Sea air does awful things to masonry. This is a mixed blessing from the point of view of climbing. There is no shortage of handholds, but the stone has a nasty tendency to crack when you put your weight on it. The problem was compounded by the poor quality limestone used when building the upper sections of the temple. It had been a very short-sighted economy. Before long, bits would be dropping off - bits like me. And I was now high enough that I'd have plenty of time to curse the penny-pinching builder on the way down.
One other effect of the weathering was that the decorative carving was crumbling away, although not quickly enough for my liking. I'd guess that the only people who ever got close enough to make out the detail would be thieves like me, breaking in. Either the ecclesiastical sculptor had relied on this and indulged his juvenile sense of humour, or he'd had a couple of friezes left over from a job for a fertility cult, and had decided to use them up in an out of the way spot. The last few feet of the climb were across three young women doing something predictable with a donkey (an intricate example of relief carving offering a wide choice of handholds) and then I was over the lip of the window and into the open upper gallery of the temple.
Before heading down the stairs, I paused for a moment to take in the view - not that there was much to see. I'd chosen a moonless night for my private visit to the temple treasury. The town of Tarlsport was a jumbled mass in the darkness. It was barely possible to tell where the buildings stopped and the sea began.
On either side of the town, the walls of the bay rose almost vertically. This had not stopped the inhabitants building on them, right up to the twin lighthouses on top of the opposing cliffs. Level ground was of limited availability and the temple had taken more than its fair share.
Tarlsport had been built were the river Tarl cut its way through a narrow gorge to the sea. At the time, it had doubtless seemed like a good idea to make use of the natural harbour, but my personal opinion is that it would have presented less overall architectural challenge to have made a new port, somewhere you didn't have to build your house on your neighbour's roof.
However, town-planning is not my profession. I'm a thief. Corrine, the Queen of Magpies; at least, that's what the bards call me. You'd think with trained artistic imaginations they could come up with something better, but poetry's not my profession either. Perhaps it's harder than you think to be creative.
No lights shone inside the temple; even the eternal flame had gone out. Not that this gave me any problems, practical or theological. I'd researched the layout thoroughly and had no trouble finding my way in the dark. A spiral staircase took me down to the ground level and then I slipped around to the back of the main altar. Underneath was the treasure crypt. The door was to one side, but I wasn't going to bother with it. The priests had employed a master locksmith and paid a fortune for the best materials to secure the entrance. They boasted it would take a thief a hundred years to pick the lock. They were exaggerating. Even so, there was an easier way in.
Several ventilation grills were set in the paving at the sides of the altar. I picked one at random. Once again, no expense had been spared with the grill itself. It was made of two-inch-thick cast iron of the highest quality - but the concrete it had been set in! Or maybe it had been a misguided attempt at excellence. I can imagine a priest saying, -Oh, don't dilute it with sand. Use pure cement.- Whatever the reason, the mortar was already cracked and flaking. I knelt down by the grill and took a small chisel from my pocket.
As I scratched away, I thought of Masie and the high priest and the reason I was there. When I first saw what had happened to Masie, I'd wanted to kill the high priest. It was still an attractive idea, but it wouldn't help Masie, and I'm a thief not an assassin. So I was going to steal the thing the high priest valued most. The proceeds should see Masie quite comfortably through her enforced retirement.
Masie is, or was, an uncommon prostitute. She has been a good friend to me for years and an occasional lover, although not on a professional basis. -Men for profit, women for pleasure.- is one of her favourite sayings. But I've known her give it to men for free, if they looked down on their luck and in need of cheering up. She's the authentic article - the whore with a heart of gold, which makes me sick when I think of what's happened to her. I hope she charged the high-priest a fortune.
There is always a good trade to be made from sailors. After a few months at sea, they are happy for any change from the cabin-boy. The cabin-boy is probably pleased about it as well. Masie moved to Tarlsport just over a year ago in search of unfussy punters. She was worried her looks were starting to fade. It's hideously ironic when you consider the state she's in now.
If the high-priest's religion demands he be celibate, it's between him and his god. If he breaks his vow, it's between him and his conscience. But he wanted someone else to blame, so he wouldn't have to feel guilty. He accused Masie of witchcraft and of using magic to seduce him. He rigged a show trial. I suppose it's something that she wasn't executed, but the state she's in now she won't be getting many punters, and those who are attracted by her scars aren't the sort of people you want to be alone in a room with.
During the course of my career, I've stolen for all sorts of reasons. This time I was doing it for revenge.
