The Striding Spire: 10

Mabyn and Jenifry Redclover, the spriggan and the human headmistress, eyed one another with bristling hostility. ‘Must you bring threats?’ said Jenifry. ‘The school has never offered you the smallest harm.’

‘I bring warning, not a threat,’ said Mabyn, though she looked nonplussed. ‘How do you know me? I do not think we have met.’

‘Your portrait still hangs in the heritage gallery.’

Mabyn looked pleased. ‘I thought they would have taken that down by now.’

Jay coughed. ‘You’ve an official portrait?’

‘She is a former headmistress,’ said Jenifry. ‘That makes her a part of our history, whatever her subsequent choices may have been.’

‘I made them for good reason,’ said Mabyn.

Jenifry looked unimpressed. ‘I am sure you did. At any rate, I must get to the bottom of this.’ She straightened her shoulders, and left in the direction of the kennel which had previously swallowed up the man in the flat cap — and our pup.

Mabyn gave a soft sigh. ‘I tried to tell Milady I was the wrong person to send.’

‘Milady knows what she is doing,’ said Jay. ‘I am sure she had her reasons.’

I smiled faintly, remembering the early days of my career at the Society, and the unshakeable faith I, too, had enjoyed in Milady. Not that I doubted her now, as such. But however remarkable she may appear, she was as human as the rest of us somewhere behind the disembodied voice. I hoped Jay was right, and that this time she knew what she was doing.

For myself, I pitied Mabyn. Her job required her to take a hard line against the pup, for the Ministry could no more support the widespread return of the Goldnoses to the world than any of its sister organisations did. But she clearly felt some residual loyalty to her former home, and if she was once the headmistress here… she must have been very dedicated.

‘I am sure we can contain this issue before it has chance to cause much trouble,’ I told her in my most reassuring tone, secretly crossing my fingers in hope that I was to be proved right. ‘Only one pup has been found.’

‘If it came from here, there are more,’ said Mabyn.

I was worried about that possibility, too, though perhaps not for the same reasons. No matter what the laws said, the Goldnoses were innocent of wrongdoing in themselves; it was only in the hands of the wrong person that they had any power to cause harm. Did they not have a right to exist? Was it not our duty to protect and preserve all magickal creatures, as we did with books and artefacts and treasures — even the dangerous ones? A series of laws that had effectively wiped out several entire species did not sit well with me.

This point of view had nothing whatsoever to do with the heart-rending cuteness of the pup, I swear. I was totally detached and objective.

Anyway, I was concerned that more pups were out there somewhere, starving to death as our pup’s siblings had done. And they could be anywhere. Anywhere at all. We needed to find the source before any more of them died, and then Jay and I needed to find a way to protect them — with or without Milady’s concurrence. I was fairly sure I could successfully argue that case, but Milady sometimes came down hard on the side of the rules. You never could quite tell which way she would go.

Jenifry Redclover shortly returned, the becapped spriggan with her. I was relieved to see our pup trotting along at their heels, though a bit less pleased to see that the beast had lost her disguise, and was restored to all her gold-furred splendour.

She came straight up to me, and begged to be picked up. I, of course, was delighted to comply.

Mabyn, Jenifry and the kennel worker watched this display of affection in unreadable silence.

Jenifry spoke. ‘Jory is confident that the pup did not come from this school. He also says that it is not — it cannot be — a descendent of the last such beasts that were known to exist before the laws forbidding their procreation.’

I blinked. ‘What? Why not?’

‘Because the horn she bears is out of keeping with that theory. The Goldnose was eventually arrived at through the cross-breeding of a few other species, one of which possessed a horn like the one you see adorning the forehead of your pup. But that feature gradually bred out, and was gone by the time the laws were introduced.’

‘So…’ I did not know what to say first, so many thoughts were churning in my mind.

Is she a Goldnose?’ said Jay.

Jory said something emphatic.

‘Yes,’ translated Jenifry. ‘Her capabilities are not in question. But she is a very early example of the breed.’

‘How is that possible?’ I gasped.

Jenifry shook her head. ‘I do not know. Either someone, somewhere, has been attempting to recreate the species by going back to its beginnings, and starting again from scratch, or… or something far stranger is happening. And I suspect the latter, for according to Jory, most of the creatures who were originally cross-bred to arrive at the Goldnose have been extinct for longer than the Goldnose itself.’

I retrieved the book. ‘Mauf,’ I said crisply. ‘Tell us what you know about the Dappledok pups, otherwise known as the Goldnose species. Everything, please, from the beginning.’

Mauf swelled with importance, almost doubling in size. ‘The species commonly known as the Goldnose was primarily the work of one person, a spriggan of the name of Melmidoc Redclover. The idea was conceived in the autumn of 1617, and work swiftly began. The goal was to successfully interbreed a variety of beasts whose collective talents included unusual senses for precious materials of one sort or another, heightened tracking abilities, tenacity, and biddableness. It is noted that the project was completed successfully in a surprisingly short space of time — too short, some said, though no particular theory as to how it was done has ever been presented. Within a few years, the earliest hybrids were being successfully trained to sniff out precious metals and jewels from some distance away.’

‘What did these look like?’ I said. ‘In detail?’

‘These earliest of the Goldnoses had pelts of varying colours, and the diminutive “unicorn” horn.’

‘But this feature faded over time? The horn?’

‘It was felt that the horn was both unnecessary, for it served no particular purpose, and it was too distinctive a feature. Subsequent generations were bred selectively to eradicate the horn, though in the process the range of colours was lost, and they became predominantly goldish yellow.’

‘By when did that happen?’ put in Jay.

‘The last recorded instance of a horned Goldnose was noted in 1624.’

Seven years? Within a mere seven years of the project’s inception, they were already at the stage of making refinements to an otherwise perfect breed? ‘That is far too fast,’ I said, puzzled. ‘Even if the Goldnoses breed unnaturally quickly, surely that is too fast.’

‘Many said so,’ agreed Mauf. ‘In a letter to her sister in 1621 — subsequently published in a volume entitled, “Diverse Correspondence Between Two Sisters” — the Viscountess of Wroxby observed, “Do you Persist in wishing to bring a Goldnose Pup into your household? I am Persuaded you would never know another moment’s peace, being forever deprived of your Jewels &c. And you should consider, that though they may be Fashionable, there is some manner of Mystery surrounding their existence about which I cannot be Easy. I wish you would abandon the notion.” Which, by the by, she did.’

‘Good to know,’ murmured Jay.

Mabyn, who had been trying to find opportunity to speak for a few minutes, now cut in. ‘Yes, that is all very interesting, but what of Melmidoc Redclover? I am certain I have heard that name, but I cannot think how.’

‘Melmidoc Redclover was thrice invited to take up the headmastery of the school, but declined, for he preferred to devote all of his time to his various projects. His was the mind behind five of the eight breeds for which the school became famous.’

‘Perhaps that is how I have heard of him,’ said Mabyn, though she frowned, and her tone was doubtful.

‘He is primarily remembered for his disappearances, however,’ said Mauf blandly.

‘What?’ I said.

What?’ Mabyn and Jenifry said at the same time.

‘Disappearances, plural?’ put in Jay.

‘He disappeared,’ persevered Mauf. ‘Repeatedly. Four times were recorded, though there may have been more. The first time was in 1599, at the age of sixteen, when he was but a scholar and had not yet distinguished himself by any particular measure. He was absent for three and a half months, and was either unable or unwilling to give any account of his movements upon his return. He vanished again six years later, for almost a year. His third disappearance came at the more advanced age of forty-three, and lasted only three weeks. And he vanished again, for the fourth and (to my knowledge) final time, in 1630, at the age of forty-seven. He was never seen or heard from again.’

A silence fell which could only be termed Flabbergasted. Yes, with a capital F.

‘There is clearly more to this than meets the eye,’ said Mabyn.

‘I have heard the name,’ said Jenifry. ‘I have seen him, even. Not in the flesh,’ she said hastily, as everyone turned to look at her. ‘His portrait. There is a gallery devoted to former headmasters of the school, and some few others whose contributions are considered to be of particular significance. Melmidoc Redclover is one of them. The odd thing is…’ She hesitated, a deep frown clouding her brow. ‘Your unusually talkative book asserts that he disappeared at the age of forty-seven?’

‘So it is written,’ said Mauf, somewhat huffily.

‘He is, in essence, a library all in one,’ offered Jay. ‘He has absorbed the entire contents of the library at the Society, and quite a lot of… of other libraries, too.’ Perhaps he hesitated to name Farringale just then for fear of derailing the conversation altogether; probably wise of him.

Jenifry gave a faint smile. ‘I do not doubt you, for he is obviously a marvellous enchantment. The thing is, this portrait is clearly labelled as Melmidoc Redclover, and judging from the clothes he is wearing, and the style of the painting, it dates indeed from the mid seventeenth century. But… but you see, he is depicted as a rather older man. His hair is entirely grey, his face much more lined than that of a man not yet fifty. I took him to be twenty years above that age, at least.’

Stranger and stranger. ‘Could the portrait have been made retrospectively?’ I suggested. ‘As a commemoration, perhaps, of the man he might have been had he not disappeared?’

‘It is possible,’ Jenifry conceded. ‘But…’ she paused again, seeming unsure how to phrase her thoughts. ‘It is his expression,’ she said. ‘The portrait lingered in my memory because it is much more — more real, than many of the others. It is not a stiff, staged piece. His face is full of character, and life, and humour. I used to like to look at it. It looks like a portrait taken of a model who was very much alive, and in no way resembles a fading memory of a man who had not been seen for at least twenty years.’

‘I cannot imagine, though, why a man would be universally set down as vanished for good if he was not, in fact, gone.’

‘Has the painting always hung in that gallery?’ asked Jay.

Jenifry blinked. ‘I do not know. Mabyn?’

Mabyn slowly shook her head. ‘I do not particularly recall it from my day, but that does not mean it was not there. I never did take much of an interest in the gallery.’

‘Except for your own portrait,’ said Jenifry.

Mabyn took this unabashed. ‘Except for that one.’

I called Val. She did not answer, so I left a message for her. ‘Val, please find everything you can about one Melmidoc Redclover, of the Redclover school in Dapplehaven. Matter of grave urgency.’ I chose not to relay the things we had already learned about him, for they were mightily confusing, and I did not want to influence Val’s thinking or cloud her findings.

Next, I called Zareen, who picked up after two rings. ‘What’s up, Ves?’ she said briskly.

‘So that mass exorcism you pulled,’ I said without preamble. ‘I don’t suppose it can be undone, can it?’

‘You mean can I bring three vaporised ghosts back from oblivion? No.’



I filled her in. It took a few minutes. When I had finished, she gave a low whistle. When she spoke, I could hear her grin. ‘Nice little mystery you have there. So you were wanting to ask them a few questions?’

‘I was. The thing is, Zar, that there is a pattern emerging here. This began with a vanishing house, and now we have a vanishing Redclover on our hands to boot. Coincidence?’

‘No such thing as,’ she said cheerily.

‘Yes there is.’

‘Fine, but not often. Tell you what, there’s one thing I can do.’

‘Anything would be good.’

‘I’ve wondered before about all the places that house was going to. I dug up a few instances of its wandering about near (or in) the town of Bury St. Edmunds, but I never looked beyond — and there are gaps of years between most of those reported sightings. I’ll see if I can find out where else it might have been parking itself.’

‘Especially around the first half of the seventeenth century,’ I said. ‘Those were the Melmidoc Redclover years.’

‘I’ll do my best. Don’t get your hopes up too high though, Ves. It wasn’t a distinctive cottage, and unless other people saw it literally vanish into the mist, I won’t be able to track it.’

‘Do what you can,’ I said. ‘Thanks, Zar.’

I hung up, to find that the rest of my companions had gone into a huddle. Jay looked up as I joined them. ‘We have a plan,’ he told me, with great solemnity. ‘Jenifry is to investigate the portrait. Mabyn is going to “raid” the school and scour its records.’

‘Raid?’ I echoed, intrigued by the emphasis he had laid on the word.

‘The school is a little… private, about its records,’ said Jenifry, a little shamefaced. ‘Even I have been unable to gain access to everything, and that has occasionally made me curious. Jay thought that Mabyn might be able to make better progress, if she makes a show of authority.’

Mabyn looked as though she would very much enjoy making a show of authority.

‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘And when that fails?’

‘When?’ Jay looked a bit hurt.

‘It is a good idea as a diversion,’ I said, as gently as I could. ‘But if you get pushy with people, they usually push back. At best, they’ll make a show of compliance while secretly opposing you every step of the way. While someone is kindly showing Mabyn around the records room, with a suitable show of deference, someone else will be quietly relabelling, or hiding, or outright removing, anything that isn’t judged to be suitable for public consumption.’

Jay frowned. ‘What do you suggest, then?’

‘Mabyn and Jenifry proceed as planned. Meanwhile, you and I will infiltrate the records room and have a poke around. And if we spot anybody trying to hustle any juicy-looking boxes of papers out of the way, we can intercept them.’

‘You just like sneaking around,’ said Jay.

‘I do, actually. I adore sneaking around.’ I beamed at him.

‘I think she is right,’ said Mabyn, and my heart warmed to her on the spot. ‘There is one problem, though.’

‘Oh?’ I said. ‘What’s that?’

She was not looking at me. Her gaze was fixed somewhere over my head, at the approximate level of the horizon. ‘Archibald,’ she said.

I turned, and there indeed was the purple-scaled vision of dragonhood winging its way rapidly towards us. ‘But don’t you two go way back?’ I said, turning back to Mabyn.

‘Archibald obeys the orders of one person only, that being the Mayor,’ said Mabyn. ‘He is usually employed to summon miscreants to an impromptu audience.’

‘Is that what happened before?’


‘But you weren’t taken to the Mayor, were you?’

She blinked at me. ‘I was. That’s Cousin Doryty.’

‘She’s the Mayor?’ said Jay. ‘What was she doing answering the door?’

Mabyn shrugged. ‘Dapplehaven is a peaceful place, most of the time. Perhaps she was bored.’

‘Or perhaps she was more interested in our presence here than she let on,’ I suggested.

‘Either way,’ sighed Mabyn, ‘Archie is here to pick up at least one of us, and that means Doryty’s changed her mind about letting us wander off.’

We turned as one to watch the approach of the dragon called Archibald. He gained on us with appalling speed and swooped, claws extended. I tried to convince myself that he was going for Mabyn again, but no. Those claws reached out, glittering bright silver in the sun, and the person they grabbed this time was — inevitably — me.

The Striding Spire: 9

I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. Mabyn Redclover had aligned herself with precisely the type of organisation — and the very department thereof — most likely to be opposed and despised by those who remained loyal to the goals of the Redclover school. She had become a person who made a point of getting in the way of projects like the Redclovers’, curtailing their options and limiting their prospects for reasons with which they apparently disagreed. If you were not disposed to consider those kinds of laws as justified, Mabyn’s choices would tend to look rather like defection to the enemy.

I wondered what kinds of things they were getting up to at the school these days.

‘We need to pay a visit to the Redclover School,’ I said.

Mabyn gave me an exasperated look. ‘It has been forty years since I left. I thought they might have got over their anger by now, but apparently not. They aren’t going to let us anywhere near that school.’

‘Not you, perhaps,’ said Jay. ‘I mean no offence, but Ves and I have angered no one.’

‘Yet,’ I muttered.

Jay ignored that. ‘If we request a tour, as representatives of the Society, surely they would agree?’

‘Of course they would,’ said Mabyn.


Her lips quirked in a sardonic smile. ‘Anything remotely objectionable is well hidden, and believe me, you won’t find it without help.’ She held up a hand as Jay opened his mouth, forestalling his words. ‘I cannot help you there. Forty years, remember? I am out of touch with their present arrangements.’

‘Not to worry,’ I said. ‘I have a plan.’

Jay eyed me warily. ‘Is it by chance a Mad Ves plan?’

‘A what?’

‘Mad Ves plans make perfect sense to Ves, but less so to anyone else. They are the result of Ves’s unique worldview, combined with a splendid disregard for convention or rule and a degree of blithe recklessness.’

‘You don’t like my plans?’

‘They frighten the life out of me,’ said Jay. ‘It’s therefore galling to have to admit that they sometimes work.’

‘Usually,’ I corrected.

‘All right, usually. So what’s the plan?’

‘I am going to show them the pup.’

‘What? Ves, if they are the ones responsible for breeding that puppy, we’ll be in big trouble.’

‘I don’t think they are. Or if they are, they may be unaware that one has got away. They’d be quite interested to hear about that, don’t you think?’

‘Oh? How do you figure that?’

‘Because this place is so reclusive. If this is where the pup came from, how did it end up in a medieval ghost-cottage in East Anglia? If the pup came from here at all, then somebody took it out of Dappledok into England, and that is a circumstance that’s likely to be frowned upon by the School. I think they would like to know about it, don’t you?’

‘Like I said,’ said Jay with a sigh. ‘Blithe recklessness.’

I looked at Mabyn. ‘Would you like to be on better terms with your family again?’

‘What,’ said Mabyn suspiciously, ‘did you have in mind?’

‘If, say, you heard about this Goldnose matter and came here out of concern for the school, that might win back a little favour.’

‘They would only think I was here to make trouble for them.’

‘Which,’ Jay put in, ‘we very possibly are.’

‘Let’s just see how it goes, shall we? Anyone who’s with me, come along.’ I left without waiting for a reply. I knew Jay would follow, and it wasn’t especially important whether Mabyn did or not.

I thought for a moment that she would not, but then I heard her uneven footsteps following along behind Jay’s — the intermittent clip of her one remaining heeled shoe on the stone floor. ‘You’ll never even find the school without me,’ she called.

‘Is it that well-hidden?’

‘It’s more that it’s spread all over Dapplehaven by now, and beyond. It had thirteen different buildings last I knew, and that was some time ago. What you’ll want is the kennels, which used to be on the north-eastern edge of the town.’

‘Lead on,’ said Jay with a courtly half-bow.

Mabyn led us all the way back down the stairs again. Her cousin Doryty lingered still in the hall. ‘And where are you going?’ snapped she when she saw Mabyn.

‘To the school.’ Mabyn spoke firmly. ‘We have come on a matter of some urgency, and I think the school will want to hear of it. Please ask whoever is currently serving as its headmistress to meet us at the kennels.’ She did not await a response, but swept out of the front door with her chin held high.

Doryty scowled, but made no move to stop either Jay or I as we went past.

‘Headmistress?’ Jay wondered. ‘It couldn’t be a headmaster?’

Mabyn did not appear to hear, and marched on up the street oblivious of Jay’s question.

So I hauled out our lovely book. ‘Mauf. Is the Redclover School at Dapplehaven always led by a headmistress?’

‘Typically,’ said Mauf. ‘Spriggan society tends strongly towards the matriarchal.’

‘I knew I liked them,’ I said.


The kennels, happily, had not been moved in the last forty years, though judging from Mabyn’s reaction they had been altered. She led us down myriad curly streets, past a great many houses and little shops (I wanted to investigate some of the latter, but Jay would not let me). The streets were mostly empty, but we passed a few citizens of Dapplehaven here and there — spriggans, mostly, dressed in such a riot of different clothing styles that I could detect no clear pattern. A society with no prevailing fashions? Unusual. We attracted some attention ourselves; I could well believe that they did not often see a couple of humans wandering down their wonky boulevards.

Just where Dapplehaven’s houses thinned and gave way to rocky heathland, there was a cluster of low-roofed buildings arranged around a central courtyard. The sounds of yapping and baying announced the kennels’ presence rather before they came into view; they were obviously still in use.

But Mabyn looked around with a frown, apparently nonplussed.

‘Something the matter?’ said Jay.

‘There used to be a lot… more,’ said Mabyn. ‘Of everything.’

The school had downsized its kennels in recent years, hm? Perhaps things were not going so well for them.

The kennels also appeared oddly deserted, in spite of the noise. We wandered about for a while, peeping into each of the white-walled buildings in turn. There were plenty of beasts there, including a litter of gorhounds just like the one my pup presently resembled, but there were no people.

The pup swiftly proved a handful. Her face had popped up out of the bag the moment the first forlorn yap had reached our ears, and she had ridden like that, ears pricked up and on high alert, until we got within sight of the kennels. After that, nothing would restrain her. I managed to catch her as she swarmed out of the bag, but she writhed like a wild thing in my arms and it was like trying to hold on to a thrashing eel. She bested me with embarrassing ease and hit the floor with a bounce.

Off she went at a run.

She did not seem disposed to go far, so I was not unduly worried. She came back into view from time to time, tearing past with her tail flying behind her, jaws wreathed in a huge puppy grin as she went from kennel to kennel, greeting every single other creature there.

It was the pup who finally found signs of sentient life, in a manner of speaking. I had not seen any sign of her for a few minutes, and Jay and Mabyn and I had gathered into a knot in the central courtyard, deprived of any particular objective for the moment and awaiting the arrival of the headmistress (supposing she chose to answer the summons). The pup suddenly erupted from a nearby kennel, vaulting over the door in a single leap, and dashed towards us, tongue lolling.

The door she had just jumped over slammed open in her wake, and a spriggan came dashing out after her. I could swear we had looked into that same building only a few minutes before, and seen no one, so how we could have missed him I do not know. He came barrelling in our direction, but not because he had the slightest interest in us; all his attention was fixed upon the pup.

He swiftly proved himself an adept handler of all puppish creatures, for he stymied all her attempts at evasion, anticipating her movements with remarkable prescience, and intercepted her as she swung around behind Mabyn. He pounced, and scooped, and emerged victorious, with a wriggling and indignant pup captured in his arms.

I took brief note of his posture. Was he holding the pup in some special way? I couldn’t see how, but by one means or another, he was holding her fast where I had completely failed.

‘I am so sorry,’ I said to him, holding out my arms to receive her. ‘Lacking your aptitude with such creatures, I could not persuade her to stay with me. She’s a little over excited by all the company, I’m afraid.’

The spriggan looked up, as though noticing my presence for the first time. His gaze travelled from me to Jay and then to Mabyn, but he betrayed no sign of understanding what I had said.

Mabyn stepped in, to my relief. She spoke to him in a string of incomprehensible words, presumably repeating what I had said, for she gestured once or twice at me.

But the spriggan shook his head, so emphatically that the flat cap he wore almost fell off. He said something in response, with a vehemence I interpreted as excitement. He shook the pup slightly as though to say, look at this! And I noticed that he was shaking.

Mabyn winced, and turned to Jay and me. ‘He asks where you got a Goldnose pup from.’

‘He… he can tell she is not a gorhound?’

‘He says he would know a Goldnose anywhere, whatever disguise they wore.’

Oh dear. I hoped there were not too many people around who could so easily see through our deception. ‘Please tell him that we are here in hopes of discovering an answer to that very question. We do not know where she came from.’

Mabyn relayed this, which seemed to dumbfound the kennel worker. He stood in thought for a moment, a look of total befuddlement on his face. Then, to my mild indignation, he turned around and wandered off in the direction of the kennel he had emerged from.

‘Hey, wait a moment,’ I said. ‘That’s our pup.’

‘He is fetching her some milk,’ said Mabyn. ‘He said a moment ago that she’s too thin, and he thinks you have not taken good care of her.’

‘She’s only been with us a few days!’ I protested. ‘She was starving to death when we found her.’

‘That is hardly surprising,’ said a new, unpromisingly stern voice from somewhere behind me. ‘She needs a special milk, which I do not suppose she has been getting.’

I turned. Behind me stood a woman almost of my own height — a human woman, not a spriggan — and almost of my own age, too, if I judged correctly. She presented an unassuming appearance, with dark hair drawn into a ponytail and discreet make-up. She wore a deep blue trouser suit with a black blouse. On the lapel of her jacket was a tiny silver pin in the shape of a pegasus.

‘You must be in charge,’ I guessed.

She inclined her head to me. ‘My name is Jenifry Redclover. I am the present headmistress of the school.’

Now that I looked more closely at her, I detected traces of something else in her face that might indicate a mixed ancestry. Slightly overlarge eyes, for one, and an unusually wide mouth. Still, it did not make much sense for her to share a surname with Mabyn, who could scarcely be more different.

‘It is something of an honorific,’ she explained, with a faint, unamused smile. ‘To become the manager of this school is to become a Redclover, if you were not one already.’ I supposed my puzzlement must have shown, which was clumsy of me.

I hastily changed the subject. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Redclover. May I ask whether the pup came from these kennels?’

‘That is quite impossible. To so blatantly flout all Magickal Accords would result in the school’s permanent closure. It could never be worth the risk, however valuable the Goldnose may be.’

At this point, Mabyn decided to reassert herself. ‘I hope that is the truth,’ she said in a brisk tone. ‘It has come to the attention of the Hidden Ministry of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that the breed has resurfaced against all prohibitions. No good can come to those responsible, and if the school is involved there is a great deal of trouble brewing.’

‘Hello, Mabyn,’ said Jenifry flatly. ‘How good of you to return.’

The Striding Spire: 8

‘Who,’ croaked Jay, eyes glued to the descending draconic menace, ‘is Archibald?’

I wanted to ask much the same thing, but I had been too busy digging for my Wand. I had not yet got around to returning the Sunstone Wand to Stores after our last adventure, for which oversight (ahem) I was now heartily grateful.

Trouble is, I had not expected to encounter so direct a menace two minutes into the Dappledok Dell, and I had left it somewhere in the depths of my shoulder bag. The pup was sleeping on it, and was remarkably resistant to suggestion. ‘Er,’ I said, beginning to panic, my fingers scrabbling uselessly for any trace of cool gemstone beneath the pup’s thick, fluffy fur. ‘Duck!

We dived for the floor. The dragon swooped, claws extended, and mercifully missed all three of us.

Wait, no. No, it didn’t. Jay and I had hit the floor, but Mabyn Redclover had stood her ground like an idiot, arms crossed, tutting the way Matron used to upon finding ten-year-old Ves reading her book by torchlight well after lights out. (I was a well-behaved child most of the time, I swear).

The dragon, unimpressed with this display of disapproval, scooped her up in its long, polished claws and flew away again.

Mabyn’s voice drifted back to us along the balmy spring breeze. ‘I will get this sorted out! Wait there.’

Jay and I could only watch, helpless, as the dragon dwindled into the distance, taking our guide with it.

‘Well,’ said Jay.

I hefted my bag. I had found the Wand by then, disturbing the pup in the process, and she was now sitting up, yawning, her ears perked as she looked around. ‘Time to explore after all, then,’ I said brightly.

Jay gave me his what-are-you-talking-about look. He does something odd and sceptical with his eyebrows. It’s hard to describe. ‘Don’t you think we ought to help Mabyn?’

‘Did she sound distressed to you?’

The what-the-hell face became a frown. ‘No. Why didn’t she sound distressed?’

‘My guess is that the dragon’s called Archibald. Or he belongs to someone else with that name.’

‘Possibly not the first time she’s travelled by dragon?’ Jay surmised.

‘Possibly not. Shall we go?’

‘She said, “Wait there.”‘

‘I know. I heard her.’

‘We aren’t doing that?’

‘Did you especially want to?’

‘We should.’ Jay said this very gravely. ‘She is effectively our boss for today.’

I put the Wand away again. ‘All right, then.’

Time passed.

Jay, to his credit, did a champion job of pretending not to be stupefied with boredom. He wandered about, hands shoved into the pockets of his dark leather jacket, an expression of bland interest on his face as he inspected the same outcropping of tan-coloured rock about sixteen times over.

I sat cross-legged on a nearby boulder, the pup in my lap, and stared into space.

After about seven minutes of this, he said, nonchalantly, ‘Maybe we could explore a little bit.’

‘We could.’

‘If we don’t go too far?’


‘Do you want to lead?’


He set off.

‘Jay,’ I said.


‘How about we go in generally the same direction as the dragon?’

He turned around, scowling. ‘I did ask you if you wanted to lead.’

I hopped off my boulder, electing to keep the pup in my arms rather than let her run, and beamed at him. ‘Just helping out.’

‘It’s not the worst idea,’ he conceded.

My smile widened.

‘Fine. You’re right, we’ll go this way.’

The dragon had flown off inland, more or less in the direction Mabyn Redclover had been going herself. I judged it likely, therefore, that the dragon (Archibald?) had come from Dapplehaven, and had probably returned there with Mabyn. Why we had been left out of this kidnapping party, I had no idea, though I wasn’t about to complain. If I am going to fly, I will do it by winged horse, thank you very much. Or chair. Or, I suppose, airplane. Those are the only three options.

