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Disturbing the Dust

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Molly felt the doors open and everything changed. The Folly's mood turned with its master's, as if he created the weather throughout the great building. It had been dull and cloudy for so many years, like an endless damp grey London fog. Now Molly felt his step ringing on the marble floor and his presence like a brisk west wind clearing the sky to reveal patches of evening sun.

She met him in the atrium and stood ready, feeling the magic sparking from him as his staff touched the ground. He smiled, that wide tooth-showing grimace that she had long ago learned meant pleasure and not threat, and said, "I'm afraid I will have more work for you soon, Molly."

She remained still. He knew there was nothing he could ask of her that she would not do, and he wanted so little.

"I believe I may have found my apprentice." His voice was still calm and gentle, gentlemanly, but she could feel the anticipation and hope bubbling from him.

An apprentice. He had been searching for over a year. She had witnessed the slow trickle of pale floppy-haired young men, grandsons and great-grandsons of the old masters, and had felt their scorn for her master and his search, and then the slower trickle of police, suspicious and tense and afraid. She had been glad that none of them would serve.

"His name is Peter Grant. If he's willing to take the oath, and I think he will be, then he'll be arriving in a day or two. I was thinking you could get that top floor room ready for him."

She tilted her head up at him, knowing what he meant but wanting him to confirm it.

"My old room," he said, and then, as if sorry to have spoken that aloud and thus betrayed his hopes for this boy, turned quickly to the reading room. Molly took his coat and went to the laundry to brush it clean. A new apprentice, and one who had given the master hopes she had not imagined possible. She fussed over the coat, finding some barely-visible spots of dust around the hem and a tiny grease stain on the lapel--that salty Japanese sauce again. There had been a time when he had been glad and grateful to eat the good food she cooked, but over the past few years he had begun to seem restless and took more and more to eating in restaurants around the city. He was careful not to hurt her, and she was equally careful not to let him see if he did hurt her, but she knew that the kitchens of those restaurants were less clean than her own.

But tonight he ate at home, and with a good appetite too. He didn't like to see her noticing such things, but she could no more have stopped herself than she could have left the Folly. He read through police paperwork as he ate, unusually for him, and after dinner she brought him back his coat, knowing he was going out again. It was, he had told her once, the definition of police work: going out all hours. She didn't fear for him when he was out. There was no power in the city stronger than he.

After he had gone and the Folly became silent and empty and expectant again, Molly washed the dishes and set her kitchen back in order for the night, leaving the biscuit tin on the table in case he came in late and hungry. Then she climbed the back stairs to the top floor.

Since the war, she had only entered this room to do the necessary spring clean every year, when she turned out all the many disused room in the great building. The master had never entered it at all: when he had returned to the Folly he had first slept in the kitchen with her, grateful as any soldier for a bed that was dry and clean and warm, and then in the grand suite on the first floor once she had scrubbed away the dust and grime and unboarded the windows and polished the furniture and scrounged linens for the bed. It had taken almost five years for her to repair all the damage the war had done to the Folly and replace what had been broken or used for the war effort or lost. She had cleaned out the top floor room with the others and stored away the last few possessions he'd left behind, and had done nothing to draw his attention to it, hoping to avoid giving him pain. He rarely ventured to the top floor and never entered his old room. That was his past, before the war, this was his present. She understood that well enough, just as she had felt the effects of Ettersberg in her own blood.

But London had been stirring for years, and now all the old dust was swimming through the air again, and settling in new patterns. Molly looked around the room. There was dust on the covers of the furniture, the mattress needed airing, there were no linens on the bed, the rug from the floor had been rolled away and stored, there were no lights, no curtains. The bathroom on this floor too, she thought, would need to be prepared.

She had done many far larger jobs than this one, but she knew this one mattered. The master wanted his new apprentice, and wanted him to flourish. And it was Molly's business to see that what the master wanted, he had.

She pulled the covers from the furniture, revealing the generously sized desk, the wardrobe, the bedframe, the chair, the bookshelves, the old washstand. In the bottom drawer of the desk she found a few sheets of paper covered in the master's angular script, notes in a language she didn't recognise. He had taught her to read here, but only English, though she knew he was conversant in many other languages. The papers were old but unfaded; she found a date written at the top. 1932. That must have been from one of the times he was back in England, in between his travels, when the Folly had still been full of the powerful ones.

