The House at Cobb End – Karen Chance

John had started out impressed. Not at the gilt edging on the book’s anƟque vellum pages or the hand carving on the heavy wood cover. But at the fact that, even though this was merely an estate agent’s manual, someone had lavished care into a spell that changed the usual lisƟngs into perfect three-dimensional representaƟons of the properƟes on offer. Every Ɵme he turned a page, a new vista spiraled up into the dim office light, in a sparkle of distant sunshine and a cascade of carefully tended cobblestones. Or, in this case, a spread of rolling hillside. He sat up a bit straighter. He’d been at this for over two hours, only to find his iniƟal amusement fading as he discovered that all of the best places were already taken. And the remaining ones… Well, it might be charming to see bluebirds nesƟng in the thatch of a miniature roof, or to peer into a Ɵny cracked window and have one green eye and a strand of blond hair be reflected back at him. But it also meant that the houses in quesƟon would require extensive renovaƟon, and he simply didn’t have the time. It was also a factor that most of the available homes were in town, hidden from the usual occupants of Straƞord-upon-Avon by clever spells and throngs of tourists. John didn’t like towns. John liked…well, he liked this. Instead of covering only one page, as was the norm, this parƟcular magical diorama had elbowed its way onto two. And thereby squeezed the small garret flat that had been occupying the other page into a third of its original space, leaving it sadly crumpled and annoyed looking. John didn’t care.

John cared about the rolling green grasses spilling across a partly wooded hillside. He cared about the ribbon of river, surging like a liquid bookmark down the center of the page. He cared about the house siƫng in late medieval splendor on the crest of a hill, surrounded by trees and vines and acre upon acre of fine British farmland, without a single neighbor in sight. It looked a liƩle overgrown, but he could put up with that. For blessed country solitude, he could put up with a great deal. He looked at the clerk. “What about this one?” A long beak of a nose peered around a toƩering pile. “I thought you said that you preferred a free-standing property.” It took John a moment to noƟce that the Ɵny eyes above the beak were, incredibly, focused on the scrunched up flat in the corner, rather than on the gleaming vista doing the scrunching. “Not the garret,” he said impatiently.

“The other one. The farmhouse.” The small eyes widened. “The farm—oh no. No, that is not available.” “Then why is the border green?” John indicated the discreet outline, which in this case was less of a rectangle and more of a rugged coastline, hedging the scene. “I thought that indicated —” “I didn’t say it was let. I said it was unavailable.” “Then why is it in the book?” “Because it refuses to leave!” The clerk glared at the offending, cheerful scene. “We’ve tried excise spells, erasure spells, and half a dozen others to at least get it back in its proper place, but without effect.

It’s one of the oldest properƟes listed, you see, owned by one of our first adjutants. And it would appear that the book equates age with importance.” John wasn’t interested in the clerk’s struggles with his magical library. He was interested in the house. “I would like to tour this one.” “It is not available.” “Yes, so you said. My question was why?” The sunlight leaking through the room’s old, leaded windows turned the clerk’s skin a sickly yellow. Or maybe it was always that way. John had never seen anyone who looked more like he’d spent the morning sucking on a lemon.

“There have been…issues…in the past.” “What kind of issues?” “The kind of issues that make it off limits, Mr. Pritkin.” The voice was as emphaƟc as the book snapping shut in his face. John had a vision of the clerk’s wispy gray mane bursƟng into flame like the wick of a parƟcularly sallow candle. But he reigned in the impulse, and also swallowed the sharp comment that sprang to his lips. He was a desperate man and he was running out of time. “I’m to be married in less than a month,” he said, trying to appeal to the blasted man’s sympathy, since camaraderie was getting him sod all. “My felicitations.” “And my fiancé is not a war mage, nor a civilian aide, and will therefore not be permiƩed in barracks.

” “I should hope not!” The clerk looked appalled at the very thought. That was absurd, as there were a growing number of female members of the War Mage Corps, the body charged with protecƟng the magical community. However, that was over the protests of some of their male counterparts, less because of misogyny than the prevailing assumpƟon that powerful female magic workers must be coven-trained. And the covens, especially those in Britain, had a long and bloody history with the Circle. Of course, the fighƟng was long since over, but tensions remained, causing the female recruits no end of problems. John could sympathize. There were those who hadn’t wanted him in the barracks, either. After all, at least the women were human. “Then, as you can see, I need a house,” he soldiered on. “Within a month.

Less, really, as there will doubtless be repairs to be made, and I will need to buy—” “What you need is to look elsewhere.” The clerk shoved the massive book into the warded cabinet behind his desk.“ Or wait for Jenkins to vacate his coƩage, as I said. The other property is not available, and therefore its state of repair is irrelevant.” “But Jenkins isn’t moving until after—” “Thank you, Mr. Pritkin.” “Yes, but why is it un—” “Thank you and good day.” The last two words must have triggered some kind of spell he hadn’t detected. Because the next thing John knew, he was siƫng in the cramped, wood-paneled hall outside the clerk’s office, being trampled by several more bright-eyed hopefuls on their way in. Good luck, he thought viciously, and swept off down the hall, wondering for the thousandth Ɵme what he was doing working with the damned Corps in the first place.

And then he remembered, when he almost ran the reason down. Not that the man noƟced. The slightly pudgy fellow coming out of the loo had hair the color and shape of a dandelion pouf, and blue eyes that couldn’t see his hand in front of his pleasant round face. At least not without his spectacles, which he appeared to have misplaced judging by the way he was assaulting some poor recruit. “Benedict?” Jonas Marsden squinted at the young man. “Is that you?” “Uh, yes sir.” The recruit looked a liƩle startled that a brigadier general would even know who he was, much less bother to address him. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that his superior was all of an inch from his nose. “What are you doing with that?” Jonas demanded. “With what, sir?” “With that!” Jonas gestured at the straw boater the man had yet to remove.

“You…you mean my hat, sir?” “No, I mean my hat. What are doing with my hat?” The young man looked around for help, but everyone else had scaƩered to the four winds. Except for John, and it only seemed to make the man more nervous when he recognized him. Now he had the second-in-command of the Corps and its infamous half-demon adjutant both staring at him. “Er, well, actually, sir, it’s…well, in fact, you see, it’s my hat.” The man sounded almost apologetic at having to point this out. But Jonas wasn’t having it. “Then where is mine?” he demanded. “I…I’m afraid I don’t really—” “On the peg board behind you,” Pritkin said, less to be helpful than to hurry this along. Not that it did, of course.

“Nonsense.” Jonas drew himself up. “I think I know where I leŌ my own hat!” And onto the dandelion it went. “On someone else’s head?” John asked, plucking a black bowler off a peg and tossing it to the young man. Who caught it and then just stood there, looking at it. John sighed. Jonas turned that sharp blue squint on him. “John?” “Yes, and I have a bone to pick with you.” Jonas muƩered something that sounded like ‘what a surprise,’ but John decided to let it go since he needed the man’s help. “I want you to talk to Edwards for me.

” “Edwards?” “In allocation. He’s being a stubborn git—” “Job requirement.” “Well it’s damned irritaƟng! I was told—by you, I might add—that I was to be allowed Circle housing—”

.

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