The Striding Spire: 7

Jay had never met a spriggan before.

Neither had I, in fact, but since it was my sacred duty to be the knowledgeable, world-wise one, I had no intention of telling him that. I went forward to meet Mabyn Redclover with a practiced air of confident ease, and bid her warmly welcome to the Society.

Not that there was anything in her appearance to disgust, or even to disconcert. True, her head was a little overlarge for her body, but she was well-dressed and impeccably groomed and I respect that. She was a foot or so shorter than me (so, in other words, very short), and appeared to be of advanced age, judging from her wizened skin and white hair. She wore a sixties-style two-piece suit, jacket and skirt perfectly matched, with low heels and gold earrings. She hadn’t gone for the beehive hair, slightly to my disappointment; instead, she had a nicely coiffed bob. We arrived in the hall to find her standing in the middle of it, looking around with obvious interest.

She took off her gloves when I went to greet her, and shook my hand warmly. ‘Mabyn Redclover,’ she introduced herself. ‘I’m with the Ministry. Department of Forbidden Magicks.’

My eyebrows rose. Milady had reached rather high, and was it a coincidence that Ms. Redclover was an expert in magickal misdemeanours? I imagined not.

Jay and I introduced ourselves.

‘Pleasure,’ she said briskly. ‘You are the two I was invited to meet, are you? What may I do for you?’

‘Any connection at all the Redclovers of Dappledok?’ asked Jay.

A faint grimace flickered over her lips, and was gone. ‘Once. A long time ago.’

I suppose you would distance yourself from family connections like that, in her line of work. But I wondered, then, why she had never changed her name.

Jay nodded. ‘Has Milady described our current situation to you?’

‘An outline only. A Dappledok beast has been found?’

‘One of the questionable ones.’ Jay proceeded to fill in the details. I, meanwhile, tried not to look as though I had the creature in question tucked into the bag hanging from my left shoulder, and hoped that the pup would not choose this of all possible moments to stick her head out for some air.

She didn’t, but Ms. Redclover’s eyes settled upon me with a shrewd expression I could not quite like. ‘You have the pup here?’ she said.

I sighed, and lifted the flap of my bag. I did so with some trepidation, in case Ms. Redclover, of Forbidden Magicks, should decide to confiscate her — or worse. But she only looked briefly into the bag, noted the dark shape of the pup curled up in the bottom, and withdrew. ‘Disguised?’

‘Yes.’

‘Excellent illusion.’

I smiled, uncertain. Chit-chat? Surely she must feel some disapproval. ‘There were three of them in the cottage,’ I elaborated. ‘Two failed to survive. We believe there must be some manner of secret breeding programme going on somewhere, and we’d like to get to the bottom of it.’

‘So would we,’ said Mabyn Redclover, with a thin smile. ‘Milady has assigned you to assist me, so we will be working together for a time. I trust that will be agreeable?’

I felt a little surprise. Assigned to work with Mabyn? Had she not been sent to serve as our guide? Just who was in charge here?

It was typical of Milady to couch the situation in rather different terms to us, but the melancholy truth was: Ministry employees outranked us, especially the higher ups. And Ms. Redclover had every appearance of being one of those, from her manicured nails to her air of business-like efficiency. She was the kind of person who confidently expects to be obeyed without question, and that spoke volumes.

‘Well, actually—’ said Jay.

I coughed, interrupting him. ‘That will be fine,’ I told her. ‘We are ready to depart for Dappledok at once, if that is acceptable to you.’

‘Quite.’ She looked at Jay. ‘You are a Waymaster, yes?’

‘I am.’

She nodded, and took — I kid you not — a plastic rain-hood out of a pocket of her suit. This she unfolded, and placed carefully over her perfectly coiffed hair, tying the strings under her chin. ‘Right away, then,’ she said briskly.

Jay looked at me, and I shrugged. I hoped my shrug would convey something along the lines of, best to do as the nice lady says, but to Jay it apparently said something more like I have no idea, it’s your problem, for his mouth tightened, and he walked off with only a brief nod for Ms. Redclover.

She fell in beside me as I wandered after Jay, fussily adjusting the sit of her rain-hood. ‘Terse young man, isn’t he?’ she said in an undertone.

‘He’s only been with us for a few weeks yet. I think he’s still finding his feet.’

‘Ahh,’ she said wisely. ‘I remember those days.’

I was tempted to ask her how long it had been since she’d felt young and uncertain, but wisely restrained the impulse.

‘You were lucky to get him,’ she added after a moment.

‘We were. He’s a highly talented Waymaster. One of the best, I understand, though you’d never hear him say it.’

‘The Ministry wanted to bid for him, but Milady was too fast. One or two people were mighty displeased about that.’

My mouth twitched, though I managed to suppress the smug smile that threatened to emerge. ‘I am sure Milady was duly apologetic.’

‘Most apologetic. Not at all sorry, of course, but most apologetic.’

I did smile at that. Plastic hats or no, I began to feel that Ms. Redclover and I might just get along.

 

Ms. Redclover went through the Winds of the Ways with her hands carefully clamped over her hair. I privately thought it absurd, until she emerged at a windy henge atop a cliff somewhere in (presumably) Cornwall with her hair intact and I… didn’t.

As I nonchalantly shook out my tangled curls I reminded myself that perfect hair isn’t everything.

‘So,’ I said to Jay with a brilliant smile. ‘Er, whereabouts are we?’

‘Cornwall.’

I looked around. We stood high up over the water on rocky ground covered in feathery green grasses. Great boulders lay everywhere, protruding pugnaciously from the earth, and the sun shone gorgeously over a patchwork of meadows stretching away into the distance. ‘Edifying.’

He smiled faintly at me, and pointed over my shoulder. ‘That’s the sea.’

I stared out over the expanse of glittering blue water. ‘So that’s what the sea looks like.’

‘Watery.’

‘Very.’

With a tiny sigh, he said, ‘We are as far west in England as you can get, and a long way south. We’re somewhere along what they now call the Penwith Heritage Coast, which means we are smack in the middle of spriggan country, and the entrance to the Dappledok Dell is not far from here.’

I gave him a tiny salute. ‘Thank you, Captain Geography.’

‘You are welcome, Captain History.’

I had half expected him to call me Captain Sparkle or something, but I liked his alternative. ‘I’ve never been to Cornwall,’ I admitted.

‘Never?’ He looked incredulous. ‘I thought you’d been in Acquisitions for ten years.’

‘I have, but somehow I never ended up in Cornwall.’

‘Interesting.

Ms. Redclover gave a slight cough. ‘The day marches on,’ she observed.

It did, at that. It must be well past noon already, and Jay and I were bantering the afternoon away. ‘Sorry,’ I said hastily. ‘Lead on, Jay?’

He led on. We wended our way around the coastline for half an hour or so, and I had cause to be thankful that I had chosen a jeans-and-flat-shoes combination that morning. I wondered if Ms. Redclover might be regretting her shoe choices a bit, but she trudged on with unimpaired composure and seemed unaffected.

I wondered if her unruffled attitude was Ministry-issue, or innate.

After a while, Jay stopped at what must be a specific point in the largely featureless landscape, though I could see no way to tell. We had gone down a sandy incline to a beach littered with stones, and the cliff rose above us, jagged and rocky and just a bit forbidding, if it hadn’t been for the balmy, sunny weather. He stood staring at the rock wall. ‘Ms. Redclover?’ he said after a while.

‘Mabyn, please, Mr. Patel.’

He flashed her one of his charming smiles. ‘Jay, then.’

She inclined her head.

‘I believe we will need your help to get in.’

Mabyn stepped forward, lips pursed. ‘Likely, yes. Dappledok closed its doors to outsiders a long time ago, though never entirely. It has been a long time, however…’ She let the sentence trail off and began to wander up and down the beach, her keen eyes scanning the rock for signs of… something? Jay and I stood, patiently waiting.

‘Ah,’ she finally said, and stepped forward. Lifting one thin hand, she knocked thrice upon the rock face and said something in a language I had never heard before.

‘Ancient Cornish?’ guessed Jay.

‘Probably,’ I whispered back.

Whatever it was she had said, it soon proved effective. A line of sea-green light snaked down the cliff face, and with the horrific groaning sound of grinding rock, a crack appeared, just wide enough for a spriggan — or indeed, a human — to pass through.

Mabyn went in, beckoning over her shoulder to the two of us.

‘After you,’ said Jay with a half-bow.

‘I promise you, even I cannot manage to get lost between here and the cliff.’ The distance was all of, what, twelve feet?

Jay grinned at me. ‘I’d like to make sure.’

I stuck my tongue out at him, and followed after Mabyn. And into the Dappledok Dell went we, agog with curiosity (or maybe that last part was just me).

Well, let me tell you, my first glimpse of that ancient Dell was… a little bit of a let-down.

Not that it wasn’t beautiful. It was, gloriously so. I have probably mentioned the tendency of the magickal Dells to look… well, magick-drenched. Everything practically glows with vitality and beauty, at least with those that are still thriving; the abandoned ones are a different matter. Dappledok wasn’t abandoned. It glittered and glowed.

But it was exactly the same landscape as the one we had just left; in fact, it looked identical, save only for the extra blush of vibrancy to the blue-green water, and the sparkle to the sunlight. I don’t know what I had been hoping for. Skies full of rainbows? Meadows chock-full of cute puppy-like creatures frolicking in the sunlight?

Ms. Redclover behaved like a native, for all her attempts to distance herself from her ancient familial home. She set off along the beach at a purposeful walk, with the air of a woman walking a long-familiar route. ‘Dapplehaven is just around the corner,’ she called over her shoulder.

‘What is Dapplehaven?’ I asked, hastening to catch up with her.

‘The largest town in the Dell. The Redclover School is there.’

Straight to the point, hm? I smothered the desire to go for a long, exploratory hike, and dutifully trotted after Ms. Mabyn Redclover.

But we had not gone very far before three most unpromising things happened one after another.

First, it literally went dark. Not completely pitch, but the sun went pale and watery, like someone had turned down a dimmer switch.

Next, the magickal equivalent of a klaxon sounded from somewhere nearby. It sounds less like a car horn and more like an entire flock of griffins all screaming at once.

When a dark speck appeared on the horizon, I knew we were somewhat in trouble.

‘This does not seem good,’ said Jay, coming to a sudden halt, and warily eyeing the skies.

Ms. Redclover gave a huffy sigh, and fussed with her hair. ‘Always so prone to overreaction. Some things never do change, do they?’

I was watching that dark speck in silence. It grew rapidly bigger, proving itself to be winged, with a snaky body and four legs. ‘Yep,’ I said as it drew nearer. ‘Dragon.’

It wasn’t all that big of a dragon, in fairness, but it was plenty big enough to ruin our collective day. As it swooped down upon us, jaws gaping, with green fire streaming from between its fangs, Ms. Redclover shook her head with another huffy sigh and said, ‘Oh, Archibald.

The Striding Spire: 6

‘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.

‘Traitor.’

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?’

‘Correct, madam.’

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.’

Jay snorted.

‘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?’

‘Fair point.’

‘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.

Seven thousand??!

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.’

We went.

‘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.’

The Striding Spire: 5

‘Let’s think,’ said Jay. ‘Hidden Ministry aside, the Goldnoses are still banned in virtually every magickal community there is. It is no mean feat, then, to breed them in spite of the law, and to keep it going for so long. It also takes considerable courage to consistently flout a law which carries such severe penalties for disobedience. Somebody really, really wanted those pups.’

‘Takes courage, or confidence?’ I suggested. ‘You might flout that law with impunity if you felt that you had the right people on your side.’

Jay blinked at me. ‘You mean somebody high in authority might be behind this?’

‘If not behind it, then at least willing to turn a blind eye — and perhaps to shield those responsible from the consequences, should their activities ever come to light.’

Jay nodded thoughtfully. ‘Worryingly plausible. Or, it’s the responsibility of some group who felt they had power enough in themselves to ignore the general disapprobation.’

‘Maybe it’s somebody like us, who falls under the jurisdiction of the Hidden Ministry and therefore is not, technically, acting illegally.’

‘But if the Ministry only dates from the late seventeen hundreds, and the pups had already passed out of all knowledge by then, who bridged that gap?’

‘Fair point. Perhaps the Ministry isn’t the only organisation that hasn’t enacted such laws. Mauf?’

‘All officially recorded and recognised magickal organisations had agreed upon, and enacted such laws, by 1731,’ said Mauf.

‘Official?’ said Jay. ‘Are there unofficial ones?’

‘It happens on occasion. They do not tend to last long, however.’

Which made sense. Setting up your own unsanctioned magickal state and proposing therefore to consider yourself above all magickal laws was not exactly widely supported behaviour. The usual consequence would be exactly as that enterprising band of spriggans discovered in 1727 — a speedy dispatch to prison, or something worse. It would be like buying your own island, declaring it an independent country, and expecting every other country in the world to nod, smile and pat you tolerantly on the head while you proceed to set up a factory for nuclear bombs on your tiny slice of paradise. This is not how it works.

