‘Dear House,’ I said. Only as I spoke those words did it strike me as odd that the house had no other name. Such grand places always have spectacular names of course — think of Chatsworth, or Castle Howard, or Buckingham Palace. Iconic buildings, memorable names. Why was this one so different? Had it ever been named, at all? If not, why not?
I had never heard of its ever being called anything but “House”, or “Home”, or something along those lines. It had never felt strange to call it such before. But now I was addressing the building directly, and it felt as strange to call it “House” as it would be to address a friend as “Person”, or perhaps “Human”.
‘Dear House,’ I said again, trying to sound less doubtful about it. ‘I… need your help.’
I paused — to collect my thoughts, and to give House an opportunity to turf me out, if it wanted to. I mean, if it was going to be totally uninterested in rendering me any assistance at all, better to know that right away and save both of us the time.
But nothing happened, so I went on. ‘There is a problem with the trolls, you see. They are sick, dying. We’re going to lose a few of their Enclaves altogether if we don’t figure out why, and who knows where it will end? Perhaps they will all go. Something has to be done, but nobody knows where to start.
‘We think it might have something to do with Farringale. Baron Alban and I, that is — do you know him? He is the Troll Court’s ambassador to the Hidden Ministry, and he knows things about the Old Court, even if he won’t confide in me. We want to go to Farringale, so we can try to find out what destroyed it. If it’s the same thing that’s wiping out Glenfinnan and Darrowdale and Baile Monaidh, well, maybe we will be able to do something about it. Before any more are lost.’
I took a deep breath, encouraged by the continued lack of dire consequences to my narration. ‘You’ve probably guessed why I’m here by now. Alban has two of the keys, but we cannot go without the third. I… may as well own that Milady forbids the venture entirely. I don’t really blame her, either. If Farringale was half as vast and splendid as the legends say, then whatever destroyed it was probably not something we want to poke with a stick. But I think we have to try.
‘Val thought you might help me, and… I am hoping she is right. Do you have the third key? Will you lend it to me? I promise to bring it back.’ An unpleasant thought entered my head and I felt obliged to add, in a lower tone, ‘Assuming I get out of Farringale alive.’
Silence. Seconds passed, then minutes, and I heard no sound but the gentle ticking of the grandfather clock; saw nothing move, save the clock’s swaying pendulum.
Was that a refusal? Was the House even listening to me? I didn’t know, couldn’t tell. All I could do was wait, which I did with increasing impatience and dismay as minute after minute passed and the chocolate went cold in the pot.
Five minutes. Seven. Ten.
How was I going to explain to Baron Alban that I had failed? He had asked me specifically, with a flattering confidence in my ability to deliver. I did not want to disappoint him. And if we could not get into Farringale, how else were we to save the Enclaves? What else could we do?
Twenty minutes, and no sign of a response. Either House had not heard me at all, or it had chosen to side with Milady. ‘Very well, then,’ I said. ‘Thank you for listening to me. And for letting me see your favourite room.’ I took a last look around, for the chances were that I would never see it again.
The clock ticked on.
I hauled myself out of the chair — really, they were surprisingly comfortable, for all their formal magnificence — and shook out my hair.
Something fell from my lap with a clink.
Ohgod. Was it my cup? Had I left that dainty and probably priceless antique upon my knee? But no; there had been no shatter, no crash of porcelain breaking into pieces.
A key lay upon the floor, not three inches from my left foot. It was a large, handsome, silver-wrought thing, intricately engraved, and it bore a blue jewel that glittered with its own light.
‘Oh.’ I bent to pick it up, carefully, as though it might be fragile. But it was heavy in my grasp, sturdy, and faintly warm to the touch. That jewel shone when my fingers touched it, mesmerising.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered. This was no small thing. House was trusting my judgement over Milady’s — mine and Alban’s. ‘We won’t fail,’ I said, so rashly, for I had no idea what we might find in Farringale; how could I be sure that we would not?
My show of confidence pleased the House, though, for a ripple of warm air shivered over my skin like a balmy summer breeze, and the key glimmered on in my hand.
‘Onward, then,’ said I, and left the parlour. When I stepped over the threshold of the door, I found myself back in the first floor common room.
And there was Jay, lounging in an arm chair not three feet away and looking at me like I had just grown a second head. ‘Where did you spring from?’
I glanced about, confused. ‘I came in through a door… oh.’ The door was on the other side of the room, and I was nowhere near a window.
‘You walked out of a wall,’ said Jay.
‘Doesn’t seem unlikely.’ Happily, nobody else was around to witness my involuntary feat of defiance of all known laws of nature, if not Magick; the common room was empty besides him. I wandered over to my favourite chair — the wing-back one with the red upholstery — and flopped down into it with a spectacular lack of grace. I was feeling a bit weak at the knees, which was probably a sign of incipient panic. What did I think I was doing, proposing to waltz into Farringale? A place nobody had set foot inside in centuries, which had collapsed due to reasons unknown but undoubtedly dire? I was mad. Baron Alban was mad.
