“Wait,” I said as the temple guards reached for me with their hairy fingers. “We’ve done nothing wrong. What charge is being claimed?”
“You are the robber king!” cried the groom Tom’s mother Miranda.
“No I’m not,” I said, at the same moment the other groom, Girole, said, “No he’s not.”
The guards stopped. I drew back. I dislike being handled by smelly religious enforcers at the best of times, let alone at a fancy wedding.
“Then who are they?” said Miranda, Tom’s puffy and fragrant mama .
All eyes turned to me. Made sense. Pin was gulping like a fish and obviously not able to answer a simple question.
“I, madam,” I said, “am one of your guests.” I bowed, hoping that her invitation list had been long, and her relatives distant.
But the rich do not become rich through forgetting who is related to whom and who returned a correspondence card for an expensive wedding. “Interlopers!” she bellowed, flinging out her arm like a weathervane in a strong breeze. “Seize them!”
I looked and Pin, and he at me, and we ran.
A temple in a prestigious part of a wealthy town is a vast, complicated place. As well as the sacred space and altars, there are areas for private worship, training of novice priests, living quarters for the initiated, and rooms for storage and administration, including of course, counting the money.
We hared across the enormous chancel, dodging boggle-eyed guests clutching wedges of wedding cake. “Sorry,” said Pin as a hefty chunk of white icing flew off a plate in our wake. “Excuse me-“
I had a far better way to clear a path through people bent on consuming a month’s worth of food in an afternoon. “Fire!” I yelled, and the chomping actors scattered, trailing crumbs.
We had reached the back of the domed space. I spotted a door in the most distant shadows: staff entrance. I clutched Pin’s arm. “Quick.”
It was dark back there. So much the better. I elbowed the door and it gave way. “In here,” I said, bundling Pin inside.
“They can see us,” he said, meaning the multitude of legitimate family who, ignoring rumours of flames, had given chase.
“Good.” I glanced around. We were in the bank, that is, the place where monetary gifts are stored, awaiting the approval of the gods or alternatively, a good thing to spend it on. “There should be… Yes.”
A small exit lurked at the back. “This goes straight to the priests-only area,’ I said.
“How do you know?” Pin asked as I gave this door an elbow of its own.
“All temples are designed the same. Makes it easier for visiting religious types. Also, the Able are too lazy to come up with anything new. Come on.” Again I shouldered the door but it was staunchly refusing my encouragement.
From the main hall came sounds of people running in fancy shoes.
“Allow me,” said Pin. He dug in his trousers pocket and brought out a bunch of keys. “Skeleton,” he said mysteriously. “Very handy.” He applied one, then a second key to the lock. With a click of surprise the lock spun, and the door sprang open, a little slowly as if resentful at this intimate treatment. “That’s the ticket,” said Pin.
We slid through and closed the door quietly. Pin locked it again. I would be wanting a look at the magic keys later, but for now, escape was top of my to-do list.
We stood in a small corridor, carved of creamy stone, with a lot of small black painted doors leading off it. “That’s better,” I said. “We’ve found the priests’ entrance. Now to find the priests’ exit.”
We wandered among these corridors, the sounds of pursuit fading behind us.
“They’re bound to twig in a minute,” said Pin.
He was right. Angry yells came from the bank room. “Hmmn.” We sprinted down the corridor, me faster than Pin. “Put a shift on,” I said. “I’ve been hounded by the tools of the Able before. When it comes to meting out punishment, they don’t mess about. Here.” At the end of the corridor the route split in two. I chose the left hand way, down stone stairs. Rather a lot of stairs.
“Jack,” said Pin, thundering down behind me, “this definitely won’t lead harmlessly into the street.”
“Which is why they’ll assume we’ll go the other way.”
“We are trapped underground,” said Pin in the manner of one explaining Bedtime to a small child.
“Just need to hide for a bit, then sneak out once everyone thinks they’ve lost us.” I turned to grin at him. “Might even snaffle a slice more wedding cake on the way past.”
“Jack!” But I am charmingly irresistible, and he grinned back, shaking his head. “They’ll never fall for it,” he said, attempting to regain his persona as the sensible one.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Aha, what’s in here?”
