Read an Excerpt
By Mills, K.E.
Orbit Copyright © 2012 Mills, K.E.
All right reserved.
Puffing and panting, dripping unladylike sweat down her cheeks and off the end of her freckled nose and with her stylish, brand new spectacles fogged, Melissande slipped and staggered her way along yet another narrow, barely lit, cobblestoned Grande Splotze alley.
I’m an idiot. What am I? A raving nutter. I should’ve known I’d be sorry if I wore high heels.
Well. Highish. A good two and a half inches, at any rate, which at this particularly fraught moment was two and a half inches too many.
I swear on Sultan Zazoor’s best war camel, I don’t care what the occasion is, the next time I get mixed up with one of Gerald’s little missions I’m bloody well wearing ballet slippers!
Or better yet, football boots. The studded kind. With reinforced steel toes.
Assuming, of course, there is a next time. Assuming that this time doesn’t end with us well and truly corpsified.
She risked a downwards glance at her pale green silk-swathed chest, where Gerald’s lolling head was awkwardly pillowed. Oh, lord. He did look bad. Don’t die, Gerald. Please don’t die. Feeling him start to slip yet again, the fierce drag on her shoulders and back burning hotter with every unsteady step, she gave a little grunt, blinked fresh sweat out of her eyes, and tried to firm up her grip around his barely moving chest. If she dropped him he’d likely crack his skull on the cobbles, just like an egg.
Which would put the icing on our very lumpy cake, and no mistake.
Directly in front of her, arms clamped around Gerald’s knees, Bibbie was having her own difficulties staying upright. Not long after the night’s fireworks finished, a chilly rain had washed through festive Grande Splotze, chasing the crowds of revellers indoors even before the curfew. Now the capital’s inconveniently empty streets were as treacherous as an ice rink.
So any minute now we’ll be skating, I expect. Wonderful.
Without warning, the narrow, poorly lit alley took a precipitous right-hand turn. Cursing, Bibbie hopped and skipped and jiggled around it—and lost her footing. But then, praise Saint Snodgrass, with an alarmed squeak she found her balance and went on cursing, more inventively than ever.
Keeping up, but only just, Melissande clutched Gerald’s chest so tightly she expected to hear the sharp snap-snap-snap of his ribs.
“Do be careful, Bibbie! And shut up!” she hissed, frantic, at the back of Bibbie’s head. “We don’t want those murderous pillocks to hear us! And whatever else you do, don’t drop Gerald!”
“No, really?” Bibbie retorted over her shoulder. Her neatly coiffed hair was coming down in a tangle of plain pins. “Aren’t you the spoilsport. I was hoping to roll him down the street like a hoop!”
Melissande scowled. If her arms hadn’t been full of unconscious secret government agent she’d have happily slapped Monk’s wretched sister.
They staggered on, still panting and sweating, but mercifully no longer cursing, until they reached the end of the alley. Now the air wasn’t only coldly damp, it was smelly as well, ripe with discarded refuse and possibly a very dead cat. Melissande tried to hold her breath.
“Which way?” said Bibbie, between heaving gasps. “Mel, which—”
“I’m not sure. Give me a moment.”
Bibbie groaned. “Must I?”
Ignoring her, Melissande filtered the disgusting air between her teeth as she racked her tired brain for inspiration. If only she and Bibbie had gone with Gerald the day he went to investigate Abel Bestwick’s lodging. But he’d made them stay behind because they were only honorary janitors, and for all he knew Abel Bestwick had all kinds of secret janitorial information strewn about his rented home. Information they weren’t cleared to see. So instead of knowing in practice where they were going, she and Bibbie only knew in theory: 45b Voblinz Lane, smack dab in the middle of fancy Grande Splotze’s insalubrious slummy bits. She spared lolling Gerald’s upside down face an unfriendly glance. If all three of them got out of this scrape in one piece she’d have a few pithy things to say about being treated like a second-class honorary agent.
“Yes, yes, all right. Go left,” she said, haphazard.
“Left?” Bibbie echoed, doubtful. “Are you sure?”
“No, but at least there’s half a chance we’ll be going the right way!”
“Oh, Saint Snodgrass’s elbow,” Bibbie muttered. “Fine. Left it is.” But instead of getting a move on she cocked her head, listening. “I can’t hear anything, Mel. Are you quite certain those buggers are still chasing us? I threw down a pretty good confusion hex, y’know.”
“Bibbie, you and me and Gerald are all that stand between them and utter ruin. That’s what I call motive. Besides, with their thaumaturgics do you honestly think they’re going to stay confused for long?”
“Yes, well, when you put it that way…”
“Exactly. Now let’s go!”
They shuffled out of the stinking alley and headed left along a slightly wider and marginally less odiferous thoroughfare. Each side of the street was lined with slovenly buildings, leaning shoulder to shoulder like two lines of drunken sailors. A few crooked chimney pots belched half-hearted, noxious smoke. As with every other alley and lane in this dreadful part of Splotze’s capital, only a few gaslights were properly working and none of them was draped with festive garlands. Dim lamps shone behind tatty curtains here and there, but nobody stirred beyond the safety of their four dilapidated walls. But probably it wouldn’t matter if they did. Grande Splotze’s townsfolk were no match for the villains they were dealing with.
And speaking of villains…
Having caught her breath a little, Melissande strained her hearing. But she couldn’t hear any malevolent footsteps behind them. The only sounds were her bellows breathing, and Bibbie’s, and Gerald’s hoarsely squashed exhalations, and the uneven clipping of their reception-worthy heels on the city’s slick, uneven cobbles.
So was I wrong? Have we lost them after all? Oh, please, please let it mean I was wrong!
“Bibbie, I think maybe—”
And then it didn’t matter what she thought because Bibbie misstepped a second time, turned her ankle and with an anguished yelp let go of Gerald’s knees.
“Bibbie!” she shrieked, and dropped rump-first to the wet cobbles, Gerald clutched in her arms.
Ignoring her, Bibbie hopped in a circle. “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“Bibbie, be quiet!”
“Oh, be quiet yourself!” moaned Bibbie. “Can’t you see I’ve broken my leg?”
No, because she was too busy making sure Gerald was still with them. Luckily, Monk’s careless sister had chosen a fitful pool of gaslight in which to sprain her wretched ankle, so she could get a halfway proper look at him.
Oh, dear. Oh, lord. He’s getting worse.
“Gerald,” she whispered, patting his pale cheek. “Gerald, can you hear me? Gerald, are you there?”
He didn’t answer. Not even his closed eyelids flickered. In the uncertain light his lips looked dangerously pale. Equally alarming was the fine sheen of sweat coating his skin. She pressed gloved fingertips to his neck and waited for the re-assuring thub-thub of a pulse. It came at last, far too slowly.
“Well?” said Bibbie, bent in half and rubbing her kid-skin covered ankle. Her voice was steady enough but her eyes were frightened. “How is he?”
“Not dead yet.”
“If only we knew what poison they used,” Bibbie fretted. “Melissande, are you sure there’ll be something at Abel Bestwick’s lodgings that’ll save him?”
No, of course she wasn’t. Only she couldn’t say that. For all her bravado, Bibbie’s courage was hanging by a thread.
Not to mention mine.
“There should be,” she said, chafing Gerald’s cold hand. “Bestwick’s a janitor, he must have some kind of emergency medicine kit.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then he’ll have a crystal ball hidden somewhere. One strong enough to reach Sir Alec. And Sir Alec will know exactly what to do.”
“How?” Bibbie demanded, her voice catching. “When we can’t tell him which poison that bastard gave Gerald?”
Yes, well, trust Emmerabiblia Markham to spot the flaw in her plan.
“Can you walk yet, Bibbie? We have to get on.”
Gingerly, Bibbie put some weight onto her right foot. “I think so,” she said, wincing. Then she frowned. “You know, I really should risk—”
“No,” Melissande snapped. “Are you out of your mind? With Splotze’s etheretics as bad as they are, a levitation hex might explode Gerald to smithereens. Now help me up, then grab hold of his knees again. We can’t stay here, Bibs. It’s not safe.”
Awkward and clumsy, they got Gerald slung between them once more like a lumpy sack of potatoes. If only he weren’t such a dead weight. If only he could open his eyes.
If only he’d not drunk that damned cherry liqueur.
“Right,” said Bibbie. “Which way now?”
Her own pulse racing, Melissande stared around them. A short stone’s throw further along the street was the entrance to another laneway. Should they go that way? She had no idea. What they needed was a bird’s-eye view of Grande Splotze.
“I’m not sure. Lord, I wish Reg was here.”
Bibbie rolled her eyes. “Which one?”
“Emmerabiblia Markham! That’s a dreadful thing to say!”
“Yes. Well.” Sounding shamefaced, Bibbie settled her pale pink satin-clad shoulders under the heaviness of Gerald’s sagging lower half. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought it. Honestly, trying to remember which bits of our lives this new Reg remembers, and which bits she doesn’t, and constantly being reminded that she isn’t our Reg, that’s not much fun either.”
No, it wasn’t. But what could they do about it? Their Reg was gone and the new Reg was the only one they had left. The sooner they all got used to that fact, the better.
“Anyway,” said Bibbie. “I’m ready. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” she said curtly, blinking away the sting of inconvenient grief. “Let’s go. And we’ll keep going until we reach the end of this street.”
Limping only a little bit, Bibbie started walking. Melissande fell into step behind her, pulse racing. Dangling between them in his elegant evening wear, looking less rumpled and more important than ever they’d seen him, Gerald wheezed the damp night air in and out of his lungs.
“Look!” said Bibbie, after a few moments. “There’s a street sign, at last.”
Still slipping and staggering, nearly bursting a blood vessel trying to catch any sound of pursuit, Melissande squinted through her foggy spectacles at the faded board hanging by one rusty nail from the house on the corner.
“Groontzeshilsitz Place,” she said, stumbling over the surfeit of syllables and sibilants. “Sound familiar?”
Bibbie snorted. “Not the way you pronounce it.”
She peered both ways. “Looks like a dead end to the right. We’ll have to go left. Or turn around and take that little laneway after all. Or—”
“We can’t,” Melissande said, shaking her head. If we go back, we’ll run straight into trouble.”
