Here’s part four of five, of my story about roguish Jack crashing a wedding at a temple to the Able he despises. The robber king has tasked Jack with dissolving his son’s marriage, but the newlyweds seem content. Jack has one idea to solve the problem – using the Mirror of Milanish.
“What is the Mirror?” Pin murmured to me as we hustled along the dim corridors beneath the temple, amidst a flurry of novices.
Vail answered. His robber-king bluster had diminished since my bold entrance into the novices’ study room. Their acceptance of me had thrown him off kilter; he was still large but less threatening – like a fairground hot air balloon, lying tethered on its side on the grass, unable to fill with sufficient air to lift the punters off the ground. “It is the eye of the Able, their scope into our affairs, the lens which allows them to know what is truly in our hearts.”
He smacked his chest with a massive fist. “All who follow their true path must honour the Mirror’s wisdom!”
“Oh yes, Vail.” A chorus of eager voices echoed the robber king’s words. The novices had recognised him straight off, no prompting. Typical.
“Also,” I said to Pin, “it’s a big mirror.”
At last we arrived at a locked door. The grubbiest novice scuffled his shoes and said, “We’re not allowed in.”
“Lucky I’m here then,” I said. “I give you permission. On you go.”
“We haven’t got the key.”
I looked at Pin. “Such as I are not troubled by these inconveniences.” I held out my hand for Pin’s magic keys.
He ignored that, and did the unlocking himself. Probably just as well, since I hadn’t had the chance to practise. “I thank you,” I said graciously. He rolled his eyes, and squirrelled the keys away in a pocket even I would hesitate to pick.
I waved at the scruffy lad, and he pushed the door to the Mirror room. It swung inwards, hissing over the smooth stone floor. “Lights,” I said, and the novices lit their standard-issue priest candles.
Inside I saw a gloomy space, all damp walls and slippery pillars, and freestanding before the far wall, an enormous silvery disc. It stood high as a house, the house of a merchant who’s done well for himself and paid extra for some fiddly dragonscale turrets and curlicue ironwork. The Mirror was circular, its surface minutely uneven like the ripples on a calm lake, and opaque. It was angled a little to the left, so that the Able wouldn’t cop an eyeful every time anybody opened the door.
The Mirror of Milanish.
The novices fell silent and edged away from the door. Nobody likes to think the bosses are watching.
“This device,” I said, in case their induction really had fallen short, “allows anyone who stands before it to be scrutinised by the Able. It is a device of pure divine power and eternal honesty.”
“It’s huge,” said Pin. He darted towards it and I had to grab his arm.
“It’s also the only one of its kind in all the land,” I went on, “since pure honesty is apparently a massive barrier to trade. In you go!”
I waved the novices inside. They stuttered and hesitated, elbowing each other in an attempt to not be first.
In the corridor, Pin grabbed my arm and hissed in my ear. “Don’t do it. You’re interfering with people’s lives, their happiness-“
“Hush. Please, enter one and all.” I flung out my arm to encompass Vail. “You most of all, sir, since you are to beg the Able to uncover your son’s seducer and expose the lies he has fed us!”
Vail peered at the Mirror. “It knows our hearts,” he said. He was even more subdued now the thing was there in front of him, as well he might be.
“The Able who stand beyond its gleaming surface know your hearts,” I said.
“Honour them always,” cried a novice, and they all repeated it, with varying degrees of guilt.
“Yes yes,” I said, “but most importantly, go inside. Vail, as a king, you may attract the attention of the Able. My kindred,” I added, remembering my bluff. “Engage with them. Entreat them to bring your son happiness.”
“What about you?” he said.
“I am going to fetch the newlyweds and bring them here to face the mirror.” I stepped fully back into the corridor. At no point had I passed in front of the Mirror. “I leave you under the ceaseless gaze of the Able!”
“Honour them always!” I slammed the door in his face. “Quick, lock it.”
Pin set to with the keys again.
Meanwhile I slipped into the room next door. The unhappy complaints of the trapped novices, and Vail, were still audible. I cleared a bit of space by shoving some old chairs and tables aside, and returned to the corridor.
“Now what?” said Pin. He had hidden the keys once more.
I’d have to search his stuff, again, when we made it back to the boat. “Now we find Girole and warn him that his Dad’s turned up.”
