Back at Drood Hall, I walked into the Sanctity to find the ruling council already assembled and waiting for me. Somehow, I’m always the last to arrive. I’d like to take the credit and say I do it deliberately, so I can make a big entrance and be sure everybody’s attention is fixed on me . . . but the truth is that no matter how hard I try, they’re always there first. I sometimes think they must all get together secretly beforehand and agree to actually start the meeting ten minutes earlier, so they can all look at me disapprovingly for being late again. But, truth be told, I’m always late. For everything. It’s a gift.
And these days nobody glares at me too much when I walk in late with Molly Metcalf on my arm, because Molly glares right back at them. And it’s never a good idea to upset someone who can turn you into something small and squishy with warts on your warts by looking at you in a Certain Way. I, of course, do not have to worry about this happening to me, because I have learned the magic words,
They were all there, sitting round the great table in the middle of the Sanctity. The ruling council of the Droods, self-appointed on the run after the Matriarch’s murder, because someone had to keep the wheels turning while the family got on with its job. Family politics come and go, but duty and responsibility go on forever. My uncle Jack, the Armourer, was sitting at the head of the table in his usual lab coat, fresh that day but already marked with scorch marks and chemical burns, over a grubby T-shirt bearing the legend,
William the Librarian sat slumped in his chair, wearing a battered dressing gown that must have had a pattern on it once upon a time, and a pair of sloppy bunny slippers. It was immediately clear that he wasn’t wearing anything under the dressing gown, and even before I reached the table, the Armourer had to tell the Librarian to keep the damn thing closed. There was something about the bunny slippers that disturbed me. They were white, and most bunny slippers are pink. In fact, I was pretty sure that the last time I’d seen them, they had been pink. But now they were white. Which felt like it should
And finally there was cousin Harry, looking more like a defrocked accountant than ever in his neat grey suit and wire-rimmed spectacles. Quiet, clever, dangerous cousin Harry. And his partner, Roger Morningstar. Who, by long tradition, was not allowed to actually sit at the main table with the council. Because although he had much to contribute, he was only half Drood. And so, like my Molly, he could attend council meetings, but not sit at the table. The two of them had to sit on separate chairs a respectable distance away. Petty, I know, but that’s tradition for you. When a family’s been around as long as the Droods, you acquire a lot of traditions along the way, rather like barnacles on a ship. It’s the long-held traditions like this one that make me wonder whether we’re getting a bit too inbred.
Molly always got her own back by bringing a really massive bag of popcorn to every council meeting and crunching the stuff loudly during the boring bits. Roger sat loosely in his chair, calm and entirely at his ease, and we all did our best not to notice that his half-demonic presence was still potent enough to set fire to the chair he was sitting on. Little grey streams of smoke drifted up into the air, and I hoped someone had reminded Ethel to turn off the sprinklers.
Ethel, as our very own other-dimensional friend insisted we call it, manifested in the Sanctity as a pleasant rose red glow. Bathing in that ruddy glare was enough to calm the spirit and ease the heart. Didn’t stop us all from arguing, though.
I sat down in my assigned place at the far end of the table and immediately launched into my tale of what had gone down at Lightbringer House. Only to be as immediately stopped by the Sarjeant-at-Arms. Meetings have to have agendas, in his world, and that meant my late-arriving news would have to wait until we’d dealt with existing business first. All the others went along, because the Sarjeant was quite capable of outstubborning us all when it came to matters of precedence. So I sank down in my chair and sulked, with my arms folded tightly across my chest, while he worked his way through the business of the day. It wasn’t easy feeling sullen and thoroughly pissed off under Ethel’s soothing red glow, but then, I’ve had a lot of practice. When it comes to trying your patience, my family could make Mother Teresa drink vodka straight from the bottle while drop-kicking a leper.
“We have to decide what to do next, now that our Matriarch is dead,” the Armourer said heavily. “Grandmother’s been gone some time now, and we can’t keep putting this off. I’ve been carrying most of the load, with Harry’s help, staying on top of the day-to-day problems, because I’m most senior. . . . But I have my own work to be getting on with, in the Armoury! I never wanted to be in charge. I’m not good with people. When I’m faced with a problem, my first response has always been to hit it with something heavy. Which works fine with machines, but not so much with people.”
“Exactly,” said the Sarjeant-at-Arms. “I’d hate to think you were encroaching on my territory.”
“Someone’s got to be in charge,” Harry said firmly. “We’ve lost direction. The family is undermanned and overextended. There’s no overall strategy, and no long-term policy. Someone’s got to be in a position to make the important decisions.”
“Someone like you, Harry?” I said. “That didn’t work out too well, the last time you tried.”
“I’ve been studying,” Harry said coldly. “Reading up on the family history, and all kinds of useful background knowledge.”
“He has,” said Roger. “I never knew there were so many books on the principles of leadership. I particularly enjoyed the Machiavelli.”