“Y’know,” said Bibbie, “I really do hate it when you’re right.”
“Ha,” she said. “You should be used to it by now.”
They shuffled around till they were pointed in the right direction, then kept going. Several unsteady steps later, Bibbie cocked her head again.
“Do you hear that?”
That was a sluggish sloshing sound, growing more definite the further along the street they walked.
“It’s the Canal,” said Melissande, and briefly closed her eyes. Oh, Saint Snodgrass be praised. “That means we’re going the right way. Gerald said Abel Bestwick’s haunt was directly across from it.”
“Yes, he did,” said Bibbie, suddenly doubtful. “Only across from the Canal sounds awfully vague.”
“Now who’s being the spoilsport? Come on, Bibbie, hurry.”
With an effort that sent her cross-eyed, Melissande picked up the pace, forcing Bibbie to shuffle along faster as well. Every muscle she owned was howling in protest. She had three blisters on each foot and was sweating so much that she thought she could easily drink the Canal dry, even if there were thirty dead cats floating in it.
Miraculously, they’d managed to reach the Canal’s deserted public promenade. Stumbling to the watery thoroughfare’s walled edge, Bibbie looked over her shoulder. “Wait—wait—I need a moment. I have to stop.”
“All right,” Melissande said, rasping. “But only a moment, Bibbie. We’re running out of time.”
They lowered Gerald to the cobbles and fell against the Canal wall, heaving for air. Melissande clutched at her side, where a white-hot pain was sawing her in two. Despite it, she stared across the city rooftops in the direction of the Royal Palace. Oh, dear. There was a definite glow in the night sky, shimmering crimson above the tiles and chimneys and gilding the crowns of the distant trees.
“Y’know, Bibbie,” she said, wheezing only a little bit now. “On second thoughts, perhaps setting fire to the reception hall wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
With no gaslight close by it was too dark to see Bibbie’s face, but she felt the searing touch of her friend’s glare.
“Is that so?” Monk’s sister demanded. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Your Highness, but aren’t you the one who shrieked Quick, quick, we need a diversion!”
“Yes, all right, I did,” she said, caught, “but I meant for you to knock over a tray of drinks, not indulge in a spot of wholesale arson! Hartwig’s going to be terribly upset.”
“Right!” said Bibbie. “That’s it. Next time you create the diversion!”
“Oh, come on, Bibbie, don’t be like that! I’m only saying—”
Bibbie stamped her foot. “I don’t care what you’re saying! From here on in, Your Royal Snootiness, you can take care of your own bloody dirty work, because nothing I do is ever good enough for you!”
“What? What?” she spluttered. “Emmerabiblia Markham, that is the most—”
But before she could finish refuting such a rankly unfair accusation, the dank night air was unexpectedly full of feathers and beak and claws and a loud, angry indignation.
“Oy, you pair of hoydens!” Reg screeched. “Put a sock in it, right now! And then you can tell me what you’ve done to my Gerald!”
Three and a half weeks earlier…
“Right,” said Mister Jennings, the Department of Thaumaturgy’s leading technician. “That does it, I think, Mister Dunwoody. The monitoring crystals are all in place. How do you feel?”
So nervous I can’t see straight, Gerald thought. But since obviously he couldn’t say that, he shrugged. “Fine, Mister Jennings. I feel fine.”
“Hmm,” said Mister Jennings. A few years past middle age, he was corded with sinews and afflicted with adenoids, and a faintly fragrant pomade slicked his thinning grey hair close to his skull. Lips pursed, light brown eyes wearily cynical, he made another tiny adjustment to the clear crystals he’d fixed to his patient’s forehead. “Good. That’s good.”
In other words, I know you’re a big fat liar, Mister Dunwoody, but for your sake I’m going to pretend I believe you.
Satisfied at last, Mister Jennings glanced at the small, bare room’s ceiling. “All set here, Sir Alec. Anything you wanted to say?”
“No,” came Sir Alec’s crystal-thinned voice. “You may proceed, Mister Jennings.”
Trying not to feel the trickle of sweat down his shirt-covered ribs, Gerald frowned.
What, Sir Alec? No last words of encouragement? Not even a feeble, half-hearted good luck? Miserable bastard.
Except that wasn’t true. Not really. Soothing platitudes just weren’t his chilly superior’s style—something he should be used to by now.
“Now then, Mister Dunwoody,” said Mister Jennings, and patted his shoulder. “Breathe slow and deep and keep as still as you can. Mapping your potentia for the grimoire hexes shouldn’t be a problem, but once we start extracting them, well, there’ll be a bit of discomfort. Can’t be helped, I’m afraid. But I’ll be right outside, keeping a nice close eye on you. Most important thing is, don’t fight what’s happening. You’ll want to, but you’ll only make things harder on yourself if you do.”
“I see,” he said, his mouth drier than the Kallarapi desert. “Ah—have you any idea how long this will take?”
Mister Jennings rubbed his chin. “Can’t say as I do, I’m afraid. This isn’t something as gets done on a regular basis, you know. And then every wizard’s different, isn’t he?”
The look in his eye added: And some of us are more different than others.
“Yes, of course,” Gerald muttered. “Thank you, Mister Jennings.”
As the small, bare room’s door closed quietly behind the thaumic technician, he made an effort to relax. It might have been easier had he not been strapped down on the padded table. Or if there’d been something soothing overhead to look at. The empty expanse of white ceiling was oddly intimidating, even if he could only see it through his one good eye. Intimidating too were the broad strips of battered leather Mister Jennings had secured across his chest, hips, thighs and ankles. Honestly, he felt like he’d been abandoned in one of the less savoury establishments certain politicians had recently been caught frequenting, with abruptly career-ending results.
The crystals on his forehead weighed heavier than lead.
“Right then, Mister Dunwoody,” said Mister Jennings’s disembodied voice. “I’m activating the mapping hex now. You shouldn’t feel anything more than a slight tingle. Be sure to say something if that’s not the case.”
He swallowed, wishing he’d thought to loosen his collar. “I certainly will, Mister Jennings. Thanks for the warning.”
Some time passed. Was that a tingle? He couldn’t tell. It was hard to feel anything beyond the heavy thudding of his heart against the wall of his chest. With his eyes closed he could almost hear the thick, red gushing of blood through his veins.
“Right then, Mister Dunwoody,” said Mister Jennings. Beneath the deliberate cheer there sounded a note of caution. “All done.”
“Really?” Surprised, Gerald blinked. “That was fast. And I hardly felt a thing. Are you sure all those grimoire hexes are properly mapped?”
“He’s quite sure, Mister Dunwoody. Kindly refrain from telling the expert how to do his job.”
Oh. “Sorry, Sir Alec. No offence intended.”
“None taken,” said Mister Jennings. “Now, sir, we’ll start the extraction. I’ll have it over and done with soon as I can, I promise.”
And whatever Mister Jennings intended, that wasn’t the least bit reassuring at all.
“Thank you, Mister Jennings,” he croaked.
But there was no point complaining. He was the one who’d pushed to have the grimoire hexes his appalling alternate self had given him sucked out of his potentia, where general wisdom declared all acquired incants resided. Sir Alec, not at all keen on the idea, had counselled patience. When that didn’t work, Mister Jennings had been brought in to explain in stomach-turning detail the many and disgusting things that could go wrong with the extraction procedure. Not wanting to listen to either of them, he’d all but stuck his fingers in his ears.
“At least give the Department time to learn something of the effects of these hexes before you have them removed,” Sir Alec had said at last. “After all, Mister Dunwoody, you can’t overlook the fact that you’re in a unique position to further the sum of our thaumaturgical knowledge.”
Oh yes he bloody well could. He’d had more than enough of playing guinea pig for the Department. Besides, after enduring the grimoire hexes’ sickening taint for eleven days, he was starting to feel desperate.
To his surprise, even Monk, who’d seen what the other, terrible Gerald Dunwoody had done, the damage those dreadful hexes could inflict, hadn’t wanted him to do this.
“It’s too risky, mate,” he’d said, lanky dark hair flopped over his face. “Jennings’s procedure is practically experimental. What if something goes wrong?”
Trouble was, things were already going wrong. The other Gerald’s grimoire magic was giving him terrible dreams. Every night since his return from the other Ottosland he’d woken in a cold sweat, shaking, with those seductive grimoire hexes churning dread through his blood. In a terrible way they were alive… and they wanted to be used. But when he’d tried explaining that, all he got was blank stares. Monk shoved a bottle of brandy at him. Sir Alec told him it was his grief talking, and that as a janitor he could not afford to indulge in counterproductive and self-indulgent emotions.
The only person who took his fears seriously was the other Reg.
“You trust your instincts, sunshine,” she said, head tipped to one side, eyes bright. “You’re the one that bugger mucked up with the manky stuff, aren’t you? If you think his grimoire magic’s trouble, then it’s trouble. So don’t you go taking no for an answer from that beady-eyed Department stooge.”
Gerald still couldn’t decide if it helped or hurt, that her trenchant advice sounded so familiar. So right. As though it was really his Reg talking. Taking the advice, he’d dug in his heels and, for once recognising defeat, Sir Alec had relented.
So now here he was, strapped to a padded table in the bowels of the Department’s rambling, obscure Nettleworth headquarters, waiting to be doused with the thaumaturgical equivalent of paint stripper.
Who says I don’t know how to have a good time?
A hint of warmth in the crystals attached to his sweaty forehead stirred him out of thought. And then… no, it wasn’t his imagination. That was a definite tingle. A few booming heartbeats later, the tingle intensified. He felt his muscles twitch in protest, and heat surge through him like a tide of boiling water.
“Just relax there, Mister Dunwoody,” said Mister Jennings, encouraging. “We don’t want you doing yourself a mischief, do we?”
No, they certainly didn’t. With an effort, Gerald uncramped his fingers. Willed his frantically beating heart to slow down. Took a deep breath and tried to relax his spasming body.
The boiling water transmuted to thick, boiling molasses. He was being cooked alive from the inside out. Buried memories thrust themselves unwanted to the surface. This was his torment in Lional’s cave all over again, it was—
Actually, it was much, much worse.
