches in the plaza in front of the main temple doors, and rested in the sun. We had no food, no money, but it was a nice day, and we hadn’t been robbed. Life could have been worse.
Pin stood, wandered about, admiring the fine masonry of the temple doorway. He poked his head into the darkness of the temple. “I’m going to take a look around,” he said. “I’ve never been inside one of these.”
He really was an odd bird. How could anyone have avoided temples all his life?
“Fine. You go sightseeing. I’ll just be here working out how we can find food and shelter.”
“Aren’t you going in?” he asked, pausing on the gilded threshold.
“No thanks.” I kicked at the stone lion’s feet which propped up my bench.
“Oh come on. I’m not especially religious, but it’s good to show respect.”
I scowled. “They have none for me, why should I extend them the courtesy?”
He blinked at me. “Well, I’m going in.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll wait here.” I looked around for a pillar to lean on loutishly while Pin played tourist, but then spotted two sets of middle aged people in heavily embroidered clothes, loitering under the portico. “Hang on, I will come with you.”
Pin paused by the sign that read, The Able Watch Over and Care for You, Honour Them Always. Underneath was a large hint as to how you might honour them: a carved stone hand with a slot in the palm, for your money. “What? Why?”
I pointed at the double whammy of parents. “There’s a wedding.”
Inside the temple it was cool and dim. The ceiling soared high above into a perfect domed vault, inset with circles of thick green glass which from the ground appeared tiny, like coins, but which I knew to be twice a man’s height. The stone floor was inscribed with prayers to the Able, worn faint by thousands of feet over hundreds of years. In the centre, lit by a circular hole in the roof the size of a millpond, was the altar.
Here a young couple in their wedding finery awaiting the arrival of their relations. These young lovers were two boys, in matching blue robes, embroidered with blessings and best wishes in red and gold thread. They were holding hands and glancing around nervously, like anyone about to make a massive and costly public commitment.
I gave them a quick glance and then looked around for the wedding offering. “Aha!” There it was, heaped on five tables a respectable distance from the altar. A few priests were already hovering around it, seeing what they’d got.
I noted gold tableware, translucent porcelain plates, rolls of exclusive cloth. And, yes – the last two tables groaned under the weight of a stupendous amount of food.
Pin was goggling. I grabbed his elbow and began steering him towards the parental group.
“Society wedding,” I murmured. “My favourite kind.”
I slid up to the nearest mother, swathed in silk and velvet despite the fierce sun outside, and offered my warmest smile. “Congratulations! You must be very proud.”
The worthy matron stumbled a little, not recognising me, or perhaps taken aback by my vulgar clothes and hair, but recovered and said graciously, “Of course.”
“They are a lovely couple,” I said, sighing.
“This is Pin,” I said, presenting him to her. We all shook hands. Her palm was surprisingly rough for a lady of obvious privilege.
“Marvellous spread,” I said, gesturing at the offerings.
“Please help yourselves,” she said, now recovered and smoothly into being Mother of the Groom, and the deal was done.
I drew Pin away to the feast table. “See? A few charming words, and we have a perfectly legitimate free dinner.”
“They don’t even know you,” said Pin as I picked up an oozing honeyed plum.
“That’s why rich weddings are the best. Everyone thinks you must be from the other side.” I handed him a fig pastry. “Plus when I show up in my plebeian clothes, everyone feels a bit smug because they can see that their own side is far superior.”
“Are you sure we should be eating this?” said Pin as the families crowded around their newlyweds. “I always thought a temple offering was for the gods.”
I scooped up some iced coconut and let it melt on my eager tongue. “It is, technically, but they can’t eat it all. Tuck in.”
As I stuffed my face with the expensive dainties, I scanned around at the guests, and the priests. Temples have always made me uncomfortable – all that blind worship, all that misplaced reverence of people whose sole job it is to take a big slice of the offering – but this was a happily secular affair. Wealth was the main thing on display, and on the side of the boy called Tom, it was patently abundant. The other newlywed, a bearded lad called Girole, came armed with parents not quite as plush as Tom’s but still well draped in silk, velvet and fancy accents. They mingled graciously, smiling and waving their snooty fingers at all and sundry, but let Tom’s folks take care of the conversation.
“And you are?” enquired Tom’s mother, a puffed-up woman called Miranda.
“Jack,” I said. I offered my hand but like all the best society mamas she ignored it, choosing that moment to dab her cheeks with a scented handkerchief.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” she said, frowning a little.
“Perhaps,” I said. “We’re from the other side.” I smiled roguishly – rich women love a bad boy – and waved in the direction of Girole’s jewel-bedecked relations. “You know – distant family.”
I’m used to being snubbed by society types, but Miranda’s reaction was still surprising. She stared, gasped, and clutched at her heart. “Great Able,” she whispered. Her scented hanky fluttered to the floor. “You!”
I was a bit nonplussed, but before I could speak, Pin plucked at my arm and said loudly, “Jack, look, there’s Archie,” and drew me away into the crowd.
“Who’s Archie?” I said, shaking off his hand.
“Nobody,” said Pin. “He’s just the chap you always see at an awkward moment.”
“Oh. Useful. That was odd, wasn’t it?”
“What do you expect when you barge into a wedding?”
I frowned. “It was more than that. She looked terrified.”
“Maybe she had an affair with someone from Girole’s side, and was worried you’d blab about it.” He eyed me. “You have the air of a man who can be indiscreet.”
I made a face at him. “This lot swap beds every three minutes. So long as nobody makes a fuss it’s not usually a problem.”
“Your assessment of morals is most educational,” said Pin.
“Shush. I’m looking at Girole’s relatives. Do you see anything funny about them?”
“Not really. But then everything here looks a bit funny to me.” He grimaced, realising he had once again alluded to his origins.
“Yes, what is the name of that place you’re from?” I’d asked him this a dozen times, and every time he dodged the answer.
This was no exception. “He looks shifty,” Pin said, pointing out a fat, bald man with a belly the size of the hog he’d just consumed.
“He looks thrilled to be tucking in to the food,” I agreed. I glanced around. “They all do. They’re eating more than we are, and we’re vagabonds.”
“You’re right.” The Girole side of the family were devouring the wedding offering like goats in a florist’s shop. Tom’s bunch were nibbling graciously, allowing their bracelets to jangle.
Pin and I exchanged glances. Miranda was now beside Tom and Girole, hissing at them and scrunching up her smelly hanky in agitation. Tom patted her arm, Girole looked stricken. All three turned round and stared at me and Pin.
The fat man had moved from the hog table to the pastry tower, and was calling to the other guests. “Dear heart, the sweetmeats are divine! Loves, you must try some!” He swooped on the delicacies, and I saw him slide at least two into his sleeve.
I brushed cake crumbs off my tunic. “Well,” I said to Pin. “Shall we discreetly leave – or should we stay and find out why half of the so-called wedding guests are obviously actors?”
“And why,” said Pin, “the other half are transfixed with terror? Good plan.”
But before we could pose these delicate questions, a large gloved hand landed on my shoulder and the unmistakable voice of priestly authority cried out, “Gotcha.”
For more from the world of Jack, see these, in more or less this order: