The man in a nightgown and a shawl on his head
Boyet - a uniquely Filipino name, emphasis on first syllable
Guillen - the double LL is pronounced the way it is in Spanish, ergo GILyen
tuba - (too-BAH) an alcoholic drink made from fermented coconut milk--sweet but hits like a sledgehammer
Rogel - roh-HEL
Okay, maybe my glossaries are starting to sound obvious. Sorry.
- NEW NOTE - made some corrections to this chapter.
Aling Celia's eatery was unusually crowded when they arrived. People were lingering over their food to talk about the Grand Archbishop's arrival, while Aling Celia's daughters wove among the tables delivering trays of rice porridge, roasted fish, mung bean stew and spring rolls. Mira recognized many of the faces; Musang was a small place, after all, just extremely dense. She called out greetings as she and Dindo headed toward the counter, noting how almost every table had its own congregation. She spotted Felicia's small, apron-clad form standing beside the only table with a lone occupant. She was holding up her notepad and nodding, and Mira wondered why her sister looked so uncomfortable. A difficult customer, perhaps?
Aling Celia sat in her rattan chair behind the counter, a queen in a bright orange housedress surveying her domain. Her broad features spread out into a grin and her chair creaked with relief when she lifted considerable bulk to greet them. "About time you two got here. Those two have been driving my girls crazy for the past hour. As if we needed more chaos on a night like this."
"Sorry, Aling Celia," Mira said, knowing exactly whom the eatery-owner was referring to. "Julio and Nini can be a handful. You should have gotten them to help out with this crowd."
"Heavens, and how that turned out!" Aling Celia exclaimed. "Julio spilled rice in a customer's lap and Nini kept mixing up the orders, so we sent them to the kitchen. After a while, Paz sent them upstairs to buff the floor instead. A pair of devils, those two. So unlike Felicia, who's been a perfect angel. Isn't that right, Felicia?" she said as the aforementioned angel came up to them.
Felicia, who obviously had other things on her mind, frowned in confusion. "Huh?"
"She said you would have been a perfect angel if you weren't as deaf as a post," Dindo joked. Felicia gave him a prim look. Despite having spent the last two hours cleaning tables and taking orders, Felicia's apron was still as pristine as when she'd put it on, and her brown hair was still neatly twisted up in a bun, with nary a strand out of place. Mira sighed inwardly. A perfect angel all right, was her middle sister Fe.
"Well, Felicia? How many times is that man in the corner going to order beef soup?" Aling Celia asked.
Felicia blinked. "What? Oh. He changed his mind. He said he was just waiting for--oh! He's gone!"
They all turned. Sure enough, three men were now sitting at the corner table. Bewildered, Felicia glanced around the eatery, but there was no sign of the table's previous occupant.
"He paid up, didn't he?" Aling Celia demanded.
Felicia nodded. "For all six bowls, although I don't really think he was hungry at all."
"Those six bowls are finally catching up with him, that's all," Dindo said, shrugging. "As long as he's paid up, who cares if he's gone?"
"If you say so, /Kuya/," Felicia said doubtfully. "He was really strange, though. I couldn't even see what he looked like. He was wearing this long nightgown and a shawl wrapped around his head. I don't know how he can stand it. He must have been sweating underneath that robe, the poor man."
There was a shriek, a crash, then what sounded like a herd of angry carabao charging down the stairs in the inner room. Felicia's unsuitably garbed customer was forgotten when two children, a boy of around eight and a girl of six, burst through the curtained doorway and threw themselves at Mira, talking excitedly at the same time.
"Ate Mira, I wanna see the Grand Archbishop and his fleets of airships and his army of soldiers and is he really going to save us from the evil Saridians and d'you know he can summon the great demon Asira?"
"Is the Grand Archbishop really going to bring us all to Corondal? Is he really going to build a magical bridge so we could just walk there? Is he really, Ate Mira?"