“Mister Dunwoody, do you understand what you’re asking for?” Sir Alec had demanded, so severe. “The other Dunwoody’s grimoire magic will resist extraction. Vigorously. Are you prepared for that?”
Of course he’d said yes, he understood completely and was perfectly prepared—even though he knew he wasn’t. But he’d had no intention of letting that stop him.
Which, on reflection, might’ve been a mistake…
He could feel himself thrashing against the wide leather restraints. Everything hurt, but the worst of the pain was in his head, behind his eyes, where it threatened to shatter his skull. The small, bare room spun wildly around him. There was blood in his mouth, metallically tangy. He’d bitten his tongue.
“Steady on, Mister Dunwoody. You’re doing fine.”
Fine? Jennings was mad. Let them swap places and the Department’s best technician would soon realise this wasn’t fine. He wanted to shout out the pain, but he couldn’t. Sir Alec was watching and he had to prove his superior wrong. He had to bear this, no matter how bad it got, and deny Sir Alec the chance of saying I told you so.
“Coming along nicely, Mister Dunwoody,” said Mister Jennings’s disembodied voice. “But it’d help if you didn’t jiggle about quite so much.”
Only that was easier said than done, wasn’t it? Ignoring instructions, his tormented body thrashed itself from side to side, flailing against Mister Jennings’s merciless extraction incant. And beneath the torment he could feel something else, an odd, hollow, sucking sensation. Not pain, yet somehow worse than pain. Just as Sir Alec had warned, the other Gerald’s poisonous hexes were fighting their removal. Like ticks burrowed into tender flesh, they battled to stay put. Could a wizard’s potentia bleed? His felt like it was bleeding.
Gerald heard his harsh, deep breathing turn into shallow pants. The pain was intensifying, squibs of bright light and heat bursting behind his tightly closed eyes. Fresh beads of sweat trickled, scorching his skin.
“Really, Mister Dunwoody, you need to keep yourself still,” said Mister Jennings. Now he sounded anxious. “We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty and we don’t want any nasty accidents.”
With an effort that rolled both eyes back in his pain-stormed skull, Gerald forced himself into immobility. He thought he heard his joints popping and cracking with the strain. Bits of his body were numb, where he struggled against the leather straps that kept him on the table.
“Well done, Mister Dunwoody,” said Mister Jennings. “Nearly there. Just be a good chap and brace yourself. Things could get a mite uncomfortable now.”
Only now? If he’d had the strength to spare, he’d have laughed.
But then even that brief spark of levity died as the heavy crystals on his forehead burst into flame. Or felt like it. He did shout aloud this time, he couldn’t keep the pain decently, properly hidden. Not with the top of his skull ripped clean off. The air sobbed in and out of his labouring lungs and his fingers were clenched so hard he thought the bones would break. His belly twisted and heaved, threatening to empty. And then he felt a gush of something wet and warm, followed by a sharp slap of shame. His bladder had let go, as though he were a child.
“Hold on, Mister Dunwoody!” Mister Jennings urged. “One last hurdle. Hold on!”
But he couldn’t. He was done. Even as a final blast of pain surged through him, he felt himself drift upwards from the padded table and float away into welcome darkness.
A hand on his shoulder, not so gently shaking, brought him back with a thud. Dragging his eyes open, feeling an ache in every bone, tasting fresh blood in his mouth, Gerald frowned at the bleary, anxious face hovering above him.
“There you are,” said Mister Jennings, his nasal voice unsteady with relief. “Gave me a proper nasty turn there, you did, Mister Dunwoody, going off like that. Not the kind of happy ending I was looking for. But never mind. You’re upright and breathing, more or less. I’ve unhooked you from the extraction crystals and undone all your straps, so here. Have a drink.”
With Mister Jennings’s arm helping him sit up, Gerald took a large, grateful swallow of whiskey from the flask the technician held to his lips. Closed his eyes as it seared a path to his belly, took another, to be on the safe side, then politely declined any more.
“Is Sir Alec still here?” he said, feeling his bitten tongue tender against his teeth.
Stoppering the flask, Mister Jennings shook his head. “He’s taken himself off to town. Told me to tell you to go straight home, and stay there recuperating until you’re sent for.”
“I see.” Torn between relief and resentment, Gerald blotted his sweat-slicked cheeks on his sleeve. “And when will that be, Mister Jennings. Do you know?”
“I do not, sir,” said Mister Jennings, mildly reproving. “That’d be between you and Sir Alec.”
“Yes. Of course. Sorry. Ah—Mister Jennings—”
But Mister Jennings was avoiding his incomplete gaze. “I know what you’re wanting to ask, Mister Dunwoody, but I’ve been told by Sir Alec to leave the particulars to him. I’m authorised to say the extraction went well enough, all things considered. No more than that.”
All things considered? Gerald stared. What did that mean? Was he clean of filthy grimoire magic or wasn’t he?
His light brown, cynical eyes surprisingly sympathetic, Mister Jennings tucked the whiskey flask back into his lab coat’s stained, capacious pocket.
“There’s a change of clothes waiting for you in the showers, Mister Dunwoody. And Sir Alec’s arranged a driver to take you home. I’d advise a hearty meal and an early turn in to bed. I’m sure you’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.” He nodded, a small, unexpected gesture of respect. “Good day to you, sir.”
Acutely aware of every strained, insulted muscle, Gerald made his way through a honeycomb of drab grey corridors to Nettleworth’s showers, which were blessedly deserted. As promised, there was a fresh change of clothes and a bag for his soiled suit waiting for him. Arranged by Sir Alec? Had to be, surely. How remarkably gentle of him. And also unexpected.
Slumped beneath the shower’s steady sluicing of hot water, Gerald rested his head against the wet tiles and let his eyes close. With Sir Alec gone and Mister Jennings ordered to silence, he was alone with all his unanswered questions. So, was he brave enough to seek inside for those answers? A part of him desperately wanted to know the truth. Another part shrank from knowing it, so soon after the ordeal of extraction. For if the news was bad… if the procedure had failed…
A stab of self-contempt. He was a janitor. He had obligations. If the extraction had failed this time, then he’d just have to try it again. And again, and again, as many times as it took, until he was entirely rid of the other Gerald’s malignant grimoire hexes.
He took a deep breath… and looked inside.
Whispering, seductive, dark magic called his name. Tempted him. Taunted him. Promised the unspeakable in a honey-sweet voice.
For a few unsteady heartbeats, despair threatened to overwhelm him. So what if he could feel the pitted gaps, the healing tears, where Mister Jennings had managed to suck out most of that other Gerald’s unwanted, unasked for enhancements? Most wasn’t all.
And I want them all gone.
Needed them gone, quickly, before he got used to being different. Gave in to that honeyed voice, because it was easier than fighting. Because he wanted to. Because—because—
It was a long time before he could risk leaving the solitary safety of the showers. And when he did…
“Errol,” he said blankly, face to face with his nemesis three flights of stairs up from the showers. Damn. Listening to habitual, rebellious impulse he’d left his etheretic shield switched off—and the last thing he needed was this tosser feeling the changes in his potentia. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“None of your damned business,” said Errol, his saturninely Haythwaite good looks as polished as ever. “Step aside. I’m busy.”
And so self-involved, as usual, that he hadn’t noticed anything different in the object of his contempt.
Relieved, Gerald shook his head. So much had changed since their days at the Wizards’ Club, but it seemed Errol was determined to ignore that inconvenient fact. Which meant the arrogant tosser needed reminding. So he stood where he was, blocking the narrow, rabbit-warren Nettleworth corridor like a cork in a bottle.
“Sir Alec’s not here.”
“Did I ask if he was?” Errol’s lips curled in a familiar sneer. “No. Because I’m not here to see Sir Alec. Now run along, Dunnywood. There must be a dustpan and brush with your name on them around here somewhere.”
Lit match to dry paper, Gerald felt his uncertain temper ignite. Felt what remained of the grimoire magic bare its uncivilised fangs in a snarl. The narrow corridor misted in a rising storm of red.
Eyes widening with an unexpected and gratifying apprehension, Errol stepped back.
“You know what your problem is, Errol?” Gerald said, conversational. Every nerve in his body was threatening to catch fire. But there wasn’t pain, precisely. Or, if there was, it was the kind of pain he could easily learn to bear. “Your problem, Errol, my old chum, is you were never taught any manners. Oh, you were taught polish. You were taught how to jibber-jabber with your plonking, over-bred peers. But you were never taught ordinary, every day courtesy. Bit of an oversight, that. So here’s a suggestion. Why don’t I—”
“Mister Haythwaite,” said a bored voice behind him. “There you are.”
“Mister Dalby,” said Errol, sounding as close to meek as he could likely get. “Yes. I—ah—I just got here.”
“Which means you’re late,” said Mister Dalby. “Mister Scrimplesham’s waiting. Run along.”
Errol swallowed. “Yes. Of course.”
Heedless of Mister Dalby, watching, still inclined to make his point, Gerald didn’t shift quite far enough out of Errol’s path. Forced to brush against him, Errol hissed a sharp breath between his teeth. With a smile, Gerald pulled his spiky potentia back into himself. His burning nerves extinguished. The misted corridor faded from scarlet to clear. As he watched Errol out of sight, he felt a tickle of surprise.
Mister Scrimplesham? But he was Nettleworth’s expert in matters of disguise. Best obfuscatory hexman in the entire Department, it was said. Better even than Monk, and that was saying something. Why the devil would Errol be needing to see old Scrimpy?
Behind him, Frank Dalby sniffed. “Think you’re clever, do you, Dunwoody?”
A moment, then he turned to meet the senior janitor’s unimpressed stare. “Sorry, Mister Dalby. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yeah, you bloody do,” said Dalby, and sighed. “Now just you listen up. Personally, I could watch you smear that little ponce into raspberry jam and not turn a hair. No great loss. World’s full of rich tossers. But if you did you’d cause trouble for the guv’nor, and I won’t be having that. So you mind your p’s and q’s with Errol Haythwaite, understand? Or you and me, Dunwoody, we’ll have ourselves a problem.”
