So, the main building of the Redclover School was burning down before our eyes. Nice. Worst thing of all? They were not nice, normal, orange-looking flames. They were bright purple, which meant a magickal fire, the kind that leaves nothing to chance.
Jenifry watched for a moment, her face very grim. ‘There are measures in place to deal with a fire,’ she said. ‘But of course, they’re all inside the building.’
‘Are there likely to be any people in there?’ I said, trying not to imagine what it might be like to be one of them just then.
Thankfully, Jenifry shook her head. ‘Nothing goes on in here outside of school hours. Jacoby, our caretaker, evicts anyone still lingering by four o’clock, and closes up the building.’
I checked. It was well after half past four.
‘Who do we know who might have an aptitude for purple fire?’ said Jay, standing at a safe distance with his arms tightly folded.
‘A certain purple dragon?’ I hazarded.
‘Jenifry,’ said Jay. ‘The records are all in there?’
She nodded. ‘Cellar vaults.’
‘Was Mabyn right? Does Archibald only answer to the Mayor?’
‘He’s meant to, and that’s normally the case. He might make an exception if he likes you, but Doryty pretends to know nothing about that.’
‘So it was probably Doryty who ordered the fire, but it might not have been?’
Jay looked up into the sky. So did I, and Jenifry, and Mabyn. ‘Archibald!’ Jay shouted.
No answer came.
‘Damn it,’ he sighed.
Jenifry was pacing about, staring fretfully at the fire. ‘I can make it rain out here for a while, but of what use is that when the fire is in there?’
‘How far from that door are the cellar stairs?’ I asked her. ‘And is there likely to be a locked door in the way?’
‘Not far. You’d go down a short corridor and into the rear hall, the stairs are on the left. Yes, there’s a locked door, but I have the key. Not that it matters now.’
‘It might. Where are these fire-defence measures you mentioned?’
‘In every room. There’s a bell to the right of every door.’
‘Right then.’ I shoved the pup — dozing by then — into Jay’s arms and set off. Before anybody could stop me, I dived for the purple-flaming door.
This may seem foolhardy of me, but seriously, one of my top talents is shielding magick. All the more so when I happen to have the marvellously amplifying powers of a major Wand at my disposal, which handily, I did. With my Sunstone beauty in my hand, it was the work of a moment to summon an ethereal ward which enclosed me from head to foot, and it was virtually unbreakable.
It was not a perfect solution, though. Main problem: to be that effective, it is also air tight, and that means there is only so long I can stay inside without suffocating.
So I made it quick.
It was my first time wandering about in a blazing inferno, and despite the unusually attractive colour of the flames, I cannot say that I enjoyed it. The corridor Jenifry had described was a tunnel of fire and smoke, and I could see nothing but roaring, hungry flames. It took some nerve to walk through, watching the fire try desperately to claim me, and trusting to my ward to keep them off me. More heat leaked through than I had anticipated, and by the time I reached the rear hall I was shaking violently with fright and sweating profusely.
First: deal with the fire. I soon found one of the bells, positioned just beside the doorframe where Jenifry had said it would be. It was a shimmering crystal creation, exquisitely pretty, and very fae-looking. When I rang it, a clear, tinkling sound pealed through the hall, but I could barely hear it over the near-deafening roar of the fire. Nothing seemed to happen.
I rang it a second time, just in case, and that was all I had time for. If I was going to carry off the second part of my plan, I had to move.
Stairs on the left. There was a door there, which would soon catch alight; flames were licking at the bottom, and all around the frame. Having palmed Jenifry’s key ring as I ran past her (ask me another time when and where I learned that skill), I had the means in hand to unlock it. Unfortunately, I had to reach beyond the ward to touch anything, and my hands were shaking so badly that I almost dropped the keyring three times before I found the right key. The heat! I could feel my skin burning as I desperately turned the key in the lock, and almost died of relief when it turned and the door swung open.
I all but fell into the blissfully dark, non-flaming stairwell beyond, and hastened down into the cool of the cellar.
It wouldn’t be long before the fire spread, so I worked quickly. I made a light, first, by way of several balls of blue fire (yes, the irony was not lost on me) which I sent to float overhead. They illuminated a spacious, open-plan cellar chamber with plain stone walls, many of them lined with bookcases. A long, low chest-of-drawers with at least a hundred drawers in it took up much of the centre of the room, and a couple of study tables occupied the rest.
All of this I dismissed. Nothing sensitive or secret would be kept anywhere so obvious, or so easily accessed. There would be another, hidden chamber somewhere.
I had no time to conduct a search.
