‘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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
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.’
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?’