Toil and Trouble: 11

I tensed, trying to keep Indira behind me while I kept a close watch on the two Ancestria Magicka agents. Would they spot us? Melissa’s plan of serving as decoy had been put to an unexpectedly early test.

They did not. Something caught Mercer’s attention; his eyes shifted briefly in our direction, and a faint frown flitted across his face. But Melissa spoke up just then, and his attention returned to her.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘So we know that, officially, you had nothing to do with the disappearance of Jay Patel and the book he found at Farringale. But unofficially, we all know that’s rubbish. We come to offer a bargain. Keep the book. Return Jay.’

Katalin smiled. ‘And if Mr. Patel does not wish to return to the Society?’

Mercer said, at the same time, ‘You propose to do what to us, exactly, if we do not agree?’

They needed a lesson or two in negotiation, I thought privately. Typically it would be more productive to pursue only one line of argument at a time; two would confuse the issue and weaken the impact of both. But perhaps they had not been working together long.

Lucky that I had often had cause to test my concealment charms before. I know them to be virtually foolproof. I walked nonchalantly past Pataki and Mercer, drawing Indira with me. She looked far more concerned by the situation than I felt; she crept past them, oh-so-carefully, casting frequent nervous glances in their direction. I tried to reassure her by patting her on the arm, but I do not think my gesture was much heeded.

She relaxed a bit once we were safely past, and had covered a distance of some thirty feet or so. We were rapidly drawing up to the castle by then, and I was engaged in searching for the nearest and most convenient way in.

Indira gave a tiny sigh of relief.

‘We were in no danger,’ I told her.

‘No danger? We were practically standing on their toes!’

‘No danger whatsoever.’

Indira frowned. ‘What did she mean about Jay’s not wanting to return to us?’

‘She was trying to manipulate Melissa, that’s all. Obviously they would like to keep both Jay and the book, and without our making too much trouble for them over either.’

‘I don’t think they can care all that much about our making trouble. This seems like an obvious challenge to the Society.’

‘Not quite, as they’ve officially denied it from the beginning. It’s a gambit, a throw of the dice to see what happens. It isn’t a declaration of war, yet.’

‘Yet?’

‘That will probably come in time.’ We were prowling around the base of the turret by that time, and I’d spied a way in.

Good points: the door was not barred or padlocked and a cautious probe of its magickal defences revealed nothing I did not feel able to handle with the help of my spangled Wand.

Bad points: Historic buildings have a way of being odd, whimsical and downright contrary sometimes, and this one was a prime example. There was a door in the tower, but it was inexplicably situated halfway up the building. There were no stairs leading up to it, nor any sign that there had ever been any.

‘Hm,’ I said. I wished for a second that I had brought my Chair with me. I, like everyone else, have a flying specimen; Val and I had both gone for tall, wing-backed chairs with comfortably padded seats, high-rising armrests and plush velvet upholstery. Hers is in green, mine’s burgundy. With my Chair, we could whizz up to the door in no time; in fact we could go all the way up to the window, and skip the door entirely.

Of course, I would have had to travel the entire distance by Chair, for there’s no way I could ever fit it in my Mini. And two hours by Chair in uncertain April weather is nobody’s idea of a good time. Not now that there are cars.

So, no Chair. We would have to do it the tiring way.

‘How far has your education progressed?’ I asked Indira.

‘My magickal education? Um, the… the usual?’ She looked at me uncertainly.

‘More specifically, can you levitate?’

‘Oh! Yes.’ Indira proved this by instantly levitating herself up to a distance of about two feet from the ground, smiling at me in that hopeful, shy way she has, like a puppy wishing for praise.

‘Er,’ I said. ‘Yes, that’s very good.’ It was more than good. Levitation is one of the more difficult arts; some otherwise very powerful magickers at the Society cannot manage it at all. Even one such as yours truly, among the finer practitioners of levitation at Home, can do it only with difficulty, and I have never managed to levitate myself more than about ten feet up without serious strain.

Indira levitated in the same way she breathed: effortlessly. And she hovered there, two feet up, with no visible sign that she was tiring at all. She looked like she could sail up ten feet and more still with similar ease, and I suppressed just the faintest, unworthy tinge of jealousy.

She will be the best of us, Jay had said, and I could see what he meant.

I took a deep breath.

‘Right,’ I said decisively. ‘We’re going to levitate to the door.’ Which, happily, looked to be only eight or nine feet up; I might manage to accomplish the business without embarrassing myself. ‘I will take care of its defences and then we’ll go in and get Jay. He’s still in there?’

Indira nodded. ‘Probably in the top— oh, no. Wait a moment.’ She frowned and consulted her book of Jay’s charms again. ‘He’s moved a bit, he’s— oh! He’s coming down.’

The door swung open above our heads, and Jay appeared. ‘Hi,’ he said, and then dropped down to land beside us with the grace of a panther.

I eyed him with some displeasure. ‘Hi? That’s it?’

‘Hail, fair rescuers,’ Jay said, with a smile for me. ‘I am full honoured by your braving the dangers of Ashdown in order to retrieve me… oh, wait. You are here for me? You aren’t just here for the book?’

I waited for him to explode at me over Indira’s presence, but he greeted her with a swift peck on the cheek and a brotherly pat of approval, and showed no signs of displeasure.

I felt, once again, that I had not quite got the measure of Jay.

‘We’re here for both,’ I said, and Jay made a show of wiping his brow in relief. ‘Do you have the book?’

‘No, but I know where it is. Come on.’ Jay led the way around the turret and on, presumably leading us to some other entrance. Mindful of threats and bristling with caution, Indira and I followed.

Indira put Jay’s charm book into her brother’s hand, and he tucked it away with a smile of thanks. ‘I knew you’d figure that out,’ he told her.

She gave that shy smile. ‘How did you know we were here?’

‘Because Ves shines like a bloody beacon.’

I blanched. ‘Er. I do?’

‘Yes, but don’t worry. Anyone who didn’t know you would just think that a small sun had popped by for a visit.’

‘Reassuring.’ I wasted a little time trying to decide what Jay meant, exactly; it’s never been mentioned before. But probably it had something to do with my being unusually, er, amplified by the Sunstone Wand, and anyway, the more important question was: had Pataki and Mercer observed the same thing, and pretended not to notice?

‘We might want to be careful, then,’ I said. ‘They probably know we are here.’ I wrestled with the Wand a bit, hopeful of diminishing my beacon-ness by a shade or two.

Jay dampened me with a wave of his hand. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that; I felt quenched, like he had thrown a bucket of water over me. Then I understood what he had meant: I had been positively ablaze with magick, and had not even noticed.

‘Were you angry, by chance?’ Jay said to me.

‘Of course I was angry! They thieved Bill and kidnapped you!’

‘They certainly did thieve Bill, which was disgraceful and nothing can exonerate them from that piece of infamy. But they did not kidnap me, precisely.’

‘They didn’t?’

‘They offered me a job.’

I blinked. ‘And?’

‘And I accepted.’

Indira gasped. I stifled an impulse to kick him somewhere painful.

Jay laughed. ‘Only temporarily. What better way to get a look around their HQ than to walk in here as a new recruit? And I wanted a shot at getting Bill back.’

‘So they just let you walk in here?’

‘Sort of. I’ve been under close supervision, and they have as yet withheld all privileges.’

I looked around. ‘You are remarkably alone for a man under close supervision.’

‘Well, when I saw you two on the approach I knew it was time to end the charade. I ditched my supervisor and broke out of the tower.’

Indira clutched at her brother’s arm, probably experiencing feelings of knee-weakening relief.

I was experiencing feelings more like incandescent rage.

‘You’re blazing again, Ves,’ said Jay, and I again had to suffer the quenching sensation. It is not especially pleasant.

‘I would not blaze if you wouldn’t keep making me angry,’ I said tightly.

He stopped, and looked at me in genuine surprise. ‘How did I do that?’

I controlled myself with an effort. ‘You let us imagine you kidnapped.’

‘I thought you would realise what I was up to.’

How was I supposed to realise that?!

‘Um.’ Jay looked at his sister. ‘Right. I see. I’m sorry.’

Indira looked at the floor.

I took a slow breath, and let go of my need to punch him. Not without some regret. ‘Another time, could you possibly get word to me about your wily plans?’

‘I can try. I didn’t have a phone, of course, and nobody would let me borrow one for some reason.’

For some reason. Are you sure they believed your show of willingness to jump ships?’

‘I don’t see why not.’ Jay began walking again. ‘They asked me what the Society was paying me, then offered me ten times that.’

TEN TIMES?

Jay cast me a look of mild irritation. ‘Ves, if we are going to engage in any kind of stealth mission here you’re going to need to stop with the blazing.

Ten times. For goodness’ sake! The Society paid its staff as well as it could afford to, and if Jay’s salary was anything like mine (and it would be, considering his Waymasterness) then he was by no means hard done to. Ten times more! Who could afford that?

I felt a faint twinge of nerves. ‘Er. You do actually intend to turn that down, right?’

Jay rolled his eyes. ‘Obviously.’

‘Obviously? Not many people would say no to that kind of money.’

‘I think you are doing “people” an injustice, but since I at least am not overburdened with avarice I think we can all stop worrying about that. Ah.’ Jay stopped before an apparently featureless patch of brick wall, and stared at it with palpable satisfaction. ‘Here we go.’ He spoke a word I did not understand, and one of the bricks glowed. He touched his fingers to the shiny brick, and the wall fell away.

‘Secret passwords?’ I said in disgust. ‘Really?’

Jay grinned. ‘These people are a bit old-school.’ He led the way through the not-wall, while Indira followed and I brought up the rear.

‘The irony of hearing the words old school uttered with such derision by a member of the Society for Magickal Heritage.’

‘Fair. Perhaps I meant staggeringly cliché, but I’m not complaining. My sojourn into espionage has borne fruit.’ He stopped talking and stopped walking at the same time, though we had not yet proceeded far into the castle. The door-in-the-wall had brought us, incongruously, into a muddy boot-room wherein many pairs of Wellingtons and assorted hiking boots were littered about. Beyond that was the kind of chilly, bleak hallway to be found in the servants’ quarters of any house of at least moderate size that saw use during the Victorian period. Jay stopped us before the typical green baize-covered door, the more or less soundproof kind that muffle all those undesirable noises that emanate from the service parts of the house. Perfectly insufferable to have to listen to the clamour of one’s dinner being cooked, isn’t it?

Only this one was not quite soundproof, because I could hear something coming from the other side. Someone was singing.

 

If you intend thus to disdain,

It does the more enrapture me,

And even so, I still remain

A lover in captivity.

 

The melody was familiar, and so was the voice.

‘Why,’ I whispered to Jay, ‘is Bill singing Greensleeves?’

‘Er.’ Cautiously, Jay pulled open the door an inch or so. The song immediately swelled in volume, as Bill launched full-throated into the chorus.

 

Greensleeves was all my joy!

Greensleeves was my delight!

Greensleeves was my heart of gold!

And who but my lady greensleeves!

 

‘Were you wearing green yesterday?’ Jay murmured.

‘With pink hair? Don’t be ridiculous.’

Jay swung the door open. Considering this decision I expected to find the room beyond empty except for Bill, but it was not.

We’d come out in what looked to be a tiny library, though the chamber was barely larger than the boot-room. The walls were crowded with bookcases fitted edge-to-edge, each crammed full of books. Bill lay enthroned in splendour upon a central table, open to display one of John Wester’s journal pages.

Seated before him and wearing a long-suffering expression was the kind of cardi-clad middle-aged lady you might expect to see serving dinner at a school cafeteria, or perhaps selling raffle tickets at a Women’s Institute fundraising drive. Whatever instant (and doubtless unfair) judgements one might make about such a person, the last thing I expected was that she would detect the sounds of Jay’s approach almost before it seemed possible, be out of her chair and facing us in about two seconds flat, and hurling hexes at us with the help of a pretty jade Wand.

Toil and Trouble: 10

The next couple of hours got pretty exciting.

Indira and I hurried through the House to Jay’s room. All the dorms are on the upper floors, and while there’s space set aside for families (Miranda and Orlando, for example, have a suite of rooms they share with their daughter), the singles amongst us are housed in separate wings: one for the ladies, one for the gents.

What can I say. No one will be surprised to hear that Milady can be old-fashioned.

I’d had a bit of trouble finding Jay’s room earlier in the day, and I wish I could say that the prior experience rendered it simple for me to find it again. It did not. I dithered and doubted and we wandered back and forth, but eventually found our way through the rabbit-warren of dormitories to the white-painted door which bore Jay’s name. I unlocked it with a touch and in we went.

Or, in I went. Indira hovered in the doorway, trying not to look at anything. She need not have scrupled. Jay has only been with us for a few weeks, so he has not yet had time to personalise his room very much. It looks more or less as it was issued: a plain, white-painted chamber with a comfyish bed, chest of drawers, wardrobe, window overlooking the grounds. There were no pictures anywhere, few possessions strewn about; little, in short, to incriminate the owner in any fashion that might trouble either his sister or himself.

