[Note to readers: I am in the process of working this series of stories - this is number 8 of a projected 10 - into a novel. I've given myself a deadline to do so, and intend to stick to it. For that reason, I may not be posting here as frequently as earlier until the writing and editing are finished.]
THE TREASURE OF THOGER TANDOB
It’s been so long since I was last with you, since I lay in your arms and felt your sweet kisses, that I feel as though I’m stranded in the desert every day with not a drop to drink. And I am sure, my love, that this is exactly how you feel too.
Oh, how I yearn to be with you! But don’t worry, as soon as the current quest I am on is done, I will be flying to you as fast as I can come, and then we will never be apart again, not as long as the Cannibal Spirit gives us years to live.
“Quest?” I hear you ask. “Did my Bhishon Boka, who never uses fancy words, just write ‘quest’?” Just bear a moment with me, my dear, and you’ll know what I mean.
You may or may not have heard of one Onek Mangsho, a hated and reviled traitor who lived long, long ago. The details are not important, but this Onek Mangsho is suspected to have had laid his hands on a considerable treasure, details of which may be found in the writings left behind by one of his wives, Chheechkaduni. By my father’s orders, I’ve been looking high and low for more of her parchments. It’s been a long and gruelling search, and in the course of it I’ve had a lot of time to think.
It won’t be unknown to you that my father is pressing me to marry his deplorable niece, my cousin Lokloke Jeebh. I’d rather be eaten alive than do any such thing, of course, but the state of both your and my finances make it impossible for us to wed at this time. If, however, we can get our hands on that traitor’s treasure, we can leave everything behind us and make a life together, far away and with no worries for the future.
As to my father, he is more than rich enough, and his desire for the treasure is fuelled by plain and simple greed, nothing more.
Yesterday, after a long search, I came to a tavern in a dirty little town by the name of Kochchoper Kholosh, where caravans stop to trade goods among themselves. There, I had been told, was a man who might have what I was looking for, and be persuaded to give it up for a bag of coins. So I made arrangements, and when I entered the tavern, there was a villainous looking individual with a cloth tied round his forehead and a dirty cloak, waiting for me.
He was, unfortunately, though illiterate, quite aware of the fact that the bundle of parchment he was carrying – as it turned out – inside the cloth tied round and round his head was valuable. Otherwise I might have had it for much cheaper than I did. Ultimately, after a great deal of haggling in a shadowed corner, and over many mugs of cheap blood-wine, we came to an arrangement. I got the bundle, he took his money, and we both went our separate ways, as quickly as we could, for fear of bandits.
Now you, my dear, with your ready intelligence, will already have understood my plan. I will continue my search for the writings of this Chheechkadunni, who, going by what I have read earlier of her accounts of her travels, was a vile harridan, truly an appropriate helpmeet for her traitorous husband. While my father’s money will finance this search, I will, of course, send anything I find to you, so that you may read them over at leisure and seek clues as to the whereabouts of this treasure. Once we know where it is, we only have to unearth it and we can go away together, for a lifetime of bliss.
But please make sure to maintain complete secrecy, because I have heard that the High Monk of the Grand Assembly, among others, is also interested in this search.
Yours forever, with many kisses,
************************************ ***************************************** ***********************************
“Still nothing,” my Lord said, looking out of the window.
“Nothing?” I repeated. From where I stood I could barely see the walls of the monastery of Thoger Tandob rising on the other side of the darkened marketplace. “My Lord, perhaps we should give up this idea and move on from here.”
“Chheechkaduni,” Onek Mangsho said, “we can’t afford to move on without doing this. Even just paying this inn’s fare would almost exhaust the coins we have left. We have to find a way to get in there and get our hands on that treasure.”
“But since he hasn’t come...” I rubbed my face, which was moist with sweat in the oppressive heat of the tiny and noisome room. “My Lord, how long can we wait for him?”
“We can’t wait forever, certainly.” My Lord looked round at Opodartho, who was sitting on the bed by the wall, running a bone comb through her hair. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think he’ll come.” Opodartho continued to comb her hair, as though any amount of combing could bring it under control or make her beautiful. “You remember that I said he didn’t look as though he had the courage to follow through, despite all the promises he made.”
I suppressed a snort. The stupid woman regularly said things that she “knew”, and if once in a while they came true it was almost always by accident. I did have to admit that I, too, hadn’t really been impressed by the monk Põcha Pantabhat when we’d met him earlier in the evening.
I think, in the rush of writing the many adventures that had befallen us between the Affair of the Aggressive Assassin of Agagora and our arrival at Thoger Tandob, I neglected to describe this meeting.
We had gone down to the inn’s smoky little back dining room, and Onek Mangsho had left us to sit over thin and overdone steaks of slave haunch, while he, as he said, mingled with the patrons in the front room and tried to spy out the scene. Opodartho and I had sat gnawing at the terrible food, waiting for him to come back.
“You know, Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said suddenly, “I do believe that Onek Mangsho is beginning to take too many risks.”
I preserved a frosty silence. Of course she was right, but that was the last thing I was going to admit, or she’d never get over it. But the stupid trollop would not take the hint.
“Coming here was risk enough,” she said, leaning over her plate and murmuring into my ear, “since it’s a trading town and there may be people who have heard of us in our, uh, former lives, though considering the state of our finances I suppose it had to be done. But I don’t see how we can get our hands on the treasure inside that pile of stone there without far too much risk.”
“I think our Lord knows best,” I said.
“Do you really? I hope you’re right.” Opodartho glanced towards the door to the outer room. “Here he comes now, and he’s not alone.”
The man with Onek Mangsho was young, scarcely more than a boy, and so weedy that he seemed almost to bend with each step. He was dressed in the yellow and dull orange robes of the monks of Thoger Tandob, of which we’d seen so many in the street since we’d arrived in this town. I might have wondered what a monk might be doing in a tavern, but I’d realised by then that, being the people who controlled the finances of the town, they went everywhere.
“This is the honourable monk Põcha Pantabhat,” Onek Mangsho said, dragging up a heavy wooden stool for the young man. “I’ve just been talking to him. He knows so many things interesting to strangers such as ourselves.”
Põcha Pantabhat smiled weakly. He had a thin, triangular face with no hair except a round patch in the centre above his forehead. Onek Mangsho had told me that the monks’ rank was indicated by their hair, and the more senior they were the more they were allowed to grow. By that standard, Põcha Pantabhat must have been near the bottom. “You’re too kind,” he said.
“Will you have some food with us?” Without waiting for an answer, Onek Mangsho reached across the table, took my plate of meat and Opodartho’s mug of wine and put them down in front of the monk. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re eager to know all about your lovely city.”
Opodartho and I exchanged glances. Thoger Tandob might be many things, but what it most certainly could not be called was a “lovely city”. In the course of our travels, we’d seen few less attractive sights than its narrow, winding lanes paved with stone and lined with refuse, its noisome marketplace, and the earthen walls lined with jagged stakes like rotting teeth. Still, apparently beauty was in the eye of the beholder, because Põcha Pantabhat seemed to expand with happiness at the flattery.
“I neglected to introduce ourselves,” Onek Mangsho said. “We’re merchants, travelling in search of specialities from the settlements of the desert, to sell in the markets of the south. I’m Bhoyanok Bhumikompo, and this,” he nodded at me, “is my consort, the Lady Kharap Khorgosh.”
“Ah, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. And the other lady here is...?”
“My name is Shamanyo Sheeth”,” Opodartho said quickly. “I’m their travelling companion.”
