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Ptolemy's Gate / (by Jonathan Stroud, 2005) -

Ptolemy's Gate /   (by Jonathan Stroud, 2005) -

Ptolemy's Gate / (by Jonathan Stroud, 2005) -

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Ptolemy's Gate / (by Jonathan Stroud, 2005) -
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2005
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Jonathan Stroud
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Simon Jones
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Intermediate
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15:33:00
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128 kbps

Ptolemy's Gate / :

.doc (Word) ptolemys_gate.doc [980,5 Kb] (c: 14) .
.pdf ptolemys_gate.pdf [1,51 Mb] (c: 43) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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Part One Alexandria: 125 B.C. The assassins dropped into the palace grounds at midnight, four fleet shadows dark against the wall. The fall was high, the ground was hard; they made no more sound on impact than the pattering of rain. Three seconds they crouched there, low and motionless, sniffing at the air. Then away they stole, through the dark gardens, among the tamarisks and date palms, toward the quarters where the boy lay at rest. A cheetah on a chain stirred in its sleep; far away in the desert, jackals cried. They went on pointed toe-tips, leaving no trace in the long wet grass. Their robes flittered at their backs, fragmenting their shadows into wisps and traces. What could be seen? Nothing but leaves shifting in the breeze. What could be heard? Nothing but the wind sighing among the palm fronds. No sight, no noise. A crocodile djinni, standing sentry at the sacred pool, was undisturbed though they passed within a scale's breadth of his tail. For humans, it wasn't badly done. The heat of the day was a memory; the air was chill. Above the palace a cold round moon shone down, slathering silver across the roofs and courtyards.1 1.This was one of the peculiarities of their sect: they acted only when the moon was full. It made their tasks more difficult, their challenge greater. And they had never failed. Aside from this, they wore only black, avoided meat, wine, women, and the playing of wind instruments, and curiously ate no cheese save that made from the milk of goats bred on their distant desert mountain. Before each job they fasted for a day, meditated by staring unblinking at the ground, then ate small cakes of hashish and cumin seed, without water, until their throats glowed yellow. It's a wonder they ever killed anyone. Away beyond the wall, the great city murmured in the night: wheels on dirt roads, distant laughter from the pleasure district along the quay, the tide lapping at its stones. Lamplight shone in windows, embers glowed on roof hearths, and from the top of the tower beside the harbor gate the great watch fire burned its message out to sea. Its image danced like imp-light on the waves. At their posts, the guards played games of chance. In the pillared halls, the servants slept on beds of rushes. The palace gates were locked by triple bolts, each thicker than a man. No eyes were turned to the western gardens, where death came calling, secret as a scorpion, on four pairs of silent feet. The boy's window was on the first floor of the palace. Four black shadows hunched beneath the wall. The leader made a signal. One by one they pressed against the stonework; one by one they began to climb, suspended by their fingertips and the nails of their big toes.2 In this manner they had scaled marble columns and waterfalls of ice from Massilia to Hadhramaut; the rough stone blocks were easy for them now. Up they went, like bats upon a cave wall. Moonlight glinted on bright things gripped between their teeth. 2.All horrid and curved they were, filed sharp like eagles' talons. The assassins took good careof their feet, because of their importance in their work.They were washed frequently, rubbed with pumice, and marinated in sesame oil until the skin was soft as eiderdown. The first' of the assassins reached the window ledge: he sprang tigerlike upon it and peered into the chamber. Moonlight spilled across the room; the pallet was lit as if by day. The boy lay sleeping, motionless as one already dead. His dark hair fell loose upon the cushions, his pale lamb's throat shone against the silks. The assassin took his dagger from between his teeth. With quiet deliberation, he surveyed the room, gauging its extent and the possibility of traps. It was large, shadowy, empty of ostentation. Three pillars supported the ceiling. In the distance stood a door of teak, barred on the inside. A chest, half filled with clothes, sat open against the wall. He saw a royal chair draped with a discarded cloak, sandals lying on the floor, an onyx basin filled with water. A faint trace of perfume hung on the air. The assassin, for whom such scents were decadent and corrupt, wrinkled his nose. 3 3.The sect avoided perfumes for practical reasons, preferring to coat themselves with scents appropriate to the conditions of each job: pollen in the gardens, incense in the temples, sand-dust in the deserts, dung and offal in the towns. They were dedicated fellows. His eyes narrowed; he reversed the dagger, holding it between finger and thumb by its shining, gleaming tip. It quivered once, twice. He was gauging the range herehe'd never missed a target yet, from Carthage to old Colchis. Every knife he'd thrown had found its throat. His wrist flickered; the silver arc of the knifes flight cut the air in two. It landed with a soft noise, hilt-deep in the cushion, an inch from the child's neck. The assassin paused in doubt, still crouched upon the sill. The back of his hands bore the crisscross scars that marked him as an adept of the dark academy. An adept never missed his target. The throw had been exact, precisely calibrated . yet it had missed. Had the victim moved a crucial fraction? Impossible the boy was fast asleep. From his person he pulled a second dagger.4 Another careful aim (the assassin was conscious of his brothers behind and below him on the wall: he felt the grim weight of their impatience). A flick of the wrist, a momentary arc 4.I won't say where he pulled it from. Let's just say that the knife had hygiene issues as well as being quite sharp. With a soft noise, the second dagger landed in the cushion, an inch to the other side of the prince's neck. As he slept, perhaps he dreameda smile twitched ghostlike at the corners of his mouth. Behind the black gauze of the scarf that masked his face, the assassin frowned. From within his tunic he drew a strip of fabric, twined tightly into a cord. In seven years since the Hermit had ordered his first kill, his garrote had never snapped, his hands had never failed him.5 With leopard's stealth, he slid from the sill and stole across the moonlit floor. 5.The Hermit of the Mountain trained his followers in numerous methods of foolproof murder. They could use garrotes, swords, knives, batons, ropes, poisons, discs, bolas, pellets, and arrows inimitably, as well as being pretty handy with the evil eye. Death by fingertip and toe-flex was also taught, and the furtive nip was a specialty. Stomach-threads and tapeworms were available for advanced students. And the best of it was that it was all guilt-free: each assassination was justified and condoned by a powerful religious disregard for the sanctity of other people's lives. In his bed the boy murmured something. He stirred beneath his sheet. The assassin froze rigid, a black statue in the center of the room. Behind, at the window, two of his companions insinuated themselves upon the sill. They waited, watching. The boy gave a little sigh and fell silent once more. He lay faceup among his cushions, a dagger's hilt protruding on either side. Seven seconds passed. The assassin moved again. He stole around behind the cushions, looping the ends of the cord around his hands. Now he was directly above the child; he bent swiftly, set the cord upon the sleeping throat The boy's eyes opened. He reached up a hand, grasped the assassin's left wrist and, without exertion, swung him headfirst into the nearest wall, snapping his neck like a reed stalk. He flung off his silken sheet and, with a bound, stood free, facing the window. Up on the sill, silhouetted against the moon, two assassins hissed like rock snakes.Their comrade's death was an affront to their collective pride. One plucked from his robe a pipe of bone; from a cavity between his teeth he sucked a pellet, eggshell thin, filled with poison. He set the pipe to his lips, blew once: the pellet shot across the room, directed at the child's heart. The boy gave a skip; the pellet shattered against a pillar, spattering it with liquid. A plume of green vapor drizzled through the air. The two assassins leaped into the room; one this way, the other that. Each now held a scimitar in his hand; they spun them in complex flourishes about their heads, dark eyes scanning the room. The boy was gone. The room was still. Green poison nibbled at the pillar; the stones fizzed with it. Never once in seven years, from Antioch to Pergamum, had these assassins lost a victim.6 Their arms stopped moving; they slowed their pace, listening intently, tasting the air for the taint of fear. 6. And they didn't intend to start now. The Hermit was known to be pretty sniffy about disciples who returned in failure. There was a wall of the institute layered with their skinsan ingenious display that encouraged vigor in his students, as well as nicely keeping out the drafts. From behind a pillar in the center of the room came the faintest scuffling, like a mouse flinching in its bed of straw. The assassins glanced at each other; they inched forward, toe-tip by toe-tip, scimitars raised. One went to the right, past the crumpled body of his fellow. One went to the left, beside the golden chair, draped with the cloak of kings. They moved like ghosts around the margins of the room, circling in upon the pillar from both sides. Behind the pillar, a furtive movement: a boy's shape hiding in the shadows. Both assassins saw it; both raised their scimitars and darted in, from left, from right. Both struck with mantis speed. A dual cry, gargling and ragged. From around the pillar came a stumbling, rolling mess of arms and legs: the two assassins, locked together in a tight embrace, each one skewered on the other's sword. They fell forward into the pool of moonlight in the center of the chamber, twitched gently, and lay quiet. Silence. The windowsill hung vacant, nothing in it but the moon. A cloud passed across the bright round disc, blacking out the bodies on the floor. The signal fire in the harbor tower cast faint redness on the sky. All was still. The cloud drifted out to sea, the light returned. From behind the pillar walked the boy, bare feet soundless on the floor, his body stiff and wary, as if he sensed a pressure in the room. With careful steps, he neared the window. Slowly, slowly, closer, closer . he saw the shrouded mass of gardens, the trees and sentry towers. He noticed the texture of the sill, the way the moonlight caught its contours. Closer . . . now his hands rested on the stone itself. He leaned forward to look down into the courtyard at the bottom of the wall. His thin white throat extended out. . . . Nothing. The courtyard was empty. The wall below was sheer and smooth, its stones picked out by moonlight. The boy listened to the quietness. He tapped his fingers on the sill, shrugged, and turned inside. Then the fourth assassin, clinging like a thin black spider to the stones above the window, dropped down behind him. His feet made the noise of feathers falling into snow. The boy heard; he twisted, turned. A knife flashed, swiped, was deflected by a desperate handits edge clinked against stone. Iron fingers grappled at the boy's neck; his legs were knocked from under him. He fell, landing hard upon the floor. The assassin's weight was on him. His hands were pinioned. He could