‘He isn’t going to mind,’ I said to Indira, feeling mildly exasperated.

‘If he wanted me in here he would have given me access.’

It was hard to argue with that, so I didn’t try. I went straight to the jacket laid upon the bed and began a hasty riffle through its pockets; for all my stout words I would not feel entirely comfortable until I was safely on the right side of Jay’s door again.

I found the booklet, withdrew it with hands that only slightly trembled, and flipped it open.

There inside were neat rows of translucent jellyish circles, glinting with magic.

‘We’ve got them,’ I told Indira, who sagged with relief. I put the booklet directly into her hands as I withdrew, and locked the door again behind me.

‘Now what?’ I said.

‘I’ll take this to Development. They aren’t tuned to me, so they’ll have to be cracked, and I’m only just learning—’

‘Get it to Orlando.’

Indira blanched. ‘Orlando? But he’s—’

‘Dauntingly important, and eccentric to boot. I know. But he invented these things; nobody knows better than he how they work, and no one will get the job done faster. We have no time to waste.’

Indira looked ready to die of fright, but to her credit she mastered herself, and gave me what was probably meant to be an assured nod. ‘Right.’

‘I’d go with you,’ I said, relenting a bit. ‘But in this you have the advantage of me. I’m not allowed anywhere near Orlando’s lab.’

She gave a lopsided, scared-looking smile, as though the prospect of her own relative importance to mine alarmed more than appeased her. ‘Right,’ she said again.

Away she went.

I was a little puzzled by her serene manner of talking about cracking Jay’s tracking charms, but I was rapidly learning that Indira had a rather complicated sense of honour. Wresting the secrets from her brother’s utility spells in order to rescue him from dire peril was one thing; going into his room without permission in order to secure the charms in the first place was quite another.

I spared a brief thought to wonder what manner of relationship those two had enjoyed through childhood, and went off to rejoin Val.

 

About half an hour later, Indira was back. At a run.

The library was crowded, though surprisingly quiet for all that; everyone was variously intent upon their stacks of books, aged scrolls, or tab computers. Once in a while somebody went running for Val with some promising note, footnote, or anecdote, most of which were regretfully dismissed. Indira balked a moment at this vision of industrious humanity, but steeled herself far enough to make her way to the desk I had appropriated.

‘Ves!’ she said — very quietly, as though to be overheard by any of the people around me would be an unthinkable torment. ‘Sutton Weaver.’

‘What?’ I put aside the book I’d been flipping through — a sixteenth-century traveller’s journal wherein a woman called Alice Glover, engaged in jaunting through much of northern England, gave accounts of many of the great houses of the area, including some of those in Cheshire. I hadn’t yet found any references to Ashdown Castle.

‘Sutton Weaver,’ repeated Indira. ‘One of Jay’s tracking charms is there, or about two miles distant. It’s in—’

‘I warn you,’ I said, sitting up. ‘If you say “Cheshire” I may kiss you.’

‘Cheshire,’ whispered Indira, backing quickly away.

I held up my hands. ‘I didn’t mean it.’

‘Oh…’ She collected herself. ‘Um, Orlando’s sent someone to Milady with the news.’

‘Right. Let’s go see Val.’

Val had Jay’s location pinpointed within minutes. ‘That,’ she said with a scholar’s relish, ‘is Ashdown Castle.’

I felt elated, and also indignant. Milady’s “diplomatic” measures had, as expected, achieved nothing; Ancestria Magicka emphatically denied having had anything to do with the disappearance of either Jay or Bill. They had even been so insulting as to commiserate with us on the loss of two such recent acquisitions (and to refer to Jay as an acquisition made me mad as fire). And they’d stashed him after all!

Val caught the look on my face. ‘Remember, none of this is evidence.’

‘I know. Just a series of incredible coincidences.’

‘Yes.’

‘You don’t believe there’s another explanation any more than I do.’

‘Nope.’

I looked at Indira. ‘Good job. Thank you.’

She blushed a shade or two darker. ‘Um.’

I didn’t wait for her to squirrel up some words. I was off to Milady, with the feeling that if she did not authorise an immediate expedition to pick up Jay, well, I was going anyway.

Val made me stop. ‘Ves, Ashdown Castle won’t be easy to find. It hasn’t been marked on any map since the 1530s. It will be behind layers of spells for concealment, confusion, misdirection, everything.’

‘I realise.’

‘Much like this House.’

‘What’s your point?’

‘How long did it take you to find us, when you first arrived?’

Two days, even with instructions. I did not want to have to say that out loud, not in front of Indira.

Val gave me a meaningful look. ‘You’ll need help. Don’t bomb out of here in such a hurry that you forget that.’

I saluted, with only the mildest irony. She was, after all, quite right. ‘Thanks, Val.’

 

Half an hour later, we were on the road. We consisted of me and Rob, travelling in my car (I own a Mini, the Countryman sort. Blue. Yes, it’s very beautiful). Ahead of us was a second car conveying Indira, and Melissa from Acquisitions. Indira had Jay’s charm-book on hand, its secrets now fully in her control courtesy of Orlando. Melissa is something of an expert in what we shall give the civilised name of infiltration. No concealment spells can long stand up to her.

Milady was as supportive of our immediate departure as I could wish, though she did ask one or two inconvenient questions.

‘What will you do once you locate the castle?’

‘Something fiendishly clever and more than a little heroic.’

‘Please answer more sensibly, Ves. This is serious.’

‘I know that. I have no answer to make. I don’t know what we’ll do when we get there; it’s my job, and Rob’s, to figure that out. Which is a more petrifying prospect today than it has ever been before.’

‘I have no doubt you are both fully equal to the challenge.’

‘Thank you. Are you sure it is wise to take Indira?’

‘No, but she appears to have the knack of locating her brother.’

‘Melissa could do that.’

‘Probably, but it would take time to make over that duty to her, and were you not desirous of an instant departure?’

‘Yes…’

‘What’s more, Indira begged hard to be included.’

‘Forgive me, ma’am, but you are not always so receptive to pleas.’

‘What would you do if I forbade you to go?’

‘Go anyway.’

‘Mm. Indira has not quite the same level of resolve, but until her brother is retrieved she will not have a moment’s peace.’

‘Very kind of you, Milady.’

‘Besides that, I am interested to see how she does in the field. The question of her future with the Society is not yet fully decided.’

That’s Milady for you: kindness wrapped in ruthless practicality, or maybe the other way around.

I suppose it’s necessary if you are in command of two hundred people.

I made no further objection, only hoping in private that I would not manage to lose shy, tremulous Indira the same way I’d mislaid her brother. If I did, Jay wouldn’t even have to kill me; I’d save him the trouble and immolate myself.

Focus, Ves. Act now, panic later.

We made the trip in under two hours, though it was difficult to know exactly when we had arrived. We drove through Sutton Weaver and out the other side, then performed a rough circle around it through a series of narrow, bumpy little roads. No castle appeared on the horizon to enliven the expense of green, flat fields.

Not a surprise, but not helpful either.

Rob dialled. ‘Mel,’ he said to his phone. ‘Needing a better plan.’ He listened for a minute, then shut it off. ‘Pull over somewhere,’ he said to me. ‘We’re on foot for the rest.’

I found a spot by the side of the road that seemed safe enough, and pulled my car as far over into the grassy verge as I dared (blessing my choice of a Countryman all the while). Out we got. Neither Mel nor Indira paused at all; they conferred briefly together, then set off into the field, leaving Rob and me to follow them.

If anything, Indira seemed to be leading the way. She had Jay’s location to work from, I supposed, which at least gave her a direction to head in. It would be down to Melissa to —

— well, for example, to wave a magick Wand and make a castle appear. Which she did.

I’ve oversimplified the process a little, to be sure. She certainly took up her Wand — a sparkling amethyst specimen I have occasionally eyed myself — but she did not flourish it about. She merely tapped it against her lip in a gesture more thoughtful than flamboyant, and bits of a castle rippled into view: a section of brown brick wall with a heavy timber door, and a glimpse of a moat.

The vision wavered like water, and vanished again.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Melissa, as though she had mislaid her keys and happened to come across them again. ‘There it is.’ She proceeded to do a bit of Wand-waving, but in an odd, graceless way: she poked at the air before her as though sticking pins in something, and then began to jab and slash. With each gesture more of the castle appeared; Melissa was tearing away the illusions which concealed it, like a dressmaker armed with a stout pair of scissors.

At length, the whole building was revealed: a fanciful structure despite the plain brown bricks, all sloping roofs and arched windows, its various wings and annexes piled higgledy-piggledy against one another. It was unusually large, but I spied at least one section which looked as though it had been added sometime after the castle’s original construction.

‘Jay is this way,’ said Indira, and pointed. She indicated a corner of the castle which boasted a splendid fairytale tower, round-walled, with a conical roof and a single long, arched window. Was Jay at the top? I made a mental note to be ready with sleeping beauty jokes, which could not fail to endear me to Jay.

We advanced, veering a little left in the direction of that corner turret.

I found this puzzling. Melissa and Indira seemed intent upon simply walking openly into Ashdown Castle, picking up Jay and Bill and (presumably) walking out again. ‘Er,’ I said after half a minute. ‘Should we not… I don’t know, skulk or something?’

‘I want to attract some attention,’ said Melissa.

‘Um. Why?’

‘Because in about twelve seconds, Rob and I will kick up a ruckus while you and Indira skulk into the castle and heroically extract Jay.’

‘Couldn’t we have talked about this before?’

‘I’ve only just decided it.’

I swallowed my irritation, which flared up all the more at the words I’ve decided. Who appointed Melissa Supreme Leader of our expedition anyway?! But since I could come up with no better plan, it did not behove me to complain.

Instead, I wielded my lovely spangled Sunstone Wand and wove some concealment charms of my own, first around myself and then around Indira. By the time I had finished, anyone glancing only cursorily at the spot I was standing in would see nothing; I’d made of myself a wisp of breeze, and Indira was an errant ray of sunlight.

Not a moment too soon, either, for about two minutes later a palpable shock rippled through the floor and pulsed in the air before us; we had hit the castle’s next layer of defence, a magickal field which repelled anyone not authorised to enter. We had exactly the same kind of thing set up at Home.

It is not easy to pass such a structure, but with a pair of Wands at our disposal, Melissa and I were well prepared. My Sunstone buzzed with magick; I tapped the tip of the Wand against Melissa’s and the power doubled. We turned them upon the repelling field before us and burned away a fair-sized hole. A warm wind billowed through from the other side.

‘Go,’ said Melissa tersely.

I went first, glancing back just once to see Rob standing poised a few feet behind me, legs braced, chin lifted: ready for anything.

I didn’t like to leave him or Melissa to take the heat for us, but it would not be fair of me to doubt their ability to deal with it. I hopped through the hole we’d made, pulling Indira after me — and almost died of fright to find Katalin Pataki and George Mercer not ten feet away from us.

 

Toil and Trouble: 9

‘They’re elusive,’ Val finally said. ‘Secretive to a fault, and yes, I am well aware of the irony of my calling them secretive when we are all employed by a woman whose sole identifiable presence consists of a disembodied voice and an old-fashioned mode of address. Nonetheless. Two days of digging and we don’t have much.

‘We know that Ancestria Magicka was formed last June, but we only know that because there was a brief press release about it in the Magickal Herald at the end of June. It described the organisation as “formed for the efficient, professional retrieval of artefacts of great cultural value” or something to that effect, and it puts a nice shine on what they do, but it didn’t take long for them to develop a reputation for the kind of efficiency that consists more of smash-and-grab thuggery than sleek professionalism.

‘We don’t know who founded it or how they are funded, except that the Hidden Ministry certainly has no involvement. They are fully independent, which means largely unmonitored. We’ve found the names of only a few of their operatives, including Katalin Pataki. Her regular partner is George Mercer, who is known to carry a Sardonyx Wand. He was almost certainly the man you and Jay encountered at Milton Keynes.

‘They’ve been recruiting aggressively. Milady revealed we have lost two prospective employees this year to superior offers from Ancestria Magicka. Considering the bidding war over Ms. Pataki, it’s clear that they are not at all strapped for cash.’

Unlike us, I thought. We do all right, but that’s about it, and we are more heavily reliant upon Ministry funding than Milady would like. They are so interfering, she had once complained to me, in an unusually forthcoming mood. With no such ties and no shortage of resources, Ancestria Magicka was in an enviable position indeed.

‘Their goals remain unclear,’ Val continued. ‘They are rumoured to have secured at least two Great Treasures this year already, one at auction and one an original find, together with quite the list of lesser artefacts. But what they have done with them is anybody’s guess. Sold them? Stashed them? Anything claimed by Ancestria tends to disappear without trace.’