"Hush, you two!" Mira clapped her hands over her ringing ears. "I don't know anything about the Grand Archbishop, but I doubt the Saridians would bother with us. Now get your things so we can go home." They scampered away, and Mira gave Aling Celia a grateful smile. "Thank you for watching over them."
"Of course!" Aling Celia cried. "You're always welcome here, even those two rascals. Someone should take care of you poor, motherless children, saddled as you are with such a worthless father. Merciful gods, what kind of man would force his children to fend for themselves, that lazy, drunken, good-for-nothing--"
"Yes, yes, thank you. We'll be back again tomorrow." Mira backed away before Aling Celia's usual tirade against their father could gather steam, herding her siblings along. "Where is Tatay anyway?" she asked when they were trudging homeward through the dark streets.
Dindo snorted. "Probably at the cockpit, getting lousy odds from the /kubrador/."
"Ugh." Mira slapped a hand on her forehead in disgust. "You're probably right. Where he gets the money to gamble away is what I'd like to know, though."
At that moment, Bee, who had been silent ever since they arrived at the eatery, suddenly spoke up. "Mira, someone's following us," he said in a low voice.
Mira tensed. "Who is it? A mugger?"
Bee launched himself from her shoulder and hovered above their heads. "It's that weird customer at Aling Celia's," he told her as he swooped low. "He's wearing a gown and a shawl on his head."
The children overheard, and only a sharp warning from their eldest sister kept them from turning around to look. Mira considered her options. There were people out in the streets, but not enough to discourage a determined mugger. First things first: she had to keep the children safe. At the next crossroads, she grabbed Julio's and Nini's hands and veered off to the left so quickly Felicia and Dindo had to do a little jig to keep up. "Hey, where're we going?" Dindo demanded. "This isn't the way home."
"Just a little detour," Mira said as she hurried up the street. "Bee, is he still there?"
"Yes. He just turned the corner after you."
"Ate Mira, what's going on?" Nini asked nervously. "Why is that man chasing us?"
"I don't know, Nini, but let's not find out, all right?" There were alleys between the buildings, crisscrossing the streets. Most of them were used as dumping grounds, and so narrow one had to walk sideways to get through. Mira knew which alley she needed--there it was, just after the fabric shop. She pulled her bewildered siblings into the nearly pitch-dark alley, then released her hold on Julio to raise her hand. Feeling her magic start to flow through her body, she took a deep breath and concentrated.
A protector...someone to keep my siblings safe...in the name of the Bringer of Justice, I summon thee.
"Hey, who's that?"
"Mira, what did you do?"
"Nice cape, mister!"
The world swam back into focus, and Mira looked up into the masked face of a tall man dressed all in black, from his boots to his cape to his wide-brimmed hat. He swept low in a courtly bow, revealing the hilt of a lethal-looking rapier at his waist. Mira had no time to despair over the new and utterly bizarre projection she had produced. She thrust her siblings into the gap in one wall of the alley, where the fabric shop's side entrance was. "In there, all of you, and be quiet," she hissed, before turning to the strange, masked man. "Take them home and keep them safe."
"Si, seÃ±orita," the man replied. He stepped up to the gap, pressing the children even more firmly up against the doors, then spread his black cape over them, concealing them perfectly.
Bee's wings hummed above Mira's head. "Hurry! He's in the alley!"
Mira stumbled over old crates and assorted piles of refuse, and practically leaped out of the alley. She moved as fast as she could, but her bout with magic had left her feeling drained. Bee circled above her, calling out her pursuer's current position. He was out of the alley, stubbed his toes a couple of times, too. Yes, he's still tailing her. Yes, he's getting closer. Mira gritted her teeth. Persistent piece of scum. Fortunately, the man didn't appear to be familiar with Musang, or else he would have realized where exactly she was leading him: to the CariÃ±osa, Musang's local pub. When she got within sight of the ramshackle hut and its usual crowd of gin and tuba enthusiasts, she pulled her tubao off so that her long hair fell over her shoulders in stunning, raven waves--she had, in her most humble opinion, the loveliest hair in all of Musang--and arranged her features into an expression of abject terror and girlish helplessness. She almost felt sorry for the mugger; he wasn't going to know what hit him.