not move. The knife descended. This time it met its mark. So it had finished as it must. Crouching above the body of the boy, the assassin allowed himself a breathhis first since his colleagues had met their ends. He sat back on his sinewy haunches, loosened his grip upon the knife, and let the boy's wrist drop free. He inclined his head in the traditional mark of respect to the fallen victim. At which point the boy reached up and plucked the knife from the center of his chest. The assassin blinked in consternation. "Not silver, you see," the boy said. "Mistake." He raised his hand. An explosion in the room. Green sparks cascaded from the window. The boy rose to his feet and tossed the knife upon the pallet. He adjusted his kilt and blew some flakes of ash from his arms. Then he coughed loudly. The faintest of scrapings. Across the room the golden chair shifted. The cloak draped over it was nudged aside. Out from between its legs scrambled another boy, identical to the first, though flushed and tousled from many hours of hiding. He stood over the bodies of the assassins, breathing hard. Then he stared up at the ceiling. On it was the blackened outline of a man. It had a kind of startled look. The boy lowered his gaze to the impassive doppelganger watching him across the moonlit room. I gave a mock salute. Ptolemy brushed the dark hair from his eyes and bowed. "Thank you, Rekhyt," he said. 1 Times change. Once, long ago, I was second to none. I could whirl through the air on a wisp of cloud and churn up dust storms with my passing. I could slice through mountains, raise castles on pillars of glass, fell forests with a single breath. I carved temples from the sinews of the earth and led armies against the legions of the dead, so that the harpers of a dozen lands played music in my memory and the chroniclers of a dozen centuries scribbled down my exploits. Yes! I was Bartimaeus cheetah quick, strong as a bull elephant, deadly as a striking krait! But that was then. And now . . . well, right now I was lying in the middle of a midnight road, flat on my back and getting flatter. Why? Because on top of me was an upturned building. Its weight bore down. Muscles strained, tendons popped; try as I might, I could not push free. In principle there's nothing shameful about struggling when a building falls upon you. I've had such problems before; it's part of the job description.1 But it does help if the edifice in question is glamorous and large. And in this case, the fearsome construction that had been ripped from its foundations and hurled upon me from a great height was neither big nor sumptuous. It wasn't a temple wall or a granite obelisk. It wasn't the marbled roof of an emperor's palace. 1. There was the time when a small section of Khufu's Great Pyramid collapsed upon me one moonless night during the fifteenth year of its construction. 1 was guarding the zone that my group was working on, when several limestone blocks tumbled down from the top, transfixing me painfully by one of my extremities. Exactly how it happened was never resolved, though my suspicions were directed at my old chum Faquarl, who was working with a rival group on the opposite side. I made no outward complaint, but bided my time while my essence healed. Later, when Faquarl was returning across the Western Desert with some Nubian gold, I invoked a mild sandstorm, causing him to lose the treasure and incur the pharaoh's wrath. It took him a couple of years to sift all the pieces from the dunes. No.The object that was pinning me haplessly to the ground, like a butterfly on a collector's tray, was of twentieth-century origin and of very specific function. Oh, all right, it was a public lavatory. Quite sizable, mind, but even so. I was glad no harpers or chroniclers happened to be passing. In mitigation, I must report that the lavatory in question had concrete walls and a very thick iron roof, the cruel aura of which helped weaken my already feeble limbs. And there were doubtless various pipes and cisterns and desperately heavy taps inside, all adding to the total mass. But it was still a pretty poor show for a djinni of my stature to be squashed by it. In fact, the abject humiliation bothered me more than the crushing weight. All around me the water from the snapped and broken pipework trickled away mournfully into the gutters. Only my head projected free of one of the concrete walls; my body was entirely trapped.2 2. The obvious solution would have been to change forminto a wraith, say, or a swirl of smoke, and just drift clear. But there were two problems. One: I found it hard to change shape these days, very hard, even at the best of times. Two: the considerable downward pressure would have blown my essence apart the moment I softened it to make the change. So much for the negatives. The good side was that I was unable to rejoin the battle that was taking place up and down the suburban street. It was a fairly low-key sort of battle, especially on the first plane. Nothing much could be seen. The house lights were all out, the electric street lamps had been tied in knots; the road was dark as an inkstone, a solid slab of black. A few stars shone coldly overhead. Once or twice indistinct blue-green lights appeared and faded, like explosions far off underwater. Things hotted up on the second plane, where two rival flocks of birds could be seen wheeling and swooping at each other, buffeting savagely with wings, beaks, claws, and tails. Such loutish behavior would have been reprehensible among seagulls or other down-market fowl; the fact that these were eagles made it all the more shocking. On the higher planes the bird guises were discarded altogether, and the true shapes of the fighting djinn came into focus.3 Seen from this perspective, the night sky was veritably awash with rushing forms, contorted shapes, and sinister activity. Truer, anyway. At bottom, we are all alike in our seeping formlessness, but every spirit has a "look" that suits them, and which they use to represent themselves while on Earth. Our essences are molded into these personal shapes on the higher planes, whileon the lower oneswe adopt guises that are appropriate to the given situation. Listen, I'm sure I've told you all this before. Fair play was entirely disregarded. I saw one spiked knee go crunching into an opponent's belly, sending him spinning away behind a chimney to recover. Disgraceful! If I'd been up there I'd have had no truck with that.4 I'd have kneed him first, then stuck a wingtip in his eye, while kicking his shin for good measure. Much more effective. The techniques of these young djinn were so inefficient, it pained me. But I wasn't up there. I'd been put out of action. Now, if it had been an afrit or marid who'd done the damage, I could have lived with it. But it wasn't. In fact my conqueror was none but a third-level djinni, the kind I could normally roll up in my pocket and smoke after dinner. I could still see her now from where I lay, her nimble feminine grace rather undermined by her pig's head and the long rake she clutched in her trotters. There she was, standing on a post-box, laying left and right with such brio that the government forces, of which I was nominally a part, backed off and left her well alone. She was a formidable customer, with experience in Japan if her kimono was anything to go by. In truth, I'd been misled by her rustic appearance and had ambled close without upping my Shields. Before I knew it, there was a piercing oink, a blur of movement, andwhump!she'd left me pinned in the road, too weary to break free. Little by little, however, my side was gaining the upper hand. See! Here strode Cormocodran, snapping off a lamppost and swinging it like a twig; there raced Hodge, loosing off a volley of poison darts. The enemy dwindled and began to adopt ever more fatalistic guises. I saw several large insects buzzing and dodging, one or two wisps twisting frantically, a couple of rats heading for the hills. Only the she-pig stubbornly maintained her original appearance. My colleagues surged forward. One beetle went down in a corkscrew cloud of smoke; a wisp was blown apart by a double Detonation. The enemy fled; even the pig realized the game was up. She leaped gracefully onto a porch, somersaulted up onto a roof, and vanished. The victorious djinn set off in hot pursuit. It was quiet in the street. Water trickled past my ears. From topknot to toes, my essence was one long ache. I gave a heartfelt sigh. "Dear me," a voice chuckled. "A damsel in distress." I should have mentioned that in contrast to all the centaurs and ogres at my side, I'd been wearing a human guise that night. It happened to be that of a girl: slender, long dark hair, feisty expression. Not based on anybody in particular, of course. The speaker appeared around the edge of the public convenience and paused to sharpen a nail against a snaggy bit of pipe. No delicate guise for him; as usual he was decked out as a one-eyed giant, with lumpy muscles and long blond hair braided in a complex and faintly girly way. He wore a shapeless blue-gray smock that would have been considered hideous in a medieval fishing village. "A poor sweet damsel, too frail to pry herself free." The cyclops considered one of his nails carefully; finding it a little long, he bit at it savagely with his small sharp teeth and rounded it off against the pebbledash wall of the lavatory. "Mind helping me up?" I inquired. The cyclops looked up and down the empty road. "Better watch out, love," he said, leaning casually on the building so that its downward pressure increased. "There's dangerous characters abroad tonight. Djinn and foliots . . . and naughty imps, who might do you a mischief." "Can it,Ascobol," I snarled. "You know full well it's me." The Cyclops's single eye batted becomingly under its layer of mascara. "Bartimaeus?" he said in wonder. "Can it possibly be . . . ? Surely the great Bartimaeus would not be so easily snared! You must be some imp or mouler cheekily adopting his voice and . . . But, noI am wrong! It is you." He raised his eyebrow in an affectation of shock. "Incredible! To think the noble Bartimaeus has come to this! The master will be sorely disappointed." I summoned my last reserves of dignity. "All masters are temporary," I replied. "All humiliations likewise. I bide my time." "Of course, of course." Ascobol swung his apelike arms and did a little pirouette. "Well spoken, Bartimaeus! You do not let your decline depress you. No matter that your great days are over, that you are now as redundant as a will-o'-the-wisp!5 No matter that your task tomorrow is as likely to be damp-dusting our master's bedroom as roaming free upon the air. You are an example to us all." 5. Will-o'-the-wisps: small spirits who struggle to keep up with the times.Visible as flickering flames on the first plane (although revealed on others to be more like capering squid), wisps were once employed by magicians to lure trespassers off remote paths into pits or quags. Cities changed all that; urban wisps have now been forced into lurking over open manhole covers, to rather less effect. I smiled, showing my white teeth. "Ascobol," I said, "it is not I who have declined, but my adversaries. I have fought with Faquarl of Sparta, with Tlaloc of Tollan, with clever Tchue of the Kalahariour conflicts split the earth, gouged rivers. I survived. Who is my enemy now? A knock-kneed cyclops in a skirt. When I get out from here, I don't see this new conflict lasting long." The cyclops started back, as if stung. "Such cruel threats! You should be ashamed. We are on the same side, are we not? Doubtless you have good reasons for skulking out the fight under this restroom. Being polite, I will not trouble to inquire, though I may say that you lack your normal courtesy." "Two years' continual service has worn it all away," I said. "I am left irritable and jaded, with a perpetual itch in my essence that I cannot scratch. And that makes me dangerous, as you will shortly learn. Now, for the last time, Ascobol, get this off." Well, there were a few more tuts and