Lovely people, as you may know, A Manor of Life & Death, the third of Beaufort’s dragonish cozy mysteries, is out at the end of the week! It’s already available to pre-order on ebook, but if you haven’t read any of his stories before you may want to sign up for the newsletter at the bottom of the page to grab your free book of short stories! Or you can check out the books page for his previous adventures.
And now, onward – last week we read chapter one, in which DI Adams arrived (rather reluctantly) at the country house, only to be greeted by unfriendly birdwatchers, an enormous (and very angry) chef, a fight, a thieving and dubiously helpful dog, and dragons doing yoga on the terrace. So far, she hasn’t followed her better judgement and fled, so we’d better see what chapter two brings…
Topiary of dubious intent.
Throw in the full complement of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute and dragons doing yoga on the terrace, and DI Adams is starting to wonder if she might have made a small misjudgement signing up for this particular spa weekend in the country.
And that’s before the dead body in the sauna and the storm that cuts them off from the rest of the world.
Now she’s dealing with a houseful of guests (and staff) who’re looking more suspicious by the moment, fending off protesters wielding table condiments, and trying to keep everyone safe as the storm closes in. She needs to find the killer, keep the dragons hidden, stop the W.I. forming some sort of pearl-and-twinset posse, and try to resist the urge to arrest everyone.
And never mind the problem of the invisible dog.
Sure. It’s going to be a wonderful weekend.
A Manor of Life & Death
Miriam tried very hard to follow what Adele (who was both the yoga teacher and her niece) was saying, got her lefts and rights muddled, tried to reach for the sky and ground herself at the same time, then fell over sideways. She pitched into Teresa with a squeak, sending them both sprawling onto the cold stone of the terrace.
“I’m so sorry!” she gasped, disentangling herself from the older woman and helping her up. “Are you alright?”
“Of course,” Teresa said cheerfully, brushing off her lime green leggings. Miriam thought they must be new. They had silver dragons on them, and were too short for Teresa’s long legs. “One of the first things to learn is how to fall, Miriam.”
“Oh,” Miriam said, going back to her own mat and thinking that the first thing should be to avoid falling, if you could. She was more well-padded than Teresa, but that didn’t make it pleasant. She’d knocked her knee fairly solidly on the hard stone of the terrace, and she gave it a comforting rub.
“Are you alright, Miriam?” Alice asked.
“I suppose so,” she said, shooting Adele a dark look. The young woman had her arms entwined and her legs wrapped around each other, and was gazing dreamily over the heads of the staggering Women’s Institute. “It’s just a bit advanced for the first afternoon, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” Alice said. She hadn’t tangled herself up quite as much as Adele, but she did have one leg crossed over the other and both arms reaching up to the sky. “You just have to focus.”
“Should you even be doing this, with your hip?” Miriam pointed out, trying to balance on her left leg. Her toenail polish was already chipped, she noticed with some dismay. It had been expensive, too.
“It’s good for my hip,” Alice said, uncrossing her leg and exhaling as she straightened, white hair held back with a slim black headband. She shifted her weight to her right leg and inhaled, floating her left foot off the floor and tucking it behind her right calf. “The doctor said yoga was very good after hip ops.”
“Falling over won’t be very good for it,” Miriam pointed out, although she had to admit that Alice looked in no danger of that. She swapped to her own right leg, hoping that one might be a little steadier. It wasn’t.
“Unless you fall into me I’m unlikely to fall over,” Alice said, shooting Miriam a warning look as the younger woman wobbled precariously.
“Ladies,” Adele said, unwinding her arms and shaking them out. “You can … take a break … or you can … keep going … I’ll … walk around …” She drifted off her mat in a swirl of multi-coloured scarves, her movement as slow as her words. Miriam thought the scarves were the loveliest part of the class, and she quite wanted to know where her niece had got them. Her attention wandered and she pitched forward with a squeak.
“Focus, Miriam,” Alice said.