“Not really helping there, Roger,” said Harry.
“The council can continue to oversee the usual day-to-day stuff,” said the Sarjeant. “But only until a new leader is elected.”
“Harry has proved himself very competent in handling such matters,” said the Armourer.
“I always knew you’d make a good housekeeper, Harry,” I said.
“At least he gets involved!” snapped the Sarjeant. “It’s all very well to sneer at paperwork and bureaucracy, but you can’t run a family this size without it! If people like Harry didn’t keep on top of all the little things, our departments would grind to a halt, and you’d be left with no backup at all!”
“Oh, indeed,” I said. “It’s a wonder I get anything done. . . .”
The Armourer cleared his throat meaningfully, and I shut up. Only my uncle Jack could still make me feel like an errant schoolboy.
“If we are to hold another election,” said Harry, “then I must respectfully insist that all candidates be allowed sufficient time to campaign properly.”
“You want to bring politics into the Hall?” said the Armourer, scowling heavily. “Didn’t we have enough problems with the Zero Tolerance faction?”
“How will everyone know how good I’d be for the family unless I’m allowed to explain it to them?” said Harry, in his most reasonable voice.
“I love a good campaign,” said Molly, past a mouthful of popcorn. “I’ve already got a great slogan in mind. How about, ‘Vote for Eddie or I’ll Turn You into a Dung Beetle’?”
“I wish I thought she was joking,” said the Armourer.
“Any attempt by you to interfere with the family’s electoral process will result in your being banned from the Hall,” said the Sarjeant-at-Arms, glaring at Molly.
“Love to see you try, Cedric,” said Molly, glaring right back at him.
“Really not helping, Molly,” I said.
“Whatever the result of the election,” said the Armourer, “should we also decide on a new Matriarch? As a constitutional position, perhaps? The family has always had a Matriarch. . . .”
“Tricky,” said Harry. “Do we appoint the next in line, or should the new Matriarch be elected, too?”
“Who is next in the line of succession?” I said. “I’ve never really kept up with that side of things.”
“Technically,” said the Armourer, “the Matriarchy is supposed to pass from mother to daughter, or granddaughter. Your mother would have been next in line, Eddie, but with her gone, and you her only child . . . the direct line of succession is broken. If James or I had produced a daughter, she would have been next in line. But I had only one son, and while James had many . . . offspring, only one has ever been acknowledged by the family, and that’s Harry. And before you say anything, Harry, yes, I know you have an absolute multitude of half sisters, by various mothers, but none of them can be accepted as legitimate successors.”
“Tradition,” said the Sarjeant, nodding solemnly.
“Daddy Dearest did put it about rather a lot,” murmured Harry. “I haven’t even met all my half brothers and half sisters.”
“He was very romantic,” the Armourer said firmly.
“We can’t simply appoint a Matriarch,” said the Sarjeant. “If we must have one, and I think we must, then tradition demands she be part of the line of descent, no matter how . . . fractured. Traditions are all we have to hold the family together.”
“My aunt Helen was Mother’s sister,” said the Armourer. “And she had a daughter, Margaret. I suppose . . .”
“Don’t recognise the name,” I said. “The family’s getting far too big. . . .”
“I could always organise a cull,” said the Sarjeant.
We all looked at him. He didn’t appear to be joking.
“Moving on,” I said. “Uncle Jack, what does Margaret do in the family?”
“Wait a minute!” said the Sarjeant. “You mean Capability Maggie! She’s in charge of landscaping the Hall grounds, maintaining the lawns and the lake and the woods, and all the creatures that live in them.”
“That’s her,” said the Armourer. “Devoted to her job. Raised a hell of a fuss when I dug up half an acre to bury that massive dragon’s head you sent back from Germany, Eddie. I mean, I covered it over again. . . . I think a new barrow adds personality to the garden. And it is the only part of the garden that can actually have a conversation with you when you walk past it.”
“Does she have Matriarch potential?” said Harry.
“She runs the gardeners with a rod of iron,” said the Sarjeant. “Sometimes literally. And she chased me twice around the Hall with a pitchfork that time I walked across her new seedlings.”
“Now, that I would have loved to see,” I said. “Hell, I’d have sold tickets.”
“I still say she should have put up a sign,” said the Sarjeant. “I’ll have a word with her. From a safe distance. Sound her out, see how she feels.”
“Are we still talking about a constitutional Matriarch?” I said. “Because I’m damned if I’m having some new Matriarch ruling over me with a pitchfork. What exactly would her powers and responsibilities be?”
“To be decided by the family, I suppose,” said the Armourer. “Or whoever the family elects as its new leader.”
“What’s she like, this Margaret?” I said, trying to hold the Armourer’s gaze, even as he seemed not to want to.
“Downright vicious, if you tread on her seedlings,” said the Sarjeant.