"Kuya Boyet! Please help me. Please!" she gasped, falling theatrically against the doorway. All eyes turned to her, taking in her disheveled appearance and flushed face, and she had to fight the urge to grin.
"He's almost here, and you're being disgusting," Bee muttered, perching on a beam above her.
"Mira? What's wrong?" Boyet asked. He, his buddies and everyone else were staring at her, hanging onto her next words.
"A man is chasing me," she whimpered. "He's dressed in a funny robe and wears a shawl on his head. He wants to steal my money, money I worked so hard for." She was tired enough and mad enough at the idea of anyone stealing from her that it was easy to call up a tear or two. "How am I going to feed my family if he takes my money?" she added for good measure, raising a hand to her brow as though overcome by grief.
Boyet stood up, an eager light on his face. "You hear that, boys? Someone thinks he can go around robbing young girls in Musang. What do you say we straighten him out, eh?" This was met by rousing cheers and the scraping of chairs being pushed back. Mira watched her army march out the door, feeling pleased with herself. Really, sometimes her cleverness surprised even her. She wandered out to see if she could get a good view, then froze when she recognized the voice of her would-be mugger.
"No, you don't understand! I am a professor of magic and mechanics at the College of Sorcery, not a robber. Let go of me, you ruff--ouch!"
The protestation of innocence ended abruptly in a yelp of pain. Mira winced, knowing what the meaty thump preceding the yelp meant. She elbowed her way through the ring of bodies, yelling: "Stop! Stop it, don't touch him!"
She reached Boyet just in time to keep him from landing another punch upon her pursuer's face. The man was sitting on the ground, moaning and glaring as best he could with one eye. The shawl on his head had been knocked off, revealing the smooth dome of his head rising from a bed of feathery gray hair, a droopy face that was looked much thinner and more lined now than Mira remembered, and a gray eye that rolled around in its socket, trying to keep track of all his attackers. His other eye was already starting to swell. His gaze fell on her, and Mira squirmed at the relief that lit up his face. "Miss Rosario, kindly explain to these gentlemen that I am not out to do you harm. This is all a misunderstanding."
"What's that? You know this guy, Mira?" Boyet demanded.
Mira sighed and nodded. "He's Professor Conrado Guillen, and he works at the College just like he said. I used to clean his apartment for him. I'm sorry, you guys, but the professor just isn't the brawling type."
As the men filed back into the hut, grumbling in disappointment about the thwarted fight, the professor picked himself up and dusted off his clothes, which did resemble a heavy, long-sleeved nightgown. He rewound the black length of cloth around his neck, but did not cover his head. "Why are you dressed like that, Professor?" she asked, eyeing his clothes. "It looks like something an old woman would wear to bed."
"This, my dear, is the traditional garb of the Bassalat Tribe, who roam the Hagrah Desert in Saridia," the professor said, sounding a bit miffed. "It is designed to protect its wearer from the scorching heat of the desert by day and the freezing cold by night. It is also, I might add, a very useful disguise, which allows me to blend in with the crowd without being recognized."
Mira opened her mouth to tell him that the outfit just made him stick out even more, then remembered that this was the man who had once observed, quite seriously, that the quickest way to get rid of beggars was to simply pay them to leave. "Let's go inside, Professor," she said instead. "Maybe Mang Rogel has a steak we can put on that eye."
The professor balked. "You mean, in /there/? In that den of thugs and drunkards?"
"Yes. Oh, don't worry about it. The guys won't bother you any more."
He only looked more horrified. "But--but that is no place for a young girl!"