My hypothesis seemed sound, for after a half-hour’s wending our way across the uneven curves of a stony hillside feathered with bracken and heath, the walls of a little town came into view surmounting the very top of the peak. At least, it appeared to be of limited size at first, but as we drew nearer, it became clear that the settlement extended much farther back than had initially been apparent. The walls were taller than Jay, and built from a reddish-tan stone obviously hewn from the local hills. Those buildings we could see were mostly constructed from the same material, as well as sturdy oak and pine wood. To my eyes, they looked diminutive, being of course the homes of spriggans and other beings built along smaller lines than humans. But they did not lack vision. Neatly constructed from smooth bricks, with sloping, tiled roofs and mullioned windows, they towered over the town walls, most of them built at least four storeys high.

If this was Dapplehaven, it was a prosperous place despite its reclusive habits.

One particularly tall tower rose in the centre, a round-walled construct made from a much paler stone than the rest, and fitted with a variety of peculiar windows, every one of them a different shape from the rest. Its top was crowned with a huge nest made out of what looked like lengths of coloured cloth. It made a cheery sight, in spite of its probable purpose.

I pointed it out to Jay. ‘Suppose that’s Archibald’s house?’

‘Looks dragon-sized,’ he agreed.

Gradually, I became aware of a problem. Walls there were, but it occurred to me that I had caught no glimpse whatsoever of a gate, or a door, or an archway, or even a window, through which Jay and I might enter the town. We walked on, following the curve of the walls around and around, but no sign of an entrance did we find.

At length, Jay stopped. ‘We can’t walk around the entire town. If there was going to be anything obvious like a gate, it would have been on the side we approached from — facing the entrance.’

‘Are you sure? They stopped taking visitors from Cornwall many years ago.’

‘And then moved the gate? Did you see anything on the walls that looked like a bricked-up doorway?’

‘No,’ I conceded.

‘It’s got to be a hidden entrance, like the door in the cliff face which only Mabyn could find.’

I heaved a sigh. ‘Why do Dells always have to make things so difficult.’

‘Because they hate you.’


‘And me, and the entire unmagicked population of Britain especially.’

‘Not altogether unreasonable of them,’ I murmured, thinking of many instances of persecution, theft, abuse and other such joys the magicker populations of our country had previously endured. Not to mention that the threat of exposure held more perils now than it ever had before. Imagine what would happen if some well-meaning but excitable non-magicker person discovered somewhere like Dappledok Dell — and managed to prove its existence to the rest of the world. Okay, we’re past the point where anybody would be likely to come down here with the torches and the pitchforks and burn the residents at the stake. Instead? Hordes of people would come down here with their Canon 70Ds and their camping gear and their Harry Potter t-shirts and the whole thing would become a theme park inside of about a week.

‘So, hidden door,’ I said to the wall before me. ‘Fun.’

‘Maybe it’s back where we started,’ said Jay. ‘Near the portal to Cornwall.’

‘Could be.’

‘It’s probably operated by a word, or a phrase. Something in Ancient Cornish, or whatever it was that Mabyn was speaking.’

‘One of the spriggan languages, possibly,’ I mused.

‘One of them?’

‘They have many dialects. Just like humans, isn’t that odd?’

He grimaced at me. ‘All right, sorry. Do you happen to speak any of them?’

‘No. Not having expected to end up in spriggan country, I specialised in old English and Court Algatish, which is the official language of Trolldom at the moment. I dabbled a bit in one or two of the goblin and elf tongues, but I never made much progress with those.’

Jay stared at me, bemused. ‘You speak Algatish?’

‘Not fluently, but not too badly.’

He visibly shook himself. ‘Er. So, we aren’t going to make much progress with the door if neither of us can speak any of the likely languages.’

‘Gosh, whatever shall we do.’ I reached out a hand and rapped politely upon the wall.

‘Knock?’ said Jay incredulously. ‘That’s the plan?’

‘Just wait.’

It took about thirty-five seconds.

‘Who goes there?’ snapped an irritable female voice, and a face shimmered into view. She was almost as wizened in appearance as Mabyn, though she was much more addicted to jewellery, and she wore bright lipstick.

‘I’ve always wanted to say who goes there,’ I whispered to Jay. ‘I’d say it with a bit more bombast, though.’

‘Er,’ said Jay. ‘We’re from the Society for Magickal Heritage, based in Yorkshire. We are here on an urgent matter of business.’

‘We had a guide,’ I added helpfully. ‘Mabyn Redclover. A dragon made off with her.’

The woman’s brows snapped down. ‘Wait there,’ she grunted, and the vision dissolved.

‘I was far too tempted to say “We come in peace,”‘ Jay remarked.

‘You could have. I doubt she would have got the reference.’

‘Next time. So is this how it normally works?’


‘You just… knock?’

I shrugged. ‘It works more often than it doesn’t. The Dells certainly don’t encourage tourism, but it’s not like you’re in danger of being put to death for setting foot in here. And she must realise we had to have qualified help to get this far.’

The woman herself appeared shortly afterwards. A line of green fire snaked its way up the wall, tracing the shape of an elegant and surprisingly tall archway, and the stonework within apparently vanished. Our grumpy receptionist stood revealed in all the glory of an early Edwardian tea gown in heliotrope silk, a sash tied round her nipped-in waist. Fashions don’t always advance much once a Dell closes its doors to the outside world. Then again, some people just like to dress vintage.

‘Mabyn Redclover is currently unavailable,’ she snapped.

‘We guessed that,’ I said.

‘Is she all right?’ Jay put in.

‘Perfectly. What do you think Archibald was going to do, eat her? Credentials please.’

We flashed our Society symbols. Mine has the unicorn superimposed over the three crossed wands, but Jay has only the wands so far. He hasn’t yet had time to pick a unique identifier.

I might as well add: no, these are not fakeable. It’s like the magickal equivalent of that special paper and holographic stuff they use on cash money to make it hard (if not completely impossible) to fake. No one can use my symbol but me. Val and I tried, once, to fake each other’s symbols. The results were not pretty. My face hurt for three weeks afterwards.

‘Fine. Come in.’ The Edwardian spriggan turned her back on us and stalked back through the archway, which promptly began to display signs that the stone blocks were returning.

‘Quick.’ I grabbed Jay and dragged him through the arch, just as stone rippled back into place with a nasty grinding sound. Nice if we’d got stuck halfway through when that happened.

‘Hospitable,’ Jay muttered.

‘Habit,’ I countered. ‘I don’t think they get groups here very often.’

The town of Dapplehaven had all the hallmarks of an old, old settlement: narrow streets winding every which way, betraying the absolute absence of a town planner; old stone or timber-framed houses with crumbling facades built onto the front in updated styles; an occasional old well, which may or may not be still in use; doors with the doorknobs in the middle, instead of on the left side; uneven stone-cobbled streets; all of that kind of thing. They had updated a bit, though, for they had wrought iron streetlamps in that charming, late-Victorian style (ornate), and a suspiciously twentieth-century-looking wheelbarrow parked in somebody’s front garden (not so ornate).

Our new guide escorted us through several winding streets and at last entered a tall, skinny building with an unfortunate unsteady appearance. By which I mean, it was distinctly leaning at the top.

This did not appear to trouble our guide, who took us through a featureless entrance hall and up three flights of stairs. She shoved open a door in the subsequent hallway and ushered us into it.

Mabyn Redclover sat there on a hard oak chair. Her suit was torn in three places, and — alas! — her hair had very much come a-cropper. She was also missing a shoe.

‘Your assistants,’ said the Edwardian woman.

‘Thanks, Doryty,’ said Mabyn sourly. ‘I am sure you gave them one of your warm welcomes.’

‘Naturally. Wait a moment.’

She left us with Mabyn.

‘What got into Archibald?’ said Jay, sitting down beside her.

That won him a faint smile. ‘We go a long way back.’

‘Really? He didn’t look all that friendly.’

Mabyn looked away. ‘I did not leave on quite the best terms. Those who have the care of Archibald these days were not best pleased to see me back.’

‘What about Doryty?’ I put in.

‘Doryty Redclover. A cousin on my mother’s side.’

‘Good relationship there?’

‘Not really.’

Milady’s knowledgeable, well-connected guide turned out to be about the least popular person in Dappledok? Great.

I was in for a headache.

The Striding Spire: 7

Jay had never met a spriggan before.

Neither had I, in fact, but since it was my sacred duty to be the knowledgeable, world-wise one, I had no intention of telling him that. I went forward to meet Mabyn Redclover with a practiced air of confident ease, and bid her warmly welcome to the Society.

Not that there was anything in her appearance to disgust, or even to disconcert. True, her head was a little overlarge for her body, but she was well-dressed and impeccably groomed and I respect that. She was a foot or so shorter than me (so, in other words, very short), and appeared to be of advanced age, judging from her wizened skin and white hair. She wore a sixties-style two-piece suit, jacket and skirt perfectly matched, with low heels and gold earrings. She hadn’t gone for the beehive hair, slightly to my disappointment; instead, she had a nicely coiffed bob. We arrived in the hall to find her standing in the middle of it, looking around with obvious interest.

She took off her gloves when I went to greet her, and shook my hand warmly. ‘Mabyn Redclover,’ she introduced herself. ‘I’m with the Ministry. Department of Forbidden Magicks.’

My eyebrows rose. Milady had reached rather high, and was it a coincidence that Ms. Redclover was an expert in magickal misdemeanours? I imagined not.

Jay and I introduced ourselves.

‘Pleasure,’ she said briskly. ‘You are the two I was invited to meet, are you? What may I do for you?’

‘Any connection at all the Redclovers of Dappledok?’ asked Jay.

A faint grimace flickered over her lips, and was gone. ‘Once. A long time ago.’

I suppose you would distance yourself from family connections like that, in her line of work. But I wondered, then, why she had never changed her name.

Jay nodded. ‘Has Milady described our current situation to you?’

‘An outline only. A Dappledok beast has been found?’

‘One of the questionable ones.’ Jay proceeded to fill in the details. I, meanwhile, tried not to look as though I had the creature in question tucked into the bag hanging from my left shoulder, and hoped that the pup would not choose this of all possible moments to stick her head out for some air.

She didn’t, but Ms. Redclover’s eyes settled upon me with a shrewd expression I could not quite like. ‘You have the pup here?’ she said.

I sighed, and lifted the flap of my bag. I did so with some trepidation, in case Ms. Redclover, of Forbidden Magicks, should decide to confiscate her — or worse. But she only looked briefly into the bag, noted the dark shape of the pup curled up in the bottom, and withdrew. ‘Disguised?’


‘Excellent illusion.’

I smiled, uncertain. Chit-chat? Surely she must feel some disapproval. ‘There were three of them in the cottage,’ I elaborated. ‘Two failed to survive. We believe there must be some manner of secret breeding programme going on somewhere, and we’d like to get to the bottom of it.’

‘So would we,’ said Mabyn Redclover, with a thin smile. ‘Milady has assigned you to assist me, so we will be working together for a time. I trust that will be agreeable?’

I felt a little surprise. Assigned to work with Mabyn? Had she not been sent to serve as our guide? Just who was in charge here?

It was typical of Milady to couch the situation in rather different terms to us, but the melancholy truth was: Ministry employees outranked us, especially the higher ups. And Ms. Redclover had every appearance of being one of those, from her manicured nails to her air of business-like efficiency. She was the kind of person who confidently expects to be obeyed without question, and that spoke volumes.

‘Well, actually—’ said Jay.

I coughed, interrupting him. ‘That will be fine,’ I told her. ‘We are ready to depart for Dappledok at once, if that is acceptable to you.’

‘Quite.’ She looked at Jay. ‘You are a Waymaster, yes?’

‘I am.’

She nodded, and took — I kid you not — a plastic rain-hood out of a pocket of her suit. This she unfolded, and placed carefully over her perfectly coiffed hair, tying the strings under her chin. ‘Right away, then,’ she said briskly.

Jay looked at me, and I shrugged. I hoped my shrug would convey something along the lines of, best to do as the nice lady says, but to Jay it apparently said something more like I have no idea, it’s your problem, for his mouth tightened, and he walked off with only a brief nod for Ms. Redclover.

She fell in beside me as I wandered after Jay, fussily adjusting the sit of her rain-hood. ‘Terse young man, isn’t he?’ she said in an undertone.

‘He’s only been with us for a few weeks yet. I think he’s still finding his feet.’

‘Ahh,’ she said wisely. ‘I remember those days.’

I was tempted to ask her how long it had been since she’d felt young and uncertain, but wisely restrained the impulse.

‘You were lucky to get him,’ she added after a moment.

‘We were. He’s a highly talented Waymaster. One of the best, I understand, though you’d never hear him say it.’

‘The Ministry wanted to bid for him, but Milady was too fast. One or two people were mighty displeased about that.’

My mouth twitched, though I managed to suppress the smug smile that threatened to emerge. ‘I am sure Milady was duly apologetic.’

‘Most apologetic. Not at all sorry, of course, but most apologetic.’

I did smile at that. Plastic hats or no, I began to feel that Ms. Redclover and I might just get along.


Ms. Redclover went through the Winds of the Ways with her hands carefully clamped over her hair. I privately thought it absurd, until she emerged at a windy henge atop a cliff somewhere in (presumably) Cornwall with her hair intact and I… didn’t.

As I nonchalantly shook out my tangled curls I reminded myself that perfect hair isn’t everything.

‘So,’ I said to Jay with a brilliant smile. ‘Er, whereabouts are we?’


I looked around. We stood high up over the water on rocky ground covered in feathery green grasses. Great boulders lay everywhere, protruding pugnaciously from the earth, and the sun shone gorgeously over a patchwork of meadows stretching away into the distance. ‘Edifying.’

He smiled faintly at me, and pointed over my shoulder. ‘That’s the sea.’

I stared out over the expanse of glittering blue water. ‘So that’s what the sea looks like.’



With a tiny sigh, he said, ‘We are as far west in England as you can get, and a long way south. We’re somewhere along what they now call the Penwith Heritage Coast, which means we are smack in the middle of spriggan country, and the entrance to the Dappledok Dell is not far from here.’

I gave him a tiny salute. ‘Thank you, Captain Geography.’

‘You are welcome, Captain History.’

I had half expected him to call me Captain Sparkle or something, but I liked his alternative. ‘I’ve never been to Cornwall,’ I admitted.

‘Never?’ He looked incredulous. ‘I thought you’d been in Acquisitions for ten years.’

‘I have, but somehow I never ended up in Cornwall.’


Ms. Redclover gave a slight cough. ‘The day marches on,’ she observed.

