Twenty-nine

Lord Hairstreak’s forest mansion – now razed to the ground, alas – had been noted for its tight security. The forest was full of haniels so anybody who wandered in was likely to be eaten. His new home had no such natural defences. Although the house was surrounded by several hundred acres, the previous owner had set the grounds to gardens and cleared out any wildlife that was more dangerous than decorative. As a result, the previous owner had proven almost ludicrously easy to murder, a fate Hairstreak had no intention of sharing.

The new security system was state of the art. It was firmly centred on the mansion, spell-driven and globular. It cost a fortune to install and it looked like it would cost a fortune to run. But it had to be worth every penny.

‘Is it active?’ Hairstreak asked.

‘Active but not armed,’ Pelidne said.

‘How do I see what’s happening?’ There were no viewing globes, no screens, nothing but a small bank of controls and a custom-made joystick that adjusted to the shape and size of any hand.

‘The goggles, sir. On the table.’

Lord Hairstreak took off his lenses and replaced them with the goggles, taking care not to disturb the parting in his hair. At once he seemed to be floating outside the mansion. The lighting was peculiar – rather like bright moonlight with a particularly bluish tinge – but everything was clearly visible. The three-dimensional effect was impressive.

‘How do I change viewpoint?’ he asked.

‘The joystick, sir.’

Hairstreak glanced inadvertently in the direction of the joystick and discovered to his surprise he could still see it, despite the goggles. In fact, with a little effort, he could see everything in the cramped control room, including Pelidne. Yet at the same time he remained fully aware of the scene outside. It was an incredible piece of spell technology, one that clearly influenced the deepest levels of his mind. He reached out and gripped the joystick.

At once he was spinning out of control, tumbling and gyrating in the pseudo-body floating outside. ‘Yark!’ he snapped violently.

‘Gently, sir – it takes a little practice.’

There had to be a printed manual somewhere. In the interim he steadied the joystick (and found to his relief he was no longer spinning) then inched it forward a hair’s breadth.

At once he swooped down to the ground with a commanding view along the main avenue. He edged the joystick back and flew high into the air with a vast swathe of his estate spread out below him. The sensation was exhilarating in the extreme. If this wasn’t a hideously expensive piece of equipment, it would make a great toy.

Under Pelidne’s guidance, he worked the controls for a few minutes until he got the hang of them. It really was extraordinary. With the help of just goggles and joystick, he could patrol every corner of his estate, spy on his groundskeepers, sneak up invisibly on his guards, even examine an individual flower that took his fancy. It was an illusion, of course, but astonishingly realistic. You even got used to the peculiar light.

‘Are we set up for a test?’ he asked.

‘Oh, yes,’ Pelidne assured him.

Hairstreak hesitated. ‘What about our own people? Does it put them at risk?’

‘No, sir, they’re tagged.’

‘What about outsiders?’

‘It’s outsiders the system’s designed to attack.’

Hairstreak glanced round at him and scowled. ‘It’s just possible I might wish to entertain guests at some point,’ he said sarcastically.

‘It can be trained to ignore specific individuals,’ Pelidne said. ‘Or certain groups. Like all Faeries of the Night. Or people above a certain age. Or all males wearing pirate costume. Very flexible. Useful if you ever wanted to hold a fancy dress ball or something of that sort, sir.’

‘But it hasn’t been trained yet?’ Hairstreak said. ‘It will attack anybody within range?’

‘Apart from our own people. After it’s armed, of course.’

Hairstreak licked his lips. ‘How do I arm it?’ he asked.

‘The switch to the right of the panel,’ Pelidne said.

With a thrill of anticipation, Lord Hairstreak reached across and flipped the switch. A bank of seven telltales illuminated smoothly, one after the other. He turned his attention back to the scene outside and discovered the blue light had changed to a much more realistic hue, but set at a comfortable level for a Faerie of the Night.

‘Release him now,’ he whispered, his voice suddenly dry.

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