“Will they be all right, shut in there with Vail?” Pin asked as he and I jogged through yet more stone corridors, back towards the wedding party.
“They’re to be priests of the Able in Milanish. If twenty of them can’t handle one crazy member of the congregation, they’re never going to make it in religion.”
I paused, one arm flung across Pin’s chest, at the archway into the temple’s prayer hall. “I see Tom and Girole. There, by the cake, drinking marshmist and laughing about how strangers nearly ruined their wedding.” I began tugging my ceremonial white robes undone. “Now for another quick change of clothes,” I said. “Do the scarf thing, would you?”
“I’m not your valet,” he said, but he unwound the complicated knot he’d tied and helped me out of the godly getup.
I dropped the robes in a defeated pile. As dashing as I looked in them, it was a relief to be myself again. “Right. Now we need that fat actor, and the happy couple. You fetch the lovebirds , while I commission a small piece of theatre.”
Pin arrived back with Girole and Tom just as I was negotiating terms with Blanchard, the leader of the acting troupe hired to impersonate a respectable family for Girole.
Girole looked furious and thrilled, like a man who can’t wait to be sent to the lion pit to really show those big cats what’s what. Tom clung to his hand and said “Don’t, let’s just leave,” every three seconds.
“You must understand,” said Blanchard to me, fanning his concertina neck with an lace-edged handkerchief, “that I cannot create Art without prospect of payment.”
Pin cut his eyes at me. Given we were penniless and had mislaid our houseboat into the bargain, he perhaps felt I had little to offer this troubadour.
“You will be paid,” I said. “Would you prefer to receive compensation in the firm of daily devotions to the Able…”
Blanchard began to execute a magnificently disdainful flounce away from my insulting presence.
“Gold,” he said, halting mid-flounce.
“Then you shall have gold,” I said. “As much gold as you can fit in your sleeves.” I narrowed my eyes at him to let him know I knew about the cake he had stuffed up there already, then turned to Girole.
“My father can’t stop me marrying whoever I want,” he said, in the manner of rebellious children everywhere.
I patted his shoulder. “Calm down. The Mirror is going to tell Vail to bless your marriage with love, and cash. And when the Mirror speaks, it cannot be ignored.”
“How can you know the will of the Able?” demanded Tom. He was obviously the more regular churchgoer. “Do you dare to presume-“
“Listen, kid,” I said. “You and Girole. Are you sure?”
“Of course!” This from both of them.
“Then I’m sure. Now come on, and Tom, bring your mother as well, it will be a good chance for her to get to know the real in-laws.” I smiled reassuringly at them both. “I’ll meet you both at the door to the Mirror of Milanish in ten minutes.”
In the room next door to the Mirror, Pin tied my scarf once more while I said to Blanchard and his troupe, “Now I want you to hum, sound a bit ominous at first, then after a couple of minutes burst into song. Give it your all, a proper joyous, uplifting kind of deal. Got it?”
“Which song?” said Blanchard.
“Um, something a bit soppy. Sentimental. What’s the one about being left behind while your sweetheart marches off to war? Something about the hearth being on fire.”
Pin’s jaw dropped open. “Keep the home fires burning.”
“That’s the one.”
He gaped at me. “How on earth do you know that song?”
Blanchard and I gaped right back. “It’s traditional,” I said.
“An old folk song,” said Blanchard.
Pin goggled a bit more, but kept silent while Blanchard and his troupe agreed that they knew the words, the tune, and how the two fit together.
“Right,” I said. “Now I want you all to do a full run-through in here, then I’ll call you and we can present it as a little thank you to the families for a lovely wedding. Start in two minutes.”
“Why are you wearing that?” Blanchard asked, pointing at my robes.
“Um. -Theatre, darling!” I grabbed Pin, and we raced round to the door to the Mirror, where we found Tom and Girole, and Miranda, Tom’s elegant mother.
“All right,” I said. I nodded to Pin. “Do the key thing.”
“I’m not your skivvy.”
“You are my person with magic keys though, so please do it.”
“Huh. At least you said please.”
“I was nicely brought up. In we go.”
Inside, Vail was standing in front of the Mirror. The novices still cowered off to the sides, avoiding the Mirror’s gaze. There really must have been some high-jinks in the dormitory last night.
“Your son is here,” I said to Vail.
“Father-” said Girole, puffing out his chest.