It did, at that. It must be well past noon already, and Jay and I were bantering the afternoon away. ‘Sorry,’ I said hastily. ‘Lead on, Jay?’

He led on. We wended our way around the coastline for half an hour or so, and I had cause to be thankful that I had chosen a jeans-and-flat-shoes combination that morning. I wondered if Ms. Redclover might be regretting her shoe choices a bit, but she trudged on with unimpaired composure and seemed unaffected.

I wondered if her unruffled attitude was Ministry-issue, or innate.

After a while, Jay stopped at what must be a specific point in the largely featureless landscape, though I could see no way to tell. We had gone down a sandy incline to a beach littered with stones, and the cliff rose above us, jagged and rocky and just a bit forbidding, if it hadn’t been for the balmy, sunny weather. He stood staring at the rock wall. ‘Ms. Redclover?’ he said after a while.

‘Mabyn, please, Mr. Patel.’

He flashed her one of his charming smiles. ‘Jay, then.’

She inclined her head.

‘I believe we will need your help to get in.’

Mabyn stepped forward, lips pursed. ‘Likely, yes. Dappledok closed its doors to outsiders a long time ago, though never entirely. It has been a long time, however…’ She let the sentence trail off and began to wander up and down the beach, her keen eyes scanning the rock for signs of… something? Jay and I stood, patiently waiting.

‘Ah,’ she finally said, and stepped forward. Lifting one thin hand, she knocked thrice upon the rock face and said something in a language I had never heard before.

‘Ancient Cornish?’ guessed Jay.

‘Probably,’ I whispered back.

Whatever it was she had said, it soon proved effective. A line of sea-green light snaked down the cliff face, and with the horrific groaning sound of grinding rock, a crack appeared, just wide enough for a spriggan — or indeed, a human — to pass through.

Mabyn went in, beckoning over her shoulder to the two of us.

‘After you,’ said Jay with a half-bow.

‘I promise you, even I cannot manage to get lost between here and the cliff.’ The distance was all of, what, twelve feet?

Jay grinned at me. ‘I’d like to make sure.’

I stuck my tongue out at him, and followed after Mabyn. And into the Dappledok Dell went we, agog with curiosity (or maybe that last part was just me).

Well, let me tell you, my first glimpse of that ancient Dell was… a little bit of a let-down.

Not that it wasn’t beautiful. It was, gloriously so. I have probably mentioned the tendency of the magickal Dells to look… well, magick-drenched. Everything practically glows with vitality and beauty, at least with those that are still thriving; the abandoned ones are a different matter. Dappledok wasn’t abandoned. It glittered and glowed.

But it was exactly the same landscape as the one we had just left; in fact, it looked identical, save only for the extra blush of vibrancy to the blue-green water, and the sparkle to the sunlight. I don’t know what I had been hoping for. Skies full of rainbows? Meadows chock-full of cute puppy-like creatures frolicking in the sunlight?

Ms. Redclover behaved like a native, for all her attempts to distance herself from her ancient familial home. She set off along the beach at a purposeful walk, with the air of a woman walking a long-familiar route. ‘Dapplehaven is just around the corner,’ she called over her shoulder.

‘What is Dapplehaven?’ I asked, hastening to catch up with her.

‘The largest town in the Dell. The Redclover School is there.’

Straight to the point, hm? I smothered the desire to go for a long, exploratory hike, and dutifully trotted after Ms. Mabyn Redclover.

But we had not gone very far before three most unpromising things happened one after another.

First, it literally went dark. Not completely pitch, but the sun went pale and watery, like someone had turned down a dimmer switch.

Next, the magickal equivalent of a klaxon sounded from somewhere nearby. It sounds less like a car horn and more like an entire flock of griffins all screaming at once.

When a dark speck appeared on the horizon, I knew we were somewhat in trouble.

‘This does not seem good,’ said Jay, coming to a sudden halt, and warily eyeing the skies.

Ms. Redclover gave a huffy sigh, and fussed with her hair. ‘Always so prone to overreaction. Some things never do change, do they?’

I was watching that dark speck in silence. It grew rapidly bigger, proving itself to be winged, with a snaky body and four legs. ‘Yep,’ I said as it drew nearer. ‘Dragon.’

It wasn’t all that big of a dragon, in fairness, but it was plenty big enough to ruin our collective day. As it swooped down upon us, jaws gaping, with green fire streaming from between its fangs, Ms. Redclover shook her head with another huffy sigh and said, ‘Oh, Archibald.

The Striding Spire: 6

‘Please have a seat,’ the giant finally said. ‘Covers, please.’

This last made no sense to me whatsoever, but before I could ask for an explanation, two of the silver dishes shivered and spat their covers into the air, where they promptly vanished. The two dishes hastened to set themselves before us, and I noted with approval (but not much surprise) that mine contained three items: a piece of carrot cake, a custard slice, and a cup of chocolate. Three of my very favourite things.

I peeked at Jay’s: it had a fat samosa, a plate of chips, and a cup of tea… no, the contents of the little cup were far too dark for tea.

‘Since when are you a coffee drinker?’ I whispered to him.

He shot me a vaguely guilty look. ‘I like tea as well,’ he said defensively.


He flicked a chip at me.

We had ended up seated within easy talking distance of Lord Garrogin, but not so close that I could see what his dishes were. I was disappointed. Food is a bit of an interest of mine — big surprise, right? — and I was curious about what kinds of things giants might like to eat.

‘Cordelia Vesper,’ said Garrogin. ‘And Jay Patel. I understand you work together?’

‘As of a few weeks ago,’ I confirmed, picking up the shiny silver fork that came with my plate and tucking into the cake. ‘He’s our new Waymaster, and I am training him to join the Acquisitions Division.’

‘Tell me about Acquisitions,’ said Garrogin. He had a deep, soothing voice, and I genuinely did feel calmed by it. The flutter of nerves in my belly dissipated.

‘Well, we are the — the public arm of the Society, I suppose,’ I said. ‘We track down and retrieve artefacts, treasures, trinkets and curiosities, books, beasts, talismans — anything really — that might be under threat, and make sure they get where they need to go. Sometimes that’s here, sometimes elsewhere.’

‘We fix problems, too,’ Jay said. ‘It’s not just retrieval. On my first assignment with Ves, we went after a pair of stolen alikats and discovered a disease infesting half the dormant Troll Enclaves in the country. Took a bit to resolve that one.’

‘And how did you resolve it?’ said Garrogin, in the same even tone.

‘In the end, we had to go all the way to Farringale,’ said Jay, dipping a chip in ketchup.

That prompted a small reaction from our giant interrogator. ‘You entered Farringale? What did you do there?’

So we told him that story, and that got us onto the tale of Bill the Book. By the time we had finished telling him about all of that, my cakes and chocolate were gone, and Jay had wiped his plate clean of chips, ketchup and samosas alike.

Garrogin hadn’t touched his dishes at all.

‘You have had a lively time of it,’ he observed.

‘It’s never a dull job,’ I agreed. ‘Though to be fair, it’s not usually quite that exciting.’

Lord Garrogin nodded thoughtfully, and at last — at last — he selected some small morsel of something from his plate and consumed it with ponderous slowness. ‘What drew you to the Society?’ he asked, looking at Jay.

The question came a bit out of the blue, so I could not blame Jay for looking a trifle startled. But he answered quickly. ‘It’s legendary, for one thing. Everyone here is really committed to the preservation of our magickal heritage, and… well, without Milady and her recruits, we’d have lost a lot of irreplaceable things by now. That’s more important to me than anything. And then my parents both worked here, before I was born. They always had great stories to tell. I never really wanted anything else.’

That interested me, for I’d never heard that Jay’s mother and father had been employees here. But Garrogin did not seem disposed to follow up that line of enquiry. Instead he said, with probably deceptive blandness, ‘Not even for a much higher salary?’

‘The Society pays as much as I need,’ said Jay.

Garrogin nodded, and turned his sharp blue gaze upon me. ‘And why do you stay, Cordelia?’

‘It’s Ves,’ I said. ‘Cordelia makes me feel like a porcelain doll. I stay for all the reasons Jay just said. There is nothing more important I could do with my time and my skills, is there? And I love the variety, the challenge… no two days are ever the same. I once regretted not being assigned to the Library, but much as I love books and research, I’d probably be getting bored by now.’

Lord Garrogin’s eyes narrowed the merest fraction, and my stomach tightened. What had I said to prompt that reaction? But the expression faded, and he actually smiled at us both. Not much, but there was a definite curving of his lips. ‘Thank you,’ he said, in a tone of dismissal. ‘It has been an enlightening conversation.’

He did not appear in any way displeased, so I tried not to conclude that this comment boded ill, and got up from my chair. ‘It was a pleasure to meet you,’ I said politely.

He inclined his head to us both. ‘We will meet again.’

Would we? That definitely sounded ominous.

Jay and I exchanged identical looks of mild concern, and beat a hasty retreat.


The “consultations” went on all day, but there was no news to be had as to how they were progressing. Jay and I wandered listlessly about the common room for a while, and when neither word nor orders arrived, we decided to arrange our own entertainment.

Extra equipment required: one Valerie, one Mauf, one Library of Dreams.

Objective: find out more about the Dappledok Dell, the spriggan courts, and anything else that seemed pertinent.

We arrived at Val’s enormous desk to find her getting very cosy with Mauf.

She had the book laid before her on a thick cushion, unopened. Mauf’s cover was glinting with light again; I was rapidly learning that this was a sign of interest with him, perhaps even excitement. Val had a notepad beside her and a pen in one hand, and she was furiously writing notes, one finger tapping frenetically upon Mauf’s gorgeous leather cover.

She looked up when Jay and I walked in. ‘This is amazing,’ she said. ‘The library has nothing about any of this. Nothing.

‘The Dappledok beasts?’ I asked, pulling up a chair. Sitting on the audience side of Valerie’s desk always feels odd. Val’s chair is handsome, and elevated on a slight pedestal besides, so she’s very much looking down on anybody seated on the other side. Valerie herself can be a touch imposing, too — not that she isn’t friendly, of course. But she’s a tall, majestic sort of woman with perfect posture and incredibly well-groomed hair, and while she’s always been a staunch friend to me, some part of her manner can sometimes feel a bit… brisk, shall we say? It feels a bit like taking a meeting with the approachable but mildly awe-inspiring CEO of some vast, important company.

I cannot say that I mind, though. Val is the undisputed queen of the library, a post she has thoroughly earned, and she deserves every scrap of status that comes with it.

Anyway. ‘There were eight different species,’ Val said to me. ‘Each more remarkable than the last, and I don’t say that lightly. Irreplaceable. I cannot believe that so many of them were permitted to pass out of existence — nay, not permitted, but forced to!’

Jay politely broke in upon this discourse. ‘How many of them have been banned?’

‘Four, of the eight,’ she said promptly, then paused. ‘Right, Mauf?’

‘Correct, madam.’

Apparently my book and Valerie were getting along swimmingly, if one of them was already on a first-name basis. Mauf had a bit of formality to get over. I’d give it about… twenty-five years.

Valerie consulted her notes, flipping back a page or two. ‘The Goldnoses, as they were colloquially known, though their correct name was — never mind. Too much detail, Val. They were banned because they facilitated the life of crime far more than anybody was comfortable with. Another species had a talent for lifting curses, which you might think would be a good thing, unless they were being used to circumvent the kinds of curses that have been laid down for good reason — you know the kind of thing, Ves.’

I did. That chamberpot, for example. I had cursed it so that it would do a few, er, rather unpleasant things to anybody who contrived to get into it without my permission. We call that a curse, because it’s essentially dark magic, but its use for the protection of personal property (among other things) is common, and widely supported.

‘A useful creature to have alongside your Goldnose,’ I remarked.

‘Extremely. A third was forbidden purely because it could never be cured of its tendency to go wild and bite everybody within range, and since its fangs were venomous this was considered undesirable.’

Jay snorted.

‘And finally, the fourth. A sweet little thing, as much like a kitten as the Goldnoses are like adorable little puppies. Only it was bred for its milk, which happens to be hallucinogenic in very bad ways.’

‘Hallucinogenic?!’ I echoed. ‘What was that about?’

Valerie shot me a look. ‘Why does anybody manufacture drugs, Ves?’

‘Fair point.’

‘And the other four?’ Jay asked.

‘Two of them are on the endangered species list, and the other two became so common that nobody remembers — or cares — where they came from anymore. All of them possess, at most, minor and harmless abilities.’

I thought that over. ‘Interesting array of beasties.’

‘Isn’t it?’ Val agreed. ‘To the credit of Dappledok, the four that were never banned were pretty terrific achievements. But the other four? Odd mixture.’

‘I wonder what they were after.’

Valerie shrugged. ‘Possibly there was no master plan, they were just experimenting. Exercising their powers. That kind of thing.’

‘Then again,’ said Jay, ‘it has been said that spriggans are known for a love of all things gold.’

Valerie pursed her lips. ‘In the same way that humans are, probably. Collectively, we’re powerfully influenced by material wealth, but that doesn’t make all of us robbers and thieves.’

Jay inclined his head, conceding the point.

‘So who was responsible for these creatures?’ I asked. ‘If Dappledok is anything like most Dells, it’s fairly sizeable, and a lot of different people live there. Or did, once upon a time. All we’ve heard so far is that “spriggans” made the Goldnoses, but that’s a broad category.’

‘It is far too broad, though it is true enough. Mauf?’

The book glittered with enthusiasm. ‘The Dappledok Dell had two main neighbourhoods: one inhabited, predominantly, by spriggans, and the other home to a large community of brownies. Scattered about across the rest was quite the array of other beings, including a few humans. I speak of its heyday, which lasted for much of the seventeenth century. It declined somewhat thereafter, and today it is known as a quiet, reclusive Dell rarely open to outsiders.’

‘And the spriggans?’ I prompted.

‘I am getting to that,’ said Mauf, calmly but firmly.

I was abashed. ‘Sorry.’

Mauf made a throat-clearing noise. Somehow. ‘The spriggans of Dappledok were a mixture of multiple tribes, but the most powerful of them were the Redclovers, who founded a school at Dappledok in 1372. The establishment grew to considerable size over the next two centuries, and was held in such high repute that people travelled to Dappledok from all over Britain to attend. They taught a range of magickal techniques and theories but their specialisation, as I am sure you will not be surprised to hear, was all matters relating to the capture, care, breeding and use of magickal beasts. It is that school, and its attendant workshops, which produced all eight of the species I have previously discussed with Valerie.’

