The novices had hurried back to class, thrilling to the knowledge that they had heard the Able. The wedding party headed the other way, back to the cake.
Pin was waiting for me in the corridor. Was there reluctant admiration in his face? Perhaps, or perhaps he was just tired. “I can’t believe that worked,” he said.
“It won’t unless we pay off the actors. Come on. How good are your tidying skills?”
“My what?” A man rarely enjoys being called domestic.
I clapped his shoulder. “Don’t panic. We’re just going to rob the temple, then rearrange all the money to look like we haven’t.”
I slipped the gold coins into Blanchard’s pudgy hands. “I’m afraid I won’t need your performance after all,” I said. “Turns out they have a full evening programme already. But thanks anyway, and this is for your trouble.”
His eyes widened. “This is too much!”
I raised my eyebrows.
“I mean thank you, gracious sir,” he said.
“Good. Now keep your trap shut about this, and go and fill your sleeves with all the pie you can find.”
He fluttered his fingers at me in farewell.
“Oh, by the way,” I said. “The actual father-in-law showed up. The robber king. He hates singing, so don’t mention anything whatsoever about singing to him. Have a lovely evening.” I shooed him away.
“And that,” I said to Pin, “is that. I even kept a tiny amount for us. We won’t have to sleep under a bush tonight.”
He sighed. “I don’t like theft.” We had removed the actors’ fee from the vault of temple offerings. The place was stacked with valuables, and, with Pin’s magic keys, easy to access. The only hard part was finding ordinary cash. A strange number of the faithful like to honour their Able with gem-studded cups and golden toothbrushes.
We had had to sprint from the scene when some temple guards turned up with more offerings. With any luck our pockets didn’t clank too much.
“Strictly it’s not stealing,” I said. “Maybe you didn’t notice, but I did only take from the shelf marked for Jack.”
“But still -“
At this moment, the scruffy novice reappeared, looking smug. He pointed at my dusty tunic and trousers. “I know what you did,” he said. “You’re not him at all. Hand over the cash or I’ll tell.”
“Blackmailed by a priest of the Able! -How did you know?” I asked, reluctantly dropping my coin into his fingers.
“Your boots. No god would go round in that state.”
We all looked at my boots. They would have disgraced a street urchin. I sighed. “You are quite correct. Well done. You’ll go far.”
“Cheers. Also, should have mentioned it, the chief priest is back.” He grinned and scampered off.
That was trouble. “Let’s go,” I said to Pin. “Sorry, looks like another cosy night on the forest floor for us.”
“Sleeping in the undergrowth.”
“Could be worse. At least now we’re friends with the robbers, and meanwhile, we have a valid invitation to a big party…”
“Great Able, it’s truth!”
A man with smooth brown skin and a severe expression approached. His robes were dungeon black.
…Did I dare?
“Don’t,” said Pin, reading my mind. “Not this time. Just don’t.” He sounded like Tom.
I stood still while the chief priest strode right up to me. I said nothing. The borrowed white robes of the Able were long gone and I wore my usual scuffed brown everything. My heart pounded. The scar on my cheek throbbed.
The priest peered closely at me. His lips parted. “Jack,” he said. His dark skin glistened in the candlelight. “Great Able!”
“Please understand,” I said. “Everything I have done was with good intentions – “
“Where have you been,” he whispered, looking, like the novice, at my wretched boots.
I stared at him, confused, and he stared back.
Pin stared at both of us.
I recovered first. “I need money,” I said.
“Money. Of course. Come to the vault. Then, then, you must excuse me – I have urgent business -” He was sweating.
He led the way back to the temple vault and gave me a sack of coins. if he hadn’t been in such a rush he would have made us take the toothbrushes as well.
“Thank you,” I said to him.
He barely nodded, but picked up his skirts and stumbled away.
Ten minutes later, I was at the wedding reception with a carnation on my tunic and a glass in my hand.
The party had withdrawn from the sacred space, to a sumptuous lounge tricked out with dainty lamplit tables, a low stage for the band, and a polished dance floor gleaming in the middle. Flowers burst from vases all around. Every item of furniture was tied with a big ribbon.
I plucked a smoking bottle from the arms of a passing waiter. “Have some marshmist. Watch out, the bubbles go up your nose.”
“Champagne,” said Pin, tasting it. “Good grief.”
Musicians were setting up on stage, plucking on harps and lutes. Food was plentiful, the guests delirious with relief at not being robbed, and the happy couple darted among the throng, beaming and hugging everything in their path.
We drank, and it was pleasant not to be running away.
Later, the musicians tinkled some romantic melodies, drawing the crowd onto the dance floor. The newlyweds danced cheek to cheek among their guests, to much back-slapping and air-kissing as they twirled by.
Pin and I lounged in easy chairs beside the dance floor. I was still feeding Pin marshmist.
“Jack.” He prodded my shoulder. “The priest. Why did he give you all that money? Sacred money?”
“I’m naturally endearing. Anyway, you know why. He thought I was you know what.” I winked.
Pin shook his head, raggedly. I refilled his wobbling glass. “No. It was more than that. He … he recognised you.”
“I have one of those faces.”
“Hmmn. What are you not telling me?”
“Any number of things. I imagine you can live without details of my visits to the necessary room, or what time of month I like to clean out my toenails.”
“Don’t be difficult. You know what I mean.”
