The office building was in a district of London just old enough to be distinguished yet not so venerable as to be ruinously expensive. As a result, its lobby’s desk clerk was sufficiently busy dealing with the needs of the folk who actually belonged in the building that she failed to note the arrival, quite late one Friday afternoon, of a tall gentleman and a somewhat shorter woman who did not, in fact, belong there at all. The duo seated themselves on a bench usefully sheltered by a large potted plant and waited quietly for some fifteen minutes before the woman began to fidget.
“Remind me,” she said, “why we’re stopping here, out in public and all.”
Her companion spoke softly to avoid being overheard. “It will be some hours before Scotland Yard learns of our escape, my dear; have no fear on that score. Meanwhile, in a few short moments, one Miss Grimsworthy will emerge from one of those elevators, bearing copies of certain documents with which various of her employers have been concerned this past week. We shall collect those documents, and – if Fortune is kind – use the information they contain to reclaim the greatest treasure our family has ever possessed.”
The woman gave a slight, soft gasp. “Not—?”
“Oh, yes,” he told her, eyes agleam. “The Cauldron of Fog shall be ours once more...and with it, the keys to prosperity and revenge alike.”
“Where is it, then?”
“Hidden, of course. Concealed. Locked away. Kept secure these hundreds of years by the man who stole it from Great-Great-Grandfather Mandrake – Captain Joshua St. Bloody Edmund of Candleshoe.” The tall man glanced toward the elevators and smiled thinly. “And here’s Miss Grimsworthy now, with the papers that will lead us to it!”
Three days earlier
Casey watched from the library window as her friends hurried along the estate’s long driveway toward the road – except that friends didn’t feel like quite the right word. Something closer had sprung up between Casey and the others in the weeks she’d been living at Candleshoe, and it wasn’t a bond she could properly label. Siblings was wrong, of course. All five of them, herself included, were orphans – even if Lady St. Edmund was right about who Casey’s parents had been, which was a different problem entirely. Roomies? No, that wasn’t right either, and not just because the house was large enough to hold at least another dozen kids without anyone having to double up.
“It really is for the best,” Lady St. Edmund said from behind her, resting a hand on Casey’s shoulder.
“Oh, I know. Casey Brown, trouble magnet, that’s me. Disruptive influence, they’d call it back in L.A. Or mischief maker.” She turned away from the window with a short, sharp laugh.
“Mischief,” Lady St. Edmund observed mildly, “occasionally has its uses. You are who you are, my dear.”
“And who I are is a disruptive influence,” said Casey, her tone wry.
“Say rather a catalyst. You’ve already sent ripples through the countryside, just by coming here and then choosing to stay. They’ll settle with time, but for now—”
Casey’s laugh had a bit less pain behind it this time. “For now, we wait.”
“Not to worry,” said Lady St. Edmund. “You’ll be busy enough. We’ve a fair bit of sorting out to finish with the authorities, to make certain there’s no question of your staying on. And there will be lessons....”
“Oh, God. Please tell me you’re not hiring a tutor.”
Now it was Lady St. Edmund who laughed. “Certainly not – at least, not yet. Just now we only need to coach you through exams. Priory and I can manage that, and give you some more of the family history into the bargain.”
“But—” There was that word again – family. Lady St. Edmund, of course, was convinced that Casey really was her long-lost granddaughter Margaret – the girl she’d originally been recruited to impersonate. Casey’s own memories on the matter were a total blank, lost behind a sea of shelters and foster homes, but she had eventually had to admit that the idea wasn’t totally impossible. For the most part, Lady St. Edmund had been content not to press the issue, but it remained a matter of tension between them.
“There’s no getting round it,” Lady St. Edmund told her now. “For one, we’re keeping up the tours; I’ve no doubt you’ll make a brilliant guide once you’ve mastered the stories.”
Casey sighed but didn’t protest. “And I s’pose the tourists will want to hear ‘em from ‘young Lady Margaret’.”