‘Mauf!’ I hauled the book out of my bag, wondering why I hadn’t thought to leave him safely with Jay, but blessing my oversight. ‘Quick. Help. According to your vast knowledge of secrets, where’s a likely place for a secret room in a cellar underneath the Redclover school?’
I was gabbling, but Mauf got me. ‘Is there some reason you did not pose this question to the current headmistress?’
‘Because I am looking for old, long-buried information which she, apparently, is not privy to. Super secret, Mauf. Think back to the age of Melmidoc.’ I stopped. ‘Wait. Can you just… absorb whatever it is? In that way that you do, with other books?’
‘If you leave me down here for a few weeks, perhaps I could,’ admitted Mauf. ‘Do we have a few weeks?’
‘We have a few minutes.’
‘Then you’ll have to find it the hard way.’
‘And quickly.’ I suppressed the urge to panic. This is an archives repository, Ves. You are comfortable with archives. Archives are your friend, even if they are about to be set aflame.
Deep breaths. Yes.
‘Second cellar,’ suggested Mauf. ‘Down underneath. Trap door.’
‘Do you see a trap door? Because I don’t!’
‘I do not see anything, I am a book.’
I had wondered before whether Mauf was aware of his surroundings in the visual sense, and if so, how. But this was not exactly the perfect time to ask. ‘Any other ideas?’ I said desperately. I was by that time running from bookcase to bookcase, shoving at all the oldest ones in case they should happen to swing or turn or vaporise, but nothing happened. I had closed the door on the fire, but smoke was pouring down the stairs and beginning to fill the room, and it was getting hard to breathe.
Then I heard the door slam open, and heavy footsteps thudded down the stairs. ‘Ves!’
‘Jay? You freaking idiot, what are you doing?’ He had a ward up, but it was shaky, and already falling apart. This had not, apparently, deterred him from plunging into a burning building.
‘What am I doing? What are you doing?!’ Jay bellowed back. ‘You are completely bloody insane, and we have thirty seconds to get out of here.’
I extended my superior shield to cover both of us, not that it would help us for much longer. ‘But I don’t have—’
‘Forget it! It’s not here.’
‘How about we run first, talk later?’
I might have been willing to risk my own hide for another shot at those papers, but not Jay’s. I let him bundle me back up the stairs, Mauf clutched in my left hand and the Sunstone Wand in my right. We almost got lost in the hall, for it was solid smoke by then and we could hardly see. The noise of crackling flames was monstrous, and even my ward began to falter; heat blazed through and began to burn.
But Jay and his sense of direction got us out somehow. We emerged, coughing, into the blissful sunshine of late afternoon, and fresh, clear air had never felt so exquisite. We ran a long way from the door before we stopped, gasping and choking. I was shaking violently. So was Jay.
‘Idiot,’ I finally told him, when I had recovered breath enough. ‘You could have been killed.’
‘So could you!’
‘I was about to come back!’
‘That’s a total lie. You were on the opposite side of the cellar to the door, fumbling with a bloody bookcase. You had that foolhardy scholarly zeal going on, didn’t you?’
‘If you are referring to my academic fervour,’ I said imperiously, ‘take my advice, and don’t ever tell Val you gave it so dismissive a name.’
‘Valerie’s dedication could never be called into question, but even she would not be fool enough to get herself burned to a crisp in the pursuit of a piece of paper!’
‘Are you calling me a fool?’ I demanded.
I found that I had no immediate response to so emphatic a declaration, for he… had a point. ‘It was an important piece of paper,’ I said in my defence.
‘Nothing is that important. And, as I was trying to tell you, what we are looking probably wasn’t in there anyway.’
‘Then why has somebody burned the bloody building?’ I said, about ready to burst with frustration.
‘Maybe they were poorly informed. If it was Doryty the Mayor, well, I am not sure anyone would accuse her of being quite the brightest spark. I’m beginning to think they give that job to the village idiot just to keep them quiet.’ Jay suddenly swept me up in a hug, the kind that makes your bones creak. My response was little better than a surprised squeak, and he had squished out all the air I might have used to speak, so I just hung there.
‘Your hair is burned,’ said Jay in my ear, and let me go.
‘What.’ I checked. He was right. ‘Damn it.’
‘A fair sacrifice to make for a book?’ said Jay, straight-faced.
‘Always. Speaking of which…’ I put the Wand away and turned my attention to Mauf. ‘You okay in there, Maufie?’
‘That would be Maufry,’ said Mauf.
