Somehow, the Patels were ready for this. Indira had a very good, very stout shield charm up in no time, which absorbed the first wave of the indignant woman’s hexery. Jay meanwhile threw a hex of his own in response, a neat, clever piece of magick which would have knocked her out on the spot if it had hit her. Sadly, she proved to have remarkable reflexes, too, and ducked.
Through all of this ruckus, Bill warbled on.
‘Come on, Amelia,’ said Jay, throwing another hex. ‘You know the book isn’t yours.’
She made no reply to this, choosing to focus all her attention on the next wave of dark curses.
I plucked a sleep-bead from one of my emergency supplies pockets. No use expecting to get her to swallow it; not with hexes, reflexes and a Wand at her disposal. Instead I threw the bead up, blasted it with a shot of energy from my own spangly Wand, and watched in satisfaction as it sprayed the curse-happy woman in the most potent sleep potion our technicians are capable of brewing.
The woman uttered a word I shall not repeat here, cast me a look of utter hatred, and dropped like a stone.
‘I need some of those,’ said Jay.
Greensleeves was all my joy! sang Bill.
I went over to him at once and patted his pages. ‘Bill.’
Greensleeves was my delight!
Bill stopped. ‘Miss Vesper?’
‘The same. We are about to effect your rescue, and it would be preferable if you were a bit quieter. Early modern love songs might be delightful but they do attract more notice than would be desirable.’
‘I cannot begin to express the extent of my gratitude,’ said Bill. ‘I shall consider myself under an obligation to you for the rest of my natural life.’
How long is a book’s natural life? Probably much longer than mine. ‘You don’t like Ancestria Magicka, I take it?’
‘If you are referring to these scoundrels who have wrested me from you, then your surmise is correct.’
They did not appear to have mistreated Bill, in fairness to them. He lay atop a particularly plush cushion, his spine perfectly supported. He had an entire table to himself, and they had let him go on singing to his heart’s content (though that might have been because he would not oblige them so far as to shut up). He had not been damaged, as far as I could see.
I thought it interesting, and possibly significant, that the woman I had felled had apparently been studying John Wester’s journal entries when we had come in. In all the excitement about Bill’s unusual composition, we had rather overlooked the contents of his pages; what were they but the ramblings of a robber and a thief? But if Ancestria Magicka thought differently, then I wanted to know why. I busied myself snapping pictures of each of Bill’s pages that bore writing (except for Zareen’s section). These I sent through to Val. I sent a note with them: Decipher?
Then I scooped up Bill.
‘It is good to be with you again,’ said Bill, which was sweet of him.
‘Sometime you’ll have to tell me who Milady Greensleeves is,’ I said.
During my hasty camera-session with Bill, Indira had busied herself with searching the outer garments of the sleeping woman. Jay snatched up the notebook she had left upon the table, and leafed speedily through it. He showed me something interesting: Amelia had made an ink sketch of the map at the back of Bill’s pages, with annotations.
‘Hang onto that,’ I said.
‘Mm.’ Jay pocketed it. There were two doors in the room: one leading back the way we had come, the other to who-knew-where-else. Retracing our steps was the obvious solution if we wanted to get out, and Jay clearly agreed, for he made for the door at speed. But before he reached it, there came the sounds of heavy footsteps approaching from the other side. ‘Uh oh,’ said Jay, pivoted, and dashed for the other door at a run.
Indira got there before him. She tugged mightily upon the door but to her chagrin, it did not budge. ‘Locked,’ she reported.
Well, no surprise there. They had stashed the most valuable book in the world in this tiny library, with only Amelia to look after it; they were hardly going to leave the main door unlocked.
The other door swung open to reveal George Mercer, and Katalin Pataki right behind him.
‘See,’ said Mercer with grim satisfaction. ‘I knew he was full of shit.’ He had the air and the accent of a public school boy, and the clothes to match. I wondered which of our most respected establishments had been responsible for turning out such a fine specimen.
Katalin regarded Jay with some disappointment, though she said, in her thick Hungarian accent: ‘Is he, though? Let me have the book, Jay.’
‘That is Mr. Patel to you,’ said Bill.