“Hush,” I said. The novices were chatting amongst themselves. “I said hush! I hear something from the Mirror.”
The novices shrieked and clutched each other. That’s the product of our sorry education system: no respect for the elders and betters in the room.- but tell them the divine are about to pronounce from behind a glass disc, and they go all gooey kneed.
“I hear it too,” said Tom. “Great Able!”
“I have asked the mirror to show your marriage for the sham it is,” said Vail. He drew a steadying breath and stepped to the mirror. I had to admire his nerve.
“It is no sham,” said Tom.
“No,” said Girole.
“Wait,” I said, “listen.”
There came from some undefined place a low dark hum, like a swarm of bees spying a distant jampot.
“Oh!” cried a novice.
“Hush,” I said. “It is the Great Able arriving. They have heard your request.”
“I can’t see anything,” said Vail, peering at the mirror’s dull surface.
“The almighty may communicate in any manner they wish,” I said.
The buzz continued, building to a crescendo of intensity. It was like hearing cavalry advancing across a desert, a million hooves beating the cracked earth, still distant, but carrying enough thunder to strike you flat when they arrived.
Everyone stood shivering, including me, because using the Mirror was a massive gamble. I kept well back.
“The Mirror knows all,” I intoned. “The Able see your hearts.”
“We have nothing to fear,” said Girole to Tom.
Vail glanced at them. “You defy the Mirror?”
“I defy you,” said Tom. “You know nothing of me yet shun my invitation to our wedding?”
“You failed to invite me!”
“We certainly did not, said Tom. “I have a fair copy of the guest list in my office. You may inspect it at your leisure.”
“My deputy doubtless cast aside a letter from a low family such as yours.”
“My family,” began Tom, eyes glittering.
“Hush!” said Pin.
For now the hum had ceased and a sweet refrain reached us. The Mirror seemed to vibrate. Everyone inched closer to hear. The music was faint, as if heard from somewhere far away, but it was there, a lovely old song, of love, and family, and home.
“The Able speak,” I said firmly to Vail. “I think I do not need to interpret.”
“Jack the liar,” he said. “You have tricked me in some way. Though I do not see how you made the Mirror speak-“
“I didn’t make the Mirror do anything,” I said, quite truthfully. “Listen.” I grabbed his sleeve. “I got us in here. I brought your son here. Everyone has heard the Mirror. What more do you want?”
“Also, don’t blow my cover with the novices, we need them to keep quiet about this when the chief priest turns up. So take the word of the Able and let’s all be friends.”
But Tom and Girole were clutching each other, beaming. “It is a sign,” said Tom. “I worried that my family’s offering was not generous enough.”
“I made no offering,” said Girole, “for I bring you only myself.” Tom smiled and tucked a lock of Girole’s unruly hair behind his ears, clearly considering his spouse gift enough.
But Vail shouldered between them and prodded his son in the sternum. “You made no offering?”
“How could I? I cut myself free from you when you disapproved of Tom.”
“Great Able, Girole, have you no respect for the gods?”
“I didn’t have any choice!”
“Now look here my boy -“
“What is your family business?” I asked Tom, while this family discussion was going on. “Our criminal friend despises it heartily but I have no idea what you do to inspire his disgust.”
“Lawyers.” He grimaced.
“I think you’ll all get on splendidly then. Look, I’ve got to go.” I nodded to Pin. “Lovely to have met you, Tom.”
“Why are you in those robes?”
“It doesn’t matter, and look, I’m taking them off, gone.”
“Stay for a drink, at least.”
“Maybe later. Good luck-“
I ushered everyone into the corridor and urged them back towards the wedding reception, chivvied by Pin. Then I slipped back into the Mirror room.
I bit my lip, drew breath, then moved to stand directly in front of the Mirror. It stood silent, balanced impossibly on its rim, a bright silver circle.
I sighed. Even I know it is no small thing to impersonate an oracle. “Sorry,” I said.
There was no reply.
Odd. But then, it was me. Our relationship had not been a happy one.
I leaned toward the glass, my ear touching its chill surface. Nothing. I strained for the rumble and hiss of Able chatter, far away in their fruit-filled palaces. But I heard only the sound of my heartbeat, and saw only my breath misting the glass.
There was nobody there.
I drew back, frowning, and went to find Pin.