“Ugh, that’s easy for you to say,” she complained. “I don’t think I’m built for yoga.”
“It’s not about being built for it,” Alice said, doing something fancy with her left leg. “It’s just practice.”
Miriam scowled rather ferociously at her feet and tried lifting her left foot again, then stomped it back down hurriedly as Adele appeared in front of her, pale hands extended.
“I’ll help you, Auntie Miriam,” she said. “Just focus on your drishti point.”
Miriam thought that she’d been focusing on drishti points when her niece wasn’t even a point of conversation for her parents, but she took Adele’s hands dutifully anyway. She didn’t like to discourage her. Everyone always thought she should like yoga because she was Sensitive, and had a passion for tie-dyed skirts and herbal tinctures. But the ohmm-ing gave her the giggles and if she spent too long meditating she started feeling too aware of things. As if there were more hidden creatures in the world than even the ones she knew about (and she did know quite a few personally these days), and some of them didn’t like to be seen. It made her uncomfortable, and unaccountably afraid. Besides, she’d never been able to touch her toes, even when she was a teenager. Some people just aren’t built like that, no matter what Alice said.
Adele’s hands were cold and smooth and steady, and after a few moments Miriam found she could stop gripping them quite so tightly and almost balance on her own.
“Excellent,” Adele said, her words still slow and drawn out. “Wonderful.” She shook herself free and drifted off again, while Miriam concentrated on not falling over immediately. “Does anyone else need help?”
Miriam risked a peek around and felt slightly better when she saw that only Jasmine, Rose and Alice didn’t seem to need help. Everyone else was either wobbling wildly, holding onto each other, or, in the case of Priya, had sat down with her face lifted happily up to the sky, eyes closed.
“How about – you,” Adele said, waving vaguely off the terrace and making her bracelets clatter into each other. “Do you need help?”
Miriam promptly fell over, catching herself on her hands and scrambling to her feet. “Who?” she squeaked. “Does who need help?”
“The two – oh.” Adele laughed, and shook her head. “I’ve had too much, um, too much tea. I thought there was someone there. But it’s the topiary, isn’t it?”
The ladies of the Women’s Institute, who had given up any attempt at balance, agreed enthusiastically, and Adele wandered back to her mat, pausing to encourage her students to attempt the poses again. Behind her, Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, stayed balancing on one foot, unmoving, his scales a deeper and darker green than usual. They were, in fact, the exact green of the topiary dotted around the terrace in tall cracked pots and sculpted into even more unusual shapes than dragons the size of large dogs. Mortimer, who had faded to an anxious grey that matched the stone of the terrace rather admirably, peered around a topiary pot.
“I thought this was meant to be relaxing,” he hissed. “I thought this was going to stop me stress-shedding, not make it worse.”
“Well, you’re not concentrating, are you?” Beaufort said. “You’re over there hiding behind a plant pot.”
“It’s very hard to concentrate when someone could see us any minute,” Mortimer pointed out, not moving, then waved at the peacock that had wandered up to investigate them. “Shoo!”
“Bu-kurk,” it said.
“Shh, both of you,” Miriam whispered, flapping her hands at them.
“Miriam, do go back to your mat,” Alice said. “You’re not exactly helping.”
“It’s making me terribly nervous.”
“No one here can see us, Miriam,” Beaufort said, trying to move into a Warrior One. Miriam was pretty sure you couldn’t do that with dragon feet, but the High Lord was certainly making a good attempt. “We checked with the gargoyles. They’ve been on this house since it was built, and no one has ever seen them. There’s not a glimmer of sight in anyone here.”
“Gargoyles?” Miriam said, and Alice shushed her.
“She thought she saw something,” Mortimer muttered, trying to work his way into the pose without emerging from behind the pot.
The peacock opened his tail and shook it at him encouragingly. “Bu-kurk!”