The Redclover School. Interesting.

Jay spoke up. ‘Where did you learn all this, Bill? I mean, Mauf?’

‘I came across it during my time at the Library of Farringale.’

‘Did you absorb all the knowledge of that place?’

‘To my shame, no. It was not possible to properly converse with those books placed too far away from my shelf. I would estimate that I was only able to exchange information with approximately seven thousand books.’

There was a short silence following this extraordinary statement, during which (judging from their faces) Jay and Valerie were thinking much the same thing as I was.

Seven thousand??!

Had they all been lost volumes, full of information we no longer had access to? If so, Valerie was going to be very, very busy for about the next twelve lifetimes.

Anyway. I forcibly dragged my reeling mind back to the point at hand, albeit with some difficulty. ‘Redclover,’ I said aloud.

‘Spriggans,’ Jay added helpfully.

‘Dappledok beasts. One ancient mystery at a time, right?’

Jay said, ‘Right,’ but in tones of deep regret with which I could only sympathise.

My phone buzzed.

I grabbed it from my pocket. ‘Ves,’ I said.

Unbelievably, and unprecedentedly, Milady’s voice echoed into my ear. ‘Mabyn Redclover has just arrived at the front hall, Ves. I am much engaged with Lord Garrogin at present, and since Mabyn is to be your guide to Dappledok, may I ask you and Jay to meet her?’

I swiftly agreed, and put away my phone. ‘A lady’s arrived to see Jay and me,’ I announced.

‘A lady?’ asked Jay.

‘Her name is Mabyn.’

Jay gave me a quizzical frown.

‘Redclover,’ I said with a grin.

Jay’s eyes widened, and he shot out of his chair. ‘Going.’

We went.

‘Keep me posted!’ called Valerie after us.

I turned around long enough to make a cross-my-heart gesture, and… and I noticed Mauf still lying before Valerie.

I ran back to grab him.

‘Ves! I am not finished!’

‘Sorry,’ I said with total sincerity, but not at all deterred. ‘We’re going to need him.’

The Striding Spire: 5

‘Let’s think,’ said Jay. ‘Hidden Ministry aside, the Goldnoses are still banned in virtually every magickal community there is. It is no mean feat, then, to breed them in spite of the law, and to keep it going for so long. It also takes considerable courage to consistently flout a law which carries such severe penalties for disobedience. Somebody really, really wanted those pups.’

‘Takes courage, or confidence?’ I suggested. ‘You might flout that law with impunity if you felt that you had the right people on your side.’

Jay blinked at me. ‘You mean somebody high in authority might be behind this?’

‘If not behind it, then at least willing to turn a blind eye — and perhaps to shield those responsible from the consequences, should their activities ever come to light.’

Jay nodded thoughtfully. ‘Worryingly plausible. Or, it’s the responsibility of some group who felt they had power enough in themselves to ignore the general disapprobation.’

‘Maybe it’s somebody like us, who falls under the jurisdiction of the Hidden Ministry and therefore is not, technically, acting illegally.’

‘But if the Ministry only dates from the late seventeen hundreds, and the pups had already passed out of all knowledge by then, who bridged that gap?’

‘Fair point. Perhaps the Ministry isn’t the only organisation that hasn’t enacted such laws. Mauf?’

‘All officially recorded and recognised magickal organisations had agreed upon, and enacted such laws, by 1731,’ said Mauf.

‘Official?’ said Jay. ‘Are there unofficial ones?’

‘It happens on occasion. They do not tend to last long, however.’

Which made sense. Setting up your own unsanctioned magickal state and proposing therefore to consider yourself above all magickal laws was not exactly widely supported behaviour. The usual consequence would be exactly as that enterprising band of spriggans discovered in 1727 — a speedy dispatch to prison, or something worse. It would be like buying your own island, declaring it an independent country, and expecting every other country in the world to nod, smile and pat you tolerantly on the head while you proceed to set up a factory for nuclear bombs on your tiny slice of paradise. This is not how it works.

But it doesn’t stop people from occasionally trying.

‘I wonder if some rogue magickal state has somehow gone undetected since the early eighteenth century?’ I mused aloud.

‘It isn’t impossible,’ said Jay. ‘Not quite.’

‘It is highly unlikely,’ I agreed. ‘And perhaps we’re thinking too big now.’

‘A smaller operation would have the greater chance of success,’ said Jay. ‘The bigger you are, the more noticeable you tend to be.’

‘Some smaller operation with an incurable lust for treasure?’ I suggested.

‘Why else would you brave all dire consequences to keep a Goldnose handy?’

I nodded. ‘I think Milady is right. Somebody needs to have a quiet talk with the spriggans.’


Valerie needed to have a quiet talk with Mauf, too, and so did Miranda. His casual revelation that the Dappledok Dell had been responsible for at least eight rare and desirable species of beasts required immediate investigation. I left the book at the Library, pausing only to relay enough of our findings to thoroughly electrify our sedate and dignified Boss Librarian. So energised was she, she almost tore the book right out of my hands.

I left them chatting cosily together, or so I hoped. Knowing Val, it would soon turn into an interrogation.

My next plan was to hustle back up to Milady’s tower to relay Mauf’s findings — and to see if the guide she had mentioned was here yet. I wanted to be on the road already, for little good ever comes of delaying something important. The sooner we talked to the spriggans of Dappledok, the better.

But I was distracted — twice.

I was halfway up the main stairs when I heard Miranda’s voice calling me. I turned back. She had just come through the great doors leading into the east wing and was hastening towards me, her blonde hair half out of its ponytail as usual and a besmeared white coat over her jumper and jeans. A little dog trotted at her heels, and in spite of everything it still took me a moment to recognise my pup.

‘What do you think?’ said Mir, a bit breathlessly, as she came up to me.

I gazed at the pup. Instead of gold, her fur was now chocolate brown dappled liberally with purple, and there was no trace of the little horn that had adorned her forehead. She now had two horns instead, slightly thicker ones, nestled behind each of her pointed ears. Her nose had shrunk, and turned to an unobtrusive black colour.

In other words, she was a gorhound.

‘Wow,’ I said intelligently. ‘That’s amazing.’

Miranda nodded. ‘They’re good, aren’t they?’ she said, presumably referring to whichever of our illusionists had worked on the pup.

‘Amazing,’ I said again. So amazing, in fact, that for a brief, wild moment I wondered whether some switcheroo hadn’t been performed, and the tiny Goldnose wasn’t now languishing in some hidden nook in the east wing while I was fobbed off with a different creature altogether.

I squashed those ideas very quickly. What reason did I have to distrust Mir? None whatsoever. The illusionists really were that good, that was all.

When the gorhound puppy trotted up to me and rubbed herself all over my leg, my doubts vanished altogether. ‘Hi, pup,’ I said, and bent to pat her.

‘Pup?’ said Miranda. ‘Doesn’t she have a name?’

I know I have been referring to her as my pup for a while now, but I knew full well that she was no such thing. She was under my care for a little while, that was all, and if she had taken an obvious shine to me, well — what did that matter? No one was going to leave so rare, so valuable and so, er, illegal a beast with me for very long.

So I had not had the presumption to name her. It seemed wiser, somehow. If I did not name her, maybe I could refrain from getting too attached to her.


‘Pup works just fine,’ I said, declining to explain all of this to Miranda.

I think she understood anyway, though, for she gave me a smile of unexpected sympathy and said, ‘Perhaps it does, at that.’

It occurred to me that Miranda had probably been in the same situation over and over again. How many beasts had she bred and raised herself, or rescued and tenderly restored to health, only to have to relinquish them into someone else’s possession? Or back into the wild? She would grow used to it, I supposed — to a degree. Her attachment to animals of all kinds was legendary at Home, after all.

Miranda gave me a salute and dashed off again, leaving the pup trailing around at my heels. We barely managed to climb four stairs between us that time before I heard the double doors of the front hall swing ponderously open, admitting a blaze of sunshine from outside. I say heard because they open with a groaning noise indicative of rusted hinges. They don’t have rusted hinges, of course; the House is far too well-maintained to permit of that. But no amount of persuasion, oil-based or otherwise, can convince the doors to stop announcing each new visitor with some unpromising noise or another. I’ve long since concluded that House does it on purpose. If any building could be supposed to have a sense of humour, it would be ours.

Anyway, when the doors groan like that — or squeal, or cackle, choke — it means someone of note has arrived, so I stopped and went back down the stairs yet again.

I might have been planning to go forward to meet whoever it was, but I swiftly revised all ideas of that kind and stayed firmly put. One judges it prudent, you know, with some visitors.

This one was most definitely of that kind. He was so tall, he had to stoop a long way to fit through the enormous doors, and he did not appear to find that an amusing process at all. He made it into the hall with some effort and stood, his short white hair brushing the high ceiling, looking down upon us puny humans with eyes the size of dinner plates.

All right, maybe not dinner plates. Afternoon tea plates, though, for certain. You could easily eat scones off those bright blue eyeballs.

He wore a long robe of blue cloth embroidered in gold, a white coat over the top, and (more puzzlingly, considering the weather) a pair of blue gloves. In other words, he made not the smallest effort to look like he belonged in any part of the modern world — but then, why should he? He was the size of about six humans put together.

‘Giant,’ I said faintly.

‘So I see,’ said Jay from behind me, startling me, for I had not noticed his approach. ‘Do we often get giants stopping by?’

I had to think for a minute before I could remember the last time. At least five years ago. ‘Nope,’ I said succinctly.

‘Right, then.’

The giant gave a long, windy sigh and said in lugubrious tones, ‘Why must the doors always be so small?’

I pondered that. House is perfectly capable of adjusting proportions at need — be it of windows, chairs, or, indeed, doors. That it had not chosen to do so — and, further, that it had chosen to announce the arrival of this giant with so peculiarly unattractive a groaning noise — suggested to me that House did not altogether approve of our visitor.


Jay and I were not the only Society employs standing, frozen with surprise, in the hall. The giant surveyed the lot of us one by one, and when nobody spoke, he said: ‘I am here to see Milady.’

There was no conceivable way he was going to fit in Milady’s tower.

‘Er,’ said Jay in an undertone. ‘That’s going to be interesting.’

But of course, Milady had anticipated this. ‘Welcome, Lord Garrogin,’ she suddenly said from somewhere disconcertingly close to my head. ‘We have been looking forward to your arrival.’

This, too, was unusual, and I could only answer Jay’s questioning stare with a shrug. Yes, it was also a long time since Milady had been known to manifest (sort of) anywhere other than her tower. Yes, that probably meant nothing good either.

What can you do.

‘Wonder if he’s our guide or the Truthseeker?’ whispered Jay.

‘The latter,’ I said instantly, and hoped I was right. Spriggans are not very tall. I collected that our guide was meant to be someone the spriggan courts might feel more comfortable associating with than a couple of humans, and I couldn’t imagine their welcoming the arrival of so vast a being as Lord Garrogin in any such spirit.

I was swiftly proved right, for Milady’s voice crisply announced: ‘Consultations will shortly begin. Cordelia Vesper and Jay Patel to the Audience Chamber, please.’

That’s Milady for you. For one thing, “Convention Chamber” is far too modern a term for her. She prefers “Audience Chamber,” as though those summoned were to be presented to some manner of monarch. For another, “consultations” sounds so much nicer than “inquisition”, doesn’t it?

‘Why are we first?’ whispered Jay to me as we dutifully headed for the Chamber of Gorgeousness.

‘Probably because we’re supposed to be on our way to Sprigganland already.’

‘If our guide’s here.’

‘He or she probably is, or they’re imminently expected. Milady doesn’t waste time.’

‘As evidenced by the prompt appearance of Lord Garrogin, Giant, from Parts Unknown.’


Lord Garrogin was nowhere in evidence when we arrived at the Audience/Convention Chamber. Milady had probably taken him off for an initial briefing, and was overseeing the pouring of hot chocolate down his gargantuan throat at that very moment. The enormous Inquisition Room (as I would now have to think of it) was echoingly empty, though I was heartened to see that refreshments had been provided: the long, crystalline table running down the centre of the marble-floored hall was absolutely smothered in the refined sorts of dishes that come with polished silver covers. I knew they had tasty things inside them because the air was filled with an enticing medley of aromas.

This circumstance puzzled more than pleased Jay, however. ‘That seems… excessive,’ he said, nodding his chin at the laden table.

‘This is Milady, remember.’


I pulled out a velvet-cushioned chair at the bottom of the table and sat on it. ‘Well,’ I said, stretching. ‘There are probably two reasons for it. For one, Milady’s really very kind-hearted. I suppose she cannot predict how long each interview will take, and she would hate for us to get hungry while we suffer Lord Garrogin’s interrogation.’

Jay sat down next to me. ‘Hence enough food for about two hundred people. I suppose the dishes keep everything warm?’


‘All right. And what’s the other reason?’

‘Milady is almost as devious as she is kind. Well-fed people are comfortable people, and food puts almost everyone at their ease. The comfier you are, the less guarded you are, and that is probably going to make his lordship’s job a bit easier.’

‘Remind me never to underestimate Milady.’

‘Everyone underestimates Milady.’

Jay chewed his lip. ‘But doesn’t interrogation make for uneasy people anyway?’

‘Depends how good Lord Garrogin is.’

The heavy thud of approaching footsteps announced the arrival of our interrogator, and I wondered whether we ought to stand up. I decided not to.

Jay didn’t. And if he was going to politely get to his feet then that sort of meant I had to, as well. I stifled a sigh as I hauled my bones out of the chair again, and watched Lord Garrogin’s ponderous approach with, despite my sanguine words, a faint flicker of apprehension. He did make an imposing appearance, no doubt about that. And hadn’t I just said that Milady was devious? She had told Jay and me that we were not under suspicion, but that, too, might have been a ploy to put us at our ease.

I wondered distantly when I had become so fretful, and banished those thoughts. Time to focus.

‘My lord,’ I said as Garrogin reached us.

He nodded to us both, and made his slow way to the head of the table. The chair there was no larger than the ones Jay and I had been sitting in, but that did not last. As the giant approached, the chair twitched and swelled to four times its former size, and it wasn’t finished at that. Formerly a sleek, armless dining chair of some silver-coloured wood, it thickened and stretched until its silvery frame bore more of a throne-like appearance, complete with tall arm rests. Its blueish cushions became a rich purple just shy of royal in tone, and it even developed some kind of diamond jewel at the top of its arched back.

