In my room at Home, I’ve got a little stash of Curiosities, minor artefacts, and assorted odds and ends. Some of them are useful, some of them aren’t. Probably my favourite of the latter category is a beautiful old scroll, the real kind, made of vellum and with rowan-wood supports. It even has a tooled-leather case. It’s paired with a quill pen — owl feather, not goose! Both are enchanted, so that anything I might choose to write upon mine will appear at once upon the matching scrolls of some other member (or members) of the Society. They used to be standard issue, but they had stopped handing them out by the time I joined. I once found a whole, sorry stack of them in Stores, and took pity on this set because… because they’re pretty.
What can I say.
The reason for their obsolescence, of course, is the mobile phone. When we all wander about with smartphones surgically attached to our wrists, who needs quills and scrolls anymore? A sad casualty of cruel, inexorable time.
But, I have to admit, a fair one. For when, a few hours later, my own personal scroll-killer buzzed and began to play Sussudio, it got my attention at once, and within two minutes I was rattling back down to Research and Zareen’s broom-cupboard of a room.
Zareen opened the door right away. ‘You’re going to like this,’ she said, grinning and ushering me inside.
I eyed the book with misgivings. It lay quiescent upon the desk, quiet as a proverbial church mouse, but I didn’t trust it. ‘I rather doubt that.’
‘Oh, don’t worry. It’s much nicer now.’
‘It is? What did you do to it?’
Zareen wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘Uh, just some minor tweaks. Never mind that. What do you think I found inside?’
‘You’ve read it!’
‘Sort of. There isn’t much to read, as it turns out. Only a few pages have been used. It looks like a journal, used to record somebody’s progress upon some kind of journey. The destination’s unclear — at least, it was at first.’
Zareen was bursting with news, and very smug about it too. I didn’t want to stop her, but I had to ask: ‘Wait, where’s Jay?’
‘No idea. Anyway, the—’
‘Stop right there.’ I grabbed my phone and called Jay, ignoring Zareen’s eye-rolling disgust. ‘Toil and Trouble,’ I told Jay when he answered. ‘All due haste.’
‘Be right there.’
I put my phone away. ‘It’s Jay’s book,’ I said. ‘And I’m his… mentor, I suppose. Can’t leave him out.’
Zareen waited with an exaggerated display of patience.
‘What’s the problem with you two, anyway?’
‘Oh, nothing really. I think he’s a prude and a stick-in-the-mud and he thinks I’m reckless and irresponsible.’ She gave me a half-smile. ‘Just squabbles, Ves. Don’t worry about it.’
Me, worry? I wanted to disclaim this charge at once, until I realised I was wearing my worried face. I hastily smoothed out my features and adopted an air of proper unconcern. ‘I feel responsible for him,’ I said by way of explanation.
‘I don’t think you need to be. I’ll say this for him: he’s far from stupid, and he’ll always be okay.’
‘Mm.’ I was convinced — sort of.
Zareen looked at me shrewdly. ‘He feels responsible for you, too, I think.’
Zareen grinned. ‘Surprised? He was given the job of making sure we don’t lose you somewhere.’
‘Making sure I don’t lose myself somewhere, you mean? Fair.’
‘No easy task.’
I couldn’t argue with this judgement, since it was true. Thankfully for my dignity, Jay showed up just then. He was polite enough to greet Zareen with a nod, and looked at me. ‘What’s the news?’
‘Your moment’s arrived,’ I said to Zareen. ‘We’re ready to be impressed!’
Zareen leaned back in her chair, put her booted feet up on her desk and said, ‘It’s a treasure map.’
‘What?’ said Jay. ‘Bill?’
‘Sort of. The book, as I’ve just said to Ves, contains a somewhat wandering and confused account of somebody’s journey in search of something unidentified, to places unspecified — not at all edifying, and so poorly written I can’t even decipher all of it. Only the first few pages have been written on — and one page at the back, which contains a sketch.’
‘A map!’ I said.
Zareen nodded, grinning. ‘It’s got an X-marks-the-spot and everything.’ She displayed for us a piece of notepaper, upon which she had apparently copied the map in red pen. Her X in the middle was huge and exuberant, marked in bold.
‘How do we know it’s a treasure map?’ said Jay, prosaically.
I sighed. ‘Ancient maps with an X marked somewhere upon them are always treasure maps.’
Zareen nodded. ‘That, and there’s an obscure reference on the third page to a bounty of some kind. There’s no description as to what manner of treasure the writer was after, but he obviously expected to discover some grand prize.’
‘Any idea as to the identity of the writer?’ I asked.
‘Did you ask Bill?’ said Jay.
‘I tried. He wouldn’t stop insulting me long enough to answer my questions.’
Jay and I both looked in silence at the book. It hadn’t spoken a word since I’d entered the room, fully quarter of an hour before. ‘I’m curious,’ said Jay. ‘How did you shut it up?’
Zareen shifted in her seat, and avoided Jay’s eye. And mine. ‘Er, I haven’t. He’s just a bit less noisy now.’