But it doesn’t stop people from occasionally trying.

‘I wonder if some rogue magickal state has somehow gone undetected since the early eighteenth century?’ I mused aloud.

‘It isn’t impossible,’ said Jay. ‘Not quite.’

‘It is highly unlikely,’ I agreed. ‘And perhaps we’re thinking too big now.’

‘A smaller operation would have the greater chance of success,’ said Jay. ‘The bigger you are, the more noticeable you tend to be.’

‘Some smaller operation with an incurable lust for treasure?’ I suggested.

‘Why else would you brave all dire consequences to keep a Goldnose handy?’

I nodded. ‘I think Milady is right. Somebody needs to have a quiet talk with the spriggans.’

 

Valerie needed to have a quiet talk with Mauf, too, and so did Miranda. His casual revelation that the Dappledok Dell had been responsible for at least eight rare and desirable species of beasts required immediate investigation. I left the book at the Library, pausing only to relay enough of our findings to thoroughly electrify our sedate and dignified Boss Librarian. So energised was she, she almost tore the book right out of my hands.

I left them chatting cosily together, or so I hoped. Knowing Val, it would soon turn into an interrogation.

My next plan was to hustle back up to Milady’s tower to relay Mauf’s findings — and to see if the guide she had mentioned was here yet. I wanted to be on the road already, for little good ever comes of delaying something important. The sooner we talked to the spriggans of Dappledok, the better.

But I was distracted — twice.

I was halfway up the main stairs when I heard Miranda’s voice calling me. I turned back. She had just come through the great doors leading into the east wing and was hastening towards me, her blonde hair half out of its ponytail as usual and a besmeared white coat over her jumper and jeans. A little dog trotted at her heels, and in spite of everything it still took me a moment to recognise my pup.

‘What do you think?’ said Mir, a bit breathlessly, as she came up to me.

I gazed at the pup. Instead of gold, her fur was now chocolate brown dappled liberally with purple, and there was no trace of the little horn that had adorned her forehead. She now had two horns instead, slightly thicker ones, nestled behind each of her pointed ears. Her nose had shrunk, and turned to an unobtrusive black colour.

In other words, she was a gorhound.

‘Wow,’ I said intelligently. ‘That’s amazing.’

Miranda nodded. ‘They’re good, aren’t they?’ she said, presumably referring to whichever of our illusionists had worked on the pup.

‘Amazing,’ I said again. So amazing, in fact, that for a brief, wild moment I wondered whether some switcheroo hadn’t been performed, and the tiny Goldnose wasn’t now languishing in some hidden nook in the east wing while I was fobbed off with a different creature altogether.

I squashed those ideas very quickly. What reason did I have to distrust Mir? None whatsoever. The illusionists really were that good, that was all.

When the gorhound puppy trotted up to me and rubbed herself all over my leg, my doubts vanished altogether. ‘Hi, pup,’ I said, and bent to pat her.

‘Pup?’ said Miranda. ‘Doesn’t she have a name?’

I know I have been referring to her as my pup for a while now, but I knew full well that she was no such thing. She was under my care for a little while, that was all, and if she had taken an obvious shine to me, well — what did that matter? No one was going to leave so rare, so valuable and so, er, illegal a beast with me for very long.

So I had not had the presumption to name her. It seemed wiser, somehow. If I did not name her, maybe I could refrain from getting too attached to her.

Hah.

‘Pup works just fine,’ I said, declining to explain all of this to Miranda.

I think she understood anyway, though, for she gave me a smile of unexpected sympathy and said, ‘Perhaps it does, at that.’

It occurred to me that Miranda had probably been in the same situation over and over again. How many beasts had she bred and raised herself, or rescued and tenderly restored to health, only to have to relinquish them into someone else’s possession? Or back into the wild? She would grow used to it, I supposed — to a degree. Her attachment to animals of all kinds was legendary at Home, after all.

Miranda gave me a salute and dashed off again, leaving the pup trailing around at my heels. We barely managed to climb four stairs between us that time before I heard the double doors of the front hall swing ponderously open, admitting a blaze of sunshine from outside. I say heard because they open with a groaning noise indicative of rusted hinges. They don’t have rusted hinges, of course; the House is far too well-maintained to permit of that. But no amount of persuasion, oil-based or otherwise, can convince the doors to stop announcing each new visitor with some unpromising noise or another. I’ve long since concluded that House does it on purpose. If any building could be supposed to have a sense of humour, it would be ours.

Anyway, when the doors groan like that — or squeal, or cackle, choke — it means someone of note has arrived, so I stopped and went back down the stairs yet again.

I might have been planning to go forward to meet whoever it was, but I swiftly revised all ideas of that kind and stayed firmly put. One judges it prudent, you know, with some visitors.

This one was most definitely of that kind. He was so tall, he had to stoop a long way to fit through the enormous doors, and he did not appear to find that an amusing process at all. He made it into the hall with some effort and stood, his short white hair brushing the high ceiling, looking down upon us puny humans with eyes the size of dinner plates.

All right, maybe not dinner plates. Afternoon tea plates, though, for certain. You could easily eat scones off those bright blue eyeballs.

He wore a long robe of blue cloth embroidered in gold, a white coat over the top, and (more puzzlingly, considering the weather) a pair of blue gloves. In other words, he made not the smallest effort to look like he belonged in any part of the modern world — but then, why should he? He was the size of about six humans put together.

‘Giant,’ I said faintly.

‘So I see,’ said Jay from behind me, startling me, for I had not noticed his approach. ‘Do we often get giants stopping by?’

I had to think for a minute before I could remember the last time. At least five years ago. ‘Nope,’ I said succinctly.

‘Right, then.’

The giant gave a long, windy sigh and said in lugubrious tones, ‘Why must the doors always be so small?’

I pondered that. House is perfectly capable of adjusting proportions at need — be it of windows, chairs, or, indeed, doors. That it had not chosen to do so — and, further, that it had chosen to announce the arrival of this giant with so peculiarly unattractive a groaning noise — suggested to me that House did not altogether approve of our visitor.

Interesting.

Jay and I were not the only Society employs standing, frozen with surprise, in the hall. The giant surveyed the lot of us one by one, and when nobody spoke, he said: ‘I am here to see Milady.’

There was no conceivable way he was going to fit in Milady’s tower.

‘Er,’ said Jay in an undertone. ‘That’s going to be interesting.’

But of course, Milady had anticipated this. ‘Welcome, Lord Garrogin,’ she suddenly said from somewhere disconcertingly close to my head. ‘We have been looking forward to your arrival.’

This, too, was unusual, and I could only answer Jay’s questioning stare with a shrug. Yes, it was also a long time since Milady had been known to manifest (sort of) anywhere other than her tower. Yes, that probably meant nothing good either.

What can you do.

‘Wonder if he’s our guide or the Truthseeker?’ whispered Jay.

‘The latter,’ I said instantly, and hoped I was right. Spriggans are not very tall. I collected that our guide was meant to be someone the spriggan courts might feel more comfortable associating with than a couple of humans, and I couldn’t imagine their welcoming the arrival of so vast a being as Lord Garrogin in any such spirit.

I was swiftly proved right, for Milady’s voice crisply announced: ‘Consultations will shortly begin. Cordelia Vesper and Jay Patel to the Audience Chamber, please.’

That’s Milady for you. For one thing, “Convention Chamber” is far too modern a term for her. She prefers “Audience Chamber,” as though those summoned were to be presented to some manner of monarch. For another, “consultations” sounds so much nicer than “inquisition”, doesn’t it?

‘Why are we first?’ whispered Jay to me as we dutifully headed for the Chamber of Gorgeousness.

‘Probably because we’re supposed to be on our way to Sprigganland already.’

‘If our guide’s here.’

‘He or she probably is, or they’re imminently expected. Milady doesn’t waste time.’

‘As evidenced by the prompt appearance of Lord Garrogin, Giant, from Parts Unknown.’

‘Precisely.’

Lord Garrogin was nowhere in evidence when we arrived at the Audience/Convention Chamber. Milady had probably taken him off for an initial briefing, and was overseeing the pouring of hot chocolate down his gargantuan throat at that very moment. The enormous Inquisition Room (as I would now have to think of it) was echoingly empty, though I was heartened to see that refreshments had been provided: the long, crystalline table running down the centre of the marble-floored hall was absolutely smothered in the refined sorts of dishes that come with polished silver covers. I knew they had tasty things inside them because the air was filled with an enticing medley of aromas.

This circumstance puzzled more than pleased Jay, however. ‘That seems… excessive,’ he said, nodding his chin at the laden table.

‘This is Milady, remember.’

‘And?’

I pulled out a velvet-cushioned chair at the bottom of the table and sat on it. ‘Well,’ I said, stretching. ‘There are probably two reasons for it. For one, Milady’s really very kind-hearted. I suppose she cannot predict how long each interview will take, and she would hate for us to get hungry while we suffer Lord Garrogin’s interrogation.’

Jay sat down next to me. ‘Hence enough food for about two hundred people. I suppose the dishes keep everything warm?’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘All right. And what’s the other reason?’

‘Milady is almost as devious as she is kind. Well-fed people are comfortable people, and food puts almost everyone at their ease. The comfier you are, the less guarded you are, and that is probably going to make his lordship’s job a bit easier.’

‘Remind me never to underestimate Milady.’

‘Everyone underestimates Milady.’

Jay chewed his lip. ‘But doesn’t interrogation make for uneasy people anyway?’

‘Depends how good Lord Garrogin is.’

The heavy thud of approaching footsteps announced the arrival of our interrogator, and I wondered whether we ought to stand up. I decided not to.

Jay didn’t. And if he was going to politely get to his feet then that sort of meant I had to, as well. I stifled a sigh as I hauled my bones out of the chair again, and watched Lord Garrogin’s ponderous approach with, despite my sanguine words, a faint flicker of apprehension. He did make an imposing appearance, no doubt about that. And hadn’t I just said that Milady was devious? She had told Jay and me that we were not under suspicion, but that, too, might have been a ploy to put us at our ease.

I wondered distantly when I had become so fretful, and banished those thoughts. Time to focus.

‘My lord,’ I said as Garrogin reached us.

He nodded to us both, and made his slow way to the head of the table. The chair there was no larger than the ones Jay and I had been sitting in, but that did not last. As the giant approached, the chair twitched and swelled to four times its former size, and it wasn’t finished at that. Formerly a sleek, armless dining chair of some silver-coloured wood, it thickened and stretched until its silvery frame bore more of a throne-like appearance, complete with tall arm rests. Its blueish cushions became a rich purple just shy of royal in tone, and it even developed some kind of diamond jewel at the top of its arched back.

House had been Spoken To, I guessed. His Lordship was evidently to be pampered, and Milady had insisted. If there was a touch of the satirical about the excesses of that throne, who was I to judge?

Lord Garrogin — was he in fact some kind of minor princeling, out in giant territory? He could be, I supposed, and that would explain the throne — Lord Garrogin sat down, and the majestic chair bore his weight without a whimper. He sat for a moment looking thoughtfully at us.

Jay and I stared back.

The Striding Spire: 4

‘Ves,’ added Milady. ‘You may wish to begin by consulting your book.’

‘Bill Two? By all means. He probably knows something about dappledoks.’

‘Ask him about the Spriggan Dells, too,’ Milady suggested. ‘Not just the ones in Cornwall. Spriggans spread much beyond the borders of that county some time ago, and it may be no accident that this pup turned up in East Anglia.’

Then again, it might. The cottage did, after all, have a habit of moving around a lot.

Val spoke up. ‘Something else you can ask Bill, Ves. Quite a lot of major artefacts have gone missing down the ages. Some of them have turned up again, some haven’t yet. I would be interested to hear what Bill knows about that, considering he’s spent time at the Library of Farringale.’ She frowned. ‘Or, his predecessor did. Does Bill Two have all the same information?’

‘Yes,’ said Jay. ‘Indira made an exact duplicate.’

Valerie’s eyes gleamed in a way I did not quite like. ‘Can I borrow that book, Ves?’

‘Are you planning to give it back?’

She thought about that. ‘Would “someday” do?’

‘Not really.’

‘Books belong in the Library!’ Val protested.

‘But this one’s mine!’

Valerie folded her arms, and stared implacably at the spot in mid-air where Milady’s voice somehow manifested sparkles. ‘Can I request a second duplicate for the Library?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ said Milady.

Valerie brightened at once. ‘I’ll talk to Indira.’

‘Orlando,’ corrected Milady. ‘Indira is assisting on this project.’

‘Nobody talks to Orlando,’ said Valerie, rolling her eyes. ‘You mean send a requisition form up to the attic and hope he notices.’