pouts, but my posturing had its effect. With a single shrug of his hairy shoulders, the cyclops levered the lavatory up and off me, sending it clattering away onto the opposite pavement. A somewhat corrugated girl got unsteadily to her feet. "At last," I said. "You took your own sweet time about it." The cyclops plucked a bit of debris from his smock. "Sorry," he said, "but I was too busy winning the battle to help you out before. Still, all's well. Our master will be pleasedby my efforts, anyhow." He glanced at me sidelong. Now that I was vertical I had no intention of squabbling further. I considered the damage to the houses all around. Not too bad. A few broken roofs, smashed windows . . . The skirmish had been successfully contained. "A French lot?" I asked. The cyclops shrugged, which was some feat given that he lacked a neck. "Maybe. Possibly the Czechs or Spanish. Who can tell? They're all nibbling at us nowadays. Well, time presses, and I must check on the pursuit. I leave you to nurse your aches and pains, Bartimaeus.Why not try peppermint tea or a camomile footbath, like other geriatrics? Adieu!" The cyclops hitched up his skirts and, with a ponderous spring, launched himself into the air. Wings appeared on his back; with great plowing strokes he drew away. He had all the grace of a filing cabinet, but at least he'd got the energy to fly. I hadn't. Not until I'd had a breather, anyhow. The dark-haired girl crept across to a broken square of chimney in a nearby garden. Slowly, with the gasps and gingerly movements of an invalid, she slumped down into a sitting position and cupped her head in her hands. She closed her eyes. Just a brief rest. Five minutes would do. Time passed, dawn came. The cold stars faded in the sky. 2 As had become his custom in recent months, the great magician John Mandrake took his breakfast in his parlor, seated in the wicker chair beside the window. The heavy curtains had been carelessly drawn back; the sky beyond was gray and leaden and a sinewy mist threaded its way between the trees of the square. The small circular table before him was carved from Lebanese cedar. When warmed by sunlight, it gave off a pleasant fragrance, but on this particular morning the wood was dark and cold. Mandrake poured coffee into his glass, removed the silver cover from his plate, and set upon his curried eggs and bacon. In a rack behind the toast and the gooseberry conserve sat a crisply folded newspaper and an envelope with a blood-red seal. Mandrake took a swig of coffee with his left hand; with his right he flicked the newspaper open on the table. He glanced at the front page, grunted dismissively, and reached for the envelope. An ivory paperknife hung from a peg upon the rack; flinging down his fork, Mandrake slit the envelope with one easy motion and drew out a folded parchment. He read this with care, brows puckering into a frown. Then he refolded it, stuffed it back into the envelope, and with a sigh returned to his meal. A knock at the door; with mouth half full of bacon, Mandrake gave a muffled command. The door opened silently and a young, slim woman stepped diffidently through, a briefcase in her hand. She halted. "I'm sorry, sir," she began. "Am I too early?" "Not at all, Piper, not at all." He waved her over, indicated a chair on the other side of his breakfast table. "Have you eaten?" "Yes, sir." She sat. She wore a dark blue skirt and jacket with a crisp white shirt. Her straight brown hair was scraped away from her forehead and clipped at the back of her head. She settled the briefcase on her lap. Mandrake speared a forkful of curried egg. "Forgive me if I keep eating," he said. "I was up until three, responding to the latest disturbance. Kent, this time." Ms. Piper nodded. "I heard, sir. There was a memo at the ministry. Was it contained?" "Yes; as far as my globe could tell, at any rate. I sent a few demons down. Well, we shall see presently. What have you got for me today?" She undipped the briefcase and drew out some papers. "A number of proposals from the junior ministers, sir, regarding the propaganda campaigns in the outlying regions. For your approval. Some new poster ideas . " "Let's see." He took a gulp of coffee, held out a hand. "Anything else?" "The minutes of the last Council meeting" "I'll read that later. Posters first." He scanned the topmost page. " 'Sign up to serve your country and see the world' .What's that supposed to mean? More like a holiday brochure than recruitment. Far too soft . . . Keep talking, PiperI'm still listening." "We've got the latest frontline reports from America, sir. I've ordered them a little. We should be able to make another story out of the Boston siege." "Stressing the heroic attempt, not the abject failure, I trust. . . ." Balancing the papers on his knee, he smeared some gooseberry conserve upon a piece of toast. "Well, I'll try writing something later. . . . Now then, this one's okay'Defend the mother country and make your name' . . . Good. They're suggesting a farm-boy type looking manly, which is fine, but how about putting his family groupsay, parents and little sisterin the background, looking vulnerable and admiring? Play the domestic card." Ms. Piper nodded eagerly. "Could show his wife too, sir." "No.We're after the single ones. It's the wives who are most troublesome when they don't come back." He crunched on his toast. "Any other messages?" "One from Mr. Makepeace, sir. Came by imp. Wonders if you'll drop by and see him this morning." "Can't. Too busy. There'll be time later." "His imp also dropped off this flyer" With a rueful face, Ms. Piper held up a lilac-colored paper. "It's advertising the premiere of his play later this week. From Wapping to Westminster, it's called. The story of our Prime Minister's rise to glory. An evening we will never forget, apparently." Mandrake gave a groan. "If only we could. Put it in the bin. We've got better things to do than discuss theater. What else?" "Mr. Devereaux has sent a memo around too. Owing to the 'troublesome times,' sir, he's placed the nation's most important treasures under special guard in the vaults of Whitehall. They will remain there until he says otherwise." Mandrake looked up then, frowning. "Treasures? Such as what?" "He doesn't say. I wonder if it'll be" "It'll be the Staff and the Amulet and the other grade-one items." He hissed briefly through his teeth. "That's not what he should be doing, Piper.We need them used'' "Yes, sir.There's also this from Mr. Devereaux." She brought out a slender packet. The magician eyed it grimly. "Not another toga?" "A mask, sir. For the party this evening." With a cry, he indicated the envelope in the rack. "I've already got the invitation. It beggars belief: the war's going badly, the Empire's teetering on the brink, and all our Prime Minister can think about is plays and parties. All right. Keep it with the documents. I'll take it along. The posters seem okay." He handed back the papers. "Maybe not snappy enough. . . ." He thought for a moment, nodded. "Got a pen? Try 'Fight for Freedom and the British Way.' Doesn't mean anything, but it sounds good." Ms. Piper considered it. "I think it's rather profound, sir." "Excellent. Then the commoners'll snap it up." He stood, dabbed his mouth with a napkin, and tossed it down upon the tray. "Well, we'd better see how the demons have been getting on. No, no, Piper, pleaseafter you." If Ms. Piper regarded her employer with more than a little wide-eyed admiration, she was by no means alone among the women of the elite. John Mandrake was an attractive young man, and the scent of power hung about him, sweet and intoxicating, like honeysuckle in the evening air. He was of medium height, slender of body, and swift and confident in action. His pale, slim face presented an intriguing paradox, combining extreme youthhe was still only seventeen years oldwith experience and authority. His eyes were dark and quick and serious, his forehead prematurely lined. His intellectual self-assurance, which had once perilously outstripped his other skills, had now been bolstered by a certain social poise. To peers and inferiors alike he was courteous and charming at all times, although also somewhat remote, as if distracted by an inner melancholy. Alongside the crude appetites and eccentricities of his fellow ministers, this subdued detachment attained an elegance that only added to his mystique. Mandrake wore his dark hair close in a military cropa conscious innovation to honor the men and women still at war. It had been a successful gesture: spies noted that, among commoners, he was the most popular magician. His haircut had thus been mimicked by many others, while his dark suits had likewise inspired a brief vogue. He no longer bothered with a tie: the collar of his shirt was casually unbuttoned. Mr. Mandrake was considered by his rivals to be formidably, indeed dangerously, talented, andfollowing his promotion to Information Ministerthey responded accordingly. But each attempted assassination had been cursorily rebuffed: djinn failed to return, booby traps rebounded on the sender, hexes snapped and withered. At last, tiring of this, Mandrake made a point of publicly challenging any hidden enemy to come forward and tackle him in magical combat. No one answered his call, and his standing rose higher than ever. He lived in an elegant Georgian town house surrounded by other elegant Georgian town houses on a broad and pleasant square. It was half a mile from Whitehall, and sufficiently far from the river to escape its smell in summer. The square was a generous expanse of beech trees and shady walkways, with an open green in the center. It was quiet and unfrequented, though never unobserved. Gray-uniformed police patrolled the perimeter by day; after dark, demons in the form of owls and nightjars flitted quietly from tree to tree. This security was due to the inhabitants of the square. It was home to several of London's greatest magicians. On the south side Mr. Collins, the recently appointed Home Secretary, dwelt in a cream-colored house decorated with fake pillars and buxom caryatids. To the northwest sprawled the grandiose pile of the War Minister, Mr. Mortensen, with a golden dome glinting upon the roof. John Mandrake's residence was less ostentatious. A slender four-story building, painted buttercup-yellow, it was reached by a row of white marble steps; white shutters bordered the tall windows. The rooms were soberly furnished, with delicately patterned wallpapers and Persian rugs upon the floors. The minister did not flaunt his status; he displayed few treasures in the reception rooms, and employed just two human servants to keep house. He slept on the third floor, in a plain, whitewashed room adjoining his library. These were his private chambers, which no one visited. On the floor below, separated from the other rooms of the house by an empty, echoing corridor lined with panels of stained wood, was Mr. Mandrake's study. Here he conducted much of his daily work. Mandrake walked along the corridor, chewing a vestige of toast. Ms. Piper tripped along behind. At the end of the corridor was a solid brass door, decorated in its center by a molded brass face of surpassing ugliness. Its bulbous brows appeared to be melting down across the eyes; the chin and nose jutted out like nutcracker handles. The magician halted and gazed at the face with deep disapproval. "I thought I told you to stop doing that," he snapped. A thin-lipped mouth opened; the jutting chin and nose knocked together indignantly. "Do what?" "Taking on such a hideous appearance. I've just had my breakfast." A section of brow lifted, allowing an eyeball to roll forward with a squelching sound.The face looked unapologetic."Sorry, mate," it said. "It's just my job." "Your job is to destroy anyone entering my study without authority. No more, no less." The door guard considered. "True. But I seek to preempt entry by scaring trespassers away. To my way of thinking, deterrence is more aesthetically satisfying than punishment." Mr. Mandrake snorted. "Trespassers apart, you'll likely