Frank Dalby’s fierce loyalty to Sir Alec, his former fellow janitor, was no secret around Nettleworth. Nor was it a secret that his mission success rate was second only to Sir Alec’s, and that his kill count was higher by at least three. Not that such things were openly discussed. They were just… known. And taken into account.
The last thing Gerald Dunwoody needed was a problem with Frank Dalby. He stood on cracked ice with the senior janitor as it was. Prudently, he backed down.
“Sorry, Mister Dalby. I let my temper get the better of me.”
Dalby’s stare softened a trifle. “Like I said. Haythwaite’s a tosser. Do yourself a favour and forget him.”
With Frank Dalby so out of character chatty, Gerald decided to chance a question, even though the matter was none of his business. “What’s he doing here? Errol’s a domestic agent. I thought his lot and ours weren’t meant to cross paths.”
Metaphorical shutters slammed down behind Frank Dalby’s weary eyes. “I’m a busy man, Dunwoody. I can drive you home now, or you can stand about chatting to yourself as long as you like and leg it home under your own steam later. Up to you.”
He felt his jaw drop. “You’re driving me home? But—”
“Fine,” said Dalby, turning. “Suit yourself. Just don’t you bloody go telling the guv’nor I didn’t try.”
“No—no—wait,” said Gerald, leaping after him. “Wait, Mister Dalby. I’m coming.”
And because he wasn’t stupid, no matter what Errol said, he kept his mouth shut all the way back to Chatterly Crescent.
Afterwards, alone in the kitchen because Monk was busy inventing things in Research and Development and Reg had taken herself off for the day, exploring her new home, he sat with a cup of tea and tried very hard to ignore how the grimoire hexes still tangled in his potentia, promise and poison…
… and how sickeningly satisfying Errol Haythwaite’s fear had felt.
“Oh good, Alec. You waited,” Ralph Markham said, coming into his Department of Thaumaturgy office as burdened as a mule. With a groan of relief he dumped the over-stuffed files he was carrying onto his already cluttered desk. “I was afraid you’d give up.”
Sir Alec raised his glass, half-full of best Blonkken brandy. “If not for this, I might have. Shall I pour you one?”
“Please,” said Ralph, closing the door.
Obliging his sometime friend, sometime foe, Sir Alec rose from the comfortable leather armchair reserved for special guests and poured a second glass of brandy. There were those who’d say, disapprovingly, that it was far too early in the afternoon for alcohol. But given what he’d sat through at Nettleworth, and the frustrated exhaustion stamped into Ralph’s heavy face, it wasn’t an opinion he shared.
Not today, at least.
“Thanks,” said Ralph, taking the glass. “Bloody domestic security meeting ran over. I tell you, if Gaylord was tipped out tomorrow he could earn a decent living blowing hot air into balloons.”
Sir Alec smiled. “Anything I need to know about?”
“Officially?” Ralph swallowed deeply, then belched. “Of course not. Domestic matters are not your concern.”
Perching on the front edge of his heavy mahogany desk, Ralph glowered into his glass. “Unofficially, this black market wizard is kicking our arses. Four more cases of illicit hexes in the past two weeks. One’s a fatality. Lady Barstow.”
“Yes. I heard.”
“I tell you, Alec, if we don’t pinch this nasty piece of work soon…”
He shrugged. “Well, Ralph, you know what I think.”
“Oh, don’t start,” said Ralph, impatient. “If I thought there was a snowball’s hope in summertime of Gaylord and the rest agreeing to your people and his joining forces then we both know I’d leap at your offer. But those shortsighted fools won’t have a bar of it and I can’t afford to expend political capital on twisting their arms to make them agree.”
“No, you’d rather wait until this criminal wizard brings Ottosland to its knees so they’re forced to come crawling to you, cap in hand.” Sir Alec smoothed his grey tie. “Which might be gratifying, I grant you. But Ralph, is it wise?”
“Alec, what would you have me do?” Ralph demanded. “So far this—this weasel has confined his activities to home soil. As much as I’d like to, I can’t over-ride Gaylord and involve your janitors.” He raised a hand. “And don’t, for pity’s sake, try to use Errol Haythwaite against me. Loaning Scrimplesham’s services to one of Gaylord’s agents is not the same as ignoring the inflexible rules regarding agency territorial purviews.”
Sir Alec topped up his glass then returned to the comfort of the guest chair. “Well, it’s your decision, Ralph. And never fear, I’ll be on hand to pull your chestnuts out of the fire when this blows up in your face.”
“Thank you,” said Ralph, gloomily, and downed the rest of his brandy. “Just don’t gloat too loudly when the time comes, that’s all I ask. You’re not the one who has to put up with Gaylord day in and day out.”
Which, for Ravelard Gaylord’s sake, was fortunate. Repressing a shiver of distaste, Sir Alec sipped more brandy. Let his head rest against the armchair’s high back and enjoyed the smothering glow of fine, fermented peach.
“You look a bit washed up yourself,” said Ralph, shifting from the desk to the office’s other armchair. “How did it go?”
Because he couldn’t make use of Jennings without Ralph being told, and because telling the truth was out of the question, he’d concocted a story about a training mishap that had left Gerald Dunwoody tainted with the wrong kind of magic. Trusting him, Ralph hadn’t questioned the tale.
Now, instead of answering, he dropped his gaze to the amber depths of his brandy. As a man of many and varied experiences, he prided himself on his carefully cultivated self-control. Unexpectedly, though, that discipline was shaken by what Gerald Dunwoody had stubbornly endured at Jennings’s hands.
“Not much point lambasting yourself, Alec,” Ralph said gruffly. “Accidents happen.” He cleared his throat. “Are you going to tell him?”
Sir Alec looked up. “That the extraction wasn’t entirely successful? Unnecessary. I’ve no doubt Mister Dunwoody’s already worked it out for himself.”
“I meant,” Ralph said carefully, “are you going to tell him the extraction failed on purpose.”
On purpose. That had an ugly ring to it. And why wouldn’t it? What he’d done was ugly. But then that was what Sir Alec Oldman excelled at. The dark, dirty, ugly little tasks, performed in secret, shrouded in half-truths and outright lies. He did the things that needed to be done, for the people of Ottosland who wanted them done but didn’t want to know the unpleasant details… and who’d bay for his blood if they ever found out.
“In time,” he said at last. “When I can trust he’ll not take my actions amiss.”
“And you’re sure that time will come, are you?”
“Dunwoody’s not a fool, Ralph. Once the heat of the moment has passed, he’ll understand.”
Ralph shook his head. “You hope. Have to tell you, Alec, if it were me, I’m not sure I would.”
“That’s hardly surprising, Ralph,” he said, indulging in a little malice. “You’re not a janitor.”
The sly dig earned him a look. Then Ralph drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “It’s a big risk you’ve taken. Grimoire hexes are bad enough. I mean, they’re restricted for a reason. But matched with Dunwoody’s rogue potentia? Who knows what mischief that might brew?”
Sir Alec set aside his unfinished brandy. “Nobody. Which was always the point, wasn’t it? To find out. And I seem to recall you thought it was the thing to do, when I raised the matter.”
Which he’d done most reluctantly. But with Ralph’s already deep involvement in Gerald’s case, not to mention the need for his support, he’d had no choice. In this, as in so much else, he and Ralph were wary allies.
“Yes,” said Ralph, frowning. “And despite my reservations I still do. An accident like this—you’d be mad not to take advantage. It’s not like we can go around deliberately feeding that kind of grimoire muck to our people.”
“But?” Sir Alec prompted, knowing there was more.
“But I wish it had been anyone other than Dunwoody. That unnatural young wizard is already too dangerous.”
Sometimes it seemed he spent half his life defending Gerald Dunwoody. “We’re all of us dangerous, Ralph, in our own little ways. Don’t fret. I keep that young man on a suitably short leash.”
“I know, Alec,” said Ralph, levering himself out of his armchair. “But you’d do well to remember that leashes can snap. Now, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m due for an early dinner with Wolfgang and the rest of the family. But look—before I go, is there anything I should know?”
“D’you mean has your nephew done anything appalling of late?” Standing, Sir Alec shook his head. “No. Not to my knowledge.”
“Wonderful,” Ralph groaned. “That can only mean we’re overdue for a disaster.” He collected his coat, hat and brief case. “I tell you, I do wonder what I did to deserve Monk. Him and his sister. There ought to be a law.”
Sir Alec patted his shoulder in passing. “Well, Ralph, why don’t you devise one? Since there’s no plan in place to apprehend your black market wizard, it seems to me you must have plenty of time.”
And on that satisfying note, he took his leave.
“Oy!” Aylesbury slapped his hand on the round dining table’s antique lace tablecloth. “Monk! Stop acting deaf, you grubby little stoat! I said pass me the gravy before you and Emmerabiblia guzzle the bloody lot.”
Seated opposite his irascible brother, Monk turned to their sister. “You know, Bibs, I think I need to visit the doctor.”
“Why, Monk?” said Bibbie, her eyes alight with mischief. “What’s wrong?”
“Something very peculiar. Whenever anyone forgets to say please, I’m stricken with an odd kind of paralysis.”
“Really?” Bibbie fanned herself in mock distress. “Monk, that sounds awful. If I were you, I’d—”
“Now, now, you two, stop teasing Aylesbury,” their mother said, calmly passing her eldest offspring the gravy boat. “This is the small dining room, not the nursery.”
Slopping more horseradish onto his plate, Uncle Ralph snorted. “Could’ve fooled me, Sofilia.”
Their mother smiled sweetly. “Speaking as a Thackeray, Ralph, I’m sure that’s true. With one or two notable exceptions—” She patted her daydreaming husband’s arm. “I’m afraid the Markhams are rather easily befuddled.”
“Eh?” Uncle Ralph sat back in his chair. “Wolfgang! Are you going to let your wife insult the Markham name with impunity?”
As their father continued to dream thaumaturgics and eat his dinner, unheeding, and their mother and Uncle Ralph fell to familiar, good-natured bickering, Monk rolled his eyes at Bibbie, who giggled, then settled his gaze on Aylesbury. Feeling the scrutiny, Aylesbury paused in fastidiously cutting away the fat from his roast beef and looked up.