Less than an hour later I put down the chisel and blew away the last of the dust. The mortar hadn't put up much of a fight. I lifted the grill and peered down the sloping shaft. It was about fifteen inches square; not even a tight squeeze by my standards. There was nothing to see except blackness, but it couldn't be more than a yard long. I crawled in headfirst, and a few seconds later was standing in the crypt. It was all so easy. They didn't deserve to have any nice relics.
I decided to allow myself a little light, and took the flint, tinder and lamp from my pack. In the soft glow, I looked around at the usual assortment of crystal chalices and golden icons you would expect for a religious institution devoted to renouncing worldly wealth. Most of it had a higher face value than the article I was after, but my motive was to embarrass and upset the high priest. There was no question which item would best fulfil my objective.
The temple's most prized relic is a talon from one of the sacred eagles of the sun god. All sorts of legends are told about how it got to Tarlsport. These stories are a tribute both to the imagination of priests and the gullibility of their followers. Whatever the truth about the relic might be, (and my personal bet would go on a con-artist and carved whalebone) the talon has enormous pulling power. Pilgrims come from all over to pray here - and pay the temple for the privilege. The high priest would pay a fortune to get the talon back. He'd have to grovel as well.
At some stage in its history, the talon had been mounted on a golden plinth. You can see portrayals of it and its setting all over Tarlsport. You can even buy painted wooden replicas from the traders outside the temple. This is the nearest you can get to actually seeing the talon, since it's been locked in a reliquary for the last twenty-five years. The priests don't even get it out on holy days. I suppose it does the pilgrims good just to know that it is near at hand. Plus, when all is said and done, it's only a bird's claw. The outside of the reliquary must look far more impressive.
And it certainly was an impressive reliquary. I'd seen it carted around the temple, but you can only appreciate the craftsmanship close up. I stood and admired it briefly. In my line of work you develop a fine ascetic judgement for beauty. And then I got out my crowbar. In my line of work you also have to be a vandal at times. I didn't have time to play around with a lock-pick.
The lid of the reliquary popped open and I peered in. At once I knew I had met my match. I like to think that I'm one of the best thieves alive, and there aren't many dead who have the edge on me - certainly not in their current state. Yet, there some things even I can not steal. And right at the top of the list of unstealable items are -things that aren't there'. The reliquary was empty.
At dawn the next day I was waiting with the rest of the faithful for the doors of the temple to open. I'd replaced the grill, so hopefully my break-in would not yet have been noticed. It was probably unwise of me, but I wanted to be there to see how they would play it. I had given a fair bit of thought to the matter and come up with a few wild ideas, although there might be a mundane explanation. It would be typical if I'd tried to steal the talon during the week when it was off at the cleaners.
The droning of the pilgrims was starting to irritate when at last came the clunk of the bar on the door being removed. I let the flow of pilgrims carry me into the temple. No unusual activity was in evidence, so it didn't seem as if I'd missed the histrionics. I knelt at a shrine to one side and waited for the fun to start.
It didn't take long. Even before I had got myself settled, the high priest appeared with his chanting attendants. He processed majestically up to the main altar and then gave his daily sermon concerning all the things it is a sin to do. I had to fight to control my expression, and not just because of the hypocrisy. Something about all the -thou shall not- really turns my stomach. At the end of the world, when the puritans and the hedonists line up to fight each other in the last great battle, I know which side I'll be on. Not just that I think the hedonists are innately nicer people. I also know which side will throw the better eve-of-Armageddon party.
The high priest finished his sermon and it was time to trot the reliquary around the temple. The door to the crypt was unlocked and the elite group of priests disappeared inside. For a long time nothing happened, which was quite exciting in a way. Then a young monk was dispatched somewhere and returned with a large serving plate and a brush.
At last, the high priest himself reappeared, carrying the plate with a small mound of dust on it. It seemed a strange time for them to have been sweeping the floor, but maybe they wanted the place to look tidy before they called the sheriff.
The high priest mounted the main altar and turned to face the assembled faithful before speaking. -Last night a profane thief broke into the crypt and tried to steal the sacred talon of the sun god's eagle. But he did not succeed.- I had to admit that the priest was spot on about everything except my gender, and lots of people make mistakes with that. When the gasps of horror died down, the high priest went on. -The depraved sinner has paid the price of his sacrilege. When he opened the reliquary he was struck by the blazing wrath of the sun god and was burnt to ashes.- The high priest lifted the plate in a dramatic gesture. -This dust is all that remains of the thief. The sacred talon is safe.-
The gasps around me changed to those of awe. I joined in the act, but I subjected the high priest to a long, hard scrutiny. All sorts of conjectured reasons for his words ran through my mind. My favourite at the time was the priest had taken to putting lumps of dodgy incense in his pipe and smoking it.
There were other, more sensible explanations. By the time I'd got back to my lodgings, I thought I had it sorted. My bet was that something serious had happened to the talon twenty-five years ago and they hadn't wanted to own up and lose the income from the pilgrims, so they'd had the reliquary made. The priest's secret was safe. As I had discovered, the talon was now theft and damage proof.
They'd presumably concocted the story of the incinerated thief to explain the damage to the reliquary and grill. Their main problem would be that they didn't want me wandering around, spreading stories of the talon's non-existence - hence the rumours that were soon circulating, about the dead thief's accomplice who'd escaped and was still at large. The town gates were sealed and a house-by-house search was begun. I went to bed.
I didn't know whether to be flattered or peeved that, by the time I awoke in early evening, the main suspect had been named as Corrine, the Queen of Magpies. It's the price of fame. They had to be guessing. Okay, they were right this time, but I hate it when I get blamed for everything. They were giving out a bad description of me - my own mother wouldn't have recognised me from it; although that is not saying much. My mother has an appalling memory for faces and she hasn't seen me for fifteen years.
The search of the town could have been a problem, except the guards had started by the docks and wouldn't get to the part of town where I was staying until the next day at the earliest - by which time I would be gone. I threw open the window of the small attic room and looked out. Night had fallen. The wind that blew in was unseasonably cold and I shivered, but there's nothing like a little exercise to warm you up. It was time to be off.
My room was high up on the eastern flank of Tarlsport. From the window, I had an unimpeded view across to the town-gates. These were set beside the river in the middle of the valley floor. This was where the town-walls were highest and strongest, but the defences continued up the steep slopes and around to where the twin lighthouses stood on top of the headlands at either side of the harbour entrance.
I'd heard they'd tripled the guard on the gates, which was a waste of effort, since I had no intention of going out that way. To my mind, there was one obvious exit from Tarlsport, and I was certain that it wouldn't be guarded.
The sound of footsteps echoed from below. Four guards on patrol marched along, enforcing the curfew on the streets - another waste of effort. I also did not intend to take to the streets. Smiling, I swung my backpack over my shoulder, grabbed hold of the window frame, and climbed out.
I'd chosen my lodgings to be close to my proposed exit. After only a few minutes of clambering over the rooftops, the silhouettes of the wall and the eastern lighthouse were the only thing between me and the stars beyond. There was one sentry posted here, but you could tell from his posture that he wasn't taking his job seriously. Why should he? There was nothing on the other side of the wall except a two hundred foot sheer drop to where the ocean pounded the base of the cliffs.
I hid behind a chimney stack until the bored sentry had passed by. Once he was twenty yards away with his back towards me, I ran along the ridge of the roof and leapt up onto the walkway along the wall. Then I vaulted onto the parapet, gave a last farewell wave to Tarlsport, and dropped over the other side.
No shouting erupted from the sentry so I hadn't been seen. All that lay ahead was a climb, down and along, to a cave where I had hidden a small rowing boat. Apart from not getting the talon, I felt quite pleased with how things had gone. I had helped myself to some of the more conventional goodies from the crypt, so Masie would not be short of some loose change.
I'd bought the boat from a local fisherman a few days before. While rowing it around to the cave I'd taken the opportunity to view the cliffs and pick the best route down. It looked so straightforward that I didn't bother to try it out.
At first, everything went smoothly. In little more than an hour, I was half a mile to the east of Tarlsport and no more than thirty feet above the waves. Another ten minutes should have seen me at the boat. I reached out my left hand, feeling for a grip, and something very small and furry squirmed underneath my palm. A spider, was my first thought. Now, I'm not keen on spiders, but I've trained myself to ignore them when I'm dangling by my fingertips in places where falling would mean certain death. Then there was a pain like a red-hot needle being stabbed into my palm.
In instinctive reaction, I jerked my injured hand away. Somehow I managed to keep clinging on to the rock with my other hand. My heart leapt half-way up my throat. My stomach tried to follow. Some time passed before I could muster my thoughts. Not that it took much thinking about. I strained my ears to listen over the surf and heard the faint sound of humming. Lots of humming. Sea-hornets. Judging by the noise, they were all over the rocks ahead of me.
In no way I could continue with my intended route. Possibly I could grit my teeth and hang on if I was stung once or twice, but not if I was attacked by a whole swarm. What could I do? With an injured hand, I was incapable of a tricky detour, but I couldn't stay where I was all night. My left hand was throbbing all the way from my fingertips to my elbow. The best plan I came up with was to head straight down, to the boulders at the foot of the cliff and try to find somewhere I could rest until morning.