frighten Ms. Piper here to death." The face shook from side to side, a process that caused the nose to wobble alarmingly. "Not so. When she comes alone, I moderate my features. I reserve the full horror for those I consider morally vicious." "But you just looked that way to me!" "The contradiction being . . . ?" Mandrake took a deep breath, passed a hand across his eyes and gestured. The face retreated into the metal to become the faintest of outlines; the door swung open. The great magician drew himself up and, ushering Ms. Piper along before him, walked into his study. It was a functional roomhigh, airy and white-painted, lit by two windows looking out upon the square. It had no excess decoration. On this particular morning thick clouds covered the sun, so Mandrake switched on the ceiling lights as he entered. Bookcases ran along the entirety of one wall, while the opposite side was bare except for a giant pin board, covered in notes and diagrams. The wooden floor was smooth and dark. Five circles were inscribed upon it, each with its own pentacle, runes, candles, and incense pots. Four of these were of a conventional size, but the fifth, nearest the window, was significantly larger: it contained within it a full-size desk, filing cabinet, and several chairs. This master-circle was joined to the smaller ones by a series of precisely drawn lines and rune-chains. Mandrake and Ms. Piper crossed into the largest circle and sat behind the desk, spreading out their papers before them. Mandrake cleared his throat. "Right then. To business. Ms. Piper, we will deal with the ordinary reports first. If you would activate the presence indicator." Ms. Piper spoke a brief incantation. Instantly the candles around the perimeters of two of the smaller circles flickered into life; wisps of smoke rose to the ceiling. In the pots beside them, flakes of incense stirred and shifted. The other two circles remained quiet. "Purip and Fritang," Ms. Piper said. The magician nodded. "Purip first." He uttered a loud com-mand.The candles in the leftmost pentacle flared; with a queasy shimmering, a form appeared in the center of the circle. It was shaped like a man and respectfully dressed in a sober suit and dark blue tie. It nodded briefly in the direction of the desk and waited. "Remind me," Mandrake said. Ms. Piper glanced at her notes. "Purip has been observing the response to our war pamphlets and other propaganda," she said. "Watching the commoners' mood." "Very well. Puripwhat have you seen? Speak." The demon bowed slightly. "There is not much new to report. The people are like a herd of Ganges meadow cattle, half-starved but complacent, unused to change or independent thought. Yet the war presses on their minds, and I believe discontent is spreading. They read your pamphlets, just as they buy your newspapers, but they do so without pleasure. It does not satisfy them." The magician scowled. "How is this discontent expressed?" "I detect it in the careful blankness of their features when your police draw near. I see it in the hardness of their eyes as they pass the recruitment booths. I watch it pile up silently with the flowers at the doors of the bereaved. Most will not declare it openly, but their anger at the war and at their government is growing." "These are just words," Mandrake said. "You give me nothing tangible." The demon shrugged its shoulders and smiled. "Revolution is not tangiblenot to begin with. The commoners barely know the concept exists, but they breathe it when they sleep and they taste it when they drink." "That's enough riddles. Continue with your work." The magician snapped his fingers; the demon sprang out of the circle and vanished. Mandrake shook his head. "All but useless. Well, we'll see what Fritang has to offer." Another command: the second circle flared into life. In a cloud of incense a new demon appeareda short, fat gentleman with a round red face and plaintive eyes. It stood blinking agitatedly in the artificial light. "At last!" it cried. "I have terrible news! It cannot wait another moment!" Mandrake knew Fritang of old. "As I understand it," he said slowly, "you have been patrolling the docks, hunting for spies. Does your news have anything to do with this?" A pause. "Indirectly . . ." the demon said. Mandrake sighed. "Go on, then." "I was carrying out your orders," Fritang said, "whenoh, how the memory appalls me!my cover was blown. Here is my account. I had been conducting inquiries in a wine shop. As I exited, I found myself surrounded by a tribe of street urchins, some scarcely taller than my knee. I was disguised as a manservant, going about my quiet business. I had made no loud noises or extravagant gestures. Nevertheless I was singled out and hit by fifteen eggs, mostly thrown with force." "What was your exact guise? Perhaps that was itself a provocation." "I was as you see me. Gray-haired, sober, and straight-backed, the model of tedious virtue." "Evidently the young scoundrels decided to waylay a man of such qualities. You were unlucky, that is all." Fritang's eyes widened and its nostrils flared. "There was more to it than that! They knew me for what I am!" "As a demon?" Mandrake flicked skeptically at a particle of dust upon his sleeve. "How could you tell?" "My suspicions were aroused by their repetitive chanting: 'Get out, get out, vile demon. We hate you and your dangling yellow crest.'" "Really? That is interesting. . . ." The magician appraised Fritang carefully through his lenses. "But what yellow crest is this? I don't see it." The demon pointed at a space above its head. "That is because you cannot see the sixth or seventh planes. On those, my crest is self-evident, resplendent as a sunflower. I may add that it is not dangling, though captivity does make it droop a little." "The sixth and seventh planes . . . and you're quite sure you didn't let your guise slip for a moment? Yes, yes." Mandrake held up a hasty hand as the demon began a vehement protest. "I'm sure you're right and I am grateful for the information. You will doubtless want to rest after your egg trauma. Be gone! You are dismissed." With a yell of delight, Fritang departed in corkscrew motion through the center of the pentacle, as if sucked noisily down a plughole. Mandrake and Ms. Piper looked at each other. "Another case," Ms. Piper said. "Children again." "Mmm." The magician leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms out behind his head. "You might just check the files, get the exact number. I must summon the demons back from Kent." He sat forward, his elbows on the desk, and made the incantation in an undertone. Ms. Piper got up and crossed to the filing cabinet on the edge of the circle. She opened the topmost drawer and drew out a bulging manila file. Returning to her seat, she removed the elastic around the file and began sifting rapidly through the documents within. The incantation ended amid a suffusion of jasmine and sweetbriar. In the right-hand pentacle a hulking form appeareda giant with blond, braided hair and a single glaring eye. Ms. Piper went on reading. The giant performed a low and complex bow. "Master, I greet you with the blood of your enemies, with their cries and lamentations! Victory is ours!" Mandrake raised an eyebrow. "So you chased them away, then." The cyclops nodded. "They fled like mice before lions. Literally, in some cases." "Indeed. That was to be expected. But did you capture any?" "We killed a good many. You should have heard them squeak! And their fleeing hooves fairly shook the earth." "Right. So you didn't capture a single one. Which was expressly what I ordered you and the others to do." Mandrake rapped his fingers on the table. "In a matter of days they will attack again. Who sent them? Prague? Paris? America? Without captives it is impossible to say. We are no further forward." The cyclops gave a crisp salute. "Well, my work is done. I am pleased to have given satisfaction." It paused. "You seem lost in thought, O master." The magician nodded. "I am debating, Ascobol, whether to subject you to the Stipples or the Unfortunate Hug. Do you have a preference?" "You could not be so cruel!" The cyclops wiggled ago-nizedly back and forth, toying with a braid of hair. "Blame Bartimaeus, not me! Once again, he took no useful part in the action, but was waylaid by a single blow. I was delayed from the chase by his loud requests to help him up from beneath a pebble. He is as weak as a tadpole and vicious with it: you should subject him to the Stipples forthwith." "And where is Bartimaeus now?" The cyclops gave a pout. "I know not. Possibly he has expired from exhaustion in the interim. He took no part in the chase." The magician sighed deeply. "Ascobolbe gone from here." He made a dismissive sign. The giant's fluting cries of thanks were abruptly cut off; it vanished in a gout of flame. Mandrake turned to his assistant. "Any joy, Piper?" She nodded. "These are the unauthorized demon sightings of the last six months. Forty-twono, forty-three now in total. As far as the demons go, there's no pattern: we've had afrits, djinn, imps, and mites all spotted. But when you look at the commoners . . ." She glanced down at the open file. "Most are children, and most of those children are young. In thirty cases the witnesses were under eighteen. What's that? Seventy percent or so. And in over half of those the witnesses were under twelve." She looked up. "They're being born with it. With the power to see." "And who knows what else." Mandrake swiveled his chair and stared out over the bare gray branches of the trees in the square. Mists still meandered around them, cloaking the ground from view. "All right," he said, "that's enough for now. It's nearly nine, and I've private work to do. Thanks for your help, Piper. I'll see you at the ministry later this morning. Don't let that door guard give you any cheek as you go out." For some moments after his assistant's departure the magician remained motionless, tapping his fingers together aimlessly. Finally he leaned over and opened a side drawer in his desk. He pulled out a small cloth bundle and set it down in front of him. Flicking the fabric aside, he revealed a bronze disc, shiny with the use of years. The magician stared down into the scrying glass, willing it into life. Something stirred in its depths. "Fetch Bartimaeus," he said. 3 With dawn, the first people returned to the little town. Hesitant, fearful, groping their way like blind men up the street, they began to inspect the damage wrought to their houses, shops, and gardens. A few Night Police came with them, ostentatiously flourishing Inferno sticks and other weapons, though the threat was long since gone. I was disinclined to move. I spun a Concealment around the chunk of chimney where I sat and removed myself from the humans' sight. I watched them passing with a baleful eye. My few hours' rest had done me little good. How could it? It had been two whole years since I'd been allowed to leave this cursed Earth; two full years since I'd last escaped the brainless thronging mass of sweet humanity. I needed more than a quiet kip on a chimney stack to deal with that, I can tell you. I needed to go home. And if I didn't, I was going to die. It is technically possible for a spirit to remain indefinitely on Earth, and many of us at one time or another have endured prolonged visits, usually courtesy of being forcibly trapped inside canopic jars, sandalwood boxes, or other arbitrary spaces chosen by our cruel masters.1 Dreadful punishment though this is, it at least has the advantage of being safe and quiet. You aren't called upon to do anything, so your increasingly weakened essence is not immediately at risk. The main threat comes from the remorseless tedium, which can lead to insanity in the spirit in question.2 1.When goaded into invoking the spell of Indefinite Confinement, magicians usually compressthe spirit into the first object they spy close at hand. I once cheeked a master a little too cleverly during his afternoon tea; before I knew it I was imprisoned inside a half-filled pot of strawberry jam and would have remained there, possibly for all eternity, had not his apprentice opened it by mistake at supper that same evening. Even so, my essence was infested with sticky little seeds for ages after. 