I looked at her in startled surprise. Instead of asserting her position, which she guarded so zealously, as my Lord’s senior wife, she seemed eager to distance herself from us. I remembered instantly what she’d just said about Onek Mangsho taking too many risks, and resolved to talk to him at the earliest.
Fortunately, Põcha Pantabhat hadn’t noticed my astonishment. He’d been staring at her with hungry eyes, which instantly lowered my estimation of him even more than his weedy appearance and ridiculous patch of hair already had. After all, as all readers of these chronicles are well aware, I am prettier by far than the raddled harridan, not to speak of being smarter and more accomplished in every way. “What a lovely name,” he said ingratiatingly. “A name to match a lovely lady.”
“So,” Onek Mangsho said, “you told me you’re from this city?”
“Yes.” Põcha Pantabhat reluctantly tore his eyes away from Opodartho. “My parents own this inn, actually.”
“Ah. So that’s why you know so much of local customs and history.” Onek Mangsho took a bite of steak and swallowed with evident difficulty. “I must commend your parents on the quality of their cuisine.”
“I haven’t ever eaten slavemeat quite like this,” I put in, perfectly truthfully.
“What made you decide to become a monk?” Opodartho asked. I didn’t fail to notice that she seemed to have pitched her voice to make it sultrier than usual and more seductive. “It must be hard giving up love and women, especially for such a good-looking young man as you. Of course,” she added, “I am assuming you are one of the orders who are so dedicated to the Cannibal Spirit that they have given up all thoughts of love and women.”
Põcha Pantabhat actually blushed bright red. “Lady, it is true, our order does not permit us to indulge in carnal pleasures with the opposite sex. That is the strictest rule imposed on us by the Cannibal Spirit. Not even the High Abbot himself can break it.”
“Oh, what a pity.” Opodartho batted her eyelashes. “A handsome young man like you.”
I seethed at the effrontery of the trollop, who seemed to be itching to drag the weedy monk off to bed if only given half a chance. Onek Mangsho chose that moment to speak.
“Your parents agreed with your decision to become a monk?”
“Of course. It wasn’t actually my decision, my Lord Bhoyanok Bhumikompo. They’re the ones who pledged me to the monastery.”
“I’d have thought,” Opodartho said, “that they would prefer that you stay on to run a going business like this inn.”
“Well, afterwards, the monastery will inherit this inn in my stead and I’ll run it anyway.” Põcha Pantabhat happily turned to her again. “In the meantime, it simply offers much better prospects, and my parents were more than happy to send me to it.”
“Yes, the monastery.” Onek Mangsho leapt at the chance. “It must be an...interesting place.”
“Oh yes,” Põcha Pantabhat said enthusiastically. “It’s a place filled with wonderful things. I never imagined how many valuable things there were here until I went to the monastery. Of course,” he added, “for experienced travellers and merchants like you they must all be rather usual.”
Onek Mangsho nodded. “You may be right, but then it’s impossible to tell without having a look at them. Would it be, you know, possible to visit the monastery?”
“Oh, no, no.” Põcha Pantabhat seemed shocked at the idea. “Nobody who’s not a monk is allowed inside the inner gates.”
“Nobody at all?”
“Uh, yes, well, prisoners, sometimes. Those prisoners guilty of really evil crimes, those that threaten the monastery. But they never come out again, of course.”
“The cells under the monastery...” Põcha Pantabhat shuddered delicately. “But nobody else goes inside who’s not a monk, or a guard.”
“Not even tradespeople and the like? Surely great monks like you must have a lot of need for goods.”
“They’re only allowed inside the outer gates.” Põcha Pantabhat made a face. “They drop their produce in the yard there, and the novices drag it all inside afterwards.”
“Who does all the physical labour in the monastery, then?” Opodartho asked. “If nobody except the monks are allowed inside, you won’t have servants or slaves?”
“It’s the novices do it all,” Põcha Pantabhat replied with an involuntary shudder.
“You must have been a novice till only recently,” Opodartho said. “You poor thing. It must have been awful. Did they make you stay up all night working?”
“That, and more.” Põcha Pantabhat looked gratified. “You can’t imagine how awful it was. My hands were scraped to the bone.” He held up his smooth, soft-skinned fingers to demonstrate. “Of course, now that I’m no longer a novice I don’t have to do that kind of job any longer.”
“The monastery should allow servants,” Opodartho said, nibbling at her lower lip. “Your poor hands.”
“It’s not my decision, you understand. If it were up to me, we’d all have slaves. The monastery’s certainly rich enough. But it’s a tradition passed down by the High Abbots through the years.”
“From what I hear,” Onek Mangsho said thoughtfully, “all decisions in Thoger Tandob are made in the monastery. Is that right? The monastery actually rules the city.”
“That’s right.” Põcha Pantabhat positively glowed with pride. “But it’s only the top circles of monks who have power, you know, the High Abbot and those below him. Low level monks like us...” He shrugged expressively.
“You just follow their orders.” My Lord nodded. “You know, Honourable Monk, we really want to have a look inside the monastery. Just to be able to tell people that we’ve done it, you know.”
“But I told you –”
“Yes, I know what you said. But, excuse me for being blunt, but it’s obvious that you young monks aren’t given your full due by the top orders, am I right?” We all saw Põcha Pantabhat nod. “I’m sure you could always benefit from some additional, um, property of your own, gifts and coins and such.” My Lord leaned confidentially towards the weedy monk. “We’re merchants, as I said, and you know that merchants have wealth to spare.”
Põcha Pantabhat licked his lips. “But where can I keep anything you give me? There are no places I can hide things inside the monastery for any length of time.”
“What a question! Isn’t this your parents’ inn? Wouldn’t they keep something of yours here, securely hidden, as long as you wanted it?”
“Ah, I don’t know...”
“Please, Põcha Pantabhat,” Opodartho said, and was so shameless as to actually reach across the table to touch his hand. “It would mean so much to us if you did this.”
Põcha Pantabhat smiled weakly. “Since you ask it, dear Lady Shamanyo Sheeth, I agree. I’ll take you in.”
“How? You aren’t going to be able to walk us in through the gates, are you?”
Põcha Pantabhat turned back to Onek Mangsho at his words. “There are, uh, secret entrances the novices all know about, which they use when they want to go to the town.”
“Fine,” my Lord said. “Then we’ll see you tonight.”
“Tonight?” Põcha Pantabhat squeaked. “Isn’t that a bit too quick, Lord Bhoyanok Bhumikompo?”
Onek Mangsho smiled. “No point waiting, is there? Besides, we’re planning to leave early in the morning, so if you can’t see your way to helping us tonight, then I’m afraid...”
“All right,” Põcha Pantabhat agreed reluctantly. “I’ll take you tonight. I’ll come to the marketplace after it closes, with a lamp. When you see me standing outside the inn with a lamp, come down.”
“Splendid,” Onek Mangsho said. “We’ll watch for you from our window.”
Põcha Pantabhat swallowed Opodartho’s wine so quickly he seemed to breathe it all down.
“I’ll go down and see if I can find any trace of him,” Opodartho said, finally putting away her comb. “There’s no point sitting wearing our eyes out looking at the market.” Rising to her feet, she passed from the room without a further word.
This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for all evening, so that I could tell Onek Mangsho about the perfidy of the harridan. But I had also been eager to get him alone for another reason, which was quite as urgent. The slut Opodartho had been using her crude advances to keep my Lord in her clutches for so long that I had begun to feel badly neglected, and I, despite my refinement and higher spiritual level, did have needs too.
Rising to my feet from the bed, I stripped off my gown and held out my hand to Onek Mangsho. “Lord,” I told him. “Come to me.”
