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The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel / Êîëüöî Ñîëîìîíà: Èñòîðèÿ Áàðòåìèóñà (by Jonathan Stroud, 2010) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel / Êîëüöî Ñîëîìîíà: Èñòîðèÿ Áàðòåìèóñà (by Jonathan Stroud, 2010) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel / Êîëüöî Ñîëîìîíà: Èñòîðèÿ Áàðòåìèóñà (by Jonathan Stroud, 2010) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì

Âìåñòå ñ ãåðîÿìè êíèãè îòïðàâëÿåìñÿ ñ äîæäëèâîé Àíãëèè âî âðåìåíà ïðàâèòåëüñòâà ñàìîãî öàðÿ Ñîëîìîíà. Ïðè÷èíîé òîìó âñå òîò æå Áàðìàòåóñ. Îí îêàçûâàåòñÿ ñûãðàë íåìàëîâàæíóþ ðîëü. Îäèí íåâåðíûé øàã è èñòîðèÿ óæå áû íå áûëà ïðåæíåé. Ïîìîãàÿ öàðþ îòñëåäèòü òåõ, êòî íàïàäàåò íà òîâàð â ïóñòûíè, äæèíí ïîïàäàåò â ëîâêèå óçû Àøìèðû. Îíà äåéñòâóåò ðàñ÷åòëèâî è ïðîäóìàíî.  êîíöå åå ïëàíà Áàðìàòåóñ äîëæåí óáèòü Ñîëîìîíà!

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Íàçâàíèå:
The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel / Êîëüöî Ñîëîìîíà: Èñòîðèÿ Áàðòåìèóñà (by Jonathan Stroud, 2010) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì
Ãîä âûïóñêà àóäèîêíèãè:
2010
Àâòîð:
Jonathan Stroud
Èñïîëíèòåëü:
Simon Jones
ßçûê:
àíãëèéñêèé
Æàíð:
ðîìàí, ôàíòàñòèêà, ôýíòåçè
Óðîâåíü ñëîæíîñòè:
Intermediate
Äëèòåëüíîñòü àóäèî:
12:37:47
Áèòðåéò àóäèî:
64 kbps

Ñëóøàòü îíëàéí The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel / Êîëüöî Ñîëîìîíà: Èñòîðèÿ Áàðòåìèóñà àóäèîêíèãó íà àíãëèéñêîì ÿçûêå:

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Ñêà÷àòü audiobook (MP3) áåñïëàòíî ñ ôàéëîîáìåííèêà.


×èòàòü êíèãó íà àíãëèéñêîì îíëàéí:

(×òîáû ïåðåâîäèòü ñëîâà íà ðóññêèé ÿçûê è äîáàâëÿòü â ñëîâàðü äëÿ èçó÷åíèÿ, ùåëêàåì ìûøêîé íà íóæíîå ñëîâî).


A Note on Magic MAGICIANS Since history began in the mud-brick cities of Mesopotamia more than five thousand years ago, rulers of great nations have always used magicians to help maintain their rule. The pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon all relied on magic to protect their cities, strengthen their armies and cast their enemies down. Modern governments, though cloaking the fact behind careful propaganda, continue this same policy. Magicians do not have magical abilities themselves, but derive their power from the control of spirits, which do. They spend many years in lonely study, mastering the techniques that will allow them to summon these fearsome entities and survive. Successful magicians are consequently always clever and physically robust. Because of the dangers of their craft, they are also usually ruthless, secretive and self-serving. For most summonings, the magician stands inside a carefully drawn circle of protection, within which is a pentacle, or five-sided star. Certain complex incantations are spoken, and the spirit is drawn from its far dimension. Next, the magician recites special words of Binding. If this is done correctly, the spirit becomes the magician’s slave. If a mistake is made, the protective power of the circle is broken, and the unhappy magician is at the spirit’s mercy. Once a slave is bound, it must obey its master’s instructions until its task is complete. When this time comes (it may take hours, days or years), the rejoicing spirit is formally dismissed. In general, spirits resent their captivity, no matter what its duration, and seek any opportunity to do their masters harm. Most sensible magicians therefore keep their slaves for as short a time as possible, just in case their luck runs out. SPIRITS All spirits are formed of essence, a fluid, ever-shifting substance. In their own dimension, known as the Other Place, they have no solid form, but on Earth they must take some kind of definite guise. However, higher spirits are able to change shape at will: this gives them some respite from the pain that Earth’s cruel solidity causes to their essence. There are five main categories of spirit. These are: 1.Imps: The lowliest type. Imps are scurrilous and impertinent and their magic is humble. Most cannot change shape at all. Nevertheless they are easily directed and present no great danger to the magician. For this reason they are frequently summoned, and used for minor tasks such as scrubbing floors, clearing middens, carrying messages and keeping watch. 2.Foliots: More potent than imps, but not as dangerous as djinn, foliots are favoured by magicians for their stealth and cunning. Being reasonably adept at changing shape, they make excellent spies. 3.Djinn: The largest class of spirit, and the hardest to summarize. No two seem alike. They lack the raw power of the greatest spirits, but frequently exceed them in cleverness and audacity. They excel at shape-shifting, and have a vast arsenal of spells at their disposal. A djinni is the favoured slave for most competent magicians. 4.Afrits: Strong as bulls, imposing in stature and arrogant as kings, afrits are blunt and irascible by temperament. They are less subtle than other spirits, and their might frequently exceeds their intelligence. Monarchs throughout history have used them as vanguards in battle, and as guardians of their gold. 5.Marids: The most perilous and least common of the five types. Supremely confident in their magical power, marids sometimes appear in discreet or gentle guises, only to suddenly switch to vast and hideous shapes. Only the greatest magicians dare summon them. All magicians fear their spirit-slaves, and ensure their obedience by means of inventive punishments. For this reason most spirits bow to the inevitable. They serve their masters as efficiently as possible and – despite their natural instincts – remain outwardly zealous and polite, for fear of repercussions. This is what most spirits do. There are exceptions. The Main Characters JERUSALEM Solomon King of Israel Hiram Solomon’s vizier Khaba A magician – in service to King Solomon Ezekiel A magician – in service to King Solomon And various other magicians, servants and wives MARIB Balkis Queen of Sheba Asmira A captain of the guard THE SPIRITS And numerous other marids, afrits, djinn, foliots and imps This story takes place in and around Jerusalem, in 950 BC. Part One 1 Sunset above the olive groves. The sky, like a bashful youth kissed for the first time, blushed with a peach-pink light. Through the open windows came the gentlest of breezes, carrying the fragrances of evening. It stirred the hair of the young woman standing alone and pensive in the centre of the marble floor, and caused her dress to flutter against the contours of her lean, dark limbs. She lifted a hand; slim fingers toyed with a ringlet of hair beside her neck. ‘Why so shy, my lord?’ she whispered. ‘Come near and let me look on you.’ In the opposite pentacle the old man lowered the wax cylinder in his hand and glared at me with his single eye. ‘Great Jehovah, Bartimaeus! You don’t think that’s going to work on me?’ My eyelashes quivered beguilingly. ‘I’ll dance too, if you’ll only step a little closer. Come on, spoil yourself. I’ll do you the Twirl of the Seven Veils.’ The magician spoke with irritation. ‘No, thank you. And you can stop that too.’ ‘Stop what?’ ‘That … that jiggling about. Every now and then you—There! You did it again!’ ‘Oh, come on, sailor, live a little. What’s putting you off?’ My master uttered an oath. ‘Possibly your clawed left foot. Possibly your scaly tail. Also possibly the fact that even a new-born babe would know not to step outside his protective circle when requested to do so by a wicked, duplicitous spirit such as yourself. Now silence, cursed creature of air, and abandon your pathetic temptations, or I shall strike you sideways with such a Pestilence as even great Egypt never suffered!’ The old boy was quite excited, all out of breath, his white hair a disordered halo around his head. From behind his ear he took a stylus and grimly made a notation on the cylinder. ‘There’s a black mark there for you, Bartimaeus,’ he said. ‘Another one. If this line gets filled, you’ll be off the special allowances list for good, you understand. No more roasted imps, no time off, nothing. Now, I’ve a job for you.’ The maiden in the pentacle folded her arms. She wrinkled her dainty nose. ‘I’ve just done a job.’ ‘Well, now you’ve got another one.’ ‘I’ll do it when I’ve had a rest.’ ‘You’ll do it this very night.’ ‘Why should I do it? Send Tufec or Rizim.’ A bright jag of scarlet lightning issued from the forefinger of the old man, looped across the intervening space and set my pentacle aflame, so that I wailed and danced with mad abandon. The crackling ceased; the pain in my feet lessened. I came to an ungainly standstill. ‘You were right, Bartimaeus,’ the old man chuckled. ‘You do dance well. Now, are you going to give me any more backchat? If so, another notch upon the cylinder it shall be.’ ‘No, no – there’s no need for that.’ To my great relief the stylus was slowly replaced behind the aged ear. I clapped my hands vigorously. ‘So, another job, you say? What joy! I’m humbled that you have selected me from among so many other worthy djinn. What brought me to your attention tonight, great Master? The ease with which I slew the giant of Mount Lebanon? The zeal with which I put the Canaanite rebels to flight? Or just my general reputation?’ The old man scratched his nose. ‘None of that; rather it was your behaviour last night, when the watch-imps observed you in the form of a mandrill swaggering through the undergrowth below the Sheep Gate, singing lewd songs about King Solomon and loudly extolling your own magnificence.’ The maiden gave a surly shrug. ‘Might not have been me.’ ‘The words “Bartimaeus is best”, repeated at tedious length, suggest otherwise.’ ‘Well, all right. So I’d had too many mites at supper. No harm done.’ ‘No harm? The Watch reported it to their supervisor, who reported it to me. I reported it to High Magician Hiram, and I believe it has since come to the ears of the king himself.’ His face became all prim and starchy. ‘He is not pleased.’ I blew out my cheeks. ‘Can’t he tell me so in person?’ The magician’s eye bulged; it looked like an egg emerging from a chicken.1 ‘You dare suggest,’ he cried, ‘that great Solomon, King of all Israel, master of all lands from the Gulf of Aqaba to the broad Euphrates, would deign to speak with a sulphurous slave such as you? The idea! In all my years I have heard nothing so offensive—!’ ‘Oh, come, come. Look at the state of you. Surely you must have.’ ‘Two more notches, Bartimaeus, for your effrontery and cheek.’ Out came the cylinder; the stylus scratched upon it furiously. ‘Now then, enough of your nonsense. Listen to me closely. Solomon desires new wonders for his collection. He has commanded his magicians to search the known world for objects of beauty and power. At this very moment, in all the wall-towers of Jerusalem, my rivals conjure demons no less hideous than you and send them out like fiery comets to plunder ancient cities, north, south, east and west. All hope to astound the king with the treasures they secure. But they will be disappointed, Bartimaeus, will they not, for we will bring him the finest prize of all. You understand me?’ The pretty maiden curled her lip; my long, sharp teeth glinted wetly. ‘Grave-robbing again? Solomon should be doing seedy stuff like this himself. But no, as usual he can’t be bothered to lift his finger and use the Ring. How lazy can you get?’ The old man gave a twisted smile. The black hollow of his lost eye seemed to suck in light. ‘Your opinions are interesting. So much so that I shall depart right now and report them to the king. Who knows? Perhaps he will choose to lift his finger and use the Ring on you.’ There was a slight pause, during which the shadows of the room grew noticeably deeper, and a chill ran up my shapely spine. ‘No need,’ I growled. ‘I’ll get him his precious treasure. Where do you want me to go, then?’ My master gestured to the windows, through which the cheery lights of lower Jerusalem winked and shone. ‘Fly east to Babylon,’ he said. ‘One hundred miles south-east of that dread city, and thirty miles south of the Euphrates’s current course, lie certain mounds and ancient diggings, set about with fragments of wind-blown wall. The local peasants avoid the ruins for fear of ghosts, while any nomads keep their flocks beyond the furthest tumuli. The only inhabitants of the region are religious zealots and other madmen, but the site was not always so desolate. Once it had a name.’ ‘Eridu,’ I said softly. ‘I know.’2 ‘Strange must be the memories of a creature such as you, who has seen such places rise and fall …’ The old man gave a shudder. ‘I do not like to dwell on it. But if you recall the location, so much the better! Search its ruins, locate its temples. If the scrolls speak truly, there are many sacred chambers there, containing who knows what antique glory! With luck, some of the treasures will have remained undisturbed.’ ‘No doubt about that,’ I said, ‘given its guardians.’ ‘Ah yes, the ancients will have protected them well!’ The old man’s voice rose to a dramatic pitch; his hands made eloquent fluttering gestures of dismay. ‘Who knows what lurks there still? Who knows what prowls the ruins? Who knows what hideous shapes, what monstrous forms might— Will you stop doing that with your tail? It’s not hygienic.’ I drew myself up. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘I get the picture. I’ll go to Eridu and see what I can find. But when I get back I want to be dismissed straight off. No arguments, no shilly-shallying. I’ve been on Earth too long now and my essence aches like a mouldering tooth.’ My master grinned a gummy grin, stuck his chin towards me and waggled a wrinkled finger. ‘That all depends on what you bring back, doesn’t it, Bartimaeus? If you impress me, I may let you go. See that you do not fail! Now – prepare yourself. I shall bind you to your purpose.’ Midway through his incantation the horn blew hard below the window, signalling the closure of the Kidron Gate. It was answered, further off, by the sentries on the Sheep Gate, Prison Gate, Horse and Water Gates, and so on round the city walls, until the great horn on the palace roof was sounded and all Jerusalem was safe and sealed for the night. A year or two back I’d have hoped such distractions would make my master stumble on his words, so that I might have leaped forth and devoured him. I didn’t bother hoping now. He was too old and too experienced. I needed something better than that if I was going to get him. The magician finished, spoke the final words. The pretty maiden’s body became soft and see-through; for an instant I hung together like a statue formed of silken smoke, then burst soundlessly into nothing. 1Rizim had put the other eye out on a rare occasion when our master had made a slight mistake with the words of his summoning. We’d additionally managed to scorch his backside once or twice, and there was a scar on his neck where I’d come close with a lucky ricochet, but despite a long career commanding more than a dozen formidable djinn, the magician remained vigorous and spry. He was a tough old bird. 2Eridu of the Seven Temples, the bone-white city, glittering in green fields. One of the earliest cities of men. In its day its ziggurats rose high as falcon’s flight, and the scent of its spice markets drifted on the winds as far as Uruk and the sea … Then the river changed its course, the land went dry. The people grew thin and cruel; their temples toppled into dust, and they and their past were utterly forgotten. Except by spirits such as me. And, naturally – whenever their gold lust overcame their fears – by magicians too. 2 No matter how many times you see the dead walk, you always forget just how rubbish they are when they really get moving. Sure, they look OK when they first break through the wall – they get points for shock value, for their gaping sockets and gnashing teeth, and sometimes (if the Reanimation spell is really up to scratch) for their disembodied screams. But then they start pursuing you clumsily around the temple, pelvises jerking, femurs high-kicking, holding out their bony arms in a way that’s meant to be sinister but looks more as if they’re about to sit down at a piano and bash out a honky-tonk rag. And the faster they go, the more their teeth start rattling and the more their necklaces bounce up and get lodged in their eye-holes, and then they start tripping over their grave-clothes and tumbling to the floor and generally getting in the way of any nimble-footed djinni who happens to be passing. And, as is the way with skeletons, never once do they come out with any really good one-liners, which might add a bit of zest to the life-or-death situation you’re in. ‘Oh, come on,’ I said as I hung from the wall, ‘there must be someone here worth talking to.’ With my free hand I fired a plasm across the room, causing a Void to open in the path of one of the scurrying dead. It took a step, was sucked into oblivion; I sprang up from the stones, bounced off the vaulted ceiling and landed nimbly on top of a statue of the god Enki on the opposite side of the hall. To my left a mummified corpse shuffled from its alcove. It wore a slave’s robe and had a rusted manacle and chain about its shrunken neck. With a creaky spring it leaped to snare me. I yanked the chain, the head came off; I caught this mid-palm as the body fell away, and bowled it unerringly into the midriff of one of its dusty comrades, snapping its backbone with neat precision. Jumping from the statue, I landed in the very centre of the temple hall. From every side now the dead converged, their robes as frail as cobwebs, hoops of bronze twirling on their wrists. Things that had once been men and women – slaves, freemen, courtiers and under-priests, members of every level of Eridu’s society – pressed tight about me, jaws gaping, jagged yellow fingernails raised to rend my essence. I’m a courteous fellow and greeted them all appropriately. A Detonation to the left. A Convulsion to the right. Bits of ancient person spattered merrily on the glazed reliefs of the old Sumerian kings. That gave me a brief respite. I took a look around. In the twenty-eight seconds since I’d tunnelled through the ceiling, I’d not had time to fully assess my surroundings, but from the d?cor and the general layout a couple of things were clear. First, it was a temple of the water god Enki (the statue told me that, plus he featured prominently in the wall reliefs, along with his attendant fish and snake-dragons) and had been abandoned for at least fifteen hundred years.1 Second, in all the long centuries since the priests had sealed the doors and left the city to be swallowed by the desert sands, no one had entered before me. You could tell that from the layers of dust upon the floor, the unbroken entrance stone, the zeal of the guardian corpses and – last but not least – the statuette resting on the altar at the far end of the hall. It was a water serpent, a representation of Enki, fashioned with great artifice out of twisting gold. It glittered palely in the light of the Flares I’d sent forth to illuminate the room, and its ruby eyes shone evilly like dying embers. As a work of art alone, it was probably beyond price, but that was only half the story. It was magical too, with a strange pulsing aura visible on the higher planes.2 Good. That was that settled, then. I’d take the serpent and be on my way. ‘Excuse me, excuse me …’ This was me politely ushering the dead aside, or in most cases using Infernos to strike them burning across the hall. More were still emerging, trundling forth from slot-like alcoves in each wall. There seemed no end to them, but I wore a young man’s body, and my movements were swift and sure. With spell and kick and counter-punch I ploughed my way towards the altar— And saw the next trap waiting. A net of fourth-plane threads hung all around the golden serpent, glowing emerald green. The threads were very thin, and faint even to my djinni’s gaze.3 Feeble as they looked, however, I had no wish to disturb them. As a general principle, Sumerian altar-traps are worth avoiding. I stopped below the altar, deep in thought. There were ways to disarm the threads, which I would have no trouble employing, provided I had a bit of time and space. At that moment a sharp pain disturbed me. Looking down, I discovered that a particularly disreputable-looking corpse (who in life had clearly suffered many skin ailments and doubtless looked upon mummification as a sharp improvement to his lot) had snuck up and sunk his teeth deep into the essence of my forearm. The temerity! He deserved special consideration. Shoving a friendly hand inside his rib-cage, I fired a small Detonation upwards. It was a manoeuvre I hadn’t tried in decades, and was just as amusing as ever. His head blew clean off like a cork from a bottle, cracked nicely against the ceiling, bounced twice off nearby walls and (this was where my amusement smartly vanished) plopped to earth right beside the altar, neatly snapping the net of glowing threads as it did so. Which shows how foolish it is to go enjoying yourself in the middle of a job. A deep concussion echoed across the planes. It was fairly faint to my hearing, but over in the Other Place it would have been hard to ignore. For a moment I stood quite still: a thin young man, dark of skin and light of loincloth, staring in annoyance at the writhing filaments of broken thread. Then, swearing in Aramaic, Hebrew and several other languages, I leaped forward, plucked the serpent from the altar and backed hurriedly away. Eager corpses came clamouring behind me: without looking I unleashed a Flux and they were whirled asunder. Up beside the altar the fragments of thread stopped twitching. With great speed they melted outwards, forming a pool or portal upon the flagstones. The pool spread beneath the corpse’s upturned head. The head dropped slowly down into the pool, out of existence, away from this world. There was a pause. The pool shone with the myriad colours of the Other Place, distant, muffled, as if seen from under glass. A tremor passed across its surface. Something was coming. Turning swiftly, I considered the distance to the shattered patch of ceiling where I’d first broken through: trickles of loose sand still spooled down into the chamber. My tunnel had probably collapsed with the weight of sand; it would take time to push my way back up – time I didn’t presently have. A Trigger-summons never takes long. I spun back reluctantly to face the portal, where the surface of the pool was flexing and contorting. Two great arms issued forth, shimmering green and veinous. Clawed hands grasped the stonework on either side. Muscles flexed and a body rose into the world, a thing of nightmare. The head was human in semblance,4 and surmounted by long black coils of hair. A chiselled torso came next, and this was of the same green stuff. The components of the bottom half, which followed, seemed to have been chosen almost at random. The legs, corded with muscle, were those of a beast – possibly a lion or some other upscale predator – but ended sinisterly in an eagle’s splaying claws. The creature’s rear end was mercifully cloaked by a wrap-around skirt; from a slit in this rose a long and vicious scorpion tail. There was a pregnant pause as the visitation pulled free of the portal and stood erect. Behind us, even the last few milling dead were somewhat hushed. The creature’s face was that of a Sumerian lord: olive-skinned and handsome, black hair coiled in shining ringlets. The lips were full, the squared beard oiled. But the eyes were blank holes torn in the flesh. And now they looked on me. ‘It’s … Bartimaeus, isn’t it? You didn’t trigger this, did you?’ ‘Hello, Naabash. Afraid so.’ The entity stretched its great arms wide so that the muscles cracked. ‘Ohhh, now what’d you go and do that for? You know what the priests say about trespassers and thieves. They’ll have your guts for garters. Or rather … I will.’ ‘The priests aren’t that fussed about the treasure now, Naabash.’ ‘They aren’t?’ The blank eyes looked around the temple. ‘It does seem a little dusty. Has it been a while?’ ‘Longer than you think.’ ‘But the charge still holds, Bartimaeus. Can’t do anything about that. While stone stands on stone and our city lasts … You know the score.’ The scorpion tail juddered up with a dry and eager rattle, the shiny black sting jerking forwards above his shoulder. ‘What’s that you’re carrying? Not the sacred serpent?’ ‘Something to look at later, when I’ve dealt with you.’ ‘Ah, very good, very good. You always were a chipper one, Bartimaeus, always spoke above your station. Never known anyone get the flail so often. How you vexed the humans with your backchat.’ The Sumerian lord smiled, showing neat double rows of sharply filed teeth. The hind legs moved slightly, the claws dug into stone; I watched the tendons tensing, ready for sudden movement. I didn’t take my eyes off them. ‘Which particular employer are you vexing now?’ Naabash went on. ‘The Babylonians, I assume. They were on the up last time I looked. They always coveted Eridu’s gold.’ The dark-eyed youth ran a hand through his curly hair. I smiled bleakly. ‘Like I say, it’s been longer than you think.’ ‘Long or short, it matters not to me,’ Naabash said softly. ‘I have my charge. The sacred serpent stays here in the temple heart, its powers lost to common men.’ Now, I’d never heard of this serpent. To me it just seemed a typical bit of tat the old cities used to war over, a kitsch little number in rolled gold. But it’s always good to know exactly what you’re stealing. ‘Powers?’ I said. ‘What does it do?’ Naabash chuckled, wistful melancholy suffusing his voice. ‘Nothing of consequence. It contains an elemental that will emit jets of water from the mouth when the tail is tweaked. The priests used to bring it out in times of drought to inspire the people. If I remember correctly, it is also rigged with two or three little mechanical traps designed to dismay robbers who meddle with the emerald studs upon the claws. Notice the hinges hidden beneath each one …’ I made a mistake here. Half lulled by Naabash’s gentle tones, I couldn’t help flicking a brief glance down at the serpent in my hands, just to see if I could spot the little hinges. Which was exactly what he wanted, of course. Even as my eyes moved, the beast legs flexed. In a flash of movement Naabash was gone. I threw myself sideways just as the flagstone where I’d been standing was struck in half by the sting-tail’s blow. I was fast enough for that, but not enough to avoid the lashing impact of his outstretched arm: a great green fist struck against my leg as I hurtled through the air. This blow, together with the precious artefact I held, prevented me from employing my usual elegant keynote manoeuvre in such circumstances.5 Instead I half rolled painfully across a convenient mat of scattered corpses and leaped to my feet once more. Naabash meanwhile had righted himself with stately care. He turned towards me, bending low, his human arms pawing at the ground; then he sprang again. Me? I fired a Convulsion straight up at the ceiling above my head. Once more I jumped away, once more the scorpion tail drove straight through the flagstones; once more – but this time Naabash didn’t get around to striking me as well, since the ceiling had fallen on him. Fifteen centuries of accumulated desert sands lay atop the buried temple, so with the falling masonry came a pleasant bonus: a great silvery-brown cascade that plunged down in a torrent, crushing Naabash under several solid tons. Ordinarily I’d have lingered a while to jeer loudly near the rapidly spreading heap, but hefty as it was, I knew it wouldn’t delay him long. It was time to leave. Wings sprouted from my shoulders; I sent another blast upwards to further clear the way, and without pause sprang up through the ceiling and the rain of falling sand, towards the waiting night. 1 To my connoisseur’s eye the style looked late Sumerian (circa 2500 BC), with just a hint of Old Babylonian decadence, but frankly there were too many body parts flying about for a proper critique just yet. 2The planes: seven planes of existence are superimposed upon each other at all times, like invisible layers of tracing paper. The first plane includes everything in the solid, everyday world; the other six reveal the hidden magic all around – secret spells, lurking spirits, and ancient enchantments long forgotten. It’s a well-known fact that you can reliably gauge the intelligence and quality of a species by the number of planes it is able to observe, e.g. top djinn (like me): seven; foliots and higher imps: four; cats: two; fleas, tapeworms, humans, dust-mites, etc.: one. 3A Trigger-summons such as this is always invisible to mortal sight, of course, but with time, faint residues of dust accumulate on the threads, giving them a ghost-like presence on the first plane too. This allows perceptive human thieves a chance. The old Egyptian tomb-robber Sendji the Violent, for instance, used a small squadron of trained bats to suspend tiny candles above patches of floor he considered dubious, allowing him to trace the delicate shadows made by the dust lines, and so pass unscathed between the traps. Or at least that’s what he told me shortly before his execution. He had an honest face, but, well … trained bats … I just don’t know. 4See? How grotesque can you get? Yeuch. 5‘The Evasive Cartwheel’™ ©, etc., Bartimaeus of Uruk, circa 2800 BC. Often imitated, never surpassed. As famously memorialized in the New Kingdom tomb paintings of Rameses III – you can just see me in the background of The Dedication of the Royal Family Before Ra, wheeling out of sight behind the pharaoh. 3 Dawn was at my back when I returned to Jerusalem. The tops of the magicians’ towers were already fringed with pink, and the dome of Solomon’s white-walled palace shone bright like a new sun. Further down the hill, by the Kidron Gate, the old man’s tower was mostly in shadow. I flew to the upper window, outside which a bronze bell hung suspended, and rang this once, as per my orders. My master forbade his slaves to come upon him unawares. The echoes faded. My broad wings stirred the cold, fresh air. I hovered, waiting, watching the landscape melt into being. The valley was dim and silent, a trough of mist into which the road wound and faded. The first workers emerged from the gate below; they set off down the road towards the fields. They went slowly, stumbling on the rough stones. On the higher planes I could see one or two of Solomon’s spies going with them – foliots riding the halters of the oxen, bright-hued mites and implets drifting on the wind. The minutes passed, and finally a charming sensation like a dozen spear points plucking out my vitals heralded the magician’s summons. I closed my eyes, submitted – and a moment later felt the sour warmth of the magician’s chamber pressing on my essence. To my great relief the old man was in his robes despite the early hour. A templeful of corpses is one thing; a wrinkly, undressed master would have been another. He was standing ready in his circle, and as before, all the seals and curse-runes were correctly in position. With the goat’s-fat candles burning and the little pots of rosemary and frankincense repelling me with the sweetness of their stench, I stood in the centre of my pentacle and regarded him steadily, holding the serpent in my slender hands.1 The moment I materialized I knew how badly he wanted it, not for Solomon but for himself. His eye widened; avarice shimmered on its surface like a film of oil. He did not say anything for a while, just looked. I moved the serpent slightly so the candlelight flowed alluringly upon its contours, tilting it to show him the ruby eyes, and the emerald studs upon the splaying claws. When he spoke, his voice was coarse and heavy with desire. ‘You went to Eridu?’ ‘As I was ordered, so I went. I found a temple. This was inside.’ The eye glinted. ‘Pass it to me.’ I held back a moment. ‘Will you dismiss me as requested? I have served you faithfully and well.’ At this the old man’s face congealed with violent passion. ‘You dare try bartering with me? Pass me the artefact, demon, or by my secret name I swear I shall plunge you screaming into the Dismal Flame2 before the hour is out!’ He glared at me, eye popping, jaw jutting, thin white lines of moisture on his parted lips. ‘Very well,’ I said. ‘Be careful not to drop it.’ I tossed it over from one circle to the other, and the magician stretched out his clawing hands. And whether it was his single eye that did it, so that he had trouble judging distance, or his trembling eagerness, his fingers fumbled on the serpent: it danced between them and fell back towards the circle’s edge. With a cry the old man snatched at it, clasped it against his wrinkled chest. This, his first unguarded movement, was almost his last. If so much as the tips of his fingers had crossed above the circle, he would have lost its protection and I would have been on him. But (by a whisker) they didn’t cross, and the pretty maiden, who for an instant had seemed just a little taller, whose teeth had perhaps grown just slightly longer and sharper than a moment previously, settled back in the centre of her circle with a disappointed look. The old man did not notice any of this. He had eyes only for his treasure. For a long time he turned it over in his hands, like a vile old cat playing with a mouse, cooing at the workmanship and practically dribbling with delight. After a while it was too revolting to bear. I cleared my throat. The magician looked up. ‘Well?’ ‘You have what you asked for. Solomon will reward you richly for this. Let me go.’ He chuckled. ‘Ah, Bartimaeus, but you clearly have such a gift for this line of work! I am not sure I care to let such a skilful thief go … You just stand there quietly. I must explore this most interesting device. I see small hinged studs upon the toes … I wonder what they do.’ ‘What does it matter?’ I said. ‘You’re giving it to Solomon, aren’t you? Let him investigate.’ My master’s scowl was expressive. I smiled to myself and looked out of the windows at the sky, where the dawn patrols were barely visible, circling at great heights, leaving faint pink trails of steam and sulphur in the air. Looked good, but it was all for show as much as anything, for who would seriously attack Jerusalem while Solomon had the Ring? I allowed the magician to inspect the serpent for a while; then, still looking out of the window, said: ‘Besides, he’d be terribly cross if one of his magicians withheld an object of such power. I really wish you’d let me go.’ He squinted up at me. ‘You know what this is?’ ‘No.’ ‘But you know it has power.’ ‘Even an imp could see that. Oh, but I forget – you’re only a human. You can’t see the aura it radiates on the seventh plane … But even so, who can truly tell? There were probably many such serpent statuettes made in Eridu. It’s probably not the one.’ The old man licked his lips; his caution fought with curiosity, and lost. ‘Not the what?’ ‘It’s none of my business, and none of yours. I’m just standing here quietly, as ordered.’ My master spat out a curse. ‘I revoke that order! Speak!’ ‘No!’ I cried, holding up my hands. ‘I know what you magicians are like, and I don’t want any part of it! Solomon on one side with that terrible Ring, and you on the other with … with …’ The maiden shivered, as if with sudden chill. ‘No, I’d be caught up in the middle, and that wouldn’t do me any good at all.’ Blue fires leaped in the centre of the magician’s outstretched palm. ‘Not another second’s delay, Bartimaeus. Tell me what this object is, or I’ll pummel you with the Essence Fist.’ ‘You’d hit a woman?’ ‘Speak!’ ‘Oh, very well, but it won’t do you any good. It bears a passing resemblance to the Great Serpent with which the old kings of Eridu conquered the cities of the plain. That treasure contained a mighty spirit which was compelled to do its master’s bidding.’ ‘Its master being …’ ‘Whoever held it, I suppose. The spirit was contacted by pressing a secret catch.’ The magician considered me in silence for a time. At last he said: ‘I have never heard this story. You lie.’ ‘Hey, of course I do. I’m a demon, aren’t I? Just forget all about it and give the thing to Solomon.’ ‘No.’ The old man spoke with sudden decision. ‘Have it back.’ ‘What?’ But it was too late; he had tossed the serpent back across the space, where the maiden caught it doubtfully. ‘Do you take me for an idiot, Bartimaeus?’ my master cried, stamping a wrinkled foot upon the marble. ‘Quite patently you planned to snare me with some trick! You egged me on to pry into this device, hoping it would seal my doom! Well, I’m not going to press any of these studs. But you will.’ The maiden blinked up at the magician with her big brown eyes. ‘Look, this really isn’t necessary—’ ‘Do as I say!’ With the greatest reluctance, I raised the serpent in my hand and considered the studs set upon the claws. There were three of them, each decorated with an emerald. Selecting the first, I pressed it gingerly. There was a whirring sound. At once the serpent emitted a brief electric shock that raddled my essence and set the maiden’s long luxuriant hair standing up like a toilet brush. The old magician hooted with laughter. ‘You planned that for me, did you?’ he chortled. ‘Let this be a lesson to you. Well, and the next!’ I pressed the second stud. Swivelling on a set of hidden cogs and fulcra, several of the serpent’s golden scales flipped up and egested puffs of tarry smoke. As with the first trap, long centuries had dulled the mechanism, and my face was only lightly blackened. My master rocked back and forth with mirth. ‘Better and better,’ he crowed. ‘Look at the state of you! Now the third.’ The third emerald had evidently been designed to let off a jet of poison gas, but all that remained after so many years was a faint green cloud and a bad smell. ‘You’ve had your fun,’ I sighed, holding out the serpent once more. ‘Now dismiss me, or send me off again, or whatever it is you want to do. But leave me be. I’m fed up with this.’ But the magician’s good eye glinted. ‘Not so fast, Bartimaeus!’ he said grimly. ‘You forget the tail.’ ‘I don’t see—’ ‘Are you blind? There is a hinge there too! Press that, if you will.’ I hesitated. ‘Please. I’ve had enough.’ ‘No, Bartimaeus. Perhaps this is the “secret catch” you mentioned. Perhaps you will now get to meet this “mighty spirit” of ancient legend.’ The old man grinned with cruel delight; he folded his spindly arms. ‘Or more probably you will find out yet again what it is like to attempt to defy me! Go on – no dallying! Press the tail!’ ‘But—’ ‘I order you to press it!’ ‘Righty-ho.’ That was what I’d been waiting for all this time. The terms of any summoning always include stringent clauses preventing you from directly harming the magician who brings you here: it’s the first, most basic rule of all magic from Ashur to Abyssinia. Lulling your master into disaster through soft words and raw cunning is different, of course, as is striking if they break their circle or mess up the incantation. But direct assaults are out. You can’t touch your master unless you’re expressly commanded to do so by their own spoken word. As, rather pleasantly, was the case here. I hefted the golden serpent and tweaked the tail. As I’d assumed, Naabash had not spoken falsely;3 nor had the water elemental4 trapped within deteriorated like the clockwork mechanisms. A bright, pulsing jet of water shot forth from the serpent’s open mouth, glistening in the happy light of dawn. Since, by merest chance, I was holding the serpent directly facing the magician, the jet crossed the intervening space and struck the old codger full in the chest, lifting him off his feet and carrying him out of his circle and halfway across his chamber. The distance he went was gratifying, but leaving the circle was the crucial bit. Even before he landed, heavily and soggily, on his back, the bonds about me snapped and withered, and I was free to move. The pretty maiden tossed the serpent to the floor. She stepped forward out of her constraining pentacle. Away across the room, the magician had been winded; he lay there helpless, flapping like a fish. The maiden passed the goat’s-fat candles, and as she did so, every single one of them winked out. Her foot glanced against a bowl of ward-herbs; rosemary spilled upon her skin, which fizzed and steamed. The maiden paid no heed; her big dark eyes were fixed upon the magician, who struggled now to raise his head a little, saw my slow approach. He made one desperate effort, wet and winded as he was. A shaking hand was raised and pointed. His mouth moved; he stammered out a word. From his forefinger a sputtering Essence Lance leaped forth. The maiden made a gesture; the spears of lightning exploded in mid-air and shot off at random angles to strike the walls, the floor and ceiling. One gout plumed out of the nearest window and arced out into the valley to startle the peasants far below. The maiden crossed the room; she stood above the magician and held out her hands, and the nails on her fingers, and indeed the fingers themselves, were much longer than hitherto. The old man looked up at me. ‘Bartimaeus—’ ‘That’s my name,’ I said. ‘Now, are you going to get up, or shall I come to you?’ The answer he made was incoherent. The pretty maiden shrugged. Then she bared her pretty teeth and fell upon him, and any further sounds he made were swiftly stilled. Three small watch-imps, drawn perhaps by a disturbance on the planes, arrived just as I was finishing. Wide-eyed and wondering, they clustered together on the sill as the slender young woman got unsteadily to her feet. She was alone in the room now; her eyes glowed in the shadows as she turned to face them. The imps sounded the alarm, but it was all too late. Even as the air above was rent with rushing wings and talons, the pretty maiden smiled and waved goodbye – to the imps, to Jerusalem, to my latest bout of slavery on Earth – and without a word was gone. And that was the end of the old magician. We’d been together a while, but I never got to know his name. Still, I remember him with fond affection. Foolish, greedy, incompetent and dead. Now that’s the kind of master worth having. 1 I’d chosen the girl’s form again for continuity’s sake, and also because I knew it irritated my master. In my experience most magicians can be discomfited if you choose the right form. Apart from the high priests of Ishtar back in Babylon, mind you. Ishtar was goddess of love and war, so her magicians were unfazed by both pretty girls and gore-spattered monsters. This unfortunately eliminated most of my repertoire. 2Dismal Flame: a swift and painful expunction. In later periods, following its refinement by Zarbustibal of Yemen, it was known as the Shrivelling Fire. It was the ultimate sanction for spirits who simply refused to carry out their master’s commands, and its threat by and large ensured our (grudging) obedience. 3 Dissemblers as we sometimes are when conversing with humans, higher spirits almost always speak truth among themselves. The lower orders, sadly, are less civilized, foliots being variable, moody and prone to flights of fancy, while imps just enjoy telling absolute whoppers. 4Elemental: most spirits incorporate within their essence two or more of the four elements (the finest djinn, naming no names, are perfectly balanced entities of fire and air). Those spirits formed of air, earth, fire or water alone, however, are elementals – a different kettle of fish altogether. They entirely lack the finesse or charm that make a select few of us so fascinating, but compensate for this with raw, bludgeoning power. Part Two 4 King Solomon the Great of Israel, High Magician and Protector of his People, sat forward on his throne and frowned an elegant frown. ‘Dead?’ he said, and then – more loudly, after a ferocious pause in which the heartbeats of four hundred and thirty-seven people skipped and jolted in anticipation – ‘Dead?’ The two afrits that sat before his chair in the form of goldmaned lions lifted their golden eyes to look at him. The three winged djinn that hung aloft behind the chair, carrying fruit and wines and sweetmeats for the refreshment of the king, trembled so hard, the plates and glasses rattled in their hands. High in the rafters the doves and swallows dropped from their roosts, and dispersed beyond the pillars to the sunlit gardens. And the four hundred and thirty-seven humans – magicians, courtiers, wives and supplicants – who were gathered in the hall that morning bent their heads and shuffled their feet and looked intently at the floor. Rarely, even in matters of war or wives, did the great king ever raise his voice. Such occasions did not bode well. At the foot of the steps Solomon’s vizier bowed low. ‘Dead. Yes, master. But, on a happier note, he got you a very fine antiquity.’ Still bowing, he indicated with an outstretched hand the nearest plinth beside him. On it sat a serpent statuette of twisting gold. King Solomon regarded it. The hall was silent. The lion-afrits blinked down at the people with their golden eyes, their velvet fore-paws lightly crossed, their tails flicking occasionally on the stones behind. Above the throne the djinn hung waiting, motionless save for the lazy beat of their eagle wings. Out in the gardens butterflies moved like flecks of sunlight among the brightness of the trees. At last the king spoke; he sat back upon the cedar throne. ‘It is a pretty object. With his last act, poor Ezekiel served me well.’ He raised a hand to signal to the djinn for wine, and since it was his right hand, a ripple of relief ran around the hall. The magicians relaxed; the wives began arguing amongst themselves; and one by one the assembled petitioners of a dozen lands raised their heads to gaze in fearful admiration at the king. In no way was Solomon ill-favoured. He had been spared the poxes in his youth, and though now into middle age, his skin remained smooth and creamy as a child’s. In fifteen years upon the throne, indeed, he had not changed markedly, remaining dark of eye and skin, narrow-faced, with black hair hanging loose about his shoulders. His nose was long and straight, his lips full, his eyes lined with green-black kohl after the Egyptian style. Above his splendid silken robes – sent as a gift from the magician-priests of India – he wore many wondrous treasures of gold and jade, sapphire earrings, necklaces of Nubian ivory, amber beads from far Cimmeria. Silver bangles hung about his wrists, while on one ankle rested a thin gold band. Even his kid-skin sandals, a dowry present from the King of Tyre, were studded with gold and semi-precious stones. But his long slim hands were naked of jewels or decoration – save for the little finger of the left, which bore a ring. The king sat waiting as the djinn poured wine into his golden goblet; he waited as, with golden prongs, they added to it berries from the windswept Anatolian hills, and ice from the summit of Mount Lebanon. And the people gazed on him as he waited, basking in the glamour of his power, his radiance like the sun’s. The ice was mixed; the wine was ready. On soundless wings the djinn retreated above the throne. Solomon considered the goblet, but did not drink. He returned his attention to the hall. ‘My magicians,’ he said, addressing a circle of men and women at the forefront of the crowd, ‘you have all done well. In a single night you have retrieved many fascinating artefacts from across the world.’ With a wave of the goblet he indicated the row of seventeen plinths before him, each topped with its own small treasure. ‘All are doubtless extraordinary, and will shed light on the ancient cultures that precede us. I shall study them with interest. Hiram, you may have them removed.’ The vizier, a small, dark-skinned magician from distant Kush, snapped to immediate attention. He gave an order. Seventeen slaves – human, or in human form – ran forth and carried the golden serpent and the other treasures from the hall. When all was still, the vizier swelled out his chest, took his staff by its ruby pommel and banged it thrice upon the floor. ‘Attention!’ he cried. ‘Solomon’s council shall now proceed! There are several issues of great moment to bring before the king. As ever, we shall all benefit from the bounty of his wisdom. First—’ But Solomon had raised a lazy hand, and as it was the left, the vizier broke off at once, choking on his words and blanching. ‘Saving your pardon, Hiram,’ the king said silkily, ‘the first business is already before us. My magician Ezekiel was killed this morning. The spirit who slew him – do we know its identity?’ The vizier cleared his throat. ‘Master, we do. From the remains of Ezekiel’s cylinder, we have deduced the offender. Bartimaeus of Uruk is its favoured title.’ Solomon frowned. ‘Have I heard report of one with that name?’ ‘Yes, Master. Only yesterday. It was overheard singing a song of extraordinary insolence, which featured—’ ‘Thank you, I recall it.’ The king stroked his handsome chin. ‘Bartimaeus … of Uruk – a city two thousand years gone. So it is a most ancient demon. A marid, I assume?’ The vizier bowed low. ‘No, Master. I believe not.’ ‘An afrit, then.’ The vizier bowed still lower; his chin almost touched the marble floor. ‘Master, it is in fact a djinni of moderate strength and power. Fourth level, if some of the Sumerian tablets speak true.’ ‘Fourth level?’ Long fingers tapped upon the arm-rest of the throne; from the little finger came a flash of gold. ‘A fourth-level djinni has slain one of my magicians? With all due respect to the wailing shade of Ezekiel, this brings dishonour on Jerusalem – and, more importantly, on me. We cannot let such an outrage pass. An example must be made. Hiram – let the remainder of the Seventeen approach.’ In keeping with the glory of King Solomon, his chief magicians were drawn from countries far beyond the bounds of Israel. From distant Nubia and Punt, from Assyria and Babylon, these men and women of power had come. Each, at a brief command, could summon demons from the air, raise whirlwinds and rain death upon their cowering foes. They were masters of the ancient arts, and would have been considered mighty in their own lands. But all had chosen to travel to Jerusalem, to serve he who wore the Ring. With a twirl of his staff, the vizier beckoned the circle forward; each magician, in turn, bowed low before the throne. Solomon considered them a while, then spoke: ‘Khaba.’ Deliberate, stately, soft-footed as a cat, a man stepped from the circle. ‘Master.’ ‘You have a sombre reputation.’ ‘Master, I do.’ ‘You treat your slaves with appropriate severity.’ ‘Master, I take pride in my harshness, and I do well to do so, for demons combine ferocity with infinite cunning, and their nature is vindictive and malign.’ Solomon stroked his chin. ‘Indeed … Khaba, I believe you already have in your employment several other recalcitrant spirits that have recently proved troublesome.’ ‘Master, this is true. Each loudly regrets its past audacity.’ ‘Will you agree to add this wicked Bartimaeus to your roster?’ Khaba was Egyptian, a man of arresting appearance, tall, broad-shouldered and strong of limb. His skull, like all the magician-priests of Thebes, had been shaved and waxed until it shone. His nose was aquiline, his brow heavy, his lips narrow, bloodless, tight as bow-strings. His eyes hung like soft black moons in the wasteland of his face, and glistened perpetually as if they were close to tears. He nodded. ‘Master, as in all things I follow your requirements and your will.’ ‘Quite so.’ Solomon took a sip of wine. ‘See that Bartimaeus is brought to heel and learns respect. Hiram will bring you the relevant cylinders and tablets when Ezekiel’s tower is cleared. That is all.’ Khaba bowed and returned to his place amongst the crowd, his shadow trailing like a cloak behind him. ‘With that settled,’ Solomon said, ‘we may return to other matters. Hiram?’ The vizier clicked his fingers. A small white mouse somersaulted out of the empty air and landed on his hand. It carried a papyrus scroll, which it unfurled and held ready for his inspection. Hiram studied the lists briefly. ‘We have thirty-two judicial cases, Master,’ he said, ‘that have been referred to you by your magicians. The plaintiffs await your judgement. Among the issues to be dealt with are a murder, three assaults, a marriage in difficulties and a neighbourly dispute regarding a missing goat.’ The king’s face was impassive. ‘Very well. What else?’ ‘As always, many petitioners from far afield have come to ask your aid. I have chosen twenty to make formal appeals to you today.’ ‘I will hear them. Is that all?’ ‘No, Master. Word has come from our djinn patrols in the southern deserts. They report further attacks by brigands. Remote farmsteads have been burned and the inhabitants slaughtered, and there have been depredations on the trade routes too – caravans attacked, and travellers robbed.’ Solomon shifted in his chair. ‘Who controls the southern patrols?’ A magician spoke, a woman of Nubia, dressed in a robe of tightly wound yellow cloth. ‘I, Master.’ ‘Summon more demons, Elbesh! Track down these “brigands”! Discover the truth: are they simple outlaws, or mercenaries working for foreign kings? Report to me tomorrow.’ The woman grimaced. ‘Yes, Master … only—’ The king frowned. ‘Only what?’ ‘Master, saving your pardon, I already control nine strong, unruly djinn. This takes up all my energies. To summon yet more slaves will be difficult.’ ‘I see.’ The king cast his eyes impatiently across the circle. ‘Then Reuben and Nisroch will assist you in this little task. Now—’ A tousle-bearded magician raised his hand. ‘Great King, forgive me! I too am presently somewhat stretched.’ The man beside him nodded. ‘And I!’ Now the vizier, Hiram, ventured to speak out. ‘Master, the deserts are vast and the resources of we, your servants, are limited. Is this not a time when you might consider aiding us? When, possibly, you might—’ He halted. Solomon’s kohl-rimmed eyes blinked slowly, like a cat’s. ‘Go on.’ Hiram swallowed. Already he had said too much. ‘When … perhaps you might consider using’ – his voice was very faint – ‘the Ring?’ The king’s expression darkened. The knuckles of his left hand gripped white upon the arm-rest of the throne. ‘You question my commands, Hiram,’ Solomon said softly. ‘Great Master, please! I meant no offence!’ ‘You dare pronounce how my power might be used.’ ‘No! I spoke without thinking!’ ‘Can it be you truly wish for this?’ The left hand shifted; on the little finger a flash of gold and black obsidian caught the light. Below the throne the lion-afrits drew back their lips and made snapping noises in their throats. ‘No, Master! Please!’ The vizier cowered to the floor; his mouse sought concealment in his robes. Across the hall the assembled watchers murmured and drew back. The king reached out, turned the Ring upon his finger. There was a thud of sound, a buffet of air. A darkness fell across the hall, and in the centre of that darkness a Presence stood tall and silent beside the throne. Four hundred and thirty-seven people fell flat upon their faces as if they had been struck. In the shadows of the throne Solomon’s face was terrible, contorted. His voice echoed as if from a cavern in the earth: ‘I say to all of you: Be careful what you desire.’ He turned the Ring again upon his finger. At once the Presence vanished; the hall was filled with sudden light and there were birds singing in the gardens. Slowly, unsteadily, magicians, courtiers, wives and supplicants got to their collective feet. Solomon’s face was calm again. ‘Send your demons out into the desert,’ he said. ‘Capture the brigands as I requested.’ He took a sip of wine, and looked towards the gardens where, as so often, faint music could now be heard, though the musicians were never seen. ‘One other thing, Hiram,’ he said at last. ‘You have not yet told me of Sheba. Has the messenger returned? Have we heard the queen’s response?’ The vizier had risen and was dabbing at a trickle of blood coming from his nose. He swallowed; the day was not going well for him. ‘Master, we have.’ ‘And?’ He cleared his throat. ‘Once again, unbelievably, the queen rejects your offer of marriage and refuses to be numbered among your exquisite consorts.’ The vizier paused to allow the expected gasps and flutterings from among the assembled wives. ‘Her explanation, such as it is, is this: as the actual ruler of her nation, rather than the mere daughter of its king’ – further gasps sounded at this juncture, and several snorts – ‘she cannot possibly leave it for a life of leisure, even to bask in your glorious radiance in Jerusalem. She deeply regrets this inability to comply, and offers her eternal friendship, and that of Sheba, to you and your people until, and I quote’ – he checked the scroll once more – ‘“the towers of Marib fall and the eternal Sun goes out” … Essentially, Master, it’s another No.’ The vizier finished and, without daring to look towards the king, made a great business of rolling up the scroll and stuffing it back into his robes. The crowd stood frozen, watching the silent figure on the throne. Then Solomon laughed. He took a long draught of wine. ‘So that is the word from Sheba, is it?’ he said. ‘Well, then. We will have to consider how Jerusalem responds.’ 5 Night had fallen and the city of Marib was silent. The Queen of Sheba sat alone in her chamber, reading from her sacred texts. As she reached for her wine cup, she heard a fluttering at the window. A bird stood there, an eagle, shaking flecks of ice off its feathers and regarding her intently with its cold, black eyes. The queen watched it for a moment; then, because she understood the illusions of the spirits of the air, said: ‘If you come in peace, step inside, and be welcome.’ At this the eagle hopped off the sill and became a slim young man, golden-haired and handsome, with eyes as black and cold as the bird’s had been and a bare chest studded with flecks of ice. The young man said: ‘I bear a message for the queen of this land.’ The queen smiled. ‘I am she. You have come far, and at high altitude. You are a guest of my house and I offer you all I have. Do you require refreshment or rest, or some other boon? Name it, and it shall be so.’ And the young man said, ‘You are gracious, Queen Balkis, but I require none of those things. I must speak my message and hear your answer. Know first that I am a marid of the seventh level, and the slave of Solomon, son of David, who is King of Israel and the mightiest of magicians now living.’ ‘Again?’ the queen said, smiling. ‘Three times I have received a question from that king, and three times I have given the same answer. The last occasion was but a week ago. I hope he has accepted my decision now, and isn’t asking it a fourth time.’ ‘As to that,’ the young man said, ‘you shall shortly hear. Solomon offers you his greetings, and wishes you health and prosperity. He thanks you for your consideration of his last proposal, which he now formally retracts. Instead he demands you acknowledge him as your sovereign overlord and agree to pay him an annual tribute, which shall be forty sacks of sweet-scented frankincense from the forests of fair Sheba. If you agree to this, the sun will continue to smile upon your domains, and you and your descendants will for ever prosper. Refuse – and frankly the outlook is less favourable.’ Balkis no longer smiled. She rose from her chair. ‘This is a most impudent demand! Solomon has no claim on the wealth of Sheba, just as he had no claim on me!’ ‘You may have heard,’ the young man said, ‘that Solomon is master of a magic ring, with which he can raise an army of spirits in the blinking of an eye. For this reason the kings of Phoenicia, Lebanon, Aram, Tyre and Edom, among many others, have already sworn him fealty and friendship. They pay vast annual tributes of gold, timber, skins and salt, and think themselves fortunate to be spared his wrath.’ ‘Sheba is an ancient, sovereign nation,’ Balkis said coldly, ‘and its queen will not bend her knee to any foreign infidel. You may return to your master and say so.’ The young man made no move, but spoke in conversational tones. ‘In truth, O Queen, is Sheba’s suggested tribute really so terrible? Forty sacks among the hundreds that you harvest every year? That will not bankrupt you!’ White teeth shone in the smiling mouth. ‘And besides, it is certainly a lot better than being driven in rags from your ravaged land, while your cities burn and your people perish.’ Balkis gave a little gasp and took a step in the direction of the insolent creature, but held back when she saw the glitter in the blank, dark eyes. ‘Demon, you far exceed your duties,’ she said, swallowing. ‘I demand you leave this chamber on the instant, or I shall call my priestesses to snare you in their silver nets.’ ‘Silver nets mean nothing to me,’ the spirit said. It walked towards her. Balkis backed away. In the cabinet by her chair she kept a globe of crystal that, on breaking, sounded an alarm that would bring her personal guards to her. But each new step took her further from the cabinet and further from the door. Her hand strayed to the jewelled dagger in her belt. The demon said, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that. Am I not a marid, who by my whispered word can summon storms and raise new islands in the sea? Yet, despite my strength, I am the least and most miserable of the slaves of Solomon, who stands supreme of all men in his glory and his pride.’ It halted; Balkis had not yet reached the wall, but she sensed the bricks close behind her back. She stood erect, hand upon the dagger hilt, keeping her face impassive, as she had once been taught to do. ‘Long ago I served the first kings of Egypt,’ the demon said. ‘I helped raise their tombs, which still remain as marvels of the world. But the greatness of those kings lies like dust before the power that Solomon now enjoys.’ It turned away and with negligent steps crossed to stand beside the fireplace, so the remaining ice upon its shoulders melted swiftly and ran in rivulets down its long, dark limbs. It gazed into the flames. ‘Have you heard what happens when his will is crossed, O Queen?’ it said softly. ‘I have seen it from afar. He wears the Ring upon his finger. He turns it once. The Spirit of the Ring appears. Then what? Armies march across the sky, city walls crumble, the Earth opens and his enemies are devoured by fire. He brings forth spirits uncountable, faster than thought, so the midday hour grows black as midnight with their passing and the ground shudders with the beating of their wings. Do you wish to see this terror? Resist him, and it will surely come to you.’ But Balkis had gathered herself; she strode towards the cabinet and stood there, stiff with fury, one hand on the drawer where the crystal lay. ‘I have given you my answer already,’ she said harshly. ‘Return to your master. Tell him that for a fourth time I refuse him, and that I desire no further messengers. Further, that if he persists in his cruel avarice, I shall make him regret that he ever heard my name.’ ‘Oh, that I very much doubt,’ the young man said. ‘You have hardly the sniff of magic about you, and Marib is no great centre of sorcery or of arms. A final word before I start my long flight home. My master is not unreasonable. He knows this decision is hard for you. You have two weeks to change your mind. See there?’ The demon pointed through the window, where the moon hung yellow behind the slender mud-brick towers of the city. ‘The moon is full tonight. When it has waned to nothing, have the forty sacks piled ready in the courtyard! If you do not, Solomon’s army will take wing. Two weeks! In the meantime I thank you for your hospitality and your warming fire. Now here is a little blaze of my own. Consider it something to spur your thinking.’ It raised its hand: a bulb of orange fire swelled from the fingers, shot forth as a narrow bolt of light. The top of the nearest tower exploded in a flower of flame. Burning bricks tumbled into darkness; screams sounded across the gulf. With a cry, Balkis lunged forward. The young man smiled contemptuously and stepped towards the window. A blur of movement, a waft of wind – an eagle flew out between the pillars, banked around the pluming smoke, and was gone among the stars. Dawn came; thin grey veins of smoke still rose from the ruined tower, but the fire itself was out. It had taken the priestesses several hours to agree on the precise demon that should be summoned to fight the blaze, and by that time the flames had been quenched by water carried from the canals by hand. Queen Balkis had supervised this process, and seen the dead and wounded taken to their proper places. Now, with the city numb and quiet, she sat again beside the window of her room, watching the blue-green daylight stealing slowly across the fields. Balkis was twenty-nine, and had occupied the throne of Sheba for something under seven years. Like her mother, the previous queen, she met all the requirements of that sacred station, and was popular with her people. She was brisk and efficient in court policy, which pleased her counsellors; she was serious and devout in matters of religion, which pleased the priestesses of the Sun. And when the hill-men of the Hadhramaut came down into the city, with their robes weighed down with swords and silver djinn-guards, and the sacks of frankincense slung upon their camels’ shanks, she met them in the forecourt of the palace, offered them khat leaves to chew, and spoke with them knowledgeably of the weather and the difficulties of tapping resin from the trees, so that they too were pleased and returned to their villages speaking highly of Sheba’s wondrous queen. Her beauty didn’t hurt either. Unlike her mother, who had been strongly inclined to fat, and indeed in later years had required four young slaves to help her rise from the soft vastness of her couch, Balkis was slender and athletic and disliked assistance from anybody. She had no close confidants among her counsellors or priestesses and made her decisions alone. As was traditional in Sheba, all Balkis’s personal slaves were women. They fell into two categories – the maidens of her chamber, who tended to her hair and jewels and personal hygiene; and the small hereditary caste of guards, whose duty it was to keep the queen from harm. Previous rulers had developed friendships with certain of these slaves, but Balkis disapproved of such notions and kept herself remote. The dawn light reached the canals at last; the water flared and glittered. Balkis rose, stretched, and drank a draught of wine to loosen her stiff limbs. Within moments of the attack she had known in her heart the policy she would follow, but it had taken all night for her to analyse her decision. Now, having done so, she moved seamlessly from thought to action. Crossing the room to the little cabinet beside her chair, she removed the alarm globe and crushed the fragile crystal between her fingertips. She waited, staring into the fire; within thirty seconds she heard the running footsteps in the hall beyond and the door spring open. Balkis, without turning, said, ‘Put away your sword, girl. The danger has passed.’ She listened. She heard the sound of metal sliding in the leather sheath. Balkis said: ‘Which of my guards are you?’ ‘Asmira, my lady.’ ‘Asmira …’ The queen gazed at the leaping flames. ‘Good. You always were the quickest. And the most skilful too, as I recall … Do you serve me in all things, Asmira?’ ‘My lady, I do.’ ‘Would you lay down your life for me?’ ‘I would do so with joy.’ ‘Truly,’ Balkis said, ‘you are your mother’s daughter. One day soon, all Sheba will be in your debt.’ She turned then, and rewarded the girl with the full radiance of her smile. ‘Asmira, my dear, ring for the servants and have them bring us wine and cakes. I wish to talk with you.’ When in due course Guard Captain Asmira left the royal chambers and returned to her little room, her solemn face was flushed and she was breathing hard. She sat for a while on the edge of her trestle bed, staring first at nothing, then at the old familiar cracks in the mud-brick that ran from ceiling to floor. After a time her heartbeat slowed a little and her breathing quietened, but the pride that threatened to burst within her lessened not at all. Her eyes were filled with happy tears. She rose at last and, reaching up to the high shelf set into the wall, brought down a wooden chest, plainly adorned with the symbol of the midday sun. Placing the chest heavily upon the bed, she knelt beside it, cast off the lid, and took from within the five silver daggers that rested there. They glinted in the lantern light as she picked them up, one after another, inspecting the edges, testing the weight. She set them neatly side by side upon the bed. Balancing easily on the balls of her feet, she squatted low, reached beneath her bed and drew out her travelling cloak, her leather shoes and – this required an awkward moment or two of grappling in the remotest corners – a large leather drawstring bag, dusty with disuse. Asmira emptied the contents of the bag upon the floor: two large, roughly folded cloths, oddly stained and charred; several candles; two lighting flints and tapers; an oil lamp; three pots sealed with wax; and eight small weights of carven jade. She considered the items a while as if in hesitation, then shrugged, returned them to the bag, stuffed the silver daggers after them, tightened the drawstrings and stood up. Time was passing swiftly; the priestesses would be gathering in the forecourt to perform their summons, and she still had to visit the temple to get the Blessings of the Sun. But she was ready. Her preparations were complete, and she had no one to say goodbye to. Unstrapping her sword, she laid it on the bed. Then she put on her shoes, picked up her cloak and shouldered the bag. Without a backward glance she left the room. 6 High above the Earth the phoenix soared, a noble bird much like an eagle, save for the reddish tint to its golden feathers and the iridescent flecks on the tips of its outstretched wings. It had a crest the colour of brass, claws like hooks of gold, and jet-black eyes that looked forward and back across eternity. It also had a narked expression and was carrying a quarterton of artichokes in a big string net. Now, the great weight wasn’t the only thing that annoyed me about this job. The early start had been a pain in the plumage too. I’d had to set off shortly after midnight to get from Israel to the northern coast of Africa, where the finest wild artichokes grew, just so (and here I quote the specific terms of my charge) I could ‘pick the juiciest specimens in the crystal dews of dawn’. I ask you. As if it made a blind bit of difference. Digging up the wretched things had been tiresome enough as well – I was going to have soil stuck beneath my claws for weeks – and carrying them back fifteen hundred miles into a mild headwind hadn’t been a picnic either. But I could cope with all this. What really stuck in my fiery craw was the amused chuckles and wry expressions I was getting from my fellow spirits as I neared Jerusalem. Grinning broadly, they flitted past me through the air, splendid and warlike, carrying their shimmering spears and swords. They were off hunting for brigands in the desert wastes – a decent mission worthy of the name. Me? I trundled slowly north with my bag of groceries, wearing a forced smile and muttering salty insults under my breath.1 I was being punished, you see, and it frankly wasn’t fair. Ordinarily, when you kill a magician with a bit of honest trickery and escape back to the Other Place, you’re likely to be left in peace for a while. A few years pass by, maybe a decade or two, and then finally another avaricious chancer who’s learned a bit of old Sumerian and worked out how to draw a pentacle without too many wonky lines will locate your name, summon you back, and start your slavery anew. But at least when that happens, the rules are clear, and tacitly acknowledged by both parties. The magician forces you to help him get wealth and power,2 and you do your best to find a way to nobble him. Sometimes you succeed; more often than not, you don’t. It all depends on the skill and judgement of both sides. But it’s a personal duel, and if you score a rare victory over your oppressor, the last thing you expect is to be brought back instantly and punished for that victory by someone else. Yet that was exactly the way things worked in Solomon’s Jerusalem. Not twenty-four hours after devouring the old magician and departing his tower with a burp and a smile, I’d been summoned back to another tower further along the city wall. Before I could so much as open my mouth to protest, I’d been raddled with a Spasm, Whirled, Pressed, Flipped and Stretched, and finally given a good hard Stippling for my trouble.3 You might think after all that I’d have been given a moment to pass a few acerbic remarks, but no. An instant later I found myself packed off on the first of many degrading missions, all specifically designed to break my carefree spirit. It was a depressing list. First I was sent to Mount Lebanon to chip blue ice from its summit, so the king’s sherbets would be nicely chilled. Next I was ordered to the palace granaries to count the grains of barley for the annual stocktaking. After that I was employed in Solomon’s gardens to pluck dead leaves from the trees and flowers, so that nothing brown or shrivelled might offend the royal eye. There then followed an unpleasant two days in the palace sewers, over which I draw a slightly soiled veil, before a taxing expedition in search of a fresh roc’s egg for the royal household’s breakfast.4 And now, if all that wasn’t enough, I’d been saddled with this current artichoke-fest, which was making me a laughing stock in the eyes of my fellow djinn. None of this broke my spirit, naturally, but it didn’t half make me irritable. And you know who I blamed it all on? Solomon. Not that he was the one who summoned me, of course. He was much too important for that. So important, in fact, that in the three long years I’d spent enslaved in the city, I’d scarcely set eyes on him. Though I’d hung about the palace a fair bit, exploring its mile-wide maze of halls and pleasure gardens, I’d only once or twice seen the king in the distance, surrounded by a gaggle of squalling wives. He didn’t get out much. Apart from his daily councils, to which I wasn’t invited, he passed most of his time cooped up in his private apartments beyond the northern gardens.5 And while he lolled about up there, pampering himself, day-to-day summonings were delegated to his seventeen top magicians, who dwelt in the towers strung along the city walls. My previous master had been one of the Seventeen, and my new master was also – and this, in a nutshell, was proof of Solomon’s power. All magicians are by nature bitter rivals. When one of them is killed, their instinct is to rejoice. In fact they’re more likely to summon up the offending djinni to shake him heartily by the claw than to work any punishment upon him. But not in Solomon’s Jerusalem. The king treated the demise of one of his servants as a personal slight, and demanded retribution. And so it was that – against all laws of natural justice – here I was, enslaved again. Scowling furiously at my misfortunes, I drifted onwards in the warm dry winds. Far below me my fiery shadow flitted over olive groves and barley fields, and dropped and skimmed down steep terraces of fig. Stage by stage Solomon’s little kingdom rolled beneath me, until in the distance I saw the rooftops of his capital, scattered like glittering fish scales on its hill. A few years previously Jerusalem had been a dowdy little town, not especially notable, and certainly not to be compared with capitals such as Nimrud, Babylon or Thebes. Now, it vied with those ancient cities as a place of wealth and splendour – and the reason for this wasn’t hard to guess. It was all about the Ring. The Ring. That was at the heart of it all. That was why Jerusalem flourished. That was why my masters jumped at Solomon’s command. That was why so many magicians congregated around him in the first place, like bloated fleas on a leper’s dog, like moths around a flame. It was thanks entirely to the Ring he wore upon his finger that Solomon enjoyed his life of indolence, and Israel its unparalleled prosperity. It was thanks to the Ring’s sinister reputation that the once-great empires of Egypt and Babylon now kept their wary distance, and watched their frontiers with anxious eyes. It was all about the Ring. Personally speaking, I hadn’t actually seen this benighted artefact close up – but then again, I hadn’t needed to. Even from a distance, I understood its power. All magical objects emit an aura, and the more powerful they are, the brighter that aura is. Once, when Solomon had passed me in the distance, I’d briefly checked the higher planes. The flow of light made me cry out in pain. Something on his person glowed so fearsomely he was almost blotted out. It was like staring into the sun. From what I’d heard, the thing itself wasn’t actually much to look at – just a gold band inlaid with a single gem of black obsidian. But stories said it contained a spirit of supreme power, who was brought forth whenever the Ring was turned upon the finger; merely touching the Ring, meanwhile, summoned a retinue of marids, afrits and djinn to serve the wearer’s will. In other words it was a portable gateway to the Other Place, through which almost unlimited numbers of spirits could be drawn.6 Solomon had access to this awful power on a moment’s whim, and without personal danger. The usual rigours of the magician’s trade were unknown to him. No fiddling with candles or getting chalky knees. No chance of getting fried, roasted or plain old eaten. And no chance either of being murdered by rivals or discontented slaves. In one place a slight scratch was said to mar the Ring; this was where the great marid Azul, taking advantage of an ambiguity in his master’s phrasing, had attempted to destroy it while carrying Solomon by carpet from Lachish to Beth-zur. Azul’s petrified form, worn ever thinner by the desert winds, now stood in lonely isolation above the Lachish road. Earlier in his reign two other marids, Philocretes and Odalis, had also tried to slay the king. Their subsequent careers were similarly melancholy: Philocretes became an echo in a copper pot and Odalis a startled face etched into a floor tile in the royal bathroom. Many such stories were told about the Ring, and it was no surprise that Solomon lived a cushy life as a result. The sheer power and dread exerted by that scrap of gold upon his finger kept all his magicians and their spirits nicely in line, thank you. The threat of its use hovered over us all. Noon came; my journey was at an end. I crossed high above the Kidron Gate, above the teeming markets and bazaars, and finally swung low over the palace and its gardens. In these last few moments my burden felt particularly heavy, and it was fortunate for Solomon that he wasn’t at that moment promenading along his gravel walkways. If I’d seen him, I’d have been sorely tempted to zoom down and offload my cargo of ripe artichokes directly on his preening head, before chasing his wives into the fountains. But all was still. The phoenix continued sedately towards its appointed landing site: namely a scrappy compound at the back end of the palace, where sour smells rose from the slaughtering sheds, and the gates to the kitchens were always open. I descended swiftly, dropped my burden to the ground and alighted, taking the form of a handsome youth as I did so.7 A band of imps scampered forward, ready to carry my net towards the kitchen. Stalking alongside came a plump djinni overseer, long papyrus scrolls in hand. ‘You’re late!’ he exclaimed. ‘All banquet deliveries were due by noon!’ I squinted at the heavens. ‘It is noon, Bosquo. Look at the sun.’ ‘Noon is precisely two minutes gone,’ the djinni said. ‘You, sir, are late. However, we will overlook it just this once. Your name?’ ‘Bartimaeus, bringing artichokes from the Atlas Mountains.’ ‘A moment, a moment … We have so many slaves …’ The djinni took a stylus from behind his ear and buried himself in his scrolls. ‘ – Alef … – Bet … Where’s the scroll? These modern languages … there’s no logic to them … Ah, here …’ He looked up. ‘Right. Yes. Name again?’ I tapped a sandal upon the ground. ‘Bartimaeus.’ Bosquo consulted the scroll. ‘Bartimaeus of Gilat?’ ‘No.’ ‘Bartimaeus of Tel Batash?’ ‘No.’ The scroll was unfurled still further. There was a long pause. ‘Bartimaeus of Khirbet Delhamiyeh?’ ‘No. Where in Marduk’s name is that? Bartimaeus of Uruk, also known as Sakhr al-Jinni, famous confidant of Gilgamesh and Akhenaten, and – for a time – Nefertiti’s most trusted djinni.’ The overseer looked up. ‘Oh, it’s djinn we’re talking about? This is the foliot list.’ ‘The foliot list?’ I gave a cry of rage. ‘What are you holding that for?’ ‘Well, to look at you— Oh, hush. Don’t make such a squalling. Yes, yes, I have located you now. You are one of Khaba’s troublemakers, are you not? Trust me, your long-departed glories will count for little with him!’ Bosquo broke off to issue orders to the imps, while I restrained the urge to swallow him, scrolls and all. I shook my head grimly. The only good thing about the whole embarrassing exchange was that no one else had witnessed it. I turned away – ‘Hello, Bartimaeus.’ – to find myself standing face-to-face with a stocky, potbellied Nubian slave. He was bald of head and red of eye, and sported a leopard-skin skirt with a large machete tucked in the waistband. He also wore seven ivory torcs about his thick bull-neck, and a familiar expression of sardonic mirth. I winced. ‘Hello, Faquarl.’ ‘There you are, you see,’ the djinni Faquarl said. ‘I still recognize you. Your ancient greatness is not yet quite forgotten. And do not give up hope. Perhaps one day the Ballad of the Artichokes will be sung about the hearth-fires too, and your legend will live on.’ I scowled at him. ‘What do you want?’ The Nubian indicated over his swarthy shoulder. ‘Our delightful master requires the whole company to assemble on the hill behind the palace. You’re the last to arrive.’ ‘The day just keeps getting better and better,’ I said sourly. ‘All right, let’s go.’ The handsome youth and the short, squat Nubian walked together across the yard, and those lesser spirits we met, observing our true natures on the higher planes, hopped hurriedly aside. At the rear gate, vigilant demi-afrits with flies’ eyes and the ears of bats noted our names and numbers, and checked our identities against further scrolls. We were ushered through, and presently came out on an area of rough ground on the edge of the hill, with the city shimmering below. Not far away six other spirits stood waiting in a line. My recent assignments having all been solitary ones, it was the first time I’d seen my fellow offending djinn together, and I scrutinized them closely. ‘As revolting a group of ne’er-do-wells as have ever been assembled,’ Faquarl remarked, ‘and that was before you arrived. Not just hideous, either. Each and every one of us has killed or maimed his previous master – or, in the case of Chosroes, roundly insulted her with the harshest possible language. We are a grim and dangerous company.’ Some of the spirits, like Faquarl, I’d known and disliked for years; others were new to me. All had adopted human guises on the first plane, their bodies in more or less correct proportions. Most had muscular torsos and sculpted limbs, though none quite as sculpted as mine; one or two had chosen bandy legs and plump, protruding bellies. All were dressed in the simple, rough-spun skirts of the typical male slave. As we drew close, however, I noticed that even here each of the renegade djinn had subtly undermined his human shape by adding a small demonic detail. Some had horns peeping through their hair; others had tails, large pointed ears or cloven hooves. The insubordination was risky, but stylish.8 I decided to join in, and allowed two small ram’s horns to curl out on my brow. Faquarl, I noticed, had given his Nubian an elegant set of nicely filed fangs. Thus beautified, we took our places in the line. We waited; a hot wind blew upon the hilltop. Far to the west, clouds were massing above the sea. I shifted from foot to foot and yawned. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘is he coming or not? I’m bored, I’m knackered, and I could do with an imp. In fact I saw some back in the yard that wouldn’t be missed if we were quiet about it. If we got a little bag—’ My neighbour nudged me. ‘Hush,’ he hissed. ‘Oh come on, what’s so bad about that? We all do it.’ ‘Hush,’ he snapped. ‘He’s here.’ I stiffened. At my side seven other djinn sprang to swift attention; we all stared glassily above our heads. A figure in black came up the hill, his shadow stretching long and thin behind him. 1Which I’m certainly not going to repeat here. Unlike some lesser djinn I could name, who rejoice in vulgarisms and inappropriate analogies, I’m a stickler for propriety. Always have been. Famous for it. In fact you could tattoo what I don’t know about good taste on the backside of a midget, assuming you hold him down hard enough to stop him squirming. 2Tomb-building, treasure-hunting, battle-fighting, artichoke-collecting … Outwardly different, maybe – but in the end all magicians’ demands boil down to wealth and power, whatever they might claim. 3Spasms, Whirls, Stipples, etc.: punitive spells frequently employed to keep a healthy young djinni in line. Painful, tedious, usually non-fatal. 4Gourmet’s note: one roc’s egg, scrambled, feeds roughly 700 wives, provided you mix in a few vats of milk and a churn or three of butter. I had to whisk the thing as well, which gave me a sore elbow. 5It hadn’t always been that way, if you could believe the stories. Long-serving djinn reported that in the early years of his reign Solomon enjoyed regular banquets and masques and entertainments of every conceivable kind (though girning and juggling always featured prominently). Each night, garlands of imp-lights would illuminate the cypress trees, and roving spirit-globes bathed the palace in a thousand shifting colours. Solomon, his wives and courtiers would frolic upon the lawns while he worked wonders for them with his Ring. Times, it seemed, had changed since then. 6As well as all this the Ring was said to protect Solomon from magical attack, give him extraordinary personal allure (which possibly explained all those wives cluttering up the place) and allow him to understand the language of birds and animals. Not bad, in short, though the last one isn’t half as useful as you might expect, since when all’s said and done the language of the beasts tends to revolve around: (a) the endless hunt for food, (b) finding a warm bush to sleep in of an evening, and (c) the sporadic satisfaction of certain glands.* Elements such as nobility, humour and poetry of the soul are conspicuously lacking. You have to come to middle-ranking djinn for them. * Many would argue that the language of humankind boils down to this too. 7It was the guise I’d worn when I was spear-bearer to Gilgamesh, two thousand years before: a tall, beautiful young man, smooth-skinned and almond-eyed. He wore a long wrapped skirt, necklaces of amethyst on his breast and ringlets in his hair, and had about him an air of wistful grace that contrasted pungently with the foul detritus of the kitchen yard. I often used this form in such circumstances. It made me feel better somehow. 