One key element of a bandit’s life is theft, and the other is murder. Tight in the grip of the robber king, I was reluctant to point out that Pin and I had nothing to steal.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. I spoke quickly. When a man the size of two oxen has you by the shirt collar, you must get the words out before the air supply goes dead. “Might I know who I have the pleasure of addressing…?”
He gave me a shake. “I am Vail, king of all Milanish.”
I thought the governors of Milanish might debate that, but kept my mouth shut.
Vail had a further pronouncement. “You are temple scum.”
“No, no,” I said. “We are tourists. Stumbled in here by mistake. Why, is this a temple?”
He grunted, and dropped us on the stone floor of the cleaning cupboard.
I squeaked as my kneecaps absorbed the impact.
“You’re not priests?” said Vail.
I wore a tatty brown tunic, desert trousers and crumpled boots. Pin was dressed for a sport he called cricket. “You must have not seen many priests,” I said.
Vail lifted his fist to strike me down.
“But you are in luck,” said Pin quickly, stepping between me and the giant. “For I am a keen student of religious practices, and can doubtless guide you to anything you wish to know. Please, allow me to assist in any numismatical topic in which you have an enquiry.”
I blinked at him in surprise. His whole tone had changed, and was the manner of a fussy academic. I could almost see the inky thumb, the dusty spectacles.
Vail squinted at him. “I’m looking for a wedding.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s round the front. Now, if we could just slip away through this handy door….”
“Not a chance,” said Vail as I edged towards the street. “You can help me. Well – ” he cast his avaricious eye over me like a silk merchant who finds himself in a wool shop – “your expert friend can. All right, you can scarper.” He jerked his thumb at the exit.
“Capital,” said Pin. “Happy to be of service.” He threw me a desperate look.
I was free. Outside, sunlight beckoned, and no furious wedding guests pursued me. I could be on my way out of Milanish in minutes.
Pin gazed at me, holding his breath. If he carried on like that he’d faint.
I sighed. “I know my way around this temple,” I said. “I can take you anywhere you need to go.”
Pin breathed out. “So, Mr Vail, What can we do for you?”
Vail, the robber king, puffed out his chest. “My son has been kidnapped and married against his will. You will find me the Mirror of Milanish and in its light, dissolve this fallacious wedding!”
Pin looked blank.
“That might be difficult,” I said.
“Then I will despatch you now.” He balled his enormous fist.
“No, no, I mean, only a head priest can dissolve a marriage …” Vail crashed his fist into his other palm. “And luckily he knows me.”
“You are full of lies,” said Vail. “You cannot open your lips without lying.”
“Pretty accurate,” muttered Pin.
But Vail had spoken with a kind of respect. “Who are you really? Not tourists, not priests…” He kicked over a sheaf of mops. “Not cleaners.”
“We broke into the wedding to steal food, ” I said. “They caught us and we were just running away when you arrived. I’m Jack. This is Pin.”
“Ha. The truth does not suit you, Jack, you are better sticking to lies.”
“I know,” I said, thinking of the idolatry and its shadowy statues.
“So,” said Vail. “The marriage. My boy has been most cruelly used. We are from a proud family and I cannot bear the shame of this connection.”
I thought that I could definitely bear the shame of marrying into the town’s flushest family, but said nothing.
“Help me in this and I will not kill you.”
“A generous deal, we’ll take it. We need a priest to dissolve the marriage,” I said.
“Do you truly know the head priest?” Vail asked.
I hesitated. This would require an audacious double bluff. I smiled at Vail, and clapped his muscly arm. “I have a better plan,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Charging through a hostile temple is much easier with a terrifying giant in tow. Whenever we met priests, Vail roared at them and they scattered.
“The mirror must speak and all must hear its judgement,” said Vail. “Can you truly persuade a priest to engage it for us?”
“I will place your son’s fate in the hands of the surest authority,” I said truthfully, and led us to the laundry area.