“Very . . . forceful,” said the Armourer. “Doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Or at all, really.”
“Exactly the right sort,” said Harry.
I looked at him thoughtfully. “Will you be standing for leader in this new election, Harry?”
“Of course. I live to serve the family. How about you, Eddie?”
“The only reason I’d stand would be to prevent your taking command again, Harry.”
“How very unkind,” said Harry.
“The next item on the agenda,” said the Sarjeant quickly, “is the continuing problem of the Librarian.”
Everyone looked at William, still sitting quietly at his end of the table, lost in his own little world, as always. Even allowing for the dressing gown and bunny slippers, he looked fairly presentable. His hair and beard were neatly trimmed these days, because his new assistant Librarian, Ioreth, did it for him. But he still looked like he wasn’t eating nearly enough. William had a first-class mind some of the time, but he couldn’t always remember where he put it. He worked best when left alone with his beloved books in the Old Library, but here and now . . . He raised his great grey head suddenly and looked at me . . . and he had the cold thousand-yard stare of a soldier from some terrible forgotten war.
He hadn’t contributed a single word to the council meeting so far.
“How are you feeling, William?” I said, a bit loudly.
“Who can say?” William said sadly. “I’m here, because the Sarjeant said I was supposed to be here. Settle for that.”
I looked up into the rose red glow that marked Ethel’s presence. “I had hoped springing him from that asylum and bringing him home to the family might help him.”
“Sorry, Eddie,” said Ethel, her calm and kind voice seeming to come from everywhere at once. “I’m doing all I can to soothe his troubled brow, but someone has done a real number on this man’s mind. I can barely see into his head, and I can see into dimensions you don’t even have names for yet. Trying to sort through his thoughts is like drowning in a bucket of boiling cats. There’s a lot going on inside his mind, but it’s all going on at the same time. It’s a wonder to me he can even see the real world. He is fighting it, Eddie; but I think he’s losing. And . . .”
“Yes?” I said, after the pause had gone on a little too long for my liking.
“There’re . . . other things in his head, too,” Ethel said reluctantly. “Shadows . . . things I can’t even identify. I’ve no idea what they are.”
“Terrific,” said Harry.
“I do wish people wouldn’t talk about me as though I weren’t here!” said William, sitting suddenly upright. “All right, some of the time I’m not. I know that. But it’s the principle of the thing! I shouldn’t be here. . . . Put me back in the Old Library. I can focus there. I can cope. I can contribute to the family. Nothing else matters.”
“I really thought you’d feel better once I got you home,” I said.
“Oh, it is better here,” said William. “Don’t think I’m not grateful, Eddie. I am, I am. . . . But the Heart broke me, you see, and even though I ran away from the Heart and the Hall and the family . . . I couldn’t run away from what it did to me. I’m still broken. . . . And all the Droods’ horses and all the Droods’ men couldn’t put me back together again.”
I looked around the table, glowering at everyone. “This has gone on long enough! William is family, and he needs our help. And now that the Matriarch’s no longer here to block it, I say it’s time to hire a professional telepath and see what he can do to put William’s mind right.”
“I do understand, Eddie,” the Armourer said gently. “I remember how William was before he left. He was my friend, and I miss him. But I have to say . . . what if the Matriarch had a good reason for saying no?”
“Like what?” I said.
“I don’t know!” said the Armourer. “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice, Eddie! I did discuss the matter with Mother on several occasions, but she always refused to explain her reasons. She didn’t have to, after all. She was the Matriarch.”
“I also raised the matter with her,” said the Sarjeant. “I was . . . concerned about my uncle. She also refused to explain her thinking to me. She said, very forcefully, that allowing a telepath access to William’s mind was completely unacceptable. She was . . . very curt about it. I assumed it was a security issue; that William must have something in his head, family secrets, that no outsider could be allowed to know.”
“Doesn’t seem likely, does it?” I said. “What could William know that the rest of us don’t?”
“That’s rather the point, isn’t it?” said the Sarjeant. “But for once, you and I are in agreement, Edwin. This has gone on far too long. William is family and must be helped. Nothing else matters.”
“Who do we have in mind for the job?” said Harry. “The family’s psychics—”
“Aren’t up to the job,” I said firmly. “What’s inside William’s head would eat them alive. We need someone with real power, someone who can punch their weight.”
“The London Knights are always boasting about their first-class telepath, Vivienne de Tourney,” said the Sarjeant. “Apparently they use her to maintain communications among the Knights when they ride out to war in other worlds and dimensions, where our science doesn’t always work. She can maintain telepathic contact among hundreds of Knights simultaneously, so they can talk to her, and one another, and never once get muddled. A first-class brain. I could talk to her. . . .”
“You’ve been drinking with their seneschal again, haven’t you?” the Armourer said accusingly.
“I do like to get out now and again, yes,” the Sarjeant said, matching the Armourer glare for glare. “A little private club for those who serve. I do have a life outside the family.”
