Authors: Michael Pryor
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.
Aubrey Fitzwilliam was on a mission. Determined, unwavering, purposeful, he would not be diverted from his goal, especially since spring was in the air.
Aubrey had decided that he was committed to snaring Caroline Hepworth.
he corrected himself,
Poor choice of metaphor. âWinning her' wouldn't do either, and he was staying well away from any idea of sweeping her off her feet. He shuddered at the prospect of calling it âpitching woo', even if it would provoke her extraordinarily attractive laughter.
He would simply tell Caroline how he felt about her. He would be dignified, polite, sincere. He would be clear and forthright. Then he would listen to Caroline's reaction patiently, not interrupting, and he would honour her intention. He would not argue, quibble or pretend that he was joking all along and that he actually had an appointment to hurry to.
He would begin this mission straight away. Almost, anyway. As soon as he had time, really, what with one thing and another. Or, rather, he'd act when the time was right, for these things can't be hurried. Timing was everything, he'd found â or imagined â in these matters of the heart.
Aubrey realised that Commander Craddock was talking and sending rather pointed glances in Aubrey's direction. He composed himself and vowed that he'd pay better attention. Even though he had been in Darnleigh House before, being part of a tour guided by the head of the Magic Department itself was priceless.
Aubrey had been surprised to see Commander Craddock undertaking such a menial task, especially in the tense times since the revelation of Prince Albert's claim to the throne of Gallia. Perhaps it said something about the man's professionalism, his sense of responsibility to the department he had steered for years.
Or it might just have been his turn,
Aubrey thought as Craddock ushered the small band of irregular agents through the cryptology section. Aubrey sensed the magic in the large, clattering machines along one wall as they churned through possible solutions to intercepted communications. The rest of the room was taken up with desks â behind which worked an assortment of operatives, frowning and scowling mostly, consulting reference texts and scratching away with pencil and paper â and booths where telegraph operators tapped away on their keys, headphones covering their ears and with the distant gaze that comes from managing messages from far away.
Down two flights of stairs and they emerged into the second underground level. âResearch,' Craddock said shortly, indicating the long corridor. It was the epitome of anonymity, with institutional green walls, frosted glass panels in many of the doors, grey linoleum so unremarkable that it could have robbed any number of banks with impunity â no danger of its being identified. The doors were bare of signs, simply sporting numbers, nothing to give away what was going on inside â but closed doors didn't stop magical awareness. Aubrey gritted his teeth as he sensed complex spellcraft at work. He had a typically disconcerting confusion of sensation â his skin prickled with colour, hues that flickered between green and blue with immense rapidity â but the shifting and intersecting nature of the many spells at play made it difficult to determine exactly what sort of magic was being undertaken.
Several others were also affected, to judge from the shifting stances and grimaces. A serious-looking fellow â Woodberry, Aubrey remembered after a moment's groping for a name â put his hand up. âWhat sort of research, sir?' he said, in a voice that broke in the middle of his question. No-one laughed.
âI can't tell you that,' Craddock said. âYou could be a spy.'
Woodberry went pale. âIâ'
Craddock held up a hand, stopping the protest before it had begun. âA joke, Woodberry, a very mild joke. I can't tell you because I don't know if you're going to be involved in our research activities. That's something we'll know by the end of the week.'
âWhile you're here, you'll be undertaking testing to see what talents you have that we can use.'
Aubrey was intrigued but, despite his curiosity jabbing him, kept his hand down. He was trying to remain inconspicuous. While he was pleased at the invitation for special training, since it was a vote of confidence from Commander Craddock, he also didn't want the others to think it was only because he was the son of the prime minister.
This sort of thing was almost a reflex by now. Every time Aubrey thought he was being foolish, that no-one cared, an officious busybody would raise eyebrows and remark obliquely on some action or other of his and how it must be useful to have such a famous father.
As much as he respected and admired his father, being the son of Sir Darius Fitzwilliam, PM, was a constant trial.