“Chheechkaduni,” he answered resignedly, “must it be now of all times?”
“Yes, Lord.” I took him by the hand and drew him to the bed. “I’m burning for you.” After all, I could tell him after we’d finished.
Unfortunately, it took longer than I’d planned. My Lord seemed preoccupied and only engaged me half heartedly, while my own needs were more pressing and hard to satisfy than I’d anticipated. We finally gave up the attempt and were just done dressing when Opodartho returned to the room, and I had no opportunity to say what I’d been thinking.
“So, Opodartho,” Onek Mangsho asked, as he fastened his tunic, “did you find him?”
“No, Lord,” the slattern replied, with a smirk at me as though she’d guessed what we’d been doing and that my desires were far from satisfied. “However, I...”
With an almighty crash, the door burst open behind us. Before we could react, we found ourselves with spears held at our throats held by men in the brown hooded livery of the monastery guards.
“What is the meaning of this?” Onek Mangsho demanded. My own mouth seemed to have seized up, and I could not utter a word. Not that it would have helped, because the guards made no attempt to reply. Seizing us by the arms, two to each of us, they hustled us out of the room and down the stairs, while others stayed behind, probably to ransack our belongings.
We were pushed out of the inn and along the deserted, filthy lanes of the market towards the monastery hulking over the town. Soon, a set of huge gates was clanging shut behind us, and I felt my feet slipping on slick stone slabs. We must be in the yard that Põcha Pantabhat had talked about, I realised, the one where the tradesmen put their goods.
But we didn’t stop there. A second gate creaked open, and we were pushed along a corridor lit by torches set in the stone walls. The roof was so low that it almost brushed the top of Onek Mangsho’s head, and my eyes burned with the smoke.
The corridor branched, and branched again, and we were pushed along so many passages that I, despite my keenly honed sense of direction, had to confess myself quite lost. At last we were pushed into a large and dimly lit chamber, a door crashed shut, and the guards dropped our arms and stepped back.
“My Lord,” I took the opportunity to murmur out of the corner of my mouth, as I rubbed my arms, whose tender skin, I guessed, must be bruised at this rough handling, “why do you think we’ve been brought here? Who could possibly have...”
“Shh,” Opodartho shushed me. I was about to turn angrily towards her when I realised that someone was watching us from the other side of the chamber.
It was a man with a wispy beard which hung over his yellow and orange tunic. He was so small and so old that he seemed almost a doll which someone had dressed up in a monk’s clothing. But when he stepped forwards, I saw that his hair hung to his shoulders, and realised he was someone of importance here.
“Down on your knees,” one of the guards snarled. “Kneel before the High Abbot!”
The old man raised a hand like a few twigs wrapped in yellowing skin. “I doubt that they’ll do it willingly, and there’s no point forcing them.” His voice was surprisingly deep and strong for such a little old man, a voice to match someone half his age and twice his size. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“The High Abbot?” My Lord asked. “Are we in the presence of His Excellency Papi Pashondo himself?”
“Why, yes.” As the old man walked towards us with slow, mincing steps, I realised he didn’t even come up to my chin. He would have been an absurd figure except for the almost visible aura of power he gave off, and the tales we’d heard of how he ruled Thoger Tandob with an iron fist. “I am Papi Pashondo. And you – would you like to identify yourselves?”
“I am the merchant Bhoyanok Bhumikompo and this is my consort Kharap Khorgosh, while the other lady is...”
“I know what your names are, or at least who you claim to be.” The High Abbot raised his hand again, and looked us up and down, one by one. He was so close I could smell him, a strange odour as of burnt incense and smoke. When he looked up into my face I stared back, fascinated, into his eyes. They were the flattest, blackest and most expressionless eyes I have ever seen. Even the eyes set in the walls of the Chewing Chamber of Chokhermoni, in which we so narrowly escaped being shredded alive, were more human than this. “What I want to know is this: what are you doing in our city?”
“I told, you, Excellency Papi Pashondo, that we’re merchants –”
“Silence. I did not ask you, Bhoyanok Bhumikompo. I asked this young woman here. What did you say your name was, my dear? Kharap Khorgosh? Well, Lady Kharap Khorgosh, tell me, please, what is a lovely woman like you doing in our city?”
“I...” I found myself licking my lips to moisten them as I tried to recall what Onek Mangsho had told the young monk earlier. “We came to buy things to sell in the southern markets.”
“Ah yes. And have you had success in your purchases?”
“Well, we were leaving tomorrow morning.”
“That is not an answer.” Papi Pashondo turned to look at someone behind us. “Did you get their things from the inn?”
“Yes, High Abbot.”
“And what did you find?”
“There’s a small amount of money, some very well-kept weapons, but no merchandise of any kind – nothing but clothes and personal belongings.”
“Ah.” The High Abbot turned back to me. “And how do you explain that?”
“We,” I extemporised desperately, “put the things we bought in a cache out in the desert, away from thieves and robbers. We were planning to collect them on our way.”
“And no doubt your money is hidden there, too, and these weapons were meant to guard against those thieves and robbers?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned away from me towards Onek Mangsho. “So, could you tell me why we should believe that you are anything but a dangerous group of troublemakers intent on rousing the people of the town to rebellion?”
“Why should we wish to rouse the people of the town to rebellion, High Abbot? We have nothing against you.”
“You really don’t understand why?” Papi Pashondo’s lips lifted in a humourless smile. He turned back to a chair covered in dark cloth which I now saw stood on a platform on the other side of the room. “This monastery serves the Cannibal Spirit, of course, but apart from that it also controls this town. You know that, right?”
We nodded. Or at least I nodded. I could not have seen Onek Mangsho or Opodartho without turning my head.
“Thoger Tandob only exists because of the monastery. Without the monastery’s control, it would quickly fall into chaos. And what would happen then? Can you tell me?”
None of us replied.
“The traders would take their business to one of the other towns, that’s what. And the monasteries around those towns would then become rich and strong. They already burn with jealousy against us, jealousy at our power and wealth – the power and wealth we’ve accumulated over so many years. So, tell me...” The High Abbot leant towards us from his chair. “Which of the other monasteries sent you to stir up trouble? Hingshar Hahakar? Nishthur Norohotya? Goromey Gomgomey? It was Goromey Gomgomey, wasn’t it? Tell me right away, so I can unleash the vengeance of Thoger Tandob on them.”
“We didn’t come here to stir up trouble,” Onek Mangsho said. “We’re only merchants.”
“I see you’re not going to tell me so easily. It will only, I’m afraid –” Papi Pashondo’s wrinkled face scrunched up in an expression probably meant to show that he was afraid. “– make things worse for you. I was planning to execute you right away after this interrogation, nicely and with minimal fuss, but since you won’t tell me the truth, you’ll have to be persuaded.” He looked at me. “Pity – I was rather looking forward to having you for breakfast, but I suppose I can wait a meal or two. Still,” he sighed, “a painful death does spoil the flavour of the meat, you know. I suppose you won’t just tell me which one it was, my dear?”
I shook my head mutely.
“Oh well, I’ll get it out of you anyway, in the end.” He looked at the guards. “Take them to the cells. I’ll talk to them again in the morning, and if they’re still not going to tell me, well, the Master Torturer Oshojyo Otyachar can attend to them.”
“But I tell you,” I began, “we don’t know anything...” It fell on deaf ears. Taking hold of us again by the arms, the guards pushed us out of the chamber the way we’d come and down more interminable passages, until the air grew cool and then chill. I realised we were probably far underground.