I did know, all too well. I needed him to think of something else, immediately. All around actors and bandits were whooping it up with Tom’s family wealth. The band had found a drum and a three-step rhythm. I took Pin’s hand. “Let’s dance.”
“Oh come on, your leg can’t be that bad. I’ve seen you fleeing an angry mob, remember.”
“It’s just,” he said, pulling back like a dog on his way to the vet, “it’s a bit off. Two chaps.”
I wrinkled my nose. “What?”
“Dancing,” said Pin.
“You say the oddest things,” I said. I tugged his hand. “Come on.”
“Dear god,” said Pin, but he came.
Alone on a candlelit dance floor, soft music eking out romance all around you, and your partner full of strong drink – startling things can happen. Despite the leg, Pin was not a bad dancer. But he was a drink-sodden one.
My moment had come.
“What’s the name of that place again,” I said. I fixed my gaze casually over his shoulder. “Where you’re from?”
“Hutton Bassett. Little town outside Ssssswindon.” He was slurring his words, his hand weighing heavily in mine as he tried to keep his balance.
“Ah,” I said. “I remember now. Of course.”
I blinked past his right ear. I had never head of that place. It didn’t even sound real. Hutton Bassett? Do me a favour.
Why was Pin lying?
I thought of how he had pursued me for months, always in the shadows. I thought of the strange way he talked, and the weird objects in his weird boat. I thought of how out of place he seemed, how he was so gentle, so harmless that I’d placed myself willingly in his hands.
Who was he, really?
The music wound down, and stopped. Couples paused, arms still wrapped around each other, waiting for the band to gulp at drinks and turn over their sheet music.
I leaned away from Pin. My hand was still in his, his hand still splayed on my shoulder blades. His wispy blonde hair and blue eyes looked the same as ever. He still had a lot of freckles.
He looked back, smiling wonkily at the ridiculousness of it all, the crazy wedding, the drink, my innocent questions…
“Long way from home,” I said, a touch wistfully, hoping that nostalgia would prompt him to give away more detail.
“Oh yesss, awfully. But so are you,” he said. He took one step, and then withdrew it, as if the floor was not where he thought it would be.
My heart began to pound. I had played it uncomfortably close to the truth today. Had I now run out of bluffs? “I’m right here,” I said. “But you’re … lost, aren’t you?”
“No,” he said. “Mission.”
The band, restored by alcohol, struck up again.
Pin blinked at the sound and seemed to come to life. “What did you say?”
My mind raced. “Nothing,” I said. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” he said.
Dancers pirouetted around us. Night breezes brought the sound of crickets and the scent of fair flowers into the ballroom. The whole world lay beyond that door, and to be free of Pin, free and alone again, all I had to do was walk through it. But I had definitely heard him say mission. Like a priest, or a crazy person. Or a soldier.
Pin, afraid of death but terrifically brave in every danger; Pin, brilliant yet ignorant of the most basic workings of the world.
I gave a slight stagger, and allowed my head to wobble. “The marshmist is stronger than I remember,” I said.
“You’re as tight as a bishop on Boxing Day,” said Pin. “One more dance?”
He hadn’t noticed my terror. “Just one,” I said.
The music slowed and Pin, finally succumbing to marshmist, began leaning on me. Usually I would complain, since he was taller than me and therefore weighed as much as a horse, but right now his slumbering state was convenient. I shifted my hold on him as if uncomfortable, and when he did not react, slid my hand into his back trouser pocket and stole his wallet.
It was later, much later in the robber forest when Pin was asleep under a bush after all, and I was tending the fire, that I dared to take out the small leather purse I’d lifted, and have a look at its contents.
The wedding was over, the day had been saved and for once we had money at the end of it – but none of that interested me now. I checked Pin one more time for any sign of fake snoring, and opened his wallet.
There were a few foreign coins, including a rather pretty one with twelve sides. I found paper money too, neatly folded, the creases softened as if they had been untouched for a long time.
Behind the money, I found a tiny portrait, smaller than my palm, worked in astonishing detail. I ran my finger over its surface and found it perfectly smooth. A print, of course, yet so life-like, more than life-like. It was entirely grey, which gave me a shiver: a grey-skinned woman dressed in a grey blouse, standing in front of a grey velvet curtain and a grey potted palm.
I tucked the picture quickly away. It wasn’t her I was looking for.
I thumbed through a collection of meaningless papers, including tiny serrated-edged blue squares with a man’s head printed on each one. None of it helped me. And then at last I withdrew a folded green card, stamped with a circle of red ink and blurred initials in a stilted typeface.
I opened it and saw inside another grey picture This showed Pin, looking a little younger, in a jacket buttoned up to the collar. His hair was flattened to his head, and his lip bore the suggestion of a moustache. I would have laughed, but my attention was captured by the words printed beneath the image of his face.
The blocky letters might have been smudged and uneven, but they clearly and bizarrely stated: Royal Flying Corps and HM Intelligence, Captain M Morris.
This is developing into an accidental book, so there will be (already is) more in which Pin’s identity and mission are revealed. I’m just kneading it into some kind of shape in which the reader, and then Pin, discovers who Jack really is, until in a series of thrilling scenes I have yet to work out, everyone knows who everyone else is. Which will still leave them with a massive problem. And a runaway tree. -Sef
For more from the world of Jack, see these, in more or less this order: