Art Pact 92

I don't know what it was that made me do it, but I reached out one trembling arm and the next second I had the key to the outer gate in my pocket and my heart was pounding so fast I thought I would pass out. Inevitably, I knew, one of my eagle-eyed uncles would have spotted what I'd done, and I expected that within a couple of seconds I would be desperately trying to explain why I had done it. But I waited, and I waited, and after a minute had gone past I realised to my surprise that no retribution was going to come, that by some miracle they had both been distracted for the vital second and that they had no idea that the bulky key ring with its heavy old-fashioned key was no longer hanging over the fire but was instead nestling uncomfortably in my breeches.

(I realise now, of course, that there was no miracle involved, merely the subtle agency of the thing that had me in its grip, extending its power towards the elders. The power that had such a complete grasp on my mind could not control their much stronger souls for long, but it could for a moment direct their attentions elsewhere and allow the theft it had perpetrated through me to go unnoticed).

Over the next half-hour, as they talked, my heart managed to slow down to something approaching its normal rhythm again, although the palm in my pocket - still wrapped around the key - perspired so heavily that I was quite surprised to find that it had not dissolved when I finally removed it. Eventually the meeting broke up, and when everyone but the storekeeper and I had left and the theft still had not been noticed, I slipped away and ran up Calle road to the little side-passage that led to the garden.

The outer door was a double one, wooden and two heads taller than even the tallest of my uncles, making it about twice my height. Each door had been cut from a single block of wood (probably one larger block of wood which had been carefully separated into two equal boards), then been planed into true and finally carved with the wriggling protective runes. These had been bare wood in the old days, but a hundred years before (give or take the inaccuracy of the storytellers) the grooves had been inlaid with their current gold lining in order to make them easier to see, it being well understood that, like us, the dark spirits were getting worse at seeing in the dark than they had been in the old times.

I didn't dare look around to see whether I'd been followed - if I had there was nothing I could do now to avoid being caught anyway, since curfew had descended with the end of the meeting and home was in the other direction from the garden. As quickly as I could, then, I slipped the key into the lock and fumbled it open. It made a noise like a shield falling in an empty hall, and terrified that I had just alerted everyone in the street I tugged frantically at the door for a panicky ten seconds before realising with embarrassment that it opened inwards. Even that it did grudgingly, though, screeching like a boat-bird, and when I was inside and it was closed again I had to sit with my back to the wood for three or for minutes until I was calm enough to focus on anything other than my terror of being discovered. Weighing my options, I decided to lock the outer door behind me - if someone tried it they would assume that nothing was out of the ordinary. Then I looked around.

Inside the first set of doors was the outer garden, drab in its early-winter aspect. Empty flower beds hugged the walls, and diamonds of brown earth among the crazed stone pathways were inhabited by naked collections of twigs and spindly branches that had been bushes a few months ago (and would be again a few months hence). All of this was nothing to me, though - for in the centre, surrounded by iron railings, was the inner garden - a sunken thing a mere ten paces across, in the centre of which was the fountain.

I ran to the gate. From close-up I could see that the fountain was still running, but so weakly that it appeared to be dead. A slight bubble of water at the top of the central spire supplied an anaemic trickle of water that ran down the stone until it rejoined, almost without making a ripple, the water below.

The gate was padlocked, of course, and I had not the key for it. But now that I was safely inside, a stray thought (or so I assumed) told me, there were other ways around locks. I began to look around for something that might perform as a lever or club, and that was when I saw a little flash of light from the outer door, the one that I had locked.

Someone had been watching me through the keyhole.

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