2.The afrit Honorius was a case in point: he went mad after a hundred years' confinement in askeleton. A rather poor show; I like to think with my engaging personality I could keep myself entertained a little longer than that. My current predicament was in stark contrast. Not for me the luxury of being hidden away in a cozy lamp or amulet. Noday in, day out, I was a djinni on the street, ducking, diving, taking risks, exposing myself to danger. And each day it became a little more difficult to survive. For I was no longer the carefree Bartimaeus of old. My essence was raddled with Earth's corruption; my mind was bleary with the pain. I was slower, weaker, distracted from rny tasks. I found it hard to change form. In battle my attacks were sputtering and weakmy Detonations had the explosive power of lemonade, my Convulsions trembled like jelly in a breeze. All my strength had gone. Where once, in the previous night's scrap, I would have sent that public convenience right back at the she-pig, adding a phone box and a bus stop for good measure, now I could do nothing to resist. I was vulnerable as a kitten. A few small buildings in the face, I could stand. But already I was practically at the mercy of second-rate fops such as Ascobol, a fool with no great history to speak of.3 And if I met a foe with even a grain of power, my luck would surely end. 3.It is a curious fact that, despite our fury at being summoned into this world, spirits such as Iderive a good deal of retrospective satisfaction from our exploits. At the time, of course, we do our darnedest to avoid them, but afterward we often display a certain weary pride in the cleverest, bravest, or most jammy events on our resume. Philosophers might speculate this is because we are essentially defined by our experiences in this world, since in the Other Place we are not so easily individualized. Thus, those with long and glittering careers (e.g. me) tend to look down on those (e.g. Ascobol) whose names have been unearthed more recently, and haven't amassed so many fine achievements. In Ascobol's case, I also disliked him for his silly falsetto voice, which ill becomes an eight-foot cyclops. A weak djinni is a bad slavebad twice over, since he is both ineffective and a laughingstock. It does a magician no favors to maintain one in the world. This is the reason why they usually allow us back to the Other Place on a temporary basis, to repair our essence and renew our strength. No master in his right mind would permit a djinni to deteriorate as far as I had done. No master in his right mind . . . Well, that of course was the problem. I was interrupted in my gloomy cogitation by a stirring in midair. The girl looked up. Above the road appeared the faintest shimmeringa delicate tingling of pretty pink and yellow lights. It was invisible on the first plane, and thus went unnoticed by the people trudging up the street, but if any children had seen it, they'd probably have guessed it to be fairy dust. Which shows how wrong you can be. With an abrupt scratching noise, the lights froze and were drawn back from the middle like two curtains. Between them appeared the grinning face of a bald baby with bad acne. Its evil little eyes were red and sore, indicating an owner who kept long hours and bad habits. For a few moments they peered myopically to and fro; the baby swore under its breath and rubbed its eyes with dirty little fists. All at once it noticed my Concealment and let out a dreadful oath.4 I regarded it with cool impassivity. 4. Probably Germanic in originit involved nailing someone's entrails to an oak tree. "Oi, Bart!" the baby cried. "That you in there? Stir yourself! You're wanted." I spoke casually. "By whom?" "You know full well. And boy, are you in trouble! I reckon it's the Shriveling Fire for sure this time." "Is that so?" The girl remained firmly seated on the broken chimney and crossed her slender arms. "Well, if Mandrake wants me, he can come and get me himself." The baby grinned nastily. "Good. I was hoping you'd say that. No problem, Barty! I'll pass that on. Can't wait to see what he'll do." The imp's malicious glee irritated me.5 If I'd had a little more energy I'd have leaped up and swallowed it there and then. I contented myself with snapping off a chimney pot and throwing it with unerring aim. It struck the baby's bald fat head with a satisfactory ringing sound. 5. We were, after all, slaves together; we had both suffered long at Mandrake's hands. A bit of empathy would not, I think, have been out of place. But the imp's long confinement had rather soured its worldview, which has happened to far better spirits than it over the years. "As I thought," I said. "Hollow." The unlovely grin converted into a scowl. "You cad! Just you waitwe'll see who's laughing when I watch you burn." Propelled by a gust of ripe language, it popped back behind its curtains of glimmering lights and drew them smartly together. Twinkling softly, the lights dissipated on the breeze. The imp was gone. The girl pushed a strand of hair behind one ear, refolded her arms grimly, and settled back to wait. Now there would be consequences, which was exactly what I needed. It was time for a proper confrontation. To begin with, years before, my master and I had got along well enough. I don't mean amicably, or anything ridiculous like that, but our mutual irritation was founded on something approximating respect. During a series of early incidents, from the Lovelace conspiracy to the golem affair, I'd been forced to acknowledge Mandrake's verve and daring, his energy and even (faintly) the glimmerings of his conscience. It wasn't much, admittedly, but it made his prissiness, stubbornness, pride, and ambition a little less hard to stomach. In return, I obviously had no shortage of wonderful traits for him to admire, and anyway, he could barely get up in the morning without needing me to save his sorry skin. We coexisted in a wary state of toleration. For a year or so after the defeat of the golem and Mandrake's promotion to Head of Internal Affairs, he didn't push me around too much. He summoned me from time to time to help out with minor incidents, which I haven't got time to go into here,6 but generally speaking he left me pretty much alone. 6.If memory serves, these included the case of the Afrit, the Envelope, and the Ambassador's Wife; the affair of the Curiously Heavy Trunk; and the messy episode of the Anarchist and the Oyster. Mandrake nearly lost his life in all of those. As I say, none of them was of much interest. On the odd occasion that he did call me, we both knew where he stood. We had an agreement of sorts. I knew his birth name, and he knew I knew it. Though he threatened me with dire consequences if I told anyone, in practice he treated me with careful detachment in all our dealings. I kept his name to myself and he kept me away from the most dangerous tasks which basically boiled down to the fighting in America. Dozens of djinn were dying therethe reverberations of the losses rang harshly through the Other Placeand I was happy to have no part in it.7 7.To those of us abreast with human history, the cause of the latest war was drearily familiar.For years the Americans had refused to pay the taxes demanded of them by London. The British swiftly fell back on the oldest argument of all, and sent over an army to beat the colonists up. After initial easy victories, stagnation set in. The rebels retreated into thick woods, sending djinn out to ambush the advancing troops. Several prominent British magicians were killed; the Sixth and Seventh fleets were summoned from the China Seas to bolster the campaignbut still the fighting dribbled on. Months went by, the Empire's strength was frittered away in the American wastes, and the repercussions resounded around the globe. Time passed; Mandrake worked at his job with his usual zeal. An opportunity for promotion came, and he accepted it. He was now Information Minister, one of the great ones of the Empire.8 8.His chance came thanks to the war. The rebel guerrillas were causing the British army problems. After a year of attritional fighting the Foreign Minister, a certain Mr. Fry, visited the colonies secretly with a view to arranging a truce. Eight magicians watched him as he traveled; a host of horlas guarded his every step: the minister was invulnerable. Or so they thought. On his first night in Philadelphia he was treacherously slain by an imp concealed in his evening pie. Amid general outrage, the Prime Minister reshuffled his ministers, and Mandrake joined the ruling Council. Officially, his duties were to do with propagandadevising clever ways of selling the war to the British people. Unofficially, at the Prime Minister's behest, he continued much of his Internal Affairs police work, operating an unsavory network of surveillance djinn and human spies, which reported directly to him. His workload, which had always been severe, now became crippling. There followed a dismal sea change in my master's personality. Never exactly famous for his lighthearted banter, he became positively abrupt and antisocial, even less willing than before to shoot the breeze with a debonair djinni. But by cruel paradox, he also began to summon me more and more frequently, and for less and less reason. Why did he do so? Mainly no doubt because he wished to minimize the chances of my being summoned by another magician. His old fear, now fueled by chronic fatigue and paranoia, was that I would divulge his birth name to an enemy, rendering him vulnerable to attack. Well, fair enough, that was always possible. I might have done it. Can't say for sure. But he'd managed without me in the past, and nothing had happened to him. So I thought something else was going on too. Mandrake masked his emotions well enough, but his whole life was workremorseless and never-ending. Moreover, he was now surrounded by a gang of vicious, hot-eyed maniacs the other ministersmost of whom wished him harm. His only close associate, for a time, was the hack playwright Quentin Makepeace, as self-serving as all the rest. To survive in this friendless world, Mandrake cloaked his better qualities under layers of smarm and swank. All his old lifethe years with the Underwoods, his vulnerable existence as the boy Nathaniel, the ideals he'd once espousedwas buried away deep down. Every link with his childhood was severed, except for me. I don't think he could bring himself to break this last connection. I proposed this theory in my usual gentle way, but Mandrake was unwilling to listen to my taunts. He was a worried man.9 The American campaigns were vastly expensive, the British supply lines overstretched. With the magicians' attention diverted, other parts of the Empire had become troublesome. Foreign spies infested London like maggots in an apple. The commoners were volatile. To counter all this, Mandrake worked like a slave. 