“I really don’t think yoga class is a place for dragons,” Miriam said with a sigh, but went back to her mat and tried to get her feet to go one way and her legs another. She hoped the dragons were getting more out of the class than she was.
Somehow they made it to the end of the session without anyone breaking anything (although, judging from the mutters, there were quite a few stubbed toes and shaking legs), and Miriam finally lay back on her mat in the gentle spring sun with a sigh, her eyes closed, listening to the soft breathing of the women around her and trying to not giggle every time Adele ohmm-ed. Someone was snoring, and from the raspiness she thought it was Beaufort.
He had been quite right, of course. Adele hadn’t seen him. Not quite, anyway. That was what tended to happen – people thought they saw something, but when they looked again there would be nothing there, or it would make their eyes hurt, and they’d think they were getting a migraine. You had to be expecting dragons to see them. She still thought it was rather risky, though, as they didn’t know who the other guests were yet. She did hope that this was going to be a relaxing weekend. She could really do with a relaxing weekend after the last year.
For a while there was silence, just the breathing of the women and the dragons, and birdsong in the trees beyond the terrace, where soft green grass rolled through more strangely shaped topiary and on to the untamed woods that circled the property, full of badgers and foxes and pheasants, and streams and rivers that would eventually lead to Toot Hansell. The sun was bright against her eyelids, blood vessels painting patterns on the insides, and she drifted, smelling cut grass and woodsmoke and the warm scent of stone in sunlight. Then a voice rang out around them.
“Ladies on the stone in the sun,
her lips spitting kisses like sunny secrets from the gods,
only to realise that none are there for him.
Oh! To be the lost man in such a place of beauty!”
There was a pause, and Miriam wondered if this was part of the class. She’d read that there were such things as beer yoga and dog yoga, so maybe this was poetry yoga?
Then Adele’s voice rose, sounding rather less slow and smooth than it had a few minutes before. “Boyd! What are you doing? I told you, you have to stop this! You’re ruining everything!”
“I’m not,” Boyd said. “It adds an extra dimension to your classes. It makes them transcendent.”
“My classes are already transcendent!”
Miriam thought that might be pushing things, but the poetry certainly hadn’t added anything. She pushed herself up on one elbow and looked at her nephew.
“I raise you up through my words and create,
waking dreams through which rage-slash-love can play,
while buxom fancies fairly tintinnabulate,
and all too soon will be gone the way of spring.”
“Buxom what?” Gert demanded, sitting up. “And tintinnabulate? That does not sound like something you should be doing on a yoga mat.”
“Umm,” Boyd said. He was a tall man with longish hair, hovering at the edge of the terrace in a large white shirt and ripped jeans. “No?”
“No what?” Gert snapped. She was wearing a sleeveless floral top, and her biceps bulged rather alarmingly, making the mermaid tattoo on one arm dance. “Are you saying you want to tintinnabulate us buxom fancies on the yoga mats?”
“No!” he squawked. “I was just – I – poetry! Art, yes?”
“That is not art,” Gert said, shaking a finger at him. “I think that was probably quite rude, to be honest. Is this what you do? Hang around your sister’s yoga classes spouting bad poetry at people?”
Boyd spluttered. “It’s good! It’s very good! I’ve won prizes!”
“At school,” Adele said. “And I’m pretty sure they only gave it to you to stop you submitting anything else.”
“That’s not true!”
“It so is.”
“Now, kids,” Priya raised her hands placatingly. “Aren’t we all practising compassion and so on?”
“I’m practising lying down,” Rose said, eyes still closed.
“It’s called shavasana. Corpse pose,” Jasmine told her.
Rose opened her eyes and sat up. “Well, I’m not so keen on practising that. Plenty of time for that later.”
“It’s just a name,” Adele said, sounding slightly desperate. “Let’s just go back to considering compassion—”
“We all talk about compassion,” Boyd proclaimed suddenly, and Gert made the sort of noise an angry llama might make. “Till the furies comes, those wizened old crones—”
“Those what?” Gert demanded, and Alice said, “Really.”