House had been Spoken To, I guessed. His Lordship was evidently to be pampered, and Milady had insisted. If there was a touch of the satirical about the excesses of that throne, who was I to judge?

Lord Garrogin — was he in fact some kind of minor princeling, out in giant territory? He could be, I supposed, and that would explain the throne — Lord Garrogin sat down, and the majestic chair bore his weight without a whimper. He sat for a moment looking thoughtfully at us.

Jay and I stared back.

The Striding Spire: 4

‘Ves,’ added Milady. ‘You may wish to begin by consulting your book.’

‘Bill Two? By all means. He probably knows something about dappledoks.’

‘Ask him about the Spriggan Dells, too,’ Milady suggested. ‘Not just the ones in Cornwall. Spriggans spread much beyond the borders of that county some time ago, and it may be no accident that this pup turned up in East Anglia.’

Then again, it might. The cottage did, after all, have a habit of moving around a lot.

Val spoke up. ‘Something else you can ask Bill, Ves. Quite a lot of major artefacts have gone missing down the ages. Some of them have turned up again, some haven’t yet. I would be interested to hear what Bill knows about that, considering he’s spent time at the Library of Farringale.’ She frowned. ‘Or, his predecessor did. Does Bill Two have all the same information?’

‘Yes,’ said Jay. ‘Indira made an exact duplicate.’

Valerie’s eyes gleamed in a way I did not quite like. ‘Can I borrow that book, Ves?’

‘Are you planning to give it back?’

She thought about that. ‘Would “someday” do?’

‘Not really.’

‘Books belong in the Library!’ Val protested.

‘But this one’s mine!’

Valerie folded her arms, and stared implacably at the spot in mid-air where Milady’s voice somehow manifested sparkles. ‘Can I request a second duplicate for the Library?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ said Milady.

Valerie brightened at once. ‘I’ll talk to Indira.’

‘Orlando,’ corrected Milady. ‘Indira is assisting on this project.’

‘Nobody talks to Orlando,’ said Valerie, rolling her eyes. ‘You mean send a requisition form up to the attic and hope he notices.’

‘He will notice. Valerie, please continue to consult the Library’s existing resources, and relay anything you find to Ves and Jay.’

‘Of course, Milady.’

‘Jay, I imagine a visit to the site where you found the pup may shortly be in order. If you will be so kind as to facilitate the journey?’


‘The Spriggan Glades are a different matter. They will have to be consulted, but I do not recommend that you do so immediately. They can be prickly, and difficult to deal with. I am endeavouring to secure a guide for you.’

I wondered if this guide might prove to be, in fact, a spriggan. Could be. Fae folk rarely mixed much with the human worlds, trolls somewhat excepted. They kept to themselves, tucked away in their own Dells, Glades, Knowes and whatever else, and did not much set foot outside. But still, it was not unheard of for a fae to enrol at the Hidden University, and the Society had even had a few on their staff at one point or another. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if Milady’s guide turned out to be… unusual.

We stayed a while longer, bouncing thoughts around about the pup and its possible origins. Since it was nothing but speculation, Milady called a halt eventually and sent us off. ‘Keep me informed,’ she said as we trailed out of the tower.

I made her my usual curtsey on the way out. What can I say, Milady inspires a few old-fashioned impulses. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.

The air sparkled. ‘There’s chocolate in the pots.’


Pots, plural. There was one waiting in my room, and two cups: for Jay and for me. Valerie sent me a snapshot of the second one adorning her desk in the Library: it was gold, and it had purple smoke coming out of the spout.

‘Huh,’ grunted Jay, eyeing our much more mundane-looking silver one with some suspicion.

‘Valerie and Milady go way back,’ I told him, contentedly pouring hot chocolate into the two cups. The chocolate itself was too amazing to care very much about the vessel.

‘And you two don’t? How long have you worked here?’

‘Only about a decade.’

He blinked. ‘Only? How long’s Val been here?’

‘Since forever, as far as I can tell.’

‘Not, like, literally.’

I grinned, enjoying the stupefied look on his face. ‘Probably not literally, but who knows? We are all about secrets at the Society.’

Jay shook his head. ‘Bill Two,’ he prompted me, accepting his cup from me with a smile of anticipation.

‘Right.’ I found the strength of will to set my cup down after only a single sip of the deliciously rich contents, and retrieved the Book.

I have a safe in my snug little room. I call it a safe more for convenience than because it represents the arrangement with any particular accuracy. It is actually a… well, it is a chamber pot. Don’t judge me. What could be more perfect? It is not even an attractive chamber pot, merely the plain white porcelain kind. It even has a crack in it.

See, if you barge into my room looking for valuables, the last place you bother poking your nose into is the ancient, cobweb-wreathed chamber pot lying under the bed, right in the back corner. If you did, all you would see is a dead spider.

Enchantments can be such fun.

Jay made no comment when I fell to my knees and began rooting under the bed, but one eyebrow rose when I emerged with the chamber pot. ‘Did Bill Two urgently need to relieve himself?’

‘He is a book, Jay. He is above such things.’

Jay’s other eyebrow went up. ‘Does he sleep in a chamber pot?’

I did something fancy with my hands. It was not at all necessary, of course, but it looks impressive. Without it, the process of magick looks sadly underwhelming.

When I had finished waving my hands about, the chamber pot more nearly resembled a rainbow crystal chest with an enormous lock on the front. Into this I inserted a matching crystal key, and the lid sprung open.

Jay put his face in his hands. ‘It’s rainbow,’ he muttered, muffled.

‘Of course it is.’ I lifted Bill Two out, left the chest on the bed, and returned to my chair — and my cup of chocolate. ‘Right. Hi, Bill Two.’ I settled the book in my lap, and took a moment to admire it yet again. It is the big, heavy, ancient-looking kind, with purple leather covers and a twelve-pointed star on the front. Devastatingly handsome.

‘Might I be so forward as to request an alternative name?’ said the book. ‘It is lowering to be addressed by my predecessor’s appellation.’

‘Of course! I ought to have thought of it before now. Did you have any particular name in mind?’

‘Well,’ said the book, sounding suddenly diffident. ‘I have always rather liked the word “gallimaufry.”‘

The book that knows everything would have a spectacular vocabulary, wouldn’t it? ‘A wonderful name,’ I said.

Jay leaned in my direction. ‘What does that mean?’ he whispered.

‘It means an assortment of different kinds of things.’


‘Entirely. Gallimaufry it shall be!’

The book riffled its pages contentedly.

‘Shall you object very much to being addressed as Galli?’ I hazarded. ‘Gallimaufry is a lengthy word for regular use.’

‘Why not Mauf?’ said Jay.

I glared at him. ‘Let’s not confuse the issue—’

‘I find Mauf agreeable,’ said the book.

‘Um. In that case, Mauf it is.’

Jay smiled.

I took a gulp of chocolate. ‘Mauf,’ I began. ‘We are here to consult you on a matter of some importance.’

The book brightened, and I do mean that literally. The twelve-pointed star embossed into the surface gleamed with silver fire, and the dark purple of the leather lightened a few shades. ‘I shall be delighted to help!’ Mauf declared.

He liked to feel important. I had already noticed that. ‘We rely on you,’ I added, laying it on a bit.

Mauf preened. ‘How may I assist you?’

‘There is a situation at the Society regarding the sudden re-emergence of the dappledok species,’ I began.

‘Which dappledok species?’ said Mauf.

I exchanged a startled look with Jay. ‘Which?’ I repeated. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Dappledok is a Dell situated near the south coast of Cornwall,’ Mauf informed us. ‘Once famed for their talent with beasts of all kinds, its residents engaged in a number of selective breeding programmes and produced an array of hitherto unknown creatures with unusual, and highly desirable, abilities.’

‘What?’ I gulped chocolate, my head spinning. ‘There are more?’

‘I know of at least eight.’

I looked at Jay, eyes wide. He stared back.

‘Um,’ I said. ‘I don’t think Miranda knows anything about that.’

‘I don’t think Milady even knows,’ said Jay. ‘Or Valerie either.’

‘Right. Bill — Mauf — we are referring to a dog-like creature with golden fur and a single horn between its ears.’

‘The Nose-for-Gold, that being the literal translation of the original name in the spriggan tongue. Or Goldnose, as they were informally known in English.’

‘That sounds about right.’

‘Last referenced somewhere in the seventeen hundreds,’ said Mauf. ‘Believed to have become extinct sometime thereafter.’

‘That agrees with what Miranda told me. It’s true that they can sniff out valuable objects?’

‘It is, but the use of said power was banned by the Troll Court in 1703, the Magickal Councils of the Dells and Dales in 1704, and most of the various fae monarchs by 1706. This did not, of course, deter very many, and so the breeding of the Goldnoses themselves was subsequently forbidden.’

‘Even the fae monarchs banned them?’ I said, surprised. ‘But were they not created by spriggans?’

‘The spriggan queen, Parlewin, was the first to declare them outlawed. It is recorded that her favourite brooch, a gaudy object made from gold and rainbow diamonds, vanished under mysterious circumstances in early 1705 and since her primary rival at court was known to be in possession of a trio of Goldnoses, the culprit seemed, to her majesty, obvious enough.’

Jay grinned. ‘Perhaps it did not occur to the original breeders that anyone might be audacious enough to use it on them.’

‘Mauf,’ I said. ‘Do you know of anyone who defied the ban?’

‘It is written that many did, at first, and the penalties for flouting the law had to be significantly increased. This proved effective, and over the next fifty years or so recorded instances of Goldnoses being bred gradually dwindled to nothing.’

‘What penalty did they impose?’ asked Jay.

‘The worst penalty ever suffered for illegal ownership of a Goldnose was Divesting.’

‘Um,’ I said as my stomach fell through the floor. ‘Is… is that still valid?’

‘In some communities, yes,’ said Mauf.

‘Argh,’ I said.

See, Divesting is a nice euphemism for the total stripping of all of a person’s magickal abilities. Forever. I do not even know how it is done; few do. Only the highest authorities in the land are capable of it, and it is usually handed out only in cases of extreme misuse of magick.

Was I in danger of that, for rescuing a puppy?!

‘Do not trouble yourself unduly,’ said Mauf kindly. ‘This law applies in those magickal communities or countries which date back to the early eighteenth century, namely the Troll Court, the faerie courts, the Magickal Councils of the Dells and Dales, the—’

‘But not the Hidden Ministry?’ I interjected, unable to bear the suspense while Mauf rattled through another forty-three or so such organisations.

‘Indeed not. The Ministry was founded in 1787, by which time the problem of the Goldnoses had so far receded into the past that it was not thought necessary to carry over that particular law. As such, Ves, you are presently committing no official crime.’

He did not need to add that this would only hold true until somebody thought it worth their while to write up a new law about it. I decided not to think about that because something more immediately pressing occurred to me. ‘But I was when I took the pup into Rhaditton!’

‘Arguably only. There is no actual prohibition against having a Goldnose pup with you in Troll territory, provided you are neither engaged in using it nor in breeding more.’

Phew. ‘Thank you, Mauf,’ I said.

Jay patted my shoulder comfortingly, which I took to mean that my brief panic had been showing on my face. Don’t get me wrong, I will cheerfully bend any number of rules when I feel it is necessary. But outright flouting inscribed magickal law is another matter, and this is not exactly an emergency situation going on here. No one wants to risk a Divesting without thoroughly good reason.

I’d lost my train of thought by then, and could not immediately think of what next to enquire of Mauf. Luckily Jay still had his wits about him. ‘Mauf, can you think of anybody who might have managed to maintain the Goldnose breed since the eighteenth century into the present, and without detection?’

‘Until now,’ I amended.

Mauf fell silent for a while. Was he thinking? Could a book like him (or more rightly, it) think, in the real sense of the word? Was he riffling through all his archives? I wondered, not for the first time, how so powerful yet peculiar an enchantment worked.

‘Not immediately,’ said Mauf at last. ‘There are no recorded instances of any concerted breeding programmes in operation since 1727, when a group of renegade spriggans were found to have established a miniature state for themselves in an otherwise abandoned Dell. They were all imprisoned, and it is not written that they ever escaped, or that they were ever released.’

I sighed, a little bit disappointed. But I suppose life would be far too easy if Mauf had an easy answer to everything. Wouldn’t it? Challenges are good for the character, right?


The Striding Spire: 3

Later, happily replete with pancakes and with the Baron’s teasing smile echoing in my mind, I wandered through the corridors at Home with my shoulder bag clutched to my chest, whispering soothing words to the pup. She wanted to get out, but Alban’s words made me wary. She was more valuable even than I had imagined; not just supposedly extinct, but a potential source of riches. And if we indeed had a mole wandering these same hallways, it suddenly seemed like a very poor idea to show her off.

I was heading for the east wing, and Miranda’s quarters in the Magickal Beasts division. I needed to talk to her right away.

Unusually, she was not to be found among any of her creatures. I trawled through room after room, eyed a seemingly endless succession of cages, pens and indoor paddocks, and though a dazzling array of weird and wonderful creatures met my eyes, there was no Miranda.

I found her at last in the east wing common room, apparently meditating over a cup of coffee, and firmly ensconced in a deep, plumply-stuffed arm chair. At least, she did not look up when I walked in, her gaze remaining fixed upon the window. I looked. There was nothing much going on outside, though the view was quite lovely: sunlight glinted on the meadows surrounding the House, and given the time of year the grasses were all frilly and much strewn with new flowers.

Serene and gorgeous as it was, I didn’t think it likely that Miranda was quite so mesmerised by it as all that.

‘Mir?’ I said, when she still did not appear to notice my presence.

Her head turned, and she blinked at me. ‘Ves! Sorry, I was miles away.’

‘I noticed. Everything all right?’

‘Yep,’ she said succinctly, and smiled. Never one for long speeches, Miranda.

I offered her the bag, which she took, setting her coffee cup down on a side table. ‘Nice puppy nest,’ she commented, opening the flap.

‘I’ve been hearing all about dappledoks today, and the news isn’t all good,’ I told her. ‘You probably know what they were once used for?’

Miranda gave me a quizzical look. ‘Used for? There was an odd reference in one letter to “treasure-dogs” and something similar in a book I once browsed through, but it was an offhand comment. Their gold fur is probably enough to account for such notions, and perhaps those horns — they’re being conflated with legendary creatures. Superstition more than anything.’

‘Perhaps not.’ I related the Baron’s tale, which prompted a frown from Miranda.