9.I'm stretching the term a bit here, I know. By now, in his mid to late teens, he might just about have passed for a man. When seen from behind. At a distance. On a very dark night. Well, not literally like a slave. That was my job. And a pretty thankless one it was too. Back at Internal Affairs, some of the assignments had been almost worthy of my talents. I'd intercepted enemy messages and deciphered them, given out false reports, trailed enemy spirits, duffed a few of them up, etc. It was simple, satisfying workI got a craftsman's pleasure from it. In addition, I helped Mandrake and the police in the search for two fugitives from the golem affair. The first of these was a certain mysterious mercenary (distinguishing features: big beard, grim expression, swanky black clothes, general invulnerability to Infernos/Detonations/pretty much everything else). He'd last been seen far away in Prague, and predictably enough we never got a whiff of him. The second was an even more nebulous character, whom no one had even set eyes on. He apparently went by the name of Hopkins, and claimed to be a scholar. He was generally suspected of masterminding the golem plot, and I'd heard he'd been involved with the Resistance too. But he might as well have been a ghost or shadow for all the substance we could pin down. We found a spidery signature in an admissions book at an old library that might have been his.That was all. The trail, such as it was, went cold. Then Mandrake became Information Minister and I was soon engaged in more depressing work, viz. pasting up adverts on 1,000 billboards across London; distributing pamphlets to 25,000 homes across ditto; corralling selected animals for public holiday "entertainments";10 supervising food, drink, and "hygiene" for same; flying back and forth across the capital for hours on end trailing pro-war banners. Now, call me picky, but I'd argue that when you think of a 5,000-year-old djinni, the scourge of civilizations and confidante of kings, certain things come to mindswashbuckling espionage, perhaps, or valiant battles, thrilling escapes and general multipurpose excitement. What you don't readily think of is that same noble djinni being forced to prepare giant vats of chili con carne for festival days, or struggling on street corners with bill-posters and pots of glue. 10.Following the Roman tradition, the magicians sought to keep the people docile with regularholidays, in which free shows were put on in all the major parks. Lots of exotic beasts from across the Empire were displayed, as were minor imps and sprites allegedly "caught" during the war. Human prisoners were paraded along the streets, or enclosed in special glass viewing globes in the St. James's Park pavilions for the populace to jeer at. Especially without being allowed to return home. Soon my periods of respite in the Other Place became so fleeting I practically got whiplash traveling there and back. Then, one day, Mandrake ceased dismissing me altogether, and that was it. I was trapped on Earth. Over the next two years I grew steadily weaker, and just when I was hitting rock bottom, scarcely able to lift a poster brush, the wretched boy began sending me out on more dangerous missions againfighting bands of enemy djinn that Britain's many enemies were using to stir up trouble. In the past I'd have had a quiet word with Mandrake, expressing my disapproval with succinct directness. But my privileged access to him was no more. He'd taken to summoning me along with a host of other slaves, giving orders en masse and sending us off like a pack of dogs. Such multiple summoning is a difficult business, requiring great mental strength on the part of the magician, but Mandrake did it daily without apparent effort, talking quietly with his assistant or even flicking through a newspaper while we stood and sweated in our circles. I did my best to get to him. Instead of using a monstrous guise like my fellow slaves (Ascobol's cyclops and Cormocodran's boar-headed behemoth were typical), I took to wearing the semblance of Kitty Jones, the Resistance girl Mandrake had persecuted years before. Her assumed death still weighed on his conscience: I knew this because he always reacted to my echo of her face with a reddening of his own. He'd get all angry and sheepish, assertive and embarrassed at the same time. Didn't make him treat me any better, mind. Well, I'd had about as much as I could stand from Mandrake. It was time to have it out with him. By refusing to go back with the imp, I obliged the magician to recall me officially, which would doubtless hurt, but was at least likely to mean he gave me the benefit of his attention for five minutes. The imp had been gone for hours. In the past I'd have got a swift response from my master, but the delay was typical of his new distractedness. I smoothed back Kitty Jones's long dark hair and cast my eye around the little rural town. Several commoners had gathered around the ruined post office and were engaged in passionate debate; they resisted the efforts of a lone policeman to make them return to their homes. No doubt about it: the people were growing restless. Which turned my thoughts to Kitty once again. Despite appearances to the contrary, she hadn't died in battle with the golem three years before. Instead, after acting with unusual selflessness and bravery to save Mandrake's worthless hide, she'd slipped quietly away. Our encounter had been brief but stimulating: her passionate opposition to injustice reminded me of someone else I'd known, a long time ago. Part of me hoped Kitty had bought a one-way ticket to somewhere safe and distant and had set up a cafe on a beach or something, out of harm's way. But deep down I knew she was still close by, working against the magicians. That knowledge rather pleased me, though she'd had no love for djinn. Whatever she was doing, I hoped she was keeping out of trouble. 4 The demon saw Kitty the moment she moved. A wide mouth opened in the stubby, featureless head; double rows of teeth descended from above and rose from the lining of the jaw. It snipped its teeth together curiously, making a noise like a thousand scissors, slicing in unison. Folds of gray-green flesh shifted on either side of the skull, revealing two golden eyes that glinted as they turned on her. Kitty did not repeat her mistake. She stood stock-still, barely six feet from the bent and snuffling head, and held her breath. The demon scraped a foot experimentally against the floor, scoring five thick claw gashes in the tiles. It made a curious crooning noise deep in its throat. It was sizing her up, she knew it was, appraising her strength, debating whether to attack. In the final moments of crisis her brain took in many irrelevant details of its guise: the flecks of gray hair about the joints, the bright metal scales upon the torso, the hands with too many fingers and too few bones. Her own limbs shook; her hands twitched as if to encourage her to run, but she fought against her fear and beat it down. Then a voice came: sweet and female, curiously inquiring. "Aren't you going to run, my dear? I can only lope along on these club feet. Ah me, so slow! Try it. You never knowyou might escape." So gentle was the voice it took Kitty a moment to realize it came from the dreadful mouth. It was the demon that spoke. Numbly she shook her head. The demon flexed six fingers in an incomprehensible gesture. "Then at least step toward me," the sweet voice said. "It would save me the torture of hobbling over to you on these poor club feet of mine. Ah me, so sore! My essence flinches from the pull of your harsh, cruel earth." Again Kitty shook her head, slower this time. The demon sighed, bowing its head as if crushed and disappointed. "My dear, you have no courtesy. I wonder whether your essence would disagree with me if I ate you. I am a martyr to indigestion. . . ." The head rose; the eyes sparkled, the teeth snipped like a thousand scissors. "I will risk it." Without pause the leg joints bent and sprang, the jaws opened, wide, wide, wide; the fingers clasped. Kitty fell back, screamed. A wall of silver shards, thin as rapiers, rose from the floor, spearing the demon as it leaped; a flash, a shower of sparksits body burst into lilac flames. It hovered in midair for a split second, twitched, emitted a single gout of smoke, then drifted softly to the floor, light as burning paper. A little voice whispered, sad, resentful: "Ah me . . ." Now it was nothing but a husk, which fell in upon itself and presently dwindled into ashes. Kitty's muscles were frozen in a rictus of terror; with a grim effort, she managed to close her mouth and blink, once, twice. She ran a trembling hand through her hair. "Great heavens," her master said from the pentacle on the opposite side of the room. "I didn't expect that. But the stupidity of these creatures is boundless. Sweep away the mess, dear Lizzie, and we can discuss the procedure. You must be very proud of your success." Dumbly, eyes still staring, Kitty managed the faintest of nods. She stepped stiff-legged from the circle and went to fetch the broom. "Well, you're a clever girl and no mistake." Her master was sitting on the sofa nearest the window, sipping from a china cup. "And you make good tea too, which is a blessing on a day like this one." Rain battered the windowpanes and gusted haphazardly across the street. The wind whined in the passages of the house. Kitty drew her feet up out of the draft skirling across the floor and took a swig of strong brown tea from her mug. The old man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yes, a very satisfactory summons. Not bad at all. And most interesting for mewho'd have thought the true form of a succubus looked like that! Gracious! Now, Lizzie, did you notice that you slightly mispronounced the Restraining Syllable, right at the end? Not enough to break the safety wall, but the creature was emboldened, thought it would try its luck. Fortunately, everything else you did was perfect." Kitty was still shaking. She sank back among the cushions of the ancient sofa. "If I'd . made any other mistakes, sir," she said haltingly, "what would have?" "Oh, graciousI wouldn't worry your head about that.You didn't, and that's what counts. Have a chocolate digestive." He indicated the plate between them. "Settles the stomach, I find." She took a biscuit, dunked it in her tea. "But why did it attack me?" she said, frowning. "Surely it must have been able to tell that the pentacle's defenses would come into force." Her master chuckled. "Who can say? Perhaps it hoped you would flinch out of the circle as it leaped: that would have instantly destroyed its prison and allowed it to devour you. Notice that it had already tried two childish stratagems to persuade you to leave the pentacle. Hum, it was not a sophisticated djinni. But perhaps it had grown tired of bondage; perhaps it simply wished to die." He eyed the dregs at the bottom of his teacup musingly. "Who can tell? We understand so little about demons, about what makes them tick. They are hard to fathom. Is there any more in the pot?" Kitty inspected it. "Nope. I'll make some more." "If you would, dear Lizzie, if you would. You might pass me that copy of Trismegistus on your way out. He has some interesting notes on succubi, if I recall." Chill air bit into her as she entered the passage and stomped down to the kitchen. There, leaning close to the blue gas flame hissing beneath the kettle, her self-control finally slackened. She began to trembleproper heavy body-shuddering shakes that made her grasp the work surface for support. She closed her eyes. The demon's open jaws plummeted toward her. She opened them again at speed. A paper bag of fruit sat beside the sink. Mechanically she took an apple and ate it, gulping it down desperately in great rough chunks. She took another, and finished it more slowly, staring sightlessly at the wall. Her trembling subsided. The kettle whistled. Jakob was right, she thought, rinsing her mug under an icy stream of water. I'm an idiot. Nobody but a fool would do this. Nobody but a fool. But a fool could still be lucky. And so far, for three long years, her luck had held. Since the day when her death had been reported and accepted, and the authorities had sealed their file on her with a blob of hot black wax, Kitty had never once left London. No matter that her good friend Jakob Hyrnek, safe with relatives in Bruges and working as a jeweler, sent her imploring epistles weekly, begging her to come and live with him. No matter that his family urged her, during their secretive, irregular meetings, to leave the dangers of the city and start her life afresh. No matter that her common sense cried out to her that she could do nothing useful on her own. Kitty was undeterred. In London she remained. Stubborn she still might be, but her old recklessness was now swathed with caution. Everything from her appearance to her daily routine was carefully judged to avoid arousing the suspicions of the authorities. This was essential, since for Kitty Jones existence was itself