“Boyd!” Adele wailed.
“Those – those angels of the Dales,” Boyd managed, looking around wildly as if hoping someone would rescue him.
“Is he trying to poetry?” Beaufort asked, not bothering to keep his voice down. “Because he’s really terrible at it. Doesn’t he know that it’s about creating beauty?”
“Well, I’m not sure modern poetry is exactly like that,” Mortimer began, and Miriam waved at them wildly.
“Shh!” she whispered. “We don’t know who might hear you!”
“Hear what?” Boyd asked.
“Nothing,” Alice said.
“Oh! ’Tis but the sound of the breezes!
His heart grows faint, his hands begin to shake—”
“Terrible,” Beaufort said, shaking his scaly head. “Once upon a time, someone that bad at poetry would have been burned at the stake.”
“I don’t disagree with the concept.” Alice sat up and pulled her cardigan on. “He’s quite ruined the mood.”
“You see?” Adele said. Her arms were folded and she was glaring at her brother in what Miriam thought was a rather un-yogic sort of way. “You’ve ruined it. Happy now?”
“It was a very nice class until then,” Priya said encouragingly.
“Well, not everyone can appreciate art.” Boyd tossed his hair. It would have looked more effective if it hadn’t been so wispy, Miriam thought. Poor boy. It just sort of wafted around his face rather dismally.
“Oh, go do some of your crappy topiary,” Adele snapped. “See if you can ruin the view as well as the mood.”
“Well, that explains a lot,” Carlotta said. “I did wonder why none of them actually look like anything.”
“It’s art!” Boyd insisted.
“It’s rubbish,” Rosemary said, and she and Carlotta exchanged short nods.
“It is not,” Boyd said indignantly. “Why should topiary always be animals? Why can’t it be abstract?”
“And I thought we had problems with Gilbert and his abstract baubles,” Mortimer mumbled to Beaufort.
“Oh, leave the poor man alone,” Priya said. “They do get so precious. And the class is over anyway.” She got up and started rolling her mat up.
“Wait!” Adele pleaded. “We haven’t done the breathing yet! Or the guided meditation!”
“Oh, no, I’m done,” Rose said, getting up. “It must be gin and tonic time by now, isn’t it?”
“But you can’t finish now! You’re not fully relaxed yet!”
“Teresa is,” Pearl said, gesturing at the tall woman, still stretched out and snoring gently.
“Boyyyyd!” Adele wailed. “Why do you have to spoil everything!”
“Your whining drains the peace from the day—”
“Enough,” Gert said. “I can’t listen to either of you anymore. I’ve got plenty of kids and grandkids if I want to listen to squabbling.” She scowled at Boyd, and he scuttled backward, trying to look dignified. He yelped as he ran into someone coming out the doors.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry …” He shuffled sideways, looked at the W.I. and the newcomer, then gave up and headed across the terrace and into the garden at a pace that was uncomfortably close to a run.
“Oh, hello, DI Adams,” Gert said. “You just missed the yoga.”
DI Adams was staring at the front of her hoody, which was liberally splattered with the contents of her coffee cup. “I just put this on,” she complained.
“Oh, we’ll get that out,” Rosemary said. “A little white vinegar and it’ll be good as new.”
“Glycerine,” Carlotta said.
Rosemary frowned at her, agreement of a moment ago forgotten. “Oh? Just carrying that around with you, are you?”
“Any decent household will have some.”
“Only if they’re in the mining business.”
DI Adams sighed, and finished the remains of her cup. “I was enjoying that coffee, too.”
“Welcome to the manor house, detective inspector,” Alice said. “I’m so glad you decided to join us.”
“Yes,” DI Adams said, rather unenthusiastically.
