‘I have some cleaning up for you to do today,’ Ganhook announced over breakfast yesterday.
My stomach dropped. More work. For once, couldn’t he have waited until we’d finished eating before he dropped bad news.
‘A friend of mine’s mansion was mould bombed by a rival last night,’ Ganhook continued. ‘The city guards haven’t been informed. My friend is worried that if word gets out about a feud, business will suffer.’
‘What’s his business?’ Aisling asked.
‘It’s his business, not yours.’ Ganhook shrugged. ‘The house must be cleansed within 48 hours. Otherwise it will need to be demolished. And that . . . will cause problems.’
“What problems?’ I said.
‘Every mansion in the Merchants’ Keeps is built on a Coppac skeleton.’
My heartbeat slipped into overdrive. The Coppac spirits were just one step down from the Bone Shadows. ‘Are the spirits still there?’
‘Your friend’s spirit didn’t protect the house very well, did it?’ Aisling said.
Ganhook sighed. ‘The spirits protect against more advanced threats. Mould is a primitive weapon. That’s why it was used. Shinytop will accompany you.’
‘I don’t want to go,’ Shinytop said. ‘Don’t like Coppacs.’
Ignoring him, Ganhook said, ‘Shinytop has experience dealing with house spirits.’
I was surprised Ganhook was entrusting us with this task. But, maybe after Lorita’s visit, he was confident we knew enough about City Spirits to take it on.’
‘The mould could get on me,’ Shinytop whined. ‘Mould likes timber. Fresh timber.’
‘You’re not that fresh,’ Ganhook said. He carried Shinytop out to the hall. He returned smiling, and said, ‘He’s right. The mould will get on him. That’s the plan.’
‘Sounds crazy,’ I said, half outraged, but fully curious.
‘He’s special. His timber is special. It’s from an execution tree, and all manner of other things were absorbed into it over the centuries. The yellow mould will be drawn to him.’
‘Other things?’ Aisling asked.
‘Bits of executed spirits, execution spells, things that travelled on the wind and got snared on the tree. Remnants of whoknowswhat. An execution tree grows strange over time.’
He passed us a sketch of a tree, a fat slug of a thing with so many twisted, intertwined and skewed branches, it resembled a nest of snakes. He pointed out a slender branch that sprouted halfway up the trunk. ‘That’s the one Shinytop swung from. Once a branch is used, the tree sprouts a fresh one.’
‘Each branch was used for an execution?’ I said, trying to count them all, but stopping at thirty-seven. ‘No way.’
Ganhook produced a leather sock. ‘Every mansion in Merchant’s Keeps sits on timber piles sunk deep into a Coppac skeleton. Mould likes damp dark places. It’ll head for the piles, and eat through them, causing the house to collapse. That’s how the bomb is designed to work. Leave Shinytop in the pile basement. Put the sock on him and he won’t know what’s happening.’
‘That’s terrible,’ Aisling said, examining the sock.’
‘Shinytop will be rewarded,’ Ganhook said. ‘You must leave now. Yellow mould works quickly.
While I disliked Ganhook’s plan, the memory of the trick Stein Cat played on me was fresh in my mind. Shinytop had inadvertently caused that, so I looked on our task as adequate revenge. And, if I played things right, maybe I could stash a bit of mould away to paste on Stein Cat’s fur.
‘We can’t do this on him,’ Aisling said, once Ganhook went to retrieve the stick. ‘It’s Shinytop.’
‘He’d do it on us.’
‘I know. But this . . .’ She locked eyes with me. ‘Why are you so enthusiastic?’
Unable to hold her gaze, I glanced out into the courtyard.
Aisling said, glaring at me. ‘You just want revenge.’
Ganhook strolled back into the kitchen. ‘Revenge for what?’
‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘Nothing at all.’
As we made our way through the city, my conscience grew. Shinytop had begged to stay at home. Nevertheless, once we were moving, he babbled away about some of the ‘jobs’ he’d pulled on the merchants, which slightly eased the ‘bringing a lamb to the slaughter, feeling I had.
Once we started passing through the broad clean mansion lined avenues of the Merchant’s Keeps, my sympathy evaporated. I’d only been here once before, my first day in the city, the day Shinytop had betrayed me.
I’ll never forget the exhilaration, awe, anxiety and sheer terror of that day.
