Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
The Legacy Revealed
“What d’you think he’ll want to discuss?”
As Vanda and Brian approached the offices of Hartnell & Heisenberg, Solicitors at Law, in Glastonbury town centre, walking through the Abbey grounds from the Institute, neither had any real idea what to expect from the impromptu meeting they were walking into. Brian had never taken any candidate down the legacy road before, and Vanda had never encountered a thought process that necessitated taking one into consideration. She could not remember ever having had that feeling in the pit of her stomach that others usually referred to as butterflies before. The feeling only intensified as Brian stopped dead in the path level with the high walls that were still left standing of the Lady Chapel, took her hands and whirled her around to face him. He held her hands so tightly, his face so close to hers that she could feel his breath on her cheek. She mentally relabelled butterflies as fruit bats and wondered why so many of them seemed to be having a ball in her stomach now. Her eyes widened and her lips parted imperceptibly as the thought that he was about to kiss her crossed her threshold.
“Look!” he said gently, releasing the pressure of his hands on hers. “There’s nothing you can do that will stop them from giving you this legacy. It’s mine to do with as I please. They’re just there as administrators, and to make sure that I don’t squander it unwisely. It’s not a question of jumping through hoops. Whoever he is, you just have to turn up and flash that beautiful smile at him. That’s all there is to it. He’ll probably be an old and very likeable gent in a suit who wouldn’t be capable of frightening you if he tried.”
It had been a very long day. She’d had to endure all manner of strangenesses, beginning with the mannerisms and actions of her tutor Marius Scarlette, the surprises that came with his sister, the Black Witch, her impossibly weird and anachronistic market, her evil anger, the threats and menaces that seemed to emanate from both her and the place, and the existence of some kind of secret society that now seemed to have been given the order to keep her under constant surveillance … then the psychological effects wrought by seeing the same symbols on the pediment of the Freemasons temple opposite as she’d seen inside the place, once both she and Marius had tumbled out of its weirdness. None of it had seemed real. And then there was Marjorie in the Post Office. Somehow that had seemed even more unreal. And how had so much fitted into one day? One that was far from over yet!
And now they were on their way to this meeting with … with whom? Someone called Silver, the message on her pager had stated! Who was called Silver? Was it even a personal name, or merely a designation? None the wiser, all she knew was that they were walking into a meeting with the legacy committee’s representative, there were giant bats flying around inside her, she still had students to assess, and all she really cared about was … was that Brian hadn’t actually kissed her.
Why on earth had she thought he was going to? Why had she wanted him to? What the bloody hell was going on? She, Professor Vanda Nestor, the one always so poised, so controlled, felt like that last bit of control she was trying to hang on to in a world already gone quite mad was slipping away from her so rapidly that it must surely be on a collision course with … with what? She tried to stop thinking, for only madness lay along that route today.
She was still looking straight at Brian, wide-eyed and stupid as a cornered deer, and he was still holding her hands. Both locked in a curiously intimate moment that neither of them had a clue how to handle. He let go of her hands and turned her back in the right direction. They walked the remainder of the way in silence, past the Abbey café and gift shop, to the fourteenth century gatehouse with its little and large arches, one for wagons and one for pedestrians, the high medieval abutting the 21st century almost seamlessly, and stopped abruptly outside the door to the porter’s lodge.
Something hostile came hurtling down some stairs and out of the door onto the path outside the side entrance to the Porter’s Lodge. Except for the small gilded plaque stating its purpose, this was the suitably understated, and otherwise invisible, business entrance to Hartnell & Heisenberg, Solicitors at Law’s, offices. Apart from a small alcove where outer garments and umbrellas could be stored, there were only a few bare feet of flagstone flooring between it and the stairs.