‘Banned by who?’ she said, once I had finished. ‘The Troll Court?’

‘That was the implication, though if it succeeded in wiping out the dappledoks I conclude it must have been agreed upon, and enforced by, most of the magickal councils of the day.’

‘Which would be highly unusual.’

‘Wouldn’t it? I got to thinking. A spate of thefts would be unwelcome and disruptive, to be sure, but if the response was such a total and inflexible ban, then I wonder what it was that the pups were digging up?’

‘Did you ask his Baronship?’

I had, of course, prior to our leaving the improbably wonderful café. But predictably enough, he had merely twinkled at me and fended off my questions with distractions, charm, counter-questions or, when I proved impervious to any of that, the flat statement of: ‘Court secrets, Ves. Sorry.’

He ought to have known better than to say that to me.

‘Stonewalled me,’ I told Miranda.

‘Scandal,’ she said with a grin. ‘Intriguing.’

‘So, I am going to do some digging. In the meantime, the pup is a problem. If there is anybody else floating around who knows that the Legend of Dappledok might have some truth to it, I don’t want them finding out that we happen to have one. Do we have anybody good enough at illusion to camouflage a living creature?’

‘Oh, several. Leave her with me, and I’ll get somebody to come up here and sort her out.’

‘If she looks like a chihuahua or a dachshund or something, nobody would question that.’

Miranda shook her head. ‘Too mundane. This is the Society, and you’re Cordelia Vesper — flamboyant to a fault, and notorious for being up to your elbows in magick all the livelong day. We’ll make her look like a miniature gorhound or something.’

‘Purple,’ I said.

Miranda raised her brows.

‘This thing?’ I said, raising my left hand to show her the Curiosity I always wear: the ring that changes the colour of my hair. ‘It works on animals, too.’

‘Hah. Purple it is.’


I disliked walking out of there without my pup with me, but it was in a good cause. Anyway, there is no one at the Society who can be better relied upon to take good care of her than Miranda.

I was on my way to Val, next, but my phone buzzed. When I grabbed it, there was no call to answer or message to read: instead, the lock screen displayed an animated image of a handsome, eighteenth-century chocolate pot of wrought silver, glittering steam coiling from its spout.

Or in other words, Milady wanted to see me.

I changed course at once, and headed for the stairs.

Once I had finished laboriously climbing up to the very top of the tallest tower, I discovered that the summons had not been limited to just me. Waymaster Jay was already there, and — more interestingly — Val. Valerie, Queen of the Library, is rarely dragged all the way up to Milady’s tower. It might be because it is somewhat harder for her to get up there than the rest of us, seeing as she’s confined to her chair (albeit a witched-up, conveniently floating one). But the House has a helpful way of whisking her anywhere she wants to go in the blink of an eye, so it’s more likely that Val simply has the kind of autonomy at Home that the rest of us can only dream of.

I was the last to arrive, apparently, for the tower door closed behind me, and the incorporeal voice of Milady began at once to speak.

‘Chairs, please, dear,’ she said.

It took me a moment to realise that she had not, in fact, addressed any of the three of us by that unusually endearing title, but had been speaking to the House. Chairs promptly appeared for Jay and me: nice, fatly stuffed ones in tapestry upholstery, very comfy indeed.

This worried me. Milady rarely provided chairs. How long did she expect us to be here for?

I took a chair anyway, sinking gratefully into its plush embrace. I may be well used to the long climb to the top of the House, but I don’t care how fit you are, it is still tiring.

Jay smiled at me. ‘Had fun?’

Word really travels fast at the Society.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘There were pancakes.’

‘An incomparable date.’

Well, sort of. I was still stinging just a bit from the fact that the Baron’s purpose had been so very all business, but I did not feel like admitting that to Jay. Call it pride, if you will. So I said, ‘Completely,’ and let the subject drop, for Milady interposed.

‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘Thank you all for coming. As you are unhappily aware, we have had a… situation at Home, which has not yet been resolved. And since we are on the brink of another, I consider it wise to discuss our options.’

‘Another?’ I said, startled.

‘Relating to your recent find at the cottage, Ves.’

‘We do seem to have a talent for making spectacular, but highly inconvenient finds,’ murmured Jay.

‘You certainly do,’ I said. ‘First Bill, then the pup. I wait with breathless anticipation to see what you’ll stumble over next.’

Jay flashed me a smug smile.

‘And whether or not we will survive it.’

The smile disappeared.

Milady cleared her throat. ‘First of all, let me assure you that I do not anticipate a repeat of the Bill incident. While clearly special, a dappledok pup is in no way likely to be as fiercely sought-after as a book like that — or its creator. Nor are its unusual talents widely known about, or much believed in nowadays.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘The pup is basically a gold mine.’

‘Not so much,’ said Jay. ‘It’s not fifteen thirty-seven anymore. People don’t store their wealth as stacks of gold or jewels, they keep it in banks. And when they do have valuable jewels, they’re in safes — or behind stoutly locked doors protected by house alarms. I wouldn’t say a dappledok is useless in two thousand seventeen, but the best she could do is facilitate a few petty thefts.’

‘Fair enough,’ I had to agree. ‘But you’re talking about the non-magicker world. What about our world? We know little about her talents. Is it just gold and silver she can sniff out? Jewels? What jewels? Imagine if she could stick her little nose to the ground and trundle off after, say, a major Wand or something.’

‘And that is a fair point, Ves,’ said Milady. ‘So I am pleased to hear that you have taken steps to have the pup disguised. It is a reasonable precaution, at least until we are able to discover the extent of the pup’s talents.’

‘What’s the nature of the situation, then?’ asked Jay.

‘As Ves will already be aware, I have sought help with the matter of the… disloyalty we have sadly suffered among our ranks. I would first like to privately assure you all that I do not in the smallest degree doubt your integrity. I will, however, ask that you submit to an interview with the Truthseeker, like the rest of your peers.’

‘A Truthseeker?’ Jay whistled. ‘I didn’t know there were any of those left.’

‘There are not many. Regarding the other matter, has it occurred to you to wonder in any detail where the pup came from?’

‘Somewhat,’ I said. ‘I do not think the cottage had much to do with it. For the breed to survive for two centuries, there must have been a concerted effort going on somewhere to preserve it. But if it has remained a secret all this time, then it must be somewhere very, very hidden. How those three pups came to be in the cottage I couldn’t say, but it certainly wasn’t equipped for a breeding programme on that scale, and it showed no signs of having been inhabited by anybody living for a long time. The source must lie elsewhere.’

‘They are also delicate,’ Val added. ‘Difficult to breed, almost as difficult to nurse to adulthood. It would take specialist knowledge, and a great deal of time and money to bring it off.’

‘Which suggests,’ I said, ‘that somebody out there has a clear purpose in mind for them.’

‘Might have been using them for something all along,’ said Jay.

Good point. Electrifying point. I sat up, my thoughts awhirl.

‘Exactly,’ said Milady. ‘And that is the situation. I need you to find out more about the dappledoks. Find out what they can really do, and discover where this one came from. It is still illegal to breed dappledok pups; Valerie has gone to significant trouble to verify this. That means that there is a group out there, or even a whole organisation, who have devoted considerable effort to an illegal breeding operation and they will not have done this lightly. It must be put a stop to.’

Thorny issue. On the one hand, protecting magickal beasts was a big part of our job; we were supposed to prevent them from dying out, not uphold a law that basically compelled them to do so. But I could not fault Milady’s thinking. These pups were something else. There must have been a solid reason for their banning in the first place; that reason, whatever it was, might well be as true now as it was centuries ago.

I tried not to dwell on the fact that our having a dappledok on the premises at all was effectively a crime. What would become of the poor little pup? She was an innocent in the business. It was not her fault that her huge, gawky nose was all kinds of magickal.

That would be a problem for later.

The Striding Spire: 2

‘Just the one rumour?’ I said. ‘Remarkable.’

The Baron’s irresistible smile flashed. ‘Actually, more than one.’

‘Let’s have the first one, then.’

‘Is it true that there’s a leak inside the Society?’

That was unexpected. I filled my mouth with ice cream and fruit, stalling for a few moments to think. What should I tell him?

He wasn’t wrong. Things had got pretty interesting at work lately. We’d discovered an incredibly rare and indescribably valuable artefact (a book, talkative); faced off against a new, but nonetheless powerful rival organisation with the downright fatuous name of Ancestria Magicka who were determined to steal it; and almost got eaten alive by a haunted house and its trio of unfriendly ghosts. In the middle of all this, we’d found that word of the chatty book (Bill) had somehow leaked out, despite the fact that it had never left Home. That’s how we ended up with Ancestria Magicka on our tails.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just information that had gone farther than it should. Someone had actively sabotaged us by putting tracker spells on the book itself. It was clear that somebody at the Society was a turncoat, and that was alarming. But how had the Baron found out?

‘Who told you that?’ I finally said. ‘I wasn’t aware that Milady was disposed to chat about it.’

‘Someone high up in the Society contacted the Troll Court a few days ago with word of a problem,’ answered the Baron. ‘Probably Milady herself, in fact. She requested aid.’

‘Did they send you to nose around?’

He smiled, sheepish again. ‘Might have.’

Hmm. It was plausible enough that Milady might seek aid from the Court. I’d become aware of more than one link between Milady, whoever she was behind the vague title, and the Troll Courts of old; if she could no longer be sure of who to trust at Home, it was not so far-fetched that she would consult her allies.

She might have mentioned it to me, though. Did that mean I, too, was suspect? I didn’t think so, but I still felt a slight twinge.

I gave the Baron a brief precis of everything that had happened with the book, which he heard without interruption. ‘At present we have no idea who it might be,’ I said in conclusion. ‘Bill caused a sensation at Home, as you might imagine. For a little while, everybody found some excuse to pass through the Library and gawk at the book. Any of them could have passed information to Ancestria, and far too many had at least some opportunity to plant a tracker spell on it. We know that someone’s rotten, but we have no leads whatsoever.’

The Baron took a forkful, and chewed meditatively, his eyes faraway. ‘There is a reason Milady contacted the Court,’ he finally said. ‘There are some ancient magicks that are only really practiced by a rare few nowadays, and the Court makes a habit of collecting them up. Sort of the way you do — preservation tactic. If we don’t find and nurture those talents, the magicks might fade away altogether.’

‘Quite,’ I murmured.

‘There used to be something called a Truthseeker, or so it was known until about the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time there were so few of them left that the word itself fell out of use. There are no human Truthseekers anymore, but there is one living who can still employ that art, and he’s at the Court.’

This sounded promising. ‘And Truthseeking consists of what?’

‘A Truthseeker is unusually sensitive to…’ He took a mouthful of his drink, and shrugged. ‘I don’t pretend to know how it works, Ves, you’ll have to ask him. But where you and I can only guess at whether or not we’re being told the truth, a Truthseeker has a much more solid idea. What’s more, they can, to some degree, compel a person to speak the truth. Milady means to question the Society about the Bill incident, and she’s requested our Truthseeker’s presence at those interviews.’

‘Fair enough. But what’s your role in all this?’

‘I’m the advance party. Seeing as I already have a contact at the Society, and a pretty spectacular one at that—’ He paused here to waggle his eyebrows at me, which was far more charming than it had any right to be —‘I was sent to get the details straight from the source.’

‘Well, you’ve got the details.’ I smiled at him, hoping my lips were not as visibly sugar-crusted as I feared. ‘I doubt I’ve told you anything more than Milady already relayed, though.’

‘It’s good to get a fuller account.’ He was being generous, but he was good at doing it unobtrusively, so I overlooked it. ‘The other thing…’ he said, and hesitated again.

‘Oh yes, rumour number two. Let’s hear it.’

‘You found something…unusual, recently?’

‘My dear Baron, we are the Society for Magickal Heritage and I am one of its finest field agents. Our entire job consists of going out into the world and finding highly interesting things whose existence is probably under threat. Could you be more specific?’

That sheepish smile again. ‘Of course. Uh, the existence of this particular thing is not so much under threat as… disputed? Extinguished? Impossible?’

‘Oh! You mean the puppy.’

He blinked at me. ‘It’s a puppy?’

‘Not in the way you are thinking. Miranda called it a dappledok pup. No relation to the canine species of creature, I’m fairly sure. I may someday get very, very tired of asking you this, but: how did you hear about that?’

‘Milady again, but she was cagey about it. Dropped a hint, primarily by asking if we happened to have any experts on extinct magickal beasts mooching around at the Court.’

‘Do you?’

‘Yes, but she’s somewhere in the Caribbean right now, on the trail of some impossibly rare bird whose name I have forgotten.’

‘Were you sent to ask me about the pup, too, or is this mere private curiosity?’

‘Some of both.’ His eyes strayed to the bag I had left leaning innocently against the back of the adjacent chair.

Too sharp for his own good, that Baron.

‘All right, all right,’ I said, rolling my eyes at him. ‘I’ll show you.’ I lifted the bag’s flap, carefully in case the puppy fell out. But she was still tucked securely in the nest I had made out of three pairs of socks, and still asleep. She was so motionless that for a moment my heart stopped, but when I touched her, I could feel the slow rise and fall of her furred side. I tickled her.

She did not move.

‘She sleeps like a champion,’ I said to the Baron. ‘She has had a hard time of it, though. Her siblings starved, and she wasn’t far off going the same way when we found her.’

‘Let her sleep, then,’ said the Baron, staring at her with his eyes as wide as saucers and a dopey grin on his face.

It wasn’t just me who found her utterly charming, then. Reassuring.

She was looking particularly cute, all curled up in a tiny ball barely larger than an orange. She has tufts of goldish hair growing around the base of her little unicorn horn, the tips of which swayed with the rhythm of her breathing.

‘I imagine she will wake up soon, for it’s time for her feed, and she’s not one to miss out on breakfast.’ Neither am I, of course, though I have nothing like her excuse. Nobody’s ever tried to starve me. Nonetheless, I felt that it made us kindred spirits.

I noticed Baron Alban eyeing my cleared plate, probably thinking along similar lines. He refrained, however, from comment.

Wise man.

It probably was more than an hour since she had last had her milk, so I opted to tickle her until she woke. She did so at last with a grumpy little snort, and sat up, stretching. I was ready with her bottle, and she soon clamped her jaws around the teat and got to work.

The Baron and I watched with the breathless silence of brand new, doting parents.

‘You know what a dappledok pup is, of course?’ said the Baron after a while.

