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Toil and Trouble
(Modern Magick, 2)
Charlotte E. English
Copyright © 2017 by Charlotte E. English
All rights reserved.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold.
Modern Magick is an ongoing web serial. You can also read online at: http://www.modernmagick.net
Guess who was landed with the job of looking after the foul-mouthed book?
‘Get this horrid thing out of my library!’ said Val. It was an order, but she looked at me in a desperate, pleading way which, as her friend, I could not ignore. ‘Ves!’
‘Something must certainly be done about it,’ I agreed, though my mind was blank as to what, exactly, one could do with an unusually lively sixteenth-century tome with all the tender sensibility of a guttersnipe.
‘Base, beetle-headed fool!’ raged the book, hovering still before poor Valerie’s face. ‘Thou hast cracked my spine!’
‘Beetle-headed?’ whispered Jay to me. ‘Now it’s just making them up.’
‘I have not!’ protested Val, and truly, I could hardly think of a more vicious insult to direct at our head librarian. She’d probably die before she would handle an old book so carelessly as to damage it. ‘But I will, if you don’t stop,’ she added, and I blinked, shocked.
‘Cracked,’ repeated the book. ‘Next thou shalt bend thyself to the creasing of my pages! To the turning of my very corners, and the pinching of them, until, full broken, they have not the means of righting themselves!’
‘I suppose “dog-eared” must be a recently coined term,’ reflected Jay, watching the book with the dispassionate, arms-folded stance of an intrigued scholar.
‘I like his version,’ I protested. ‘Verbose, elegant, poetic—’
‘Windy, flowery and over the top.’
I had long suspected that Jay lacked something in the way of soul. Here was complete proof.
‘Jay!’ thundered Valerie, making both of us jump. Admittedly, she did have to raise her voice considerably in order to be heard over the abominable book, which ranted on and on, unabashed. ‘This is your doing, and you will fix it at once!’
‘Mine?’ gasped Jay. ‘How is it my fault?!’
‘You brought it here!’
‘Together with several other works of great historical interest, all of which are far better-behaved,’ I reminded her.
‘Yes,’ said Valerie, and smiled. ‘Thank you for those, Jay.’
‘But get rid of this one!’
Jay looked not only reluctant to saddle himself with such an object (and who could blame him), but also at a loss as to what to do with it if he did. It was only about his third or fourth week with the Society, after all, and this was a species of magickal heritage that even the veterans amongst us had never seen or heard of before (most assuredly including yours truly). So I hastily stepped forward and, feeling heroic and martyred, swept up the book.
‘Thank you, Ves,’ said Valerie, instantly mollified.
I only sighed. ‘May I ask how it came to start talking? For it was as silent as any a book should be, all the way here from Farringale.’
‘I opened it.’
‘That’s it. It started shrieking blue murder at once, and I did not even get to read any of it because the vile thing kept slamming itself upon my fingers.’
‘A deserved torment, craven wench,’ the book informed her.
Valerie cast it a look of intense dislike. ‘Sorry to land you with that, Ves,’ she said. ‘But I can’t have it in the library all day. It’s making far too much noise.’
She was right, of course. We were only in the library’s entrance hall, in fact, where Val’s grand desk stood; the library itself was through a handsome archway a few feet to my left, whereupon it stretched away and away for some distance. Nonetheless, I had no doubt that the book’s ringing tones could be heard all the way at the bottom of the library, which would be pleasing the Society’s scholars to no end.
‘I don’t suppose you have any suggestions…?’ I ventured, feeling almost as much at a loss as Jay.
Valerie massaged her temples. There were deep shadows under her dark eyes, and I wondered how long she’d been grappling with the book before we’d finally arrived. ‘I don’t know exactly, but there’s no doubt this is one of our weirder acquisitions. A curse, or a haunting? You might try Zareen.’
‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘This is right up her alley.’
‘Good luck.’ She gave me a grim smile, which I just about managed to return.
Away went Jay and I.
Ordinarily, Jay is much better at finding his way around than me, and I am forced to follow him about like a trusting little lamb while he marches us off to wherever we’re going. But not at Home. It’s a huge, sprawling old place, and while it was built in the sixteen-hundreds it’s had all kinds of additions, alterations and expansions made in the centuries since. Having spent more than a decade wandering its winding passages, I know it extremely well.