A blur of vibrant red hair came flying out of the doorway and the hostility hit Vanda square in the face, a wall of tension and pent-up frustration mixed with something else so sinister that she had no words to describe it, yet. A faint odour of something camphorous seemed to be treading on its heels . The woman attached to the hair wore a cheap, fitted pinstripe jacket with ’40’s style pointy lapels over a crisp white shirt with one of those Edwardian throwback stand-up collars with little lappets at the throat closure, under which was a hastily-tied black ribbon bow. A black pencil skirt and unreasonably high, black court shoes sent the whole ensemble into stylistic orbit, the sum of its parts never hoping to achieve unification on any scale, fashion or otherwise. Vanda saw the tiny jerk of the woman’s head as she snapped the malevolence back inside, but she knew it was still lying latent, just waiting for another opportunity to get out.
There was a moment’s uneasiness, during which the three of them stood stock still and exchanged awkward glances, as it became apparent to the woman that these two people on the path were not just passing by.
“Umm,” Vanda began, stiffly. “We have an appointment with … umm … a Mr Silver?” The sentence seemed to take forever to come out of her mouth, morphing from a positive statement of fact into an uncertain query about the nature of the name.
The hostility returned, fleetingly, but reined in now, only perceptible to Vanda in the woman’s eyes. “This way please,” the woman said, leading them up the stone steps she had so recently come down. As she followed the woman up the stairs, keeping a safe distance, Vanda noticed that the unreasonably high heels were sorely in need of re-heeling.
At the top of the steps they emerged into a large, square entrance hall where everything seemed to have been laid out geometrically. It was wood-panelled on all sides, with three heavy, dark oak doors centrally placed in each of the other three walls, with an equally dark oak desk placed diagonally into one of the opposite corners so that its owner, when present, could see all that was happening with the utmost ease. The floor was of dark and more ancient oak so highly polished that Vanda wondered if the darkly-coloured and perfectly square antique rug in the middle would skate away if she pushed it a little with her foot. The thought made her giggle nervously but she suppressed it after the first rogue escapee, hoping that The Woman hadn’t noticed.
The Woman turned, stepped back onto the rug, to give them space, and it did indeed move, unbalancing her momentarily. “Silver,” she said, imperiously, after quickly regaining her balance. “Penelope Silver. But just Silver will do.” It took a supreme effort of will on her part, Vanda could see, to extend her hand to each of them with this introduction. Hesitantly, she extended her own.
“You’re Silver?” Vanda tried not to sound disparaging or scornful, as she tried to withdraw her hand from Silver’s strangely unwilling grip, but she feared that shock and surprise had got the better of her before her efforts could take effect. It was as this thought receded that it hit her, the full force of Hostility. She could feel it, searching out its opportunity like a heat-seeking missile, though not as it had outside, as The Woman had come hurtling down the stairs, unaware that she and Brian would be there. No, this time it was direct, and driven right at her in all its blackness, and it was calling in all the attributes of hatred in its aid. She felt the urge to giggle uncontrollably yet again, but suppressed it once more, before even one stifled sound should emerge, and instead just smiled sweetly as an oddly comforting peppery smell permeated her senses. She could not be sure if The Woman understood the alchemical process that was happening inside of her, if the creature was aware of this Hostility and was consciously driving it, or if it was controlling her, but Vanda could feel it pulling The Woman in ways that must surely be hard for her to ignore, and she certainly did not want to give it any more reason to turn its enmity in her own direction than she already had.
“Penny Silver,” Brian intoned slowly, dragging out the syllables interminably. He clasped his hands firmly behind his back, making his position on the shaking of hands very clear indeed. “What a great name! Very James Bond. Moneypenny with a twist. How the devil do you do?” The words sounded friendly enough, but there was an undertone of loathing, something Vanda had not thought Brian capable of. And it was encased in an animosity so deep it was as cold as ice, palpably so, at least to her. She didn’t think Silver had the aptitude to pick up on it as she herself had, but right at that moment she’d love to be wrong. This was the thought that showed her to the core of the Hostility’s purpose, its drive to subvert all those in its path to all the attributes of hatred alike, but before she could think the thought of how to release Brian, and herself to a lesser degree, from its sticky tentacles, events overtook her.