“Don’t squeeze my arms quite so hard,” I said to the guards holding me. “I won’t be able to get away, in any case. I’m only an unarmed, defenceless woman.”
“You’ll keep your mouth closed if you know what’s good for you,” one of the guards growled.
“Oh, she’ll be opening it wide enough when the Master Torturer goes to work on her,” the other said. “The whole monastery will be able to hear, she’ll open it so loud.” They both began to laugh. I pressed my lips tight to stop them trembling with fury.
We went even lower, into levels where the corridors were dark and filled with shadow. The only light was from the torches our guards carried. Then they pushed us down a flight of steps, and a door clanged shut behind us.
The three of us were in the dark, alone.
“Lord...” I began, “what do we do now? In the morning they’ll come for us, and...”
“There’s no point panicking,” Onek Mangsho said. “Let’s see where we are first, how big this place is, and then we’ll see if there’s a way we can get out.”
Gingerly, feeling with my hands, I groped my way to the near wall. It was of rough, cold stone, and even if I went up on the tips of my toes I could not find any breaks in it. Fumbling my way along the rock, I suddenly bumped into someone, and by the feel of the thick arms and coarse hair I knew it was Opodartho.
“There’s nothing this way either,” she said. “It’s just a round cell, probably carved out of the rock.”
“That’s true,” Onek Mangsho said. “The door seems to be the only entrance, and at the moment I can’t see how we can open it.”
“Then this is the end, Lord,” I said miserably. “After all we’ve been through, this is the way it ends.”
“Come on,” Opodartho snapped. “We’ve been in much worse situations before and come out all right. Do you remember the Domain of the Dreadful Digger of Dekhajabey, for example? Or the time we were stuck in the Yurt of the Yammering Yeti of Yaboro? We got safely away both times, didn’t we? Even the Cunning Criminal of Kamangola couldn’t stop us.”
I ignored the stupid slattern. At least, I hoped, I would not have to set eyes on her again in the hours I still had to live. “Lord,” I said, “I wish I could be brave, but I can’t bear that it should end this way, at the hands of the High Abbot’s torturer.”
“I just told you –” Opodartho began.
“No,” my Lord said suddenly and loudly, “she’s right. It isn’t right for us to end our lives on the hooks of the High Abbot’s Master Torturer. For all our past exploits, once he gets those instruments of his on our bodies, it’ll be the end of us. And even worse,” he added after a moment’s pause, “we won’t be able to keep our mouths closed, as the guards said.”
There was the slightest of pauses, and then Opodartho replied, as loudly. “Yes, Lord. All we will do is tell everything we know, and give away all our secrets and plans. And that will never do.”
“Therefore, I can see only one way out,” Onek Mangsho replied. “You will understand what it is.”
“Yes, Lord. We must kill ourselves at once.”
If there had been any light to see by, I would have been looking from one to the other in astonishment. In all the time of our wandering, I had never heard either of them suggest such a thing. After a moment’s thought, I concluded that their minds must have got unhinged from the agony of anticipating death.
“My Lord,” I ventured hesitantly, “I don’t want us to kill ourselves. It’s just that...”
“We must,” Onek Mangsho said. “We have a duty to ourselves not to be tortured, and besides, we have a duty to our employers as well. The High Abbot and the others must not find out who they are.”
“That’s right,” Opodartho agreed. “We may have failed, but others will come after us, and they must have the chance to succeed.”
“But...” I began.
“Oh, you don’t have to kill yourself,” Opodartho said. “One of us will dispatch you, Kharap Khorgosh, and then kill the other person too. And then only the last one will need to commit suicide.”
By now I was convinced they were both raving crazy, and calling me by my assumed name only confirmed it. But all I could do was edge away from the two of them as far as I could, in the darkness.
“So that’s decided,” Onek Mangsho announced. “We kill Kharap Khorgosh first, and once she’s dead, I’ll kill you, Shamanyo Sheeth. Then it’s only for me to kill myself.”
“The only problem is that we don’t have any weapons with us, do we?” Opodartho asked. “Perhaps I could strangle Kharap Khorgosh, and then you could strangle me, but then how do you –”
“I’ve got a small knife,” Onek Mangsho announced. “I hid it in my shoe, and they didn’t search it. I know where to stab and it’ll do. Now quickly strangle Kharap Khorgosh. There’s no time to lose.”
“Don’t worry, Kharap Khorgosh,” Opodartho said. “This won’t hurt at all, esoecially compared to the torturer’s hooks. Now close your eyes and raise your head so I can get my hands round your throat – yes, like that...”
The insanity that seemed to have gripped the harridan was so great that she apparently imagined that her hands were squeezing the life from my body, even though she was nowhere near me and her voice was coming from the other side of the chamber, near the door. It was just as well for her, since, even though I didn’t have my beloved long knife on me, I would have fought her with my nails and teeth. Even so, I crouched near the floor, my heart thumping as I listened to the madwoman.
“She’s almost gone,” Opodartho announced. “Another moment and it’ll be over.”
“Poor woman,” Onek Mangsho replied. “But they’ll never get the secret from us now. It’s your turn, Shamayo Sheeth. Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” the madwoman said. “My throat is bared for your hands.”
And then the door slammed open.
The sudden glare of torchlight was so blinding that I only had a confused impression of what happened next. There was a flurry of movement, the noise of a heavy blow, someone came rolling down the stairs, and in the arc of light of a falling torch I saw Opodartho snatch up a spear. It rose and fell, rose and fell again.
“Come on, Chheechkaduni,” she shouted at me. “Get a spear, quickly, and come on before more of them get here.”
There were three guards on the floor, lying in a welter of blood. My Lord and Opodartho had already snatched up the torch they had with them and two of their spears. Quickly picking up the third, I leapt over the corpses and ran up the stairs, still trying to overcome my bewilderment.
There was another guard in the corridor, a large man who turned slowly, blinking, as we ran towards him. His reflexes were so slow that my spear had already taken him under the throat before he even understood what was happening. Then we were past him and running up through the cold dark corridors.
“Do we know which way to go?” I gasped.
“For now we’ve got to get as far from the cell as possible,” Onek Mangsho said. “We’ll find our way later.”
“Just stick together,” Opodartho put in. “Don’t wander off and get lost. We’d never find each other again.”
We finally stopped for a rest just as I thought I couldn’t go on any further. Every breath was liquid fire in my lungs and the muscles of my legs were screaming. Opodartho, however, seemed to have energy enough to speak even though I was reduced to helpless wheezing – no doubt because of her crude peasant origins, so unlike my delicate aristocratic self.
“It was an excellent idea of yours, Lord,” she said. “I can’t imagine why it took me so long to catch on to what you were doing.”
“Well, it was obvious, of course, that they would be eavesdropping on us to find out what we knew,” Onek Mangsho replied. “But I really couldn’t have thought of a way to turn it against them until Chheechkaduni began talking of how she didn’t want to die at the Master Torturer’s hands. The credit really belongs to her.”
I might have felt gratified at this praise, if only we hadn’t been somewhere in a maze of unknown passages beneath a monastery filled with power-crazed monks waiting to torture us to death and then eat what was left. “How do we find our way out, Lord?” I asked instead. “I have no idea where we are.”
“Hush,” Opodartho said suddenly. “Do you hear that?”
I heard it too, a faint echo in the distance, as of a spear head striking against stone. “Quench the torch, quickly,” my Lord murmured. An instant later, we were again in darkness.
But not for long. We could all see the wavering glow of a torch reflected on the stone walls, and a moment later there was movement along a corridor to the side. A line of guards in their brown clothing moved past, the torch glinting dully on their spears.