There were no other papers in the desk, though she did find a worn-down HB pencil in a crevice in a drawer. She took that as well. Let this new apprentice have a fresh start. She chased the spiders from the corner by the door and ate the one that didn't scuttle away fast enough, then cleared away the cobwebs. Long ago Mrs Putnam the housekeeper had told her to start at the top and work down when she cleaned, and while Molly had long surpassed Mrs Putnam's skills, she still followed that order in cleaning a room. She settled down to her work.

It was deep night and the moon was setting when she felt the master return. She straightened her apron and cap and went out onto the gallery. He was climbing the grand stairs briskly, showing no sign of tiredness. He looked up, feeling her gaze, and nodded to her, then continued past his suite up the next flight to join her on the gallery.

"How are you getting on?" he said. "I didn't mean for you to work all night, you know."

She made no answer. He had given her a task; she was carrying it out. He looked at the half-open door of the room that had once been his, like a man hesitating to touch an old scar. Then with a sudden decisive movement he went in.

Molly followed him. The bulk of the work was done now: the furniture was polished and gleaming, the fittings on the gas fire likewise, the skirtings cleaned, the floor scrubbed and waxed and the mattress propped up to air.

"That will do very well," he said, gazing around with clear eyes. He went across to the uncovered window and looked out. In this modern electrified world the city was scarcely darker by night than it was by day, especially to Molly's dark-adapted eyes, and she could see down to the old courtyard, the wiry stems of the buddleia bushes that had seeded in the cracks of the pavement and the protective holly and rowan in pots by the rear door. The master set store in his wards and spells that guarded the Folly, but in the old days the magic of the plants had played their part as well, and Molly kept them up.

"It's a bit bare, though," the master said, looking around the room. He stared at the gas fire, which Molly had lit to help air the room, and then said, "Do you still have the box of things that were left here?"

He didn't say the box of my things. That box had belonged to a different man, the cheerful man who had left to fight in a great war. The man who had returned had been almost a stranger.

She nodded and went swiftly to the back stairs to the attic. The space inside the Folly's attics was not quite consistent with the dimensions of the building, but they had a great deal to store, from a pair of enchanted skis that had been used on a winter mission in the Alps, to a grand piano that could no longer be played after a concert in which three members of the audience vanished. And the personal effects of wizards who'd gone to a war and never returned. Molly found the wooden crate and opened it before she carried it down. There wasn't much in it, nothing that she thought would give him pain to find now. She cleared off the dust and cobwebs and brought it to the master.

"Ah, treasure," he said lightly as he lifted the lid, but she saw the memories on his face. He gazed in for a moment, then reached in and began to sift through the contents. The old threadbare coat he set aside, likewise the two pairs of worn shoes. The reading lamp came out next, its shade miraculously undamaged.

"Yes, this might be useful," he said, and set it on the desk. Molly bent to plug it in, and to her surprise it lit up. The master nodded judiciously and went back to the box again. He set aside a sheaf of old papers like the one Molly had found in the desk, and some old pens and a drawing set. The old slippers startled a laugh from him. "You won't let me wear these, will you?" he said to her.

They were a faded red, handworked, and worn through at the toes. Molly looked at them impassively. If he set store on them, she would clean and mend them as best she could. He read her expression without difficulty and passed them to her. "Go on, then. See what you can do. It would be nice to--"

He didn't finish the sentence. Molly wondered who had made them for him, and when. She would have to take great care over mending them.

The master returned to his box and began to pick out the books one by one until he had the entire encyclopaedia on the floor--spilling dust onto it, Molly noticed, but she gave no sign.

"These are always useful," the master said. He ferried the twenty-nine volumes over to the bookshelf and arranged them carefully in order, then added the elderly Bible from the box. Molly frowned at it.

"It's traditional," he protested. "We all had one in our rooms when we were apprentices." He placed it on the shelf beside the encyclopaedia, and then pulled out the final book. "Brave New World," he said aloud, and smiled. "I think we're about to find out, my dear." He placed that on the shelf last of all, surveyed the room and nodded. "That'll do. Carry on, Molly. But in the morning, if you please."

Molly curtseyed. She still wasn't quite sure whether he understood that her need for rest and sleep was not like his own, or whether he knew but courtesy demanded he pretend otherwise. But she switched off the lights and the gas fire and followed him obediently from the new apprentice's room. The remaining work she would do at dawn, so that all would be ready for the arrival of the apprentice and the new world.