Thus I was able to sweep out of the library, chin high, and strut confidently away, with Jay trailing meekly along behind me. Felt good. I waited for Jay’s inevitable complaint — on the topic of Zareen, most likely, towards whom he has reportedly developed an instant (and mutual) antipathy — but he was silent.
So was the book.
This surprised me so much that I stopped walking, having travelled only about twenty paces down the tapestried corridor. ‘Hello?’ I said, tentatively.
‘To whom do you speak?’ said the book, after a moment’s pause.
‘Why, to you.’
‘Well met, lady.’
‘How polite. I had rather expected curses.’
‘Thou hast not merited such treatment.’
Jay said, ‘Better not open it.’
I had to agree. Cradling the book carefully, I ventured on, and Jay fell in beside me. We had not far to go. The structure at Home is as chaotic in the organisational sense as in the geographical; we are loosely separated into divisions, but there is so much bleed-over between the daily duties, challenges and obstacles faced by our various groups that the structure often falls down. Jay and I, for example, are officially part of Acquisitions, but I’m periodically seconded into Research (happy days, those), and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Jay ends up handed off to Zareen’s division more often than he’s going to like.
Technically, Zareen is part of Research, albeit in an unusual capacity. But she consults for Development from time to time, and I bump into her in Acquisitions here and there, too. She runs an obscure little division almost single-handedly, clumsily shelved under Research because nobody knows what else to call it. And since it has never been given its own, official name, we’ve collectively dubbed it the Toil and Trouble division.
In other words: when anything particularly weird comes up, we all call in Zareen.
She’s usually holed up not far from the library, in a tiny nook of a room buried deep in the west wing. The door is always shut.
‘Would you mind knocking?’ I said to Jay once we had arrived. ‘I don’t want to risk dropping the book.’
‘Perish the thought.’ Jay shuddered, and knocked smartly upon the door. He then adopted a pose of such studied nonchalance as clearly displayed his discomfort, and I tried my best not to notice.
‘Hang on a minute!’ yelled Zareen. There came some clattering noises from the other side of the door, and we were left to enjoy the chill of the dim, stone-walled corridor (bare of tapestries, paintings or anything else in this part of the House) for half a minute longer.
Then the door swung open, apparently by itself, revealing Zareen seated at a desk tucked into the corner of the room. The place was a mess, as usual; books and notepads were stacked everywhere, along with a host of such peculiar paraphernalia I’d have no idea where to begin in describing it. Case in point, though: a collection of skulls, apparently human, sat clustered at one end of her desk, except that they were palm-sized, and as usual she had an odd contraption made of woven string, jewel-charms and bones hung upon the wall above her chair. Her curse-catcher, she calls it. I’ve never been able to figure out whether its purpose is merely decorative, or functional — and if the latter, what its function is supposed to be.
The lady herself looked me over with considerable goodwill, and then Jay with rather less. She had green streaks in her black hair today, very neatly done, and she sported a matching green jewel in her nose ring.
‘Peridot?’ I enquired.
‘It’s new.’ Zareen grinned and swung around to face me, giving me a full view of the new jewellery.
‘Doesn’t it?’ Zareen turned her amused gaze upon Jay, who bore it rigidly. ‘I’m still working on Ves. What do you think, nostril or septum?’
‘I’ve told you,’ I said hastily. ‘I’ll think about it when you find me a good unicorn stud, and not before.’
‘You can’t wear a unicorn in your nose. Pick something smaller.’
‘I can’t? Then I’m not getting my nose pierced.’
‘Navel maybe,’ murmured Zareen, but she was watching Jay.
‘Do the women of this miserable age commonly engage in bodily mutilation?’
It was the book speaking, of course, but since I had yet to warn Zareen of its capacity to do so, she narrowed her eyes at the only male in the room: Jay.
‘That was not me!’ he protested. ‘Did you see my mouth move?’
‘Just the kind of prissy thing you would say,’ retorted Zareen, ignoring his question.
I headed off what was clearly an impending fight by laying the book in front of Zareen. I’d been clutching it to my chest until then, with my arms wrapped tightly around it, and since she was used to seeing me carting books everywhere (who wasn’t, indeed?) I don’t suppose it had occurred to her to take note of it. But the book got her attention at once, as I’d known it would, for on the front of its dark leather cover there was engraved a motif of a complex star, a flame blossoming at each of its twelve points.
