Later, Jay and I lay slumped in opposing chairs in the first-floor common room. We had adopted identical postures of exhausted inactivity, flopped like a pair of stringless marionettes.
On the table before us stood an emptied chocolate pot.
We had not spoken for a while. Neither of us had the energy, I think, or perhaps our minds were too busy with their own thoughts. It had been an unusual week, after all.
But it occurred to me that Jay wore an expression of particular, and deepening, despair, and I felt moved to enquire.
‘My first assignment,’ he said, as though that explained everything.
When nothing more was forthcoming, I cautiously prompted: ‘And?’
‘Going to get fired.’
‘Disobeying a direct order.’
‘What?’ he said. ‘You heard Milady.’
He nodded, confirmed in his woes. ‘How long does it usually take them to give notice?’
Like he was expecting the letter of doom any moment now. ‘In your case,’ I told him, ‘I’d say you’ll be losing your job in about fifty years. More, if you eat right and exercise regularly.’
He blinked at me. ‘You heard Milady.’
I had indeed. And it was fair to say that Milady was not at her most delighted with us. She had not been outright angry; that was not her way. But there had been a crispness to her tone, a certain air of cool, brisk efficiency not characteristic of her, which was only apparent when she was displeased. Despite his inexperience with Milady, Jay had certainly picked up on that.
On the other hand…
‘See that?’ I said, pointing to the shining chocolate pot.
Jay’s frown deepened. ‘The pot? Yes. I see it.’
‘Means we’ve done well.’
‘But—’ Jay began.
I cut him off. ‘No. It always means we’ve done well. If you’ve underperformed but given it your best shot, you’ll probably get tea. Good tea. Or coffee, if that’s your preference. If you’ve really screwed up and it’s genuinely your fault, well… I once heard of somebody getting a bowl of stagnant rainwater.’
Jay grimaced. ‘Harsh.’
‘Not really, he was a prat. But you see my point.’
Slightly, slowly, Jay shook his head.
I tried again.
‘We did disobey a direct order. And Milady can in no way endorse our actions because she is our boss, and no employer alive wants to encourage a regular display of such outright disobedience. But we had due reason, and she knows that now.’
I recalled the high points of the conversation well.
‘How did you get the key, Cordelia?’ Milady had said (like a displeased parent, she resorted to my true, full name when she was unhappy with me).
‘The House gave it to me,’ I’d replied.
Prior to that moment, she had been all cool displeasure. That disclosure was the turning point. The chill in her manner did not noticeably dissipate, but I’d been able to recount the outcome of our journey without interruption.
And the chocolate had been waiting for us, upon our descent.
‘I suppose,’ said Jay dubiously.
‘Due reason,’ I repeated. ‘And the support of the House, which is by no means inconsequential. On top of which, we came back from Farringale alive, without leaving the place a smoking wreck behind us, and with the means secured to help Darrowdale and South Moors and the rest. The chocolate is Milady’s way of acknowledging our blinding heroism, without having to go so far as to own herself mistaken, or to congratulate us upon our disobedience.’
Jay began to look more hopeful. He sat up a bit. ‘Maybe you’re right.’
‘I am,’ I said serenely. ‘You’re not getting fired, because by consequence of being my partner in crime, you’re the hero of several Troll Enclaves. And who knows! Maybe Farringale can be restored.’
‘Maybe.’ Jay was dubious, and I didn’t blame him. He hadn’t seen what I had seen at the lost Troll Court, but my account of it had been graphic enough.
Nonetheless. Milady had given orders that the book, or at least its contents, were to be put into Orlando’s hands without a moment’s delay — orders which I had been absolutely delighted to perform. Orlando is a genius, there is no other word to describe him. He and his technicians would blend the contents of Baroness Tremayne’s book with the very best that the modern world had to offer, and come up with… well, a miracle. Maybe.
Copies of the book were also slated to go out to some of the other teams — Rob’s, for one. There was a cure in there. It was not described as being fully effective in all cases, and some of the trolls we had seen would undoubtedly be too far gone for help. But some could be saved. South Moors would survive, and there was hope for Darrowdale and Baile Monaidh. While Jay and I lay, inert and weary, in our matching arm-chairs, many of our colleagues were preparing to depart the House for the days, weeks or months necessary to pull the Enclaves back from the brink of destruction. In this, I had no doubt they would be joined by the Troll Court’s best — led, in all likelihood, by Baron Alban.
Silence fell again, for a little while. It was broken by Jay, who said, with the randomness of a man emerging from deep reflection: ‘I am glad we did it.’
‘Me too,’ I fervently agreed. ‘Not least because of those books! A hero on two counts, Jay! I told you Valerie would adore you.’
She really had. Assuming at first that the theft — er, retrieval — of the books had to be my doing, she had showered me with such delicious praise and affection, I had been reluctant to admit that I’d had nothing to do with it, thereby transferring all her heart-warming admiration onto Jay. But it was deserved. ‘You are her new favourite person.’
‘Next to you, perhaps.’
‘You’re my new favourite person, too,’ I said, letting this pass.
His head tilted, and he regarded me thoughtfully. ‘Am I?’
A faint grin followed, tentatively mischievous. ‘I thought that was the baron.’
I thought about that. ‘He does have excellent hair,’ I had to concede.
