Chapter Eleven: Bessie Blount's Cup

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Bessie Blount was one of the many mistresses of Henry VIII, and a maid to his first wife Catherine, according to Dr Southey. She bore the king a son, and that made her something special, because Henry wasn't good at having sons. If things had worked out differently she might have mothered a whole bastard line of English kings.

The cup that bore her name was a reward from the king himself for proving that he could produce a male heir, and one of the last gifts he gave her. Henry soon moved on to Anne Boleyn. The cup was recovered by the Horseshoe Men a generation later, and had been in the Grey Museum ever since—or at least until a week ago.

Dr Southey explained all this to me in florid detail as we flew by helicopter from Hastings to the Cotswolds. He also shared his theory that the cup was to blame for the deaths of both Blount and her nearly-royal son, but I didn't catch why. I was a little distracted by the view.

I had never flown in a helicopter before. I couldn't believe this was my life now.

We swept across beautiful rolling green hills and dense dark woodlands, and over villages of black-beamed, thatch-roof cottages in the valleys. It looked stunning. It looked like an unlikely site for a crisis.

"There's Winchcombe," said Dr Southey. He pointed to an idyllic town that might have been lifted off the illustration from a souvenir fudge tin. "And over there, Belas Knap." He gestured to the left, but I couldn't see anything but trees.

"Not too close," said Grace. "Harper advised us not to land within five hundred feet of the barrow."

We passed low over the woods, and I saw three vehicles parked in a field up ahead with a handful of people gathered around them, all dressed in navy blue Horseshoe uniforms. As the helicopter set down a safe distance away, one of the Horseshoe men headed over to meet us; a short woman with olive skin, dark eyes, and a tangle of wild black hair. She wore binoculars around her neck, and she had two silver chevrons on the sleeve of her jacket. As she drew closer I realised she couldn't be much older than sixteen.

"Grace, Adam; good of you to come so quickly," she said. She spoke with clipped, confident authority. "You must be Ben Frazer. I'm glad they were able to find you. I'm Operator Harper Kahn, but you should call me Harper."

I was taken aback. Harper was younger than me, but precocious and assured in a way that I envied.

"What's an 'Operator'?" I asked.

"Officer rank," said Grace. "Unique to Horseshoe Division, but similar to an army captain, with different...requirements. Operator Kahn oversees activities here in the South-West, out of Crossways."

The Admiral said that Horseshoe Division hired young, but I was astonished to find someone Harper's age had been given so much authority when I still couldn't decide what I wanted to do with my life.

"The West Country was some of the last territory to come into line with the Accords," Grace explained. "The whole country is a bit of a patchwork—London has the least magic, by condition of the Accords, while places like this are still saturated in the stuff, if you know what to look for. It takes someone special to keep an eye on the place. What's the situation, Harper?"

"Nasty, I'm afraid. The first team we tried to send in suffered for it, and we're all feeling the effects." Harper led us towards the cars, where one agent sat in the open back of a Range Rover with a mug of tea gripped in her hands, while another lay flat out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face. They both looked pale, and the woman's eyes were ringed with red. They were both teenagers.

"How far has it spread?" asked Southey.

"Take a look for yourself."

Harper produced a pair of glasses from her pocket and handed them to Southey. The lenses were made of thick pink glass. They looked like a toy.

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