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.


Copyright Charlotte E. English. All rights reserved.