Miranda was not only eager to assume charge of our find; she was electrified.
Jay and I proceeded directly to her domain once we reached Home. She is the head of our Magickal Beasts division, and presides over extensive premises in the east wing. We found her in the veterinary department, tending to the damaged wing of a black bird with an unusually long, blue beak. ‘Can it wait just a second?’ she said when we went in, without looking up.
‘One or two, but not more.’ I didn’t say that lightly. Our puppy had abandoned its attempts to eat my fingers almost the moment we had stepped out of the ruined cottage, and over the journey home it had seemed to lose all energy. It (or she, I think) now lay inert in my palm, worryingly lifeless.
‘Right.’ Miranda gently returned her bird to a large cage near the back of the room, and set it carefully atop a padded perch inside. Then she bustled back to us. She’d had a long day of it herself, by her appearance: her white coat was streaked with bird poop, some kind of animal feed and who-knew-what-else, and her blonde hair had mostly fallen out of its usually neat ponytail. She looked tired and shadow-eyed.
I held out the puppy to her. ‘Starving to death. Please help.’
Miranda took my puppy, handling her very gently. She said nothing for several seconds, examining the creature with great care. Her eyes grew rather wide. ‘Ves,’ she whispered at last, her voice emerging as a croak. ‘Where did you find this?’
I told her.
‘Hnngh,’ she said, and swallowed. ‘Er.’
‘This is a…’ she began, then stopped. ‘I mean, it can’t be, but it is.’
‘Not making sense,’ I offered helpfully.
Miranda shook her head, disbelieving. ‘It’s a dappledok puppy. They’re extinct.’
‘Dead as dodos. The last known sighting of a live one was recorded in a letter in, like, the late seventeen hundreds.’
I stared. ‘Oh.’
‘So!’ she said. ‘I’ll be off moving heaven and earth to save this one’s life, and later we’ll talk more about where you got it. Okay?’ Without waiting for an answer, she charged off, taking my tiny puppy with her.
I looked at Jay. ‘You’ve a talent for stumbling over long-lost things, it seems.’
His smile flickered. ‘We still have to figure out what to do with the last one.’
I gave a long, long sigh at that, and said: ‘I’m pretty sure I know exactly what will become of poor Bill.’
Baron Alban arrived bright and early the next morning. Too bright and early. I had no idea how he had managed to receive Milady’s summons and act upon them so fast, but I supposed he must have a Waymaster at his disposal. If he wasn’t one himself.
Having developed a more than passing acquaintance with the Baron by that time, I was prepared for his probable promptness, and so he found me awake, dressed and intent upon the consumption of my second cup of tea. I was only slightly droopy, and gazed at him with bleary-eyed alertness as he wandered into my usual nook in the first floor common room.
‘Ves,’ he said with his broad, charming smile. ‘You look like you fell under a ceiling.’
I gave him my most withering look, and swallowed a great deal more tea. ‘You usually manage to be more complimentary.’
‘You look gorgeous. Bruises suit you.’
I waved him to a chair, ignoring that. He looked as well turned-out as ever in a dark blue suit and white shirt, his purple tie elaborately knotted. ‘Please take care of Bill,’ I implored him.
One brow went up. ‘Bill?’
‘The book. We call him Bill.’
He inclined his head, as though this declaration made perfect sense. ‘Bill will have the best care, naturally. I’ve hopes that our bookbinders can patch him up a bit, and he’ll be safe from your friends at Ancestria Magicka.’
I shrugged at that, and set down my empty cup. ‘I doubt they will care about him much longer. They’ve had time enough to study all his workings, and will probably produce replicas soon enough.’
‘And will the Society, also?’
‘I have reason to believe that Milady cleared Orlando’s agenda entirely in favour of the project.’
He nodded, studying my face. ‘You’re sad about something.’
‘I am sorry for the loss of Bill. He’s the most charming book I ever met.’ My leave-taking from Bill the night before had been a little painful; he had not been delighted to be separated from me either, though his vanity could not but be pleased at the prospect of becoming a prized treasure of the Troll Court. I’d heard unpromising reports of the puppy, too; Miranda could only confirm that she was still breathing, and wouldn’t hazard more.
‘The most charming troll you’ve ever met is still waiting to take you out,’ said the Baron, and gave me a hopeful smile.
I couldn’t help perking up a bit at that. ‘How obliging of him.’
‘Just say the word.’ He got up, and made me a graceful bow. ‘I’d love to stay, but I need to get the book back to the Court. I have an escort and everything.’
‘Six ruthless bodyguards?’ I peeked behind him, as though there might be a team of dreamily muscle-bound trolls waiting by the door.
