I tensed, trying to keep Indira behind me while I kept a close watch on the two Ancestria Magicka agents. Would they spot us? Melissa’s plan of serving as decoy had been put to an unexpectedly early test.
They did not. Something caught Mercer’s attention; his eyes shifted briefly in our direction, and a faint frown flitted across his face. But Melissa spoke up just then, and his attention returned to her.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘So we know that, officially, you had nothing to do with the disappearance of Jay Patel and the book he found at Farringale. But unofficially, we all know that’s rubbish. We come to offer a bargain. Keep the book. Return Jay.’
Katalin smiled. ‘And if Mr. Patel does not wish to return to the Society?’
Mercer said, at the same time, ‘You propose to do what to us, exactly, if we do not agree?’
They needed a lesson or two in negotiation, I thought privately. Typically it would be more productive to pursue only one line of argument at a time; two would confuse the issue and weaken the impact of both. But perhaps they had not been working together long.
Lucky that I had often had cause to test my concealment charms before. I know them to be virtually foolproof. I walked nonchalantly past Pataki and Mercer, drawing Indira with me. She looked far more concerned by the situation than I felt; she crept past them, oh-so-carefully, casting frequent nervous glances in their direction. I tried to reassure her by patting her on the arm, but I do not think my gesture was much heeded.
She relaxed a bit once we were safely past, and had covered a distance of some thirty feet or so. We were rapidly drawing up to the castle by then, and I was engaged in searching for the nearest and most convenient way in.
Indira gave a tiny sigh of relief.
‘We were in no danger,’ I told her.
‘No danger? We were practically standing on their toes!’
‘No danger whatsoever.’
Indira frowned. ‘What did she mean about Jay’s not wanting to return to us?’
‘She was trying to manipulate Melissa, that’s all. Obviously they would like to keep both Jay and the book, and without our making too much trouble for them over either.’
‘I don’t think they can care all that much about our making trouble. This seems like an obvious challenge to the Society.’
‘Not quite, as they’ve officially denied it from the beginning. It’s a gambit, a throw of the dice to see what happens. It isn’t a declaration of war, yet.’
‘That will probably come in time.’ We were prowling around the base of the turret by that time, and I’d spied a way in.
Good points: the door was not barred or padlocked and a cautious probe of its magickal defences revealed nothing I did not feel able to handle with the help of my spangled Wand.
Bad points: Historic buildings have a way of being odd, whimsical and downright contrary sometimes, and this one was a prime example. There was a door in the tower, but it was inexplicably situated halfway up the building. There were no stairs leading up to it, nor any sign that there had ever been any.
‘Hm,’ I said. I wished for a second that I had brought my Chair with me. I, like everyone else, have a flying specimen; Val and I had both gone for tall, wing-backed chairs with comfortably padded seats, high-rising armrests and plush velvet upholstery. Hers is in green, mine’s burgundy. With my Chair, we could whizz up to the door in no time; in fact we could go all the way up to the window, and skip the door entirely.
Of course, I would have had to travel the entire distance by Chair, for there’s no way I could ever fit it in my Mini. And two hours by Chair in uncertain April weather is nobody’s idea of a good time. Not now that there are cars.
So, no Chair. We would have to do it the tiring way.
‘How far has your education progressed?’ I asked Indira.
‘My magickal education? Um, the… the usual?’ She looked at me uncertainly.
‘More specifically, can you levitate?’
‘Oh! Yes.’ Indira proved this by instantly levitating herself up to a distance of about two feet from the ground, smiling at me in that hopeful, shy way she has, like a puppy wishing for praise.
‘Er,’ I said. ‘Yes, that’s very good.’ It was more than good. Levitation is one of the more difficult arts; some otherwise very powerful magickers at the Society cannot manage it at all. Even one such as yours truly, among the finer practitioners of levitation at Home, can do it only with difficulty, and I have never managed to levitate myself more than about ten feet up without serious strain.