‘Ooh,’ said Zareen, captivated.
‘Don’t open it yet,’ I warned.
She was itching to do so, already reaching for it. ‘What?’
Zareen was not impressed.
‘You’ve brought me a centuries-old book from Farringale,’ she said with emphasis. ‘A book no one’s read since the sixteen-hundreds, containing who knows what esoteric wisdom, and I can’t open it?’
‘Well, you can,’ I allowed. ‘Only get some ear plugs first, maybe.’
‘And watch your fingers,’ put in Jay.
Zareen scowled at him. ‘I’ve handled difficult artefacts before.’
Jay rolled his eyes. ‘By all means, try it.’
Zareen did, though to her credit she looked a little wary, and opened it with a hesitancy unusual for her.
‘Fool-born haggard!’ erupted the book, right on cue. ‘Dost thou dare to venture upon mine innards? Thou wouldst disembowel me of all my goodness, wouldst thou, and with narry a by-your-leave!’ The book slammed shut with a crisp snap of disapproval.
‘Ow,’ said Zareen, shaking the pain out of her fingertips.
Jay, wisely, refrained from airing the I-told-you-so I could see hovering upon his lips. Instead he said, ‘We’re calling him Bill.’
‘As in Shakespeare?’
‘Slightly less elegantly verbose, I’d say?’
‘His full name is Bill the Boor.’
‘Churl,’ said the book.
‘Boor,’ said Jay.
‘So,’ I said brightly. ‘Bit of a problem, no? Val would’ve skinned me alive if I hadn’t taken it away at once, and I’m afraid nobody could think who could possibly fix it but you.’
Alone among those who had come into contact with the wretched book, Zareen looked intrigued — even a little bit excited. ‘Nice,’ she murmured, and turned the book around on her desk, examining all the features of its covers and spine. She ignored its ongoing diatribe with admirable grace.
‘Curse or haunting, do you think?’ I asked, remembering Val’s words.
‘Could be either! Really interesting stuff.’
‘I can’t tell you how glad we are that you think so.’ I had no hesitation in speaking for Jay as well as myself, for I could see the relief on his face. Tinged, maybe, with a hint of fascinated disgust.
Well, it takes most people a little while to get used to Zareen.
She was barely listening, already absorbed in the many questions posed by the book. ‘Thanks, Ves,’ she said vaguely. ‘I’ll call you when I’ve figured it out.’
What bliss it was to walk out of that room, and close the door behind us! We walked quickly away, pursued by the muffled and increasingly distant sounds of sixteenth-century cursing.
‘She’s got a strong stomach,’ I offered.
‘Madwoman,’ he replied, though he didn’t sound as negative as I’d expected. Perhaps Zareen had actually won herself a few points with Jay for her willingness to take the thing off our hands.
‘Cup of tea?’ said I.
In my room at Home, I’ve got a little stash of Curiosities, minor artefacts, and assorted odds and ends. Some of them are useful, some of them aren’t. Probably my favourite of the latter category is a beautiful old scroll, the real kind, made of vellum and with rowan-wood supports. It even has a tooled-leather case. It’s paired with a quill pen — owl feather, not goose! Both are enchanted, so that anything I might choose to write upon mine will appear at once upon the matching scrolls of some other member (or members) of the Society. They used to be standard issue, but they stopped handing them out before I joined. I once found a whole, sorry stack of them in Stores, and took pity on this set because… because they’re pretty.
What can I say.
The reason for their obsolescence, of course, is the mobile phone. When we all wander about with smartphones surgically attached to our wrists, who needs quills and scrolls anymore? A sad casualty of cruel, inexorable time.
But, I have to admit, a fair one. For when, a few hours later, my own personal scroll-killer buzzed and began to play Sussudio, it got my attention at once, and within two minutes I was rattling back down to Research and Zareen’s broom-cupboard of a room.
Zareen opened the door right away. ‘You’re going to like this,’ she said, grinning and ushering me inside.
I eyed the book with misgivings. It lay quiescent upon the desk, quiet as a proverbial church mouse, but I didn’t trust it. ‘I rather doubt that.’
‘Oh, don’t worry. It’s much nicer now.’
‘It is? What did you do to it?’
Zareen wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘Uh, just some minor tweaks. Never mind that. What do you think I found inside?’