“Come on,” my Lord said very softly. “Let’s follow them.”
“Their guards are far from competent,” I murmured as we followed the file up the passage. Not one of them made any attempt to look behind them. “Even villages have better sentries.”
“It’s likely that they haven’t had to do much in the way of work before,” Opodartho replied, in a whisper in my ear. “They probably rely on the fear of the monastery’s reach and power more than its actual strength. That’s fortunate for us, because competent guards would never have let themselves be taken by surprise like the ones in the cell.”
“They have the numbers, though,” Onek Mangsho warned, as softly as the two of us. “Remember that they may be fools, but there are a lot of them.”
For the moment, though, we were safe in the shadows, trailing behind the guards. They were not the only group looking for us. From time to time we saw other torches in the distance, and glimpsed other lines of brown-clad figures, but none of them approached us.
“These passages seem to go on forever,” I grumbled after we had been trailing around after the guards for so long that it seemed to me that we’d never done anything else. “How much longer –”
“Wait, Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said, and touched Onek Mangsho’s arm. “My Lord, beyond that corner up there, unless I’m much mistaken, we can see the lights of lamps. We may be coming to the upper passages at last.”
The harlot, it seemed, was correct. Fortunately, the guards we’d been following – who seemed to be under orders to find us, no matter how long it took – chose to move on into another dark tunnel in the rock, and we took the opportunity to move on towards the lighted corridor.
It was deserted, as a quick look showed, but distressingly well-lit. “Anyone who saw us would recognise us at once,” Onek Mangsho pointed out. “And the three of us can’t fight the whole monastery.”
“And it’s not as though we can just get out of the monastery so easily,” Opodartho said thoughtfully. “It seems to me that we need some kind of disguise.”
“What sort of –?” I began to ask, but before I could finish the question, there was the sound of voices in the corridor and two guards came into view.
“Hush,” Opodartho breathed into my ear. We shrank back into the shadows, waiting for the guards to enter the passage we were in, but they simply moved on down the well-lit corridor, still talking to each other.
“The Master Torturer’s already sharpening his tools,” the first one said. The voice sounded familiar, and I realised it was the one who’d mocked me as they were dragging us down to the cell. “I don’t envy these three when he gets his hooks in them.”
“How loud do you think they’ll scream?” the other one replied, with a laugh. “I bet the smaller woman bawls louder than the other two put together. You always can tell the weak ones.”
That did it. Readers of these chronicles will be aware how level-headed and slow to anger I am, but this was beyond my capacity to bear. When the red haze cleared from my mind, I was standing in the corridor over the bodies of the two guards, my borrowed spear still buried up to the shaft in the mocking one’s neck.
“Chheechkaduni,” Onek Mangsho said, horrified. “What on earth have you done?”
“I couldn’t help it, Lord,” I muttered. “They angered me beyond bearing.”
But Opodartho was prodding one of the corpses with her foot, with a thoughtful expression on her face. “Lord,” she said, “these two are about your size and mine. With the hoods of their gowns pulled over our heads, they would be fairly adequate disguises.”
“But what about Chheechkaduni?” My Lord asked. “We have no disguise for her.”
“Yes, what about Chheechkaduni?” I put in. “You’re not going to leave Chheechkaduni alone by herself here, let her tell you that.”
“We aren’t going to leave you,” Opodartho said impatiently, as she began to drag the nearer corpse into the passage we’d been in. “My Lord, she doesn’t need a disguise. She’ll simply be our prisoner, whom we’ve caught in the passage and are taking to the Master Torturer. All she has to do is look frightened out of her wits, and she can do that quite well.”
The trollop’s words sent a white hot shaft of anger through me, but for the moment I forbore to say anything. After all, her plan was a good one. And, being an excellent actress, I could act frightened much better than someone like Opodartho could ever dream of doing. Soon enough, after dragging the bodies into a niche in the dark passage, we were marching up the corridor, Onek Mangsho and Opodartho holding me by the arms.
The corridors we were in now weren’t the ones by which we’d been taken down to the cell. They were larger, better lit – with lamps hanging from rings in the ceiling, not guttering torches in holders – and large, ornate doors were set into the walls at intervals. One of them was ajar, and as we passed I took a moment to peek inside. I caught a glimpse of thick, rich looking wall hangings, and a carpet on the floor.
“Lord,” Opodartho said, “since we’re inside the monastery anyway, just as we wanted...”
“I wasn’t planning on being hunted by the entire place while we were in here,” Onek Mangsho grumbled. “But you’re right. We should look around while we’re here, in case we find anything.”
A few hurrying moments later we came to an especially large and ornate door. “What’s in here, I wonder?” Opodartho said, gently pushing it open. The next instant she jerked back with a gasp of dismay.
“What is it?” Onek Mangsho demanded. “Guards?”
I could have answered his question, but my own heart was in my mouth. I’d seen what was in the room, as soon as she had, and my reaction was no less frightened than her own.
It was a large chamber, large enough that the lamp set on the floor failed to light up the far walls. But what it showed was enough.
In the centre of the room squatted a monstrous figure, so huge that it seemed to fill the space up to the ceiling. In the flickering light of the lamp its eyes glittered with silent malevolence. White fangs gleamed in its coppery face, and its black-clawed hands reached out towards us, ready to tear us to pieces, to rip and destroy.
“My Lord...” I whispered.
“It’s the Cannibal Spirit,” Onek Mangsho said, peering over my shoulder. “I’ve never seen an idol as big as this, though, or quite as well-crafted. This monastery must be even wealthier than I’d imagined, to have been able to make something like this.”
“The Cannibal Spirit?” It is a strange confession to make, but in all our wanderings, and in our life earlier in the wretched village from which we’d escaped, I had never seen an idol of the Deity himself. I shivered. “Is that what he looks like, truly?”
“Who knows?” Opodartho seemed to have regained her composure, or at least was making a good pretence of it. “Nobody who has ever met the Cannibal Spirit has ever returned to tell the tale, right? Lord,” she added, “look there, behind the idol, against the far wall. Are those chests and boxes?”
Onek Mangsho and I looked where she was pointing. “I think we should have a closer look,” he said. “Just in case.”
Gingerly, as though the squatting idol would snap forwards and bite, we entered the room. The chests were massive, so large that they must have exceeded in size even those of the Miserable Miser of Mukhpora Minshey. But when we opened the first one, all it had inside were linen and incense.
“These are just things for the worship services of the idol,” Opodartho said. We moved on to the others. They were bound with metal bands and secured with locks so heavy that we could not possibly have opened them, even had we had the tools, in more time than we could even think of staying.
“We’d better leave before someone comes,” Onek Mangsho announced at last, with a reluctant sigh.
We had just turned away when I stubbed my toes on something in the darkness just behind the idol. I felt around with my foot.
“Lord,” I said. “There’s a bag or bundle of some sort here.”
“Well, leave it and come on,” Onek Mangsho said impatiently. “We don’t have time for this.”
Piqued by his tone of voice, I kicked the bundle aside. We left the room and Opodartho and my Lord resumed their grip on my arms.
“Opodartho,” Onek Mangsho said, “even if we do manage to get out of here, you realise the guards will hunt for us? We won’t be safe in the town, or indeed anywhere in the vicinity. I’d planned on entering and leaving without anyone knowing who we were...apart from that weedy young man, whom we’d have taken care of...but now it’s going to be infinitely more difficult.”
“Well, Lord,” Opodartho said, “I...”
The next moment, a hurrying figure came round the next corner and almost bumped into us.
