I think it was the word famous which rattled Jay, for he transferred his attention from the gorgeously arrayed consultant and blinked incredulously at me. ‘Are you?’
‘No,’ I said crisply, and then amended that to, ‘Not really. Baron Alban flatters me.’
‘Only a little,’ said the baron, and that twinkle deepened. He fingered his cravat and added, ‘How did you guess my name?’
‘Your reputation precedes you.’ Oh, I’d heard about the baron all right. The Troll Court’s ambassador to the Hidden Ministry (the magickal government of England), and a prime favourite everywhere he goes. His reputation for flamboyance far exceeds my own — or shall we say, his notoriety? He is also known for his wit, his cleverness and his knowledge of magickal creatures, history and communities, but people don’t talk about any of that so much as they talk of his hats, his coats and (by rumour at least) his ladies. I’d wanted to meet him for years.
I was still surprised, though, to find him at the House. When Milady had spoken of a “consultant”, I had at least half expected a troll, but I had pictured… what? A scholar like myself, perhaps; someone who was several years into an exhaustive study of troll customs, habits and history, to be published in about fifteen years’ time. An anthropologist, a psychologist, a folklorist… anybody but Baron Alban.
Since he had made no move to get up and did not appear to wish to stand on ceremony, I took a chair and a cup of chocolate. ‘What can we do for you?’ I said.
Jay followed my example, but he was wary. I could see that in the rigidity of his posture as he sat across from me, looking ready to run at a moment’s notice.
This amused the baron all the more, and he grinned. ‘I understand there is a problem at South Moors.’
‘Milady spoke of a consultant.’ I laid a slight emphasis on the last word, hoping my tone would convey a polite question rather than incredulity.
‘So I am. I was not born into a barony, you know, and I certainly was not appointed to the post of ambassador at birth. I spent many years of my youth as a rootless vagabond with a tendency to get myself thrown out of every town I lived in, which had its drawbacks. But since I developed an unusually broad knowledge of troll life across most of its strata, it has, on occasion, made me a useful person to consult.’
He spoke with the smoothness, the confidence and the vocabulary of a highly educated man, so I guessed that these rootless, drifting years had been followed by several more of focused study. I wondered what Alban had done to net himself a barony — other than smile gorgeously, which he was doing in my general direction at that very moment.
All right, then.
‘What would be your summary of the problem?’ Alban asked.
Jay did not seem inclined to lead the way at communicating, which suited me just fine. ‘If I had met any of the inhabitants of South Moors individually, I would have said they were… depressed,’ I said. ‘There is an air of apathy, a greyness, a blankness — though even to call it depression is to state the case too mildly, for they scarcely seemed to hear me when I spoke, and no one vouchsafed any reply. What could possibly afflict a whole village with such symptoms is beyond me to imagine, and I have never heard or read of such a case occurring in history.’
‘And the alikats,’ Jay put in. ‘It is not usual for them to make a meal of such beasts, is it?’
‘Not now,’ said Alban. ‘Many of us will eat just about anything, of course,’ — he gave a feral grin as he said this — ‘but the Accords have been in place for long enough to deter even a backwater like South Moors from snacking on endangered species.’ He winced. ‘How many alis were lost?’
‘We rescued two,’ I said. ‘We saw no sign of any others, but who knows what they were eating before word reached us.’
Baron Alban raised his cup to his lips and delicately sipped, silent in thought. The cup ought to have looked tiny and fragile in his huge hands, but it, like the baron’s chair, had fitted itself to his proportions. ‘Milady was right to summon me,’ he finally decided. ‘The matter requires the immediate attention of the Court.’
That took the problem neatly out of my hands and Jay’s, which was well enough. But I was a little sorry that our meeting with Baron Alban would soon be over, and we would probably never cross paths with him again. I studied him closely, committing points of detail to memory: the exquisite cut of his coat, the sharp points of his superb lapels, that expertly knotted cravat. His sculpted jaw, prominent cheekbones and wickedly twinkling eyes…
He caught me at this scrutiny and gave me a wink, which, for the sake of my dignity, I pretended not to have observed. Setting down his empty cup, he said: ‘I’d like to hear the whole story, please. Everything that happened, and everything that you saw.’
This we gave, in as much detail as Jay and I could remember between us. We did a fair job, I think. We are both graduates of the University; we’ve been taught to observe, and to question. Baron Alban heard us out without interruption, save once or twice to clarify a point of detail. His troubled look deepened as we spoke, and when we were finished he gave a great sigh and rose from his chair. My goodness, but he was tall. ‘Her Majesty will need to know at once,’ he said, gazing down at me with a smile that looked — was it wishful thinking? — a little regretful.