Indira levitated in the same way she breathed: effortlessly. And she hovered there, two feet up, with no visible sign that she was tiring at all. She looked like she could sail up ten feet and more still with similar ease, and I suppressed just the faintest, unworthy tinge of jealousy.
She will be the best of us, Jay had said, and I could see what he meant.
I took a deep breath.
‘Right,’ I said decisively. ‘We’re going to levitate to the door.’ Which, happily, looked to be only eight or nine feet up; I might manage to accomplish the business without embarrassing myself. ‘I will take care of its defences and then we’ll go in and get Jay. He’s still in there?’
Indira nodded. ‘Probably in the top— oh, no. Wait a moment.’ She frowned and consulted her book of Jay’s charms again. ‘He’s moved a bit, he’s— oh! He’s coming down.’
The door swung open above our heads, and Jay appeared. ‘Hi,’ he said, and then dropped down to land beside us with the grace of a panther.
I eyed him with some displeasure. ‘Hi? That’s it?’
‘Hail, fair rescuers,’ Jay said, with a smile for me. ‘I am full honoured by your braving the dangers of Ashdown in order to retrieve me… oh, wait. You are here for me? You aren’t just here for the book?’
I waited for him to explode at me over Indira’s presence, but he greeted her with a swift peck on the cheek and a brotherly pat of approval, and showed no signs of displeasure.
I felt, once again, that I had not quite got the measure of Jay.
‘We’re here for both,’ I said, and Jay made a show of wiping his brow in relief. ‘Do you have the book?’
‘No, but I know where it is. Come on.’ Jay led the way around the turret and on, presumably leading us to some other entrance. Mindful of threats and bristling with caution, Indira and I followed.
Indira put Jay’s charm book into her brother’s hand, and he tucked it away with a smile of thanks. ‘I knew you’d figure that out,’ he told her.
She gave that shy smile. ‘How did you know we were here?’
‘Because Ves shines like a bloody beacon.’
I blanched. ‘Er. I do?’
‘Yes, but don’t worry. Anyone who didn’t know you would just think that a small sun had popped by for a visit.’
‘Reassuring.’ I wasted a little time trying to decide what Jay meant, exactly; it’s never been mentioned before. But probably it had something to do with my being unusually, er, amplified by the Sunstone Wand, and anyway, the more important question was: had Pataki and Mercer observed the same thing, and pretended not to notice?
‘We might want to be careful, then,’ I said. ‘They probably know we are here.’ I wrestled with the Wand a bit, hopeful of diminishing my beacon-ness by a shade or two.
Jay dampened me with a wave of his hand. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that; I felt quenched, like he had thrown a bucket of water over me. Then I understood what he had meant: I had been positively ablaze with magick, and had not even noticed.
‘Were you angry, by chance?’ Jay said to me.
‘Of course I was angry! They thieved Bill and kidnapped you!’
‘They certainly did thieve Bill, which was disgraceful and nothing can exonerate them from that piece of infamy. But they did not kidnap me, precisely.’
‘They offered me a job.’
I blinked. ‘And?’
‘And I accepted.’
Indira gasped. I stifled an impulse to kick him somewhere painful.
Jay laughed. ‘Only temporarily. What better way to get a look around their HQ than to walk in here as a new recruit? And I wanted a shot at getting Bill back.’
‘So they just let you walk in here?’
‘Sort of. I’ve been under close supervision, and they have as yet withheld all privileges.’
I looked around. ‘You are remarkably alone for a man under close supervision.’
‘Well, when I saw you two on the approach I knew it was time to end the charade. I ditched my supervisor and broke out of the tower.’
Indira clutched at her brother’s arm, probably experiencing feelings of knee-weakening relief.
I was experiencing feelings more like incandescent rage.
‘You’re blazing again, Ves,’ said Jay, and I again had to suffer the quenching sensation. It is not especially pleasant.
‘I would not blaze if you wouldn’t keep making me angry,’ I said tightly.
He stopped, and looked at me in genuine surprise. ‘How did I do that?’
I controlled myself with an effort. ‘You let us imagine you kidnapped.’