I gripped the desk. ‘Not Jay.’

‘This is the first I have heard of their absconding with a person. Crude as their methods are reported to be, they are not known for brutality. I imagine it likely that they have a clear purpose in mind for Jay.’

‘Like ransom?’

‘Unlikely. They do not need money, and while the Society is known to be in possession of some few Treasures ourselves, there are plenty still out in the world for them to pursue first, with greater ease and lesser risk. And why take only Jay, if all they wanted was a hostage? Why not you? You are a senior acquisitions specialist with quite the reputation outside the Society. They might well imagine your abduction would inspire a comfortable spirit of co-operation in Milady.’

I wondered if it would. Trying to mentally calculate one’s own probable value to one’s employers is a grisly business, however, so I soon abandoned the project.

I felt a little reassured by Val’s logic, but it did not escape me that her recital had not yet included anything that might help us to find Jay. ‘Where do they hide out?’ I asked.

‘Exactly.’

‘Exactly?’

‘I’ve spent all day on that very question, and I’ve had four other people on it, too. So’s Nell. Ancestria Magicka has a pretty major internet presence, as it turns out; far more than we do. A slick, lovely website promoting their services in the best possible light, and carefully couched in terms that would not too much alarm any non-magicker who happened upon it. Nell’s got a couple of people working on it, but without much progress. The website’s registered to a shoe shop in Wolverhampton.’

‘A shoe shop?’

‘Currently specialises in orthopaedic shoes. Family business, established 1969.’

I put my head in my hands. ‘Have you got anything useful at all?’

‘Just one thing. Maybe.’

‘A maybe thing.’

Val nodded. ‘A year ago last February, a strange case came up in the property market: Ashdown Castle in Cheshire was suddenly sold. A fifteenth-century mansion with strong magickal connections ought not to have gone ownerless for very long, but the place was in a state of such near-total ruin that it was essentially valueless. I was surprised to hear of its sale, and even more surprised to learn that — by rumour at least — the sale price ran into the millions. The old place has some attractive heritage, to be sure; it’s supposed to have been built by the Beaumonts, one of the most prominent magickal families of medieval England, and as with all such places it’s said to be littered with history, old magick and secrets. But to pay several million for a ruin?’

‘You think Ancestria Magicka bought it?’

‘The idea occurred to me. They’d need a base of operations, and what better site for a group even more obsessed with all things old, obscure and priceless than we are? I thought little of the matter at the time, but I put it in my Mysteries folder and I dug it up this morning.’ Val paused, perhaps for effect. ‘There’s little to be found about its new owners, which immediately made me more suspicious. All I could find was a name, or half a name — Becket. And guess who shares that surname?’

‘Wha… oh. The shoe-sellers of Wolverhampton?’

‘The same! Before you ask: no, I do not think that family has anything to do with it. They’re squarely non-magickal, and characterised by the kind of dull respectability that absolutely precludes the possibility of such interesting shenanigans. I do think that our friends at Ancestria are going to extraordinary lengths to maintain secrecy about their doings, though, and they’re probably using a few such unremarkable names and addresses as a blind.’

‘It’s thin,’ I said.

‘I know. But it’s worth investigating.’

I nodded, distracted. Somebody had walked past our hideaway four times in the space of five minutes, back and forth, back and forth. A slim, shortish figure I recognised, moving at speed, her dark hair swinging.

‘What’s Indira doing?’ I said, frowning.

‘Looking for something,’ murmured Val, and dissolved the protective charm around the carrel with a flick of her fingers.

I set off after Indira. I found her soon enough, for she was coming back my way yet again. She stopped when she saw me and gave me a wide-eyed stare.

‘Hello,’ I said cordially.

‘I was looking for you,’ said Indira.

‘Here I am. What can I do for you?’ I was trying to be as approachable as possible, and hoping I was not coming off as patronising. It was obviously too late to break the news of her brother’s disappearance; her manner proclaimed she was already well informed.

Indira has the air of a schoolgirl as well as the appearance of one. She has been impeccably dressed every time I have seen her, but with none of Jay’s flair. She wears neat, plain blouses and skirts, her hair always tied up into a perfect, severe ponytail. Her manner is self-contained and withdrawn; I might have called her reserved, if I didn’t know she was shy. She looks as though she never knowingly puts a foot wrong, and wouldn’t dream of doing so either, which makes the arm-sling an incongruous addition to her wardrobe.

I wondered what kind of person was hiding behind all that conscientious, slightly desperate perfection.

Indira put a phone into my hands. ‘Jay’s tracking charm is missing.’

I knew it for Jay’s phone at once. Not because there was anything distinctive about it, as such; the latest iPhone, plain black case, the same thing at least fifty Society employees probably carried (Indira included). I knew it for Jay’s because I had, only the week before, rather wickedly adorned it with a sparkly green butterfly sticker on the top left corner. For some reason, he’d left it there.

There was certainly no sign of a tracking charm anywhere on it. ‘Does he always use them?’

Indira managed a tiny smile. ‘He’s always losing things. He was like that from a child. When he arrived here he got a whole batch of tracker-patches from Development and stuck them on everything he owns. I know, because he gave the leftovers to me.’

‘He couldn’t have just forgotten to put one on his phone?’

‘No chance. The two items Jay loses the most often are his phone and his keys. They’re the first things he would put trackers on.’

My hopes leapt for a second, until I remembered that Jay’s keys had been in his jacket pocket, which was even now lying forlornly upon the bed in his empty room. ‘Perhaps it fell off?’ I suggested.

‘They don’t fall off.’

Indira spoke with certainty, and I had no power of arguing with her. Not being prone to misplacing my stuff, I have rarely had occasion to use them. ‘You have some theory, I think?’

Indira hesitated. ‘I think… he must have removed it deliberately. And if he did that, he has probably taken it with him.’

My mind raced, and came up blank. ‘I don’t know how they work. What do you do to locate the charm, if you have lost the object it’s guarding?’

‘They come in pairs. You keep one somewhere safe, and put its pair on whatever you want to keep track of. Then you can use one to lead you to the other. Jay’s got an entire book of them.’

I began to feel the kind of wild, surging hope that tends to end in crashing disappointment, and did my best to contain it. ‘Do you know where the book is?’

‘No. That’s why I came to you.’

‘Forgive me, but you must know your brother far better than I.’

Indira’s awkwardness manifestly tripled. She looked at her feet. ‘I, um… cannot get into his room.’

Uh.

A vision of myself only an hour past drifted through my head. I had casually infiltrated Jay’s room — skulked my way inside, in fact, since it did feel weird to be in there uninvited, and when Jay was absent. Feeling guiltily like an interloper, I’d placed his jacket and his other bits and pieces onto his bed and immediately fled. It had never occurred to me that he might have sealed off his room to everybody but me.

I could imagine well enough why he would keep that space private from a sister who had to be a least a decade his junior, however close they appeared to be. Why he would grant free access to me was a different problem, one I had no answer to whatsoever.

‘He speaks highly of you,’ said Indira to the floor.

Oh. ‘Goodness, we aren’t — it isn’t like—’

‘Oh, I know!’ Indira hastily interjected, and with a degree of horror I could only find slightly insulting. ‘I would never think that! I only meant that he trusts you.’

I let all of this pass; we were wasting time. ‘Come on,’ I said, and led the way smartly back to the main stairs. I had paid little close attention to all the flotsam and jetsam in Jay’s pockets when I had made my frantic search before; I had been looking for a stray tracker-patch like the one Jay had found in the book, and nothing else had appeared relevant at the time. But I vaguely recalled the presence of a little booklet of some kind; I had probably mentally passed it off as a pocket notebook, however unnecessary such an accessory might be to a man with a smartphone. But that booklet, I was now willing to hope, contained all of Jay’s paired tracking charms.

Toil and Trouble: 8

I ran downstairs.

The landlady only confirmed my worst fears: she had seen nothing of Jay all morning, not a peep since yesterday evening. She had not heard anything in the night that might have sounded suspiciously like a break-in by magickal marauders; but then, neither had I. At dawn, Jay had been sleeping comfortably in front of a desultorily flickering television. A couple of hours later, he’d vanished.

I stood in Jay’s abandoned room, dithering like a ninny while my mind turned in confused circles. These are the moments in life when one would wish to be a picture of unflappable resolve, brimming with self-confidence and perfectly clear upon the best course of action. My brain would only consent to ask foolish questions. Where was Jay? No way to tell. Why had he gone? Well, he probably hadn’t stepped out for coffee without his jacket, wallet or keys.

Then Rob showed up.

I was informed of his presence when my landlady — a mild retiree with a taste for forties fashions — stood diffidently on the tiny landing outside our rooms and called: ‘Dear? There is a gentleman to see you.’

I thought first of Katalin’s mysterious sidekick, and marched downstairs with my Wand in my hand, ready to wrest Jay from him by hook or by crook. But of course, the man patiently awaiting me in the hall was Rob. He was looking extra forbidding: with his dark frame swathed in even darker clothes, no wonder my landlady had seemed a bit nervous. He looked like the riot police, or maybe an assassin.

‘No!’ I yelped when I saw him, and stopped, frozen, two-thirds of the way down the stairs. ‘Go away!’

‘Morning, Ves,’ said Rob, unperturbed. ‘Why?’

‘Because when I tell you what’s happened you’ll have to kill me.’

‘I might kill somebody,’ Rob allowed — not at all to the reassurance of my poor landlady, who was, at that moment, creeping past us into the safety of her living-room. ‘But never you. What’s the matter?’

‘I’ve lost the book.’ I sat down heavily upon the stairs and clutched at my hair, whose jaunty pink colour seemed quite inappropriate just then.

Rob didn’t move. ‘That is unfortunate.’

And I’ve lost Jay.’

That gave him greater pause. He blinked, uttered, ‘Ah,’ and fell silent.

‘Just make it quick,’ I pleaded. ‘I probably deserve to suffer, but I haven’t the courage.’

Rob came forward and extended a hand. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be hauled back to my feet. ‘Calm, Ves,’ he said, more kindly than I felt I deserved. ‘It isn’t your fault.’

‘Of course it is! If I wasn’t responsible for keeping them safe then who was?’

‘Jay is not helpless.’

‘He’s never been sent out by himself yet. I’m here because I’m supposed to be competent. Milady said I could be relied upon to handle any “difficulties” that “might happen to arise”! And I haven’t! I was asleep, and Jay was hauled off like a sack of potatoes!’

‘Not necessarily.’

‘What do you mean, not necessarily? That is clearly the case.’

Rob made no reply, exactly. He only said, ‘Jay is clever,’ which did not appear to relate to anything. ‘Tell me what’s happened.’

I brought him up to speed with as much detail as I could manage, finishing with, ‘I don’t even know how they found us in this wretched—’ I broke off as a horrible idea occurred to me. I did not pause to explain; I merely turned and high-tailed it back up the stairs.

Jay’s jacket. I all but tore it off the bedpost and rummaged through the pockets. Lots of detritus came out; I have too much respect for Jay’s dignity to describe every article of it.

And there. At the bottom of his left pocket, hidden under a crumpled-up handkerchief, was a tiny round sparkling thing: one of Orlando’s tracker charms.

Crap.

Rob had come in behind me. I handed it off to him without another word, and began to pace. How had it failed to occur to me to check Jay’s clothes? Or my own! If someone had got close enough to Bill to stick a tracking-charm on him, it wasn’t so far-fetched to imagine that the same someone might have done something similar to Jay. According to the news, at least, he was both the discoverer and the keeper of the precious book.

I engaged in a hasty scout of my own attire, courtesy of my lovely spangled Sunstone. It was a rather menial duty for such a magnificent heirloom, but the Wand was remarkably effective at detecting magick. I came up with nothing, or nothing besides the usual: the charmed ring I wear that adjusts the colour of my hair, the spell that keeps ladders from forming in my tights, that kind of thing. No trackers.

‘I suppose they only wanted Jay,’ I said, stashing the Wand.

‘I wonder why.’ Rob had gone quiet and tense in that focused way he has, and was examining the contents of Jay’s abandoned room like a police detective. He called somebody. ‘We have a mole at Home,’ he said into it, tersely. ‘Someone got a tracker-charm onto Jay, as well as the book, and they’re both missing. Vesper’s unharmed. Tell Milady.’

I began to feel calmer. Rob has that effect: he’s completely unflappable.

So am I, usually, or at least more so. But I’d never lost a priceless artefact and a protégé in one day before.

‘Where is the nearest henge?’ said Rob next.

I caught his train of thought at once. ‘Yes! They’d want to whisk off right away, wouldn’t they? The easiest thing would probably be to go back to Milton Keynes.’ I could not say this with any great certainty; I am after all legendary for my inability to find my way around.

Rob delicately refrained from saying this, though he did take the precaution of checking my theory on his phone. ‘Milton Keynes it is,’ he said, and fell to gathering up Jay’s things. ‘Let’s go.’