‘He was asking me questions about you. While you were off in the library’s cellars.’
‘Oh?’ I sat up, too, my interest decidedly piqued. ‘Like what?’
‘Just, general stuff about you. How well I knew you, what kind of a person you are. I got the impression…’ He hesitated.
‘I thought he might be angling for information on whether or not you’re involved with anyone.’
Aha. ‘What did you tell him?’
‘Nothing. I have no actual insights on that point myself.’
That went some way towards explaining the text I’d received from Alban an hour or so earlier. Our brief conversation went like this:
Alban: Will take time to sort out this mess, but how about coffee after?
Me: Make it tea?
So, I would be seeing the baron again.
Jay waited, leaving space for me to respond, but I chose not to. After a while, he hauled himself out of his chair with a groan, saying, ‘I don’t care what time it is, I am going to bed.’
He paused on his way past, and looked down at me with a slight frown. ‘Ves.’
‘Thanks for being a bad influence.’
He sounded sincere, but with the frown? I couldn’t tell, so I decided to take it at face value. ‘You’re more than welcome.’
Jay nodded, apparently satisfied, and dragged himself to the door. ‘No doubt you’ll get us into plenty more trouble,’ he called back. As he vanished into the corridor beyond, I heard him say, distantly: ‘Hopefully the heroic kind.’
I could be relied upon to do the former, most certainly. Whether it would also be the latter, who knew?
It later proved, however, that Jay is more than capable of making trouble all on his own. He doesn’t even need my help.
Halfway through the following morning, he and I were called to Milady’s tower. House and I had been on the best of terms since I had returned the beautiful silver key, so it was maybe that alone which prompted it to whisk us straight up to the tower, saving us the wearisome climb.
Or perhaps it was urgency. That prospect made my heart beat faster, and I hastened into Milady’s tower-top chamber with some speed.
My curtsey was sloppy. ‘Milady,’ I said.
Jay, right behind me, made his bow with no prompting from me. ‘Good morning, Milady.’
‘Vesper,’ she said. ‘Jay. Thank you for coming so quickly.’
‘House gave us a lift,’ I said.
‘Thank you, House.’ The air glittered. ‘I am sorry to dispatch you again so soon after your last… adventure. I am aware that you must both be tired. But there is a matter of some urgency requiring immediate attention.’
How intriguing. ‘We are at your disposal,’ I said.
‘Always,’ said Jay. Was he still worried about getting fired?
Milady actually hesitated. That is never a good sign. ‘Jay, you showed enormous presence of mind in thinking to extract books from Farringale, and I applaud you.’
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘But on that topic…’
My heart sank with a nameless sense of foreboding — and quickened with an equally nameless feeling of excitement. I exchanged a look with Jay, whose face registered much the same feelings as my own.
‘Yes?’ said Jay.
‘There is something of a problem. Please report to Valerie at once.’
‘Yes, Milady.’ Jay and I turned as one, already hastening away.
But Milady wasn’t quite finished with us. ‘Ves?’
‘Please prepare yourself for some instances of… poor language.’
‘From Val?’ I said, incredulous. I have never known Valerie to use even a mild expletive. But supposing she did, why would Milady think it necessary to warn us?
‘You will see what I mean when you reach the library. Go quickly, please.’
‘Gudgeon!’ roared a voice as we approached the library door. ‘Canker-blossom! Dismal, hedge-born, logger-headed puttock! Churlish, thou art, and full beef-witted! A plague upon thee, and thrice over!’
Needless to say, it was not Val.
As Jay and I burst through the door and arrived, breathless and astonished, in the library foyer, the voice — a full-throated, sonorous male roar — took up its insults anew. ‘Weedy dewberry!’ it cried. ‘Idle-headed wagtail!’
Val was seated behind her desk, remonstrating wearily with the voice by way of sentences but half-uttered. ‘I meant only that–’ she began, but was interrupted with a renewed cry of: ‘Hedge-born!’
‘Now really, that is too much!’ said Val sharply.
‘Too much for thee, lily-liver, and no doubt!’ retorted the voice.
This exchange continued, but Jay and I were none the wiser for listening to it, for as far as we could see, the library was empty besides ourselves and Val.
‘Er, Val?’ I said after a while.
She looked at me with an air of long-suffering irritation, her hands folded tightly around a large, leather-bound book. ‘Hello, Ves, Jay. Sent by Milady? Lucky you.’ Her words were half drowned out by a renewed tirade from the disembodied voice, which she did a creditable job of ignoring.
Jay gave up. ‘Valerie,’ he said gravely. ‘What the hell is this?’
Valerie rolled her eyes towards the ceiling, and dropped her ancient, fragile, handsome-looking tome onto her desk, where it landed with a great thump.
I had never seen Val so careless with any book, let alone one of great age, and could only stare in astonishment.
But the book did not lie meekly where it had been put, as most are wont to do. This book leapt smartly off the desk, took up a position some three inches before Val’s face, and began to dance up and down in a fine display of high temper. ‘Hedge-pig!’ it roared. ‘I shall have thy guts for such goatish treatment!’
‘The book,’ said Jay faintly. ‘The book is talking.’
Val merely nodded once.
‘That’s… different,’ said I.
Val sighed, and put her face in her hands. ‘Tell me about it.’