Jay grinned, and backed up until he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Indira and me. He took Bill from me, probably in order to leave my hands free to wield my Wand.
Katalin, though, interpreted his actions differently. ‘Good,’ she purred. ‘Mr. Patel has more sense than to imagine us as the enemy. Our goals are the same, are they not?’
‘As what?’ I demanded. ‘The Society doesn’t steal.’
‘We stole nothing. Upon learning that an active Waymaster happened to be the current keeper of a remarkable book, we naturally approached him with an attractive offer of employment. One which he would be a fool to turn down.’ Katalin smiled at Jay.
‘It is not my book, of course,’ said Jay. ‘If anyone can claim right of ownership over it, that would be the Troll Court.’
Katalin’s smile widened. ‘Finders, keepers,’ she purred.
My mind travelled back over all the Treasures, Curiosities, rare books and other artefacts I had tracked down and rescued from destruction over my decade with the Society. Finders, keepers? ‘Oh, if only! I would be filthy rich by now, and retiring to my own island.’
‘About that,’ said Mercer. ‘We’re instructed to extend a similarly lucrative offer to Specialists Cordelia Vesper and Indira Patel.’ He waved a document at me, as though that might convince me if his words did not. ‘Ancestria Magicka is in need of people with your unique talents.’
Indira looked flabbergasted.
I felt a twinge of curiosity. ‘Are you?’ I murmured. ‘Instructed by whom?’
Mercer’s mouth twitched with annoyance. ‘You will meet your new employers once you have accepted their generous offer.’
‘Like Jay has?’
Mercer looked Jay over expressionlessly. ‘Mr. Patel’s actions have delivered not only a Waymaster and the book to our Castle but a highly experienced acquisitions specialist and one of the most promising spellwrights the University has ever encountered. Our organisation is very pleased with him.’
All of this was sounding horribly like they had no intention of allowing us to turn down their offer. ‘We do have a choice, I suppose?’ I said acidly.
‘Of course,’ said Mercer, and gave me a polite, insincere smile. ‘You will find us to be perfectly civilised. Regrettably, however, it will not be in our power to permit you to leave Ashdown with the book in your possession.’
‘Think about it, Ves,’ said Katalin, and I blinked at her in surprise at her use of my nickname. ‘Ten times the salary, ten times the freedom! We are sent all over the world, to the farthest corners of the globe. We have already retrieved ancient Treasures the likes of which you have never seen.’
I admit, I experienced a faint twinge of wistful desire at this picture of well-salaried freedom. But the feeling did not last long. ‘All of which you directly repatriated to their home countries, of course?’ I said.
Katalin’s mouth set into a hard line of disappointment. ‘You are wasted on the Society.’
‘It may be something of a raggle-taggle organisation,’ I admitted, ‘without the resources to pay island-purchasing salaries, and I cannot deny that I am sometimes chafed by Milady’s rules. But the work we do is far more important than you will ever understand.’
Katalin shrugged, and looked at Indira.
I wondered what the poor girl would manage to say under such pressure as that; even small-talking with her new colleagues at the Society’s cafeteria often left her tongue-tied.
But I underestimated her. She might only have been able to utter one word, but it was the right word, and spoken with a conviction which must preclude all argument. ‘No,’ she said.
Katalin sighed. ‘I suppose that means you will be leaving us too, Mr. Patel?’
‘The book, then, please.’ She held out her hands to receive it.
Jay only gripped it tighter. ‘I’m afraid not.’
Katalin and George Mercer exchanged the kind of grim glance that had to mean big trouble for the three of us. Fortunately, we were all at that moment distracted by the terrific sound of crashing glass that might, for example, be indicative of a window breaking.
‘Ah,’ said Rob, peering in through the ragged hole where there had, only a moment ago, been big, bright panes of glass. I caught a glimpse of Melissa standing just behind him.
‘Indira. Chairs,’ I said, already making for the nearest one to me. I did not have time to explain, and could only hope that she would grasp my meaning.