“Why, it’s Lady Kharap Khorgosh,” Põcha Pantabhat said. “I see they’ve caught you.”
I had been unable to suppress a squeak of dismay, but the young monk seemed not even to have heard it. “I need to talk to you,” he said urgently.
“We’re taking her to the Master Torturer Oshojyo Otyachar,” Onek Mangsho growled, in a heavier tone of voice than he usually used. “We have no time to talk.”
Põcha Pantabhat didn’t even glance at him. “Step back, oaf. You can keep watch as well from a few paces away. I need to talk to this woman.”
“But the Master Torturer is waiting.”
“Monk’s prerogative,” Põcha Pantabhat snapped. “It won’t take long.”
“Well?” I said as Onek Mangsho and Opodartho dropped my arms and stepped back. “What do you want?”
Põcha Pantabhat licked his lips nervously and glanced back over his shoulder. “You must believe me when I say that I had nothing to do with your arrest,” he said. “Nothing at all. I was scared, that’s why I didn’t come to the market. I admit it. But I didn’t give you away.” He swallowed, his throat bobbing. “If I could have, I’d have come down to the cell and told you myself. I was trying to find a way to do so when I heard you’d escaped. I didn’t denounce you. I don’t know who did, but it wasn’t my doing.”
“Why do you want to tell me that?” I asked. “What difference does it make to me who turned us in? The end result is the same.”
“So that you don’t mention me to the Grand Abbot or the Master Torturer,” Põcha Pantabhat said. In the light of the lamps he looked weedier than ever. “They’d demand to know why I didn’t turn you in, and put me on the hooks as well. Please don’t tell them anything about me!”
“Oh, but,” I said, “how can I control what comes out of my mouth when the torturer flays the flesh from my bones? Whatever promises I make, how can I be sure of being able to keep them?”
Põcha Pantabhat seemed almost to sag. “Perhaps,” he muttered, looking down at the floor, “if I kill you now, and claim that your crimes overwhelmed me with rage, I could still get away with it.”
I snorted. “You’ll kill me? You don’t have it in you. In any case, I could take you apart, right now, with my bare hands. And do you suppose those two will stand by and watch you kill me?”
The youngster seemed about to burst into tears. “You’re right,” he admitted. “I couldn’t kill you even if I tried. Besides, Bhishon Bhumikompo and the other one, the pretty lady, are still at large. Even if I eliminated you, they’d still be able to get my name from them.”
“So,” I said, with deliberate malice, “it seems to me that you’re doomed whatever happens. You might as well accompany me to the Master Torturer right away, and hand yourself over to his tender mercies.”
“Are you going to take much longer?,” Onek Mangsho called. “I am starting to believe this monk is implicated in some nefarious plot against the monastery. The Master Torturer will be happy to get his hooks into him.”
“Running won’t do any good,” I said, seeing clear indications that Põcha Pantabhat was thinking of bolting. “They’ll still know who you are.”
“Please,” Põcha Pantabhat begged, “don’t do this. I’ll do anything at all if you don’t turn me in.”
“Including conducting me out of this monastery?” I asked. “You said there were hidden exits. Will you guide me out of this place?”
“How about the guards?” Põcha Pantabhat glanced at Onek Mangsho and Opodartho. “They won’t let me do that.”
“I don’t think you’ll need to worry about them,” I said, beckoning. “They don’t like this monastery of yours any better than I do.”
“True enough,” Opodartho said, throwing back the hood of her brown robe a moment. “I’ve no desire to stay here a second longer than I must.”
“Lady Shamanyo Sheeth!” Põcha Pantabhat’s eyes threatened to bug out of his head. “It’s you. And is this Bhishon Bhumikompo?”
“Who else?” Opodartho told him. “Now, monk, what is it to be? Conduct us safely out of this place, and you can go on safely with your life. Make trouble for us, and you join us on the torture racks. Make up your mind.”
“Come, then,” Põcha Pantabhat muttered. “Follow me.”
“Follow you where?” a voice asked. I turned quickly. There, behind us, was an immense man in a black mask. Behind him were two armed men, in black clothes, unlike the brown of the monastery guards. They had come up so silently that not even Onek Mangsho seemed to have noticed their approach. “Where do you want them to follow you?”
“Master Torturer Oshojyo Otyachar!” Põcha Pantabhat almost gibbered at the sight of him. “We were just on our way to you.”
“Is that so?” Oshojyo Otyachar stared at him through the eye holes cut in the black mask. His pale arms were hairy and thick with muscle, and the sleeveless tunic he wore was streaked and blotched with dark stains that looked disturbingly like dried blood. “In that case, why are you headed in the opposite direction to my torture chamber? Or did you somehow forget where it is? I’ll be glad to remind you.”
Põcha Pantabhat’s mouth opened and closed again. “I...” he began. “I wasn’t thinking...”
“Looking at you, I don’t suppose you can think, but I’ll explore that point in detail.” The Master Torturer turned towards me. “You – you’re one of the three I was told to get ready for. Why has nobody told me you were recaptured?”
Looking at this man, feeling his eyes on me, I decided that I would much rather die than let him touch me with his thick pale hairy hands. “I don’t know why nobody has told you,” I said. “Why ask me?”
The huge masked head nodded slowly. “Show spirit while you can,” the big man said. “Once you’re on the torture table you’ll be begging for death soon enough. But before that happens, I’ll drag out all your secrets, from who sent you here to why you were about to follow this monk, escorted by just the one guard.”
Just the one guard? I risked a quick look over my shoulder. Only Onek Mangsho stood there, the hood pulled over his features and the spear in his hands. Of Opodartho there was no sign. She seemed to have evaporated into thin air.
“You, guard,” Oshojyo Otyachar snapped, pointing to Onek Mangsho. “Catch hold of this woman and follow me. And, you, monk, will you come along with us of your own free will or should my men drag you?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Põcha Pantabhat said. “She...she said...”
“Yes, we’ll find out what exactly she said. The High Abbot, in particular, is very interested in finding out what she said or would say.” Oshojyo Otyachar led the way up a flight of stairs, Põcha Pantabhat following miserably behind him. “And then we’ll find out whether it’s your fault.”
I wondered for a moment if I might manage to whisper a message to Onek Mangsho, asking him to escape while he still could, right after delivering me to the torture chamber. I wanted to tell him to track down Opodartho and take revenge on her. I regretted bitterly at that moment that I had not told him the vile woman’s traitorous talk earlier in the evening. All that, and more, I wanted to tell him, but the Master Torturer’s two black-clad henchmen were right behind him, far too close to risk even a single word.
We came to a door so set with metal bands and spikes that it was impossible to make out what it was made of originally. At the sight of it, the monk whimpered once like a windwolf cub seeking its mother, and began to slide to the floor. Oshojyo Otyachar grabbed hold of his clothing and dragged him to his feet with one hand, threw the door open with the other, and looked at me over his shoulder.
“Welcome to my domain,” he said.
It was a smaller room than I’d imagined, or perhaps it only seemed small because the walls were lined with shelves and cabinets. The shelves were filled with things which I could not see distinctly, but the light gleaming on serrated metal made me glad that I could not see them better. On one side was a heavy stone fireplace in which red flames licked and played, while the middle of the room was taken up by an inclined table furnished with straps and belts.
“You, guard,” the Master Torturer said to Onek Mangsho, “keep your eye on this monk. I don’t trust him not to make a break for it. You, woman, get on the table and lie on your back.”
“Why should I?” I asked. “What are you going to do if I don’t...torture me?”