‘Other than the fact that it’s been completely extinct since the eighteenth century?’

‘It has indeed. But before that?’

‘No. I asked Miranda but she gabbled something largely incoherent — she was wrestling with a clawed, very unhappy creature at the time, in her defence — and I never did make sense of it.’ I’d asked Val, too. Her response had been, “I’ll get back to you,” which meant that she did not know at that precise moment where the books were on that topic, but she would soon find out.

‘Spriggans,’ said Alban, incomprehensibly.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Fae-folk, native to Cornwall. Fond of shiny stuff. They bred the dappledoks out of a few other fae beasts, the goal being to create a species with a nose for treasure. They were said to be amazing trackers of anything or anyone carrying gold.’

I was quiet, because only the previous day I had gone into my jewellery drawer for my favourite gold ear-studs and found them missing. I’d assumed I had simply put them somewhere they shouldn’t be, but suddenly I wondered.

‘How did they come to die out?’ I asked.

His mouth twisted in a grimace. ‘Think it through, Ves. Cute, largely defenceless little creatures that are literally the road to riches? Spriggans can be unwisely boastful, to boot. Word spread, everyone wanted a dappledok, and… the rate of thefts across Britain, the Enclaves, the Dells, everywhere, positively soared. In the end they were banned. It became illegal to breed them. They survived a while after that, of course, through secret breeding-programmes, but eventually they petered out.’

‘Spriggans,’ I said.


This was not the very best of news, for the fae-folk can be tricky. To say the least. There are more of them still about than non-magickers tend to think; they’ve just learned to hide better than they used to. But they can still cause a world of trouble for magickers and non-magickers alike, and spriggans… well, they have a reputation for being among the worst for sheer hell-raising mischief.

I’ve tried to avoid tangling with the fae as much as possible.

‘So did I tell you where I found this pup?’ I said.

‘Pray do.’

Remember when I said we’d almost been swallowed by a haunted house? That’s where we found the pup: curled up in a corner with two others, both dead. And this particular house was the kind that moves around, courtesy of its resident ghost of a Waymaster. It dated from the fourteen hundreds, if not even earlier, and it really felt like it.

I told all this to the Baron.

‘Triple haunting?’ he mused. ‘That’s unusual.’

‘Yes. But. While I did not have much opportunity to chat with the residents, it did not strike me as likely that any of them would have cared much about operating a secret dappledok breeding programme. What would be the point?’

‘So you think someone else might have been using the cottage?’

‘Presumably with their consent, yes. It’s possible. Or someone merely dumped the pups there. Or the pups might even have found their own way in.’

‘In other words, you have no idea.’

‘None whatsoever.’

The Baron’s green, green eyes laughed at me again. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘Good talk.’

I grinned back. ‘I might be able to find something out,’ I offered.

‘Do you know, I was hoping you might say that?’

The Striding Spire: 1

Let’s just say that my first date with Baron Alban did not go quite as I was hoping.

Expectations: me in a very good dress. High heels, great up-do, a bit of lipstick (or perhaps a lot). The Baron looking gorgeous as always in one of his many fine suits, escorting me upon one muscular arm to somewhere lovely. Somewhere with music, perhaps, and good cake.

Reality: Somewhat different.

It began with a phone call.

‘Morning, Ves,’ came the Baron’s deep voice when I picked up. ‘Do I disturb?’

‘Not at all!’ said I brightly, and not altogether truthfully. It was, I had blearily noted as I scooped up my phone, all of half past six in the morning; it was Sunday, and I’d had no intention of getting up for at least three hours yet. I was in bed with my duvet around my chin, and the UniPup, all yellow fur and tiny puppy snores, was asleep on my neck. ‘What can I do for you?’ It wasn’t so easy to speak with a weight on my throat. I hoped she would grow out of that habit by the time she grew much bigger.

‘We’ve been talking about going out sometime for a while, and I was wondering — are you busy today?’



I thought furiously, but only for about two and a half seconds. ‘No!’ I said with emphasis. I might have been smiling like an idiot, but that I cannot confirm.

‘Great!’ He sounded happy, too, which I will not deny was good for my ego. ‘I’ll pick you up in half an hour.’

Half an hour?!’

‘Is… that okay?’

I’ve been on a few dates in my time, and I will be self-aggrandising enough to own that some of those gentlemen were flatteringly eager. But this was something else. 7am on a Sunday morning? Nobody was that eager for my company. ‘It’s fine,’ I said, scooping the puppy off my neck. I laid her gently on the pillow next to me — she didn’t wake — and stumbled out of bed. ‘As long as there is going to be breakfast involved, and soon.’

‘That can be arranged. See you soon, Ves.’ And he hung up.


But with only twenty-eight minutes of the promised half hour left, I had no time to puzzle over it. What did a Cordelia Vesper wear on a shockingly early-morning breakfast date with the handsomest troll alive? This Cordelia Vesper had no idea, and she’d have to figure it out pretty fast.


I made it down to the hall with exactly thirty-seven seconds to spare. With May dawning dewily outside, the day promised to be warm and fine, so I had chosen one of my favourite dresses — a knee-length confection of red viscose, printed with roses — and thrown a light cardigan over it. My trusty hair-fixing Curiosity had done fine work for me again, turning my long, loose curls to a deep red almost the same hue as my dress.

There the elegance ended, for it had quickly occurred to me that I couldn’t leave the puppy alone. I’d thought briefly of taking her back to Miranda, Boss of Beasts, for the morning’s activities, and collecting her again when I got back. But I abandoned that idea almost as quickly as it came up, because the puppy was unlikely to consent. It did not matter what Miranda did to keep the puppy under her eye; she would always escape, by means largely unknown, and find her way back to me. If I left her with Miranda, she’d escape again and come looking — but she would find no trace of me. Would she be upset? I could not take that risk, for she had been starving to death when I’d found her and that was only a few days ago. She was frail, and in need of constant care. I wasn’t leaving her behind.

The fact that I had entirely lost my heart to the little beast was neither here nor there, of course. But who could help it? She was completely adorable. She had the kind of silky fur that begged to be touched, and it was bright gold. Perky little ears, enormous nose, tiny unicorn horn — what’s not to love about all that? She was affectionate, too, and she made me feel needed.

If that makes for a rather pathetic vision of me, I can only apologise.

Anyway, having decided to take her along, I was then obliged to add an inelegantly enormous bag to my attire. It had to be big enough to hold a significant supply of milk for the puppy, for she had to be fed once an hour and I had no idea how long the Baron intended to monopolise my company. She got cold easily, too, even in the balmy weather, so I stashed blankets and fluffies galore to wrap her up in at need. Then I made a nest in the top for the puppy, installed her therein, and tramped down to the hall, already annoyed by the heavy, unwieldy bag by the time I had made it down a mere two of the House’s many winding flights of stairs.

C’est la vie.

There was no sign of the Baron, but when I peeped out of the grand front door I saw him at once. Being Baron Alban, he simply cannot do anything in either a conventional way or a low-key way. Why wear a typical suit, however well-cut, when you can appear in a splendid top hat and a nineteenth-century frock coat? Or a nice set of nineteen-thirties tweeds, as was the case today, and he had the car to match. Don’t ask me what kind of car it was, for I haven’t the first clue, but it had the swanky, exaggerated curves of a proper old-time automobile, and it gleamed in gorgeous British Racing Green. Alban sat at the wheel, wearing tan leather driving gloves and a dark fedora. He grinned as I trotted out into the driveway, and tipped his hat to me.

He then proceeded to get out and hold the passenger door for me, which made me feel quite the lady — at least until the shoulder-bag I had lumbered myself with swung around as I was getting in, knocking me off-balance, and I all but fell into the seat. My poor dignity.

I hastily checked to make sure the puppy was unharmed, and found her to be fast asleep.

Alban returned to the driver’s seat, and I took the opportunity to stash the bag safely by my feet, propped securely upright so the puppy would not fall out.

‘I know the best place for breakfast,’ he informed me as he turned the car, and my stomach was very happy to hear it.

We drove for about twenty minutes, and I began to suspect some kind of shenanigans. Now, I am notorious at Home for being spectacularly poor at finding my way around, and it is partly because I struggle to recognise places I have already been to, if it is nowhere especially familiar to me. So at first I was not troubled by the fact that the roads we were hurtling down rung no bells whatsoever with me; was I likely to remember this particular country road, hedge-lined and flanked by fields, over another almost exactly like it? No.

But after a while, there began to be a change. The hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel hedges ceased to look quite so much like hawthorn, blackthorn or hazel and developed a different appearance altogether. They were taller, for one, and thicker, their leaves a brighter green and oddly curly. Some of them were dotted with star-like flowers of unusual size. The roads that ran in between lost their tarmac-look and became a smooth stone, pale and apparently indestructible, considering the total lack of holes (and believe me, back country roads with no holes in are pretty rare). When a bird flew overhead that in no way resembled an English bird, but more nearly reminded me of a hare with wings, I was certain. ‘Just where exactly are we?’ I asked.

‘The Troll Roads,’ answered the Baron serenely.

‘And they are?’

‘Hidden ways across the world. It’s a tradition dating back hundreds of years, though these days the standard of the roads is a bit higher. They had to be upgraded when cars happened.’

I could see there were a few advantages to these Roads, one of them being a total lack of other traffic. This particular one also had the look of a place where it literally never rains. Quite possibly it did not.

‘We’re going to my home Enclave,’ offered the Baron, when I said no more. ‘Rhaditton.’

Rhaditton. The word had the old-fashioned air of a top boarding school, and considering that the Baron was attached to the Troll Court, I could well believe it was a salubrious place, and probably exclusive. ‘I did not know you lived so close to us at the Society,’ I said.

He grinned at me. ‘I don’t. That is why we’re taking the Troll Roads.’

I blinked. ‘They’re faster?’



‘Because they’re magick.’

Of course.

He laughed, inferring from my silence — rightly enough — that I found this answer inadequate. ‘Waymasters,’ he said, more helpfully. ‘Quite a number of them have worked on the Roads over the years. The routes aren’t as good as a Waymaster in person, of course, but they’re not a bad alternative.’

‘So what do they do, sort of… swoosh you along?’

‘Something like that, yes. Waymasters used to be adept at a range of travel arts, once upon a time. One or two of them still are.’

Jay had said something like that, recently — that Waymastery was a diminished art these days, with magick on the decline. Jay, of course, was still quite able to spirit himself and others from henge to henge in a single step, across vast distances, so his “diminished” arts still looked pretty impressive to me.

Ten minutes later, we rolled up outside the vast, gleaming walls of a city. Seriously, it looked like Minas Tirith or something, all white stone and shining in the sun like a slice of heaven on earth. The gates opened as the Baron’s car approached, literally like magick, and in we went.

Aaaand I have never been anywhere so glorious in my life. Eerily glorious, because to go with all the polished stone buildings, intricately carved walls, gilding — yes, actual gilding — and general air of improbable luxury, there were none of the things one might normally expect to see in a city that’s lived in by real people. Litter here and there, for example. Peeling paint, shabby old houses in need of maintenance, an occasional abandoned bicycle or shopping trolley.

I was left wondering how far people like Baron Alban qualified as real. Everything about him was improbably fabulous, including his choice of abode.

I tried not to gawk too obviously as we rolled through street after street of this opulence, and in all likelihood failed. At last we drew up outside a low, greyish stone place with an ornate roof and an array of elegant chairs and tables arranged outside. I don’t think they were solid gold, but it was hard to tell.

‘Ah, of course,’ I said as the car drew to a stop. ‘This is how you do cafes in Rhaditton.’

‘They do fantastic pancakes,’ said the Baron.

Pancakes seemed mundane under the circumstances, but I was soon reassured on this point. A few minutes later, I was seated inside the building in what was probably the best seat in the place, with a fine view out of the grand window all the way down the wide boulevard beyond. Baron Alban sat at my elbow; the bag with the puppy in was set on the seat beside me; and I had a plate of pancakes before me that would make any reasonable person cry with happiness.

Point one: they were troll-sized helpings, approximately the size of dinner plates, and there were a lot of them.

Point two: they were smothered in everything. Everything, everything. Ice cream, fruits in improbable colours that I’d never seen before, some kind of sticky sauce that glistened so invitingly it could only be (as the Baron would put it) magick.

I took a spoonful of all this glory, and almost died.

As I was busy winging my way to heaven upon a tide of sweet delight, Baron Alban sat sipping a tall cup of something steamy, his own plate virtually untouched. He was watching me, with a smile that said, you are inelegantly devoted to food, but I like it.

I was unmoved. Nothing was getting in between me and those pancakes, not even the desire to appear cool before the fabulousness that was the Baron.

‘What’s the bag for?’ he said after a while.

Having by that time devoured enough to quieten the complaints of my half-starved stomach, I found myself at leisure to answer him. ‘I’ll tell you later.’

All right, briefly to answer him.

He grinned. ‘Fair.’

‘If you aren’t going to eat,’ I said, eyeing his plate with disfavour, ‘then you can talk. What’s the hurry today?’

‘The hurry?’ he smiled at me, far too innocently for my liking. ‘Just wanted to finally get some time with you.’

‘At seven in the morning? I do not buy it, Mister.’

‘Actually, “my lord Baron” would be more appropriate,’ he said, his grin widening.

‘Diversion failed, my lord Baron. What are we doing here?’

‘Is it so hard to believe I might merely want your company?’

Thinking of the salubrious city and its equally glamorous residents — I’d seen several gorgeous and gorgeously dressed troll ladies wandering those streets, and an example sat not six feet away at another table — I said, ‘Yes.’

To my mild regret, the Baron began to look sheepish. I suppose a small part of me had hoped he was just desperate for my company.

Such is life.

He picked up his fork and took a bite of pancake, clearly a delaying tactic.

‘Spit it out,’ I recommended. ‘Not the pancake! The problem.’

‘I didn’t want you to think I’d invited you just to—’

‘I know, I know,’ I said. I thought it best to interrupt before things could get any more awkward. ‘You were positively dying to see me, and it also happens that there’s something on your mind?’

He smiled at me, with that twinkle in his bright green eyes that makes it impossible to be annoyed with him. ‘Exactly.’

‘Always nice to kill two birds with one stone.’

‘I always thought that expression unnecessarily bloodthirsty.’

‘It is. So the problem is what?’

‘Right.’ He pushed aside his plate, quite flabbergasting me, and folded his arms upon the table-top. ‘I heard a rumour,’ he began.