"Bah!" she said airily, tugging the professor toward the doorway. "They didn't bother me when I was ten and coming in here to drag my father home by his heels. They certainly won't bother me now. Come on, Professor. I'd like to sit down before my knees give out."
He looked as if he was about to protest again, but Bee chose that moment to flutter back to Mira's shoulder. The droopy face, or at least those parts of it that wasn't puffy and purple, suddenly brightened. "Why, it's the little ensouled shell. Bee is your name, isn't it? As unusual-looking as always."
"Sorry, Professor," Bee said. "It's my fault. I thought there was something familiar about you when I saw you at Aling Celia's but I didn't recognize you in those clothes."
"See? The disguise works!" Professor Guillen said triumphantly. Bee and Mira both sighed.
They found a table in a secluded corner, and Mira managed to wheedle a glass of tuba out of the professor. They sat nursing their drinks and his bruised eye for a while, but the professor kept glancing around and flinching at every loud noise until Mira took pity on him. "You said you wanted to see me, Professor?"
"Ah? Oh yes, yes. I'd like you to come and work for me, Miss Rosario."
She burped then hastily covered her mouth. "Sure. When would you like me to come over?"
Professor Guillen shook his head. "No, I don't mean as my housekeeper. As my assistant. You see, we've developed a special machine, and I need someone with strong magical ability to help me run some tests. I apologize for alarming you, but I am quite pressed for time and I didn't know how else to reach you."
Mira gulped down a mouthful of /tuba/, ignoring the professor's disapproving look, and raised a hand. "Wait a minute. You want my help because you think I've got strong magical ability? Professor, the only time you've seen me do magic was when I cleaned your place and did your laundry, and I really don't think--"
Professor Guillen's lips twitched. "Ah, are you worried because you are unschooled and your power is, shall we say, unconventional? Let me assure you that training is unnecessary. In fact, what I need is the raw, magical energy that you, Miss Rosario, produce in copious amounts almost unconsciously, which makes you the best subject to act as a variable in this last experiment."
"'Plenty of raw, magical energy', huh?'" she muttered, latching on to the only part of the professor's speech that didn't sounded vaguely insulting.
"Yes. Simply put, Bee here is your most outstanding qualification for the job."
Bee, who was sitting cross-legged on the table and sharing the glass with Mira, let out an aromatic belch. She flapped a hand in the air and gave the professor a skeptical look. "Bee is what? I'm sorry, Professor, but I don't understand."
"I will explain later," he said. "As I said, I am pressed for time and--"
"How long will this job take?"
"What? Oh, about four days, if the experiment goes smoothly."
Mira nearly sprayed tuba all over Bee. "What?! That long? Professor, the Grand Archbishop of Corondal is coming! I've got so many things I need to do! I have to talk to my suppliers and make more fans and other stuff too like hats and kerchiefs and clogs, and all these take time and they say he's arriving in two days--"
"I'll pay you five silver pesos if you accept my offer."
Her breath exited her mouth in a thin wheeze. Beside her, Bee choked on a mouthful of tuba that went down the wrong way. Five silver pesos! When was the last time she'd seen that much money in one place? Oh right, never. Five silver pesos! The rent, the school fees, her father's debts--what couldn't she do with that kind of money? Five silver pesos! An image of the scarlet gown waltzed tantalizingly across her mind. She closed her mouth with a snap and schooled her features into an expression of mild disdain. "Five silver pesos?" she said as though the sum hadn't just stunned her into a near coma. "I don't know, Professor. Business has been really good lately, and we're talking about four days of lost sales here."
Bee rounded on her. "Mira, are you /cra/--mmph!" he grunted when her hand shot out and shoved him face down against the table.
Professor Guillen watched their exchange with an unsurprised expression. "I thought we might come to that. How much are you asking?"
She pretended to think it over. "Well, given my current earnings and the jump in demand due to the Grand Archbishop's visit, not to mention the effort of doing magic, mm, I think fifteen silvers ought to cover it."