“I thought that was forbidden, on security grounds?” I said, amused despite myself.
“It is forbidden,” said the Sarjeant. “For everyone except me. I don’t have to worry about breaking security. I am security. And I can drink their seneschal under the table any day of the week.”
“Bloody London Knights,” growled the Armourer. “Do we really want to go cap in hand to those snotty, stuck-up little prigs? Always so high and mighty—last defenders of Camelot, my arse! They give themselves such airs and graces. . . . We’re the real defenders of Humanity! Because they’re always off fighting somewhere else!”
“What about the Carnacki Institute?” said Harry. “They have any number of telepaths working for them.”
“The Ghost Finders?” said the Sarjeant. “I don’t think so. They’d want payment in more than money. They’d want information, secrets, sources. . . . And I’ve never really trusted them. I don’t think anything we gave them would necessarily stay with them. They’ve always been too close to the Establishment for my liking, for all their protestations.”
“If we have to hire someone,” I said carefully, “I say we hire the best. And that means Ammonia Vom Acht.”
Everyone reacted, and none of them favourably. The Armourer pulled a sour face, and the Sarjeant shook his head firmly. Harry and Roger looked at each other, and neither of them looked pleased by the prospect. William was back to staring off into space again. I looked at Molly, and she made a point of being very interested in the remaining contents of her bag of popcorn.
“All right,” I said. “Agreed, she’s a poisonous, vicious and really quite appalling woman, and those are her good points. But you know you’re going to get your money’s worth with her.”
“I should hope so,” said the Sarjeant. “Given how much she charges.”
“How do you know how much she charges?” I said.
“I have made my own overtures,” said the Sarjeant. “Once it became clear that we were going to have to do something about William.”
“I’m still here!” said William.
“Only just,” said the Sarjeant. “But can we really risk allowing
“I wasn’t thinking of letting her into the Hall, as such,” I said. “I thought perhaps something more like neutral territory—namely, the Old Library. Teleport her straight there, through the Merlin Glass. She’d be cut off from the rest of the Hall and the rest of the family. I’m sure Uncle Jack could whip up something I could wear to keep Ammonia out of my head.”
“What?” said the Armourer. “Oh. Yes. Of course, no problem. I’ll take it under advisement. I think I may go and hide somewhere the day she arrives.”
“Lot of people feel that way about Ammonia Vom Acht,” I said.
“I still want to know who or what is living in the Old Library, along with the Librarian,” the Sarjeant said determinedly. “I am referring to whatever it was that scared the crap out of the Immortal posing as Rafe. You were there, Eddie, when whatever it was stopped Rafe from killing the Librarian. What did you see?”
“I keep telling you,” I said, “I didn’t see anything. All I could feel was this . . . presence. Big and powerful and dangerous, but not like anything I’ve ever encountered before. William . . . William! Do you have anything you want to contribute?”
“Something’s there,” said William, nodding wisely. “Something very old, I think. Watching me, or watching over me. It’s so hard to be sure. . . . It steals my socks, you know.”
“We can’t have someone or something unknown running loose in the Old Library!” said the Sarjeant.
“We’ve already run the exorcism engine three times!” said the Armourer. “None of my equipment was able to detect anything!”
“Why not let the Vom Acht woman have a crack at it?” I said. “If she really is the top-ranking telepath she’s always claimed, she should be able to pin it down. Or at least tell us what it is we’re dealing with.”
“She might not survive such a close encounter,” said the Armourer. “You saw the state of the Immortal after we dragged him out of the Old Library.”
“Get her to work on William first,” the Sarjeant said wisely. “Then have her scan the Old Library. And she might die, you say? Excellent. A plan with no drawbacks.”
“You’ve got cold, Cedric,” said the Armourer.
“I was born cold,” said the Sarjeant-at-Arms.
“Some days you can’t breathe in here for testosterone,” said Molly.
“Have we finally finished all the family business?” I said. “I really would like to talk about my encounter with the first well-organised, worldwide Satanist conspiracy in sixty years!”
“It’s always about you, isn’t it, Eddie?” said Harry.
“Far more often than it’s about you, Harry,” I said.
I ran through everything that happened at Lightbringer House, with Molly chipping in now and then to add details. There were certain parts I chose to leave out, mostly concerning Isabella, but I couldn’t leave her out entirely. I was pretty sure she’d be inviting herself back in again at some point. William actually brightened up a bit at the mention of her name.
“Very healthy young girl!” he said loudly. “Got a good pair of legs on her. They go all the way up to her arse. I don’t know why you insist on keeping her out of the Old Library, Sarjeant. She can come and visit me anytime. . . .”
“She can’t have access, because she isn’t family,” said the Sarjeant.
“Oh, let the girl in,” said William. “I could show her a few things. Oh, yes. I may be insane, but I’m not crazy.”