Monk shrugged. “Nothing. Only I think you might’ve missed your true calling. I’d bet the Central Ott morgue is crying out for a man with your knife skills.”
Eyeing him coldly, Aylesbury set down his cutlery and reached for the gravy boat. “If you volunteered yourself for me to practice on I’d consider offering my services.”
Hmm. Was his brother joking? Most likely not. Where he was concerned, Aylesbury’s sense of humour was conspicuously lacking.
“Anyway, Ralph,” said their mother, waving an airy hand. “It’s neither here nor there, is it, because though I was born a Thackeray I’m now a Markham by marriage. And everyone knows it’s perfectly acceptable to insult your own. Emmerabiblia, stop eating. Who’s going to marry you if you’re the size of a cart horse?”
A pinched line appeared between Bibbie’s perfectly arched eyebrows. “Another cart horse?” she suggested, and looked over her shoulder at the family’s stoically silent senior footman. “Cheevers? The roast potatoes, please.”
“Really, Emmerabiblia,” their mother sighed, as Cheevers fetched the dish of potatoes from the serving board. “You are tiresome. Next you’ll be saying you don’t want to get married!”
Bibbie helped herself to a crisply golden potato, then dismissed Cheevers with a smile. “And so I don’t. Not yet, anyway. I’m far too busy.”
She sounded cheerful enough, but Monk felt his insides twist. Bibbie’s trouble was that she did want to get married. To Gerald.
And that’s the last thing I want for her.
Though it made him feel a traitor to their friendship, he couldn’t settle with the notion of Gerald and his sister getting… involved. Not only because his best friend was one of Sir Alec’s secretive, dangerous janitors, but because after their ghastly adventures in that other Ottosland, he was more convinced than ever that if Bibbie and Gerald did act on their feelings, she would only end up hurt.
Because the Gerald who came back isn’t the same Gerald who went.
Aylesbury was favouring Bibbie with a scathing stare. “Come now, Mother. Emmerabiblia’s never going to convince someone to marry her while she’s footling about with that ridiculous hobby of hers.”
Pink with indignation, Bibbie glared. “Witches Incorporated is not a hobby! We are a legitimate business enterprise, and—”
“Don’t, Bibs,” Monk said, treading lightly on her foot. “He’s trying to get a rise out of you.”
“It’s true,” Aylesbury retorted. “The rest of the family might be too soft-headed to protest her nonsense but I don’t suffer from the same complaint! You must know, Emmerabiblia, that you and that misguided, ragtag bit of royalty you’ve teamed up with are turning the Markham name into a laughing stock.”
Monk winced as Bibbie sucked in a furious breath. Oh, lord. She was going to lose her temper and reveal the truth about Witches Inc.’s interesting little arrangement with Sir Alec’s secret government department. But before he could intervene, Uncle Ralph leaned a little sideways and clapped Aylesbury hard on his velvet-clad shoulder.
“Now, now, nephew, come along,” he said, in a heartily patronising tone calculated to raise Aylesbury’s hackles. “Don’t be so stuffy. These are modern times we’re living in, eh? Gels like to have a bit of fun, doncha know? And I think the Markham reputation can withstand a bit of girlish romping.” He chuckled. “But speaking of weddings, what d’you all make of this fuss over Splotze and Borovnik’s upcoming nuptials?”
Typically mercurial, Bibbie abandoned temper. “Melissande was invited to attend,” she said sounding pleased and proud. “The wedding and the royal tour.” She flicked a mordant glance at Aylesbury. “Which only goes to show that she isn’t ragtag.”
“Really, Emmerabiblia? How very prestigious,” said their mother, brightening. “Perhaps you could wangle your way into her retinue.”
Rousing from his reverie, their father smoothed back his unruly salt-and-pepper hair. “What are you on about, Sofilia? You don’t approve of royalty.”
“Really, Wolfgang, do try not to be dense,” said their mother, with an impatient tsk. “For all their faults, royalty can occasionally prove useful. There’ll be scads of unspoken-for young men gadding about this wedding. Who knows what kind of eligible personage our unwed and rapidly aging daughter might meet?”
“I know, Mother,” said Bibbie, with a glittering smile. “Not a one, because Melissande’s declined the invitation. Something about the Crown Prince of Splotze and his wandering hands.”
“Oh,” said their mother, disappointed. “Well. That’s terribly unobliging of her, I must say. As your friend she should be prepared for some trifling inconvenience if it means you could meet the right man. Monk, you’re dallying with the young woman, aren’t you? What are you doing to see that she changes her mind about attending this wedding?”
Monk trod on Bibbie’s foot again, more emphatically, and favoured their mother with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Mama, but when it comes to persuadability Melissande is quite a lot like you. Once she’s made up her mind, there’s no changing it.”
“Well, I call that sadly lily-livered!” their mother retorted. “For your poor sister’s sake, Monk, I demand that you try!”
There was no point arguing. “Yes, all right. But I’m not making any promises.” And now it was time to change the subject. He looked at Uncle Ralph. “I must admit I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the Splotze-Borovnik fuss, sir. I’m still working on that big project for—” Just in time he remembered Aylesbury, who was employed by Ottosland’s largest international trading company and didn’t possess the right kind of government clearances. “That’s to say, I’ve been busy. D’you honestly think something as simple as a wedding can patch up more than two hundred years of disputes and skirmishes and the occasional all-out war?”
“I can’t say,” said Uncle Ralph, after a considering moment. “But at least it’ll give them something different to skirmish over. Weddings? From my experience they’re little more than an excuse to settle old feuds and start new ones.”
“Uncle Ralph, are you saying there’s going to be trouble?” Bibbie said, pushing her emptied dinner plate away. “Because with Melissande not going to Splotze, and New Ottosland not wanting to risk various trading concessions, now it’ll be King Rupert flying the flag at the wedding and it would be awful if something happened. He’s the only brother Mel’s got left and she’s terribly fond of him.”
“There!” said their mother, signalling Cheevers to start clearing the table for the dessert course. “That is precisely what I’m talking about. Your friend’s brother. King Rupert. What is he if not a perfectly good unmarried monarch cluttering up the landscape? If this Princess Melissande was really your friend, Emmerabiblia, she’d introduce you to him. Monk, why haven’t you arranged it?”
“Mama…” He sighed deeply, ruefully resigned. “Probably she would, if I asked, but even if I did, as a rule kings don’t marry commoners.”
“Commoners? With the blood of Thackerays and Markhams coursing through her veins, Monk, your sister is anything but common!”
“I know,” he said patiently, because at times like this their mother required careful handling. “Only, Mama, you can’t be serious. I mean, if Bibs married Rupert she’d have to go and live in New Ottosland.”
“And get all excited about butterflies,” Bibbie added, wrinkling her nose. “Because according to Mel, that habit’s stuck. So I think I’ll pass on Rupert, thanks all the same.”
“And you know, Sofilia,” Uncle Ralph added, “she’s not likely to find the right sort of chap at this bloody Splotze-Borovnik affair. It’ll be crawling with foreigners of dubious lineage. Last thing this family needs is Emmerabiblia making sheep’s eyes at someone unsuitable from Graff or Harenstein or Blonkken.”
Being careful to keep his expression safely amused at indignant Bibbie’s expense, Monk looked at their important, powerful uncle and wondered. For all his joviality, there was a shadow in his eyes. So either something was bothering him about the Splotze-Borovnik wedding… or else some other cloud was looming on the thaumaturgical horizon.
But what could it be? I’ve heard no rumblings. And if something was up, Gerald would’ve told me.
At least, he’d like to think so. Only things between him and Gerald hadn’t been entirely comfortable since their return from the other Ottosland. They were keeping mismatched work hours, and when their paths did cross, in the kitchen or on the stairs of his inherited town house, it never seemed to be the right time for a fraught conversation. And anyway, he had no idea what to say.
I know you tried to kill me, mate, but no hard feelings. You weren’t yourself. And incidentally, how’s that grimoire magic working out for you? Had any more overwhelming homicidal urges lately?
No. No, he couldn’t say that. Trouble was, it seemed he couldn’t say anything that didn’t run the risk of revealing a harsh truth: that every time he looked at his best friend, just for a split second he remembered that hideous killing hex, the cruelty in Gerald’s face, the pain and the disbelief and the horror of impending death… and was afraid.
So, perhaps he shouldn’t have spoken against Jennings’s extraction procedure after all.
Pushing aside the sharply painful memories, Monk returned his attention to the family dinner. Cheevers and his underling were leaving the dining room, having served up the final course of raspberry fool, and Aylesbury was banging on about the importance of the wedding with regards to the stability of international trade.
“—exactly my point, Uncle Ralph. It might not be an ideal solution, but something has to be done. The Splotze-Borovnik Canal is a vital shipping thoroughfare. I hate to think how much money’s been lost thanks to all those wasted years of bickering.”
Stirred again from dreams of fantastic thaumaturgics, their father slapped the table. “It’s the greatest mistake in history, that bloody Canal,” he declared, his deep-set eyes glittering. “All it’s done is give Splotze and Borovnik even more excuses to fight. And how stupid were they, eh, to sign treaties that prevent the use of thaumaturgical measures to keep the peace? Superstition and ignorance instead of enlightenment, and for no better reason than their etheretics are unreliable. I tell you, it’s been one misstep after another, ever since the day they opened their muddy ditch for business.”
Aylesbury stared, aghast. “But, sir—you can’t mean that!”
“I bloody well can,” their father retorted. “And if you’d stop wearing those stupid neck ruffs that make you look like a lachrymose poet, you’d get a decent flow of blood to your brain and realise I’m right.”
“But Father, you’re not right,” Aylesbury insisted, his colour dangerously high. Very fond of his neck ruffs, was Aylesbury. A stalwart aficionado of the romantical fashions. “Perhaps if you spent less time footling about with useless theoretical thaumaturgics, and more time out in the real world dealing with actual issues of economics and trade and politics, you’d—”
“Oh, blimey,” Bibbie murmured. “Here we go. Do something, Monk.”
“Why me?” he said, raspberry-and-cream laden spoon halfway to his mouth. But it was only a token protest. They’d never listen to Bibbie and there was no-one else. His mother and Uncle Ralph had long since given up when it came to keeping the peace between Wolfgang Markham and his eldest son.