The descent was not easy. Overhangs that would have been routine if I'd had full use of all my appendages were very awkward with my hand in agony. However, I made it to the bottom of a wide fissure in the rock-face. I heard the sound of shells cracking under my feet but could see nothing. It was a dark night, and even darker in the crevice.
At last, I was able to pull the sting out of my hand and massage some of the pain away. I hoped it would feel better by dawn, and there would be enough light to find a new route to the cave, avoiding the sea-hornets. If anyone should see me after I'd got the boat, with any luck, they'd take me for a local fisherman, making an early start on whatever it was that fishermen in those parts made early starts on.
The crevice was bitterly cold and there wasn't room to get comfy. The rough rock and barnacles were as soft as broken glass to lie on. However it was reasonably level, with no risk of me falling. I managed to get myself settled, but it felt as if someone had their knee rammed into my back and their finger poking in my neck. Eventually I slipped into a light doze.
The screech of seagulls woke me a few hours later, just before dawn. In the weak grey light, I sat up and looked around. To my surprise, I found that someone actually did have their knee rammed into my back and their finger poking in my neck. Or, to be more precise, their knee-bone and their finger-bone, which was all that they had left.
Fortunately, there were no living witnesses to my lapse into bog-eyed squawking; else I might have lost my reputation for being casually fearless in all circumstances. The skull grinned at me. I know it is all that skulls can do, but this one looked as if it meant it.
After a few deep breaths, I got myself back under control. There was no saying how long the bones had lain in the fissure, but it was not hard to guess how they came to be there. I looked up. The black dots of sea-hornets were swarming against the paling sky. An enormous nest must have been located in the rocks above my head, and once established they can hang around for decades. I was lucky that I had encountered one lone hornet at the edge of the nest area. And I was even luckier that it was an unusually cold night, making the hornets lethargic, else others might have joined in the attack.
The bones were surely the remains of someone less fortunate than myself. And presumably someone who was not supposed to be there, since the body had not been removed. I looked around again. There was no chance of the corpse being stumbled across by accident. The surrounding boulders and overhanging rocks meant the bottom of the fissure could not be seen from either the sea or the cliff-tops above. And the sea-hornets would be very effective at keeping egg collectors and the like away. I was too close for comfort as it was, and would want to be well gone before the day warmed up and the nest became active.
But who was my bedfellow? I'd fully recovered from my shock, and had no qualms riffling through the bones for clues to the owner's identity. I always feel so cheap if I sleep with someone and don't even know their name. But all I could find among the bones was a belt-buckle, some tin buttons and a few coins. A little way off, an unsavoury lump looked to be the remains of a leather sack. I edged it aside and saw that any contents had either rotted or fallen into a crack underneath. I slid my fingers between the rocks to see if I could find anything.
The first item I pulled out was a rusty lump of iron, fused solid. Even so, I had no trouble recognising it - a lock-pick; which was a pretty good clue to the decease's profession. I felt a little vexed. It was false modesty when I said the cliffs were the obvious way out of Tarlsport. In truth, I'd thought I was being very inventive, but obviously I was not the first thief to try the same exit.
I reached into the crack again. The next thing I pulled out was a pock-marked stiletto knife, followed by a few more coins, and a rather nice bracelet. Something else lay right at the bottom of the crevice. I used the knife to fish it out. Once again, I had no trouble recognising the object. Maybe it really was from one of the sun god's eagles. It certainly didn't come from any sparrow. The talon was at least six inches long and curved. The mounting was just like the models sold to the pilgrims, except it was solid gold not gilded wood.
I stared at the relic as the last parts of the story slotted into place. When the talon first went missing, the high priest of the day must have decided to keep quiet and wait for either the ransom demand, or news the relic was in a rival temple. When months turned into years and neither happened there was no reason to own up and wave good-bye to the pilgrims and their money. They must have wondered about what had happened to the talon, but all the time it was here, under their noses, waiting to be picked up. My gaze shifted to the skull. Perhaps it did have something to smile about.
The hornets" buzzing was getting louder. It was time to go. I put the items in my backpack and stood up. My left hand was still sore and swollen, but usable. The entrance to the cave where I had left the boat was in sight.
I gave my dead predecessor one last look. I'm sure whoever it was wouldn't begrudge me the talon - a gift from one human fly to another. I promised myself to see if I could find a name for a promising young thief, who'd disappeared without trace twenty-five years ago, so I could toast my colleague's memory properly. Before going I grinned and saluted the skeleton, using the thieves" coded hand signal for "job-complete'. Which it was. Masie would get her retirement present.