Without answering, he gestured to his two henchmen. A moment later I found myself picked up bodily and pushed down on the table. One of the men ripped off my shoes and bent to tie straps round my ankles, while the other one began securing my hands.
The door opened on a squeal of hinges. Everyone turned to look, even the two henchmen tying me to the table. A small figure, hunched over, entered.
“My Lord High Abbot,” Oshojyo Otyachar said. “I’m glad you’re here – I was just about to send a message to you.”
“Master Torturer.” Papi Pashondo inclined his head at the man in the black mask, who was easily three times his size. “I’m afraid the guards have not yet –” With a visible start, he noticed me on the table. “What’s this, you’ve got them?”
“Only one of them – and I found her in the company of one of your monks.” Oshojyo Otyachar pointed at the cowering figure of Põcha Pantabhat. “I intend to find out what he was doing in her company.”
“I would be very interested in knowing that too.” Papi Pashondo glanced at Põcha Pantabhat. “He’s a poor, weak specimen anyway, not worth anything to the monastery. You can do as you like with him.”
“Thank you, High Abbot.” The Master Torturer indicated me with a motion of his chin. “I did not know that she had been recaptured. Nobody told me.”
“Nobody told me either.” Papi Pashondo stared at me with his flat black eyes. “This one is the weakest of the three,” he said. “Whatever they know, you’ll get it out of her most easily.”
“Ah. And are there any special questions you would like asked?”
“You could start by finding out where they are really from. Their weapons and clothes have been sent up here, I take it? Yes, there they are in the corner. Those weapons and clothes aren’t from hereabouts. I want to know whether the other monasteries are hiring fighters from distant lands to send here. Start by asking that.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything,” I said, glancing at Onek Mangsho and willing him not to do anything. Since he’d not been detected yet, he might still be able to escape. “Nothing at all.”
“Of course you will, my dear, of course you will.” Papi Pashondo walked over to the table and looked down at me. “You’ll tell us every single thing you know, after which, of course, I’m going to eat you.”
“Eat this first.” Firelight danced on spear blade as Opodartho sprang through the open door. I gasped with the shock, and I wasn’t the only one.
Opodartho was like the wind, like the night, like the shadows, like the spirit of the desert. She was like the vengeance of a thousand tortured bodies who had sobbed their lives away in this room. She was the blood in the moon and the cold pitiless glare of the stars. She was the Cannibal Spirit brought alive, the cry of the dire lioness, the flash of forked lightning on the horizon. The hair danced around her shoulders as she whirled around the room, and the spear in her hands caught and reflected the light as though it was itself made of fire.
Oshojyo Otyachar, Papi Pashondo, and their two henchmen seemed frozen to the spot with astonishment. They were so dumbstruck that they hadn’t even been able to move when Opodartho’s spear took the Master Torturer through the chest, the blade coming out right through his back. Even as he collapsed, bringing down a table loaded with knives and hooks, Onek Mangsho roared and hurled himself on the two black-clad assistants. They fell where they stood, dying with a dazed expression on their faces.
I suddenly realised that apart from one ankle, I was still free. The henchmen hadn’t tied more than that before Papi Pashondo had arrived. Struggling to sit up on the inclined surface, I bent to untie the ankle.
And then, suddenly, the High Abbot seemed to snap out of the paralysis that had gripped him.
I felt an arm pull my head back, and the sharp cold touch of a metal blade under my jaw. “Don’t move,” Papi Pashondo said quietly. “Or I’ll rip this woman’s throat open like a food slave’s.”
Once again, the room seemed to freeze. Opodartho paused in the act of trying to pull her spear out of the Master Torturer’s immense carcass. Onek Mangsho hesitated, his own spear half raised as he looked from me to the High Abbot and back again.
And then Opodartho smiled, and I have never seen a smile like that on anyone’s face before or since. “I don’t think so,” she said, and, straightening, fumbled at her throat. An instant later, the brown guard’s uniform had fallen in a puddle of cloth at her feet, leaving her naked as the day she was born.
“I don’t think you’ll harm her, Papi Pashondo,” Opodartho said, stepping forward. The firelight flickered orange on her breasts and flat belly, and painted her skin with colour. “Will you?”
With a low moan, the High Abbot turned away from me, the knife falling from his hand on to the table. His hands were covering his eyes.
“Kill him, please,” Opodartho told me in a bored voice.
So I did.
“What do you want to do, monk?” Onek Mangsho asked.
We were hurrying down the corridors of the monastery, Opodartho and Onek Mangsho once more dressed as guards, but carrying our own weapons, while I, still playing the prisoner, carried the rest of our belongings slung in a bag over my back. We’d had difficulty rousing Põcha Pantabhat from his stupor on the floor – he’d curled up in a foetal ball when Opodartho had stripped nude, and buried his head in his arms, just as the late and unlamented High Abbot had done. I was all for leaving him there, but Opodartho had pointed out that we needed him to show us the way out.
“More than ever now, when they find out that their precious High Abbot and Master Torturer have both been taken out of circulation,” she said.
So we’d tried to poke and prod and cajole and even kick Põcha Pantabhat into motion, but to no avail. Finally, I’d fetched my beloved long knife and, gently murmuring in his ear, threatened to cut his face off with it. That finally brought him blinking out of the cage of his arms, and when he saw that Opodartho had clothes on he looked considerably relieved.
“How do you mean, what do I want to do?”
“You must have realised that everyone who could have directly connected you with us is dead. The High Abbot, the Master Torturer, even the two assistants who saw us together with you – they’re all dead. So once we leave this monastery, there’s nothing to stop you from resuming your old position, just like nothing’s happened, right?”
“Well, yes, as far as that goes, but...”
“But, you’re not a complete idiot, so you’ll have also realised that we could be recaptured, and though it would only be our word against yours, people would wonder how we knew who you are and everything about you.” Onek Mangsho put a huge hand, none too gently, on Põcha Pantabhat’s shoulder. “Therefore, you’re wondering if you could risk giving the alarm somehow, and leading us into a trap, so that you could claim you’d been taken hostage and were merely trying to have the killers of the Abbot and his torturers caught. Right?”
Põcha Pantabhat did not say anything. The expression on his face was enough.
“So let me tell you that if you lead us into a trap,” Onek Mangsho continued, “your guts will spill on the floor before you have the chance to open your mouth. Am I understood?”
Põcha Pantabhat nodded mutely to show that he was understood.
“Good,” my Lord said affectionately, and patted him on the shoulder. The pat was so hard that he stumbled and almost fell headlong. “So let’s have no further useless plotting, and lead us outside the monastery, and after that you can do as you please.”
We went down a long staircase and into a series of dark, cool rooms which were piled high with sacks and boxes. The air was redolent with the odour of spices and smoked meat. Põcha Pantabhat finally turned into a narrow, dusty corridor between a pile of crates and a stone wall.
“Here you are,” he said sullenly, pointing to the base of the wall, where we saw that some stones were missing, forming a jagged opening just high enough to crawl through. “That’s the way to the outside.”
“Ch...Kharap Khorgosh,” Onek Mangsho said, “please be so good as to go through this and make sure it is as our good friend Põcha Pantabhat says.”
I was so happy to be out of that awful place that I didn’t hesitate a moment. Dropping to my hands and knees, I crawled through the gap. It was longer than I’d thought, and a narrow squeeze, but suddenly it opened out, and a moment later I was standing in the open air. Below me were the narrow, dirty streets of the town, and a waning moon hanging overhead.