He bowed to us, already taking out his phone, and was gone before I had time to realise that he had given us no insight, no advice, no information at all. But then, he was not there to consult for our benefit; he was there to consult for Milady’s.
Jay helped himself to more chocolate — he was swiftly growing to like it, that’s for sure — and sat back with a sigh. He had that wide-eyed, flabbergasted look again. ‘Strangest day of my life,’ he said. ‘No contest.’
Poor boy. Little did he know. ‘It gets worse.’
‘How… how much worse?’
‘Or better,’ I amended. ‘Depends how you look at it.’
Maybe I needed to work on my strategy, for Jay did not look encouraged.
We were back in Milady’s tower by nine o’clock upon the following morning. Jay kept his dissatisfaction with the climb to himself this time, which I appreciated, for the morning dawned bright, sunny and beautiful and I wanted to enjoy it. ‘Glorious sun,’ I observed unnecessarily as we toiled up the stairs.
Jay treated this offering with all the interest it deserved, and said nothing.
This time, when we presented ourselves before Milady, Jay bowed without my encouragement. He really did like that chocolate.
‘Vesper. Jay. Good morning,’ said Milady’s voice, the air twinkling brightly with every syllable she uttered. ‘I hope you are in the mood to travel.’
I perked up at that, for when I am not in the mood to explore? ‘Always!’ I declared.
Jay’s enthusiasm did not quite equal my own. ‘Probably,’ he allowed.
‘You will be familiar with the Farringale Enclave, of course?’
Of course I was. Farringale was legend. The site of the Troll Court back in the middle ages, it was renowned for everything — art, scholarship, philosophy, ideas. It was a magickal hub, overflowing with magickal energy; some of the most powerful and most visionary feats of magick ever heard of were developed there, performed there.
Its decline is a sad tale, though not an uncommon one. Time passed, and gradually left Farringale behind. Other schools of magick and ideas supplanted it; other libraries and universities came to be pre-eminent. The Troll Court moved southwards in the early eighteenth century, and Farringale became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world — so much so that there is now considerable debate as to where it is actually situated. Far in the north of England; that is about as much as we can all agree upon. ‘Are we going there?’ I blurted. What a dream! A place steeped in such history, such mystery, such intrigue… what if its legendary libraries were still intact?
‘No,’ said Milady, and my hopes died. ‘You may not be aware that there is suspected to be some key to its decline that is not widely known about, though its precise nature has never been confirmed.’
‘Some catastrophe, you mean?’
‘Perhaps. Scholars at the Court have traced its deterioration to a mere handful of years, beginning around 1657. In March of that year, the Enclave was thriving. By December, it had shrunk to half its former size. Whether its inhabitants fled or died we do not know, but that there was something gravely amiss is not in doubt.’
‘Does Alban suspect a connection with that and the fate of South Moors?’ It seemed far-fetched to me, but apparently the baron had access to information I lacked. I felt the familiar envy grow in my breast: a kind of lust for knowledge denied.
Someday I would need to cultivate a connection at the Troll Court, no doubt about that. What other secrets were they hiding in those libraries of theirs?
‘It is not an isolated occurrence,’ said Milady. ‘In 1928, the Garragore Enclave went fully Reclusive. It closed its doors to all outsiders, which is not in itself unusual; but nothing has ever been heard from it again, which is rather more so. It is thought that the settlement faded altogether, and is now barren. But its doors remain sealed, even to the Court. No explanation for its demise has ever been uncovered.’
I’d heard of Garragore as well, though it was nowhere near in the same league as Farringale. Its name appeared in documents from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from time to time — mentions in private journals, newspapers, advertisements, that kind of thing. It had not occurred to me to notice that its name had stopped showing up after 1928. I’d had no reason to pay attention to it.
‘Are there more such stories?’ I asked, feeling slightly sick. Here was a most unpromising pattern.
‘There are. Baron Alban is greatly concerned that South Moors may go the way of Farringale and Garragore and the others, if help is not given. But how to help is a question no one can yet answer. The baron has requested our assistance.’
‘Why?’ said Jay. ‘Cannot the Troll Court muster the manpower to do it themselves?’
‘They are employing their own resources as they see fit. When it comes to the kind of investigation he has in mind, however: we can do it faster.’
‘Can we?’ I asked. ‘How?’
‘Because we have Jay.’
That took me aback. Jay? What about him? Alas, my thoughts must have shown on my face, for Jay rolled his eyes at me, his lips twisting in irritation. ‘I am more than a chauffeur,’ he said.
‘Oh? What are you?’
Jay’s face set into a disgusted expression and he said nothing, so it fell to Milady to explain. ‘I recruited Jay the moment he was free to join us, for one particular reason. He is a Waymaster.’