a crime. To conceal herself from the eyes of those few who knew her, she had cropped her dark hair short and wore it in a bob beneath her cap. She kept tight rein on her mobile features, no matter what the provocation; she did her best to be dull-eyed, stone-faced, nothing but a numeral in a crowd. Though perhaps a little thinner in the face from overwork and lack of inessential food, though perhaps a little lined around the eyes, she still possessed the same mercurial energies that had borne her into the Resistance and out again, alive. They supported her in pursuit of a certain ambitious project, and in the maintenance of no fewer than two false identities. She had taken lodgings on the third floor of a dilapidated West London town house, in a street near the munitions factories. Above and below her bedsit were several other rooms that had been crammed by the enterprising landlord into the shell of the old building. Each was occupied, but save for the caretaker, a diminutive man who lived in the basement, Kitty had not spoken to any of the tenants. She passed them on the stairs sometimes: men and women, old and young, all living lives of isolation and anonymity. She was satisfied with this: she both liked and needed the solitude the house afforded her. The contents of her room were few. A small white cooker, a fridge, a cupboard, and, in a corner, behind a dangling sheet, a sink and toilet. Below the window, which looked out over a tangle of walls and unkempt yards to the house backs opposite, sat a confusion of jumbled sheets and pillows: Kitty's bed. Beside this were neatly stacked her worldly possessions: clothes, tins of food, newspapers, recent pamphlets about the war. Her most precious items were variously hidden beneath the mattress (a silver throwing disc wrapped in a handkerchief), in the cistern of her toilet (a sealed plastic bag containing the documents she needed to maintain her new identities), and at the bottom of her laundry bag (several thick books bound in leather). Being of practical disposition, Kitty did not regard her room with great affection. It was a place to sleep and little more. She did not spend much time in it. Nevertheless, it was her home, and she had lived there for three years. The name she had given the landlord was Clara Bell. This coincided with the documents that she carried around with her most oftenthe stamped identity card and the residence, health and education papers that mapped out her recent past. They had been forged for her with great skill by old Mr. Hyrnek, Jakob's father, who had also created a separate set for her under the name of Lizzie Temple. She did not have any papers with her real name. Only at night, when she lay back in the bed with curtain drawn and the single light switched off, did she become Kitty Jones once more. It was an identity swathed in darkness and dreams. For some months following Jakob's departure, Clara Bell had worked at the Hyrneks' printing factory, delivering newly bound books and earning a basic wage.This did not last long Kitty was reluctant to imperil her friends by too close an association, and had quickly taken on an evening job at a pub beside the river. By then, however, her humdrum errands had provided her with a most unusual opportunity. One morning Kitty had been summoned to Mr. Hyrnek's office and handed a package to deliver. It was heavy, smelled of glue and leather, and was methodically wrapped in string. It was labeled: MR. H. BUTTON, MAGICIAN. Kitty inspected the address. "Earls Court," she said. "Not many magicians there." Mr. Hyrnek was attending to his pipe with a blackened penknife and piece of cloth. "Among our beloved rulers," he said, flicking out a fragment of burned soot, "this Button is regarded as an incurable eccentric. He's skilled enough, by all accounts, but has never attempted to rise through the political ranks. Used to work as a librarian at the London Library, until he had an accident. Lost a leg. Now just reads, collects books where he can, writes a bit. Told me once that he was interested in knowledge for its own sake. Hence no money. Hence Earls Court. Take it along, will you?" Kitty had done so, and found Mr. Button's house in a region of gray-white villas, tall and heavy, with immense pillars supporting ostentatious porches above the doors. Once they had been occupied by the rich; now the district carried a melancholy aura of poverty and decay. Mr. Button lived at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac, in a house shrouded by dark laurels. Kitty had rung the bell and waited on a stained and dirty step. No one answered; she noticed then that the door was hanging ajar. She peered inside: a dilapidated hall, made narrow by stacks of books against the walls. She coughed uncertainly. "Hello?" "Yes, yes, come in!" A muffled voice echoed faintly. "At speed, if you will. I am a little inconvenienced." Kitty hastened forward, and in a neighboring room, rendered indistinct by dust-caked curtains drawn across the windows, discovered a twitching boot protruding from beneath a colossal pile of fallen books. Exploring further, she came upon the head and neck of an elderly gentleman, vainly struggling to wriggle free. Without preamble, Kitty made a rapid excavation; in a few minutes Mr. Button was settled in a nearby chair, a little crumpled and very out of breath. "Thank you, my dear. Would you mind passing me my stick? I was using it to extract a book, which I fear caused all the trouble." Kitty rescued a long ash stick from among the debris and handed it to the magician. He was a small and fragile man, bright-eyed, thin-faced, with a disordered mop of straight gray hair hanging low over his forehead. He wore a checked shirt without a tie, a patched green cardigan, and gray trousers, scuffed and stained. One trouser leg was missing; it had been folded over and sewn shut just below the torso. Something about his appearance disconcerted her . It took her a moment to realize she had never seen a magician so informally dressed. "I was simply trying to get hold of a volume of Gibbon," Mr. Button was saying, "which I spied at the bottom of a pile. I was careless and lost my balance. There was such a landslide! You cannot imagine how taxing it is to find anything in this place." Kitty looked around. Across the room innumerable stacks of books rose like stalagmites from the ancient carpet. Many of these columns were as tall as her; others had half capsized against each other, forming precarious arches swathed in dust. Books rested high upon a table and filled the cupboards of a dresser; they receded in unguessed-at numbers through an open door and deep into a side room. A few narrow walkways remained clear, connecting the windows with two sofas squeezed before a fireplace and the exit to the hall. "I think I've got some idea," she said. "Anyway, here's something to add to your problem." She picked up her package. "From Hyrnek's." The old man's eyes sparkled. "Good! Good! That would be my edition of Ptolemy's Apocrypha, newly bound in calf hide. Karel Hyrnek is a marvel. My dear, you have improved my day twice over! I insist you stay for tea." Within half an hour Kitty had learned three things: that the old gentleman was garrulous and affable, that he possessed a fine supply of tea and spice cake, and that his need for an assistant was greatly pressing. "My last helper left me a fortnight ago," he said, sighing heavily. "Joined up to fight for Britain. I tried to talk him out of it, of course, but his heart was set on going. He believed what he was toldglory, good prospects, promotion, all that. He'll be dead soon, I expect. Yes, do have that last piece of cake, dear. You need feeding up. It's all very well for him, going off to die, but I fear my studies have been severely restricted." "What studies are those, sir?" Kitty asked. "Researches, dear. History of magic and other things. A fascinating area, sadly neglected. It's a crying shame that so many libraries are being closedonce again the government is acting out of fear. Well, I've saved a good many important books on the subject, and I wish to catalog and index them. It is my ambition to prepare a definitive list of all surviving djinn existing records are so haphazard and contradictory . . . but as you have seen, I am not even dextrous enough to research my own collection, thanks to this impediment. . . ." He shook a fist at his nonexistent leg. "Erm, how did it happen, sir?" Kitty ventured. "If you don't mind my asking." "My leg?" The old gentleman lowered his brows, glanced left and right, and looked up at Kitty. He spoke in a sinister whisper. "Marid." "A marid? But aren't they the most?" "The most powerful type of commonly summoned demon. Correct." Mr. Button's smile was slightly smug. "I'm no slouch, my dear. Not that any of my colleagues"he spoke the word with vehement distaste"would admit as such, blast them. I'd like to see Rupert Devereaux or Carl Mortensen do as well." He sniffed, settled back into his sofa. "The irony of it was that I just wanted to ask it a few questions. Wasn't going to enslave it at all. Anyway, I'd forgotten to add a Tertiary Fettering; the thing broke out and had my leg off before the automatic Dismissal set in." He shook his head. "That's the penalty of curiosity, my dear. Well, I get by somehow. I'll find another assistant, if the Americans don't kill our entire population of young males." He took a tetchy bite of his spice cake. Even before he had swallowed, Kitty had made up her mind. "I'll help you out, sir." The old magician blinked at her. "You?" "Yes, sir. I'll be your assistant." "I'm sorry, my dear, but I thought you worked for Hyrnek's." "Oh, I do, sir, but only temporarily. I'm looking for other work. I'm very interested in books and magic, sir. Really I am. I've always wanted to learn about it." "Indeed. Do you speak Hebrew?" "No, sir." "Or Czech? Or French? Or Arabic?" "No, none of those, sir." "Indeed . . ." For a moment Mr. Button's face became less amiable, less courteous. He looked at her sidelong, out of half-shut eyes. "And the fact of the matter is, of course, that you are nothing but a commoners girl. . . ." Kitty nodded brightly. "Yes, sir. But I've always believed that misfortunes of birth shouldn't stand in the way of talent. I'm energetic and quick, and nimble too." She gestured around the maze of dusty piles. "I'll be able to get hold of any book you like, fast as thinking. From the bottom of the farthest stack." She grinned, and took a sip of tea. The old man was rubbing his chin with small, plump fingers, muttering to himself. "A commoner's child . . . unvetted . it is highly unorthodox . in fact, the authorities expressly forbid it. But well, after allwhy not?" He tittered to himself. "Why shouldn't I? They've seen fit to neglect me all these years. It would be an interesting experiment . . . and they'd never know, blast them." He looked at Kitty again, eyes narrowed. "You know I couldn't pay you anything." "That's all right, sir. I'm, erm, interested in knowledge for its own sake. I'll get other work. I could help you out whenever you needed it, part-time." "Very well, then, very well." Mr. Button extended a small pink hand. "We shall see how it works out. Neither of us has any contractual obligation to the other, you understand, and we are free to terminate the relationship at any time. Mindif you are lazy or dishonest I shall raise a horla to shrivel you. But goodness, where are my manners? I've not yet asked your name." Kitty selected an identity. "Lizzie Temple, sir." "Well, Lizzie, very glad to have met you. I hope we shall get along well." And so they had. From the beginning Kitty made herself indispensable to Mr. Button. To start with, her chores were entirely concerned with navigating her way about his dark and cluttered house, accessing obscure books in distant stacks, and bringing them out to him unscathed. This was easier said than done. She frequently emerged into the lamplight of the magician's study wheezing and covered in dust, or bruised by a nasty book-fall, only to be told she had the wrong