And the next thing I had to do was convince Jay to get us there, the same Jay who was scowling at me with that fierce frown of his.
‘Are you okay?’ he said abruptly.
‘Are you all right? You look a little pale.’
‘I am always a little pale.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Paler than usual. You look like a bowl of yoghurt.’
‘I’m fine.’ The question discomfited me, because it was unexpected. From his face, I’d assumed he was displeased with me for some reason. Instead, he had shown concern.
It did make it harder to proceed to knowingly pissing him off.
Oh well. Delaying unpleasant duties never made them any easier to perform. ‘Jay, I need your help with something.’
He sat up a bit, and focused a more alert gaze upon me. ‘That is why I am here.’
‘It isn’t exactly why you— oh, never mind. I need to go somewhere quickly, together with… someone else.’
‘Someone who else?’
He nodded, unconcerned. So far, so good. ‘Where are we going?’
‘I don’t… know, exactly, but Alban does.’
The frown reappeared. ‘We are following the intriguing baron into parts wholly unknown? Are we trusting him enough for that? He’s a total stranger.’
‘It isn’t… entirely unknown. I know where we are aiming for, I just don’t know where it is.’
‘Enough mystery, Ves. What’s going on?’
So much for breaking it to him gently. ‘We are going to Farringale.’
‘Farri— the Troll Court? The lost one? Seriously?’
‘That’s the plan.’
He stared at me.
I stared back.
If I had harboured any hopes that he might assume Milady had given the order, those hopes were swiftly dashed. ‘Why,’ said he with detestable and inconvenient astuteness, ‘is it you asking me about this? Why aren’t we up in the tower hearing all about it from Milady, together?’
‘Because she said no.’ Screw trying to be subtle, if he was going to be so bloody clever.
‘Then we aren’t going.’ Jay said this with aggravating serenity, picked up the book he’d been reading when I came in, and to all appearances forgot my existence altogether.
‘We are. Look.’ I fished the key out of the pocket I’d hastily stuffed it into, and held it up. The blue jewel blazed, which made for quite the impressive effect.
Jay didn’t even look up.
‘Jay. Look at this thing!’
He raised his head, and subjected the glittering key to a dull, uninterested stare. ‘What of it?’
‘It’s the key to Farringale. The third key, of three. House gave it to me.’
‘The House gave it to you?’
And I’d got him, I could see that. He still did not like the idea, but he was listening to me. ‘Why would House give you that key if Milady said no?’
‘Apparently it isn’t up to Milady to decide about the key.’
Jay put away the book. ‘All right. Why did Milady say no, if House is in favour?’
‘She thinks it’s too dangerous to open Farringale.’
‘She could well be right.’
‘She might be, but so what? How else are we going to help the Enclaves? Do you have a better idea?’
‘There are probably hundreds of other ways we could find out what’s going on with those Enclaves.’
‘Probably. Name one.’
He opened his mouth, hesitated. ‘The… the library probably has some relevant materials somewhere, or some other library.’
‘That could take forever to dig up.’
‘There are teams at Darrowdale and South Moors right now, looking for a source of the trouble—’
‘Which they apparently aren’t finding in a hurry, as we’ve heard nothing. And this is urgent, Jay.’
‘I am not sure why you expect to walk into Farringale and have the answer handed to you on a plate.’
‘I don’t, but we might. How do you know?’
‘You could die. We could die.’
‘Maybe. Maybe not. Meanwhile, a lot of trolls are dying.’
Jay began to look a little desperate. ‘Ves… you might be able to openly disobey Milady, but I can’t. You’ve a ten-year history with the Society, a blazing track record. However angry Milady might be with you, the chances of her chucking you out are practically zero. But me? I’ve only just got here!’
‘You’re a Waymaster, the only one we’ve managed to get hold of in about a decade. She won’t discard you lightly.’
‘It would be neither wise nor classy to presume upon that.’
‘House is in favour!’
‘Which is useful to know, but House doesn’t pay my salary, and House isn’t going to be writing me a reference if I have to go looking for a new job.’
‘You’re a Waymaster, you don’t need a reference. You could walk into a new job this afternoon.’
‘It’s about professional standards, pride—’
‘Jay, the important thing here is to get the job done. And the job is to preserve. The Enclaves are folding around us and nobody knows how to stop it. This is the best way I can think of to find out why — the best, the most direct, hopefully the fastest. Can you think of a better one? Really?’
Jay sighed, long and deeply, and shook his head. ‘Nope.’
‘Right. So.’ He scowled at me and chucked his book at my head. ‘Damn you and your rule-breaking ways. You’ll make a disgrace of me.’
‘Or a hero.’
‘Or a hero.’ He stood up, stretched, shook himself, as if to shake away his doubts. ‘Since this is all kinds of urgent, I imagine you want to get going. Where’s Alban?’
‘I’ll find out.’ I took out my phone and called the baron’s number. His reply was immediate.
‘Ves? Did you get the key?’
‘Is Jay with us?’
‘Then we go. Meet me in the conservatory in five minutes.’
‘Ten,’ I countered. ‘We need to grab a few things first.’
‘Ten it is.’