But I’m the idiot who can’t help throwing himself into the fray.
As Aylesbury and their father paused to take a heated breath, Monk cleared his throat. “I say. I’ve been thinking. It’s pretty sad about Lady Barstow, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it is,” their mother agreed, with an approving flicker of one eyelid. “Not my favourite person, it’s true, but she’ll be missed. Very good on a committee, was Persephone Barstow. You could always rely on her to provide edible biscuits.” She turned. “What has Gaylord to say about her death, Ralph?”
Uncle Ralph choked on a mouthful of dessert. “Sofilia, please, this is hardly the time or place to discuss—besides, I can’t—” Peevish, he dabbed pinkish cream off his chin with his damask napkin. “Dammit, I was hoping to leave work in the office for one evening, at least.”
Monk had to smile. “A forlorn hope, sir. Y’know—” He sat back, comfortably full of roast beef and raspberries. “Looking at the matter purely academically, I can’t help but be a bit impressed by the incant that did for Lady Barstow. Bloody ingenious, hexing her teapot like that. Your average punter won’t think past natural causes. How d’you suppose—”
“Ingenious?” Aylesbury shoved his own raspberry fool to one side, untouched. “Monk, you make me sick. The wizard responsible for this has to be stopped, not admired. Lady Barstow might’ve been a vacuous blot but she didn’t deserve to die like that.” He leaned forward. “Infantile adoration from thoughtless idiots like you is one of the reasons this thaumaturgical madman hasn’t been caught.” His lips curled in a sneer. “Perhaps instead of witlessly fawning over the man and his growing list of misdeeds, you could spare a little of your vaunted genius for catching him.”
Stunned to silence, the whole family gaped. One supercilious eyebrow raised, Aylesbury smiled, sardonic.
“Oh, come on, Uncle Ralph. Surely you didn’t think you could keep this nefarious wizard’s exploits under wraps forever? I might not be in the government’s employ, but I am still a Markham. And while I don’t pretend to be Monk, neither am I a cabbage.”
“Now then, Aylesbury, I don’t recall anyone ever calling you a cabbage,” said Uncle Ralph, shockingly subdued. “Your aptitude scores are nothing to wink at.”
Aylesbury sneered. “So I am right? When it comes to these odd deaths and thaumaturgical mishaps, the authorities know they’re not random? Someone is standing behind the curtain, pulling the strings?”
“Hmmph.” Uncle Ralph ran a finger round the inside around the edge of his collar. “Well. Since I know I can speak freely beneath a Markham roof… yes. But as for this damned black marketeer and his filthy hexes, while I can’t go into details, for obvious reasons, I will assure you the Department is doing all in its power to bring the man down.”
“We know you’ll catch him,” said Monk, as his parents exchanged looks and held hands under the table. Funny how they always thought nobody would notice. “Word around the Department is that Gaylord’s got his best agents on the hunt.”
“What?” Uncle Ralph’s eyes bulged alarmingly. “D’you mean to tell me, Monk, that you and the rest of Research and Development’s ramshackle collection of reprobates spend the day gossiping about highly sensitive government matters that are none of your bloody business?”
“No—no, of course we don’t,” he said, leaning away from his irate uncle. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to—that’s to say, I wasn’t—look, forget I mentioned it. My lips are sealed. I don’t know a thing.”
“Actually, Uncle Ralph,” said Bibbie, heroically rushing to the rescue, “I think it’s a bit insulting, the way you keep on referring to Ottosland’s mystery criminal as he. For all you know, your evil mastermind is a witch. I mean, when it comes to committing heinous thaumaturgical acts, you must agree that a witch is perfectly capable of being every bit as dreadful as a wizard.”
Their mother turned. “Wolfgang, darling, I don’t understand. Where did we go wrong?”
“Steady on, Mama,” said Monk, as Bibbie’s eyes widened with hurt outrage. “That’s not fair, y’know. Bibs—”
Ignoring him, their mother added, “I’ll tell you one thing, Wolfgang. Emmerabiblia’s zaniness does not come from my side of the family! She’s a Markham throwback, which means you’ll have to deal with her!”
“Thanks ever so, Mother, but I don’t feel like being dealt with,” Bibbie snapped. “I feel like going home. Monk, I’m off to warm up the jalopy. If you’re not sitting in the passenger seat by the time it’s toasty, you can walk back to Chatterly Crescent.”
And in the highest of dudgeons, she flounced out of the small dining room.
“Lord,” said Aylesbury, laughing. “I do love our family dinners. They save me from buying a ticket to the theatre.” He stood. “But even the best of entertainments must come to an end. I’ve a conference in Aframbigi tomorrow and a mountain of papers to read through before I leave. Good night, Mama.” He kissed their mother’s powdered cheek. “Good night, Father.” A perfunctory hand-shake. “Good night, Uncle Ralph.” A reserved nod of his head.
Their mother sighed. “Aylesbury dear…”
Aylesbury dear grimaced. “Monk.”
Monk waggled his fingers. “Aylesbury.”
“Really, Monk, you should try harder to get along with him,” his mother scolded, once his brother was gone. “Poor Aylesbury. He might not be a cabbage, but I’m afraid there’s no escaping the fact that next to you he is a trifle leafy.”
He shot his mother a sly look. “Perhaps he’s a throwback on the Thackeray side.”
“Really!” his mother said, then glanced at the dining room door and sighed again. “Oh dear. I suppose I should go and mend fences with your impossible sister. You know, Monk, it’s very poor of you to encourage her. I’m not at all sure it was the right thing to do, letting her live with you in Uncle Throgmorton’s house. Not after saying she could start that little witching business with that princess of yours. A great many eyebrows were raised both times, and I’m still waiting for most of them to come down.”
“Now, now, Sofilia,” said his father, taking her elbow before she could launch into a proper tirade. “You’re going to need some help, mending that fence. Give us a few minutes, Monk. And if you’ve some time in the next few days, you should drop back round. I’ve developed a new etheretic combinant meter, and I’d like your assessment.”
Monk grinned. Wolfgang Markham, world-renowned thaumaturgist, was an easy man for a son to admire… but sometimes hard to live up to.
But not now. Now being his son is the easiest thing in the world.
“Of course, sir. I’m free the night after next, if that suits.”
“Good,” said his father, and stood. “Come along, Sofilia.”
As his parents withdrew, Monk looked at Uncle Ralph. “Honestly, sir, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. The other lads and I don’t—”
“I know,” his uncle said heavily. “You’ve faults aplenty, but idle tongue-flapping’s not one of ’em. Don’t mind me, my boy. It’s been a long day.”
It was strange, really, being related to one of the most important government men in Ottosland. There was such a sharp line they had to draw, between their encounters at the Department, and then at family gatherings like this. Even stranger was being privy to things that by rights Ralph Markham should know, but didn’t, because him finding out would lead to terrible repercussions. Not an idle tongue-flapper?
Bloody hell, sir. You don’t know the half of it.
Uncle Ralph drummed his fingers on the tablecloth. “That friend of yours. Dunwoody. Seen him today, have you?”
Monk felt a frisson of unease stir the hairs on the back of his neck. “No, actually. Ah… why?”
Instead of answering, Uncle Ralph seemed to debate with himself. Then he pulled a face. “He’s undergone a classified and slightly dangerous procedure, Monk. It means he might not be feeling quite himself, so be sure to look in on him when you get home.”
His mouth sucked cinders-dry. Bloody hell. The grimoire extraction. That was today? Why the hell didn’t Gerald tell me? “Yes, sir.”
“I can see from the look on your face you know what I’m talking about,” Uncle Ralph added, resigned. “So you know what it means. If you’re not satisfied with Dunwoody’s appearance, raise the alarm. But discreetly. Understand?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Good lad,” said Uncle Ralph.
It was one of the most startling things he’d ever uttered.
Driving home with Bibbie, too preoccupied to pay much attention to her fuming complaints about overbearing, old-fashioned mothers, too numb to feel his usual terror at her recklessly extravagant driving, Monk gnawed at his bottom lip and wished he’d not eaten that third helping of roast beef.
Why hadn’t Gerald told him about the procedure? Was his silence another symptom of their ailing friendship? Doused in misery, as Bibbie rambled on he nodded in what he hoped were all the right places, offered an encouraging grunt every now and then, and felt his belly churn more and more nervously the closer they got to home.
Leaving his sister to garage the jalopy, he had her let him out by the gate. As he reached the bottom of the steps at the end of the path, he heard a familiar rustle of feathers.
Reg. She was perched on the big flowerpot by the front door, light from the window limning her long, sharp beak and making her eyes gleam.
“Evening,” he said, stopping. “What are you doing out here?”
Her tail feathers rattled. “Enjoying a little peace and quiet.”
There was something in her voice. “Oh. So… you know?”
“That our daft Mister Dunwoody spent the day having himself spring cleaned?” She sniffed. “Yes. I know.”
Monk folded his knees until he was sitting on the nearest step. “You think getting rid of those foul grimoire incants was daft?”
“No. That was smart. Going it alone was daft.”
He couldn’t argue with that. “Have you seen him?”
“I spoke to him. From the other side of his closed bedroom door. He’s not interested in company.” Reg chattered her beak. “I’ll try again in the morning.”
Yes. Reg had often been the only one who could talk sense into Gerald. He just had to trust that at least that much hadn’t changed.
“I’m worried, Reg. He’s not the same.”
In the darkness, a cynical snort. “Neither am I, sunshine. And neither are you. We’re all of us different now, aren’t we, Mister Markham? One way or another.”
He realised then that he wasn’t ready to answer that question, or to talk in any meaningful way about what had happened in the other Ottosland. About the Reg who’d died there, or the Monk who’d died here and the Gerald who’d killed them both. Those things were too enormous. Still too close. He needed more time.
“Is Gerald all right, d’you think?”
“No,” said Reg, looking down her beak at him. “But you don’t need me to tell you that.”
Groaning, Monk dropped his head in his hands. “Oh, Reg. What are we going to do?”