“Indeed, though that isn’t a story we’ll share anytime soon. But do remember – once you’re fitted out with a proper British passport, you’ll be Margaret Rosamund St. Edmund.” She wouldn’t actually be Lady Margaret, fourth Marchioness of Candleshoe. Pressing that claim would involve complicated inquiries and eventually require the blessing of the House of Lords itself, providing enough evidence turned up to satisfy the investigators. In the meantime, Lady St. Edmund’s lawyers had decided the safest way to forestall any awkward questions about one Casey Brown’s legal status was to pretend no such girl had ever existed – essentially, carrying on the deception Harry Bundage had begun. At least that was how Casey preferred to think of it.
“Well, then,” she asked, “besides good old Captain Joshua, what ancestors do I need to know about?”
Lady St. Edmund tapped the thick, heavily bound volume lying next to Casey on the window seat. “The full genealogy is here, but for today we’ll make do with the highlights: Lady Rebecca, the very first Marchioness; Lord Bartholomew, who built the church down in the village; and of course our own Captain Joshua.”
“Very first Marchioness? As in, they created the title for her?”
“Just so. This was just after the Wars of the Roses, you see. The St. Edmunds had been strong supporters of the new king, Henry Tudor, but nearly all Rebecca’s brothers had been killed in the fighting while she managed the family’s affairs at home. Rebecca was made Marchioness to see that the new holdings prospered, but she never married, so the title descended to the last surviving brother. His line continued straight through to the Great War – where my five brothers, like Lady Rebecca’s, all gave their lives. I became the second Marchioness, and my Cordelia was the third.” Lady St. Edmund paused, her eyes misting over.
“Right,” Casey said quickly into the silence. “So that’s Rebecca, and I don’t s’pose building a church counts as much of a story. But Captain Joshua, now – you can’t go wrong with a good pirate yarn.”
Lady St. Edmund’s smile might have been a trifle thin, but Casey carefully didn’t notice. “Quite so. Although Captain Joshua was properly a privateer, and unlike a good many of his fellows, he never once overstepped his letters of marque.”
“Letters of marque?”
“A royal license to raid enemy commerce – the key word being enemy. A disquieting number of His Majesty’s privateers were rather more flexible. So long as they believed themselves safe in doing so, they pillaged any ship they could capture – especially if the owner was a political rival. Captain Joshua wouldn’t stand for that. Late in his career, he took to setting traps for the renegade peers, confiscating their weapons and scuttling their ships.”
Casey grinned. “I bet the other lords didn’t like that much.”
“Most certainly not! To this day some of those families – the St. Arnolds of Welbeck, the Ffoggs of Fogshire – hold us responsible for various of their own misfortunes.”
“Can they do anything about it?”
“Not legally,” said Lady St. Edmund. “Some of them tried, of course, but since Joshua was operating within the scope of his marque, the Crown held that he was within his rights to defend himself from pirates and do as he liked with their armaments.”
“But not their booty?” Casey asked.
“In general, no – that had to be restored to the rightful owners, if they could be traced, or shared with the Crown if they couldn’t. Here,” Lady St. Edmund said, leaning sideways and using both hands to pull a large manuscript box from a nearby shelf. “These are transcripts from Captain Joshua’s journals. The originals are quite fragile by now, and in any case you’ve seen his handwriting.”
“Oh, yeah,” Casey said, remembering the will she’d been shown. “I bet he got lousy marks in penmanship, back in the day.”
That prompted a laugh. “Very likely. Then again, he was writing aboard ship much of the time, often in abysmal weather. I tell you, sometimes working out what he’d written was a considerable challenge – at times, the best I could do was make an educated guess.”
Casey’s eyebrows shot up. “You copied the journals yourself?”
“I did,” said Lady St. Edmund. “It was an immense amount of work – I spent three or four years at it, all told – but it had to be done while they could still be handled, and my father wouldn’t trust the job to just any university student or would-be scholar.”
“Makes sense,” Casey said, nodding. “A pirate’s – um, privateer’s logbooks? Guys like Harry would’ve been all over that, looking for clues to hidden treasure whether they were there or not.” She paused. “Are there? Clues, I mean.”
