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