With all the fuss over stolen lamb shoulders, afternoon tea appeared to have been forgotten, and they’d skipped straight to glasses of sparkling wine on the terrace, served with plates of mysterious pastries and bite-size pieces of fish and meat on mini-skewers. Miriam was trying not to eat too many of them in case dinner was just as good, but it was hard. DI Adams seemed to have resigned her hoody to whatever fate Rosemary and Carlotta had in store for it, and was ensconced in one of the deep chairs on the terrace with a blanket bundled around her as the sky turned pink and apricot and the shadows under the trees deepened. She had a glass of red wine in one hand, and was watching Beaufort sitting on a dangerously sagging sunlounger, drinking a pint of bitter with evident enjoyment.
“Is he sure about this?” the inspector asked. “I mean, he’s very obvious out there.”
“I can’t even look,” Mortimer said. He was curled up next to Miriam’s chair, entirely hidden under a blanket from which his paw would appear at regular intervals to retrieve cheese pastries.
“I think it’s giving me a headache,” DI Adams said.
“Beaufort is completely confident that no one will see them,” Miriam said, not feeling at all confident herself. She wanted to pat the inspector on the arm reassuringly, but wasn’t quite sure if that was the sort of thing you did to police officers.
“Hmm.” DI Adams sipped her wine.
Alice settled a throw more comfortably around her shoulders and said, “It’s very nice to see you off-duty, Inspector.”
“It’s nice to be off-duty,” she said, not sounding entirely convincing.
“And what should we call you when you’re off-duty?”
“DI Adams is just fine.”
Miriam felt she’d made the right decision about the arm-patting.
Alice smiled and nodded at the three birdwatchers, who were waving various pieces of electronic equipment around the base of one of the topiary pots. Beaufort watched them with interest, interspersing sips of beer with generous helpings of sausage rolls, which he shared with the peacock who paced around him bu-kurk-ing in a friendly sort of way.
“They’re an odd lot, aren’t they?” Alice said. “Never seen birdwatchers with so much equipment before.”
“It’s for tracking night birds, apparently,” Rose said. “I asked them about it, because in my day all we needed was a notepad and binoculars. And that was for work, not a hobby.”
“It’s not a hobby,” the nearest man said, and frowned at them. “This is serious stuff, this is. We’re hoping to identify a new species.”
“Shh, Saul,” one of the others said. “Don’t give it all away.”
Saul looked alarmed, and turned the collar of his coat up before he went to join the other two men fussing around the tree.
“Rubbish,” Rose said rather loudly, and gave the men a sweet smile when they turned around. DI Adams made a sound that sounded quite a lot like a snort of laughter.
“So precious,” Priya said, and clinked her glass off Rose’s. The men looked like they were fairly sure they were being insulted, but couldn’t quite understand how.
“Does anyone need any more drinks?” Maddie asked, appearing next to Miriam with her hair clipped into some semblance of order. “Appetisers?”
“Maddie, do relax,” Alice said. “It’s only us, and the boys over there chasing butterflies or what have you.”
“New species,” the tall one called back. “Just wait until we have a moth named after us.”
“Phsst,” Rose said, swinging her legs in her chair. “I’ve got two bacterium and an amoeba named after me.”
The men stared at her uncertainly, then went back to what they were doing, talking a little more quietly.
Miriam reached out and tugged her sister’s arm. “Mads, come sit down. Take a breather for a moment.”
“Oh, no. I can’t. I’m half-scared to leave the kitchen too long in case Reid makes a nuisance of himself again, and we’ve more guests arriving any minute.”
“So what can we expect?” Gert asked. “Honeymooners? Ramblers?”
“Oh, no. Antique hunters, and a gentleman on his own. And a – a family.”
Miriam wondered why the family required a hesitation, but she was much too comfortable in the early evening light, savouring the indulgent thrill of a glass of sparkling wine, to worry about it too much. Maddie collected a couple of empty glasses and hurried off again, and Mortimer poked his nose out from under the blanket.