‘You’ve read it!’
‘Sort of. There isn’t much to read, as it turns out. Only a few pages have been used. It looks like a journal, used to record somebody’s progress upon some kind of journey. Late Middle English, I’d say, so it’s hard to read, and written in such deplorable chicken-scratch I can hardly make it out. So the destination’s unclear — or at least, it was at first.’
Zareen was bursting with news, and very smug about it too. I didn’t want to stop her, but I had to ask: ‘Wait, where’s Jay?’
‘No idea. Anyway, the—’
‘Stop right there.’ I grabbed my phone and called Jay, ignoring Zareen’s eye-rolling disgust. ‘Toil and Trouble,’ I told Jay when he answered. ‘All due haste.’
‘Be right there.’
I put my phone away. ‘It’s Jay’s book,’ I said. ‘And I’m his… mentor, I suppose. Can’t leave him out.’
Zareen waited with an exaggerated display of patience.
‘What’s the problem with you two, anyway?’
‘Oh, nothing really,’ Zareen replied with a roll of her eyes. ‘I think he’s a prude and a stickin-the-mud and he thinks I’m reckless and irresponsible.’ She gave me a half-smile. ‘Just squabbles, Ves. Don’t worry about it.’
Me, worry? I wanted to disclaim this charge at once, until I realised I was wearing my worried face. I hastily smoothed out my features and adopted an air of proper unconcern. ‘I feel responsible for him,’ I said by way of explanation.
‘I don’t think you need to be. I’ll say this for him: he’s far from stupid, and he’ll always be okay.’
Zareen looked at me shrewdly. ‘He feels responsible for you, too, I think.’
Zareen grinned. ‘Surprised? He was given the job of making sure we don’t lose you somewhere.’
‘Making sure I don’t lose myself somewhere, you mean? Fair.’
‘No easy task.’
I couldn’t argue with this judgement, since it was true. Thankfully for my dignity, Jay showed up just then. He was polite enough to greet Zareen with a nod, and looked at me. ‘What’s the news?’
‘Your moment’s arrived,’ I said to Zareen. ‘We’re ready to be impressed!’
Zareen leaned back in her chair, put her booted feet up on her desk and said, ‘It’s a treasure map.’
‘What?’ said Jay. ‘Bill?’
‘Sort of. The book, as I’ve just said to Ves, contains a somewhat wandering and confused account of somebody’s journey in search of something unidentified, to places unspecified. Not at all edifying, and so poorly written I can’t even decipher most of it. Only the first few pages have been written on, and one page at the back, which contains a sketch.’
‘A map!’ I said.
Zareen nodded, grinning. ‘It’s got an X-marks-the-spot and everything.’ She displayed for us a piece of notepaper, upon which she had apparently copied the map in red pen. Her X in the middle was huge and exuberant, marked in bold.
‘How do we know it’s a treasure map?’ said Jay, prosaically.
I sighed. ‘Ancient maps with an X marked somewhere upon them are always treasure maps.’
Zareen nodded. ‘That, and there’s an obscure reference on the third page to a bounty of some kind, if I’m reading it right. There’s no description as to what manner of treasure the writer was after, but he obviously expected to discover some grand prize.’
‘Any idea as to the identity of the writer?’ I asked.
‘Did you ask Bill?’ said Jay.
‘I tried. He wouldn’t stop insulting me long enough to answer my questions.’
Jay and I both looked in silence at the book. It hadn’t spoken a word since I’d entered the room, fully quarter of an hour before. ‘I’m curious,’ said Jay. ‘How did you shut it up?’
Zareen shifted in her seat, and avoided Jay’s eye. And mine. ‘Er, I haven’t. He’s just a bit less noisy now.’
I considered pressing the matter — Zareen was obviously skirting around the edges of something — but on reflection I let it pass. Sometimes it’s best to circle around the point. So I said: ‘What’s the likelihood that Bill, or wherever that voice is coming from, is the same person who wrote the journal entries and sketched the map?’
‘You mean, is this a haunting? I don’t think so. When he wasn’t insulting me, he was protesting against the very idea that he’d write such uncouth nonsense, or hare around searching for treasure just because somebody drew a map. Whatever became of the writer, I don’t think it’s Bill. And I’m not convinced that the book’s haunted by anybody else, either, for he’s showed no signs of having any kind of history that he can remember, and ghosts can usually talk about little else. You’ll want to interrogate him a bit more yourself, see if you can’t get more out of him.’