‘He will notice. Valerie, please continue to consult the Library’s existing resources, and relay anything you find to Ves and Jay.’

‘Of course, Milady.’

‘Jay, I imagine a visit to the site where you found the pup may shortly be in order. If you will be so kind as to facilitate the journey?’

‘Certainly.’

‘The Spriggan Glades are a different matter. They will have to be consulted, but I do not recommend that you do so immediately. They can be prickly, and difficult to deal with. I am endeavouring to secure a guide for you.’

I wondered if this guide might prove to be, in fact, a spriggan. Could be. Fae folk rarely mixed much with the human worlds, trolls somewhat excepted. They kept to themselves, tucked away in their own Dells, Glades, Knowes and whatever else, and did not much set foot outside. But still, it was not unheard of for a fae to enrol at the Hidden University, and the Society had even had a few on their staff at one point or another. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if Milady’s guide turned out to be… unusual.

We stayed a while longer, bouncing thoughts around about the pup and its possible origins. Since it was nothing but speculation, Milady called a halt eventually and sent us off. ‘Keep me informed,’ she said as we trailed out of the tower.

I made her my usual curtsey on the way out. What can I say, Milady inspires a few old-fashioned impulses. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.

The air sparkled. ‘There’s chocolate in the pots.’

 

Pots, plural. There was one waiting in my room, and two cups: for Jay and for me. Valerie sent me a snapshot of the second one adorning her desk in the Library: it was gold, and it had purple smoke coming out of the spout.

‘Huh,’ grunted Jay, eyeing our much more mundane-looking silver one with some suspicion.

‘Valerie and Milady go way back,’ I told him, contentedly pouring hot chocolate into the two cups. The chocolate itself was too amazing to care very much about the vessel.

‘And you two don’t? How long have you worked here?’

‘Only about a decade.’

He blinked. ‘Only? How long’s Val been here?’

‘Since forever, as far as I can tell.’

‘Not, like, literally.’

I grinned, enjoying the stupefied look on his face. ‘Probably not literally, but who knows? We are all about secrets at the Society.’

Jay shook his head. ‘Bill Two,’ he prompted me, accepting his cup from me with a smile of anticipation.

‘Right.’ I found the strength of will to set my cup down after only a single sip of the deliciously rich contents, and retrieved the Book.

I have a safe in my snug little room. I call it a safe more for convenience than because it represents the arrangement with any particular accuracy. It is actually a… well, it is a chamber pot. Don’t judge me. What could be more perfect? It is not even an attractive chamber pot, merely the plain white porcelain kind. It even has a crack in it.

See, if you barge into my room looking for valuables, the last place you bother poking your nose into is the ancient, cobweb-wreathed chamber pot lying under the bed, right in the back corner. If you did, all you would see is a dead spider.

Enchantments can be such fun.

Jay made no comment when I fell to my knees and began rooting under the bed, but one eyebrow rose when I emerged with the chamber pot. ‘Did Bill Two urgently need to relieve himself?’

‘He is a book, Jay. He is above such things.’

Jay’s other eyebrow went up. ‘Does he sleep in a chamber pot?’

I did something fancy with my hands. It was not at all necessary, of course, but it looks impressive. Without it, the process of magick looks sadly underwhelming.

When I had finished waving my hands about, the chamber pot more nearly resembled a rainbow crystal chest with an enormous lock on the front. Into this I inserted a matching crystal key, and the lid sprung open.

Jay put his face in his hands. ‘It’s rainbow,’ he muttered, muffled.

‘Of course it is.’ I lifted Bill Two out, left the chest on the bed, and returned to my chair — and my cup of chocolate. ‘Right. Hi, Bill Two.’ I settled the book in my lap, and took a moment to admire it yet again. It is the big, heavy, ancient-looking kind, with purple leather covers and a twelve-pointed star on the front. Devastatingly handsome.

‘Might I be so forward as to request an alternative name?’ said the book. ‘It is lowering to be addressed by my predecessor’s appellation.’

‘Of course! I ought to have thought of it before now. Did you have any particular name in mind?’

‘Well,’ said the book, sounding suddenly diffident. ‘I have always rather liked the word “gallimaufry.”‘

The book that knows everything would have a spectacular vocabulary, wouldn’t it? ‘A wonderful name,’ I said.

Jay leaned in my direction. ‘What does that mean?’ he whispered.

‘It means an assortment of different kinds of things.’

‘Fitting.’

‘Entirely. Gallimaufry it shall be!’

The book riffled its pages contentedly.

‘Shall you object very much to being addressed as Galli?’ I hazarded. ‘Gallimaufry is a lengthy word for regular use.’

‘Why not Mauf?’ said Jay.

I glared at him. ‘Let’s not confuse the issue—’

‘I find Mauf agreeable,’ said the book.

‘Um. In that case, Mauf it is.’

Jay smiled.

I took a gulp of chocolate. ‘Mauf,’ I began. ‘We are here to consult you on a matter of some importance.’

The book brightened, and I do mean that literally. The twelve-pointed star embossed into the surface gleamed with silver fire, and the dark purple of the leather lightened a few shades. ‘I shall be delighted to help!’ Mauf declared.

He liked to feel important. I had already noticed that. ‘We rely on you,’ I added, laying it on a bit.

Mauf preened. ‘How may I assist you?’

‘There is a situation at the Society regarding the sudden re-emergence of the dappledok species,’ I began.

‘Which dappledok species?’ said Mauf.

I exchanged a startled look with Jay. ‘Which?’ I repeated. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Dappledok is a Dell situated near the south coast of Cornwall,’ Mauf informed us. ‘Once famed for their talent with beasts of all kinds, its residents engaged in a number of selective breeding programmes and produced an array of hitherto unknown creatures with unusual, and highly desirable, abilities.’

‘What?’ I gulped chocolate, my head spinning. ‘There are more?’

‘I know of at least eight.’

I looked at Jay, eyes wide. He stared back.

‘Um,’ I said. ‘I don’t think Miranda knows anything about that.’

‘I don’t think Milady even knows,’ said Jay. ‘Or Valerie either.’

‘Right. Bill — Mauf — we are referring to a dog-like creature with golden fur and a single horn between its ears.’

‘The Nose-for-Gold, that being the literal translation of the original name in the spriggan tongue. Or Goldnose, as they were informally known in English.’

‘That sounds about right.’

‘Last referenced somewhere in the seventeen hundreds,’ said Mauf. ‘Believed to have become extinct sometime thereafter.’

‘That agrees with what Miranda told me. It’s true that they can sniff out valuable objects?’

‘It is, but the use of said power was banned by the Troll Court in 1703, the Magickal Councils of the Dells and Dales in 1704, and most of the various fae monarchs by 1706. This did not, of course, deter very many, and so the breeding of the Goldnoses themselves was subsequently forbidden.’

‘Even the fae monarchs banned them?’ I said, surprised. ‘But were they not created by spriggans?’

‘The spriggan queen, Parlewin, was the first to declare them outlawed. It is recorded that her favourite brooch, a gaudy object made from gold and rainbow diamonds, vanished under mysterious circumstances in early 1705 and since her primary rival at court was known to be in possession of a trio of Goldnoses, the culprit seemed, to her majesty, obvious enough.’

Jay grinned. ‘Perhaps it did not occur to the original breeders that anyone might be audacious enough to use it on them.’

‘Mauf,’ I said. ‘Do you know of anyone who defied the ban?’

‘It is written that many did, at first, and the penalties for flouting the law had to be significantly increased. This proved effective, and over the next fifty years or so recorded instances of Goldnoses being bred gradually dwindled to nothing.’

‘What penalty did they impose?’ asked Jay.

‘The worst penalty ever suffered for illegal ownership of a Goldnose was Divesting.’

‘Um,’ I said as my stomach fell through the floor. ‘Is… is that still valid?’

‘In some communities, yes,’ said Mauf.

‘Argh,’ I said.

See, Divesting is a nice euphemism for the total stripping of all of a person’s magickal abilities. Forever. I do not even know how it is done; few do. Only the highest authorities in the land are capable of it, and it is usually handed out only in cases of extreme misuse of magick.

Was I in danger of that, for rescuing a puppy?!

‘Do not trouble yourself unduly,’ said Mauf kindly. ‘This law applies in those magickal communities or countries which date back to the early eighteenth century, namely the Troll Court, the faerie courts, the Magickal Councils of the Dells and Dales, the—’

‘But not the Hidden Ministry?’ I interjected, unable to bear the suspense while Mauf rattled through another forty-three or so such organisations.

‘Indeed not. The Ministry was founded in 1787, by which time the problem of the Goldnoses had so far receded into the past that it was not thought necessary to carry over that particular law. As such, Ves, you are presently committing no official crime.’

He did not need to add that this would only hold true until somebody thought it worth their while to write up a new law about it. I decided not to think about that because something more immediately pressing occurred to me. ‘But I was when I took the pup into Rhaditton!’

‘Arguably only. There is no actual prohibition against having a Goldnose pup with you in Troll territory, provided you are neither engaged in using it nor in breeding more.’

Phew. ‘Thank you, Mauf,’ I said.

Jay patted my shoulder comfortingly, which I took to mean that my brief panic had been showing on my face. Don’t get me wrong, I will cheerfully bend any number of rules when I feel it is necessary. But outright flouting inscribed magickal law is another matter, and this is not exactly an emergency situation going on here. No one wants to risk a Divesting without thoroughly good reason.

I’d lost my train of thought by then, and could not immediately think of what next to enquire of Mauf. Luckily Jay still had his wits about him. ‘Mauf, can you think of anybody who might have managed to maintain the Goldnose breed since the eighteenth century into the present, and without detection?’

‘Until now,’ I amended.

Mauf fell silent for a while. Was he thinking? Could a book like him (or more rightly, it) think, in the real sense of the word? Was he riffling through all his archives? I wondered, not for the first time, how so powerful yet peculiar an enchantment worked.

‘Not immediately,’ said Mauf at last. ‘There are no recorded instances of any concerted breeding programmes in operation since 1727, when a group of renegade spriggans were found to have established a miniature state for themselves in an otherwise abandoned Dell. They were all imprisoned, and it is not written that they ever escaped, or that they were ever released.’

I sighed, a little bit disappointed. But I suppose life would be far too easy if Mauf had an easy answer to everything. Wouldn’t it? Challenges are good for the character, right?

Right.

The Striding Spire: 3

Later, happily replete with pancakes and with the Baron’s teasing smile echoing in my mind, I wandered through the corridors at Home with my shoulder bag clutched to my chest, whispering soothing words to the pup. She wanted to get out, but Alban’s words made me wary. She was more valuable even than I had imagined; not just supposedly extinct, but a potential source of riches. And if we indeed had a mole wandering these same hallways, it suddenly seemed like a very poor idea to show her off.

I was heading for the east wing, and Miranda’s quarters in the Magickal Beasts division. I needed to talk to her right away.

Unusually, she was not to be found among any of her creatures. I trawled through room after room, eyed a seemingly endless succession of cages, pens and indoor paddocks, and though a dazzling array of weird and wonderful creatures met my eyes, there was no Miranda.

I found her at last in the east wing common room, apparently meditating over a cup of coffee, and firmly ensconced in a deep, plumply-stuffed arm chair. At least, she did not look up when I walked in, her gaze remaining fixed upon the window. I looked. There was nothing much going on outside, though the view was quite lovely: sunlight glinted on the meadows surrounding the House, and given the time of year the grasses were all frilly and much strewn with new flowers.

Serene and gorgeous as it was, I didn’t think it likely that Miranda was quite so mesmerised by it as all that.

‘Mir?’ I said, when she still did not appear to notice my presence.

Her head turned, and she blinked at me. ‘Ves! Sorry, I was miles away.’

‘I noticed. Everything all right?’

‘Yep,’ she said succinctly, and smiled. Never one for long speeches, Miranda.

I offered her the bag, which she took, setting her coffee cup down on a side table. ‘Nice puppy nest,’ she commented, opening the flap.

‘I’ve been hearing all about dappledoks today, and the news isn’t all good,’ I told her. ‘You probably know what they were once used for?’

Miranda gave me a quizzical look. ‘Used for? There was an odd reference in one letter to “treasure-dogs” and something similar in a book I once browsed through, but it was an offhand comment. Their gold fur is probably enough to account for such notions, and perhaps those horns — they’re being conflated with legendary creatures. Superstition more than anything.’

‘Perhaps not.’ I related the Baron’s tale, which prompted a frown from Miranda.

‘Banned by who?’ she said, once I had finished. ‘The Troll Court?’

‘That was the implication, though if it succeeded in wiping out the dappledoks I conclude it must have been agreed upon, and enforced by, most of the magickal councils of the day.’

‘Which would be highly unusual.’

‘Wouldn’t it? I got to thinking. A spate of thefts would be unwelcome and disruptive, to be sure, but if the response was such a total and inflexible ban, then I wonder what it was that the pups were digging up?’