“If you’d both care to follow me,” Silver said frostily as she led the way through one of the three doors and into the boardroom of Hartnell & Heisenberg, Solicitors at Law.
Vanda looked around her. It was furnished sparsely: a long, polished, dark oak table with several chairs along each side, and one at either end, a long Jacobean sideboard along the opposite wall underneath the broad ledge in the bay of the middle window, another darkly-coloured rug beneath the table and stretching almost wall to wall, bar an eighteen inch border of dark and highly polished oak boards around the edges. Richly old, functional, and rather alarming, like stepping back in time, yet very present, as if nothing had been changed since the fourteenth century, the business just carrying on regardless, still stuck in the spirit of its own age. The casement was open a crack and Magdalene Street’s present day activities provided a tangibly staccato background as the welcomed sounds reached the eerie quietness of the room. On an instinct, she turned, and saw that above the door there was a shield bearing upon it a coat of arms. An angel in the centre, a staff with entwined dragon in one hand, a heavy hammer held high in the other. Her heart sank and she wanted to run. The symbolism was the same as it had been on all the other occasions upon which she had seen it throughout the day. With a supreme effort, she turned back when The Woman spoke again.
“Please take a seat here, Miss Nestor.” She herded Vanda to one end of the table, then made a dash for the other end, where a bundle of papers tied up in the pink tape used by the legal profession lay upon the leather inset table top, and sat down herself. The Woman had been ignoring Brian completely, and left him to see to his own seating arrangements. He took a seat on the long side of the table looking towards the window and the street, as close to Vanda as he could get, and as far away from Miss Twisted Moneypenny.
“That’s Professor,” Vanda said tersely, all intentions she had harboured of not giving the Hostility what it wanted hereby shelved, it would seem.
“Excuse me?” the other woman asked, as if she simply had not heard.
“My title, it’s Professor. You called me Miss.”
“Oh. Yes, of course. I do apologise.” Her manner was anything but apologetic. “But, if I may say so, it’s been extraordinarily difficult to get hold of you, Professor Nestor,” she stressed the Professor bit quite unnecessarily, even antagonistically, leaving a long enough gap in between the two words to turn it into the kind of scathing slur usually employed by barristers. “Had I been able to do so this mistake could easily have been avoided.”
“It can’t have been that difficult. After all, we are both here, in the same room. At the same time, too,” Vanda countered. “It’s really not rocket science, you know. I have a pager. You ring its number and leave a message. I get back to you. That was the course of action your office undertook. And, look, here we are.”
“I would have thought that in these times of technological advancement something more up to date than a pager would be preferable.” Silver raised her intonation at the end of the sentence, insolently, in question.
“Well, that’s not really your call to make, is it? I have a pager for anyone wanting to get hold of me, and that’s that.” And with that Vanda’s pager, which was in her bag and easily accessible, began to bleep, as if on cue. “See? My system works.” She glanced at the message and frowned. “I have to respond to this. Will you excuse me for a moment.” And she fished her bright, shiny new iPhone out of her bag and proceeded to send a text message on it in reply, while The Woman regarded her with dramatically raised eyebrows and a mouth so pursed that it could have cracked walnuts. “So much for the difficulties of communication,” Vanda concluded, looking smugly satisfied, ignoring the Hostility as it fired hot bolts carrying hatred’s minions up and down the table between them. “What would you like to talk about next?”
As The Woman began to fiddle with the pink tape her brief was tied up in, she moved the bundle just enough for a paper beneath it to slip out. Seeing the logo on the letterhead, she stopped, replaced the bundle over the paper and began to speak. “You could explain to me how your monastery could possibly have been built when the site it was built on was under water at the time of its building.”
Vanda, who had also espied the logo on the paper beneath The Woman’s brief, was not sure which had shocked her most, seeing the angel, hammer and dragon symbols on paper, or The Woman’s reaction to it. Her mouth fell open, her eyes opened wide, but no words came out.