Craddock led the small band along the corridor. Aubrey smelled iciness and heard a low-pitched hum that descended into a rumble that made the floor vibrate. Just before they reached the intersection at the end of the corridor, a door on the left opened. A scowling operative stepped out of the room marked B6, and Aubrey was immediately taken aback. From his appearance the operative had to be a specialist, and an important one at that. Craddock's operatives were almost always immaculate in their black uniforms, professionally discreet, unobtrusive to the point of being almost invisible. This man, however, had a shock of grey hair that showed signs of constantly having hands dragged through it. He had glasses, flaming red cheeks, and he wore a baggy grey jumper over a uniform that looked as if it were grappling with him. He was glaring at the sheaf of papers in his hand, so totally taken up with his exasperation that he didn't see Craddock and his band of curious irregulars. He turned around, shook the papers at someone inside the office and â to Aubrey's soaring interest â shouted out a torrent of ancient Sumerian.
Then the specialist saw Commander Craddock and he froze. Aubrey could almost see him running a mental finger down his list of correct procedures before he finally stood at something like attention and brought his hand to his forehead in a salute-like action.
Craddock took this in for a moment, then addressed his small band. âTonkin here has been brought in to head our Ancient Languages section. Having a problem, Tonkin?'
Tonkin's grip on his papers increased. They began to crumple. âThere'd be no problem, sir, if only those idiots would remember...' He gathered himself and straightened his eyeglasses. âA slight disagreement of interpretation, sir.'
Deep as he was in his own studies of Ancient Languages at Greythorn University, Aubrey was well aware of how easy it was to have multiple interpretations of old script, especially when the subject matter was magical.
âA disagreement that compromises security, Tonkin?' Craddock said.
Tonkin blinked. âSir?'
âYou work in a top secret section. On a highly sensitive project. One that could affect the security of the realm. And yet, the door behind you is open.'
Aubrey was in the grip of an internal struggle. Part of him thought that the best thing was to look away, embarrassed, and allow Tonkin some dignity. Another part of him said that any security operative, even an irregular one, had a duty to gather intelligence whenever and wherever possible.
Which was, he realised, a long and tangled way of admitting that he was dying to see what Tonkin and his crew were up to. Ancient Languages? A top secret project? Safety of the realm? It was as if someone had specifically designed something to tantalise Aubrey Fitzwilliam, packaged it in irresistible wrapping and pasted a âDo Not Open' sign on it.
After a split second or two, he succumbed. He stood on tiptoes and looked over Woodberry's shoulder, past the disapproving Craddock and the dismayed Tonkin, and the world went away as he realised what he was seeing.
The room was long and windowless. A row of electric lights illuminated a bench in the middle of the room. On three sides, it was surrounded by tables where operatives were hunched, sweating over papers and peering through magnifying glasses.
One operative was standing near the central bench. She was staring at the open door, mouth open, while one white-gloved hand held what looked like a parchment and the other pointed at the man-sized, irregularly shaped stone on the bench. Its black surface shone dully under the electric lights.
The Rashid Stone,
Aubrey thought, stunned.
That's impossible. It can't be here.
Eventually, Tonkin remembered himself. He flailed at the knob behind him before he managed to drag the door shut. It closed with the heavy solidity of doughty steel reinforcing.
âThat's better,' Craddock said to Tonkin, then he turned to the goggling band of irregulars. âSecurity applies to everyone in this building. Even researchers. Isn't that correct, Tonkin?'
Tonkin swallowed again. âYes, sir.'
âDo not forget it. Even though there appears to be a dearth of experts in this field at the moment, I'm sure we can replace you.'
Tonkin stood still while Craddock swept off toward a distant set of stairs. Aubrey was nearly left behind because he was still astounded by what he'd seen â in fact, he couldn't have been more astonished if the room had held a pair of elephants arguing over the latest battleship plans.
The Rashid Stone. What was it doing here? The last Aubrey had heard, the Rashid Stone had disappeared on its way back to its rightful owner, the Sultan of Memphis. Had Craddock diverted it from returning to its home? If so, what had happened to the person charged with this restitution: Professor Mansfield, Aubrey's lecturer on Ancient Languages at Greythorn University?
Still off balance, Aubrey tottered after the others. Any feeling he'd had of being the old hand around Darnleigh House had vanished. It had been replaced by an uncomfortable sensation of being a mystery magnet; he had a brief and definitely unsettling vision of enigmas, conundrums and posers being drawn toward him no matter which way he turned, flitting relentlessly through the ether.
Prince Albert, the incorrigible punster, would no doubt say that all this was due to his attractive personality. Aubrey grinned and groaned at the same time, which nearly made his face explode; trying not to draw attention to himself, he hurried after Craddock and the others, massaging his cheeks and wincing.