‘I know how the word goes, I was just — never mind. Glad to see you’re unscathed.’ I put him away, ignoring his protests. ‘So, then,’ I said to Jay. ‘Where are these super-secret papers, if not in there? Oh, hang on.’ I went over to Jenifry, who was pacing about, arms wrapped around her waist, her face turned to the beautiful burning building. ‘Those bells,’ I said. ‘I hit them a few times, but… it doesn’t look like they are working.’
She stared at me. ‘Then someone has deactivated them.’
‘Yes,’ I said pleasantly. ‘I wonder who it could possibly have been?’
Jenifry’s cool composure was unimpaired. ‘What do you mean?’
I meant that, as headmistress, Jenifry had the knowledge, the means and the access to everything she would need in order to pull off this little manoeuvre. She knew what the fire defences were, where they were, how they worked, and how to disrupt them. She knew when the building closed, and therefore, when it was safe to set a fire intended only to destroy documents. And she had notably failed to make any efforts whatsoever to bring in help, ostensibly relying on the fire defences to render that unnecessary.
I had slightly mistrusted her apparent helpfulness before, for I had expected some reticence; some challenge to our authority, some attempt to defend the rights of the school. I was now disposed to see it as highly suspicious, but there was not time to have that conversation with her just then. ‘You know what I mean,’ I told her. ‘Luckily, no one died. Why don’t you deal with this, and we’ll go deal with the other thing somewhere else?’
She began to say something, but I turned my back on her and re-joined Jay.
‘I think she has us beaten when it comes to diversions,’ I commented.
‘Hands down, no contest.’ He grimaced. ‘Good to know that the old diversion trick works so well.’
‘So. Where do you suppose the papers really are?’
‘Ves. If the headmistress of this school is willing to destroy her own buildings to keep us away from those papers, don’t you think we ought—’
That won me a flat stare. ‘Is that it? No?’
‘We’ve had this conversation.’
He sighed. ‘Fine. Mabyn?’
I had almost forgotten Mabyn, for she had hung back in silence ever since we had emerged from the school building, and had excelled so well at being unobtrusive that I had looked straight past her. But now she stepped forward, visibly gathering resolve, and nodded to me. ‘Courageous,’ she said.
Jay rolled his eyes, but mercifully held his peace.
‘When I was headmistress,’ began Mabyn, and paused to hand the pup back into my arms. I was welcomed with a lick to my chin, which was nice, though the pup immediately sneezed, which was less so. ‘There was…’ She stopped, and sighed, and said in a stony voice: ‘The reason I am so despised in Dapplehaven is as follows. The post of headmistress of the Redclover School is the highest possible post of authority in this town. The Mayor is barely more than a figurehead, or a distraction. As headmistress, you possess the fullest powers and authority, and access to absolutely everything. You are also bound to lifetime secrecy. In abandoning my post, deserting the town and, as they see it, joining the opposition, I broke a great many sacred promises. And now, perhaps I must break more.’ She took a deep breath, and cast an eye over the retreating figure of Jenifry “Redclover” — who had, apparently, decided at last to do something about the fire. ‘The head teacher’s quarters are deceptive. The house — Jenifry’s house at present, I suppose — looks to be naught but a cottage, but it is much more than that. Anything troublesome, sensitive, especially powerful or dangerous is likely to be kept there.’
‘How do we get in?’ I said promptly.
‘Only the present incumbent of the post can get in.’
‘A previous one could not?’
Mabyn’s lips flattened into a thin line. ‘I doubt it.’
‘Can we try?’
Poor Mabyn gave me the helpless look of a woman who is trapped, and knows it. ‘We can try,’ she conceded. ‘But what about Jenifry? She will be on the watch for exactly such an attempt.’
And she would, too, knowing that her fiery diversion was no longer holding us.
Happily, an answer presented itself at that very moment. ‘Hello,’ came a hopeful voice from some way over our heads. ‘Did you need anything burning? I have some fire left. It’s purple.’
Archibald descended from above. He did indeed have some fire left; it wreathed his gigantic, scaled body in a crackling shroud, pouring white smoke. We all backed hastily away.
‘Archie,’ I greeted him warmly. ‘Did Jenifry make you burn things?’
‘Oh, no!’ he said, shocked. ‘She would never make me do anything. She’s my friend. She asked me to burn things.’
‘Would you say we are your friends?’
‘Yes. Especially that one.’ Archie pointed the tip of his fiery tail at Jay, who took an involuntary step back. ‘Are you the Mayor yet?’
Jay blinked. ‘Ah, no. But we could pretend, if you like?’
Archie gave a wide dragon smile, flashing pearly fangs. ‘I like games.’
‘I thought you might.’
So, we set fire to Dapplehaven.