‘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?’
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.’
‘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?’
‘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.
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.’
‘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.’