“Yes, dear,” Miriam said, taking possession of a plate of salmon toasts and handing them to the dragon, who took six. “Try not to worry too much.” Mortimer hadn’t been any colour except anxious grey since he and Beaufort had arrived, padding down through the woodland trails and waiting expectantly for the Women’s Institute to appear.
“How can I not worry?” he demanded now. “What if one of them spots us? I mean, Beaufort’s just sitting out there in plain view!”
“Well, you did say he checked with … some Folk?” She glanced at the roof line behind her, but couldn’t see any lurking creatures.
“Oh, and they’re so reliable,” Mortimer muttered, taking four more toasts and retreating under the blanket again. She didn’t blame him. She felt a bit the same around strangers at times.
DI Adams tucked her blanket a little more tightly around her. “So Maddie’s your sister, Miriam?”
Miriam, who’d been concentrating on Mortimer, choked on a piece of toast, and Rose thumped her on the back a little too enthusiastically. She wheezed a couple of times, then nodded, wiping at her eyes.
“Miriam, do try to stop panicking every time the inspector talks to you,” Alice said. “She hasn’t arrested you once.”
Miriam decided not to point out that the inspector had arrested Alice, and just said, “Yes. She married Denis Etherington-Smythe, who was the last of the Etheringtons, but he died in a horrible accident with a squirrel.”
“A … squirrel?” the inspector said carefully.
“Nasty little critters,” Alice observed, and for a while no one said anything.
Then Rose said, “To be fair, it wasn’t the squirrel’s fault that he fell off the tractor.”
“The squirrel bit him,” Miriam said. “Though no one knows exactly why he was on a tractor with a shotgun chasing a squirrel at three in the morning.”
“I imagine the whisky had something to do with that,” Alice said.
“There’s eccentric and there’s just plain silly,” Rose remarked.
Everyone was tactfully quiet for a moment, then the inspector cleared her throat. “Right. So, Maddie runs the whole place, does she?”
“She does,” Miriam said. “All the kids help, though. Boyd takes care of the grounds, and Adele does the beauty treatments as well as the yoga, and—” she hesitated. “Well, Reid used to cook, but I think he does other stuff now.” She waved vaguely.
“Thank God for that,” Gert said, taking the last sausage roll. “Lucky we didn’t all get food poisoning.”
Miriam started to say, that’s not fair, but stopped. It was fair, really. “Adele used to do foraging and plant identification, too, but there was a problem with some mushrooms a couple of years ago, so they don’t offer it anymore.”
“Problem?” DI Adams asked.
“Well, it depends on your point of view, I suppose. Some people rather hunt out that particular mushroom, I’ve heard.”
DI Adams choked on her wine, and hurriedly brushed some drops off the blanket. “Right.”
“They did have a lot of enquiries after the story was in the paper,” Alice said, and for a moment Miriam thought the inspector was going to start laughing. In the end, though, she just raised her eyebrows slightly and made a noise that might have been acknowledgement or might have been disbelief.
“They work very hard,” Miriam said. “Well, Maddie does. And this weekend’s so important. They had a terrible year last year, and apparently she’s got some guests staying who could really help out if everything goes well. If not, well, I don’t know what she’ll do. Have to sell, I suppose.”
“That would be awful,” Rose said. “Imagine if a developer bought it! They’d ruin everything.”
Miriam sighed, and looked at the woods easing into darkness, vast and wild and fragile. “They would,” she agreed.
Lovely people, the stage is set and the game will very shortly be afoot! (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Beaufort’s a bad influence.) If you’ve already pre-ordered your copy, the ebook will arrive on your device via dragonish magic on Friday, and if you haven’t – well, what are you waiting for? Dragons and family intrigue and dogs that may or may not exist – what more does one need?
Paperbacks are also available via Amazon and BookDepository, or you can ask your friendly local indie bookshop if they can order one in for you.
Thank you so much for reading, supporting, and being entirely wonderful!