‘Something like that.’ He winked, and gave me a tiny salute. ‘Call me.’
On his way out, he passed Jay and Indira just coming in. I was intrigued to note that none of them seemed a bit surprised to see one another. ‘Good timing,’ said Alban with a smile, and then he was gone.
I raised my brows at Jay, but he ignored my silent question and flopped into a chair without speaking.
I looked at Indira, who was taking a seat with more care and more grace, keeping her injured arm well away from the table. ‘What was that about?’ I asked.
Indira looked guiltily at Jay, and said nothing.
Jay smiled at her. ‘Well, go on.’
She glanced at me, and looked quickly away again. Carefully, she bent to retrieve a soft cloth bag from the floor by her feet; I hadn’t noticed her carrying it when she came in. She placed this on the table before me, and sat back.
I waited for some explanation, but nothing came. ‘I’m to open the bag?’
Mystified, I peeped inside. A book lay at the bottom. It was of an ancient style (thick leather covers, vellum pages, heavy silver hinges) but it looked pristine and new. Extracting it with care, I discovered that the covers were tinted dark purple, and the front was embossed with a twelve-pointed star. It weighed less than it looked like it should.
‘A book!’ I said, not at all enlightened.
‘Open it,’ said Jay.
‘Madam,’ said the book. ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’
‘Perfect,’ whispered Jay, and the book gave a rather smug rustle of its pages.
‘Bill?’ I choked. ‘But— but the Baron just took him!’
‘Bill the Second,’ said Jay. ‘Indira’s been working on it ever since we left.’
‘Well, Orlando has,’ said Indira, hastily disclaiming. ‘I’ve just been, um, helping.’
Jay shook his head slightly. ‘More than that. You can’t deny this is mostly your own work.’
Indira looked like she wanted very much to deny it, but couldn’t truthfully do so.
‘That’s extremely clever of you,’ I said, with total sincerity. I couldn’t imagine the depth of skill required to produce such a grimoire; my talents definitely don’t lie in that direction. I stroked Bill the Second’s covers with faint regret (all right, more than faint), and handed him back to Indira.
She did not take him. Instead, she gave me a stricken look. ‘Um, don’t you want him?’
‘Wha… he’s for me?’
Indira nodded furiously.
‘Am I… am I allowed?’
Indira nodded again. ‘This is a, um, prototype. Orlando’s working on the finished design and, well, this one’s spare. Milady said it was all right.’
Jay’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but he said nothing.
I was only too glad to gather Bill Two back into my arms and give him a tight hug. ‘Thank you,’ I said, beaming. ‘It will be my honour to work with him.’
Indira smiled back, visibly relieved. ‘I’m glad you like him,’ she said, already getting out of her chair.
‘Won’t you have some tea?’ I offered, but she was in full retreat by then, and only shook her head as she vanished out the door.
I looked at Jay, and waited.
‘She made him especially for you,’ he said. ‘Stayed up most of the night to finish him, too.’
‘Um,’ I said. ‘Why?’
He shrugged. ‘Might be that she’s savvy enough to cultivate connections amongst those who are popular at Home. Or… maybe she just likes you.’
‘Likes me,’ I repeated numbly. ‘Right.’ Indira was always polite, but she still gave me the impression that she was petrified of me.
I decided that the Patels in general were a hard-to-read bunch.
Before Jay could decide upon a reply, there came the sound of tiny claws clicking against the hard floor, and the yellow dappledok puppy came creeping around the door. Her ears were down, her tail drooped and she trudged wearily in my direction as though the distance between us were almost insurmountable.
But she was alive!
‘Puppy!’ I blurted, overjoyed. ‘Come here!’
The moment she came within reach of the table, Jay bent to scoop her up, and handed her to me. I put her in my lap, whereupon she crawled, shivering, inside my cardigan and disappeared.
I tucked the folds of my clothes around her and sat, smiling like an idiot, until Miranda inevitably appeared. ‘Ves!’ she said, slightly out of breath. ‘Don’t hate me, but I think I’ve lost the puppy.’
I merely pulled aside my cardigan, displaying the ball of yellow fur. ‘Winnie the Unipup is fine.’
Miranda sagged against the doorframe in relief, though she looked annoyed, too. ‘Look, she shouldn’t be taken out of care just now at all, but at the very least you need to tell me.’
‘I didn’t take her! She showed up at the door about four minutes ago.’
Miranda blinked. ‘She found her way up here?’
‘I swear. Jay, back me up.’
‘Every word of Ves’s is the truth,’ he dutifully declared.
Miranda sighed. ‘Fine. Bring her back down once an hour for milk, okay?’
I tucked my cardigan back over my unipup once more, and beamed at Miranda. ‘Got it, boss.’