“Dirty old man,” said Molly, in a not entirely disapproving way.
“Moving on,” I said deliberately. “I’m mostly concerned about Alexandre Dusk, and the Great Sacrifice he was talking about.”
“It is a worry, yes,” said the Sarjeant. “But I don’t see anything serious enough in this that we should make it a top priority.”
“It’s just Satanists,” said the Sarjeant. “They always talk big. We’ll keep an eye on them, certainly. Gather information, see who’s actually involved and what they might have going for them. . . . I’ll delegate one of our field agents to infiltrate Lightbringer House.”
“I could do that!” I said immediately. “I could go in as Shaman Bond!”
“The council has a far more important mission in mind for you,” said Harry. “Important and urgent. You’ll need to be ready for insertion first thing tomorrow morning.”
“No rest for the wicked,” the Armourer said solemnly. “I can always whip up one of my special pep-you-up tonics, if you like.”
“No, I do not like,” I said. “Grandmother used to dose me with your tonics all the time I was growing up, and they always tasted
“That’s how you know it’s doing you good,” said the Armourer. “You always got a nice chocolate afterwards, didn’t you?”
“There isn’t a chocolate in the world that could take away the taste of your tonics!”
“It’s nice to be appreciated,” said the Armourer. He shook his head slowly. “An actual Satanist conspiracy, after all these years. I always have trouble taking them seriously. It’s all a bit too much Dennis Wheatley, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Who?” said Harry.
“You know,” said Roger. “
“Have you heard anything about this new conspiracy?” I said. “These are your people, aren’t they?”
“Oh, please! Hardly,” said Roger. “They’re nothing but wannabes, whereas I am the real thing. There have always been satanic conspiracies, but none of them were ever as powerful or as important as they liked to think.”
“Yes, well,” said Molly, “you would say that, wouldn’t you? Do you know anything about Alexandre Dusk and his proposed Great Sacrifice?”
“Haven’t heard anything,” said Roger.
We all waited, but he had nothing more to say. Even Harry was looking at Roger thoughtfully, but he didn’t seem to care.
“I have to ask,” I said, looking round the council. “Given that there is an unquestionably real satanic conspiracy, is there, in fact, a good-guy equivalent? Apart from us, obviously.”
“There are other organisations on the side of the Light,” said the Sarjeant-at-Arms. “And any number of powerful individuals, like the Lord of Thorns, in the Nightside; and the Walking Man, the wrath of God in the world of men. . . .”
“I was thinking of something more specific,” I said. “Are there agents of good in the world, to match the agents of evil?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said the Armourer. “There is . . . the Emmanuel.”
Everyone seemed to sit up a little straighter. Even William was giving the conversation his full attention, such as it was.
“Emmanuel,” said William. “Literally, ‘God with us.’”
“Is that a person or an organisation?” I said.
“Good question,” said the Armourer. “Nobody knows. Or at least, no one knows for sure. This family has had dealings with the Emmanuel, down the centuries. When we knew for sure that we were in way out of our depth. According to family records, and these are very secret and very private records, the Emmanuel is extremely powerful, and not to be summoned lightly.”
“All right,” I said. “What’s the big secret here? What does the Emmanuel do?”
“He answers questions,” said William. “Truthfully. He knows everything there is to know about people, places and the true nature of reality. Which can be . . . very upsetting. Not to mention downright disturbing. We do have a book of his recorded sayings in the Old Library. It’s locked shut, in half a dozen different and very thorough ways, and on the front cover someone has stamped the words ‘Do Not Open Till Doomsday.
“He can do . . . pretty much whatever he feels like doing,” said the Armourer. “I never met him, but Mother did. She said he was a man with no restraint and no limits. A man who would do absolutely anything in the name of the good. Which is why this family has only ever made contact with the Emmanuel when we were really deep in the shit, and going under for the third time. Apparently being around him can be . . . damaging.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because he scares the crap out of us,” said William.
“Of course,” said Roger. “Agents of the light, the ones who draw their power directly from the Most High, can be as cold-blooded, single-minded and dangerous to be around as any agent of the dark. Neither side really cares about people; it’s always the long view for them. Whatever’s best for Humanity as a whole, and God help the poor individual. Always ready to sacrifice today, in the name of tomorrow.”
“Any way,” said the Sarjeant, “according to family records, we’ve only ever met the one man. And whether that is the Emmanuel or the representative of a larger organisation . . . we have no way of knowing. Certainly the family has always been very glad to see the back of him. Apparently, he has only to look at you and you want to blurt out every bad thing you’ve ever done, or thought of doing, and then throw yourself at his feet and beg for mercy. We had to be very careful about whom we let talk to him. Even the best of us came away from such meetings . . . disturbed.”
