The Striding Spire: 2

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

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

‘Let’s have the first one, then.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did they send you to nose around?’

He smiled, sheepish again. ‘Might have.’

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

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

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

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

‘Quite,’ I murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You found something…unusual, recently?’

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

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

‘Oh! You mean the puppy.’

He blinked at me. ‘It’s a puppy?’

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

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

‘Do you?’

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

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

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

Too sharp for his own good, that Baron.

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

She did not move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wise man.

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

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

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

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

‘It has indeed. But before that?’

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

‘Spriggans,’ said Alban, incomprehensibly.

‘I beg your pardon?’

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

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

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

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

‘Spriggans,’ I said.

‘Spriggans.’

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

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

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

‘Pray do.’

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

I told all this to the Baron.

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

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

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

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

‘In other words, you have no idea.’

‘None whatsoever.’

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

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

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

The Striding Spire: 1

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

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

Reality: Somewhat different.

It began with a phone call.

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

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

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

‘Today?’

‘Yes.’

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

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

Half an hour?!’

‘Is… that okay?’

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

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

Odd.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Troll Roads,’ answered the Baron serenely.

‘And they are?’

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. ‘They’re faster?’

‘Much.’

‘How?’

‘Because they’re magick.’

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They do fantastic pancakes,’ said the Baron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right, briefly to answer him.

He grinned. ‘Fair.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I always thought that expression unnecessarily bloodthirsty.’

‘It is. So the problem is what?’

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