 

I whistled up Addie again, and one of her friends, too — a sturdy stallion Rob’s ridden before. We made the trip back to Milton Keynes’ shiny new henge in record time, but we were still too late. The hilltop was a grey, empty space, an overcast morning and my disappointed hopes combining to render it a desolate scene.

We waited a full hour, just in case we had somehow managed to beat Jay’s abductors to the site. But nobody came.

Rob was on his phone for a fair bit of this time, conveying the news to, and receiving advice from, various members of the Society. At length — bored, probably, of watching me hop anxiously about the hilltop like a rabbit on speed — he collected me up and escorted me kindly down the hill again. ‘We’re going Home,’ he said, a shade grimly.

‘How?’

‘The boring way. By train.’

‘What does Milady say?’

‘Nothing about the immediate evisceration of one Cordelia Vesper, if that’s what you mean.’

I heaved a small, inward sigh of relief. ‘And what else?’

‘Theories abound as to why Jay’s vanished with the book, and—’

‘Don’t say it like that,’ I begged, feeling compelled to interrupt. ‘You make it sound like Jay thieved the book and ran.’

‘Well, one or two people who dislike Jay are saying more or less that. But nobody who knows him would imagine it possible.’

‘Who could dislike Jay?!’

‘His unique skills put him in a powerful position, and power will always attract enemies.’

‘Haters,’ I muttered. I wondered suddenly whether Indira had heard the news. I hoped not, yet; much as I was at fault, I would rather tell her about her brother’s disappearance myself. That way, I could make sure she was all right. Wherever he was, Jay would be worrying something awful about her.

‘Milady’s had Val researching Ancestria Magicka for the past two days,’ Rob continued. ‘She’s now got the entire Research and Library Division on it, and has thrown them a lot of extra resources, to boot. She’s confident they will soon come up with something that will help us to help Jay.’

‘And Bill.’

‘And Bill, though Jay is the Society’s priority.’

I hoped this was because he’s brilliant rather than because he’s the first Waymaster we’ve had in nearly a decade.

‘Also,’ Rob added. ‘Val said: Tell Ves to stop fussing.’

‘Fussing?’

‘Running around like a headless chicken.’

‘I hope you told her that I am the very picture of cool composure, as always.’

Rob gave me a sideways look. ‘Why would I ever tell her anything else?’

I patted his arm. ‘I love you.’

‘I know.’

 

When we arrived Home a few hours later, we went straight up to Milady’s tower — the quick way. And by that I mean that House itself appeared to have got caught up in the sense of urgency Jay’s vanishment had caused and gave us a lift straight up to the top. We went from the entrance hall to Milady’s tower-top room in one step.

‘Thank you, House,’ I murmured. House and I have had a little conversation together before. I would not presume to call us friends, but we’ve been introduced, and one would never expect to sweep by an acquaintance unacknowledged.

‘It’s good to see you are well, Ves,’ Milady greeted me.

I curtsied. ‘I was in no danger, for they did not appear to want me.’

‘An interesting point to note, indeed. Thank you for fetching her back so promptly, Rob. What have you both to report?’

‘Nothing new,’ Rob answered. ‘We were not able to catch up with Katalin Pataki or her colleague, nor did we discover any clues as to Jay’s whereabouts.’

‘Is there any evidence that Pataki is behind the theft and kidnapping?’

‘No solid evidence, though considering the encounter Jay and Ves had with those two yesterday, it seems too obvious a conclusion to be discounted.’

‘I cannot disagree. Ves, I’d like you to go directly to Valerie, if you please. She may already have useful information to convey, and if not, your research skills will no doubt be wanted.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘An attempt to recover Jay, and also the book, must be made very soon. I have sent envoys to Ancestria Magicka already in hopes of securing Jay’s swift release by diplomatic means, if not the return of the book. But I cannot hold out much hope of its success; they are likely to meet only with a total denial of any involvement whatsoever. Therefore, our methods must be more direct.’

‘Please tell me I am to be part of the team,’ I said.

‘I would not dream of excluding you, Ves. You will be very much needed.’

Phew.

‘You also, Rob.’

Double phew. ‘Is the identity of our traitor yet known?’

Milady’s voice turned cold. ‘Not yet.’

‘It could be someone from Research.’

‘And Valerie therefore has orders to collate all gleaned information discreetly, and to keep her silence on the topic of any planned response. As must the two of you.’

We readily agreed, of course, though I did so with a heavy heart. To have to keep secrets within my own organisation, and from people I have known for years! A painful duty.

I was reassured, though, to find that no suspicion had attached to me. If there were those who could doubt Jay’s loyalty so far as to accuse him of stealing the book, well, I had my detractors, too. I had not lacked for opportunities to sabotage our little mission, and Jay’s disappearance had happened while I was asleep in the very next room. Who was to say I hadn’t had a hand in it all? I was comforted to find that Milady was in no way disposed to consider it likely, nor were Rob or Val.

It’s good to have friends.

 

Val greeted me with a shrewd, narrow-eyed look. She sat behind her huge desk like a queen, as always; straight-backed, imperious, and far too knowing.

‘Have you been eating?’ she said.

I opened my mouth to protest that nothing — nothing — could long divide me and food, but then I realised I had not eaten since breakfast, and the prospect of doing so only induced a feeling of nausea.

So I swept this aside.

‘I’ve been sent to help,’ I said brightly. I tried, as I crossed to Val’s desk, to walk with the supreme confidence of an unflappable woman, and took some comfort in the smart rap-rap-rapping sound my heels made upon the polished wooden floor.

Val was not convinced.

‘Sit down before you fall over,’ she said, with — was it, really? — a roll of her eyes.

My knees were feeling a bit weak, so I meekly obeyed. ‘I feel so feeble.’

‘Why, because you’re worried? Come off it, Ves. You’d be equal to anything, if only it were you who’d been swiped. You’d be out of there in no time, pink hair flying, leaving the place a smoking ruin behind you. It’s unusual for you to have to fear for someone else.’

It was the feeling of impotence that bothered me; I rarely felt so much at a loss. ‘You don’t… think they would harm him?’ I hazarded.

‘Never,’ said Val with reassuring confidence. ‘He is far too valuable.’

True. Waymasters do not grow on trees. ‘What have you found out?’

‘Right. Come with me.’ Val glided out from behind her desk and sent her chair zipping for the main doors, an act which surprised me for a second. Chatting comfortably with Val at her own, name-plaqued desk was as customary as eating lunch.

But Milady’s exhortation had not fallen upon deaf ears. I followed obediently behind Val’s hovering chair — I tend to call it a wheelchair but only because it’s the common parlance; the chair has no wheels because it flies. Val took me to my own hidden study carrel, and, with an air of mild disgust at the necessity, sealed it up with a slick silencing charm. The air sparkled in a way I found oddly reassuring; no one was going to be listening in on us.

Val tapped her impeccably-manicured fingernails upon the carrel’s desk for a moment, apparently deciding where to begin.

Toil and Trouble: 7

By the time I reached Jay, I was already scrambling to retrieve my syrinx pipes. Rooting around inside your own underwear is an inelegant business, but I had not the leisure to care just then. Why do the damned things have to wriggle around so much in there? It’s not like there is much room to manoeuvre; I cannot be said to be incapable of properly filling out a brassiere.

Fortunately, Jay has observed this process before.

‘Behind us!’ I panted, and then wished I had not, for Jay took one look and sped up into a proper sprint, and soon began to draw away from me.

Stop!’ I yelled. ‘We can’t outrun them, idiot!’ They were gaining on us already, not least because Katalin, curse her, had legs about three times as long as mine.

There — I had it. My fingers touched metal, and I drew out my tiny silver pipes, warm from their snug little hiding place. I set them to my lips and played an urgent melody, no easy task while I was still moving.

Jay didn’t stop, but he did slow down. ‘How long does it usually take Addie to—’

He didn’t need to finish the sentence because Adeline, my beauty, was already whistling down from the skies, her silvery-white coat glittering in the sun. Addie, a rare winged unicorn, and my friend of some years.

‘I asked her to hurry,’ I said and ran forward to meet her. I was up on her back in seconds and ruthlessly hauled Jay up behind me. Catching hold of the silver rope she’s kind enough to wear, I gasped, ‘Away, Addie! Doesn’t matter where, so long as it’s fast.’

She leapt, her huge wings flapping, and we were airborne. Jay clung to me with one arm and clutched Bill with the other, while I kept my anxious gaze upon Katalin and her companion.

‘Oh, no…’ I muttered after a moment.

‘What!’ yelled Jay.

‘That man! He’s got a Wand and he’s… yes, I really think he’s going to—’

A missile like a tiny, crackling lightning bolt shot past my nose. ‘He is!’ I gasped, outraged.

‘They’re shooting at us?’ Jay shouted.

I was too busy scrabbling for my Sunstone to reply.

‘What was that you were saying about not being in mortal danger?!’

‘I acknowledge myself mistaken upon that point.’ I had the Wand out by that time, and as Addie gathered herself and put on an extra burst of speed, I mustered my wits, my resolve and my magick and sent an answering shot back. Then several more for good measure; I was feeling a trifle irritated.

I had the satisfaction of seeing Katalin’s companion drop his Wand and go on the retreat, arms raised.

My next missile hit him in the stomach, and he dropped.

‘Hah!’ I crowed, arms raised. ‘It’s victory for the Sunstone Team!’

‘Don’t celebrate too early,’ cautioned Jay, which was not unreasonable of him, but quite unnecessary. Addie was flying like a bolt of lightning herself by that time, and the two Ancestria Magicka agents soon diminished into tiny, indeterminate specks and disappeared from sight.

I glanced down at the city of Milton Keynes spread out below us. ‘Miserable spot, but there’s probably some good tea down there somewhere.’

Jay shook his head. ‘Too close. We’d better fly on a while.’

Addie bore us generally west. We passed over a number of villages, and when the larger sprawl of Buckingham (thank you, phone) came into view we decided to land.

That part is always tricky; where to come down that’s sufficiently discreet? It’s always inconvenient when local papers start reporting unicorn sightings. But Addie’s far cleverer than I and found us a tree-shaded spot a short walk from the outskirts of the town.

I checked her carefully to make sure she hadn’t been hit. She was unharmed, but she was also displeased with me.

‘Sorry,’ I told her, shame-faced. ‘I did not expect to come up against a lightning-throwing Wand-wielding sidekick.’

We left her drinking her fill from a charming river, her silvery sides heaving with exertion. There was plenty of grass about for her to snack upon, and better yet, some tasty-looking spring flowers.

I kissed her nose before we wandered off. ‘Best unicorn ever.’

Addie flicked her ears at me, and decisively bit through a sunny narcissus flower. The first of many, I had no doubt.

‘Eat them all!’ I encouraged as we walked off. ‘You’ve earned them!’

‘You’re a terrible unicorn parent,’ was Jay’s verdict upon my behaviour. ‘She’ll be sick if she eats all those flowers.’

‘How do you know?’

Jay had no answer to that.

We found a tea-room in Buckingham and partook liberally of its finest beverages (and a cake or two. How could I help it, when they were serving carrot cake and Victoria sponge?). The first thing Jay did (after gulping down a liberal quantity of reviving tea) was to take out Bill and comb through his pages more minutely than before. ‘Try not to get too chatty, Bill,’ he said in an undertone. ‘The people here would be more horrified than charmed by a talking book.’

‘Non-magickers?’ Bill whispered.

‘I’m afraid so.’

There were not many people besides us, thankfully: a pair of elderly ladies having afternoon tea at a window table, and a middle-aged man in a suit drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. None of them paid us the smallest attention.

I could still wish Bill’s whisper somewhat less penetrating. ‘Am I correct in supposing that I was almost absconded with a little while ago?’ he demanded.

‘Quite incorrect,’ I said with dignity. ‘We rescued you in the nick of time.’

‘I am glad to hear it. I should not like to fall again into the hands of villainy.’

It took me a moment to remember what he meant by again: John Wester, of course, with his grave-robbing tendencies.

While Jay was thus employed, I called Val, and informed her in hushed tones of everything that had happened.

‘Crap,’ she said, succinctly.

‘It was, rather. But we’re fine.’

‘I’ll tell Milady. In light of what you’ve just said, I doubt she will object to sending Rob after you.’

‘I wouldn’t mind some help,’ I admitted.

‘Keep me informed of your whereabouts.’

‘Will do.’ I hung up.

‘I don’t see any more tracking charms,’ Jay said, and handed Bill off to me. ‘Want to check as well?’

I did so, enjoying the feel of Bill’s exquisite vellum pages under my hands. They don’t make books like that anymore. I reached the end without finding anything untoward, either; but that brought me face-to-face with John Wester’s clumsily-sketched map and its label: Drogryre.