I reached for the book.
‘Later,’ added Zareen hastily.
I sat back again. ‘So it’s not a haunting. A curse, then?’
‘Could be, but it’s the oddest curse I’ve ever come across if so. Yes, he was keeping idle hands from opening the book and thereby keeping anybody from reading it, but it’s a clumsy form of protection. It didn’t take much to get around that problem.’
Zareen indicated a pair of heavy marble paperweights upon her desk. ‘It took a few tries, but I peaced it and put weights upon its pages. Bill went off for a nice little nap, and when he woke up it was too late to take up snapping at my fingers again.’ She paused and added reflectively, ‘He took it rather well, all things considered, which again leads me to think that he isn’t there to deter people from reading it. He’s just a bad-tempered grouch.’
‘But if he’s not a ghost or a curse, what is he?’
‘A spell,’ said Zareen with a shrug. ‘Though I grant you, it’s a sophisticated enchantment, and more complex than anything I’ve ever met with before. Quite intimidating. But considering where you got the thing, I shouldn’t be surprised.’
I took it from this that Zareen had no more idea what the spell was intended to accomplish than I did. And how intriguing a puzzle. A complicated enchantment which had gifted an (apparently) ordinary book with sentience — and an extraordinarily foul vocabulary? One which had, considering the nature of that vocabulary, been placed upon the book some four or five hundred years ago? And one which, for all its sophistication, Zareen had managed to get around with quite a simple charm?
Very curious indeed.
‘If someone was going to go to all that trouble,’ said Jay, ‘I wonder why they didn’t make it more… polite.’
I couldn’t help but be tickled by the idea. ‘That’s a sense of humour I can appreciate.’
Jay grinned. ‘It doesn’t quite fit with the legends of old Farringale, though, does it? The royal court, a place of learning and high art, blah blah.’
‘You’d expect it to express itself in the courtliest language, and with perfect etiquette.’
Zareen looked shifty again. ‘Er, yes. You would.’
‘So the map,’ said Jay, and leaned over the book to get a closer look at it. ‘Where does it lead to?’
Zareen pushed her sketch nearer. ‘Might want to consult Val. There’s only one word on it, and when I did a search I didn’t get any hits.’
‘Drogryre,’ read Jay.
‘No hits at all?’ I repeated, incredulous.
‘Not one. So this place is—’
‘—even more lost to the mists of time than Farringale,’ I finished.
‘Or just an extremely well-kept secret,’ suggested Jay. He picked up the map and stuck it in his pocket, then made to collect the book, too.
Zareen stopped him. ‘Where are you going with those?’
‘To find Drogryre. Isn’t that what we do next?’
‘Let Ves take the book.’
This requirement made as much sense to me as it did to Jay, who looked irritated. But he complied, stepping back to make room for me.
I picked up the book very carefully, still expecting it to hurl abuse at me. But it remained blissfully quiet.
‘Don’t open it until you get to the library,’ Zareen recommended.
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘It’s asleep right now.’
‘What do you mean by—’ I began, but the door was already closing behind us.
‘Bring me back something with bones!’ yelled Zareen through the door as we walked away.
‘There’s something fishy about all that,’ said Jay.
I had to agree. We made it halfway back to the library before curiosity overcame the both of us. ‘I have to open it,’ I said.
‘Go on,’ said Jay.
We stopped in an alcove beneath a big, bright window and I took hold of the front cover. ‘Here we go.’
To my relief, the book suffered itself to be opened without trying to bite my fingers, and without snapping itself shut again. Nor did it drown me in a barrage of abuse.
But it did speak.
‘Madam,’ said the book. ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’
I slammed the book shut.
Then Jay said, in a strangled voice, ‘Is Bill quoting Pride and Prejudice?’
‘Dear Jay,’ I said faintly. ‘I could not be more impressed with your familiarity with the utterances of Mr. Darcy, I assure you.’
‘Why is it coming out of this book?’ said Jay, ignoring my implied question with superb grace.
Gingerly, I opened it up again. And there, on the first unused page, was the whole of Mr. Darcy’s ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, written out in Zareen’s rounded handwriting.
‘Val,’ I said slowly, ‘is going to kill all of us.’
‘Probably with a dessert spoon.’