‘I thought you would realise what I was up to.’
‘How was I supposed to realise that?!’
‘Um.’ Jay looked at his sister. ‘Right. I see. I’m sorry.’
Indira looked at the floor.
I took a slow breath, and let go of my need to punch him. Not without some regret. ‘Another time, could you possibly get word to me about your wily plans?’
‘I can try. I didn’t have a phone, of course, and nobody would let me borrow one for some reason.’
‘For some reason. Are you sure they believed your show of willingness to jump ships?’
‘I don’t see why not.’ Jay began walking again. ‘They asked me what the Society was paying me, then offered me ten times that.’
Jay cast me a look of mild irritation. ‘Ves, if we are going to engage in any kind of stealth mission here you’re going to need to stop with the blazing.’
Ten times. For goodness’ sake! The Society paid its staff as well as it could afford to, and if Jay’s salary was anything like mine (and it would be, considering his Waymasterness) then he was by no means hard done to. Ten times more! Who could afford that?
I felt a faint twinge of nerves. ‘Er. You do actually intend to turn that down, right?’
Jay rolled his eyes. ‘Obviously.’
‘Obviously? Not many people would say no to that kind of money.’
‘I think you are doing “people” an injustice, but since I at least am not overburdened with avarice I think we can all stop worrying about that. Ah.’ Jay stopped before an apparently featureless patch of brick wall, and stared at it with palpable satisfaction. ‘Here we go.’ He spoke a word I did not understand, and one of the bricks glowed. He touched his fingers to the shiny brick, and the wall fell away.
‘Secret passwords?’ I said in disgust. ‘Really?’
Jay grinned. ‘These people are a bit old-school.’ He led the way through the not-wall, while Indira followed and I brought up the rear.
‘The irony of hearing the words old school uttered with such derision by a member of the Society for Magickal Heritage.’
‘Fair. Perhaps I meant staggeringly cliché, but I’m not complaining. My sojourn into espionage has borne fruit.’ He stopped talking and stopped walking at the same time, though we had not yet proceeded far into the castle. The door-in-the-wall had brought us, incongruously, into a muddy boot-room wherein many pairs of Wellingtons and assorted hiking boots were littered about. Beyond that was the kind of chilly, bleak hallway to be found in the servants’ quarters of any house of at least moderate size that saw use during the Victorian period. Jay stopped us before the typical green baize-covered door, the more or less soundproof kind that muffle all those undesirable noises that emanate from the service parts of the house. Perfectly insufferable to have to listen to the clamour of one’s dinner being cooked, isn’t it?
Only this one was not quite soundproof, because I could hear something coming from the other side. Someone was singing.
If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.
The melody was familiar, and so was the voice.
‘Why,’ I whispered to Jay, ‘is Bill singing Greensleeves?’
‘Er.’ Cautiously, Jay pulled open the door an inch or so. The song immediately swelled in volume, as Bill launched full-throated into the chorus.
Greensleeves was all my joy!
Greensleeves was my delight!
Greensleeves was my heart of gold!
And who but my lady greensleeves!
‘Were you wearing green yesterday?’ Jay murmured.
‘With pink hair? Don’t be ridiculous.’
Jay swung the door open. Considering this decision I expected to find the room beyond empty except for Bill, but it was not.
We’d come out in what looked to be a tiny library, though the chamber was barely larger than the boot-room. The walls were crowded with bookcases fitted edge-to-edge, each crammed full of books. Bill lay enthroned in splendour upon a central table, open to display one of John Wester’s journal pages.
Seated before him and wearing a long-suffering expression was the kind of cardi-clad middle-aged lady you might expect to see serving dinner at a school cafeteria, or perhaps selling raffle tickets at a Women’s Institute fundraising drive. Whatever instant (and doubtless unfair) judgements one might make about such a person, the last thing I expected was that she would detect the sounds of Jay’s approach almost before it seemed possible, be out of her chair and facing us in about two seconds flat, and hurling hexes at us with the help of a pretty jade Wand.