"/Fifteen/--umph!" Mira ground the heel of her palm against the back of Bee's head. She had to admit, fifteen silver pesos was outrageous even for her, but she had learned early on to demand the moon and stars at the start of any negotiation, then whittle it down to the best price the earth could afford. She squared her shoulders, readying herself for the greatest bout of haggling in her life, and nearly fell out of her chair when Professor Guillen merely sighed. "Agreed, Miss Rosario. Fifteen silver pesos it is."
"Whaa--did you just--you /agree/?" Mira stammered, feeling as though she was floating three inches above her own body. "I--I mean, yes, that--that's great. Um, all right then."
Professor Guillen's face twitched again. "Wonderful. Here is the address," he said, passing her a folded piece of paper. "Be there first thing in the morning."
"A-all right," she squeaked.
"Very well. Come, let me escort you home," the professor announced, rising from his seat and wrapping his black cloth around his face again so that only his eyes were visible. He offered his arm out to her in gallant gesture so out of place in a liquor-pit like the CariÃ±osa that Mira giggled. She giggled again when she attempted to stand, wrestling with her reed-chest at the same time, and nearly fell over. And again when Bee landed heavily against her shoulder, glaring at her through crossed eyes. "/Leche/, Mira, you're soused," he informed her, then hiccupped loudly.
"Yes, and I'm rich, too," she shot back, still giggling, as Professor Guillen guided her out of the hut and into the street in a strange turnabout of roles. "Well, about to be rich," she amended. "Look at it this way. We're just holding the celebration a little early. Ow! Hey!"
The sudden tightening of Professor Guillen's hand around her arm managed to pierce through her /tuba/-and-fifteen-silvers-induced fog. She looked up into the little she could see of her escort's face, but the professor's gray eyes were focused straight ahead. "Miss Rosario, I must warn you, do not speak of our arrangement or our research to anyone," he said in a low voice she had never heard him use before. "Our research is...confidential. Please, for your own sake and the sake of your family."
"All right, absolute silence, I get it!" She pulled her arm out of his grasp and glowered at him, rubbing at the sore spot. There was something strange about the professor, but heavens knew what it was. She suddenly realized that they had stopped at the entrance of another alley, and that the street was, for once, deserted. Even then, he surprised her by pushing her into the shadows of the alley while Bee buzzed in alarm. "Here. Take this," he hissed, pressing something velvety into her hand. "Keep it hidden, and make sure it touches your skin at all times. I will explain later. Farewell."
And then he was walking swiftly away, his hands wrapping the shawl even more securely over his face. Mira watched him disappear, wondering again at the professor's bizarre behavior. "Bee? Follow him, will you?" she said on impulse. "Make sure he gets out of Musang in one piece."
"What?" Bee squawked. "No way! Besides, you know I can't get any farther than a hundred meters from you. What if I disappear?"
"Then I'll summon you again. I always will, you know that," she said, smiling. "Just do it, all right? I'm too tired to create another projection, and it'll make me feel better if you do."
Grumbling, Bee took off after the professor. Mira lifted the small, velvet pouch the professor had given her, and shook out its contents. Her eyes widened. In her hand was a round metal disk about the size of her palm. Even in the weak light of the moon, the disk seemed to shine with a strange bluish-white light of its own. A crescent shape was carved out of one side and tinted a darker shade of blue, while a smaller crescent-shaped hole was cut out of the opposite side. The disk was dusted with sparkling, iridescent flecks even though it felt smooth to the touch. Mira fingered it reverently, then closed her fist around it in a tight grip. It looked like she was going to have no difficulties at all following Professor Guillen's instructions. This beautiful little bit of treasure was now well and truly hers.
Oh yes, things were definitely looking up, and it was all thanks to the Grand Archbishop of Corondal/, she thought as she trudged on home. /I wonder what other interesting and wonderful things could happen in the coming days? And just think, the man hasn't even arrived yet!