Another rattle of tail feathers, and then a flap and a thud as she landed on his shoulder. “Right now? You’re going to pour me a brandy. Then we’re both going to take our beauty sleeps. And come tomorrow? Well. We’ll see.”
He stood, his knees creaking. “Don’t mention this to Bibbie. Or Mel, for that matter.”
“Ha!” said Reg, and whacked him with her wing. “Do I look like I came down in the last shower of turnips?”
“No, Reg,” he said humbly.
“No,” she echoed. “Now gee up. My brandy glass isn’t about to fill itself, is it?”
“Ooooh, Ferdie,” said Mitzie, breathless. “Should we? I don’t think we should. What do you think?”
Grinning, Abel Bestwick slid his arm around the buxom kitchen maid’s willowy waist, then accidentally-on-purpose let his eager hand slip south to caress her delightfully plump behind. What did he think? He thought that if Sir Alec knew he was dipping his wick on Department time he’d find himself in very hot water. But seeing as how Sir Alec was several countries eastward, chances were his superior would never find out. And anyway, after living nearly four years as Ferdie Goosen, pantry-man in the Royal Palace of Splotze, he was owed whatever chances of wick-dipping wandered his way.
Sometimes it was a real bugger he’d been born half-Splotzin. And an even bigger bugger he looked all Splotzin through-and-through and thanks to his mother spoke Splotzin like a native.
“What do I think, Mitzie?” he murmured, nibbling at her ear. They were tucked out of sight in the palace kitchens’ vast drygoods pantry, surrounded by beans and sugar and flour and herbs and suchlike. “I think even lackeys like us deserve a noon break from our toils. And it just so happens I overheard the head groom mentioning he and the lads would be gone most of the day, taking the horses with them. So you and me, we can duck into an empty stable or up to the hay loft and—” He closed his fingers on her ample flesh. “Bounce.”
Mitzie squealed, her lavish eyelashes fluttering. “Ooooh, Ferdie. In broad daylight? Idn’t that playing dice blindfolded?”
“Bit of danger adds spice,” he said, and dared a kiss. “You feeling spicy, Mitz? My itsy bitsy mittens?”
She kissed him back. For all her protestations she was no innocent, Mitzie. She’d only been in the kitchens a few months, but he’d sized her up on her first day as a lass who wasn’t a stranger to bouncing. His luck, for once, that her come-hither eye had alighted on him.
“I’ll meet you round back of the stables, by the manure pile,” she said, giggling. “Don’t be late, Ferdie.”
And then she slipped away, not a moment too soon, for he’d barely tipped a fresh sack of flour into the drygoods pantry’s big stone crock when the cook-in-charge barged in shouting for more salt. He did a lot of shouting, did Cook. In that respect he was the opposite of Sir Alec, who never raised his voice… and was about a hundred times more frightening because of it.
As soon as Cook stopped shouting and waving his fat arms, Abel pointed. “Salt’s there, Cook. Came in fresh just yesterday.”
“No, no, no, that is the wrong salt!” Cook bellowed. His cheeks were scarlet, his jowls wobbling like badly-set calf’s-foot jelly. “You are stupid. You think I create the finest medallions of veal poached in malmsey for the Crown Prince and Princess and His Highness and the foreigners using plain marsh salt from Ottosland?” He spat on the stone floor. “Pah for your Ottosland! Where is my beautiful sea salt from Beleen?”
Abel blinked at him. “I don’t know?”
“Pah!” No respecter of lackeys, Cook brandished his ham-hock fists. “But you are the senior pantry-man! Why don’t you know?”
The answer to that was simple—because Cook insisted on jealously guarding his collection of recipes and his weekly menus, so that the underlings who cooked in his wake and the kitchen’s general lackeys never knew from one day to the next what ingredients would be needed.
But if he said that, Cook might well toss him out on his arse, which wouldn’t please Sir Alec at all. So he bit his tongue, looking suitably chastened. On the inside, though, he was seething. Enough was enough. As soon as the royal wedding was done with he was going to ask Sir Alec for a different assignment. It wasn’t just the scarcity of wick-dipping, though that didn’t help. No, it was the daily bollocking from Cook, and the mind-numbing, bone-breaking physical labour that went with being a pantry-man and the relentless, grinding reminders of his despised lackey status and the ever-present background tension over that bloody Canal. The whole bloody set-up was giving him the gripes. He was homesick. Fed up to the back teeth with all things Splotze. Desperate for a pint or several of good Ottish brown ale.
Cook was slamming his way around the drygoods pantry’s shelves, searching like a madman for his precious Beleen salt. As if it could make that much of a bloody difference! Salt was salt, wasn’t it? If it was white and salty, what else could any sane man possibly want? Clearly, Cook needed to get out more. He needed to do a little wick-dipping of his own, instead of spending his days making love to pots of bubbling stew.
Panting, Cook slewed around. “You, there, you stupid, blind pantry-man!”
“My name’s Goosen,” Abel said, feeling truculent and unfairly put-upon. “Ferdie Goosen.”
“A good name, then, for you are a goose!” Cook snapped. “You will run down to the township and you will find me Beleen salt! Go now, goose-man. Run your feet off. Run!”
In this world, in his current disguise, he had no choice but to obey Cook as he’d obey Sir Alec. Cursing under his breath in gutter Splotzin, denied even the comfort of some good, plain Ottish oathing, Abel took to his heels. If he was lucky, he’d find Cook’s bloody salt and still make it to the stables in time to meet Mitzie.
“Ferdie!” Pouting, Mitzie stamped her foot into the soft ground beside the odiferously steaming manure pile. “You are late! I am leaving. I only stayed until now so I could do this!”
And she smacked his face.
Slapping one hand to his smarting cheek, Abel grabbed her wrist with the other and tugged her, protesting, into the deserted opulence of the royal stables.
“Don’t blame me, Mitzie love, it was Cook’s fault,” he wheedled. “I had to run an errand for him, and I promise I ran it as fast as I could.”
Still pouting, she folded her arms. Her generous charms swelled provocatively above the demure neckline of her blouse. Abel felt his breath catch.
“Please, Mitzie. We’ve still got time. And I won’t sleep tonight, I swear it, if I can’t dream happy dreams of a little bouncing with you!”
“I don’t know, Ferdie,” she said, looking past him to the square of sky framed by the stables’ wide, open doorway. “Look where the sun is. We don’t have much time.”
He grinned, knowing he had her. “Then we’ll be quick.”
“Not too quick!”
“No, my little mittens,” he promised, and pulled her with him towards the ladder up to the hay loft, where the horses’ loose fodder and straw were stored. “Just quick enough.”
Bouncing with Mitzie to their happy destination wiped away the aggravation of his scurrying salt search for Cook. Later, moist with the aftermath of sweet exertion and stuck with stray bits of straw, they sprawled side by side, happily smiling.
“Just quick enough,” said Mitzie, and kissed the tip of his nose. Then, to his great regret, she started lacing her delightfully loosened blouse. “Only we’d best be back to the kitchens, Ferdie. We’ll be noticed, else, and trouble idn’t what I’m after. I’ll go first.”
“Wait!” he said, as she scrambled up to put the rest of her rumpled self aright. “I want to do this again. Don’t you?”
Knowing, nimble fingers fiddling with her reddish-blonde hair, she dimpled. “I might. You’ve got some bounce in you, for an old man.”
Old man? He wasn’t thirty till next year! But then to a lass not far past seventeen, perhaps that was old. Saint Snodgrass knew working for Sir Alec had aged him.
“And will you dance with me at the Servants’ Ball, Mitzie?”
Another saucy smile. “I might. Now, Ferdie, mind you stay behind so there’ll be no spying us together,” Mitzie said, pausing as she descended the hay loft ladder. “And no bragging on this when my back’s turned. If I do hear there’s bragging, Ferdie, it’s a mischief I’ll be doing you.”
He pushed onto his elbows. “And if you don’t hear it?”
“You keep mum?” She tossed her head, eyes bright with promise, her sweetly kissable lips pouting. “Then could be we’ll bounce again, by and by.”
Smothering a laugh, Abel settled himself to wait until she was safely away. After he’d counted nearly five minutes, with all the straw picked out of his hair and clothing, decently laced and buttoned like a well-behaved palace lackey, he laid a hand on the hay loft ladder—then pulled it back as though the old, splintered wood had burned him.
Curse it! Someone was returning to the royal stables.
Heart leaping in his chest, he flung himself face-down into the loose, dusty straw and listened to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on the herringbone brickwork. After a few more moments they stopped.
And that was a Harenstein accent, roughly wrapping itself around the guttural Splotze tongue. Official go-betweens and negotiators of the unlikely upcoming nuptials, the Harenstein wedding party had been in Grande Splotze for several weeks. He’d managed a good look at them, since being a lackey meant he was able to scurry about the place with none of the hoity-toits paying him any more attention than if he were an umbrella. No alarm bells had rung. But then, why would they? Harenstein wasn’t a danger. Without its efforts there’d be no wedding.
“Damned vermin,” said another voice, speaking in Steinish this time. “Lazy shrulls.”
And that speaker sounded no more familiar than the first. Abel winced. From the sound of them they weren’t of the lackey class, so that meant there were at least two Steinish dignitaries he’d overlooked. Damn. Might be best not to mention that in his next report. Not unless he had to. Sir Alec would be far from amused.
“We’ll have to see to the nags, Dermit,” the disgruntled voice added. “The marquis isn’t to be kept waiting.”
More clip-clopping. Leather creaking. The squealing groan of a stable door that wanted oiling. Abel risked a look over the edge of the hay loft and saw the two men and their horses disappearing into their respective stables, only three boxes along from the hay loft ladder. Dare he risk leaving while they were still here, and so close by? He had to. He was already late. And since he’d taken Cook’s salt to him straight away, he couldn’t plead a delay in the town. Linger here any longer and by the time he did get back to the kitchens there’d be screaming and ranting and probable dismissal in disgrace.
Holding his breath against an inconvenient sneeze, Abel bellied his way backwards over the edge of the hay loft and made his stealthy way, rung by rung, down to the ground. The two Harenstein officials were still complaining about having to care for their own horses. Typical arrogant upper-class snobbery… which in fairness he shouldn’t criticise, since their whining was keeping them too preoccupied to notice him.