“I’m outside,” I called back through the hole. Even as I did, I noticed something. It seemed to be less dark than one would expect at this pre-dawn hour, and there was a rumble of sound. It was a very familiar kind of sound. And then, as Onek Mangsho’s head and shoulders emerged from the hole, I realised what it was.
“Lord,” I said urgently, “there’s a crowd with torches outside the walls of the monastery. A big crowd, and by the sounds of it they’re furious.”
“Yes,” Opodatho said, following my Lord through the hole. “Thoger Tandob has risen in revolt against the monastery.”
Both Onek Mangsho and I stared at her. “How on earth do you know that?” I asked.
“Later,” Opodartho said. “My Lord, I suggest we change out of these clothes into our own travelling outfits. It will not be healthy to be caught out in the town in the monastery’s livery tonight.”
So that is what they did.
“There’s only so much oppression a town will stand before it gets to be too much,” Opodartho said.
We were walking as quickly as we could through the morning chill of the desert. Far behind us, the sounds of battle rose faintly from Thoger Tandob. We did not know who was winning, and still less did we care. The important thing was that it was giving us cover for our getaway.
“The only thing that prevents an uprising is that people tend not to realise that they’re oppressed,” Opodartho went on. “They need someone to tell them they have rights, to give them a focus for their grievances, to rouse them to fury. Once that happens, nothing can stop them rising up. And the monastery was well aware of that, too.”
“That was why the High Abbot was so worried about some other monastery inciting the people to rebel,” Onek Mangsho said. “I wondered.”
“Still, it was fortuitous that they rose up just now, wasn’t it?” I asked. “Otherwise we’d be hiding from the guards right now, instead of being able to walk away.”
“Yes,” Opodartho said, dryly. “Fortuitous. Very.”
“I wonder who it was who gave us away,” I continued. “I still think it was Põcha Pantabhat, though what he might’ve gained from betraying us, I confess I have no idea.”
“Of course it wasn’t Põcha Pantabhat,” Onek Mangsho said. “You mean you still haven’t figured it out, Chheechkaduni?”
“What?” I began, and then, suddenly, a lot of things fell into place. I literally felt the blood drain from my face as I realised the truth. “You gave us away,” I said to Opodartho. “It was you.”
The shameless trollop smiled. “Of course I did,” she said. “We needed some way of entering the monastery, and I’d already realised that Põcha Pantabhat would never help us. Since the only people except for monks who could enter the place were prisoners who threatened the monastery itself, the obvious choice was for us to do something that would cause us to be taken prisoner.”
I stared at her. “Papi Pashondo was right, then,” I said. “We, or rather you, were actually stirring up rebellion against the monks.”
“I wouldn’t call it stirring up,” Opodartho said, still grinning. “They were already ripe for rebellion, seething with discontent. I merely said that the monks were growing fat off their toil, and the harder they worked, it was the monastery which got richer. And then I reminded them that when they died, it was the monastery which took all they had.”
“You knew they’d revolt? How could you be sure?”
“Of course I couldn’t be sure, though I thought it was almost certain that they would. My purpose was merely to get us taken prisoner and taken into the monastery. That they revolted the same night was a stroke of luck, but as they say, one creates one’s own luck. Am I right, Lord?”
I could barely control my fury. “You say you wanted us to be taken prisoner and dragged into the monastery – but did you pause to think what might happen to us in there? How could you?”
“Chheechkaduni, please. We’ve survived so many dangers by now, dangers that should by rights have destroyed us many times over, that the answer should be obvious. I had total faith in our ability to fight our way out of whatever a gaggle of mere monks could put up against us.” She looked at me. “I had total faith in you, too, and you acted like a heroine, just as I expected.”
“Yes, Chheechkaduni,” my Lord added. “You were magnificent.”
“And why did you tell me then,” I asked bitterly, “that our Lord was taking too much of a risk by coming here?”
“Oh,” Opodartho said with an impish grin, “I was just checking out what you thought. And you said our Lord knew best. Just as he did.”
After that, what more could I say?
“How did you know that stripping naked would paralyse the High Abbot, Opodartho?” Onek Mangsho queried.
I must confess I was curious about this point, too, but had not wanted to ask since I had no desire to give the strumpet an opportunity to boast of her stunning beauty. But I listened with interest to what she might have to say.
“It was obvious, Lord,” she responded. “I blame myself for not having thought of it sooner. In fact, Põcha Pantabhat had already told us about it when he said that the Cannibal Spirit totally forbade his monks from any kind of sexual dalliance with women. It seemed to be a genuine prohibition, rigidly enforced – you’ll have noticed that the High Abbot only wanted to eat Chheechkaduni, not to sleep with her, and the Master Torturer made no move to molest her sexually either, though he easily could have. This is the kind of thing that, I thought, could only be enforced by intense indoctrination. It wasn’t so strongly developed in Põcha Pantabhat, who was obviously attracted to me – but he’s still young, and the indoctrination would take time to take hold; but it was there. The whole thing indicated clearly that the sudden sight of a naked woman would have a devastating effect on their minds. And so it proved.”
It was early evening, and we had found shelter in a crumbled ruin in the desert. Once it must have been a substantial edifice, but now it was merely a collection of walls high enough to keep out the night wind and protect us from roving windwolves. Though it was hardly luxurious, after the events of the previous night it seemed to be the most desirable place I’d seen in a long while. Sighing with pleasure, I stretched out on the ground, digging my toes into the still warm sand.
“It’s a pity,” Onek Mangsho said, also sighing but not with pleasure, “that we have nothing to show for all the effort we went to. We went into the monastery, we made our way out again, and we’re safe now...but we still have no money, and we never got our hands on the treasure.”
“Oh, yes, about that treasure.” Opodartho looked up at the first stars appearing in the darkling sky. “You know, I saw the Master Torturer and his men coming far too late to warn you, but they hadn’t seen me yet. I took the opportunity to duck back into the room with the idol of the Cannibal Spirit until the danger had passed.”
“And what about it? All the chests in that room are either locked or filled with useless stuff.”
“You remember that Chheechkaduni had stubbed her toes on a bag, Lord? Well, before I came out of the room and set to tracking you down, I picked up that bag.” Casually, she reached between her breasts and tossed something to Onek Mangsho. “Here, look.”
Onek Mangsho opened the small pouch and tipped the contents out onto his palm. In the last of the daylight the stones still glittered, red and green and blue, as though they were on fire.
We looked at the little heap of jewels and at each other.
Finally Onek Mangsho opened his arms and turned to us. “Come here, you,” he said.
We both did.
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Bhishon Boka, my love of all loves,
I kissed your letter a hundred times and more, and I carry it next to my heart and read it at least ten times a day. Hearing from you fills me with such joy that I can scarcely contain myself. I can hardly wait until we are again together and I have you in my arms and between my willingly parted legs.
About the parchment of this Chheechkaduni that you sent me, I must confess that I have in the past heard tales about her, and a vast hoard of valuables that she had allegedly gathered, but in my innocence I dismissed these as fables. It is with astonishment that I realise that she actually existed and is not a creature of fantasy. I will endeavour to find out what I can about her, and will tell you about it when we meet and have sufficiently exhausted our carnal desires to be able to talk.
I realise all too well how you must despise even the very thought of Lokloke Jeebh. I have seen her a couple of times over the years, and she is the most disgusting woman I have ever met. I believe even this Chheechkaduni might have stood favourable comparison to her. By all means send me what of the ancient harridan’s writings you discover, so that we can track down this treasure. For added to my natural desire to be joined to you forever is my equally fierce determination to score off Lokloke Jeebh.
With all my heartfelt love, and aching with the desire to be with you again, I am your own true love,
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015