“If there are, I didn’t find them. But then again, at the time we weren’t in quite such dire need, and if old Joshua was being sly about it....” Lady St. Edmund smiled. “Perhaps you’ll turn up something I missed. Do put that back when you’ve finished; there are twenty-eight boxes in all.” She gestured at the relevant shelf.
“Twenty-eight?” Casey’s voice squeaked in dismay.
Lady St. Edmund gave her a bemused look. “Now, my dear, there’s no need to rush -- and it shouldn’t take as long as all that. There are whole sections of ‘nothing much happened for six weeks running’ scattered among the battles and storms and the occasional mutiny.” She stepped back and turned, laying a hand on the door handle. “And do remember, we’re going to London tomorrow, to see the solicitors again.”
“Oh, joy.” Abruptly, twenty-eight boxes of Captain Joshua’s journals seemed much more appealing. Casey pulled the first one toward her and tugged off its lid.
“I’ll see that Priory fetches you for lunch,” Lady St. Edmund said as she let herself out of the library.
Three days later
The hotel was fourth-rate at best, but its penthouse suite still boasted a fireplace, and the proprietors were known for not asking too many questions of their guests – which was as well, considering where the suite’s occupants had been living scarcely a week earlier. Just now, one of them sat in an understuffed gray armchair, eyeing a legal-sized sheet of paper with something less than enthusiasm.
“This? This is purest rubbish!”
The woman crumpled the document and aimed at the fire, but the gentleman standing beside the chair caught her wrist before she could make the throw. “Patience, my dear; it’s as I expected.”
“You expected arrant nonsense? This is bloody useless, that’s what it is.”
“Only because we lack context. St. Edmund’s letter is addressed to Candleshoe’s legal heir – someone who’d know the estate like the back of his hand, and recognize clues straight off we as outsiders would never recognize. You or I would be equally cautious were we setting down notes for our own descendants. One simply doesn’t write ‘the alchemical laboratory is hidden behind the dungeon under the old cricket pavilion; press such-and-such a brick on the south wall to open the secret door’.”
“True,” the woman admitted. “But really, this is impossibly vague. Just look!” She uncrumpled the sheet as the gentleman leaned forward, and together they studied its contents:
-- and finally, I come to certain items and materials so dangerous or Powerful that I deem them best kept safe even from my own hands. These are my most Deeply held Secrets, and I charge my heirs to guard them as I have, against wrongdoers and righteous folk alike. If in direst need you choose to seek out these tools, know that to reach them you must sacrifice freedom and pass through mortal peril. One who Treads this path but lightly will Surely fail, and one who wins through may escape the Pit only by going deeper still.
“Oh, come,” said the gentleman. “It’s perfectly straightforward apart from the appalling penmanship. Clearly the hiding place is underground – all that about ‘deeply held secrets’ and a pit. As for the entrance, it’s most likely through whatever Captain Joshua’s excuse for a dungeon may be. I’d have said through his torture chamber, but by Lord Mandrake’s accounts the old fox was too soft to maintain one.”
The woman’s shoulders twitched in a shrug. “Yes, well, and how do you propose we get into Candleshoe? You’ll have seen the Times – the place actually went up for sale, and then the old lady finds Joshua’s fortune at the very last instant, so instead it’s all over bricklayers and electricians, being brought up to date. And without your old pipe—”
“Fear not, my dear, I have a few tricks brewed up for the occasion. And the construction should work to our advantage; with so many folk about the estate, no one will notice one or two more. With proper disguises we’ll have no trouble, and once we’ve seen the lay of the land, the clues should come clear in no time.”
“I do hope so. We can’t hope to reclaim Ffogg Place without the Cauldron, and even then....”
The gentleman laughed. “All in good time, sister dear. With the Cauldron in hand, we’ll simply take over Candleshoe instead. And by the time anyone realizes what we’re about, no one will be able to foil our plans. Now then, what do you say we order supper?”