See, Rob and I have been out on quite a few missions together before. There was this one time, several years ago now, where he and I got into a pretty difficult situation. There was Rob, there was me, there was a locked room halfway up an unreasonably tall building, and there was a rabid ogre. Enough said? But Rob had put his hand to the glass and pulled one of his fabulously destructive tricks; the entire window turned black-as-night and fell outwards, and when I had witched us up a couple of Chairs we flew serenely away into the sunset.
I never did find out what became of the ogre.
The timing had been slightly tighter before, but then, I had not had the Wand. This time it was the work of a few seconds to persuade my chosen chair — a fairly comfy, tapestry-clad armchair type thing — that it was livelier in nature than it had ever before imagined itself to be, and might rather enjoy taking flight. Indira, to my relief (if not much to my surprise) caught on right away, and made short work of an engraved oak desk chair until it actually began to dance on its four rigid legs.
We witched up three more, during which time Katalin Pataki was unwise enough to make an advance upon Rob and Melissa, while George tried to wrench Bill from Jay. The latter encounter ended with Jay shoving the book through the window into Melissa’s hands — a risky manoeuvre, which very nearly resulted in Katalin’s swiping it on the spot — and then (to my exasperation) he abandoned magick altogether in favour of fisticuffs.
I did not linger to watch the two men swing at each other. I pointed my Wand in Katalin’s direction. It was unfair, really; she was facing Rob and Melissa, and too engaged in opposing their joint attacks to have any leisure to attend to me. I shot a binding charm at her, nicely amplified by the power of the Sunstone Wand, and she collapsed in a motionless heap. Almost motionless. She was twitching a bit.
I assuaged my slightly guilty conscience by remembering how very unscrupulous most of her organisation’s activities had thus far been, and shoved her out of the way of the window. ‘Sorry,’ I said brightly, ignoring the way her eyes blazed hatred in my general direction. ‘But I can’t let you have Bill. We’ve grown fond of each other.’
I bundled Indira out of the window next, desk chair and all. She shot into the sky beyond, clutching the side of her Chair with her one good arm, and almost as rigid with fright as Katalin was with magick. I made a note to send her to the infirmary once we got home; she might be in need of a little therapy.
Melissa went next in my fine tapestry Chair, taking Bill with her. Good.
As one, Rob and I turned to Jay.
He wasn’t doing badly, to be fair to him. Not badly at all. His face displayed the evidence of George Mercer’s talents at fisticuffs, and he had obviously taken more than one hit judging from the damage. But Mercer was little better off, and I admit to taking some small satisfaction at the mess Jay had made both of his artlessly tumbled curls and his coolly self-possessed demeanour.
Nonetheless, it was high time to cut in. Rob — taking advantage of Mercer’s distraction in much the same shameless way I had taken advantage of Katalin’s — felled our public school tosser with a solid punch to the jaw, while I shoved a Chair under Jay’s legs until he toppled into it. I sent him out the window with a flick of the Wand.
With a startled yelp and what might have been a vicious curse upon my ancestors, he disappeared.
Rob and I followed.
Flying by Chair is quite the experience, and it’s really something to do it as part of a small flock. I lounged back at my ease, much better off than poor Indira, for my chosen vehicle had a wide seat and tall arms to keep me from falling out. But it was her first time; she would soon develop a better eye for this kind of thing. And she had got herself out of the library speedily, efficiently and successfully. I was very pleased with her.
Melissa, I noted, had caught up, and steadied Indira with a firm grip on the back of her Chair. She was in no danger of falling off, injured arm notwithstanding; good.
I steered clear of Jay, at least until we made it back to our abandoned cars. He had a fine brooding-glower-of-displeasure going on which I did not wish to tangle with.
He opted to ride with Indira.
I opted to attribute this to a positive cause, like brotherly concern rather than Ves-avoidance.
We made it back to our cars unpursued, piled hastily into them and drove away, Bill in such fine fettle that he began singing again. The strains of Greensleeves hung dulcet upon the air, fading into silence as Melissa’s car pulled out ahead of us.
We had to leave the Chairs behind, of course, and I do wonder a little what might have become of our escape-pods. I would like to apologise right now to any dog-walker or jogger who might have been puzzled to discover a cluster of library chairs abandoned on the edge of a field, apparently a long way from anywhere. I promise, the explanation is perfectly reasonable.