Brian came quickly to her rescue. “And could you explain to me, Miss Just Silver Will Do, why you’re not conducting this interview in the spirit that my ancestor set for this legacy thing? I mean, shouldn’t you be asking questions like how are you going to spend this money when you get it? Or even how will your project benefit the wider community? Stuff like that? You do actually know who I am, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mr Ambrose. I know exactly who you are.” There was a note in her voice that made Vanda wonder just how exactly that would turn out to be.
“Then you can count on it that a record of your performance here today is going to be well and truly noted with the powers that be back in that little office of yours in Cambridge, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if your skinny arse doesn’t get bumped all the way to outer Mongolia by the end of next week.”
“We don’t have an office in Outer Mongolia, Mr Ambrose.”
“My point exactly. Now, get on with the interview you were sent here to conduct. Please!”
The Hostility had started doing a jig up and down and round and round the table between the three people caught in its antagonistic grasp, flinging Hatred’s Legions far and wide with abandon, stamping its feet and doing its worst. But the darkness does not understand how its powers are diminished when it is understood. And Vanda was beginning to see how it was working. She was also beginning to wonder what that pungent camphorous, peppery, piney, turpentiney niff that seemed to be following it around the building was, and why it made her feel like laughing when she could smell it.
“Ok.” The Woman squirmed, but stood her ground with remarkable composure, seeming to luminesce ever so slightly.” Let me begin by explaining to you how the legacy is set out,” she began, condescendingly. “These are some of its more pertinent terms and conditions, Professor Nestor.”
“Sure. Shoot!” Vanda responded, pleasantly, and with a smile, having thoroughly enjoyed Brian’s timely intervention, crude though it had been, as The Woman fumbled with the pink tape on her brief once more. She noticed particularly that The Woman was careful not to expose the paper that still lay underneath her brief again, which only provided her with more proof that the creature had indeed been familiar with the symbol. She also noticed that the Hostility had stilled to a loitering intent. And that the aroma had settled to a mild herbaceous whiff.
“Mr Ambrose’s ancestor, Mr … excuse me … Professor Alfred Newton … wanted to be certain that the money accrued by the investment of the initial legacy should be made available to the right recipient at the right time, and he set things up accordingly, in a very particular way. To that end the recipient is not a person but a project. But the right project can only be undertaken by the right person, a very particular person, the only person, in fact, who could possibly take responsibility for such an enterprise. He stipulates that this person must be able to prove that they are the only person for the job, that their set of personal skills are irrevocably and untransferably requisite to the task.” She paused and looked up at Vanda, her eyes burning with something unreadable but unsettlingly sinister, then continued, tapping her badly manicured nails against her pink taped brief as she did so. “It is well known that Professor Newton was also something of a prankster, as was his close associate the Maharajah, Duleep Singh, with whom he conspired to produce this corpus of legally binding material that constitutes this legacy that now comes into the hands of Mr Ambrose.”
The Woman stopped talking and Vanda thought she saw something like a mist surrounding her head and shoulders, putting her into soft focus. It was as if she were trying to create some kind of magical effect. It made Vanda want to giggle at the sheer absurdity of it. But then she looked at Brian, and as their eyes met there was a strangely surreal moment during which their minds seemed to meet and something bound them together in a cloud of pungent, peppery pine. The Woman cleared her throat, and irascible waves scythed coarsely through the connection, although without managing to dissipate the fragrant cloud.
“As the legacy was set up in the 1860’s,” she continued gruffly, “and investment was extremely cleverly placed, the amount of the legacy is compounded many, many times over on the amount of the initial capital, which, for its day and age, was already extensive. As of now it amounts to a little over £850 million. The administrator of the project in receipt of the legacy will have full control over how and when all monies are spent but will be required to submit the correct documentations with each withdrawal.