“I have heard of the Emmanuel,” said Roger, and something in his voice made us all turn to look at him. “I’ve never met him. Don’t know anyone who has. But then, of course, we don’t move in the same circles. . . . He’s even more of an urban legend in the invisible world than the Droods. Often talked about, rarely encountered, best left strictly alone. Everyone knows someone who claims to know someone who’s met the Emmanuel; but when you try to pin them down . . . Where he comes from, nobody knows, but we’re all really glad when he goes back there. Extreme good can be just as scary, and just as dangerous, as extreme evil. All of my kind . . . the half-castes, the hellspawn and the Nephilim, and every possible combination of the natural and unnatural worlds, have good reason to stay well clear of such . . . archetypal forces. Neither good nor evil has any use for shades of grey. . . .”
“On a somewhat connected matter,” I said, after we’d all taken some time out to consider Roger’s words, “I was told that this family has long-standing pacts with Heaven and Hell. Is that right?”
“Oh, yes,” said the Armourer, entirely casually. “Very old pacts with the Courts of the Holy and the Houses of Pain. What about them?”
“You never did pay attention in history class, did you?” said the Sarjeant.
“This is very old family history,” said the Armourer. “Going back to the really early days, when our armour was still new and we were still making a name for ourselves . . . And we needed all the help we could get. The details of how contact was made, and even exactly what we get out of it, are kept locked away in Very Secret, Need to Know, Move Along, Nothing to See Here files.”
“I’m getting really tired of hearing that phrase,
The Armourer and the Sarjeant-at-Arms looked at each other, their faces unreadable. Finally, the Sarjeant said reluctantly, “The Matriarch knew. And . . . one other.”
“William,” said the Armourer. “As Librarian, he knew.”
We all looked at William, and he looked back with surprisingly clear and thoughtful eyes. “The original contracts, or compacts, are still on file in the Old Library. They make very interesting reading. Which is why I’ve filed them away in such a manner that no one will ever be able to find them again without my help. Trust me on this, Eddie: You don’t need to know what’s in them. No one in the family does. It’s enough to know . . . that we have contacts, and perhaps even friends, in high and low places. And Jacob, of course.”
“What?” I said.
“The ghost, Jacob,” William said patiently. “He knew. He wasn’t supposed to, but then, it’s hard to keep secrets from the dead.”
“Could we use these . . . contacts?” I said. “To try to find out what’s happening with this new Satanist conspiracy, and what they’re up to?”
“No,” said William.
We all waited, but he had nothing more to say.
“The family must be protected,” the Sarjeant said heavily. “Some things must stay secret.”
“Like the source of our original armour?” I said. “Or the pact our ancestors made with the Heart? We did make some really bad decisions, back in the bad old days. That’s always been the trouble with this family. Too many secrets.”
“I think you’re pushing this too far, Eddie,” said the Armourer.
“Am I?” I said. “I don’t think I’m pushing this nearly far enough! What about those secret departments within departments that most of the family isn’t even supposed to know exist? You told me about them, William; have you remembered anything else?”
“I don’t know!” said William. “Don’t push me! I know what I need to know, when I need to know it, and on good days that includes where to find the chemical toilet. I know some things . . . but I’m not entirely sure I trust them. There are . . . agents, yes, more secret than the field agents, sent out to do the kinds of things the family would rather not admit to, even to itself. Perhaps especially not to itself. But I don’t remember who they were, or are. Maybe I never knew. . . . Only the Matriarch knew everything.”
“And she’s gone,” I said. “Which raises a very interesting question: Who’s running these special agents these days, and what exactly are they doing in the family’s name?”
“Eddie has a point,” the Armourer said reluctantly. “We’ve let things run loose far too long. Admittedly, we have been a bit busy lately, but still . . . Someone has to take charge. Someone has to set overall policy of what is and is not acceptable, and make sure the family’s left hand knows what its right hand is doing.”
“Once the family has elected a leader, they can take control,” said Harry.
“Can we wait that long?” I said. “Are we supposed to let these secret departments run themselves, without anyone knowing what they’re doing?”
“I know,” said William. “I’ve always known. Of course, I don’t always remember what I know. Or even if what I remember actually happened.”
“I don’t care what he may or may not know; we are not putting him in charge of anything,” the Sarjeant said firmly. “No offence, Uncle William.”
“Oh, hello, young Cedric,” said William. “Do you want an ice cream?”
“Uncle Jack,” I said, looking firmly at the Armourer, “you’re the senior man here, with actual field agent experience. You’ll have to take charge. Dig up these secret departments and rein them in. Only till someone can take overall charge again.”
“You do like to put me on the spot, don’t you, Eddie?” The Armourer scowled and drummed his fingertips on the table for a moment, but in the end he nodded shortly. “All right. There are people I can talk to. And they’ll talk to me, if they know what’s good for them.”
“I should be involved in this,” said the Sarjeant. “It involves family security.”
“Yes, it does, and no, you shouldn’t,” said the Armourer. “You tend your own briar patch, Cedric.”