I handed Bill back to Jay, thinking. ‘Why did John Wester want to find that grave?’ I mused aloud. ‘Specifically? Bill says he’s an opportunist, but he must have had some reason to fix upon that particular spot.’

Jay opened his mouth, but blinked and hesitated. ‘Er,’ he said.

‘Right? Why did he think there was something valuable in there with her?’

‘Sometimes people were buried with valuable objects?’ suggested Jay.

‘That might be it, if she was wealthy. Was she, Bill?’

‘Not particularly. My erstwhile mistress did achieve some modicum of prosperity by the end of her life, due to her being in increasingly high demand. But she began destitute, and never arrived at anything that might be termed wealth.’

I frowned. ‘So why did Wester think her grave was so important?’

‘Are you sure it’s her grave that’s marked here, Bill?’ said Jay, tapping the heavily-inked X with one finger.

‘Quite certain. He spoke of it endlessly.’

Reminded of the early journal entries, Jay flipped back to the front of the book. But he was soon obliged to abandon his efforts to make it out, and gave it instead to me.

I saw his problem at once. Neither of us had yet had chance to take a close look at those entries; once we had realised how precious Bill was himself, the scribblings of a thief like Wester had ceased to seem important. I now saw that Wester’s musings were written in a style of English which predated anything we might consider easily comprehensible; virtually Chaucerian, in fact. And his handwriting was abominable.

‘Of course it’s Middle English,’ I said with a sigh. ‘Zareen said as much. I can read it, but not easily, and not here.’

‘We shouldn’t linger here any longer, either,’ said Jay. ‘The trackers may be gone but Katalin and Co. saw the direction we were heading in, and we aren’t that far from Milton Keynes.’

I agreed to this without much regret, having finished my tea and sustenance some time since. We packed up and left. I considered retrieving Addie and flying onward, but there were a few objections to that idea, not the least of which was that she was already unhappy with me. So we got on a bus, and spent the rest of the day dawdling dully from town to town by way of a series of rattling, pootling old vehicles. It was quite peaceful, considering the events of earlier in the day, and since nobody showed up to try to wrest Bill from us, neither Jay nor I had any real complaints.

We ended up at a bed-and-breakfast in a town called  Quainton, dined in true British fashion upon fish and chips, and then fell asleep in front of my TV.

I woke up just before dawn, and was pleased to note that Jay did not appear to be prone to snoring.

I woke again an hour or two later to find he had unsprawled himself from the other side of my bed and gone back to his own, leaving me in full possession of all the space. This pleased me.

The fact that he had taken Bill with him did not please me nearly so much, as it ruined my plans of having a private chat with the book. I wanted to examine him some more on the topic of Drogryre, her life, and especially her death, in case he should be able to shed any more light on the activities of John Wester. That would have to wait.

I wandered down for breakfast, half expecting to find Jay already there; he was usually an early riser, like me. But I was served with cereal, yoghurt, toast and eggs alone, despite the fact that it was well past eight o’ clock.

I took my tea upstairs and tapped upon Jay’s door.

No answer.

‘Jay?’ I put my ear to the door, but heard nothing.

I tried the handle, and finding the door unlocked (… not good), I went in.

No Jay. He was not in the bathroom, either.

What was still there was all of his belongings — except for Bill. The shoulder-bag stood empty of book; even the cloth wraps were gone. His favourite leather jacket, the dark one so well-loved its cuffs and collar were scuffed, hung over one of the brass bed-posts.

I stood a moment in growing horror, trying to convince myself that there was some plausible, non-terrifying explanation for the dual and unscheduled absence of both Jay and Bill.

There was not, of course.

Toil and Trouble: 6

Jay was waiting for me down in the Waymastery Station. I don’t suppose anybody else calls it that but me, but it’s what it is. Unprepossessing, for all its exalted purpose: just a tiny room in the cellar, unpainted and virtually unfurnished. There’s an ancient henge under the floor, and that’s what Jay uses to whizz us about.

He had a small shoulder bag with him, which he opened when I came in. I took a peek inside, and saw a cloth-wrapped bundle snugly nestled within.

‘Bill?’ I ventured.

‘Bill,’ Jay confirmed.

I patted the bag I carried over my own shoulders. ‘I’ve got your stuff.’ Change of clothes, life-saving magickal artefacts, the usual. Indira had dutifully packed up his personal things and left them out for me, while Jay was off securing the book. I could well imagine his task was not an easy one; nobody wanted to see Bill go, and he had to try to squirrel him away without anybody noticing besides. Anyone but Val, that is.

‘Ready?’ I said, watching Jay’s face. He looked worried. A heavy frown creased his brow, and he couldn’t stand still.

‘Absolutely,’ he said, fidgeting with the strap of his bag.

‘Except?’

The frown deepened. ‘I’m worried about Indira.’

‘She’ll be fine. It’s not like there’s an army of orcs marching upon the House, or anything.’

‘I’m worried about what happens to her if anything happens to me.’

Oh. ‘Er, that’s a bit doomy,’ I tried. ‘We’re not in mortal danger.’

‘Then why the Sunstone?’

Bill is in mortal danger.’ I said this in a whisper, hoping that the book was too well wrapped-up to hear me. ‘We aren’t.’

‘She’s shy. It’s hard for her to manage without me.’

‘Even for a week or two? She needs to stand on her own feet sometime, Jay, or she’ll never be independent.’

He scowled at that; I’d irritated him. ‘Let’s go, anyway.’

‘If I may be permitted my opinion,’ said Bill, his voice doubly muffled by the cloth wrappings and the bag. ‘The little Spellwright is in no danger, either of harm or mortification.’

‘How do you know?’ said Jay snappishly.

‘She and I have had conversation together. I found her to be bright-minded, and more resilient than elder brothers are inclined to imagine.’

The fact that Bill and Indira had been chatting together was news to me, though perhaps not to Jay, for he just gave me a sideways look and then went on with his preparations to leave. ‘I hope you’re right,’ he said to Bill. I have no idea what he does when he’s making ready to use the Ways, so I just stand back and try to keep out of his way.

A breeze picked up in the room, and began to build. ‘Off we go,’ said Jay, and held out a hand to me.

I took it. Since I met Jay, I have had a little practice at travelling the Ways. Enough to know that it is a disorienting experience, and can leave a person feeling unpleasantly shaken up in the middle. It appears to have an even greater impact upon Jay, but he went about his work with an enviable composure, and betrayed no further signs of unease.

I do wish he had warned me before departure, however. Last time, we had waited until the Winds of the Ways had gathered themselves to quite a height before we set off. This time, the breeze had barely doubled in strength. There I was, tranquil enough yet in the expectation of its being a few more minutes before we would be going anywhere—

—and then I was away, tossing about in the wind like a miserable little leaf and clinging fiercely to Jay while the currents rattled my teeth and did awful things to my hair.

When the winds died down, they left us marooned on top of a low hill looking out over an expanse of drab fields. Stone monuments rose around us, which at first glance I took to be your typical ancient megalithic arrangement — except that, at a second look, the stones looked oddly new.

‘I forgot to ask where you were taking us,’ I said, a little breathless.

‘Milton Keynes.’ Jay sat cross-legged upon the ground in a pose of studied nonchalance, and looked around with more apparent satisfaction than I was feeling.

‘Milton Keynes.’ I got to my feet and took a couple of breaths, waiting until my knees steadied.

‘Yes.’

‘But why.

‘Because of all the places you and I might heroically flee with a magickal book, who’d ever think of Milton Keynes?’

Who indeed. ‘And what in the name of Milady’s garters is this?’ I flicked a finger at the nearest lovely, smooth stone.

‘A new henge.’

A new henge?’

‘It isn’t their age that makes them effective, you know.’ Jay picked himself up with some care, and squared his shoulders. ‘Built last decade. Part of the city plan.’

One of the hazards of my trade: a tendency to start making overly simplified and accordingly fallible suppositions, for example: the older, the better. ‘I suppose it’s about as reasonable as putting in a train station.’

Jay’s lips quirked in a smile. ‘If only there were a few more Waymasters to make use of them. Somebody had dewy-eyed ideas about training up a lot more of us.’

‘Can’t manufacture that kind of talent.’

‘Apparently not. You okay?’

‘Of course!’ If Jay was determined to be Totally Fine then so was I. I looked around at the uninspiring landscape, and hoisted my bag higher upon my shoulder. ‘What now?’

‘I don’t know. Fancy a cup of tea?’

‘Last one to the cafe’s a rotten egg.’ I began to totter down the hill.

‘Which cafe?’

‘Any!’

But my phone buzzed before I was more than halfway down the hill, and I hastily grabbed it.

‘Ves?’ said Val. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Perfectly. Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘And Jay?’

I looked round to check, if it would make Val happy, and saw Jay wandering down the hill some way behind me, hands in the pockets of his ever-present leather jacket. ‘He’s fine. Val, what’s the matter?’

Val exhaled in a way that filled me with an unreasonable foreboding. How could I be so unsettled by a sigh? ‘Milady had me pull up everything we know about Ancestria Magicka, which proved to be embarrassingly little. So then she had me go comb the world for every new scrap of information I could find — in fact she put the entire library staff on it, and—’

‘Val, the suspense is killing me.’

‘Sorry. Ves, they have a Waymaster.’

I almost dropped the phone. ‘What? How’s that possible?’

‘Imported her from Hungary. She’s been on the job only slightly longer than Jay, but she knows her stuff. Graduate from a top magickal university, comes highly recommended, entire bidding war to employ her. Etc. I’m sending pics. Her name’s Katalin Pataki.’

‘And you think they’ll send her after us.’

‘Well, wouldn’t you? Why did they go to such lengths to get a Waymaster on the staff, if not for occasions like this?’

‘They can’t possibly know where we are, though, can they? Jay picked a destination at random, like Milady said. What are they going to do, travel to every single henge in the entire British Isles looking for us?’

‘Ves, I don’t have time to convey everything I’ve lately learned about this lot, but I’d advise against underestimating them. They may be new, but they’ve already got Milady worried.’

Curses. ‘Thanks, Val.’

‘Be careful.’

I checked the pictures and then put my phone away, a variety of thoughts flitting across my mind. Who were these people? They had gone pretty far afield in search of a Waymaster, and poured buckets of money into securing one. Why?

And if they had those kinds of resources to throw around after less than a year… who the hell was funding them?

‘Jay,’ I said when he reached me. ‘We may have a problem.’

‘Another one?’

I relayed Val’s news, but Jay did not react as I’d expected. He thought for a moment, frowning deeply, and then said: ‘A bidding war?’

‘That’s what she said.’

‘A bidding war?’ He looked thunderstruck. ‘You know, my parents told me not to take the first offer I received. They told me.’

‘So why did you?’

‘The Society’s legend. How could I refuse?’

‘Then it’s no good regretting that your salary isn’t higher. Can we talk about this later?’

‘Right.’ Jay shook himself and began to march off, heading for who-knew-where, but after a few paces he slowed again. ‘Was Bill under guard all night?’

‘No idea. Ask Bill.’

Jay began to root furiously through his bag, and at last extracted the book, stripped of its cloth wrapping. ‘Bill, have you been left alone at any time in the past twelve hours or so?’

‘No, sir!’ said Bill brightly. ‘I have been very much admired, and without pause, ever since the news of my existence was gratifyingly taken up.’

‘By whom?’ I said, warily.

‘Oh, by everyone! My acquaintance has expanded enormously.’

‘Did anyone tamper with you?’ said Jay.

‘Decidedly not!’ said Bill, outraged at the very idea.

But Jay was not satisfied, and neither was I. ‘The problem with Orlando,’ he said, turning Bill around in his hands, ‘is that he’s sometimes too clever by half. Those pearl-things you’ve got, for example; even a non-magicker could use them. A potent spell perfectly encapsulated inside something inoffensive; no particular skill required to use it, and therefore no discernible trace left for a paranoid Waymaster to discern, or even a touchy, overly talkative grimoire of a book…’ As he spoke he was inspecting Bill’s covers and turning over page after page, ignoring the book’s protests that he was a grimoire of enormous ability and no one could conceal a spell between his own pages and hope to escape detection.

‘Ah,’ said Jay then, and took up something that sparkled when he held it up to the afternoon sunlight. It was round, and about an inch across; pale and translucent, so much so that I wondered Jay had spotted it at all. The kind of thing, in short, that no one would much take note of. If you didn’t know better, you might have said it was some kind of sticker, or a patch, or perhaps a bookmark.

‘That’s a tracker spell,’ I gasped. I had seen them before. Orlando’s technicians craft a lot of them, and they’re wildly popular across the Society. These aren’t the type of thing even a non-magicker could use, but they’re among the simplest of charms to manipulate, requiring only a trickle of magick.

Jay tossed it to me. It lay in my palm, warm and faintly buzzing.

I dropped it at once.

‘We’d better go.’ Jay spoke tersely, already packing Bill away into his bag again.