‘Did you ask his Baronship?’

I had, of course, prior to our leaving the improbably wonderful café. But predictably enough, he had merely twinkled at me and fended off my questions with distractions, charm, counter-questions or, when I proved impervious to any of that, the flat statement of: ‘Court secrets, Ves. Sorry.’

He ought to have known better than to say that to me.

‘Stonewalled me,’ I told Miranda.

‘Scandal,’ she said with a grin. ‘Intriguing.’

‘So, I am going to do some digging. In the meantime, the pup is a problem. If there is anybody else floating around who knows that the Legend of Dappledok might have some truth to it, I don’t want them finding out that we happen to have one. Do we have anybody good enough at illusion to camouflage a living creature?’

‘Oh, several. Leave her with me, and I’ll get somebody to come up here and sort her out.’

‘If she looks like a chihuahua or a dachshund or something, nobody would question that.’

Miranda shook her head. ‘Too mundane. This is the Society, and you’re Cordelia Vesper — flamboyant to a fault, and notorious for being up to your elbows in magick all the livelong day. We’ll make her look like a miniature gorhound or something.’

‘Purple,’ I said.

Miranda raised her brows.

‘This thing?’ I said, raising my left hand to show her the Curiosity I always wear: the ring that changes the colour of my hair. ‘It works on animals, too.’

‘Hah. Purple it is.’

 

I disliked walking out of there without my pup with me, but it was in a good cause. Anyway, there is no one at the Society who can be better relied upon to take good care of her than Miranda.

I was on my way to Val, next, but my phone buzzed. When I grabbed it, there was no call to answer or message to read: instead, the lock screen displayed an animated image of a handsome, eighteenth-century chocolate pot of wrought silver, glittering steam coiling from its spout.

Or in other words, Milady wanted to see me.

I changed course at once, and headed for the stairs.

Once I had finished laboriously climbing up to the very top of the tallest tower, I discovered that the summons had not been limited to just me. Waymaster Jay was already there, and — more interestingly — Val. Valerie, Queen of the Library, is rarely dragged all the way up to Milady’s tower. It might be because it is somewhat harder for her to get up there than the rest of us, seeing as she’s confined to her chair (albeit a witched-up, conveniently floating one). But the House has a helpful way of whisking her anywhere she wants to go in the blink of an eye, so it’s more likely that Val simply has the kind of autonomy at Home that the rest of us can only dream of.

I was the last to arrive, apparently, for the tower door closed behind me, and the incorporeal voice of Milady began at once to speak.

‘Chairs, please, dear,’ she said.

It took me a moment to realise that she had not, in fact, addressed any of the three of us by that unusually endearing title, but had been speaking to the House. Chairs promptly appeared for Jay and me: nice, fatly stuffed ones in tapestry upholstery, very comfy indeed.

This worried me. Milady rarely provided chairs. How long did she expect us to be here for?

I took a chair anyway, sinking gratefully into its plush embrace. I may be well used to the long climb to the top of the House, but I don’t care how fit you are, it is still tiring.

Jay smiled at me. ‘Had fun?’

Word really travels fast at the Society.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘There were pancakes.’

‘An incomparable date.’

Well, sort of. I was still stinging just a bit from the fact that the Baron’s purpose had been so very all business, but I did not feel like admitting that to Jay. Call it pride, if you will. So I said, ‘Completely,’ and let the subject drop, for Milady interposed.

‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘Thank you all for coming. As you are unhappily aware, we have had a… situation at Home, which has not yet been resolved. And since we are on the brink of another, I consider it wise to discuss our options.’

‘Another?’ I said, startled.

‘Relating to your recent find at the cottage, Ves.’

‘We do seem to have a talent for making spectacular, but highly inconvenient finds,’ murmured Jay.

‘You certainly do,’ I said. ‘First Bill, then the pup. I wait with breathless anticipation to see what you’ll stumble over next.’

Jay flashed me a smug smile.

‘And whether or not we will survive it.’

The smile disappeared.

Milady cleared her throat. ‘First of all, let me assure you that I do not anticipate a repeat of the Bill incident. While clearly special, a dappledok pup is in no way likely to be as fiercely sought-after as a book like that — or its creator. Nor are its unusual talents widely known about, or much believed in nowadays.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘The pup is basically a gold mine.’

‘Not so much,’ said Jay. ‘It’s not fifteen thirty-seven anymore. People don’t store their wealth as stacks of gold or jewels, they keep it in banks. And when they do have valuable jewels, they’re in safes — or behind stoutly locked doors protected by house alarms. I wouldn’t say a dappledok is useless in two thousand seventeen, but the best she could do is facilitate a few petty thefts.’

‘Fair enough,’ I had to agree. ‘But you’re talking about the non-magicker world. What about our world? We know little about her talents. Is it just gold and silver she can sniff out? Jewels? What jewels? Imagine if she could stick her little nose to the ground and trundle off after, say, a major Wand or something.’

‘And that is a fair point, Ves,’ said Milady. ‘So I am pleased to hear that you have taken steps to have the pup disguised. It is a reasonable precaution, at least until we are able to discover the extent of the pup’s talents.’

‘What’s the nature of the situation, then?’ asked Jay.

‘As Ves will already be aware, I have sought help with the matter of the… disloyalty we have sadly suffered among our ranks. I would first like to privately assure you all that I do not in the smallest degree doubt your integrity. I will, however, ask that you submit to an interview with the Truthseeker, like the rest of your peers.’

‘A Truthseeker?’ Jay whistled. ‘I didn’t know there were any of those left.’

‘There are not many. Regarding the other matter, has it occurred to you to wonder in any detail where the pup came from?’

‘Somewhat,’ I said. ‘I do not think the cottage had much to do with it. For the breed to survive for two centuries, there must have been a concerted effort going on somewhere to preserve it. But if it has remained a secret all this time, then it must be somewhere very, very hidden. How those three pups came to be in the cottage I couldn’t say, but it certainly wasn’t equipped for a breeding programme on that scale, and it showed no signs of having been inhabited by anybody living for a long time. The source must lie elsewhere.’

‘They are also delicate,’ Val added. ‘Difficult to breed, almost as difficult to nurse to adulthood. It would take specialist knowledge, and a great deal of time and money to bring it off.’

‘Which suggests,’ I said, ‘that somebody out there has a clear purpose in mind for them.’

‘Might have been using them for something all along,’ said Jay.

Good point. Electrifying point. I sat up, my thoughts awhirl.

‘Exactly,’ said Milady. ‘And that is the situation. I need you to find out more about the dappledoks. Find out what they can really do, and discover where this one came from. It is still illegal to breed dappledok pups; Valerie has gone to significant trouble to verify this. That means that there is a group out there, or even a whole organisation, who have devoted considerable effort to an illegal breeding operation and they will not have done this lightly. It must be put a stop to.’

Thorny issue. On the one hand, protecting magickal beasts was a big part of our job; we were supposed to prevent them from dying out, not uphold a law that basically compelled them to do so. But I could not fault Milady’s thinking. These pups were something else. There must have been a solid reason for their banning in the first place; that reason, whatever it was, might well be as true now as it was centuries ago.

I tried not to dwell on the fact that our having a dappledok on the premises at all was effectively a crime. What would become of the poor little pup? She was an innocent in the business. It was not her fault that her huge, gawky nose was all kinds of magickal.

That would be a problem for later.

The Striding Spire: 2

‘Just the one rumour?’ I said. ‘Remarkable.’

The Baron’s irresistible smile flashed. ‘Actually, more than one.’

‘Let’s have the first one, then.’

‘Is it true that there’s a leak inside the Society?’

That was unexpected. I filled my mouth with ice cream and fruit, stalling for a few moments to think. What should I tell him?

He wasn’t wrong. Things had got pretty interesting at work lately. We’d discovered an incredibly rare and indescribably valuable artefact (a book, talkative); faced off against a new, but nonetheless powerful rival organisation with the downright fatuous name of Ancestria Magicka who were determined to steal it; and almost got eaten alive by a haunted house and its trio of unfriendly ghosts. In the middle of all this, we’d found that word of the chatty book (Bill) had somehow leaked out, despite the fact that it had never left Home. That’s how we ended up with Ancestria Magicka on our tails.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just information that had gone farther than it should. Someone had actively sabotaged us by putting tracker spells on the book itself. It was clear that somebody at the Society was a turncoat, and that was alarming. But how had the Baron found out?

‘Who told you that?’ I finally said. ‘I wasn’t aware that Milady was disposed to chat about it.’

‘Someone high up in the Society contacted the Troll Court a few days ago with word of a problem,’ answered the Baron. ‘Probably Milady herself, in fact. She requested aid.’

‘Did they send you to nose around?’

He smiled, sheepish again. ‘Might have.’

Hmm. It was plausible enough that Milady might seek aid from the Court. I’d become aware of more than one link between Milady, whoever she was behind the vague title, and the Troll Courts of old; if she could no longer be sure of who to trust at Home, it was not so far-fetched that she would consult her allies.

She might have mentioned it to me, though. Did that mean I, too, was suspect? I didn’t think so, but I still felt a slight twinge.

I gave the Baron a brief precis of everything that had happened with the book, which he heard without interruption. ‘At present we have no idea who it might be,’ I said in conclusion. ‘Bill caused a sensation at Home, as you might imagine. For a little while, everybody found some excuse to pass through the Library and gawk at the book. Any of them could have passed information to Ancestria, and far too many had at least some opportunity to plant a tracker spell on it. We know that someone’s rotten, but we have no leads whatsoever.’

The Baron took a forkful, and chewed meditatively, his eyes faraway. ‘There is a reason Milady contacted the Court,’ he finally said. ‘There are some ancient magicks that are only really practiced by a rare few nowadays, and the Court makes a habit of collecting them up. Sort of the way you do — preservation tactic. If we don’t find and nurture those talents, the magicks might fade away altogether.’

‘Quite,’ I murmured.

‘There used to be something called a Truthseeker, or so it was known until about the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time there were so few of them left that the word itself fell out of use. There are no human Truthseekers anymore, but there is one living who can still employ that art, and he’s at the Court.’

This sounded promising. ‘And Truthseeking consists of what?’

‘A Truthseeker is unusually sensitive to…’ He took a mouthful of his drink, and shrugged. ‘I don’t pretend to know how it works, Ves, you’ll have to ask him. But where you and I can only guess at whether or not we’re being told the truth, a Truthseeker has a much more solid idea. What’s more, they can, to some degree, compel a person to speak the truth. Milady means to question the Society about the Bill incident, and she’s requested our Truthseeker’s presence at those interviews.’

‘Fair enough. But what’s your role in all this?’

‘I’m the advance party. Seeing as I already have a contact at the Society, and a pretty spectacular one at that—’ He paused here to waggle his eyebrows at me, which was far more charming than it had any right to be —‘I was sent to get the details straight from the source.’

‘Well, you’ve got the details.’ I smiled at him, hoping my lips were not as visibly sugar-crusted as I feared. ‘I doubt I’ve told you anything more than Milady already relayed, though.’

‘It’s good to get a fuller account.’ He was being generous, but he was good at doing it unobtrusively, so I overlooked it. ‘The other thing…’ he said, and hesitated again.

‘Oh yes, rumour number two. Let’s hear it.’

‘You found something…unusual, recently?’

‘My dear Baron, we are the Society for Magickal Heritage and I am one of its finest field agents. Our entire job consists of going out into the world and finding highly interesting things whose existence is probably under threat. Could you be more specific?’

That sheepish smile again. ‘Of course. Uh, the existence of this particular thing is not so much under threat as… disputed? Extinguished? Impossible?’

‘Oh! You mean the puppy.’

He blinked at me. ‘It’s a puppy?’

‘Not in the way you are thinking. Miranda called it a dappledok pup. No relation to the canine species of creature, I’m fairly sure. I may someday get very, very tired of asking you this, but: how did you hear about that?’

‘Milady again, but she was cagey about it. Dropped a hint, primarily by asking if we happened to have any experts on extinct magickal beasts mooching around at the Court.’

‘Do you?’

‘Yes, but she’s somewhere in the Caribbean right now, on the trail of some impossibly rare bird whose name I have forgotten.’

‘Were you sent to ask me about the pup, too, or is this mere private curiosity?’

‘Some of both.’ His eyes strayed to the bag I had left leaning innocently against the back of the adjacent chair.

Too sharp for his own good, that Baron.

‘All right, all right,’ I said, rolling my eyes at him. ‘I’ll show you.’ I lifted the bag’s flap, carefully in case the puppy fell out. But she was still tucked securely in the nest I had made out of three pairs of socks, and still asleep. She was so motionless that for a moment my heart stopped, but when I touched her, I could feel the slow rise and fall of her furred side. I tickled her.

She did not move.