“Hold it,” said Harry. “Don’t we get to discuss this? The Armourer gets to be in charge because he’s the oldest here?”
“Because he has seniority, because he has actual field experience and because he knows who these special agents are. Don’t you, Uncle Jack?” I met his gaze steadily. “You have to know who they are, because you’re the one who supplies them with all the necessary weapons and gadgets before they go out on their missions. Right, Uncle Jack?”
He smiled suddenly. “You always were smarter than you let anyone realise, Eddie. Yes, I know who they are. Now all I have to do is persuade them to tell me whom they work for; who gives them their orders and sends them out on their missions. As if I don’t have enough work on my plate . . . Engines big enough to drive the moon out of its orbit don’t build themselves, you know.”
There was a pause.
“I thought we’d agreed that you were going to table that one, for the time being,” I said tactfully.
The Armourer sniffed loudly. “Man’s allowed to have a hobby, isn’t he?”
I looked at Roger. “We are about to change the subject. What do you know about the family’s pact with Hell?”
“Not a thing,” said Roger. “Way above my pay scale.”
“Is there anyone you could talk to who might know what Dusk is up to?”
“I don’t think they’d tell me, even if they knew,” Roger said carefully.
“Even though you’re half Drood?”
“Especially because I’m half Drood. Besides, consider the source. Hell always lies.”
“Except when a truth can hurt you more,” said Harry.
“What did happen on your recent trip to Hell?” I asked Roger. “Did anything come of that?”
“Not really,” said Roger. “I had to call it off and come back in a hurry when everything started kicking off here with the Accelerated Men attack.”
“I think we’ve spent quite long enough talking about Hell,” said the Sarjeant. “It’s time to move on to more immediate business. Our immediate top priority is the Supernatural Arms Faire, currently being held in the mountains above Pakistan.”
“What?” I said. “What’s that got to do with us?”
“It’s still mostly called the Supernatural Arms Faire, even though most of the weapons on display these days tend towards superscience,” said the Armourer. “I go every year; never miss it. Last year they were giving away Shock and Awe in the goodie bags! It’s a very old affair, Eddie; goes all the way back to Roman times. Or at least, that’s when it first appears in an official report. Enthusiasts such as myself did take to calling it Harmageddon back in the eighties, but it never really caught on. Everybody who’s anybody who’s involved in weapons of mass destruction goes there to see what’s new and nasty. The Internet’s made a lot of things more readily accessible, but there’s still nothing quite like the joy of browsing.”
“What has this got to do with me?” I said. “And why do I know I’m really not going to like the answer?”
“Must be turning psychic,” the Armourer said cheerfully. “Now pipe down and pay attention, or there’ll be a short, sharp visit from the slap fairy. You need to know this. All the world’s most talented weapons makers turn up at the fair every year to show off their latest creations. And take orders for the coming year. We can often figure out what the bad guys are planning by studying their shopping lists. The location of the Supernatural Arms Faire changes every year, attendance strictly by invitation only. But it does keep coming back to the mountains over Pakistan, if only because they’re far enough from anywhere civilised that if something should go
“What organisers?” I said. “Who’s behind the fair?”
“The Gun Shops of Usher,” said the Sarjeant. “Very old firm. Older than us.” He fixed me with a cold stare. “We’re sending you in this year to observe and take notes, because you’re the most experienced field agent we’ve got left. Who isn’t busy with something else.”
“Why does it always have to be me?” I said plaintively. “Why can’t I ever get a case that involves loafing about at the seaside?”
“I could go,” said Harry.
“No, you couldn’t,” I said quickly. “I need you here, taking care of the day-to-day business. So I don’t have to.”
“Every man to what he does best, Harry,” said the Sarjeant.
“If you only knew what he does best . . .” murmured Roger.
“Not now, dear,” said Harry.
“How am I to get in, even as Shaman Bond, if I don’t have an invitation?” I said craftily, to show I had been paying attention.
“I visit the fair every year,” the Armourer said cheerfully. “I have a long-standing invitation to attend, because I have established a cover as a weapons enthusiast and retired nerd. You can get in on my ticket. Take Molly; I’m allowed a plus-one. Ah, I always have a great time wandering round the stalls, quietly sneering at new inventions I created or overcame years ago. And I always bring back a few good ideas. . . . Steal from the best, and call it research!”
“Do they know you’re a Drood?” said Molly.
“Of course not! They’d shut everything down and leg it for the horizon. Or try to kill me. Probably both. No, they think I’m another of those very keen trainspotter types who always turn up at affairs like these. Making endless notes, jotting down serial numbers . . . and exclaiming over unexpected obsolete makes, and proudly comparing their to-see lists. The fair security people could keep us out if they really wanted to, but the weapons makers like to have us around so they can show off in front of us and feel like stars. They’d miss us if we weren’t there. But this time it has to be you, Eddie. I’m too busy. You can go in as Shaman Bond, and no one need know you’re a Drood. I’ll give you the coordinates, and you can drop in through the Merlin Glass. In and out, no problem.”