“What I need from you now, Professor Nestor,” still that same insolent emphasis on the word Professor. “Is a proposal on what exactly it is that you wish to do with this money.” And here she paused again to look at Vanda, her eyes now slits of defiant wrath. When Vanda failed to respond immediately to this request, The Woman moved her head to one side with a small jerk and frowned.
Vanda laughed. It was like watching Data, the Star Trek android, trying to become human, and episodes were re-running in her head as she tried to find the one these mannerisms best suited. “I’m going to re– … I’m going to build … a monastery! What do you expect? A detailed business plan, with architectural elevations all included already? We’ve barely completed,” she laughed again as the phrase a level two diagnostic kept repeating itself in her mind, “the initial excavations at this stage. It’s not something I keep in my handbag, to be trotted out at appropriate occasions, you know.”
“A verbal proposal will do for the purpose of this meeting.” Indignation was beginning to show, straining at The Woman’s seams, but she rallied marvellously with only the raising of one eyebrow. “You can follow it up in writing later.”
“So, let me get this straight–” Vanda had now had quite enough boardroom table ping pong and emotional upheaval for one day. “Are you asking me to tell you what my personal vision is for rebuilding the monastery I’ve just spent the last eighteen months of my life excavating? The monastery that has brought about so many changes in my life that were I to list and explain them I would probably need an entire evening in which to do so? And you want me to give you chapter and verse on what I want to do with the money you probably won’t give me to do so in the first place when I rebuild it? I just don’t have the time to do that right now.” There was a sense of foreboding, separate from but nonetheless directly caused by the Hostility that was present in the building, and it was growing with every word she spoke. It was a sense that to speak the words The Woman was asking for would be to let them go, to release them in a sea of uncertainty and loss, and their cause along with them. And she felt she needed to hang on to them, at any cost. “And even had I been given adequate time to prepare for this, it’s not something you can expect me to do within the framework of this type of informal meeting.”
“Well, give me the highlights, then,” The Woman snapped back at her in irritation, the Data-like jerk of her head repeating itself. “I have to have something to take back to Cambridge. The Custodian will need something with which to proceed.”
“The Custodian?” Suddenly Vanda understood the course of action she had been considering. It seemed very clear to her and there was an undeniable urgency in the thought that made it so.
“The person in charge of administering Newton’s legacy.” The Woman had no pretence of sophistication with which to mask her childlike anger now. She stood abruptly, pouting and almost stamping her foot as the heavy oak chair clattered against the end wall. “He’s always been called The Custodian.”
Urgency became action, rapidly and irreversibly so. “Look, I’m just not prepared to give away this information. Not here … not today … and not to you. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. I’m happy to come to Cambridge and meet with The Custodian, but it will be at a time and place of my choosing, and I’ll meet with him alone. Now, I have to leave as I have important business I must attend to.” She smiled sweetly and stood to leave, taking Brian’s arm as he stood too. They turned away from the table and had already walked halfway across the room to the door before The Woman could gather her wits. The fragrant cloud seemed to move with them now, surrounding them both, as if it were in some way their protector.
“If you’re still intent on travelling this path, Professor Nestor,” the creature said slowly and quietly, “I must insist that you at least listen to the last condition on my list.” She paused a moment or two for the full dramatic effect. “You will need to fulfil this condition, and I cannot stress the importance of this enough.” She paused for slightly longer, basking in the fragment of victory she was managing to claw back from the jaws of defeat. “To fulfil this condition you must do something to prove that you are indeed worthy of being awarded the legacy.” This time the pause seemed to go on forever. “You must find The Manuscript.”
And now for the normal bit of post-scene chat:
All comments in the form of constructive criticism or mistakes you’ve noticed that I might not have noticed yet, whether typos, spelling or grammar, will be very gratefully received and appreciated – although I think spelling and grammar ones are most unlikely, but you never know, I might have done it all juuuuust a little too quickly and boobed … I’ll post the next scene soon, and thank you very much for reading.
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