‘She sleeps like a champion,’ I said to the Baron. ‘She has had a hard time of it, though. Her siblings starved, and she wasn’t far off going the same way when we found her.’

‘Let her sleep, then,’ said the Baron, staring at her with his eyes as wide as saucers and a dopey grin on his face.

It wasn’t just me who found her utterly charming, then. Reassuring.

She was looking particularly cute, all curled up in a tiny ball barely larger than an orange. She has tufts of goldish hair growing around the base of her little unicorn horn, the tips of which swayed with the rhythm of her breathing.

‘I imagine she will wake up soon, for it’s time for her feed, and she’s not one to miss out on breakfast.’ Neither am I, of course, though I have nothing like her excuse. Nobody’s ever tried to starve me. Nonetheless, I felt that it made us kindred spirits.

I noticed Baron Alban eyeing my cleared plate, probably thinking along similar lines. He refrained, however, from comment.

Wise man.

It probably was more than an hour since she had last had her milk, so I opted to tickle her until she woke. She did so at last with a grumpy little snort, and sat up, stretching. I was ready with her bottle, and she soon clamped her jaws around the teat and got to work.

The Baron and I watched with the breathless silence of brand new, doting parents.

‘You know what a dappledok pup is, of course?’ said the Baron after a while.

‘Other than the fact that it’s been completely extinct since the eighteenth century?’

‘It has indeed. But before that?’

‘No. I asked Miranda but she gabbled something largely incoherent — she was wrestling with a clawed, very unhappy creature at the time, in her defence — and I never did make sense of it.’ I’d asked Val, too. Her response had been, “I’ll get back to you,” which meant that she did not know at that precise moment where the books were on that topic, but she would soon find out.

‘Spriggans,’ said Alban, incomprehensibly.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Fae-folk, native to Cornwall. Fond of shiny stuff. They bred the dappledoks out of a few other fae beasts, the goal being to create a species with a nose for treasure. They were said to be amazing trackers of anything or anyone carrying gold.’

I was quiet, because only the previous day I had gone into my jewellery drawer for my favourite gold ear-studs and found them missing. I’d assumed I had simply put them somewhere they shouldn’t be, but suddenly I wondered.

‘How did they come to die out?’ I asked.

His mouth twisted in a grimace. ‘Think it through, Ves. Cute, largely defenceless little creatures that are literally the road to riches? Spriggans can be unwisely boastful, to boot. Word spread, everyone wanted a dappledok, and… the rate of thefts across Britain, the Enclaves, the Dells, everywhere, positively soared. In the end they were banned. It became illegal to breed them. They survived a while after that, of course, through secret breeding-programmes, but eventually they petered out.’

‘Spriggans,’ I said.

‘Spriggans.’

This was not the very best of news, for the fae-folk can be tricky. To say the least. There are more of them still about than non-magickers tend to think; they’ve just learned to hide better than they used to. But they can still cause a world of trouble for magickers and non-magickers alike, and spriggans… well, they have a reputation for being among the worst for sheer hell-raising mischief.

I’ve tried to avoid tangling with the fae as much as possible.

‘So did I tell you where I found this pup?’ I said.

‘Pray do.’

Remember when I said we’d almost been swallowed by a haunted house? That’s where we found the pup: curled up in a corner with two others, both dead. And this particular house was the kind that moves around, courtesy of its resident ghost of a Waymaster. It dated from the fourteen hundreds, if not even earlier, and it really felt like it.

I told all this to the Baron.

‘Triple haunting?’ he mused. ‘That’s unusual.’

‘Yes. But. While I did not have much opportunity to chat with the residents, it did not strike me as likely that any of them would have cared much about operating a secret dappledok breeding programme. What would be the point?’

‘So you think someone else might have been using the cottage?’

‘Presumably with their consent, yes. It’s possible. Or someone merely dumped the pups there. Or the pups might even have found their own way in.’

‘In other words, you have no idea.’

‘None whatsoever.’

The Baron’s green, green eyes laughed at me again. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘Good talk.’

I grinned back. ‘I might be able to find something out,’ I offered.

‘Do you know, I was hoping you might say that?’

The Striding Spire: 1

Let’s just say that my first date with Baron Alban did not go quite as I was hoping.

Expectations: me in a very good dress. High heels, great up-do, a bit of lipstick (or perhaps a lot). The Baron looking gorgeous as always in one of his many fine suits, escorting me upon one muscular arm to somewhere lovely. Somewhere with music, perhaps, and good cake.

Reality: Somewhat different.

It began with a phone call.

‘Morning, Ves,’ came the Baron’s deep voice when I picked up. ‘Do I disturb?’

‘Not at all!’ said I brightly, and not altogether truthfully. It was, I had blearily noted as I scooped up my phone, all of half past six in the morning; it was Sunday, and I’d had no intention of getting up for at least three hours yet. I was in bed with my duvet around my chin, and the UniPup, all yellow fur and tiny puppy snores, was asleep on my neck. ‘What can I do for you?’ It wasn’t so easy to speak with a weight on my throat. I hoped she would grow out of that habit by the time she grew much bigger.

‘We’ve been talking about going out sometime for a while, and I was wondering — are you busy today?’

‘Today?’

‘Yes.’

I thought furiously, but only for about two and a half seconds. ‘No!’ I said with emphasis. I might have been smiling like an idiot, but that I cannot confirm.

‘Great!’ He sounded happy, too, which I will not deny was good for my ego. ‘I’ll pick you up in half an hour.’

Half an hour?!’

‘Is… that okay?’

I’ve been on a few dates in my time, and I will be self-aggrandising enough to own that some of those gentlemen were flatteringly eager. But this was something else. 7am on a Sunday morning? Nobody was that eager for my company. ‘It’s fine,’ I said, scooping the puppy off my neck. I laid her gently on the pillow next to me — she didn’t wake — and stumbled out of bed. ‘As long as there is going to be breakfast involved, and soon.’

‘That can be arranged. See you soon, Ves.’ And he hung up.

Odd.

But with only twenty-eight minutes of the promised half hour left, I had no time to puzzle over it. What did a Cordelia Vesper wear on a shockingly early-morning breakfast date with the handsomest troll alive? This Cordelia Vesper had no idea, and she’d have to figure it out pretty fast.

 

I made it down to the hall with exactly thirty-seven seconds to spare. With May dawning dewily outside, the day promised to be warm and fine, so I had chosen one of my favourite dresses — a knee-length confection of red viscose, printed with roses — and thrown a light cardigan over it. My trusty hair-fixing Curiosity had done fine work for me again, turning my long, loose curls to a deep red almost the same hue as my dress.

There the elegance ended, for it had quickly occurred to me that I couldn’t leave the puppy alone. I’d thought briefly of taking her back to Miranda, Boss of Beasts, for the morning’s activities, and collecting her again when I got back. But I abandoned that idea almost as quickly as it came up, because the puppy was unlikely to consent. It did not matter what Miranda did to keep the puppy under her eye; she would always escape, by means largely unknown, and find her way back to me. If I left her with Miranda, she’d escape again and come looking — but she would find no trace of me. Would she be upset? I could not take that risk, for she had been starving to death when I’d found her and that was only a few days ago. She was frail, and in need of constant care. I wasn’t leaving her behind.

The fact that I had entirely lost my heart to the little beast was neither here nor there, of course. But who could help it? She was completely adorable. She had the kind of silky fur that begged to be touched, and it was bright gold. Perky little ears, enormous nose, tiny unicorn horn — what’s not to love about all that? She was affectionate, too, and she made me feel needed.

If that makes for a rather pathetic vision of me, I can only apologise.

Anyway, having decided to take her along, I was then obliged to add an inelegantly enormous bag to my attire. It had to be big enough to hold a significant supply of milk for the puppy, for she had to be fed once an hour and I had no idea how long the Baron intended to monopolise my company. She got cold easily, too, even in the balmy weather, so I stashed blankets and fluffies galore to wrap her up in at need. Then I made a nest in the top for the puppy, installed her therein, and tramped down to the hall, already annoyed by the heavy, unwieldy bag by the time I had made it down a mere two of the House’s many winding flights of stairs.

C’est la vie.

There was no sign of the Baron, but when I peeped out of the grand front door I saw him at once. Being Baron Alban, he simply cannot do anything in either a conventional way or a low-key way. Why wear a typical suit, however well-cut, when you can appear in a splendid top hat and a nineteenth-century frock coat? Or a nice set of nineteen-thirties tweeds, as was the case today, and he had the car to match. Don’t ask me what kind of car it was, for I haven’t the first clue, but it had the swanky, exaggerated curves of a proper old-time automobile, and it gleamed in gorgeous British Racing Green. Alban sat at the wheel, wearing tan leather driving gloves and a dark fedora. He grinned as I trotted out into the driveway, and tipped his hat to me.

He then proceeded to get out and hold the passenger door for me, which made me feel quite the lady — at least until the shoulder-bag I had lumbered myself with swung around as I was getting in, knocking me off-balance, and I all but fell into the seat. My poor dignity.

I hastily checked to make sure the puppy was unharmed, and found her to be fast asleep.

Alban returned to the driver’s seat, and I took the opportunity to stash the bag safely by my feet, propped securely upright so the puppy would not fall out.

‘I know the best place for breakfast,’ he informed me as he turned the car, and my stomach was very happy to hear it.

We drove for about twenty minutes, and I began to suspect some kind of shenanigans. Now, I am notorious at Home for being spectacularly poor at finding my way around, and it is partly because I struggle to recognise places I have already been to, if it is nowhere especially familiar to me. So at first I was not troubled by the fact that the roads we were hurtling down rung no bells whatsoever with me; was I likely to remember this particular country road, hedge-lined and flanked by fields, over another almost exactly like it? No.

But after a while, there began to be a change. The hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel hedges ceased to look quite so much like hawthorn, blackthorn or hazel and developed a different appearance altogether. They were taller, for one, and thicker, their leaves a brighter green and oddly curly. Some of them were dotted with star-like flowers of unusual size. The roads that ran in between lost their tarmac-look and became a smooth stone, pale and apparently indestructible, considering the total lack of holes (and believe me, back country roads with no holes in are pretty rare). When a bird flew overhead that in no way resembled an English bird, but more nearly reminded me of a hare with wings, I was certain. ‘Just where exactly are we?’ I asked.

‘The Troll Roads,’ answered the Baron serenely.

‘And they are?’

‘Hidden ways across the world. It’s a tradition dating back hundreds of years, though these days the standard of the roads is a bit higher. They had to be upgraded when cars happened.’

I could see there were a few advantages to these Roads, one of them being a total lack of other traffic. This particular one also had the look of a place where it literally never rains. Quite possibly it did not.

‘We’re going to my home Enclave,’ offered the Baron, when I said no more. ‘Rhaditton.’

Rhaditton. The word had the old-fashioned air of a top boarding school, and considering that the Baron was attached to the Troll Court, I could well believe it was a salubrious place, and probably exclusive. ‘I did not know you lived so close to us at the Society,’ I said.

He grinned at me. ‘I don’t. That is why we’re taking the Troll Roads.’

I blinked. ‘They’re faster?’

‘Much.’

‘How?’

‘Because they’re magick.’

Of course.

He laughed, inferring from my silence — rightly enough — that I found this answer inadequate. ‘Waymasters,’ he said, more helpfully. ‘Quite a number of them have worked on the Roads over the years. The routes aren’t as good as a Waymaster in person, of course, but they’re not a bad alternative.’

‘So what do they do, sort of… swoosh you along?’

‘Something like that, yes. Waymasters used to be adept at a range of travel arts, once upon a time. One or two of them still are.’

Jay had said something like that, recently — that Waymastery was a diminished art these days, with magick on the decline. Jay, of course, was still quite able to spirit himself and others from henge to henge in a single step, across vast distances, so his “diminished” arts still looked pretty impressive to me.

Ten minutes later, we rolled up outside the vast, gleaming walls of a city. Seriously, it looked like Minas Tirith or something, all white stone and shining in the sun like a slice of heaven on earth. The gates opened as the Baron’s car approached, literally like magick, and in we went.

Aaaand I have never been anywhere so glorious in my life. Eerily glorious, because to go with all the polished stone buildings, intricately carved walls, gilding — yes, actual gilding — and general air of improbable luxury, there were none of the things one might normally expect to see in a city that’s lived in by real people. Litter here and there, for example. Peeling paint, shabby old houses in need of maintenance, an occasional abandoned bicycle or shopping trolley.

I was left wondering how far people like Baron Alban qualified as real. Everything about him was improbably fabulous, including his choice of abode.

I tried not to gawk too obviously as we rolled through street after street of this opulence, and in all likelihood failed. At last we drew up outside a low, greyish stone place with an ornate roof and an array of elegant chairs and tables arranged outside. I don’t think they were solid gold, but it was hard to tell.

‘Ah, of course,’ I said as the car drew to a stop. ‘This is how you do cafes in Rhaditton.’