And then, as his feet touched the brickwork, he realised the men had stopped their complaints and instead—instead—
Oh, Saint Snodgrass save us!
“Yes, Volker, all is ready,” the first man said in answer to the second’s question. “Bribes paid, hexes in place. And we have the extra hexes, just in case. This abomination of a wedding will founder. How often must I reassure you?”
“Do not blame me for wanting reassurance, Dermit,” said Volker. “You know well the saying—there is many a slip ’twixt cup and lip. I am not yet convinced we have done enough.”
“We have done all that we dare,” said Dermit, sounding scornfully dismissive. “Would you risk our lives? Do not worry. Remember, we are not alone in this.”
The other man snorted. “Perhaps we should be. To trust there, Dermit, is dangerous. What if someone should suspect that we and—”
“Who would suspect such an alliance? It is unthinkable, which is why it will stay secret and we will remain safe.”
“I do not share your confidence. We are risking our lives. I think we should reconsider—”
“We reconsider nothing, Volker!” Dermit snapped. “What will happen on the way to Lake Yablitz has been meticulously planned. I tell you there is no danger to us. Or are you now thinking to question my judgement?”
Chilled to his marrow, Abel scarcely heard Volker’s grudging reply. What the devil? This plotting made no sense. With Harenstein instrumental in brokering the match, why would they—
“Hey! You there! You’re not a stable lad. What d’you think you’re doing, loitering here?”
Abel spun round, nearly leaping out of his shoes in his fright. Damn. It was Mister Ibblie, a senior palace minion, the brass buttons on his dark blue tunic proclaiming his superiority. Of all the wretched bloody timing!
“Sorry, sir,” he said, sidling away from the hidden men of Harenstein. Pretending utter ignorance, because Ferdie Goosen had no business knowing the difference between important Ibblie and a tree stump. “I was sent with a message for the head groom, sir. But seems he’s not about, so—”
Frowning, Ibblie approached. “Sent by whom? You’re a kitchen lackey, from the look of you. What—”
An ominous iron groan, as a stable door was pushed open. Almost frozen with horror, Abel slid his gaze over his shoulder. One of the Steinish plotters was staring at him, blue eyes cold and calculating, one broad, blunt hand resting on the worn knife-sheath belted at his hip. Beyond him the neighbouring stable door opened, and the second plotter stepped out. Thinner in the face than his friend, a violently suggestive pale scar slashing the width of his right cheekbone.
Abel turned back to Ibblie, his skin crawling as though he wore a shirt made of ants. “Sorry, sir. I think I’ve muddled myself. You’re right, I shouldn’t be here at all. The message is for the gatekeep.” He bobbed his head. “Excuse me. I’ll get on.”
“Yes, you do that!” snapped Ibblie. “And be sure I’ll mention your incompetence to the head cook!”
Prickling with alarm, Abel managed, barely, to hold himself back to a swift walk. They wouldn’t follow him, surely, those murderous plotters from Harenstein. Not with the palace secretary standing there, an inconvenient witness.
As he reached the hedge with the gate in it, which opened into the palace’s extensive kitchen gardens, he dared a look behind him… and choked. Those bastards. They were following.
Throwing caution to the proverbial winds, Abel ran.
Mid-afternoon in sunny Central Ott.
Pretending leisurely indifference, Sir Alec sauntered along pedestrian-thronged Haliwell Street, which bustled with brisk trade. There was no better place in Ottosland’s capital for the training of junior agents in the art of clandestine operations without benefit of thaumaturgics. Today, having won a short and bracingly sharp argument with Frank Dalby, whose purview this fell under, he was training two hopeful would-be janitors.
On the other side of the wide, busy street, in between passing carriages and automobiles, he caught sight of Mister Pennyweather, who was oblivious to the fact that doggedly persistent Frank Dalby had been following him for the last quarter hour. Were this real life, and not a training exercise, and were they not in Central Ott but instead some far-flung thaumaturgical hotspot, Bocius Pennyweather would by now be an unfortunate statistic.
The blithering fool.
On the other hand, he still held out cautious hope for Chester Baldrin, currently five shops to the rear on his side of the street. Mister Baldrin had neatly evaded Grady Thomquist, the Department’s other regular field trainer, and continued to remain almost inconspicuous. Sir Alec was vaguely aware of relief. Provided he could keep finding more Chester Baldrins, the Department’s future would remain secure.
In the short term, at least.
Because the two young men were supposed to believe that this chance to follow their superior was entirely haphazard, he ducked into a haberdashery and purchased a half dozen unnecessary handkerchiefs. Then, to test his trainees more rigorously, he took a seat next to the railing in the outdoor area of a popular tea room and waited.
But not for long.
Just as his unsweetened lemon tea was placed before him by a waiter, disastrous Mister Pennyweather caused a commotion by darting across the street under the nose of a startled carriage horse. Making a bad situation worse, he then walked right past the tea room’s outdoor seating area and made eye contact.
Lips thinned, Sir Alec raised an eyebrow.
The young fool’s stride faltered and his face turned beet red. As he dithered, blocking the sidewalk, inviting irritated glances and a flurry of complaints from inconvenienced pedestrians, Frank Dalby slid up to him like a shadow, pressed a finger into the small of his back, and snarled.
“Mister Pennyweather, you blockhead, you are dead.”
Across the street, Chester Baldrin kept walking without so much as a glance in their direction. When Grady Thomquist appeared on the edge of the pedestrian-knot in front of the tea room, Sir Alec idly snapped his fingers. Training exercise over. Thomquist nodded, and took himself off after Mister Baldrin.
Bocius Pennyweather was staring at his feet. “Sorry, Sir Alec. Sorry, Mister Dalby.”
“Idiot.” Frank grabbed him by the coat sleeve and hauled him close. “No names. Get back to the office. We’ll have words on this later.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” Mister Baldrin whispered, and fled.
Sir Alec signalled to the waiter. “Another tea, please. Plain, with milk and five sugars. And some cream cakes.”
“I knew Pennyweather was a crock the moment I clapped eyes on him,” said Frank, sliding into the second chair as the waiter obediently retreated. “Do us all a favour, would you, and send him packing back to Customs.”
“I’ll agree Mister Pennyweather’s not fit for field work,” he said mildly, once he was sure no-one was paying them attention. “But his analytical skills are impressive.”
Frank grunted. “If you say so.”
“I do,” he said, and decided to indulge himself further, with a cigarette.
A short, round matron wearing a shockingly green-and-purple checked day dress and far too many ostrich plumes in her puce turban stopped in front of them to peruse the tea room. She was accompanied by a parcel-laden maid, wilting in black and white, who tried not to look longingly at the shade and food. Noticing, the beplumed matron swatted her on the shoulder then launched into a tirade about slatternly servants who didn’t know when they were best off.
Sir Alec listened to the harangue for a few moments, then inhaled deeply on his cigarette and exhaled, strategically.
“Well!” said the turbaned matron, wheezing, and moved off. Shooting him a grateful glance, the maid scuttled in her wake.
As Frank rolled his eyes, the waiter returned. Marvelling, Sir Alec watched as his former partner fell on the horribly sweet tea and cream-filled cakes like a man starved for weeks in the wilds of Apineena. How he remained skinny as a rake, eating like that, was a mystery.
He set the cigarette aside and sipped from his own cup. “So. Mister Pennyweather is out. And Mister Baldrin?”
Frank smacked his lips. “He’s got a bit of promise, but I’ll want to see him handle some tricky thaumaturgics before I start turning cartwheels.”
Sir Alec hid a smile. There were times when Frank made him look like a giddy enthusiast.
“Right, then,” said Frank, and let out a gentle belch. “That’s them sorted. Now, about our other problem child.”
It was funny, really. Inside the building at Nettleworth, Frank was taciturn and self-contained. Never anything less than dutifully deferential. But get him back into the field, away from Department hierarchies and protocols, and the years fell away until they were simply janitors again, standing shoulder to shoulder and back to back against the swiftly multiplying evils of the world.
He hated to admit it, but there were times when he missed that uncomplicated camaraderie, quite keenly.
“You’re referring to Mister Dunwoody, I take it? Well, what about him?”
The glint in Frank’s eyes was derisive. “You bloody know what.”
As much as he trusted Frank, he’d not told him the entire truth of Gerald Dunwoody’s most recent escapade. No need to burden him. No need to run the risk. How much Frank had guessed for himself, he didn’t ask. Quite a lot of it, he suspected. Especially since Frank had been the one to dispose of that other, deceased Monk Markham. But his former partner wouldn’t push to know more and he’d not bear a grudge over a prudently-held silence, either.
“Mister Dunwoody will be fine,” he said, and sipped again from his cup. “He just needs a little more time to adjust.”
Frank wiped his fingers clean of cake cream. “You really think he can hold the line against grimoire magic?”
Sir Alec blinked. Oh. I didn’t think he’d guess quite that much. “Frank—”
“Ha.” Frank downed the rest of his ghastly tea, then rattled the cup back onto its saucer. “That business in East Uphantica left me with a quirk in my potentia, remember?”
Lord. East Uphantica. Twelve—no, thirteen—years ago, that was. Not his finest hour. Sometimes it still astonished him, that Frank could forgive those scars.
But then he was always much kinder than me.
“I caught a whiff of the muck Jennings left behind,” said Frank, leaning across the table and lowering his voice. “Dunwoody’s always forgetting to turn on his shield. Past time you hauled him back over the coals for it. Especially now.”
“Apparently,” he said, knowing Frank could tell he was shaken. Not minding too much, because it was Frank. “Mister Dalby—”
Lip curling, Frank sat back. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m just saying.”
The popular tea room was doing a lively trade, voices raised in conversation and laughter, glasses and cups rattling, cutlery chinking against porcelain, chairs scraping. In the street, carriage horses clopped, automobiles chugged, and on the sidewalk pedestrians raised dust beneath their hurrying feet. They were safe talking here, but even so…
“Yes. But you’ll not say any more.”
Excerpted from Wizard Undercover by Mills, K.E. Copyright © 2012 by Mills, K.E.. Excerpted by permission.
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