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.