‘They do fantastic pancakes,’ said the Baron.

Pancakes seemed mundane under the circumstances, but I was soon reassured on this point. A few minutes later, I was seated inside the building in what was probably the best seat in the place, with a fine view out of the grand window all the way down the wide boulevard beyond. Baron Alban sat at my elbow; the bag with the puppy in was set on the seat beside me; and I had a plate of pancakes before me that would make any reasonable person cry with happiness.

Point one: they were troll-sized helpings, approximately the size of dinner plates, and there were a lot of them.

Point two: they were smothered in everything. Everything, everything. Ice cream, fruits in improbable colours that I’d never seen before, some kind of sticky sauce that glistened so invitingly it could only be (as the Baron would put it) magick.

I took a spoonful of all this glory, and almost died.

As I was busy winging my way to heaven upon a tide of sweet delight, Baron Alban sat sipping a tall cup of something steamy, his own plate virtually untouched. He was watching me, with a smile that said, you are inelegantly devoted to food, but I like it.

I was unmoved. Nothing was getting in between me and those pancakes, not even the desire to appear cool before the fabulousness that was the Baron.

‘What’s the bag for?’ he said after a while.

Having by that time devoured enough to quieten the complaints of my half-starved stomach, I found myself at leisure to answer him. ‘I’ll tell you later.’

All right, briefly to answer him.

He grinned. ‘Fair.’

‘If you aren’t going to eat,’ I said, eyeing his plate with disfavour, ‘then you can talk. What’s the hurry today?’

‘The hurry?’ he smiled at me, far too innocently for my liking. ‘Just wanted to finally get some time with you.’

‘At seven in the morning? I do not buy it, Mister.’

‘Actually, “my lord Baron” would be more appropriate,’ he said, his grin widening.

‘Diversion failed, my lord Baron. What are we doing here?’

‘Is it so hard to believe I might merely want your company?’

Thinking of the salubrious city and its equally glamorous residents — I’d seen several gorgeous and gorgeously dressed troll ladies wandering those streets, and an example sat not six feet away at another table — I said, ‘Yes.’

To my mild regret, the Baron began to look sheepish. I suppose a small part of me had hoped he was just desperate for my company.

Such is life.

He picked up his fork and took a bite of pancake, clearly a delaying tactic.

‘Spit it out,’ I recommended. ‘Not the pancake! The problem.’

‘I didn’t want you to think I’d invited you just to—’

‘I know, I know,’ I said. I thought it best to interrupt before things could get any more awkward. ‘You were positively dying to see me, and it also happens that there’s something on your mind?’

He smiled at me, with that twinkle in his bright green eyes that makes it impossible to be annoyed with him. ‘Exactly.’

‘Always nice to kill two birds with one stone.’

‘I always thought that expression unnecessarily bloodthirsty.’

‘It is. So the problem is what?’

‘Right.’ He pushed aside his plate, quite flabbergasting me, and folded his arms upon the table-top. ‘I heard a rumour,’ he began.

Toil and Trouble: 18

Miranda was not only eager to assume charge of our find; she was electrified.

Jay and I proceeded directly to her domain once we reached Home. She is the head of our Magickal Beasts division, and presides over extensive premises in the east wing. We found her in the veterinary department, tending to the damaged wing of a black bird with an unusually long, blue beak. ‘Can it wait just a second?’ she said when we went in, without looking up.

‘One or two, but not more.’ I didn’t say that lightly. Our puppy had abandoned its attempts to eat my fingers almost the moment we had stepped out of the ruined cottage, and over the journey home it had seemed to lose all energy. It (or she, I think) now lay inert in my palm, worryingly lifeless.

‘Right.’ Miranda gently returned her bird to a large cage near the back of the room, and set it carefully atop a padded perch inside. Then she bustled back to us. She’d had a long day of it herself, by her appearance: her white coat was streaked with bird poop, some kind of animal feed and who-knew-what-else, and her blonde hair had mostly fallen out of its usually neat ponytail. She looked tired and shadow-eyed.

I held out the puppy to her. ‘Starving to death. Please help.’

Miranda took my puppy, handling her very gently. She said nothing for several seconds, examining the creature with great care. Her eyes grew rather wide. ‘Ves,’ she whispered at last, her voice emerging as a croak. ‘Where did you find this?’

I told her.

‘Hnngh,’ she said, and swallowed. ‘Er.’

‘What?’

‘This is a…’ she began, then stopped. ‘I mean, it can’t be, but it is.’

‘Not making sense,’ I offered helpfully.

Miranda shook her head, disbelieving. ‘It’s a dappledok puppy. They’re extinct.’

‘What?’

‘Dead as dodos. The last known sighting of a live one was recorded in a letter in, like, the late seventeen hundreds.’

I stared. ‘Oh.’

‘So!’ she said. ‘I’ll be off moving heaven and earth to save this one’s life, and later we’ll talk more about where you got it. Okay?’ Without waiting for an answer, she charged off, taking my tiny puppy with her.

I looked at Jay. ‘You’ve a talent for stumbling over long-lost things, it seems.’

His smile flickered. ‘We still have to figure out what to do with the last one.’

I gave a long, long sigh at that, and said: ‘I’m pretty sure I know exactly what will become of poor Bill.’

 

Baron Alban arrived bright and early the next morning. Too bright and early. I had no idea how he had managed to receive Milady’s summons and act upon them so fast, but I supposed he must have a Waymaster at his disposal. If he wasn’t one himself.

Having developed a more than passing acquaintance with the Baron by that time, I was prepared for his probable promptness, and so he found me awake, dressed and intent upon the consumption of my second cup of tea. I was only slightly droopy, and gazed at him with bleary-eyed alertness as he wandered into my usual nook in the first floor common room.

‘Ves,’ he said with his broad, charming smile. ‘You look like you fell under a ceiling.’

I gave him my most withering look, and swallowed a great deal more tea. ‘You usually manage to be more complimentary.’

‘You look gorgeous. Bruises suit you.’

I waved him to a chair, ignoring that. He looked as well turned-out as ever in a dark blue suit and white shirt, his purple tie elaborately knotted. ‘Please take care of Bill,’ I implored him.

One brow went up. ‘Bill?’

‘The book. We call him Bill.’

He inclined his head, as though this declaration made perfect sense. ‘Bill will have the best care, naturally. I’ve hopes that our bookbinders can patch him up a bit, and he’ll be safe from your friends at Ancestria Magicka.’

I shrugged at that, and set down my empty cup. ‘I doubt they will care about him much longer. They’ve had time enough to study all his workings, and will probably produce replicas soon enough.’

‘And will the Society, also?’

‘I have reason to believe that Milady cleared Orlando’s agenda entirely in favour of the project.’

He nodded, studying my face. ‘You’re sad about something.’

‘I am sorry for the loss of Bill. He’s the most charming book I ever met.’ My leave-taking from Bill the night before had been a little painful; he had not been delighted to be separated from me either, though his vanity could not but be pleased at the prospect of becoming a prized treasure of the Troll Court. I’d heard unpromising reports of the puppy, too; Miranda could only confirm that she was still breathing, and wouldn’t hazard more.

‘The most charming troll you’ve ever met is still waiting to take you out,’ said the Baron, and gave me a hopeful smile.

I couldn’t help perking up a bit at that. ‘How obliging of him.’

‘Just say the word.’ He got up, and made me a graceful bow. ‘I’d love to stay, but I need to get the book back to the Court. I have an escort and everything.’

‘Six ruthless bodyguards?’ I peeked behind him, as though there might be a team of dreamily muscle-bound trolls waiting by the door.

‘Something like that.’ He winked, and gave me a tiny salute. ‘Call me.’

I promised.

On his way out, he passed Jay and Indira just coming in. I was intrigued to note that none of them seemed a bit surprised to see one another. ‘Good timing,’ said Alban with a smile, and then he was gone.

I raised my brows at Jay, but he ignored my silent question and flopped into a chair without speaking.

I looked at Indira, who was taking a seat with more care and more grace, keeping her injured arm well away from the table. ‘What was that about?’ I asked.

Indira looked guiltily at Jay, and said nothing.

Jay smiled at her. ‘Well, go on.’

She glanced at me, and looked quickly away again. Carefully, she bent to retrieve a soft cloth bag from the floor by her feet; I hadn’t noticed her carrying it when she came in. She placed this on the table before me, and sat back.

I waited for some explanation, but nothing came. ‘I’m to open the bag?’

Indira nodded.

Mystified, I peeped inside. A book lay at the bottom. It was of an ancient style (thick leather covers, vellum pages, heavy silver hinges) but it looked pristine and new. Extracting it with care, I discovered that the covers were tinted dark purple, and the front was embossed with a twelve-pointed star. It weighed less than it looked like it should.

‘A book!’ I said, not at all enlightened.

‘Open it,’ said Jay.

I obeyed.

‘Madam,’ said the book. ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’

‘Perfect,’ whispered Jay, and the book gave a rather smug rustle of its pages.

‘Bill?’ I choked. ‘But— but the Baron just took him!’

‘Bill the Second,’ said Jay. ‘Indira’s been working on it ever since we left.’

‘Well, Orlando has,’ said Indira, hastily disclaiming. ‘I’ve just been, um, helping.’

Jay shook his head slightly. ‘More than that. You can’t deny this is mostly your own work.’

Indira looked like she wanted very much to deny it, but couldn’t truthfully do so.

‘That’s extremely clever of you,’ I said, with total sincerity. I couldn’t imagine the depth of skill required to produce such a grimoire; my talents definitely don’t lie in that direction. I stroked Bill the Second’s covers with faint regret (all right, more than faint), and handed him back to Indira.

She did not take him. Instead, she gave me a stricken look. ‘Um, don’t you want him?’

‘Wha… he’s for me?’

Indira nodded furiously.

‘Am I… am I allowed?’

Indira nodded again. ‘This is a, um, prototype. Orlando’s working on the finished design and, well, this one’s spare. Milady said it was all right.’

Jay’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but he said nothing.

I was only too glad to gather Bill Two back into my arms and give him a tight hug. ‘Thank you,’ I said, beaming. ‘It will be my honour to work with him.’

Indira smiled back, visibly relieved. ‘I’m glad you like him,’ she said, already getting out of her chair.

‘Won’t you have some tea?’ I offered, but she was in full retreat by then, and only shook her head as she vanished out the door.

I looked at Jay, and waited.

‘She made him especially for you,’ he said. ‘Stayed up most of the night to finish him, too.’

‘Um,’ I said. ‘Why?’

He shrugged. ‘Might be that she’s savvy enough to cultivate connections amongst those who are popular at Home. Or… maybe she just likes you.’

‘Likes me,’ I repeated numbly. ‘Right.’ Indira was always polite, but she still gave me the impression that she was petrified of me.

I decided that the Patels in general were a hard-to-read bunch.

Before Jay could decide upon a reply, there came the sound of tiny claws clicking against the hard floor, and the yellow dappledok puppy came creeping around the door. Her ears were down, her tail drooped and she trudged wearily in my direction as though the distance between us were almost insurmountable.

But she was alive!

‘Puppy!’ I blurted, overjoyed. ‘Come here!’

The moment she came within reach of the table, Jay bent to scoop her up, and handed her to me. I put her in my lap, whereupon she crawled, shivering, inside my cardigan and disappeared.

I tucked the folds of my clothes around her and sat, smiling like an idiot, until Miranda inevitably appeared. ‘Ves!’ she said, slightly out of breath. ‘Don’t hate me, but I think I’ve lost the puppy.’

I merely pulled aside my cardigan, displaying the ball of yellow fur. ‘Winnie the Unipup is fine.’

Miranda sagged against the doorframe in relief, though she looked annoyed, too. ‘Look, she shouldn’t be taken out of care just now at all, but at the very least you need to tell me.’

‘I didn’t take her! She showed up at the door about four minutes ago.’

Miranda blinked. ‘She found her way up here?’

‘I swear. Jay, back me up.’

‘Every word of Ves’s is the truth,’ he dutifully declared.

Miranda sighed. ‘Fine. Bring her back down once an hour for milk, okay?’

I tucked my cardigan back over my unipup once more, and beamed at Miranda. ‘Got it, boss.’

Toil and Trouble: 17

A long-dead, tormented and frightened Waymaster proved not to be the best or safest of pilots. We departed Tut Hill with a sickening lurch, and a rumbling shudder which sent everyone in the room crashing to the floor. We came down some interminable time later with an unpromising crunch. For a little while I lay inert, my every muscle aching and my poor head spinning dizzily.

Then Jay was at my side. ‘Hup,’ he said, and mercilessly hauled me to my feet. ‘Steady?’

I was, just about. Shaking knees aside.

Zareen was already vertical, and on her way to the door at a bouncing trot. Katalin and Mercer were on the far side of the bare little room, looking (to my secret relief) quite as shaken as I felt. And wary, too. Why? Had they not got what they wanted in bringing the cottage here?