I considered pressing the matter — Zareen was obviously skirting around the edges of something — but on reflection I let it pass. Sometimes it’s best to circle around the point. So I said: ‘What’s the likelihood that Bill, or wherever that voice is coming from, is the same person who wrote the journal entries and sketched the map?’
‘You mean, is this a haunting? I don’t think so. When he wasn’t insulting me, he was protesting against the very idea that he’d write such uncouth nonsense, or hare around searching for treasure just because somebody drew a map. Whatever became of the writer, I don’t think it’s Bill. And I’m not convinced that the book’s haunted by anybody else, either, for he’s showed no signs of having any kind of history that he can remember, and ghosts can usually talk about little else. You’ll want to interrogate him a bit more yourself, see if you can’t get more out of him.’
I reached for the book.
‘Later,’ added Zareen hastily.
I sat back again. ‘So it’s not a haunting. A curse, then?’
‘Could be, but it’s the oddest curse I’ve ever come across if so. Yes, he was keeping idle hands from opening the book and thereby keeping anybody from reading it, but it’s a clumsy form of protection. It didn’t take much to get around that problem.’
Zareen indicated a pair of heavy marble paperweights upon her desk. ‘It took a few tries, but I peaced it and put weights upon its pages. Bill went off for a nice little nap, and when he woke up it was too late to take up snapping at my fingers again.’ She paused and added reflectively, ‘He took it rather well, all things considered, which again leads me to think that he isn’t there to deter people from reading it. He’s just a bad-tempered grouch.’
‘But if he’s not a ghost or a curse, what is he?’
‘A spell,’ said Zareen with a shrug. ‘Though I grant you, it’s a sophisticated enchantment, and more complex than anything I’ve ever met with before. Quite intimidating, even. But considering where you got the thing, I shouldn’t be surprised.’
I took it from this that Zareen had no more idea what the spell was intended to accomplish than I did. And how intriguing a puzzle. A complicated enchantment which had gifted an (apparently) ordinary book with sentience — and an extraordinarily foul vocabulary? One which had, considering the nature of that vocabulary, been placed upon the book some four or five hundred years ago? And one which, for all its sophistication, Zareen had managed to get around with quite a simple charm?
Very curious indeed.
‘If someone was going to go to all that trouble,’ said Jay, ‘I wonder why they didn’t make it more… polite.’
‘A good question.’
I couldn’t help but be tickled by the idea. ‘That’s a sense of humour I can appreciate.’
Zareen grinned. ‘It doesn’t quite fit with the legends of old Farringale, though, does it? The royal court, a place of learning and high art, blah blah.’
‘You’d expect it to express itself in the courtliest language, and with perfect etiquette.’
Zareen looked shifty again. ‘Er, yes. You would.’
‘So the map,’ said Jay, and leaned over the book to get a closer look at it. ‘Where does it lead to?’
Zareen pushed her sketch nearer. ‘Might want to consult Val. There’s only one word on it, and when I did a search I didn’t get any hits.’
‘Drogryre,’ read Jay.
‘No hits at all?’ I repeated, incredulous.
‘Not one. So this place is—’
‘—even more lost to the mists of time than Farringale,’ I finished.
‘Or just an extremely well-kept secret,’ suggested Jay. He picked up the map and stuck it in his pocket, then made to collect the book, too.
Zareen stopped him. ‘Where are you going with those?’
‘To find Drogryre. Isn’t that what we do next?’
‘Give the book to Ves.’
This requirement made as much sense to me as it did to Jay, who looked irritated. But he complied, stepping back to make room for me.
I picked up the book very carefully, still expecting it to hurl abuse at me. But it remained blissfully quiet.
‘Don’t open it until you get to the library,’ Zareen recommended, and seemed in a hurry to usher us out.
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘It’s asleep right now.’
‘What do you mean by—’ I began, but the door was already closing behind us.
‘Bring me back something with bones!’ yelled Zareen through the door as we walked away.
‘There’s something fishy about all that,’ said Jay.
I had to agree. We made it halfway back to the library before curiosity overcame the both of us. ‘I have to open it,’ I said.
‘Go on,’ said Jay.
We stopped in an alcove beneath a big, bright window and I took hold of the front cover. ‘Here we go.’
To my relief, the book suffered itself to be opened without trying to bite my fingers; without even snapping itself shut again. Nor did it drown me in a barrage of abuse.
But it did speak.
‘Madam,’ said the book. ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’
I slammed the book shut again.
Silence. Then Jay said, in a strangled voice, ‘Is Bill quoting Pride and Prejudice?’
‘Dear Jay,’ I said faintly. ‘I could not be more impressed with your familiarity with the utterances of Mr. Darcy, I assure you.’
‘Why is it coming out of this book?’ said Jay, ignoring my implied question with superb grace.
Gingerly, I opened it up again. And there, on the first unused page, was the whole of Mr. Darcy’s ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, written out in Zareen’s rounded handwriting.
‘Val,’ I said slowly, ‘is going to kill all of us.’
‘Probably with a dessert spoon.’