I also remembered some of the mansion fortresses—the one with the coal black walls, the windowless house, and the building protected with a sheet of blue fire
Mostly the mansions were just big mansions behind big walls that looked like big lonely places no matter how many people lived there.
Number 77 didn’t have a wall, but sat atop a foundation of stone blocks some twenty feet high, and the only way up to the entrance was along a telescopic drawbridge thing that lowered when we pulled the bell chain. The owner had evacuated himself and his family, leaving a handful of servants behind.
Dressed in a slate grey uniform, Horac the butler greeted us at the doorway, and said, ‘Don’t break anything. Don’t play with anything. And don’t eat anything. The food here is imported, and it’s too rich for the likes of you.’
‘Food might need to be destroyed,’ I said.
The man’s eyes widened. ‘What?’
‘Could be mould contaminated. Would you dare eat it?’ I’d no idea of this was true, but at least it shut him up. I reminded myself that if I ever became rich I’d spend my money keeping people like that away from me instead of employing them.
We searched the mansion from top to bottom without finding any trace of yellow mould. Yet, despite the scented candles everywhere, there was a staleness in the air that reminded me of Mum’s compost pile.
Horac led us down to the pile basement, an open cellar where the great wooden piles rose from the ground to support the mansion. It resembled a hall of brown pillars, the roof of which was so low we had to stoop to walk through them. It was hard to imagine that these poles went all the way down until they became one with the bones of something that had come here to die countless years ago.
Something whose spirit was still there.
When I turned to ask Horac about supper, he’d disappeared, which was a relief because we’d enough to worry about without him gaping over our shoulders.
‘Don’t like it here,’ Shinytop said. ‘I want to . . .’
Aisling slipped the sock over his head, and he fell silent.
‘I don’t like it here either,’ she said. ‘What now? Do we just prop him against a pile, or something?’
‘Stick him in the ground. He’ll be more stable.’ I heard a hiss from somewhere off in the gloom, which set my pulse racing. The hiss turned into a whoosh, like wind passing through a crack. Half expecting to see some dreadful spirit watching us, I glanced around. I saw little in the gloom which, oddly, made it easier to pretend there was nothing there.
The floor was hard-packed earth, and we left Shinytop a quarter-way buried in the ground. And when we went upstairs, I couldn’t help feeling that it was wrong to leave our friend as bait. The only thing I could hope for was that the sock wouldn’t somehow get loose.
Someone had laid out mattresses and blankets in an upper cellar storeroom. Amazingly, we managed to sleep a few hours on that floor. Horac woke us at dawn. He didn’t offer us breakfast, which was just fine because the thoughts of what awaited us below sickened my stomach.
‘There’s a Grantac Bakery carriage outside,’ he said. ‘I’m supposed to help you carry the mould out, but I’ve other things to do. Be quick about it. The Master wants to return as soon as the house is cleansed.’
I was happy to let Aisling lead the way down. Shinytop was still upright, but he resembled an ice cream cone, the weight of the mould stuck to him making him tilt slightly. But at least the sock was working, and we didn’t hear him complain. Then again, the depth of mould around his upper parts would have smothered any sound. Though it looked terrible, it didn’t weigh much, and we loaded it into the sack without much trouble.
Just before we tied the sack, I scooped a small amount of mould into a tin box I’d brought just for that purpose. For the cat, I told myself. But after seeing Shinytop covered in mould, I was starting to doubt if I could go ahead with my plan to ‘mould’ Stein Cat.
Horac hustled us out the back door and into the waiting carriage without uttering a word. A ‘thank’ would have been nice. Truth was, we were just as happy to be away from him as he was from us, so we weren’t too bothered. All I could think about was whether I was disappointed or happy that the Coppac spirit hadn’t appeared.
Once we were back in our compound, Ganhook disappeared with the sack. He reappeared about twenty minutes later, an intact, sock covered, Shinytop in his hand.
‘Oh, we’re back,’ Shinytop said, when the sock was removed. ‘I had the most awful dream. Thought I was trapped in a spinners web.’
Apart from that, he didn’t realise anything much had happened.
I’ve stashed the mould box under my bed. But I’ve already decided not to use the mould on the cat. He is our friend, after all, and who knows what the mould could do to him. Maybe he could lose another life.
As for revenge? Well, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if, sometimes, it’s better just to let things go.