‘My most abject apologies!’ Bill was babbling as Jay closed the bag upon him. ‘I had no notion—’

‘Not your fault, Bill,’ I said. ‘You’ve been out of the game for four centuries.’ I was looking around as I spoke, as though I expected some kind of obvious course of action to occur to me if I moved my neck and blinked enough.

Blank mind. Palpitating heart. Not good.

‘It doesn’t matter where we go as long as we go quickly,’ said Jay, and departed at a jog.

But he was too late, for a flicker of movement atop the hill caught my eye. I stopped, squinting against the light. What was it, a bird? Or worse?

Ves!’ yelled Jay behind me.

It was not a bird. A woman stood up there, her figure indistinct in the distance, but I could discern enough to be sure. She matched the photos Val had sent: tall, a shade too thin, long dark hair.

She had a man with her, too. He was holding what looked unpromisingly like a Wand.

I turned tail, and ran like a rabbit after Jay.

Toil and Trouble: 5

‘Morning!’ I said brightly, and slumped into the vacant chair at Jay’s elbow. ‘Disaster?’

‘Not quite,’ said Jay, and awarded me half a piece of toast slathered in peanut butter. ‘Just some, uh, sub-optimal developments.’

To be honest with you, I really don’t need feeding up; I’m quite comfortably proportioned as it is. But who can resist peanut butter on toast? I skipped over the question of Jay’s inscrutable motives in sharing his food with me — trying not to notice that he was doing the same for Indira — and focused on the article instead. It was light on information and heavy on rumour, but it had the salient facts down: a book featuring a previously unheard of, and extremely powerful, enchantment had come to light, and stood to revolutionise the way magickal libraries operated. They had spared no efforts to promote the story to its widest extent; every page glittered with come-hither-and-read magick.

To my further dismay, there was another picture inside: Jay holding the book.

I jabbed a finger at it. ‘Who took that?’

‘No idea,’ said Rob grimly. ‘But it must have been somebody at Home.’

I glowered into my berry-bowl, and comforted myself with a spoonful of yoghurt. It was one thing for the Society’s members to be a bit too seduced by the marvels of Bill to resist making a trip to see him; it was quite another to sell the story to the media, complete with photos.

‘Does Milady know?’ I asked.

‘We’re preparing a delegation,’ said Rob.

Hence the leaden atmosphere at the table. We were all going to get it in the neck.

‘Straight to bed, and without any supper,’ I said glumly.

‘A thousand lines each,’ added Val. ‘I must not reveal the Society’s secrets to the newspapers.’

Jay said, ‘How long before we get the swarms of reporters beating down the doors?’

‘No need to worry about that,’ said Rob. ‘The House is pretty hard to find, if you’re not familiar with the route.’

Jay looked sceptical. ‘Journalists have a way of getting around problems like that.’

Val set down her mostly-empty coffee cup with a snap. ‘One disaster at a time, if you please.’

‘Sorry,’ said Jay, contrite. ‘Milady first, reporters later.’

 

The first person dragooned into the role of peace envoy was Nell, seeing as she is our media co-ordinator and suchlike. I don’t actually know what her official job title is, if she even has one. She manages a lot of our technical requirements — she’s spent decades building a huge database of basically everything we know that we know, and her team fixes all the tech bits that go wrong. She’s also responsible for our internet presence (such as it is), which means our website and social media. That makes her our PR person, right? She’ll be spending half of her morning putting together the kind of press release that puts out fires, or so we hope.

The second person volunteered for duty was yours truly.

‘You’re so good at it, Ves,’ said Nell, fidgeting with her glasses. She had a second pair tucked into the coiffed coils of her grey hair; did she know? Apparently I was not the only person feeling wrong-footed by the events of the night.

‘What, exactly, am I good at?’ I said, trying not to sound quite so frosty as I felt.

‘Making things sound good,’ said Nell bluntly.

‘Charming people,’ muttered Jay.

‘Persuading Milady to let you off,’ said Rob, though since he teamed his comment with a smile of genuine affection I felt less like kicking him than I did the others.

‘You talk a good talk, Ves,’ Val said, arranging herself upon the side of my enemies without a trace of apology. ‘It’s one of your talents.’

‘Lucky me,’ I muttered.

I looked at Indira, in case she wanted to join in with the stone-throwing. But she stared back at me with big, guarded eyes and said nothing at all.

She looked, to my horror, as though she were more frightened of me than the rest of us were of Milady-in-anger.

I set that problem aside.

‘Fine,’ I said, magnificently gracious. ‘Your poor, beleaguered Ves will sally forth and take a few bullets while the rest of you… what?’

‘Review security,’ said Rob.

‘Figure out what in the world to do with Bill,’ Val put in.

I looked at Jay, who shrugged. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘What? Voluntarily?’

‘Why not?’

I narrowed my eyes. ‘You’ve seen how hard everybody else worked to get out of this.’

‘Except you.’

‘I’ve been betrayed by my own troops, sent forth as sacrificial victim—’

‘But with backup.’

I smiled, rather touched. ‘That’s kind. So kind I’d even give you that toast back, if I hadn’t already eaten it.’

Jay wrinkled his nose. ‘Er, no need to go to extraordinary lengths.’

 

In the event, Milady wasn’t even angry. But she was extremely alarmed, which was far worse.

‘Tell me everything,’ she ordered, when Nell and Jay and I had trailed into her tower-top room and stood lined up on the carpet like a row of naughty children.

We did, though not in any coherent fashion. Milady listened to our fragmented account of the previous day’s happenings in a taut silence that I found excessively uncomfortable. When we arrived at the developments of the morning, and held up the newspaper for her perusal, the air practically vibrated with tension.

When at last we stopped talking over each other, interpolating corrections upon each other’s narratives and generally confusing everything, Milady went so long without speaking that I began to wonder whether we’d lost her altogether.

At last, she spoke, and though her words emerged in her usual crisp fashion, and with every appearance of total composure, I could hear a note of something else lying behind them; something like fear. ‘While I appreciate Rob’s confidence in the elusiveness of this house, and his no doubt excellent efforts to assure our security within it, I must disagree with his conclusions. You are quite right, Jay: those with a strong enough motive to find us will surely contrive a way. That goes for reporters, and some other, rather more unsavoury characters as well. It is my conviction that this troublesome book must be taken out of the House at once, and conveyed to a safer spot.’

That caused a little stir. I exchanged a foreboding look with Jay, who looked as worried as I felt.

‘Jay, as our Waymaster, you are able to carry the book farther and faster than anybody else. I encourage you to choose a destination entirely at random; that way, it will be harder for others to guess the book’s location, and all but impossible for anyone to follow in any timely fashion. Do not linger at any henges. Take Ves with you; she is a woman of significant resources and will be able to resolve any difficulties that arise.

‘Nell, it falls to you to make a suitable announcement. By all means, confirm the find; it is too late to hope to deceive anyone on that score. Don’t try to play down either its significance or potential. What I want you to do is to mention, as casually as you can, that the book is no longer at Home. I am not at all concerned what excuse you come up with to explain its removal, provided only that it is unexceptionable. The more mundane, the better. I would not have anybody coming here expecting to find that book, nor do I wish it to be known that we are expecting exactly such an attempt.’

This barrage of instructions left all three of us a little stunned. I, being Ves the Glib (apparently) recovered my wits first, and said: ‘Forgive me, Milady, but why are we expecting such an attempt?’ I mean, I’d had no trouble grasping Bill’s importance to the magickal communities of Britain, but Milady was talking as though serious trouble was not only likely but inevitable.

Her response was swift, crisp and disdainful. ‘Ves. Nell. You have been with us long enough to be only too aware that we are not the only organisation in this country with an interest in ancient magickal artefacts. And you are as well aware that they do not all operate upon the same motives.’

‘Chancers, rogues and thieves, the lot of them,’ I murmured for Jay’s benefit.

‘Quite,’ said Milady. ‘Not all of our rival organisations can fairly be described in such terms, of course, but one or two of them can. In particular, you may have heard rumours of a new group calling themselves Ancestria Magicka.’

Jay choked. ‘Really?!’

‘I’ve heard of them,’ I confirmed, rolling my eyes. ‘Treasure hunters, the worst kind. No respect for heritage. Pirates, if you will.’

‘Snappy name,’ muttered Jay.

‘Formed last year, they have swiftly grown in both power and ambition. I have not made it generally known across the Society, but since January of this year there have been three known attempts by members of Ancestria Magicka to infiltrate our House. They were all foiled by the efforts of Rob Foster and his excellent team, and we do not yet know what, precisely, was their goal. Was it espionage? Theft? And more importantly, have there been other attempts that were successful enough to escape detection altogether?

‘The news that somebody from among our own ranks has been responsible for giving news and photographs to the press is a matter of some concern to me. It might have been done thoughtlessly, or it might have been the product of something much more reprehensible. The House itself may be able to provide some information upon this point, and I shall investigate that possibility as soon as possible. But in the meantime, I cannot feel that the book is as safe here as I would like. Its presence here is an open invitation to Ancestria Magicka, and to any other group with similar ambitions. Are there any questions?’

Jay said, ‘How long do I have to dance about the country with Bill?’

‘You’ll be notified when it is safe to return, or you may be called upon to hand off the book to somebody else. You will receive information, Jay.’

‘Right.’

‘Er,’ I said. ‘When you spoke of my “resolving difficulties”, what exactly did you have in mind?’

‘I hardly know, Ves, but Jay’s picture with the book has been helpfully spread around, hasn’t it? I do not know whether his status as Waymaster is broadly known outside of the Society, but it may well be. It is not impossible that somebody may guess, therefore, what we would do with the book, and come for you. That is why I advise staying away from the henges.’

‘In that case I’d like Rob with us, really,’ I said, though with only faint hope.

‘I cannot spare Rob at this time. He is needed here. But consider yourself approved to take whatever you want from Stores. I know that will please you.’

It did, for I was rarely given so complete a carte blanche. Whatever I want meant anything at all, up to and including the shiniest, most powerful toys.

‘I want a wand,’ I said.

‘Take the Sunstone.’

 

The Sunstone Wand is one of the Society’s prizes. It is a beautiful object, made from spangled Norwegian sunstone all fitted up with silver filigree (well, it was made in the nineteenth century, and they were not known for their restrained sense of the aesthetic). It is shorter than you might expect. The long, thin, delicate wands of popular imagination are lovely to look at, but hard to carry around without getting them broken. The Sunstone Wand was made to be used, not just admired, so it is only about a foot in length, and sturdy at half an inch thick.

Wands are popular for channelling magickal energies in all manner of useful ways, but a real wand — the kind you spell with a capital W — is a rare and fine thing indeed. Those Wands are made from pure crystal, crafted by a master Spellwright, and they tend to be heirlooms.

I presented myself at Stores in a state of such anticipation I was forgetting to breathe.

This time, Ornelle was there.

‘Back already?’ said she, eyeing me with the kind of suspicion I have in no way deserved.

I eyed her right back. Ornelle’s one of the few trolls regularly employed by the Society (most of the others are cooks). She’s splendidly sized and invariably splendidly dressed, with a penchant for big, dangly jewellery. A fellow magpie, she’s been in charge of Stores for years, and she is ferociously protective of the contents.

I usually try to slip by when she’s not there.

‘Milady sent me for supplies,’ I said, and tried (futilely) to make my short self look just a little bit taller.

‘All right.’ Ornelle slipped on a pair of bejewelled glasses and took up a clipboard. She proceeded to escort me every step of the way, and made notes about everything I took up. Infuriating. I may sometimes be slow about bringing things back but I’m not a thief.

She made some difficulty about the Wand.

‘You need the Sunstone again?’ There was an offensive emphasis on the word again.

‘Again!’ I echoed in outrage. ‘I’ve only had it once before and that was three years ago!’

‘And it took you almost six weeks to bring it back.’

‘I needed it for a while.’

‘And this time?’

‘I don’t know. I’m being sent out into the wilds of Britain with a protégé and an artefact to protect, not to mention my own hide. It might take some time.’

Ornelle wanted to make trouble, I could see that she did. But for all that she sometimes distrusts me, she knows I wouldn’t outright make up an order from Milady. Who would be mad enough to do that? The truth will always out.

She wrote down: “Sunstone Wand to Cordelia Ves” in big, blocky letters and underlined it, with the date written beside.

When I made to leave, she blocked my way. ‘Vesper,’ she said very seriously.

‘Ornelle.’

‘If anything untoward happens to that Wand, I’m repossessing everything you’ve ever been given.’

Everything? ‘You mean like my tea cup?’ It’s enchanted. Gives a different flavour of tea every time.

‘Like your tea cup.’

‘And the Curiosity that does my hair?’

‘Everything.’

I gulped. ‘I will defend it with my life.’