volume, or an incorrect edition, and be sent back to begin again. But Kitty stuck with it. Gradually she became adept at locating the volumes Mr. Button required; she began to recognize the names, the covers, the methods of binding employed by different printers in different cities across the centuries. For his part, the magician was highly satisfied: his helper spared him much inconvenience. So the months passed. Kitty took to asking brief questions about some of the works she helped locate. Sometimes Mr. Button gave succinct and breezy answers; more often he suggested she look up the solution herself. When the book was written in English, this Kitty was able to do. She borrowed some of the easier, more general volumes and took them home to her bedsit. Her nocturnal readings prompted further questions to Mr. Button, who directed her to other texts. In this way, directed by caprice and whimsical inclination, Kitty began to learn. After a year of such progress Kitty began going on errands for the magician. She procured official passes and visited libraries across the capital; she made occasional forays to herbalists and to suppliers of magical goods. Mr. Button had no imps at his service, and did not practice much actual magic. His interest lay in the cultures of the past, and the history of contact with demons. Occasionally he summoned a minor entity to question it on a particular historical point. "But it's a difficult business with one leg," he told Kitty. "Summoning's bad enough with two of 'em, but when you're trying to draw the circle straight and your sticks slipping and you keep dropping the chalk, it's hellish tricky. I don't risk it often anymore." "I could give you a hand, sir," Kitty suggested. "You'd have to teach me the basics, of course." "Oh, that would be impossible. Far too dangerous for us both." Kitty found Mr. Button quite adamant on this, and it took her several months of pestering to win him over. Finally, to gain a moment's peace, he allowed her to fill the bowls with incense, hold the pin in position while he inscribed the circles' arcs, and light the pigs-fat candles. She stood behind his chair when the demon appeared and was questioned. Afterward she helped douse the scorch marks left behind. Her calm demeanor impressed the magician; soon she was actively assisting in all his summonings. As in all things, Kitty learned swiftly. She began to memorize some of the common Latin formulae, although she remained ignorant of the language. Mr. Button, who found active work taxing on his health, and who was also inclined to laziness, began to entrust his assistant with more and more procedures. In his cursory way, he helped fill in some of the gaps in her knowledge, although he refused to instruct her formally. "The actual craft," he would say, "is simplicity itself, but it has infinite variations. We shall always keep to basics: summon the creature, keep it constrained, send it off again. I have neither the time nor the inclination to teach you all the subtleties." "That's fine, sir," Kitty said. She had neither the time nor the inclination to learn them. A basic practical knowledge of summoning was all that she required. The years passed. The war dragged on. Mr. Button's books were neatly sorted, cataloged, and stacked by author. His assistant was invaluable to him. Now he could direct her to summon foliots and even minor djinn while he sat in comfort watching. It was a highly satisfactory arrangement. Andbarring the odd frightKitty found it satisfactory too. With the kettle boiled at last, Kitty made the tea and returned to the magician, who was sitting as before in the sofa's depths, studying his book. Mr. Button gave a grunt of thanks as she set the teapot down. "Trismegistus notes," he said, "that succubi tend to recklessness when summoned, and are often impelled to self-destruction. They can be placated by placing citrus fruits among the incense, or by the soft playing of panpipes. Hum, they are sensual beasts evidently." He scratched his stump absently through his trousers. "Oh, I found something else too, Lizzie. What was that demon you were asking about the other day?" "Bartimaeus, sir." "Yes, that's it. Trismegistus has a reference to him, in one of his tables of Antique Djinn. Somewhere in the appendices, you'll find." "Oh, really, sir? That's great. Thank you." "Gives a little of his summoning history. Brief. You won't find it terribly interesting." "No, sir. I very much doubt it." She held out a hand. "Do you mind if I take a look?" Part Two Alexandria: 126 B.C. In a hot morning in midsummer, a sacred bull broke free of its compound beside the river; it rampaged up among the fields, biting at flies and swinging its horns at anything that moved. Three men who tried to secure it were badly injured; the bull plunged on among the reeds and broke out onto a path where children played. As they screamed and scattered, it paused as if in doubt. But the sun upon the water and the whiteness of the children's clothes enraged it. Head down, it charged upon the nearest girl, and would have gored or trampled her to death had not Ptolemy and I been strolling down that way. The prince raised a hand. I acted. The bull stopped, mid-charge, as if it had collided with a wall. Head reeling, eyes crossed, it capsized into the dust, where it remained until attendants secured it with ropes and led it back into its field. Ptolemy waited while his aides calmed the children, then resumed his constitutional. He did not refer to the incident again. Even so, by the time we returned to the palace a flock of rumors had taken flight and was swooping and swirling about his head. By nightfall everyone in the city, from the lowest beggar to the snootiest priest of Ra, had heard or misheard something of it. As was my wont, I had wandered late among the evening markets, listening to the rhythms of the city, to the ebb and flow of information carried on its human tide. My master was sitting cross-legged on the roof of his quarters, intermittently scratching at his papyrus strip and gazing out toward the darkened sea. I landed on the ledge in lapwing's form and fixed him with a beady eye. "It's all over the bazaars," I said. "You and the bull." He dipped his stylus into the ink. "What matter?" "Perhaps no matter; perhaps much. But the people whis-per." "What do they whisper?" "That you are a sorcerer who consorts with demons." He laughed and completed a neat numeral. "Factually, they are correct." The lapwing drummed its claws upon the stone. "I protest! The term 'demon' is fallacious and abusive in the extreme!"1 1. Note my restraint here. My standard of conversation was pretty high in those days, on account of conversing with Ptolemy. Something about him made you disinclined to be too vulgar, blasphemous, or impudent, and even made me rein in my use of estuary Egyptian slang. It wasn't that he forbade any of it, more that you ended up feeling a bit guilty, as if you'd let yourself down. Harsh invective was a no-no, too. It's surprising I had anything left to say. Ptolemy put down his stylus. "It is a mistake to be too concerned with names and titles, my dear Rekhyt. Such things are never more than rough approximations, matters of convenience. The people speak thus out of ignorance. It's when they understand your nature and are still abusive that you will have to worry." He grinned at me sidelong. "Which is always possible, let's face it." I raised my wings a little, allowing the sea wind to ruffle through my feathers. "Generally you come off well in the accounts so far. But mark my words, they'll be saying you let the bull loose soon." He sighed. "In all honesty, reputationfor good or ill doesn't much bother me." "It may not bother you" I said darkly,"but there are those in the palace for whom the issue is life and death." "Only those who drown in the stew of politics," he said. "And I am nothing to them." "May it be so," I said darkly. "May it be so. What are you writing now?" "Your description of the elemental walls at the margins of the world. So take that scowl off your beak and tell me more of it." Well, I let it go at that. Arguing with Ptolemy never did much good. From the beginning he was a master of curious enthusiasms. The accumulation of wealth, wives, and bijou Nile-front propertiesthose time-honored preoccupations of most Egyptian magiciansdid not enthrall him. Knowledge, of a kind, was what he was after, but it was not the sort that turns city walls to dust and tramples on the necks of the defeated foe. It had a more otherworldly cast. In our first encounter he threw me with it. I was a pillar of whirling sand, a fashionable getup in those days. My voice boomed like rock-falls echoing up a gully. "Name your desire, mortal." "Djinni," he said, "answer me a question." The sand whirled faster."! know the secrets of the earth and the mysteries of the air; I know the key to the minds of women.2 What do you wish? Speak." 2. Patently all lies. Especially the last bit. "What is essence?" The sand halted in midair. "Eh?" "Your substance. What exactly is it? How does it work?" "Well, um . . ." "And the Other Place. Tell me of it. Is time there synchronous with ours? What form do its denizens take? Have they a king or leader? Is it a dimension of solid substance, or a whirling inferno, or otherwise? What are the boundaries between your realm and this Earth, and to what degree are they permeable?" Um . . . In short, Ptolemy was interested in us. Djinn. His slaves. Our inner nature, that is, not the usual surface guff.The most hideous shapes and provocations made him yawn, while my attempts to mock his youth and girlish looks merely elicited hearty chuckles. He would sit in the center of his pentacle, stylus on his knee, listening with rapt attention, ticking me off when I introduced a more than usually obvious fib, and frequently interrupting to clarify some ambiguity. He used no Stipples, no Lances, no other instruments of correction. His summonings rarely lasted more than a few hours. To a hardened djinni like me, who had a fairly accurate idea of the vicious ways of humans, it was all a bit disconcerting. I was one of a number of djinn and lesser spirits regularly summoned. The normal routine never deviated: summons, chat, frenzied scribbling by the magician, dismissal. In time, my curiosity was aroused. "Why do you do this?" I asked him curtly. "Why all these questions? All this writing?" "I have read most of the manuscripts in the Great Library," the boy said. "They have much about summoning, chastisement, and other practicalities, but almost nothing about the nature of demons themselves. Your personality, your own desires. It seems to me that this is of the first importance. I intend to write the definitive work on the subject, a book that will be read and admired forever. To do this, I must ask many questions. Does my ambition surprise you?" "Yes, in truth. Since when has any magician cared about our sufferings? There's no reason why you should. It's not in your interests." "Oh, but it is. If we remain ignorant, and continue to enslave you rather than understand you, trouble will come from it sooner or later. That's my feeling." "There is no alternative to this slavery. Each summons wraps us in chains." "You are too pessimistic, djinni. Traders tell me of shamans far off among the northern wastes who leave their own bodies to converse with spirits in another world. To my mind, that is a much more courteous proceeding. Perhaps we too should learn this technique." I laughed harshly. "It will never happen. That route is far too perilous for the corn-fed priests of Egypt. Save your energy, boy. Forget your futile questions. Dismiss me and have done." Despite rny skepticism, he could not be dissuaded. A year went by; little by little my lies dried up. I began to tell him truth. In turn, he told me something of himself. He was the nephew of the king. At birth, twelve years before, he had been a frail and delicate runtling, coughing at the nipple, squealing like a kitten. His discomfort cast a pall over the ceremony of naming: the guests departed