“It says keep out.”
“All the more reason to go in. Oh.”
We had entered a vast underground cavern lit by wall-mounted torches.
“What is this?” whispered Pin. Even this slight sound echoed, over and over through the enormous space.
I let out a low whistle. It shrilled, repeating itself, all the way into the darkness beyond the torchlight. “This must be a focal point. A temple in charge of other temples,” I explained. “…I never knew there was one here.”
I lifted a torch from its sconce and advanced into the cavern. Pin did likewise.
Shadows filled the back of the cave, but I could make out giant figures, motionless, ahead of us in the gloom. We progressed cautiously down wide, shallow steps.
“I feel like a queen going through a coronation backwards,” said Pin. “These steps, this space, it’s like a cathedral.”
“It sort of is,” I said. We were at floor level. All around us were flickering shadows. I lay my hand on the frigid foot of the nearest figure, and shivered as my skin touched stone. “This is the idolatry. The secret portal of the gods. These figures – they’re the Able.”
The statues were huge. This inner sanctum was as tall as the mighty dome itself, but below ground. Each carved figure was the height of a hundred year old oak.
They were sculpted of the same yellow stone from which the city was built. Pin touched the neatest plinth and drew his hand away, surprised at its grainy texture.
“This is astonishing,” he said. “I had imagined the Able were envisioned by worshippers as formless beings, more of a concept, but this portrays them as distinct and… human looking.”
I huffed. “Funny looking.”
He followed my gaze. It lay on a male figure with an overly-developed chest and arms that could lift boulders. “What’s funny looking?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Looks like the kind of idiot who spends more time on his hair than manifesting his followers’ requests. And he smells.”
Pin was amused. “How about her?” He indicated a formidable female with staunch legs and a face like the business end of a lumber axe.
I shuddered. “She has just found you eating the last piece of pie with your boots on the best bedclothes.”
“She has!” He was about to point at each of the figures for my entertaining assessment, but I had just seen the one on the end. Oh, no. A handsome fellow with a roguish smile, but I couldn’t let Pin see him.
I grabbed his arm. “Let’s go. Diverting as this is, I’ll save your religious education for later. Once we’ve escaped we can have a lovely game of Pick your favourite Able.”
“Fair point.” Turning back, we climbed to the corridor and, still clutching the torches, left the silent gods behind.
From memory I navigated to the least prestigious part of any building, the sanitation block. “There should be an exit here,” I said. “The priests would never have the waste carried out through the temple.”
“I thought you had plumbed sewerage,” said Pin, crinkling his nose.
“I do,” I said. “But young novice priests have to learn the horrors of life without the convenience of manifestation.” I nudged open a door into a reeking pit. “You can bet they pray pretty hard.”
“I’m not wading through that,” said Pin.
“What? No, I’m just getting my bearings. What kind of thrilling adventure would include a wallow in other people’s filth? Come on, this is the way out. Dump the torches in though, we don’t need them.”
The next door was what I sought It revealed a room piled with buckets and mops. There were also some comfy chairs, a pack of cards and some dice. Yes, definitely the cleaners’ cupboard.
We shouldered past the evidence of many happy hours ignoring the nearby stench, to a mean little door with daylight gleaming all around it.
“Out we go,” I said, and placed my hand on it – just as it was wrenched open from the outside.
Pin and I leapt back but not quickly enough to avoid the giant who barged into the room.
“Oi,” he said in a voice that could freeze coals. He grabbed us by the scruffs of our shirts, one in each hand like a butcher offering half-price on a couple of underfed rabbits. “You.”
I could not see much of him, but his boots were black and decorated with many tassels and gold hoops. He wore his red and white striped trousers tucked into those boots. And with every shake of our heads, the gold bracelets stacked up his arms jangled with the sound of old dismay.
I twisted my head and took in my captor’s broad, black bearded face, his gold nose ring, and the spotted bandana tied over his unruly curls. He was suntanned and battle-scarred and his gold teeth had once belonged to a lot of different people. There could be no doubt.
We had been prevented from leaving the wedding by none other than the robber king.