“What is this?” Vail demanded, blundering among the linen baskets. “Do you waste my time, Jack the Liar?”
“No, but I need some clean clothes.” I rummaged in the stacked priestwear. “While I change, tell me about your son. Girole, isn’t it?”
“He is a good boy, my Girole,” said Vail. “This town trickster has taken advantage of his trusting nature, has seduced him, stolen his innocence….”
I thought of Girole, holding hands with his new spouse, rich boy Tom. Girole was bearded, smoky-eyed and sultry-hipped. He looked as if his innocence had vanished in a puff of stolen cigar smoke about twenty years ago. Still, there’s blind fatherly love for you.
“The town people seem very wealthy,” I said. “Perhaps this is a more sagacious move than you allow for.”
“Their trade is disgusting to me! They know only deception and falsehood!”
I flung a milk-white tunic over my head, and added some fine white leggings.
After one attempt at the ivory scarf, I handed it to Pin. He tutted, and tied around my throat the fastest cravat I’d ever seen, as if his last outing had been at the Necktie Championships.
I combed my fingers through my hair, with about as much effect as usual. Along with my scuffed and holey boots, it would have to do.
Vail was peering at me, as if my modified appearance rang a very faint bell. ‘Hah.”
“Don’t I get a new set of togs,” said Pin.
“Definitely not. Come on.”
I led the way back to the heart of the temple. We heard sounds of wedding celebrations, and also, of regular worship, the monotone drone of priests entreating the Able to manifest whatever was required.
“A bridge,” I sad to Pin, ear-wigging as we passed the entrance of a prayer room. The priest was reading aloud a cost benefit analysis of the bridge’s future contribution to Milanish economy. “They’ll need to do better than that. Not enough flattery by far.” I shook my head. “Your Able loves a bit of schmoozing.”
“Do you insult the Able in their own house?” said Vail.
“Yes, ” I said. I turned my gaze on him and gave him the full treatment, or what passed for it these days. “I have that privilege,” I added in a stony voice. Vail faltered, and frowned. “Here is the novices’ room. -Shall we?”
I flung open the door, causing it to crash against the wall.
Twenty necks swivelled round to look at me. Twenty pairs of eyes turned with relief from the task written on the blackboard at the front of the riom. Twenty young people in new priest robes gawped at me and my robber giant/diffident cricketer entourage.
“Are you the novitiates?” I demanded in a voice like doom.
“Yes,” said a lad at the back, where presumably he’d been placed for creating trouble, since his sleeves were grubby and his notebook was covered in lewd doodles.
“I see.” I took a step into the room and surveyed the group with a falcon’s gaze. “And is the head priest here?”
“Away on business,” said the lad.
Better and better. This might even work. I gestured at Pin and Vail to stay back. I proceeded into the room and obliged all the novices to shuffle in their seats to see me. “And is this, would you say, the best training establishment for new priests in the country? Well?”
“Yes,” said the same boy again, the others obviously relieved that he was willing to do the talking.
“Hmn.” I paced about the room, wiping my index finger over the surfaces of the desks, sniffing at the flowers on the altar, sneering at what they had written down in their books. When I reached the front I spun round, making them jump all over again, and said, “Then tell me….why is it that nobody recognises me?”
I ended in a bellow that blew the hair back from their faces.
“We only started yesterday,” said the spokesman, his teeth chattering.
“Well,” I said, “cast your mind back to yesterday morning and the initiation test. You had to name your Able?”
“Great Able!” cried someone at the front, obviously sharper than her peers.
“Wrong,” I said. “-But you’re getting warmer.”
They wracked their shocked young brains I had mercy and said, “No matter. Doubtless you will recall me during the course of your punishment.” Tyey wuaked andvm whimpered. “Unless you can demonstrate some aptitude with the great treasure of my temple…”
They all gasped in horror and began making signs of devotion.
I held up my hand. “Enough, enough.” I haven’t time. I smoothed out my robes like an Able getting down to business. “Now. Take me to the mirror of Milanish.”