Assuming we had arrived at the right place, of course. Zareen soon confirmed this, for having opened the front door a crack and peeped through, she proceeded to hurl it wide open and stomped out into the darkness beyond. ‘Ashdown ahoy!’ she called back.

That was when a third voice spoke. ‘Ashdown,’ it said, low and cracked. ‘I remember that name, of my youth.’ It was an old woman’s voice, the tones worn and faded by the passage of many a long year.

Dio sighed. ‘Go back to sleep, Maud.’

‘I think I will not,’ said Maud.

‘Ah!’ I cried. ‘How nice to make your acquaintance, Maud Grey. Or is it Greyer?’

‘Tis Greyer,’ she allowed.

‘Good. Excellent.’ I looked around. ‘And where might you be?’

‘They buried me in the back bedchamber,’ said Maud.

‘Buried?’ scoffed Wester. ‘Walled thee up, like the devil thou art!’

‘I am no devil,’ said Maud, winter-dry. Then she laughed, wheezing. ‘At least, no more than any Greyer.’

‘Who is “they”?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Who walled you up?’

‘My grandson,’ she said, with chilling indifference. ‘And granddaughter.’

Considering that Maud Greyer had herself interred the body of her own, freshly-hanged sister inside the cottage’s walls, I decided I did not wish to know any more about the Greyer family.

Bill, though, had no scruples. ‘Ves,’ he hissed, still stuck to the wall. ‘Have a care! There is nothing but evil in that one.’

‘How do you know?’

‘My mistress always greatly feared her sister.’

‘That is not true!’ shouted Dio.

But Maud chuckled. ‘It hath the right of it, thy odd creation. Thou wert always easily cowed.’

I felt a chill of foreboding. Dio Greyer, necromancer and High Witch of a powerful coven, found reason to be terrified of Maud? That did not bode well.

Whatever Katalin and George Mercer might know about Maud Greyer, it wasn’t reassuring them either. They had gone from wary to outright alarmed at the exchange, and I heard Katalin say in a fraught whisper: ‘She was not supposed to be here!’

‘Aye,’ said Maud. ‘They made fine work of me, did they not? Put it about that I had died of the Sweat, and into the wall I went with none the wiser.’ She paused, chillingly, and added in a musing tone, ‘I wonder what hath become of my descendants?’

I, for one, did not want to know.

‘I would like to be rid of these confines,’ continued Maud after a moment. ‘These rude walls, how they chafe after five hundred years!’

‘You must free me, but not her!’ Dio said. Her manner was commanding, but I detected a shrill note of fear somewhere behind.

‘And me,’ added Wester. ‘But never her.

‘Thou shalt not leave without me.’ Maud’s words emerged barely above a whisper, but with a ringing power behind them that rooted me to the spot. ‘Thou shalt none of you leave without me.’

The door banged shut behind me. I could not even turn to see if Zareen had come back in; my muscles were frozen, and I could not move an inch.

‘I suppose you had to make her angry?’ said Bill venomously.

The walls rattled, and something dark and liquid began to seep through the whitewash and trickle towards the floor. ‘Um,’ I said, my lips numb. ‘Is that… that isn’t blood, is it?’

‘Yep,’ said Zareen, and walked past me into the centre of the floor. ‘You’d better stop, Maud Greyer,’ she said severely. ‘I will stand for no more shenanigans.’

I adored Zareen just then. Not only for facing Maud Greyer and her bleeding walls without a blink, but also for using the word shenanigans to describe them.

How exactly she was perambulatory when Jay and I and the two Ancestria Magicka operatives remained glued to the floor, well. That was another question.

‘Thou art no match for me,’ crooned Maud. ‘Fair potential thou dost indeed possess, but thou art but an acorn to my mighty oak.’ Blood began to drip from the ceiling, too, and to my horror a crack opened in the floor and swiftly widened. Something pale, unwholesome and smoky seeped through from below.

Zareen took all of this in with narrowed eyes, and nodded. ‘You might be right,’ she allowed. ‘Mercer!’

George Mercer’s head snapped up. ‘No!’

‘It’s necessary.’

‘It’s not. Do something else!’

‘Like what?’

Judging from the silence, Mercer had no answer to this.

‘Stop being a wimp,’ Zareen ordered. ‘And stop pretending. The sheep routine’s getting boring.’

Mercer growled something, but he proceeded to push away from the wall he’d been leaning on, and ambled over to Zareen. This, apparently, came as much to Katalin’s surprise as to mine.

‘Zar?’ I tried. ‘What exactly is going on?’

‘Don’t worry,’ she said briefly. ‘But grit your teeth.’

‘What?’

She’d linked hands with Mercer, and to my stark horror her eyes turned black. I  mean, Zareen’s eyes are almost black anyway, but all the whites filled in with solid black, too. ‘Can’t guarantee this won’t hurt a bit,’ she said.

Then the same thing happened to the eyes of George Mercer, and I shut my stupid mouth.

‘Ves?’ said Jay uncertainly.

‘Just do as she says,’ I said tightly.

Maud Greyer had figured her out, too, and she was not pleased. ‘Betrayer!’ she shrieked, losing her cool in fine style. ‘How durst thou turn the Arts against me!’ The floor washed over with blood, and it was bubbling and boiling; my feet began to burn. The walls shook so hard I expected the ceiling to come down at any moment and bury us all, and I could hardly hear Maud’s continued vituperation over the sounds of stones, tiles and beams all rattling against one another.

Zareen raised her voice to shout over the tumult. ‘Five hundred years!’ she intoned in an oddly ringing voice. ‘Ought to have been enough to learn some bloody manners!’

‘Spare me!’ shrieked Dio. ‘Spare John! We will do as thou dost bid us, and never seek to do thee harm!’

‘Sorry,’ Zareen said flatly. ‘Time’s up.’ Drops of blood leaked from the corners of her eyes, and from Mercer’s.

And, I realised, from mine.

A sharp, fierce pulse of pure power shot through the floor and raced up the walls. It manifested itself as a sea of shadow pouring forth from Zareen and Mercer and swallowed everything in its path — me, Jay, the book, all of it. That sea burned like lava and froze like ice, and every cell in my poor abused body screamed with pain.

So did I.

Somewhere in the distance I was aware of Dio and Maud Greyer and John Wester, making a cacophonous orchestra of indignation, fury and pain. But I had other things to consider, for besides the minor inconvenience of searing agony in my every organ, there were a few structural problems developing. The ceiling was raining chunks of plaster into the pools of blood below, and there came the splintering sound of stone cracking into pieces.

‘Zareen!’ I bawled. ‘You’ll bring the roof down!’

Too late. The splintering intensified, and a great, groaning tumult heralded the imminent collapse of the cottage. I had time only to grab what little magick I could muster, tears of blood pouring from my eyes, and weave up a shield before the roof shattered into chunks and rained down upon us.

My shield, shaky and feeble, did not last long. Neither did I. I’d thrown it clumsily over Jay, Zareen, Mercer and Katalin as well as myself, and I had the satisfaction of seeing it deflect at least the first wave of falling stone. But it could not bear up under the rest; my glorious, shimmering bubble dissipated into the air, a great slab of something distressingly solid collided with my head, and I passed out.

 

I woke up bathed in blood.

I cannot say it is the worst thing that has ever happened to me (don’t ask), but it may be imagined that I was not best pleased.

The cottage lay in rubble all over the once neatly-swept floor. Moonlight shone upon the pale face of Zareen looming above me, her eyes thankfully restored to their usual colour. ‘You alive, Ves?’ she was saying.

I took a breath, every second of which hurt like hell. ‘I wish I wasn’t.’

Her lips twitched. ‘Lies.’

‘Fine. I hurt, but I am relieved you didn’t manage to kill us all with your freaky shit.’

‘Nice work with the shield.’

‘Thanks.’ I sat up. Jay was leaning against the remains of a wall a few feet away, his black hair almost white with dust and a fresh bruise added to his already sumptuous collection. ‘Hi,’ he croaked.

‘You’re not dead either.’

‘Nope.’

Mercer was prone, apparently still out cold. Katalin sat guard by his side, cross-legged and heedless of the sticky, congealing blood she was sitting in.

All was quiet. The silence was eerie after all the noise of the past hour or so.

‘They’re gone?’ I said to Zareen.

She nodded once.

‘Uh huh. And what was that you did, exactly?’

‘Forcible exorcism.’ Zareen turned away and bent to pick something out of the rubble.

‘Did I know you could do that?’

Zareen didn’t answer.

‘Zar. Are you a necromancer?’ I looked sharply at Mercer. ‘And him, too?’

Zareen gave me a long, measuring look, and for a second her eyes flickered once more into deep, black pools. ‘Toil and trouble, remember?’ she said, and her voice was as bone-dry as Maud Greyer’s.

‘Does that mean yes?’

‘It means, don’t ask.’ Before I could speak again, she handed me her find — a book.

The book.

‘Oh, Bill,’ I sighed, stricken. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘It would be ungenerous of me to reproach the heroine of the hour,’ said Bill.

I didn’t think so. It had not occurred to me to include Bill in my shield, and as a consequence he had been sadly crushed. He now sported three dents in his formerly pristine covers, and some of his pages were torn.

‘Zareen’s the heroine of the hour,’ I said. ‘Does it hurt?’ I tried to smooth his pages as best I could, a useless gesture.

‘I do not possess nerves, Miss Vesper.’

I winced, my own agonies not yet forgotten. ‘That sounds nice.’

‘It has its moments.’

‘What is that noise?’ said Jay, and hauled himself to his feet.

‘What noise—’ I began, but then I heard it: a thin, high-pitched whimpering coming from somewhere nearby.

Walking like an old, old man, Jay limped off into what remained of the next room. There were only the two rooms to the cottage, apparently, and the one we were in was by far the largest. Following Jay, I found what had probably once been the back bedchamber where Maud’s remains were interred. It was as empty of furniture as the other room, boasting only a dusty (and now broken) chair. The floor was thick with blood, rubble and debris, but in the wan moonlight that filtered through the empty window-frame I discerned a glimpse of something incongruously brightly coloured.

The whimpering gained in volume.

‘There’s an animal,’ said Jay, and ventured towards the window, stepping through the fallen stones with unusual care. He crouched, and began to pull away the wreckage from the corner.

A flash of pale, yellowish fur emerged, and Jay scooped up something tiny enough to fit into one cupped hand.

‘Here,’ he said, turning, and offered it to me.

I took it with infinite care, for it was a tiny, delicate creature, probably only recently born, and obviously in distress. It resembled a puppy, except its nose was much larger than that of a typical dog, and its forehead bore the tiny nub of a horn. I suspected, moreover, that when cleaned up and viewed in daylight, its fur would prove to be not so much yellowish as bright, sunny gold.

It was hungry, I concluded, for it seemed intent upon devouring my thumb. Fortunately, it had not yet developed much in the way of teeth.

‘Ouch,’ I said anyway, wincing a bit.

Jay smiled. ‘I think you are the properest person to take care of a tiny fluffy thing, don’t you?’

I beamed at him. ‘Without doubt. But how did it come to be here?’ I made to step past him to investigate the spot in the corner, but Jay got in front of me.

‘I wouldn’t,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

His face turned grim. ‘There were more.’

I didn’t miss his use of the past tense, and my heart sank. ‘How many?’

‘Two more like this one.’

I tried to get past him again, but he caught me and pushed me back. ‘They’re dead, Ves. No sense in upsetting yourself.’

‘Yes, because I’m marshmallow. You, of course, are made from solid rock.’

He just looked at me, his mouth grim and his eyes sad.

‘Fine, fine,’ I sighed and turned away, cradling the sole survivor of the wreck. ‘Zareen’s going to cry, you realise.’

‘She shouldn’t. They were not crushed. I would rather say they starved.’

‘Right. We’d better get this one to Miranda as soon as possible.’ I would have fed it on the spot if I could, but what did a baby horned puppy eat? I could offer it a whole feast of only slightly congealed blood only lightly seasoned with dust, but I doubted that would serve the purpose.

In the next room, Katalin and Mercer were deep in conversation with Zareen. I watched them for a moment, eyes narrowed, for it seemed to me that Zareen and Mercer were not quite strangers. Indeed, Zar’s actions of half an hour before had strongly implied that she knew more about George Mercer than we did. ‘Old friends?’ I said at last, when a lull offered in the conversation.

Zareen just flashed me an enigmatic look.

‘I know, I know. Don’t ask. We’re leaving on a mercy mission,’ I said, showing Zareen the puppy. ‘Can you deal with all this?’

It wasn’t fair to land her with that job, since by “this” I meant the wrecked cottage, the scattered bones of those who had once been interred within its walls, the sea of blood leaking all over the grounds of Ashdown Castle and, of course, the problem of the two Ancestria Magicka operatives who were still hanging around. But Zareen is equal to anything.