I didn’t need such an admonition, of course — we would all defend artefacts like the Sunstone Wand with our lives. That’s what we’re for. But Ornelle required reassurance, and apparently felt pacified.

‘Best of luck,’ she said as she cleared out of my way.

I wasn’t sure whether she was talking to me or the Wand, but I answered anyway. ‘Thanks.’

Toil and Trouble: 4

‘Good morning Vesper, Jay,’ said Milady as she admitted us to her room. The air sparkled as her disembodied voice spoke.

‘Milady.’ I took up my usual station in the centre of the sumptuous blue carpet, and made her a curtsey. Jay produced the same courtly bow he’d offered to Bill earlier.

‘Very fine form, Jay,’ Milady complimented him.

Jay grinned. ‘Thank you.’

‘He’s been practicing,’ I said.

‘He will make a fine ambassador to the Courts someday.’

That shut me up. Jay! The Society’s representative at the magickal royal courts! Since I’d secretly coveted such posts for some years, I could not help feeling a twinge of envy at the idea.

‘Not before you, Ves,’ said Jay, apparently reading my feelings. It was so kindly said that I instantly forgave him for his earlier teasing.

‘Have you ambassadorial ambitions, Ves?’ said Milady.

I sighed. ‘I’m a little susceptible to the glamour of the post, I can’t deny it. But while I think I would suit such a post well, I would probably grow bored after a while.’

‘You would, in fact,’ said Jay, though whether he was referring to my assertion of being well-suited to such a job, or to my conviction that it would eventually bore me, I could not determine.

‘Very well, I shall not rush to reassign you. And we cannot yet spare Jay from Acquisitions, either. What can you tell me about that terrible book?’

We told her everything about the terrible book. I personally chose to gloss over the close relationship I was beginning to enjoy with dear old Bill, but Jay had no such scruples.

Milady seemed more struck with the book’s history than its present configuration. ‘I am astounded,’ said she when we had finished, ‘that this sorceress should have faded so completely from all memory or record, considering the extent of her accomplishments. Such a book must qualify as a great artefact. In fact, I have rarely heard of so spectacular an achievement in magick. Valerie had nothing to tell you?’

‘I got the impression she had some kind of an idea,’ I replied. ‘But too shaky an inkling to share, just yet. I’ve hopes of hearing something more concrete from her before long.’

‘I am sure she can be relied upon to unearth something,’ Milady agreed. ‘As to the book…’ She trailed off into silence, and Jay and I waited patiently while she thought the matter over. ‘I think it had better be kept a secret, for the present,’ she finally decided. ‘Such a powerful object would be so highly sought after, were it known to exist — even now, we have nothing in magick to equal it! I fear there could be trouble over it.’

‘Absolutely, Milady,’ I said. ‘We won’t spread it about.’

‘Should be easier to keep a lid on it, now that Bill’s calmed down,’ added Jay.

‘Yes,’ said Milady. ‘There I must agree with Bill. Zareen’s methods are somewhat to be deplored, but they do appear to have done the trick this time.’

‘That’s why we have Zareen,’ I said. ‘She does the questionable stuff, so most of us don’t have to.’

‘Not that it stops you from trying,’ muttered Jay.

‘Sometimes, the strangest tasks require the most difficult procedures,’ Milady gracefully agreed, letting Jay’s comment pass. I knew that Zareen was often given leeway on this kind of thing, more so than the rest of us. I had never resented it, because I knew it was part of her job; Toil and Trouble, indeed. She paid dearly for the privilege of not being decapitated for such transgressions as, say, copying famous proposals of marriage into ancient books.

‘Do keep me informed,’ said Milady. ‘In the meantime, Ves, I understand you have some few articles withdrawn from Stores, which might wish to be replaced?’

‘Er, yes.’ I felt a little shame-faced. I’d gone a bit mad in the store-rooms on the last mission, and gleefully carted off all manner of shiny charms, magickal trinkets and minor artefacts. Most of which I had not even used, and I had indeed forgotten to return some of them.

I do have terrible hoarding tendencies sometimes.

‘Jay,’ continued Milady serenely. ‘Your sister is in the development labs with Orlando. She is feeling overwhelmed, I believe, and would benefit from some family time.’

‘Absolutely,’ said Jay.

Knowing ourselves to be dismissed, we made our parting obeisances and left the tower, clattering back down the stairs in some relief. I’d half expected Milady to be appalled at the way we’d handled the book, and was pleased to find that we were not in disgrace.

‘Your sister’s with Orlando?’ I asked Jay as we wended our way back down. ‘How!’

Orlando’s the Development Division’s star employee, and a typical eccentric. He’s an inventor, of sorts; he mixes old magick with new technology in genius-level ways, and he’s responsible for some of our best tools (and weapons). He’s very secretive. He lives tucked away up in the attics somewhere, and the only people who are regularly allowed to go into his workrooms are his wife, Miranda, and his assistant, Jeremy.

‘She’s very bright, and very talented,’ said Jay with obvious pride. ‘They’re considering her for Orlando’s new assistant.’

‘New? What about Jeremy?’

‘They think Orlando could do with some more help.’

Perhaps he could, at that. His inventions were so popular with the Society, I could well believe he might have trouble keeping up with the demand. ‘You’ve a very talented family,’ I observed.

Jay smiled. ‘Indira will be the best of us. She’s had a rough time of it lately, though. No sooner did she arrive here than she broke her arm, and now it sounds like she’s homesick. I’d better go right away.’

I realised suddenly that I’d seen her already, a week or two before. Our doctor, Rob, had been tending to her. ‘How did she break her arm?’

Jay grimaced. ‘Fell down some stairs.’

Perhaps that explained a little of Jay’s aversion to them. I filed that away. ‘Isn’t she a bit young to be apprenticing already? Though perhaps Milady was in a hurry to scoop her up.’

‘Yes, and yes,’ Jay admitted. ‘Though she’s older than she looks. She’s almost eighteen.’

I’d thought she looked fifteen at most. I felt a surge of sympathy for her, remembering the distressed look on her youthful face when I’d seen her in the infirmary. ‘That way to Orlando’s secret attic hideaway,’ I said a few moments later, pointing down a dark passageway that led away from the second set of stairs. ‘He won’t let you in, but hopefully he’ll send Indira out.’

Jay gave me a salute in thanks, and wandered off. I trailed back downstairs alone, feeling oddly forlorn. Perhaps it was because I had to give up the remains of my hoard to the Stores again. I do so like my trinkets.

I wondered, on the way back to my room, how Bill was getting along with Val.

Swimmingly, I found. When I’d finished guiltily gathering up my temporary acquisitions and conveying them back to Stores, I trawled back to the library to find Bill holding court from the centre of Val’s desk. His courtiers consisted of the entire library staff — students from research and reference, veterans from the archives, everybody. Val herself sat enthroned in her usual spot, but she looked harassed.

‘Madam,’ I heard Bill say as I approached. ‘You do have the most delightfully smooth fingernails.’

He was addressing Anne from Archives, who blushed to match her fire-red dress and stroked Bill lovingly. ‘You’re so kind to say so.’

A young man I didn’t recognise said: ‘What about the curse of Thetford in 1453? Real or hoax?’

‘Most likely a hoax,’ said Bill firmly. ‘The story was fabricated by a linen-weaver called Wymond Bowe, who hated his brother’s wife with such a passion that he accused her of sorcery, and claimed that she had cursed the townsfolk with a host of unpleasant ailments. The evidence he presented was certainly spurious, but it is fair to note that the good people of Thetford did exhibit an unusually broad range of complaints during that year. There were claims in some quarters that the curse was real (or curses, I should say), and that Bowe was in fact the source of the troubles himself.’

‘But you don’t believe that.’

Bill considered. ‘My mistress was acquainted with Bowe in some distant fashion, and did not give the story much credence.’

‘This is brilliant,’ said the young man, and immediately began typing furiously into his phone. He snapped Bill’s picture.

‘Val—’ I tried to say, but she could not hear me over the clamour of Bill’s audience, and I couldn’t get near her either.

But Bill detected my presence, for he cried with alacrity: ‘Miss Vesper! Surrounded as I am with extraordinary beauty, still you cast all others into the shade.’

I began to wonder whether our precious book wasn’t so much Bill Darcy as Bill Wickham.

I also wondered a bit about Drogryre. Had the book always been so devastatingly charming? (At least up until it came into contact with John Wester).

‘Bill,’ I said, pushing my way through to the desk with a brutality born of mild desperation. ‘Val. Can we please clear everyone out?’

Val looked relieved to have an excuse. ‘All right, back to work!’ she shouted. ‘There’ll be more Bill later.’

Disgruntled, but somewhat mollified by this appended promise, the library’s staff drifted away, leaving me alone with Val.

‘Milady wants him kept secret,’ I hissed.

‘It’s a bit late for that order.’

‘So I see.’ I grimaced. ‘I ought to have known Bill would cause an instant sensation.’

‘He’s like a search engine for magickal history, at least up until the sixteenth century. And he’s got a vast deal of information that’s never come to light before. Of course he’s a sensation.’

‘Not to mention his talent for flattering with sincerity.’

Bill ruffled his pages. ‘It may have escaped your attention, madam, but I can hear you.’

I patted Bill’s soft leather cover. ‘I mean no disparagement, Bill. You’re every girl’s dream, aren’t you?’

Bill appeared pleased with this tribute, and settled down.

‘What can we do?’ I said, despairing. ‘Milady says there’ll be trouble if word spreads, and she could well be right. Can you imagine what a book like this would fetch at auction?’

Val began to look worried. ‘Spreads where, though? We might receive a few purchase offers, but I can’t think who would cause trouble.’

I could think of a few possibilities, but I kept them to myself. It might never happen, and Val had clearly had a trying enough morning already. ‘I’m sure it will be fine,’ I said. ‘Only perhaps we’ll keep him under better wraps for a while.’

‘We can try,’ said Val.

For the rest of the afternoon, I had some of that rare, lovely stuff they call “free time.” Jay didn’t reappear, and my favourite activity — browsing in Stores — would put me too much in the way of temptation. So instead I spent it on my other favourite activity: browsing in the library.

With Bill. And Val. And half the rest of the Society. My esteemed colleagues kept wandering in all through the afternoon, having just happened to remember some vital errand they had to run in the library and which absolutely could not wait another instant… oh, is that the talking book? A quick peek? Bill, do you happen to know the recipe for Gulgorn’s Palliative? It’s been lost since at least the early fifteens… you do! Let me jot that down! All right, all right, I’m going. Brilliant book you have there.

This went on all day. It was of no use bleating about Milady’s orders; our visitors patently did not care, and it was just as obviously too late for us to bother caring either. Oh, nobody would outright flout Milady’s wishes, but it was so easy to come up with an excuse to stop by for five minutes, and since everyone else was doing it…?

Milady ought to have known, I thought darkly, when at last Val grew tired of this and closed the library. It was late in the evening by that time, and we had to turn people away at the door. I did not ask where Val stashed Bill for the night; I only established that it was somewhere suitably fiendish by way of security, and properly unguessable.

‘You’re sure nobody will find him?’

‘Perfectly,’ said Val wearily.

‘He’s behind a few stout locks, of course?’

‘Of course. Will you please go to bed, Ves.’

‘I’m going.’ And I did, but I was back in half a minute. ‘How many stout locks?’

‘Several. Go!

I went, but I passed an unsettled night, my head full of paranoid imaginings. See, I have never been involved with such a spectacular find before. The pressure weighed upon me rather more than I cared to admit to anybody. Upon rising the following morning, I strove to erase the signs of a poor night’s rest from my face, or at least to draw attention away from them through the use of my sparkliest cosmetics.

I was accordingly a little late reaching the dining area. It’s a bit school-cafeteria down there, to be honest, with great cauldrons of food lined up behind a long series of counters, and little clusters of tables spread about the floor. But they have a way of serving all my favourites — a positive feast of berries this morning, and an entire vat of yoghurt, the full-fat kind — so I don’t much mind.

Jay was already seated at our usual table near the biggest window. He had Indira with him. Val was also there, and Rob, and Nell. They looked formidably as though they were holding an emergency council, which hardly seemed reasonable at that hour of the morning.

When I reached the table with my bowl of breakfast delights, I saw a newspaper spread out in the centre. They were the colour pages from the front, the headlines, and my heart sank like a stone because there in enormous letters was the announcement: ‘Spectacular Find at the Society!’

And Bill’s picture.

Toil and Trouble: 3

All things considered, Jay and I made an executive decision not to take the book straight back to Val. We carried it instead to my favourite study carrell, which happened to be safely situated two large rooms and a corridor away from the library.

It was pleasant to tuck back up in there again. It’s a modest place — just a desk (albeit a splendidly well-preserved nineteenth-century example, all mahogany and mother-of-pearl), and a chair (ditto), placed in a concealed alcove off one of the reference rooms. I’ve spent untold hours there with stacks and stacks of books, researching one obscure topic after another. It’s undoubtedly my study nook.