“But what am I supposed to do there?” I said. “What is so important that an experienced field agent has to attend the Supernatural Arms Faire?”
“Because there are rumours, very serious rumours, that someone has come up with a high-tech equivalent to Drood armour,” said the Sarjeant. “And that they will be showing off the prototype at this year’s fair.”
“And we can’t have that,” said the Armourer. “Of course, people have been promising Drood-type armour for years, but no one’s ever been able to deliver.”
“Several normally trustworthy sources were very sure that this year, someone might have something,” the Sarjeant said firmly. “And, Eddie, if they have, you are to grab the prototype and bring it back with you, so the Armourer can hack it open and see what makes it tick. Before one of us has to go head-to-head with it in the field.”
“Who’s supposed to be behind this new armour?” I said.
“If you find out, bring them back, too,” said the Armourer.
“All right,” I said reluctantly. “But after I come back, I want to talk a lot more about Dusk and his proposed Great Sacrifice.”
“Of course,” said the Armourer. “We should have more definite information on the conspiracy by then.”
I sighed heavily. “First the Loathly Ones, then the Invisibles and the Accelerated Men, and now a brand-new Satanist conspiracy. How many conspiracies are there?”
“How long is a superstring?” said William.
We all looked at him, but he had nothing else to say.
“Any more business?” the Sarjeant-at-Arms said finally. “No . . . very well. Meeting adjourned. I’ll look into who’s properly next in line to be Matriarch; Armourer, I want a full report on whatever you discover about the secret departments; and Harry, I want a fully thought-out position paper from you on how we’re going to run the next election. We need some new ideas; the last election was really a shoo-in for the Matriarch. I’d like to see more of a fight this time. William . . . why don’t you go and have a nice lie-down, and see what else you can remember? And then write it all down. Before you forget it again.”
“Good idea,” said William. “I’ll get Rafe to help me.”
“Rafe is gone,” I said carefully. “You have a new assistant Librarian—Ioreth. Remember?”
“Oh. Yes,” said William. “I’d better write that down.”
The council broke up, everyone going their separate way with a certain amount of relief. The Sarjeant called in his security people to escort William back to the Old Library, and to put out the chair Roger Morningstar had been sitting on. I used the Merlin Glass to transport Molly and me straight to my room on the upper floor. Molly put her hands on my shoulders and started to say something, but I placed a fingertip on her lips and shook my head urgently. I leaned in close, so I could whisper in her ear.
“Molly, I need you to put up all your best privacy spells right now. I need protections so strong that no one will be able to overhear what I have to tell you. Do it now.”
“Who are you worried will listen in?” said Molly, as she stepped back and struck a series of mystical poses, her hands moving so quickly they left shimmering trails on the air.
“Including your own family?”
Molly made a final gesture and the whole room shuddered. The floor seemed to drop away an inch or so beneath my feet, and then steadied. There was a faint but very real tension on the air. Molly nodded briskly.
“Done and done. You can talk freely, Eddie. Gaea herself couldn’t overhear us now. What’s so important?”
I took both her hands in mine and had her sit down on the edge of the bed, facing me. “Remember when I was trapped in Limbo, and Walker was interrogating me, trying to make me give up all my secrets?”
“Of course,” said Molly. “We still need to figure out who was really behind that. Could it have been Dusk, do you suppose?”
“I did consider raising the subject with him,” I said. “But it never seemed the right time. I’d hate to think he was actually that powerful. . . . The point is, Walker said something to me right at the end. I said, ‘If this is where the dead people go, why aren’t my parents here?’ And he said, ‘What ever makes you think they’re dead?’”
Molly’s eyes widened, and then she squeezed my hands reassuringly. “Eddie . . . it would be wonderful if there were hope. But it probably wasn’t Walker. You can’t trust anything you see or hear in Limbo.”
“It started me thinking,” I said. “I never did see the bodies of my parents. . . .”
“I never saw the bodies of mine,” said Molly. “They were killed by your family, fighting alongside the White Horse Faction, and the Droods never gave us anything to bury. There often aren’t bodies in our business, Eddie. You know that. I’d like to believe my parents could be alive, too. . . . But you have to let go. You have to move on.”
“But what if my parents are still alive?” I said. “In hiding, perhaps? Or even being held captive somewhere? I don’t like to think they would have left me here, all these years, if they were still alive. I like to think they would have rescued me from the family. But if they are still out there . . . and my family has been lying to me all this time . . .”
“We’ll look into it,” said Molly. “Find you the truth about what really happened to your mother and father. But do you really believe your family could have hidden this from you all these years?”
“Of course,” I said. “There are far too many secrets in my family.”