‘Go!’ she commanded. ‘Save the tiny, defenceless thing.’

‘We’ll send help from Home.’

‘That would be nice.’

‘Where’s the nearest henge?’ I said, turning back to Jay.

‘Assuming you don’t want to break into Ashdown itself at this hour, and in this state… too far to walk.’

I nodded. ‘Well then. I wonder if our Chairs are still there?’

Toil and Trouble: 16

Tut Hill proved to be a long, long road clambering gently up an incline. It ran from Bury St. Edmunds out to a village called Fornham something, and it was mostly house-free. Only once we got as far as the village did we begin to see low stone walls and a smattering of properties set a little way back from the road.

It would have been nice if we had arrived to find a crumbling old cottage conveniently glowing in the dark, or overflowing with angry spirits, or something of the kind. But the houses there were mere ordinary brick structures, varied in style and age, all looking perfectly innocuous in the low light of late evening. A few had lights shining in the windows.

‘What a fine vision of peace,’ murmured Zareen approvingly.

I felt somewhat crestfallen. ‘Either the cottage is very well camouflaged,’ I suggested, ‘or it is not here.’

‘Could be either,’ said Zareen cheerfully. Checking her maps, she pointed back the way we had come. ‘I don’t think any of the sightings ever came up this far. We’ve overshot the mark.’

My feet were hurting by then, for we had been trekking a while, and for a moment I felt like applying a heavy object to the general area of Zareen’s head. I swallowed these unworthy feelings, and turned about, dragging Bill out of my bag as I did so. ‘Bill,’ I said gravely, ‘we are in dire need of your assistance.’

‘How may I be of use, Miss Vesper?’

He sounded sleepy. ‘You weren’t dozing, were you?’

‘No! I have been fully alert since our last conversation! I assure you, I have not missed a single—’ He stopped, and if a book could be said to grow tense, well, Bill was about as relaxed as a block of concrete just then. ‘My mistress!’ he said, in a proper hollow gasp, like he was in a highly dramatic stage play.

‘See. I was hoping you might say something like that.’ I held him out before me as we trudged a ways back down the hill. ‘Lead the way, Mister Bill, if you please.’

Bill was off like a shot, dragging me behind him like he was an overexcited terrier and I the mere human appendage on the other end of the lead.

We plunged through a gap in the blackthorn hedge, and into the field beyond. Near enough pitch dark by then, and free of the lights of any nearby houses, there was little to see by; I had to trust to Bill’s good sense (did he have any?) and hope he did not lead the three of us into a pit or something. Stumbling over uneven ground, we ventured perhaps a hundred metres into the field — and then stopped.

‘She is close,’ hissed Bill.

I still saw no house. ‘Um, you sure?’

A spectral head flickered into view not two feet from my face, and my heart gave the kind of lurching shudder people sometimes die of. ‘What’s yer business wit’ the Grey house?’ it said, teeth clattering. It had hair but no skin, and great hollow eye sockets.

‘Social visit,’ said Zareen coolly.

There came a sudden rushing noise, as of the displacement of an awful lot of air. It was attended by a distant, high-pitched screaming which grew rapidly closer, and then there was the shadowy bulk of a cottage looming directly before us. It screamed wordless fury in a woman’s voice, and Bill flinched in my hands.

‘Say no more,’ I muttered.

‘Hello, Mistress,’ said Bill weakly.

The screaming stopped.

The front door opened, and an eerie glow emanated from within.

‘Right then,’ I said, and stepped forward, Jay at my elbow.

Zareen flung out an arm, halting us both before we’d gone more than a pace or two. ‘Please,’ she said witheringly. ‘If this doesn’t qualify as Toil and Trouble, I’ll eat my skulls.’

‘Thank you for that mental image.’

‘You’re welcome.’ Zareen sauntered off in the direction of the beckoning door, and Jay and I fell in step behind her.

‘Where are they?’ I whispered to Jay.

‘Gaining on us. We have, maybe, ten minutes.’

‘Excellent.’

‘Excellent?’ It was too dark to see Jay giving me the side-eye, but I could feel it. ‘You’re hatching plots, aren’t you?’

‘Jay. Always.

‘Right.’

Zareen stopped in front of the door, and gave her Society symbol. We all have the three-crossed-wands part, that’s the Society bit. Mine has a winged unicorn superimposed over them. Zareen’s turned out to have a skull added on. Not quite human; the eyes were too big, and it had horns.

‘Er,’ said Jay.

‘Don’t ask,’ I said hastily. ‘Never ask.’

‘Dio Greyer?’ Zareen was saying. ‘Maud Grey? We are here from the Society for Magickal Heritage to—’

‘—warn you of a dire plot against you,’ I interposed. ‘Formulated by a vile organisation calling themselves Ancestria Magicka.’

‘Er,’ said Jay and Zareen as one.

There was a tense silence, and then the door yawned wider. Zareen rolled her eyes at me as she went in.

‘You managed to use the words “vile” and “dire” in the same sentence,’ muttered Jay as he followed. ‘Nice work.’

‘There’s much to be said for drama.’ Jay, sadly, beat me to the door, so I contented myself with bringing up the rear.

The interior was a low-ceilinged, white-washed, scrupulously neat little cottage, with all the leaning door frames, exposed beams and stone floors one would expect of the period. Some things were unusual, though — like the lumpy stonework just inside the door behind which Dio Greyer’s bones were presumably interred, considering the way Bill instantly plastered himself to it.

‘Bill,’ I hissed. ‘You’re hugging a wall.’

‘Communing with my creator,’ Bill replied, rather muffled.

Considering the kind of company I was in just then, I refrained from pointing out that Bill’s creator was deservedly hanged for some decidedly questionable behaviour. I suppose it’s like continuing to love your parents, even if they turn out to be psychos. The argument usually runs along the lines of “Well, I only have one mother/father/creator/whatever,” as if that’s reason enough all by itself. Apparently, for Bill, it was.

Then again, I had no actual proof that Bill’s endearing gesture was voluntary. I certainly found it impossible to peel him off the wall again, when I tried.

Hmm.

‘My codex!’ said Dio Greyer’s voice. ‘Thou has’t returned!’

‘Well…’ I demurred, redoubling my efforts to retrieve Bill. ‘We had not exactly intended to—’

I stopped, because she was not listening to me. The floor shook, and the walls howled: ‘Hear that, wretch! Five hundr’d years to right thy miserable failings!’

Somebody replied, a somebody with the baritone rumble of a large man. But he, I was guessing, was probably as corporeal as Dio Greyer by this time, for those tones came out of thin air, and seemed to emanate from everywhere at once. ‘Beef-witted churls!’ he snarled. ‘Have I not faithfully served thee these five centuries and more? What use these gudgeons?’

‘Gudgeons they may be, but they have brought my codex,’ purred Dio. ‘Which is more than I can say for thee.

‘Had thou not made a puppet of me, I would have done all that and more! But thou must be jaunting hither and thither, and ever on! Have me hauling thy stone and bones and plaster about like turnips, because thou didst require it, and never a day’s rest!’ The walls shuddered, and the floor trembled so hard I almost lost my footing. Stones rumbled, plaster flaked, and somewhere at the back of my mind Dio Greyer was screaming again.

‘Er,’ I intervened. ‘Mr. Wester?’

There came a shocked silence. Then: ‘How didst thou come by my name?’

‘It’s in the book,’ I said, apologetically. ‘Why did you sell it?’

And there I’d made a mistake. ‘Sold?’ shrieked Dio Greyer, at such a pitch as to shatter my ears. ‘SOLD! Lying wretch! Thieving lily-liver! Didst thou not have courage enough to speak truth to thy mistress!’

‘Thou didst slay me anyway,’ rejoined Wester. ‘I ought to have spoken truth to thee, were it all the vengeance I could win. Yes, I sold thy miserable codex! A foul-mouthed object! I was well rid of it.’

‘And if it was foul-mouthed, I know at whose door to lay the fault!’

The argument went on in similar style for some time, and with such heat that the three of us were forgotten. We gathered into a protective knot (for we felt as though an earthquake raged around us, so much did the cottage rumble and sway with the force of Greyer and Wester’s fury).

‘So,’ I said. ‘Wester discovered where to find Dio, and got rid of Bill along the way — only she was not quite as dead as she was supposed to be, and he found himself slightly unpopular when he arrived. With Maud, too.’

‘Understandably,’ said Zareen. ‘And the sisters slew him and stuffed him into the walls.’

‘Not quite so understandably.’

‘It was rather rude.’

‘What did he mean about hauling the house around?’

Jay frowned. ‘I have an idea about that.’ He strode to the nearest wall and hammered upon it, ignoring, with enviable dignity, the rain of plaster-powder that fell upon his head. ‘Hey!’ he bellowed. ‘Shut it!’

To my surprise, this worked. ‘Hast thou something to share, little man?’ said Dio acidly.

‘A question,’ Jay answered. ‘For John Wester.’

‘Speak,’ said Wester.

‘Were you a Waymaster, in life?’

‘I was among the finest!’

‘I suppose that explains why you were tapped to find Greyer’s grave.’

‘And find it, I did. Along with my own.’

‘It was, what, 1508?’

‘Mayhap.’

I put the pieces together then, too. Maud Grey had lived in the house for twelve years after her sister’s death, and then it had vanished. Courtesy of Wester, an enslaved Waymaster. ‘But there’s no henge…?’ I began.

‘Didn’t always have to be,’ said Jay briefly. ‘We’re crap at it these days, need all the help we can get. Magickal decline, and all that.’

‘So you can’t haul entire houses around?’

‘No.’

‘I’m disappointed.’

Jay stuck out his tongue at me.

‘What became of Maud?’ I said, more loudly. ‘Where’s your sister, Dio?’

My question went unanswered, because the front door blew open and two people burst into the room. One of them promptly fell over the worn oak chair I had quietly placed directly in the way of the entrance, and went sprawling. That was Mercer.

The other, Katalin, managed to avoid sharing her colleague’s fate by virtue of (apparently) greater dexterity, and instead darted around it. She was aiming for me, but she did not get far. It was as though she ran into an invisible wall, or was grabbed by a pair of invisible hands, for she came to an abrupt stop and was left straining uselessly at thin air.

‘What are these?’ said Dio dispassionately, as though these new visitors did not even qualify as human.

‘Ancestria Magicka,’ I said with a bright smile. ‘Come to dig out your bones, Dio, and take you away to Ashdown Castle. Isn’t that right? And John, too! You will have a fine new home, with a great deal more space to rattle around in.’

‘And a much, much bigger building to haul about,’ added Zareen silkily. ‘Like turnips.’

‘Lots of turnips,’ I added.

Katalin stopped striving to get past Dio’s obstruction, and instead bent to help George Mercer to his feet. He had cut his lip on something on his way down, and looked fiercely angry. ‘You cannot know what an advantage it is to you,’ she said. ‘Your House, I mean. To achieve something of the same must be a primary goal of my organisation.’

‘We do know it,’ Zareen replied. ‘And the likes of Greyer and Wester are not going to get you anything like the same effect.’

‘Setting aside minor issues such as the ethics of the whole thing, or lack thereof,’ I amended.

‘Right. There is also that.’

‘An approximation will suffice, if it must,’ said Mercer.

He did not add that a teleporting castle would have its own benefits, of which we could know nothing. For all our dear House’s many talents, perambulating about under its own power isn’t one of them.

Wester, however, was not quite pleased with the notion. ‘A castle?!’ he bawled. ‘Never! I refuse!’

‘Why don’t we all go and have a look?’ said Katalin peaceably. ‘You may find that you like Ashdown. And, Mr. Wester, you will not be unaided.’

That was interesting — and horrifying. How many dead Waymasters did they propose to dig up?

… or kill? Their eagerness to recruit Jay suddenly began to look sinister, and I found myself inching nearer to him.

The same idea had occurred to him, too, judging from the appalled look on his face.

Katalin smiled at him, rather kindly. ‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘Living Waymasters are much more useful.’

‘Reassuring,’ muttered Jay. ‘Thanks.’

Wester may not approve, but to Dio, the idea of Ashdown held some appeal. ‘A castle,’ she purred. ‘I was made to be a grand lady.’

‘Weren’t we all,’ I said, sotto voce.

‘I have fine manners,’ she continued. ‘And all the graces.’

‘I do not!’ bellowed Wester.

‘Thou wilt keep shut thy mouth, John!’ Dio snapped. ‘And do as thou art bid!’

Whatever it was that Dio did to give emphasis to her words, it could not be felt by the living save, perhaps, as a waft of freezing wind that raised the goosebumps on my skin. But that it hurt the dead was indubitable, for Wester gave a great, tearing scream, and began to babble helplessly.

‘To Ashdown,’ purred Dio. ‘The castle. And quickly, my John.’