Jay took to it at once, for I caught him glancing around with an admiring, speculative look.

‘Mine,’ I told him.

‘Sorry.’

I put the book carefully down upon the desk and — checking first to make sure nobody was too near to us — I opened it again.

‘Good morning, madam,’ said the book. ‘Good morning, sir.’

‘You can call me Jay,’ said Jay.

‘That would be an improper mode of address, sir, particularly in view of the fact that we have not yet been introduced.’

I summoned my best manners, and formally introduced Jay to the book. Jay made a decidedly courtly bow, which impressed me no end.

Then he introduced me, and I felt it incumbent upon me to match his exquisite etiquette with a curtsey.

It was an odd business.

The book was kind enough to overlook the irregularities in our behaviour, mostly because, as he said himself: ‘I am not fortunate enough to have a large acquaintance here. In fact, I know no one else except for the odd, vulgar woman with the green hair, whose identity remains a mystery.’

Jay stifled his laughter — barely. ‘You have no objection to Ves’s pink hair?’

‘The arrangement of Miss Vesper’s hair might be highly irregular, but there is nothing to fault in her manners.’

I was glad he’d said that, for I was quite attached to my hair colour of the day. Rose pink (the dusky, antique shade), and perfectly curled. ‘Thank you, Bill,’ I said, beaming.

‘We can’t call him Bill anymore,’ said Jay.

‘An unnecessarily abbreviated name,’ agreed the book.

‘We can still call him Bill,’ I offered. ‘Darcy’s first name was Fitzwilliam.’

‘Bill Darcy it is.’

The book objected, but I overrode him. ‘Matters are not as they were when you were written, Bill,’ I unhappily had to inform him. ‘You had better get used to our unnecessarily abbreviated modes of address.’

‘If you insist, Miss Vesper.’

I gave up.

Secretly, I rather enjoyed being called “Miss Vesper.” Jay, however, did not take so enthusiastically to “Mr Patel”. ‘That is my father,’ he said sternly. ‘Jay, please.’

The book heaved a resigned sigh, and capitulated.

Having got the formalities out of the way, it was time to do as Zareen had suggested, and launch a clever and subtle interrogation of Bill. I began with: ‘Where does your map lead, Bill?’

‘To the grave of my mistress.’

‘Mistress?’ said Jay.

Grave?’ said I.

Jay began to laugh. ‘So much for treasure.’

‘I do not at all understand the modern fixation upon “treasure”,’ said Bill in disgust. ‘It was all that green woman would talk of.’

‘That’s acquisitions specialists for you,’ I said by way of apology. ‘The hearts of magpies, all of us.’

‘To return to my mistress,’ said Bill stonily, ‘She was the greatest sorceress of the age, and my noble creator. In this respect, perhaps, she was a far greater treasure than any mere gold.’

This was interesting. ‘Go on. Why did she make you?’

‘I was to serve as her grimoire, but of a far cleverer design than any that had yet been created. My task was to absorb not only my mistress’s knowledge but anything else that should come in my way, and to repeat it upon command.’

‘That is clever!’

‘I believe I did save my mistress a great deal of time and trouble,’ said Bill modestly. ‘And won for her no small number of esoteric secrets, besides.’

Jay brightened at the word “secrets”. So did I. Occupational hazard. ‘We,’ I said to Bill, ‘are going to get along very well, I think.’

‘It is my dearest wish that we should, Miss Vesper.’

‘He definitely likes you,’ muttered Jay.

I awarded the book a tender little pat of approval. ‘What about the map?’ I asked. ‘And your first few pages? They were not written by your mistress, clearly.’

Bill bristled with indignation, his pages curling in a bookish grimace. ‘Her death was sudden—’

‘How did she die?’ interpolated Jay.

‘A form of plague.’

‘My condolences.’

‘Thank you. Her death was sudden, and I was lost for some years among a number of other, lesser volumes from her collection. We were lodged for a time in the library of the great house, until one day we were stolen by a deplorable varmint of the name of John Wester. If you have read those pages, madam, then you will have already experienced his disgraceful mode of expressing himself and I need not elaborate.’

‘I haven’t, yet, but you did give a rather excellent demonstration of them.’

The book looked a trifle sheepish, and shuffled about upon the desk. ‘I did not, at first, trouble myself to speak much to Wester. I was delighted to be removed from the dusty shelf upon which I had so long languished, and entertained some hopes of finding my new master congenial. And I was curious as to his reasons, for he took only two books from the house’s collection, both from my mistress’s former possessions: a slim treatise upon the most ancient and respectable practices of star-magick, of which my mistress was a devotee. And me. But if I hoped that his second choice, at least, indicated that he understood some part of my value, I was to be disappointed. He had noticed only that my pages were apparently blank, and secured me in order to serve as a receptacle for his own records. My dignity was sunk indeed.

‘The matter which absorbed all his curiosity was the search for my mistress’s grave. He was under the impression that some article of great value had been buried with her. He was, in other words, a treasure-hunter. He had received some hint of the grave’s location, but I understood that, by the time in question — some years after her death — its precise situation was no longer known.’

‘What kind of thing was buried with her?’ I said, greatly intrigued.

‘That I never learned from him. I am not convinced that he knew it himself. He was an opportunist and an adventurer, and not at all averse to taking a chance.’

‘Grave-robbers and thieves, plagues and dark sorceresses,’ said Jay. ‘This is getting good.’

‘Zareen will be delighted.’

Bill gave a slight, polite cough. ‘I have almost finished.’

‘My apologies. Do go on.’

‘I did not particularly take to John Wester,’ Bill continued, unnecessarily. ‘Particularly since the free use he made of my early pages seeped into my consciousness, as was inevitable, and my turn of phrase inevitably adapted itself to his. I made rather free use of his more vulgar vocabulary, and abused him with such spirit every time he dared to approach me that he soon gave up the endeavour. To my great satisfaction, he rid himself of me by selling me to that rare form of travelling merchant who understands when he has met with an object of true worth. I was sold for a mere few shillings, which was a source of some embarrassment to me, but since I afterwards was placed, through a series of subsequent trades, into the grand collections at the Court of the Trolls, I was able to recover my dignity in time.’

‘And there you stayed for hundreds of years, until Jay rescued you.’ I beamed at Jay, who smiled uncertainly back.

‘I am appalled to learn that my sojourn there was of such extended duration,’ said Bill. ‘I believe I must have slept through most of it.’

‘Very likely.’ I fell into a reverie of reflection for a little while, pondering Bill’s extraordinary tale. Some few questions stood out, at the end of my musings. ‘Did they know what you were, at Farringale? Did you speak to them?’

‘Scarcely at all, madam. I knew my vocabulary and general speech to be most unsuited to a place of such vaunted learning.’

‘A pity, perhaps. All your potential has been wasted.’

‘Until now, Miss Vesper. I have some hopes of enjoying a second spring of activity.’

‘What became of John Wester, I wonder?’ said Jay. ‘Did he ever find the grave?’

‘And was there anything of interest in it?’ said I. ‘Good question. Sadly it seems history has forgotten the answers, though perhaps Val might know something.’

Bill gave his polite cough again. ‘I wonder if my apologies might be conveyed to the green woman? I have been disgracefully rude both to her and about her, but it strikes me that, without her interference, I would be still condemned to express myself with all the excessive vulgarity of John Wester’s cant.’

‘Her name is Zareen—’ I began.

‘—or Miss Dalir, if you prefer,’ Jay put in.

‘—and I have no doubt she will forgive you, for she enjoyed the mystery you presented very much indeed.’

‘She might be disappointed to learn that you aren’t a treasure map, though,’ Jay cautioned.

‘I doubt it,’ I disagreed. ‘Given the choice, Zareen would always go for a good disinterring over a treasure hunt.’

Jay looked faintly appalled.

‘She always was a trifle macabre that way.’ I picked up Bill, cradling him in my arms — I was growing rather fond of him by then, I admit — and squared my shoulders. ‘No help for it. It’s time to see Val. But we’ve such a fine story to tell that I hope she won’t disembowel us too badly.’

‘Disembowelling is pretty absolute,’ Jay said. ‘You either lose your entrails or you don’t.’

‘I’m hoping Bill can be relied upon to present his side of the story with such style as to spare us that fate.’

‘I shall be happy to, madam,’ said Bill, slightly muffled.

It occurred to me to be grateful even for John Wester’s highly questionable behaviour. If he had not stolen Bill back in the sixteenth century, then the book may never have ended up at Farringale, and he would never have come to us. Even if he had, without Wester’s journalising the book would have retained his original turn of phrase, which I imagined to be extremely civilised — in a Chaucerian kind of way. Middle English is not precisely my strong point.

‘You’re quite wonderful, Bill,’ I said with fervour.

‘Thank you, madam.’

 

‘It’s an unusual name,’ said Valerie some half an hour later, poring over Zareen’s sketch of the map and the single word that adorned it. ‘I can’t even decide how to pronounce it.’

‘Medieval,’ said Jay, as though this was both explanation and apology enough.

Val apparently agreed, for she merely nodded.

Our initial half-hour in the library had been a bit sticky. While Val was relieved to find our Bill so tidily reformed, she was every bit as horrified by the manner of its accomplishment as I had feared.

Ten years in the dungeons!’ she hissed, and began searching through her desk drawers for her phone.

‘The House has dungeons?’ Jay repeated, awed.

‘Excellent ones,’ I said. ‘They’re only cellars really, but “dungeon” sounds much more impressive. And there are signs with one or two of them that they might have been built to serve as dungeons in the first place. One of them even has something of the oubliette about it, which is fascinating considering—’

‘You’re babbling, Ves,’ said Jay.

I was. ‘Sorry,’ I babbled. ‘Val, don’t murder Zareen. She did us a favour.’

‘I’m not going to murder her, I’m going to throw her in the oubliette.’

‘She’ll love that.’

Val looked uncertain, and stopped searching for her phone. ‘She will, won’t she? I’ll have to think of something else.’

‘Disembowelment,’ suggested Jay helpfully.

Val’s face set into steely lines, and her dark eyes glittered. ‘With a spoon.’

‘What did I tell you?’ I said. ‘Stop helping, Jay.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Listen,’ I commanded, and put Bill down upon the desk. ‘Tell her, Bill.’

‘I am in Miss Dalir’s debt,’ said Bill obligingly. ‘Her methods may have been invasive and uncouth, but the results are so much to my taste that I cannot long hold her coarseness against her.’

Overwhelmed by this display of generosity mixed with disdain, and all couched in such elegant terms, Val could only blink at the book in amazement. ‘He really is reformed,’ she said.

‘Oh, completely,’ said Jay. ‘He delivers his insults in such stately style, now.’

‘He’s a refined, sophisticated book,’ I objected, ‘and did not enjoy turning the air blue any more than we enjoyed hearing it.’

Val gave me an odd look.

‘He admires and loves Ves,’ said Jay. ‘Ardently.’

‘Apparently it’s mutual.’ Val’s eyebrows went up.

I coughed.

So did Bill.

‘Anyway,’ I said brightly. ‘Bill’s creator?’

‘I’ll see what I can come up with,’ Val promised.

‘The name doesn’t ring any bells?’

‘Not quite.’

I wasn’t sure what “not quite” meant in this context, but it sounded more promising than “none whatsoever.” So I scooped up Jay — not Bill, unfortunately, for Val claimed him for research purposes — and whisked him off. ‘It’s high time we reported to Milady.’

‘The gruelling climb,’ Jay groaned.

‘It’s good for your health.’

‘Tell that to my knees when I’m ninety-five.’

I pictured Jay at ninety-five, wizened and white-haired and still grumbling about the stairs. I had to laugh.

‘Your sympathy is touching,’ said Jay. We had by that time arrived at the first of the several flights of stairs — stone-cut, narrow and winding, naturally — that led up to Milady’s aerie tower, and I laughed even harder as Jay visibly braced himself.

I did not really suspect him of deliberately hamming it up. Not until I noticed a secret half-smile just vanishing from his face as he marched away from me, moving upwards at a smart pace.

‘You’re teasing me,’ I said with strong disapproval, and made sure to overtake him at once.

It was Jay’s turn to laugh.

Toil and Trouble: 2

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 stopped handing them out before 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. Late Middle English, I’d say, so it’s hard to read, and written in such deplorable chicken-scratch I can hardly make it out. So the destination’s unclear — or 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,’ Zareen replied with a roll of her eyes. ‘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.’

Zareen looked at me shrewdly. ‘He feels responsible for you, too, I think.’

‘Me!’

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 most 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, if I’m reading it right. 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.

‘None.’

‘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.’

‘Oh?’

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. 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.’

I couldn’t help but be tickled by the idea. ‘That’s a sense of humour I can appreciate.’

Jay 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?’

‘Let Ves take the book.’

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.

‘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, and without 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.

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.’