8Solomon’s edicts dictated that ordinary human shapes were maintained at all times outside the palace walls. Animals were forbidden, likewise mythic beasts; grotesque deformities were out too, which was a shame. The idea was to prevent the common people being startled by repulsive sights – such as Beyzer taking a stroll with his limbs on back to front. Or, admittedly, yours truly forgetfully popping out to buy some figs in the guise of a rotting corpse, thus causing the great Fruit Market Terror, fifteen deaths in the associated stampede, and the destruction of half the commercial district. Got my figs dirt cheap, mind, so it wasn’t all bad. 7 His name1 was Khaba, and whatever else he might have been, he was certainly a formidable magician. In origin, perhaps, he was a child of Upper Egypt, the quick-witted son of some peasant farmer toiling in the black mud of the Nile. Then (for this is the way it had worked for centuries) the priests of Ra would have chanced upon him and taken him away to their granite-walled stronghold at Karnak, where quick-witted youths grew up in smoke and darkness, and were taught the twinned arts of magic and amassing power. For a thousand years and more, these priests had shared with the pharaohs control of Egypt, sometimes vying with them, sometimes supporting them; and in the days of the nation’s glory Khaba would doubtless have remained there, and by plot or poison worked his way close to the pinnacles of Egyptian rule. But the throne of Thebes was old and battered now, and a greater light shone in Jerusalem. With ambition gnawing in his belly, Khaba had learned what he could from his tutors, then travelled east to seek employment at the court of Solomon. Perhaps he had been here many years. But he carried the odour of the Karnak temples still. Even now, as he clambered to the hilltop and stood regarding us in the brightness of the noonday sun, there was something of the crypt about him. Up until that moment I’d only seen him in the summoning room of his tower, a place of darkness where I’d been in too much pain to assess him properly. But now I saw that his skin had a faint grey cast that spoke of windowless sanctuaries underground, while his eyes were large and roundish, like those of cavern fishes circling in the dark.2 Below each eye a thin, deep weal descended almost vertically across his cheek towards his chin; whether these marks were natural, or had been caused by some desperate slave, was a matter for speculation. In short, Khaba wasn’t much of a looker. A cadaver would have crossed the street to avoid him. As with all the strongest magicians, his dress was simple. His chest was bare, his skirt plainly wrapped and unadorned. A long, leather-handled whip of many cords swung from a bone hook at his belt; about his neck, suspended on a loop of gold, hung a black and polished stone. Both objects pulsed with power; the stone, I guessed, was a scrying glass that allowed the magician to view things far away. The whip? Well, I knew what that was, of course. Just the thought of it made me shiver on the sunlit hill. The row of djinn stood silently as the magician looked us up and down. The big, moist eyes blinked at each of us in turn. Then he frowned and, holding one hand above his eyes to shield them from the glare, looked again at our horns and tails and other extracurricular additions. His hand stole towards the whip, fingers tapped upon the handle for a moment … then fell away. The magician took a short pace back, and addressed us in a soft and chalky voice. ‘I am Khaba,’ he said. ‘You are my slaves and my instruments. I tolerate no disobedience. That is the first thing you need to know. Here is the second thing: you stand on the high hill of Jerusalem, a place held sacred by our master, Solomon. There shall be no frivolity or misbehaviour here on pain of direst penalty.’ Slowly he began to walk to and fro along the line, his shadow trailing long and thin behind him. ‘For thirty years I have sent demons scampering beneath my whip. Those that resisted me I have crushed. Some are dead. Others yet live – after a fashion. None have gone back to the Other Place. Heed this warning well!’ He paused. His words echoed off the palace walls and faded. ‘I notice,’ Khaba continued, ‘that in defiance of Solomon’s edicts, you each flaunt some devilish accessory to your human forms. Perhaps you expect me to be shocked. If so, you are mistaken. Perhaps you think of this pathetic gesture as some kind of “rebellion”. If so, it merely confirms what I already know – that you are too cowed and fearful to try anything more impressive. Keep your horns for today, if it makes you feel better, but be aware that from tomorrow I shall use my essence-flail on any who display them.’ He took the whip in hand and flourished it in the air. Several of us flinched, and eight gloomy pairs of eyes watched the cords flicking to and fro.3 Khaba nodded with satisfaction and returned it to his belt. ‘Where now are those arrogant djinn who caused such trouble to their previous masters?’ he said. ‘Gone! You are docile and obedient, just as you should be. Very well, to your next task. You are brought together to begin work on a new construction project for King Solomon. He wishes a great temple to be built here, an architectural marvel that will be the envy of the kings in Babylon. I have been given the honour of fulfilling the initial phase – this side of the hill must be cleared and made level, and a quarry opened up in the valley below. You will follow the plans I give you, shaping the stones and dragging them up here, before— Well, Bartimaeus, what is it?’ I had raised an elegant hand. ‘Why drag the stones? Isn’t it quicker to fly them up? We could all manage a couple at a time, even Chosroes.’ A djinni with bat ears further up the line gave an indignant squeak. ‘Hey!’ The magician shook his head. ‘No. You are still in the confines of the city. Just as Solomon has forbidden unnatural guises here, you must avoid magical shortcuts and work at human pace. This will be a holy building, and must be built with care.’ I gave a cry of protest. ‘No magic? But this’ll take years!’ The gleaming eyes gazed at me. ‘Do you question my command?’ I hesitated, then looked away. ‘No.’ The magician turned aside and spoke a word. With a dull retort and the faintest smell of rotting eggs, a small lilac cloud billowed into existence at Khaba’s side and hung there, palpitating gently. Lounging in the cloud, its spindly arms behind its head, sat a twirly-tailed green-skinned creature with round red cheeks, twinkling eyes and an expression of impudent over-familiarity. It grinned at us. ‘Hello, lads.’ ‘This is the foliot Gezeri,’ our master said. ‘He is my eyes and ears. When I am not present on the building site, he will inform me of any slackness or deviation from my commands.’ The foliot’s grin widened. ‘They won’t be no trouble, Khaba. Sweet-natured as lambs, the lot of them.’ Sticking a fattoed foot down below its cloud, it kicked once, propelling the cloud a short way through the air. ‘Thing is, they know what’s good for them, you can see that.’ ‘I hope so.’ Khaba made an impatient gesture. ‘Time passes! You must get on with your work. Clear the brushwood and level the hilltop! You know the terms of your summoning: adhere to them always. I want discipline, I want efficiency, I want silent dedication. No backchat, arguments or distractions. Divide yourselves into four work-teams. I shall bring the temple plan out to you presently. That is all.’ And with that he spun upon his heel and began to walk away, the picture of arrogant indifference. Kicking an indolent leg, the foliot guided its cloud after him, making a series of rude faces over its shoulder as it did so. And still, despite all the provocation, none of us said anything. At my side I heard Faquarl give a kind of strangled snarl under his breath, as if he longed to speak out, but the rest of my fellow slaves were utterly tongue-tied, afraid of retribution. But you know me. I’m Bartimaeus: I don’t do tongue-tied.4 I coughed loudly and put up my hand. Gezeri spun round; the magician, Khaba, turned more slowly. ‘Well?’ ‘Bartimaeus of Uruk again, Master. I have a complaint.’ The magician blinked his big wet eyes. ‘A complaint?’ ‘That’s right. You’re not deaf then, which must be a relief, what with all your other physical problems. It’s my work partners, I’m afraid. They’re not up to scratch.’ ‘Not … up to scratch?’ ‘Yes. Do try to keep up. Not all of them, mind. I’ve got nothing against …’ I turned to the djinni on my left, a fresh-faced youth with a single stubby brow-horn. ‘Sorry, what was your name?’ ‘Menes.’ ‘Young Menes. I’m sure he’s a worthy fellow. And that fat one with the hooves over there might be a good worker too, for all I know; he’s certainly packing enough essence. But some of the others … If we’re cooped up here for months on a big job … Well, the long and the short of it is, we just won’t gel. We’ll fight, argue, bicker … Take Faquarl here. Impossible to work with! Always ends in tears.’ Faquarl gave a lazy chuckle, showing his gleaming fangs. ‘Ye-e-es … I should point out, Master, that Bartimaeus is an appalling fantasist. You can’t believe a word he says.’ ‘Exactly,’ the hoofed slave put in. ‘He called me fat.’ The bat-eared djinni snorted. ‘You are fat.’ ‘Shut up, Chosroes.’ ‘You shut up, Beyzer.’ ‘See?’ I made a regretful gesture. ‘Bickering. Before you know it we’ll be at each other’s throats. Best thing would be to dismiss us all, with the notable exception of Faquarl, who, despite his deficient personality, is very good with a chisel. He will be a fine and loyal servant for you and work hard enough for eight.’ At this the magician opened his mouth to speak, but was pre-empted by a somewhat forced laugh from the pot-bellied Nubian, who stepped smoothly forward. ‘On the contrary,’ he urged, ‘Bartimaeus is the one you should keep. As you can see, he’s as vigorous as a marid. He is also famed for his achievements in construction, some of which resound in fable to this day.’ I scowled. ‘They don’t at all. I’m hopeless.’ ‘Such modesty is typical of him,’ Faquarl smiled. ‘His only drawback is an inability to work with other djinn, who are usually dismissed when he is summoned. But – to his abilities. Surely even in this backwater you will have heard of the Great Flooding of the Euphrates? Well, then. The instigator stands right there!’ ‘Oh, it’s just like you to bring that up, Faquarl. That incident was totally over-reported. There was no real harm done—’ The bat-eared Chosroes gave a cry of indignation. ‘No harm? An inundation from Ur to Shuruppak, so that only the flat white rooftops protruded above the waters? It was like the world was drowned! And all because you, Bartimaeus, built a dam across the river for a bet!’ ‘Well, I won the bet, didn’t I? Get things in perspective.’ ‘At least he can build something, Chosroes.’ ‘What? My building projects in Babylon were the talk of the town!’ ‘Like that tower you never finished?’ ‘Oh come now, Nimshik – that was down to problems with foreign workers.’ My work was done. The argument was going nicely; all discipline and focus had vanished, and the magician was a satisfying shade of purple. All complacency had gone from the foliot Gezeri too, who was gawping like a trout. Khaba gave a cry of rage. ‘All of you! Be still.’ But it was far too late. Our line had already disintegrated into a bickering melee of shaking fists and jabbing fingers. Tails whirled, horns flashed in the sun; one or two previously absent claws slyly materialized to reinforce their owners’ points. Now, I’ve known some masters to give up at this juncture, to throw their hands in the air and dismiss their slaves – if only temporarily – just to get a bit of peace. But the Egyptian was made of sterner stuff. He took a slow step backwards, his features twisted, and unhooked the essence-flail from his belt. Clasping it firmly by its handle and shouting out an incantation, he cracked it once, twice, three times above his head. From each of the whirling thongs emerged a jagged spear of yellow force. The spears stabbed out, impaled us all and snatched us burning into the sky. Up under the hot sun we swung, higher than the palace walls, suspended on yellow snags of burning light. Down below us the magician spun his arm in looping circles, high and low, faster and faster, while Gezeri hopped and capered in delight. Round we flew, limp and helpless, colliding sometimes with each other, sometimes with the ground. Showers of wounded essence trailed behind us, hung shimmering like oily bubbles in the desert air. The Gyration ceased, the essence-skewers were withdrawn. At last the magician lowered his arm. Eight broken objects fell heavily to Earth, our edges sloughing like pats of melting butter. We landed on our heads. The dust clouds slowly settled. Side by side we sat there, wedged into the ground like broken teeth or tilting statues. Several of us were gently steaming. Our heads were half buried in the dirt, our legs sagged in the air like wilting stems. Not far away, the heat haze shifted, broke, re-formed, and through its fractured strands the magician strode, his long black shadow flowing at his back. Wisps of yellow force still radiated from the flail, snapping faintly, slowly fading. On all the hill this was the only sound. I spat out a pebble. ‘I think he forgives us, Faquarl,’ I croaked. ‘Look, he’s smiling.’ ‘Remember, Bartimaeus – we’re upside-down.’ ‘Oh. Right.’ Khaba came to a halt and stared down at us. ‘This,’ he said softly, ‘is what I do to slaves who disobey me once.’ There was a silence. Even I didn’t have much to say. ‘Let me show you what I do to slaves who disobey me twice.’ He held out his hand and spoke a word. A glimmering point of light, brighter than the sun, floated suddenly in the air above his palm. Soundlessly it expanded to become a luminous sphere, cupped by his hand but still not touching it – a sphere that darkened now, like water filled with blood. Within the sphere: an image, moving. A creature, slow, blind and in great pain, lost in a place of darkness. Silent, upside-down and sagging, we watched the lost, maimed thing. We watched it for a long time. ‘Do you recognize it?’ the magician said. ‘It is a spirit like you, or was so once. It too knew the freedom of the open air. Perhaps, like you, it enjoyed wasting my time, neglecting the tasks I gave it. I do not recall, for I have kept it in the vault beneath my tower for many years, and it has probably forgotten the details itself. Occasionally I give it certain delicate stimulations just to remind it it is still alive; otherwise I leave it to its misery.’ The eyes blinked slowly round at us; the voice was just as level as before. ‘If any of you wish to become like this, you may annoy me one more time. If not, you will set to work and dig and carve as Solomon commands – and pray, if such a reflex is in your nature, that I may one day permit you to leave this Earth again.’ The image in the sphere dwindled; the sphere fizzled and went out. The magician turned away and headed off towards the palace. His shadow trailed long and black behind him, skipping, dancing across the stones. None of us said anything. One after another we toppled sideways and collapsed into the dust. 1His assumed name, I mean – the name by which he was known in his comings and goings about the world. It was meaningless, in truth, a mask beneath which his true nature was protected and concealed. Like all magicians, his birth-name – the key to his power and his most precious possession – had been expunged in childhood, and forgotten. 2They were unappetizingly moist too, as if he was just about to weep with guilt or sorrow, or in pity for his victims. But did he? Nope. Such emotions were alien to Khaba’s heart and the tears never came. 3Essence-flail: the favoured weapon of the priests of Ra back in the old days of Khufu and the pyramids. Very good at keeping djinn in order. Theban craftsmen still make them, but the best are found in ancient tombs. Khaba’s was an original – you could tell by the handle, which was bound in human-slave skin, complete with faint tattoos. 4 Apart from literally, once or twice, when certain Assyrian priests got so peeved with my cheek they pierced my tongue with thorns and bound me by it to a post in Nineveh’s central square. However, they’d reckoned without the elasticity of my essence. I was able to elongate my tongue sufficiently to retire to a nearby inn for a leisurely drink of barley wine, and subtly trip up several dignitaries as they strutted by. 8 North of Sheba the deserts of Arabia stretched unbroken for a thousand miles, a vast and waterless wedge of sand and stone-dry hills, bordered to the west by the blank Red Sea. To the far north-west, where the peninsula collided with Egypt, and the Red Sea petered out at the Gulf of Aqaba, lay the trading port of Eilat, since ancient times a meeting place of roads and goods and men. To get from Sheba to Eilat, where their spices could be sold at great profit in the old bazaars, the frankincense traders travelled a circuitous route between the desert and the sea, winding through numerous petty kingdoms, paying tolls and fighting off attacks by hill-tribes and their djinn. If all was set fair, assuming their camels remained healthy and they escaped major depredations, the traders could expect to arrive in Eilat after six or seven weeks in a state of considerable exhaustion. Guard Captain Asmira made the journey in a single night, carried by a cone of whirling sand. Outside the protective Mantle, in the howling darkness, the storm of sand grains scoured the air. Asmira saw nothing; she sat crouched with her arms clasping her knees, eyes tight shut, trying to ignore the voices that, from amid the whirlwind, continually screamed her name. This was a provocation on the part of the spirit that carried her, but otherwise the priestesses’ strictures held firm. Asmira was neither dropped, nor crushed, nor torn asunder, but carried without harm; and set down gently just as dawn was breaking. Painfully, by slow degrees, she uncurled herself and allowed her eyes to open. She sat on a hilltop, in the centre of three perfect rings of sand. Small thickets of brush were dotted here and there, and razor-grass, and rocks that glinted in the rising sun. A little naked child was standing on the hillcrest, watching her with bright, dark eyes. ‘There is Eilat,’ the djinni said. ‘You will reach it late morning.’ Asmira looked, and far away saw a yellow cluster of lights hanging smudged and distant in the lifting darkness, and close beside it a flat white line, thin as a knife-blade, separating sky and land. ‘And that,’ the child added, pointing, ‘is the sea. The Gulf of Aqaba. You are at the southernmost point of Solomon’s kingdom. From Eilat you can hire camels to take you to Jerusalem, a journey still of several hundred miles. I myself can bear you no further safely. Solomon has established shipyards in Eilat, that he may control the trading routes along the coast. Some of his magicians are here, and many spirits, who will be vigilant against intruders such as me. I cannot enter the town.’ Asmira was getting to her feet, gasping at the stiffness of her limbs. ‘Then I thank you for your help,’ she said. ‘When you return to Marib, please express my thanks also to the priestesses and my beloved queen. Say that I am grateful for their assistance, and that I shall carry out my task with the full vigour of my being, and—’ ‘Don’t thank me,’ the child said. ‘I only do what I am forced to do. Indeed, were it not for the threat of the Dismal Flame I would devour you in a twinkling, for you are a succulent-looking morsel. As for the queen and her minions, in my opinion your gratitude to them is equally misplaced, since they send you to a miserable death, while their backsides continue to expand at leisure in the soft luxuries of the palace courts. Still, I’ll pass your regards on.’ ‘Foul demon!’ Asmira snarled. ‘If I die, it shall be for my queen! My nation has been attacked and the Sun God himself has blessed my venture. You know nothing of loyalty or love of homeland! Be gone from here!’ She clasped something that hung about her neck and spoke an angry syllable; a flashing disc of yellow light struck the djinni and sent it somersaulting backwards with a cry. ‘That was a pretty trick,’ the little child said, picking itself up. ‘But your power is thin, and your motives even thinner. Gods and nations – what are they but words?’ It closed its eyes; was gone. A gentle breeze blew away into the south, scattering the perfect rings of sand and making Asmira shiver. She knelt beside her leather bag, and removed from it her water-skin, a pastry wrapped in vine leaves, a silver dagger, and her travelling cloak, which she placed about her shoulders to keep warm. Her first action was to drink deeply from the skin, for she was very thirsty. Next she ate the pastry with brisk, efficient little bites, staring down the hill, planning her route towards the town. Then she turned to face the east, where the Sun God’s disc was just pulling free of the Earth. Somewhere far away it settled on fair Sheba too. His glory blinded Asmira, his warmth fell on her face. Her movements slowed, her mind emptied; the urgencies of her mission loosened their hold upon her. She stood upon the hilltop, a slight, slim young woman, with gold light shining on her long dark hair. When she was still very young, Asmira’s mother had taken her to the palace roof and walked her in a circle, so she could look out all around. ‘The city of Marib is built on a hill,’ her mother said, ‘and this hill is Sheba’s centre as the heart is the centre of the body. Long ago, the Sun God ordained our city’s size and shape, and we cannot build beyond its limits. So we build upwards! See the towers rising on every side? Our people live within them, a family to a floor, and when the need arises we build another level in fresh mud brick. Now, child, look beyond the hill. You see that all about us is green, while beyond lies yellow desert? These are our gardens, which keep us all alive. Each year snows melt in the mountains and run in torrents along the dust-dry wadis to irrigate our lands. Queens of the past cut the channels to irrigate the fields with water. Maintenance of these channels is their most important duty, for without them we die. Now look to the east – see that range of blue-white mountains? That is the Hadhramaut, where grow our forests. These trees are our other most precious resource. We harvest their resin and dry it … and what does it become then?’ Asmira had hopped and capered with excitement, for she knew the answer. ‘Frankincense, Mother! The stuff the hill-men stink of!’ Her mother had placed a steely hand upon her daughter’s head. ‘Not so much jigging about, girl. A palace guard does not cavort like a dervish, even at the age of five. But you are right. This incense is our gold, and makes our people rich. We trade with distant empires far away beyond the deserts and the seas. They pay well for it, but they would steal it if they could. Only the great sands of Arabia, which an army cannot cross, have shielded us from their greed.’ Asmira had stopped her spinning. She frowned. ‘If enemies came here,’ she said, ‘the queen would kill them. Wouldn’t she, Mother? She keeps us safe.’ ‘Yes, child. Our queen keeps Sheba safe. And we in turn keep her safe – the guards and I. That is what we are born to do. When you grow up, dear Asmira, you too must protect our blessed lady with your life – just as I have, and our grandmothers did before us. Do you so swear?’ Asmira was as still and serious as could be. ‘Mother, I do.’ ‘Good girl. Then let us go down and join our sisters.’ At that time the old Queen of Sheba had not yet grown too heavy to leave the palace, and was accompanied wherever she went by an escort of her guard. As its leader, Asmira’s mother always walked right behind the queen, close as a shadow, curved sword hanging easily at her waist. Asmira (who particularly admired her mother’s long and shining hair) thought her far more beautiful and regal than the queen herself, though she took care not to mention this to anyone. Such a thought was possibly treasonous, and there was a place for traitors on the bare hill beyond the water meadows, where their remains were picked over by little birds. Instead she contented herself imagining the day when she would be First Guard and walk behind the queen. She went out to the gardens behind the palace and, with a severed reed stem, practised savage swordplay, putting ranks of imagined demons to full and awful flight. From the earliest age she joined her mother in the training hall, where, under the watchful eye of the wrinkled guard-mothers, who were now too old for active service, the women of the guard daily learned their craft. Before breakfast they scaled ropes, ran around the meadows, swam in the canals below the walls. Now, their muscles readied, they worked six hours a day in the echoing, sunlit rooms, sparring with swords and twirl-staffs, duelling with knives and whirling fists, throwing discs and daggers into straw-stuffed targets across the floor. Asmira would watch it all from the benches, where the guard-mothers bound wounds and bruises in cloths lined with soothing herbs. Often she and other girls would pick up the little wooden weapons laid out for them, join their mothers in gentle play-fights, and so begin their training. Asmira’s mother was the most accomplished of the women, which is why she was First Guard. She ran fastest, fought most fiercely, and above all threw the little shining daggers more accurately than anyone else. She could do this standing, moving, and even on the half-turn, sending the blade hilt-deep into any chosen target far off along the hall. Asmira was mesmerized by this. Often she scampered up, holding out her hand. ‘I want a go.’ ‘You’re not old enough,’ her mother said, smiling. ‘There are wooden ones that are better weighted, so you don’t do yourself a mischief. No, not like that’ – for Asmira had prised the dagger from her grasp – ‘you need to hold the point lightly between the thumb and forefinger … like so. Now, you must be calm. Close your eyes, take a deep, slow breath—’ ‘Don’t need to! Watch this for a shot! Oh.’ Her mother laughed. ‘Not a bad attempt, Asmira. If the target was six paces to its right and twenty paces nearer, you would have hit it square on. As it is, I’m glad I don’t have slightly larger feet.’ She stooped, picked up the knife. ‘Have another try.’ The years passed, the Sun God worked his daily passage through the heavens. Now Asmira was seventeen years old, light of foot and serious of eye, and one of four newly promoted captains of the palace guard. She had excelled during the latest rebellion of the hill-tribes, and had personally captured the rebel chief and his magicians. She had several times deputized for the First Guard in standing behind the queen during ceremonies in the temples. But the Queen of Sheba herself had never once spoken to her, never once acknowledged her existence – until the night the tower burned. Beyond the window, smoke still drifted on the air; from the Hall of the Dead came the sound of mourning drums. Asmira sat in the royal chamber, awkwardly holding a cup of wine and staring at the floor. ‘Asmira, my dear,’ the queen said. ‘Do you know who carried out this dreadful act?’ Asmira raised her eyes. The queen was sitting so close to her their knees almost touched. It was an unheard-of proximity. Her heart thudded in her chest. She lowered her gaze again. ‘They say, my lady,’ she stammered, ‘they say it was King Solomon.’ ‘Do they say why?’ ‘No, my lady.’ ‘Asmira, you may look on me when you speak. I am your queen, yes, but we are both of us daughters of the Sun.’ When Asmira looked up once more, the queen was smiling. The sight made her a little light-headed; she took a sip of wine. ‘The First Guard has often spoken about your qualities,’ the queen went on. ‘Quick, strong and clever, she says. Unafraid of danger. Resourceful, almost reckless … And pretty too – I can see that for myself. Tell me, what do you know of Solomon, Asmira? What stories have you heard?’ Asmira’s face was burning and her throat felt tight. Perhaps it was the smoke. She had been marshalling the water-chains below the tower. ‘I have heard the usual tales, my lady. He has a palace of jade and gold, built in a single night with his magic Ring. He controls twenty thousand spirits, each more terrible than the last. He has seven hundred wives – and is therefore clearly a man of abominable wickedness. He—’ The queen raised her hand. ‘I have heard this too.’ Her smile faded. ‘Asmira, Solomon desires the wealth of Sheba. One of his demons carried out tonight’s attack, and when the moon is new – which will be in thirteen days – the full host of the Ring will come here to destroy us all.’ Asmira’s eyes opened wide in horror; she said nothing. ‘Unless, that is,’ the queen went on, ‘I pay a ransom. Needless to say, I do not wish to do so. That would be an affront to both Sheba’s honour and my own. But what is the alternative? The power of the Ring is too great to withstand. Only if Solomon himself is killed might the danger pass. But that is almost impossible, since he never leaves Jerusalem, a city that is too well-guarded for armies or magicians to hope to enter. And yet …’ The queen sighed heavily and stared out of the window. ‘And yet I wonder. I wonder whether someone travelling alone, someone with sufficient intelligence and skill, someone who seems harmless, and yet is not so – whether that person might find a way to get access to the king … And when she is alone with him, she might— Ah, but it would be a hard task indeed.’ ‘My lady …’ Asmira’s voice quivered with eagerness, as well as fear at what she was about to say. ‘My lady, if there’s any way that I can help—’ The Queen of Sheba smiled benignly. ‘My dear, you need say no more. I already know your faith. I know your love for me. Yes, dear Asmira, thank you for suggesting it. I do believe you can.’ The rising sun hung low above the eastern desert. When Asmira stirred and turned to face the west again, she found the port of Eilat had become a clear white scattering of buildings, and the sea an azure strip, to which tiny white things clung. Her eyes narrowed. Ships belonging to the wicked Solomon. From now on she must take care. She picked up the silver dagger from where it lay beside her bag and tucked it in her belt, pushing it out of sight beneath her cloak. As she did so, her gaze strayed high above: she saw the outline of the waning moon, still hanging frail and ghost-like in the blue. The sight gave her fresh urgency. Twelve days remaining! And Solomon was far away. Picking up her bag, she jogged swiftly down the hill. 9 ‘Watch where you drop those chippings,’ Faquarl snapped. ‘That last shower went down my neck.’ ‘Sorry.’ ‘And you might wear a longer skirt while you’re about it. I’m afraid to look up.’ I paused in my chiselling. ‘Can I help it if this is the current fashion?’ ‘You’re eclipsing the sun. Move along a bit, at least.’ We scowled at each other. I moved a grudging inch to my left; Faquarl moved a resentful inch to his right. We went on carving. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much,’ Faquarl said sourly, ‘if we could do this properly. A quick Detonation or two would work wonders on this rock.’ ‘Tell that to Solomon,’ I said. ‘It’s his fault we’re not allowed to— Ow!’ My hammer hit my thumb instead of the chisel. I hopped and pranced; my curses echoed off the rock-face and startled a nearby vulture. All morning, since the dark-blue hour of dawn, the two of us had been toiling in the quarry below the building site, hacking out the first blocks for the temple. Faquarl’s ledge was somewhat below mine, so he got the worst of the view. Mine was fully exposed to the rigours of the risen sun, so I was hot and irritable. And now my thumb was sore. I took a look around: rocks, heat haze, nothing moving on any plane. ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ I said. ‘Khaba’s not about, and nor is that nasty little foliot of his. I’m having a break.’ So saying, the handsome youth tossed his chisel aside and slid down the wooden ladder to the quarry floor. Faquarl was the Nubian again, plump, pot-bellied, dusty and glowering. He hesitated, then threw his tools down as well. We squatted together in the shade beneath his half-squared block, in the manner of idling slaves the world over. ‘We’ve got the worst job again,’ I said. ‘Why couldn’t we be digging foundations with the rest of them?’ The Nubian scratched his stomach, selected a chipping from the rubble at our feet and picked his delicately pointed teeth. ‘Perhaps because our master dislikes us most particularly. Which in your case isn’t surprising, considering the lip you gave him yesterday.’ I smiled contentedly. ‘True.’ ‘Speaking of the magician,’ Faquarl said. ‘This Khaba: what do you make of him?’ ‘Bad. You?’ ‘One of the very worst.’ ‘I’d say top-ten bad, possibly even top-five.’ ‘Not only is he vicious,’ Faquarl added, ‘but he’s arbitrary. Viciousness I can respect; in many ways I find it a positive quality. But he’s just a little too quick with the essence-flail. If you work too slow; if you work too fast; if you happen to be nearby when he feels like it – every opportunity, out it comes.’ I nodded. ‘Too right. He scoured me again last night simply because of a pure coincidence.’ ‘Which was?’ ‘I made a gratuitous comedy sound-effect just as he bent to retie his sandals.’ I gave a sigh and shook my head sadly. ‘True, it echoed off the valley walls like a thunderclap. True, several grandees of Solomon’s court were in attendance and hurriedly changed course to get upwind of him. But even so! The fellow lacks humour – that’s the root of the problem.’ ‘Good to see you’re still as cultivated as ever, Bartimaeus,’ Faquarl said blandly. ‘I try. I try.’ ‘But recreations aside, we need to be careful with Khaba. You remember what he showed us in the sphere? That could be either one of us.’ ‘I know.’ The Nubian finished picking at his teeth and tossed the chip away. We stared out together at the pulsating whiteness of the quarry. Now, to the casual onlooker the dialogue above may seem unremarkable, but in fact it scores highly for originality as it featured Faquarl and me having a chat without resorting to (a) petty abuse, (b) contrived innuendo, or (c) attempted murder. This, down the centuries, was a fairly unusual event. In fact there were entire civilizations that had hauled themselves from the mud, mastered the arts of writing and astronomy, and decayed slowly into decadence in the intervals between us having a civil conversation. We’d first crossed paths in Mesopotamia, during the interminable wars between the city states. Sometimes we fought on the same side; sometimes we were ranged against each other in battle. This in itself wasn’t a big deal – it was par for the course for any spirit, and a situation quite outside our control, since it was our masters who forced us into action – but somehow Faquarl and I seemed to rub each other up the wrong way. Quite why was hard to say. In many respects we had a lot in common. First off, we were both djinn of high repute and ancient origin, although (typically) Faquarl insisted his origin was a little more ancient than mine.1 Secondly, we were both zestful individuals, potent, resourceful and good in a scrap, and formidable opponents of our human masters. Between us we had accounted for a great many magicians who had failed to close their pentacles properly, misspoken a word during our summonings, left a loophole in the terms and conditions of our indentures, or otherwise messed up the dangerous process of bringing us to Earth. The flaw in our feistiness, however, was that competent magicians, recognizing our qualities and wishing to use them for their own ends, summoned us ever more frequently. The net result was that Faquarl and I were the two hardest-working spirits of that millennium, at least in our opinion. If all that wasn’t enough, we had plenty of shared interests too, notably architecture, politics and regional cuisine.2 So one way and another you’d have thought that Faquarl and I would have got along fine. Instead, for some reason, we got up each other’s noses,3 and always had done. Still, we were generally prepared to put our differences aside when faced with a mutual enemy, and our present master certainly fitted that bill. Any magician capable of summoning eight djinn at once was clearly a formidable proposition, and the essence-flail didn’t make things any easier. But I felt there was something more to him even than that. ‘There’s one odd thing about Khaba,’ I said suddenly. ‘Have you noticed—?’ Faquarl gave me a sharp nudge; he tilted his head slightly. Two of our fellow workers, Xoxen and Tivoc, had appeared down the quarry path. Both were trudging wearily and rested spades upon their shoulders. ‘Faquarl! Bartimaeus!’ Xoxen was incredulous. ‘What are you doing?’ Tivoc’s eyes gleamed nastily. ‘They’re having a breather.’ ‘Come and join us if you want,’ I said. Xoxen leaned upon his spade and wiped his face with a dirty hand. ‘You fools!’ he hissed. ‘Don’t you remember the name and nature of our master? He is not called Khaba the Cruel because of the fond generosity he shows to skiving spirits! He ordered us to work without breaks during the hours of light. By day we toil, by night we rest! What is there in this concept that you don’t understand?’ ‘You’ll have us all in the essence-cages,’ Tivoc snarled. Faquarl made a dismissive motion. ‘The Egyptian is just a human, imprisoned in grim flesh, while we are noble spirits – I’m using the term “noble” in the loosest possible sense, of course, so as to include Bartimaeus. Why should any of us toil for Khaba? We should work together to destroy him!’ ‘Big talk,’ growled Tivoc, ‘but I notice the magician is nowhere in sight.’ Xoxen nodded. ‘Exactly. When he appears, you’ll both be chiselling at double speed, you mark my words. In the meantime, shall we report that your first blocks are not quite done? Let us know when they’re ready to be dragged up to the site.’ Wheeling round, they minced out of the quarry. Faquarl and I stared after them. ‘Our workmates leave much to be desired,’ I grunted. ‘No backbone.’4 Faquarl picked up his tools and rose heavily to his feet. ‘Well, we’re just as bad as them so far,’ he said. ‘We’ve been letting Khaba push us around too. The trouble is, I don’t see how we’re going to fight back. He’s strong, he’s vindictive, he’s got that cursed flail – and he’s also got …’ His voice trailed off. We looked at each other. Then Faquarl sent out a small Pulse that expanded around us, creating a glowing, green Bulb of Silence. The few faint noises from the hill above, where the spades of our fellow djinn could distantly be heard, became instantly muffled; we were alone, our voices insulated from the world. Even so, I leaned in close. ‘Have you noticed his shadow?’ ‘Slightly darker than it ought to be?’ Faquarl muttered. ‘Ever so slightly longer? Responds just a little too slowly when Khaba moves?’ ‘That’s the one.’ He made a face. ‘Nothing shows on any of the planes, which means a very high-level Veil’s in place. But it’s something all right – something protecting Khaba. If we’re going to get him, we first need to find out what.’ ‘Let’s keep an eye on it,’ I said. ‘Sooner or later, it’ll give itself away.’ Faquarl nodded. He flourished the chisel; the Bulb of Silence burst into a scattered shower of emerald droplets. Without another word, we went back to our work. For a couple of days activities proceeded quietly at the temple site. The top of the hill was levelled, scrub and brushwood were cleared away, and foundations for the building were dug. Down in the quarry Faquarl and I produced a good number of top-quality limestone blocks, geometric, symmetrical, and so cleanly finished the king himself could have eaten his breakfast off them. Even so, they didn’t meet with the approval of Khaba’s odious little overseer Gezeri, who materialized on an outcrop above our heads and tuttingly inspected our work. ‘This is poor stuff, boys,’ he said, shaking his fat green head. ‘Lots of rough bits down the sides need sanding. The boss won’t accept ’em like that, oh dear me, no.’ ‘Come closer and show me exactly where,’ I said pleasantly. ‘My eyesight isn’t what it was.’ The foliot hopped down from the ledge and sauntered over. ‘You djinn are all the same. Big bloated sacks of uselessness, I call you. If I was your master, I’d riddle you with a Pestilence each day just on princip— Ay!’ Further such pearls of wisdom from Gezeri were in short supply for the next few minutes, as I industriously sanded down the edges of the blocks using the side of his head. When I’d finished, the blocks gleamed like a baby’s bottom, and Gezeri’s face was flattened like an anvil. ‘You were right,’ I said. ‘They look much better now. So do you, as a matter of fact.’ The foliot pranced from foot to foot with fury. ‘How dare you! I’ll tell on you, I will! Khaba’s got his eye on you already! He’s just waiting for an excuse to plunge you in the Dismal Flame! When I go up and tell him—’ ‘Here, let me help you out with that.’ In a philanthropic spirit, I grabbed him, tied his arms and legs in a complex knot, and with an impressive kick punted him high over the quarry walls to land somewhere on the building site. There was a distant squeak. Faquarl had been watching all this with urbane amusement. ‘Bit reckless, Bartimaeus.’ ‘I get the flail daily anyway,’ I growled. ‘Once more won’t make any difference.’ But in fact the magician seemed too preoccupied now even to do much scouring. He spent most of his time in a tent on the edge of the site, checking the building plans and dealing with messenger-imps sent from the palace. These messages carried endless new instructions for the temple layout – brass pillars here, cedar floors there – which Khaba had to instantly incorporate into the plans. Often he came out to double-check his changes against the work that had been done so far, so whenever I was up dragging a block onto the site, I took my chance to study him. It wasn’t very reassuring. The first thing I spotted was that Khaba’s shadow was always at his heels, trailing behind him along the dirt of the ground. It remained there regardless of the position of the sun: never in front, never to the side, always quietly behind him. The second thing was even odder. The magician seldom emerged when the sun was at its zenith,5 but when he did, it was noticeable that while all other shadows were reduced almost to nothing, his was still long and sleek, a thing of evening or early morning. Though it more or less corresponded to its owner’s shape, it did so in an elongated sort of way, and I took an especial dislike to its long, thin, tapering arms and fingers. Usually these moved in conjunction with the movements of the magician, but not always. Once, as I was helping push a block towards the temple, Khaba observed us from the side. And out of the corner of my eye I seemed to see that, though the magician had his arms crossed, his shadow’s arms now resembled those of a praying mantis, folded hungrily and waiting. I turned my head swiftly, only to find the shadow’s arms crossed normally, just as they should have been. As Faquarl had observed, the shadow looked the same on each of the seven planes, and this was ominous in itself. I’m no imp or foliot, but a strapping djinni with full command of every plane, and ordinarily I expect to be able to see through most magical deceptions going. Illusions, Concealments, Glamours, Veils, you name it – by flipping to the seventh plane they all disintegrate before my eyes into obvious layers of glowing wisps and threads, so that I see the true thing beneath. It’s the same with spirit guises: show me a sweet little choirboy or a smiling mother and I’ll show you the hideous fanged strigo?6 it really is.7 There’s very little that remains hidden from my sight. Not with this shadow. I couldn’t see past its Veil at all. Faquarl didn’t have any better luck, as he confided one evening by the campfire. ‘It’s got to be high level,’ he muttered. ‘Something that can fox us on the seventh isn’t going to be a djinni, is it? I think Khaba’s brought it with him from Egypt. Any idea what it could be, Bartimaeus? You’ve spent more time there than I have lately.’ I shrugged. ‘The catacombs at Karnak are deep. I never got far in. We need to tread cautiously.’ Just how cautiously was brought home to me the following day. There was a problem with the alignment of the temple porch, and I’d shinned up a ladder to assess things from above. I was concealed in a narrow cleft between two blocks, and was fiddling with my cubit rod and plumb line, when I saw the magician pass by me on the hard tamped earth below. A small messenger-imp approached from the direction of the palace, a missive in its paw, and intercepted him; the magician halted, took the wax tablet on which the message was impressed, and read it swiftly. As he did so, his shadow, as was its wont, was stretched out long on the ground behind him, though the sun was almost at its height. The magician nodded, tucked the tablet in a belt-pouch and proceeded on his way; the imp, with the aimless vapidity of its kind, meandered off in the opposite direction, picking its nose the while. In so doing it passed the shadow; all in an instant there was a blur of movement, a single sharp snapping noise, and the imp was gone. The shadow flowed away after the magician; just as it disappeared from view, its trailing head turned to look at me, and in that moment it didn’t seem the least bit human. With slightly shaking hands, I completed my measurements and descended stiffly from the porch. All things considered, it was probably best to keep away from the magician Khaba. I would lie low, do my jobs effectively, and above all not draw attention to myself. That would be the best way to keep out of trouble. I managed it for four whole days. Then disaster struck. 1By his account, Faquarl’s first summoning was in Jericho, 3015 BC, approximately five years before my initial appearance in Ur. This made him, allegedly, the ‘senior’ djinni in our partnership. However, since Faquarl also swore blind he’d invented hieroglyphs by ‘doodling with a stick in the Nile river-mud’ and claimed to have devised the abacus by impaling two dozen imps along the branches of an Asiatic cedar, I regarded all his stories with a certain scepticism. 2In my view the people of Babylonia were the tastiest, owing to the rich goat’s milk in their diet. Faquarl preferred a good Indian. 3Or snouts. Or trunks. Or tentacles, filaments, palpi or antennae, depending which guise we were in. 4To be fair, a few of them were all right. Nimshik had spent a good while in Canaan and had interesting points to make about the local tribal politics; Menes, a youngish djinni, listened attentively to my words of wisdom; even Chosroes grilled a mean imp. But the rest were sorry wastes of essence, Beyzer being boastful, Tivoc sarcastic and Xoxen full of false modesty, which in my humble opinion are three immensely tiresome traits. 5He preferred to keep to his tent and let foliots in the shape of Scythian slave boys wave palms above his head and feed him sweetmeats and iced fruit. Which I suppose is fair enough. 6Strigo?: a disreputable sub-class of djinni, pallid and nocturnal, with a predilection for drinking the blood of the living. Think succubus, but without the curves. 7 Not always. Just sometimes. Your mother is absolutely fine, for instance. Probably. 10 The port of Eilat came as a surprise to Asmira, whose experience of cities was limited to Marib and its sister town of Sirwah thirty miles away across the fields. Crowded as they often were, especially on festival days, they maintained at all times a certain order. The priestesses wore their golden kirtles, the townsfolk their simple tunics of white and blue. If men from the hill-tribes were present, their longer robes of red and brown made them easily identifiable from the guard posts. With the single cast of an eye a guard could appraise a crowd, and assess the dangers within. In Eilat, it was not so simple. Its streets were broad and the buildings never higher than two storeys. To Asmira, used to the calm, cool shadows of Sheba’s towers, this made the city oddly formless, a hot and sprawling mass of low whitewashed walls that merged disconcertingly with the ceaseless tide of people that passed among them. Richly garbed Egyptians stalked along, amulets gleaming upon their breasts; behind came slaves carrying boxes, chests, scowling imps in swinging cages. Wiry men of Punt, bright-eyed, diminutive, with sacks of resin teetering on their backs, wound their way past stalls where Kushite merchants offered silver djinn-guards and spirit-charmers to the wary traveller. Black-eyed Babylonians argued with pale-skinned men over carts of strangely patterned pelts and skins; Asmira even spotted a group of fellow Shebans come north on the gruelling frankincense trail. Up on the rooftops, silent things wearing the shapes of cats and birds watched the activity unfold. Asmira, standing at the gates, wrinkled her nose with distaste at the unregulated magic of the magician-king’s domain. She bought spiced lentils from a kiosk set into the city wall, then plunged into the throng. Its turbid flow engulfed her; she was swallowed by the crowd. Even so, she knew she was being followed before she had walked a dozen yards. Chancing to glance back, she noticed a thin man in a long pale robe detach himself from the wall where he had been leaning and move after her along the road. A little later, after two random changes of direction, she looked again and found him still in sight, dawdling along, staring at his feet, seemingly entranced by the clouds of dust he kicked up with every casual step. An agent of Solomon already? It seemed unlikely; she had done nothing to draw attention to herself. Unhurriedly Asmira crossed the street under the white heat of the day and ducked beneath the awning of a bread-seller. She stood above the baskets in the hot shade, breathing in the scent of the piled loaves. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a pale flash move amongst the customers at the fish stall alongside. An old and wrinkled man sat hunched between the bread baskets, chewing toothlessly on his khat. Asmira purchased a thin wheat loaf from him, then said: ‘Sir, I need to travel to Jerusalem as a matter of urgency. What is the quickest way?’ The old man frowned; her Arabic was strange to him, and barely intelligible. ‘By camel train.’ ‘Where do the camels leave from?’ ‘From the market square beside the fountains.’ ‘I see. Where is the square?’ He pondered long, his jaw moving in slow, circular movements. At last he spoke. ‘Beside the fountains.’ Asmira’s brow furrowed, her bottom lip protruded in vexation. She glanced back towards the fish stall. ‘I’m from the south,’ she said. ‘I don’t know the town. Is camel train really the quickest way? I thought perhaps—’ ‘Are you travelling alone?’ the old man said. ‘Yes.’ ‘Ah.’ He opened his gummy mouth and emitted a brief chuckle. Asmira gazed at him. ‘What?’ Bony shoulders shrugged. ‘You’re young, and – if the shadows of your shawl don’t conceal unpleasant surprises – good looking too. Plus you’re travelling alone. In my experience, your chances of leaving Eilat safely, let alone reaching Jerusalem, are slim. Still, while you yet have life and money, you might as well spend freely; that’s my philosophy. Why not buy another loaf?’ ‘No, thank you. I was asking about Jerusalem.’ The old man stared at her appraisingly. ‘The slavers here do very well,’ he mused. ‘I sometimes wish I’d gone into that trade …’ He licked a finger, stretched out a hairy arm and adjusted the display of flatbread in a nearby basket. ‘Ways to get to Jerusalem? If you were a magician, you could fly there on a carpet … That’s quicker than camels.’ ‘I’m not a magician,’ Asmira said. She adjusted the leather bag across her shoulder. The old man grunted. ‘That’s lucky, because if you flew to Jerusalem on a carpet, he’d see you by way of the Ring. Then you’d be taken by a demon and carried off, and subjected to all sorts of horrors. Sure I can’t interest you in a pretzel?’ Asmira cleared her throat. ‘I thought perhaps a chariot.’ ‘Chariots are for queens,’ the bread-seller said. He laughed, his mouth gaping like a void. ‘And magicians.’ ‘I’m neither,’ Asmira said. She took up her bread and left. A moment later a thin man wearing a pale robe pushed aside the customers of the fish stall and slipped out into the day. The beggar had been working his patch outside the bazaar since dawn, when the tide had brought new ships into Eilat’s quays. As always the merchants had heavy purses tied at their belts, which the beggar attempted to lighten in two complementary ways. His roars and pleas and pitiful exhortations, together with the proud display of his withered stump, always awoke sufficient revulsion to earn some shekels from the crowd. Meanwhile his imp, loitering amongst the bystanders, picked as many pockets as it could. The sun was hot and the business good, and the beggar was just thinking of departing to the wine shop when he was approached by a thin man wearing a long pale robe. The newcomer scuffled to a halt, staring at his feet. ‘I’ve found a mark,’ he said. The beggar scowled. ‘Toss a coin first, then tell. Got to keep up appearances, haven’t we?’ He waited till the newcomer obliged. ‘So, spit it out,’ he said. ‘What is he?’ ‘Not a “he”; a “she”,’ replied the thin man sourly. ‘Girl came in from the south this morning. Travelling alone. Wants to go to Jerusalem. She’s off haggling with the camel traders now.’ ‘Got much, you think?’ the beggar said, squinting up from the corner where he sat. He waved his stick angrily. ‘Move away from the sun, curse you! I’m lame, not blind.’ ‘Not so lame either, from what I hear,’ the thin man said, stepping a few paces to the side. ‘Her clothes are nice enough, and she’s got a sack with her that warrants a look too. But she’d fetch a good price herself, if you get my meaning.’ ‘And she’s on her own?’ The beggar stared off along the street; he scratched the stubble of his chin. ‘Well, the caravans don’t leave until tomorrow, that’s a given, so she’ll stay in town tonight whether she wants to or not. There’s no hurry, is there? Go and find Intef. If he’s drunk, knock some sense into him. I’ll go to the square, keep watch, see what’s going on.’ The beggar rocked back and forwards twice and, by leaning on his stick, stood up with sudden swift agility. ‘Well, get off,’ he said savagely. ‘You’ll find me in the square. Or, if she moves, wherever you hear my call.’ He swung his stick and, with a series of limping jerks, set off along the road. Long after he was out of sight, his cries for alms could still be heard. ‘I could sell you a camel, girl,’ the merchant said, ‘but it would be unusual practice. Send your father or your brother; I will drink tea with them and chew khat and make such arrangements as are meant to be made between men. And I will berate them politely for allowing you out alone. The streets here are not kind to girls, as they ought to know.’ It was late afternoon, and the peach-and-orange light refracting through the fabric of the tent struck lazily upon the carpet and the cushions, and upon the merchant who sat amongst them. A pile of clay tablets, some old and hard, others still soft and only partially covered by the merchant’s marks, rested at his side. Laid out carefully in front of him was a stylus, a tablet, a cup and a jug of wine. A dangling djinn-guard hung from the roof above his head, twirling gently to the movements of the air. Asmira looked back at the closed flap of the tent. Business in the square was ebbing. One or two shadows moved swiftly past. None of them was familiar to her: none dawdled, head down, staring at its feet … Still, evening was coming; it would not do to be out alone much longer. Far off she heard a beggar’s whining call. She said: ‘You will make the arrangements with me.’ The merchant’s broad face did not alter. He looked down at his tablet, and his hand strayed to the stylus. ‘I’m busy, girl. Send your father.’ Asmira gathered herself, forced her fury down. This was the third such meeting she had had that afternoon and the shadows were growing long. She had twelve days before the attack on Marib, and the camel ride to Jerusalem would take ten. ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘I have ample payment. You need only speak your price.’ The merchant compressed his lips; after a moment he set down the stylus. ‘Show me this payment.’ ‘How much do you need?’ ‘Girl, I am expecting the gold traders in from Egypt in the next few days. They too will seek transport to Jerusalem and will buy as many camels as I can provide. From them I will get little pouches of gold dust, or perhaps small nuggets from the Nubian mines, so that my moustaches will curl with excitement and I will close up my tent for a month and make merry in the Street of Sighs. What can you show me in the next five seconds that will make me give up one of my fine, dark-eyed camels to you?’ The girl reached inside her riding cloak; when her hand reappeared, it had something the size of an apricot stone glittering in the palm. ‘It is a blue diamond from the Hadhramaut,’ she said. ‘Shaped and sanded into fifty facets. They say the Queen of Sheba wears one similar on her headdress. Provide me with a camel and it’s yours.’ The merchant sat very still; peach-and-orange light moved upon the surface of his face. He looked towards the closed tent flap, from where the sound of the marketplace was muffled. The tip of his tongue ran between his lips. He said, ‘A man might wonder whether you had more such things …’ Asmira moved so that the front of her riding cloak fell open; she rested her fingers on the dagger hanging loosely at her belt. ‘… but to me,’ the merchant continued heartily, ‘such payment is more than adequate! We can make immediate arrangements!’ Asmira nodded. ‘I’m so glad. Give me my camel.’ ‘She is going down Spice Street now,’ the thin man reported. ‘She’s left the beast at the square. They’re equipping it for tomorrow. Not sparing any expense either. A canopy and everything. She’s got money in that bag of hers.’ As he spoke, he played with a long strip of cloth, twisting it between his hands. ‘Spice Street’s too busy,’ the beggar said. ‘Ink Street?’ ‘Good enough. Four of us should manage it.’ It was true what Asmira had told the bread-seller. She was not a magician. But that did not mean she was innocent of magic. When she was nine years old, the senior guard-mother found her as she was practising in the yard. ‘Asmira, come with me.’ They went to a quiet room above the training hall, where Asmira had never been. Inside were tables and cabinets of ancient cedar wood, their half-open doors revealing stacks of papyrus scrolls, clay tablets and pottery shards notched with signs. On the centre of the floor two circles had been drawn, each containing a five-pointed star. Asmira frowned and pulled a lock of hair back from her face. ‘What’s all this?’ The senior guard-mother was forty-eight years old and had once been First Guard of the queen. She had put down three tribal insurrections in the Hadhramaut. She had a thin white sword-scar slashed across her wrinkled neck and another across her forehead, and was regarded with awe and veneration by the sisterhood. Even the queen herself was said to speak to her with some humility. She looked down at the scowling girl and said mildly, ‘They tell me your training is going well.’ Asmira was looking at a papyrus scroll laid out on the table. It was covered with an ornate and densely written script – except in the middle, where a sinister figure, half smoke, half skeleton, had been sketched with a few deft strokes. She shrugged. The guard-mother said: ‘I have seen you with the knives. I could not throw as well as you when I was your age. And nor could your mother.’ The girl did not look at her, nor change expression, but her bony little shoulders stiffened. She spoke as if she had not heard. ‘What’s all this magical stuff, anyway?’ ‘What do you think it is?’ ‘Ways of summoning demons of the air. I thought it was forbidden. Only priestesses are allowed to do it, the guard-mothers say.’ Her eyes blazed. ‘Or were you all lying?’ In three years the senior guard-mother had had cause to beat the girl innumerable times for truancy, disobedience and cheek. Now she only said, ‘Asmira, listen. I have two things to offer you. The one is knowledge, the other is this …’ She held out her hand. Between the fingers hung a silver necklace; on its end, a pendant shaped like the sun. When the girl saw it, she gave a little gasp. ‘I do not need to tell you that it was your mother’s,’ the senior guard-mother said. ‘No, you may not have it yet. Listen to me now.’ She waited till the girl had raised her face: taut, hostile, tamping its emotion down. She said: ‘We did not lie to you. Magic is forbidden to everyone in Sheba but the priestesses of the temple. Only they may summon demons in the ordinary way. And it is right that this is so! Demons are wicked, deceitful things, dangerous to all. Think how volatile the hill-tribes are! If every chieftain could raise a djinni whenever he argued with his neighbours, there would be a dozen wars a year, and half the population dead! But in the hands of the priestesses, djinn can be put to better purpose – how do you think the reservoir here in Marib was built, or the walls of the city, for that matter? Each year they help repair the towers, and dredge the water channels too.’ Asmira said, ‘I know this. They do the queen’s work, just as the men must labour in the fields.’ The senior guard-mother chuckled. ‘This is so. Djinn are in fact much like men – provided you treat them sternly, and do not give them an inch of room to work you ill, they have several worthwhile uses. But here is the thing. Magic is useful to the guards also, and for one good reason. Our duty, the whole purpose of our being, is to protect our sovereign. We rely on our bodily skills for the most part, but sometimes that alone is not sufficient. If a demon attacked the queen—’ ‘A silver blade would deal with it,’ the girl said shortly. ‘Sometimes, but not always. A guard needs other defences too. There are certain words, Asmira, certain magical Wards and incantations, which can temporarily rebuff a lesser demon’s power.’ The senior guard-mother lifted the necklace so that the sun pendant swung slowly, catching the light. ‘Spirits hate silver, just as you say, and charms like this give force to the uttered spell. I can teach you such things, if you wish. But to do so, we will have to summon demons to practise on.’ She gestured around at the cluttered room. ‘This is why we have special dispensation to learn such techniques here.’ ‘I’m not afraid of demons,’ the girl said. ‘Asmira, summoning spirits is perilous, and we are not magicians. We learn basic incantations, so that we may test our Wards. If we are hasty, or careless, we will pay a dreadful price. Lesser guards do not need to understand these skills and I will not force you to do so either. If you wish, you can leave this room now and never return.’ The girl was gazing at the little twirling sun. Its light flashed in her eyes like fire. ‘My mother knew these skills?’ ‘She did.’ Asmira held out her hand. ‘Teach me, then. I will learn.’ As she walked back to the inn where she was to spend the night, Asmira stared up between the darkened buildings at the glittering expanse of stars. As she watched, a light streaked in the heavens, flared briefly and went out. A shooting star? Or one of Solomon’s demons spreading terror to other lands? Her jaw clenched; her nails dug into her palms. It was another ten days before she would reach Jerusalem – and that was without the sandstorms that might delay the caravan. Ten days! And in twelve the Ring would be turned and devastation brought upon Sheba! She closed her eyes and took a long breath in and out, as she had been taught to do when emotions threatened. Her training worked; she felt herself grow calm. When she opened her eyes, there was a man standing in the road in front of her. He held a long strip of cloth between his hands. Asmira halted, looking at him. ‘Softly,’ the man said. ‘No struggling.’ When he smiled, his teeth were very white. Asmira heard footfall on the road behind; glancing over her shoulder, she saw three other men hastening close, one of them a cripple, a crutch wedged under his arm. She saw the ropes, the sack held ready, the knives tucked neatly in their waist-bands, the glints of moisture in their smiling eyes and mouths. On the cripple’s shoulder, a small black impling crouched, flexing its dirty yellow claws. Her hand moved towards her belt. ‘Softly,’ the man with the cloth said again. ‘Or I’ll hurt you.’ He took another step, then sighed, fell backwards. Starlight glinted on the dagger blade protruding from the centre of his eye. Before he hit the ground, Asmira had swivelled, ducked beneath a clutching hand and pulled the knife from the waist-band of the nearest man behind her. Dancing aside from the stumbling assault of the third, who sought to loop a coil of wire about her head, she killed both men with rapid blows and turned to face the fourth. The cripple had halted a few yards distant, his face slack with blank surprise. Now he gave a long, low snarl and snapped his fingers. The impling beat its wings and launched itself at Asmira with a cry. Asmira waited till it was close, then touched her silver necklace, spoke a Ward of force. The impling exploded in a ball of flame that spiralled away and burst against a wall in a shower of angry sparks. Before the fires faded, the cripple was away along the street, stick tapping frantically upon the stone. Asmira let the soiled knife fall to the ground. She turned and walked back to her bag, crouched, loosened its ties and removed a second silver dagger. Flipping it in her fingers, she looked back along the road. The beggar was a long way off now, head down, rags flying, lolloping and bounding, swinging himself forward with great sweeps of his stick. In a few more steps he would be at a corner and out of sight. Asmira took careful aim. Shortly after dawn the following day, those emerging from their houses on the corner of Ink and Spice Streets made a gruesome discovery: four bodies sitting neatly against a wall, their seven legs stretched out side by side into the road. Each man had been a well-known slaver and vagrant of the district; each had been killed with a single strike. At roughly the same moment, a camel train of thirty riders set out from Eilat’s central square on the long journey to Jerusalem. Asmira was among them. 11 I blame Beyzer for the incident. It was his turn keeping watch, but his spot in the cypress was a tad too comfy, what with the noonday heat and the smell of resin and the nice plump implet he was using as a cushion. Dozing gently, Beyzer didn’t notice Solomon’s approach. This took some doing, partly because the king was pretty tall, and partly because he was accompanied by seven magicians, nine court officials, eleven slaves, thirty-three warriors, and a robust percentage of his seven hundred wives. The rustling of their robes alone made a noise like a storm-lashed forest, and since on top of this you had the officials shouting at the slaves, the slaves waving their palm leaves, the warriors rattling their swords and the wives squabbling continuously in a dozen languages, Solomon and his entourage were hard to miss. So even without Beyzer, the rest of the temple workforce managed to stop in time. Which just left me. Thing was, I was at the end of the line; I was the one hefting each half-ton block out of the quarry, chucking it into the air, catching it by a corner on an outstretched finger, spinning it stylishly and then punting it on to Tivoc, who was waiting by the temple. Tivoc would then pass the block on to Nimshik, Faquarl, Chosroes or one of the other djinn who were hovering around the uncompleted walls in a variety of outlandish guises.1 After that: a quick toss into position, a hasty aligning spell, and Solomon’s temple was a block nearer completion. Took about thirty-five seconds, quarry to wall-top. Lovely. A work-rate any employer would be chuffed with. Except Solomon, that is. No. He didn’t want it done like that.2 You’ll notice that conditions at the building site had altered markedly since the first few days. Back then, with Khaba and Gezeri close at hand, we’d been doing everything painstakingly, while keeping human form. But then things changed. Perhaps reassured by our compliance, and with the temple now progressing well, the magician stopped visiting the site so often. Shortly afterwards Gezeri departed too. To begin with, through fear of the flail, we remained on our best behaviour. On the second day, still left to our own devices, our resolve wavered. We took a swift vote amongst ourselves and, by a majority of six to two,3 approved a change of work practices with immediate effect. We promptly set up our lookout and spent our time in a mixture of loafing, gambling, imp-tossing and philosophical debate. Occasionally, when we needed the exercise, we’d whip a few stones magically into position, just to make it look like we’d been doing something. It was a definite improvement in our daily grind. Unfortunately, it was during one of these brief spasms of activity that Solomon – having never chosen to visit us before – decided to drop by. And it was thanks to Beyzer that I didn’t get the alarm. Everyone else was fine, thank you very much. As the royal entourage came clanking, jabbering and mincing to a halt, my fellow workers were safely back in human form, standing about meekly carving things with their chisels as if butter wouldn’t melt in their smug little mouths. And me? Me, I was still the pygmy hippo in a skirt,4 singing lusty songs about Solomon’s private life and tossing a giant stone back and forth through the air as I climbed out of the quarry at the edge of the site. Immersed in my ditty, I didn’t notice anything amiss. As usual, I flexed a warty arm and tossed the stone. As usual, it sailed across in the sweetest of arcs to the corner of the temple where Tivoc stood. Or in this case didn’t stand, since he’d long since bowed and scraped and made shuffling way for Solomon to inspect the porch. And with Solomon had come his magicians, court officials, warriors, slaves and wives, each crowding close to bathe in the royal presence. They heard my singing. They craned their heads round. They saw the half-ton stone being lobbed towards them in the sweetest of arcs. They had time for maybe the briefest of lamentations before it squished them flat. The hippo in a skirt slapped its hand over its eyes. But Solomon just touched the Ring on his finger that was the source and secret of his power. The planes trembled. And from the earth jumped four winged marids in emerald flame, who caught and held the stone, one at each corner, a few inches from the great king’s head.5 Solomon touched the Ring again, and from the earth sprang nineteen afrits, who caught the exact same number of his wives mid-swoon.6 Then Solomon touched the Ring a third time, and from the earth leaped a posse of sturdy imps, who caught the hippo in the skirt as it was quietly slipping away into the recesses of the quarry, bound it hand and foot with thorny bonds, and dragged it back through the dirt to where the great king stood, tapping his sandalled foot and looking rather tetchy. And despite my trademark bravery and fortitude – famous from the deserts of Shur to the mountains of Lebanon – the hippo swallowed hard as it bumped along the ground, because when Solomon got tetchy, people tended to know about it. He had the wisdom stuff as well, it’s true, but what really got results when he wanted something done was his reputation for no-holds-barred homicidal tetchiness. That and his cursed Ring.7 The marids placed the block of stone gently on the earth before the king. The imps swung me across so that I came to an undignified halt, slumped against the stone. I blinked, sat upright as best I could, spat assorted pebbles out of my mouth and attempted a winning smile. A low murmur of repulsion came from the watching throng, and several wives fainted again. Solomon raised a hand; all sound cut off. This was the first time I’d got close to him, of course, and I must say he didn’t disappoint. He was everything your typical trumped-up west Asian despot could aspire to be: dark of eye and skin, long and glistening of hair, and covered with more clattering finery than a cut-price jewel stand at the bazaar. He seemed to have an Egyptian thing going too – his eyes were heavily made up with kohl just like the pharaohs; like them, he existed in a cloud of clashing oils and perfumes. That smell was another thing Beyzer should have noticed in advance. On his finger something shone so brightly that I was almost rendered blind. The great king stood over me, fingers toying with the bracelets on one arm. He breathed deeply; his face seemed pained. ‘Lowliest of the low,’ he said softly, ‘which of my servants are you?’ ‘O Master-may-you-live-for-ever, I am Bartimaeus.’ A hopeful pause; the regal countenance did not change. ‘We haven’t had the pleasure before,’ I went on, ‘but I’m sure a friendly conversation would benefit us both. Let me introduce myself. I am a spirit of notable wisdom and sobriety, who once spoke with Gilgamesh, and—’ Solomon raised an elegant finger, and since it was the one with the Ring on it, I kind of snatched back as many of my words as I could and swallowed them down sharpish. Best just be quiet, eh? Wait for the worst. ‘You are one of Khaba’s troublemakers, I think,’ the king said musingly. ‘Where is Khaba?’ This was a good question; we’d been wondering it ourselves for days. But at that moment there was a flurry amongst the courtiers, and my master himself appeared, all red of cheek and glistening of pate. He had clearly been running hard. ‘Great Solomon,’ he panted. ‘This visit – I did not know—’ His moist eyes widened as they alighted on me, and he gave a wolfish cry. ‘Foul slave! How dare you defy me with such a shape! Great King, stand back! Let me admonish this creature—’ And he snatched at the essence-flail in his belt. But Solomon held up his hand once more. ‘Be still, magician! Where were you while my edicts were being disobeyed? I shall attend to you presently.’ Khaba fell back, slack-jawed and gasping. His shadow, I noticed, was very small and inoffensive now, a small dark nub, cringing at his feet. The king turned back to me. Ooh, his voice was soft then. All gentle and luxurious, like leopard fur. And just like a leopard’s fur, you didn’t want to rub it up the wrong way. ‘Why do you mock my orders, Bartimaeus?’ The pygmy hippo cleared its throat. ‘Um, well, I think mock is putting it a trifle strongly, O great Master. “Forget” might be better; and less fatal.’ One of Solomon’s other magicians, nameless, portly, face like a squashed fig, riddled me with a Spasm. ‘Cursed spirit! The king asked you a question!’ ‘Yes, yes, I was getting to that.’ I squirmed against the stone. ‘And a cracking question it was. Beautifully put. Succinct. Probing …’ I hesitated. ‘What was it again?’ Solomon seemed to have a knack of never raising his voice, never speaking quickly. It was a good political technique, of course; it gave him an aura of control among his people. Now he spoke to me as to a sleepy babe. ‘When completed, Bartimaeus, this temple shall be the holiest of places, the centre of my religion and my empire. For that reason, as set out with great clarity in your instructions, I wish it built – and I quote – with “the utmost care, without magical shortcuts, irreverent acts or bestial shapes”.’ The hippo in the skirt frowned. ‘Goodness, who’d do any of that?’ ‘You have disregarded my edict in each and every way. Why?’ Well, a number of excuses came to mind. Some of them were plausible. Some of them were witty. Some of them offered a certain pleasure in the use of language while at the same time being blatantly untrue. But Solomon’s wisdom thing was catching. I decided to tell the truth, albeit in a sulky monotone. ‘O great Master, I was bored and I wanted to get the job done quickly.’ The king nodded, an action that saturated the air with jasmine oil and rosewater. ‘And that vulgar song you were singing?’ ‘Um – which vulgar song was that? I sing so many.’ ‘The one about me.’ ‘Oh, that one.’ The hippo swallowed. ‘You mustn’t pay any attention to such things, O Master, etc. Ribald songs have always been sung about great leaders by loyal troops. It’s a mark of respect. You should have heard the one we invented for Hammurabi. He used to join in the choruses.’ To my relief Solomon seemed to buy this. He straightened his back and stared hard around him. ‘Did any of the other slaves violate my orders too?’ I’d known this one was coming. I didn’t exactly look towards my companions, but somehow I could sense them shrinking back behind the crowd – Faquarl, Menes, Chosroes and the rest – all of them bombarding me with silent, heart-felt pleas. I sighed, spoke heavily. ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure? None of them used magic? None of them changed form?’ ‘No … No. Just me.’ He nodded. ‘Then they are exempt from punishment.’ His right hand moved left, in the direction of the dreaded Ring. I’d been putting it off, but it was clearly time for a brief loss of dignity. With a strident expression of woe, the hippo lurched forward onto its wrinkly knees. ‘Do not be too hasty, great Solomon!’ I cried. ‘I have served you faithfully and well until today. Consider this block of stone – see how I’ve shaped and squared it most exactly. Now look at the temple – witness the dedication with which I’m pacing out its dimensions! Measure it, O King! Three score cubits, I was told, and three score cubits it shall be, and not a rat’s arse more!’8 I wrung my forefeet together, swaying from side to side. ‘My mistake today is just a symptom of my excess energies and zeal,’ I wailed. ‘I can turn these qualities to your majesty’s good, if only you spare my life …’ Well, I’ll omit the rest, which involved a great many sobs, random gesticulations and guttural cries. It wasn’t a bad performance: a number of the wives (and several of the warriors) were sniffling by the end, and Solomon himself looked smugger and more self-satisfied than ever. Which was pretty much as I planned it. Thing was, just by looking at him, I could see Solomon modelled himself on the big boys – the kings of Assyria and Babylon way to the east, tough potentates who didn’t get out of bed without a defeated enemy’s neck to step on en route to the bathroom. Thus my snivelling appealed to his imitative vanity. I thought I’d swung it at the last. The great king coughed. The hippo stopped mid-bawl and eyed him hopefully. ‘Your ridiculous display of over-acting has entertained me,’ Solomon said. ‘I shan’t need my girners or my jugglers tonight. As a result I shall spare your meagre life’ – here he cut short my torrent of gratitude – ‘and instead put your “excess energies and zeal” to proper use.’ Solomon paused at this ominous juncture to select a variety of sweetmeats, wines and fruit from an attendant’s silver tray. Several of his nearest wives fought subtly but viciously amongst themselves for the honour of feeding him. The hippo, gritting its teeth with unease, shook a few flies out of its tufted ears and waited. One pomegranate, five grapes and an iced date-and-pistachio sherbet had passed the royal lips before the king held forth again. ‘O meanest and most despicable of my djinn – and don’t look around so blankly, I’m talking to you – since you find your work here so dull, we shall give you a more stimulating occupation.’ I bowed my head to the dirt. ‘Master, I listen and obey.’ ‘So then. South from Jerusalem, across the Desert of Paran and the Desert of Zin, my trade road runs; on it travel merchants from Egypt and the Red Sea, from the Arabian interior, even – though more rarely than we might wish – from mysterious Sheba itself. These merchants,’ he went on, ‘carry myrrh, frank-incense, precious woods and spices, and other riches that bring prosperity to the people of Israel. In recent weeks it has come to my attention that many caravans have met with disaster; they have not got through.’ I grunted wisely. ‘Probably ran out of water. That’s the thing about deserts. Dry.’ ‘Indeed. A fascinating analysis. But survivors reaching Hebron report differently: monsters fell upon them in the wastes.’ ‘What, fell upon them in a squashed-them kind of way?’ ‘More the leaped-out-and-slew-them kind. These monsters were huge, hideous and terrible.’ ‘Well, aren’t they all?’ The hippo considered. ‘My advice is to send those four off to investigate.’ I indicated the marids from the Ring, who were still hanging about on the seventh plane, quietly arguing about the succulence of the nearest wives. Solomon gave a feline smile. ‘Most conceited of my spirits, it is you who must investigate. The attacks are clearly the work of bandits who have powerful magicians amongst them. So far my troops have been unable to trace the instigators. You must search the deserts, eliminate them, and discover who is behind this outrage.’ I hesitated. ‘All on my lonesome?’ The king drew back; he had come to a new decision. ‘No, you will not be on your own. Khaba! Step forward!’ My master did so, fawning, supplicating. ‘Great King, please! I can explain my absence—’ ‘No explanation is required. I gave you strict instructions to keep a close eye on your servants, and this you failed to do. I blame you for this djinni’s misdeeds. Since neither you nor your group is worthy of working on this temple a moment longer, you shall all depart into the deserts tomorrow and not return until the brigands are found and brought to heel. Do you understand this, Khaba? Well, man? Speak up!’ The Egyptian was staring at the ground; a muscle in his cheek throbbed steadily. One of the other magicians suppressed a chuckle. Khaba looked up; he bowed stiffly. ‘Master, as always I follow your requirements and your will.’ Solomon made an ambiguous gesture. The interview was over. Wives darted forth offering water, sweetmeats and vials of scent; slaves wafted palms; officials unscrolled papyri with plans of the temple precincts. Solomon turned away, and the gaggle of humanity departed with him, leaving Khaba, the hippo, and the seven other disgraced djinn standing silent and disconsolate on the hill. 1Most of them winged. Faquarl’s were leathery, Chosroes’ feathery, and Nimshik’s ashimmer with the silver scales of the flying fish. Xoxen, as ever, had to be different: he bounded up and down beside the porch on a pair of giant frog’s legs, which meant that most of his blocks were hopelessly out of true. 2Heaven knows why he was so fussy about this temple job. Early in his reign his host of spirits had jerry-built most of Jerusalem for him, throwing up new housing districts in a day or two, hiding their slapdash workmanship with strategically placed Illusions. They’d spent a bit longer on the palace itself, admittedly, and the city walls only wobbled if you pushed really hard, but this temple Solomon wanted done without any magical sleights of hand, which in my view kind of defeated the point of using djinn. 3Tivoc and Chosroes voted against: Tivoc because of a complicated argument involving certain subtleties in clause 51c of his summoning; Chosroes because he was just plain chicken. 4Hippo in a skirt: this was a comic reference to one of Solomon’s principal wives, the one from Moab. Childish? Yes. But in the days before printing we had limited opportunities for satire. 5A bit showy, that. You only need a middling djinni for a stone that size. 6Again, do you need an afrit to catch a wife? No, except maybe in the case of the one from Moab. 7I suppose I should have been glad he’d only touched the thing and not turned it. It was when the terrible Spirit of the Ring was invoked that things were supposed to get really nasty. 8Rat’s arse: technical term, this, corresponding to about 1/15th of a cubit. Other units of measurement used by the djinn during this period were ‘camel’s thigh’, ‘leper’s stretch’, and ‘the length of a Philistine’s beard’. 12 Returning to his tower at speed, Khaba descended by secret ways to his cellar workroom, where a doorway of black granite stood embedded in the wall. As he approached, he spoke an order. Soundless as thought, the spirit residing in the floor spun the door ajar. Khaba passed through without breaking stride; he spoke another word and the door shut fast behind him. Blackness enfolded him, incalculable and absolute. The magician stood there for a time, enduring as an exercise of will the silence and the solitude and the relentless pressing of the dark. Gradually soft noises started in the cages: shuffles, faint mewlings of things shut long in blackness, the anxious stirring of other things that anticipated light and feared its violence. Khaba luxuriated in the plaintive sounds a while, then stirred himself. He gave a fresh command, and all along the ceiling of the vault, the imps trapped in their faience globes made their magic flare. Eerie blue-green radiance filled the chamber, waxing, ebbing, deep and fathomless as the sea. The vault was broad and domed; its roof supported at intervals by rough-hewn columns that cut across the blue-green haze like the stalks of giant underwater reeds. Behind his back the granite door was one block among many on an immense grey wall. Between the columns stood an assortment of marble plinths and tables, chairs, couches and many instruments of subtle use. It was the heart of Khaba’s domain, an intricate reflection of his mind and inclinations. He threaded his way past the slabs where he conducted his experiments of dissection, past the preservation pits, acrid with the taint of natron, past the troughs of sand where the process of mummification could be observed. He skirted between the ranks of bottles, vats and wooden piping, between the pots of powdered herbs, the trays of insects, the dim, dark cabinets containing the carcasses of frog and cat and other, larger, things. He bypassed the ossuary, where the labelled skulls and bones of a hundred beasts sat neatly side by side with those of men. Khaba ignored the calls and supplications from the essence-cages in the recesses of the hall. He halted at a large pentacle, made of smooth black onyx and mounted in a raised circle on the floor. Stepping into its centre, he took up the flail that hung loosely at his belt. He cracked it once into the empty air. All sounds from the cages stilled. In the shadows beyond the columns, on the margins of the blue-green light, a presence made itself known by a deepening of darkness and a clattering of teeth. ‘Nurgal,’ Khaba said. ‘Is that you?’ ‘It is I.’ ‘The king insults me. He treats me with disdain, and the other magicians laugh.’ ‘What do I care? This is a cold, dark vault, and its occupants make for dismal company. Release me from my bonds.’ ‘I shall not release you. I wish something for my colleague Reuben. It was he who laughed the loudest.’ ‘What do you wish for him?’ ‘Marsh fever.’ ‘It shall be done.’ ‘Make it last four days, worsening each night. Make him lie awash in his misery, his limbs afire, his body chilled; make his eyes blind, but let him see visions and horrors during the hours of darkness, so that he screams and writhes and cries out for aid that never comes.’ ‘You wish him to die?’ Khaba hesitated. The magician Reuben was weak and would not retaliate; but if he died, Solomon would surely take a hand. He shook his head. ‘No. Four days. Then he recovers.’ ‘Master, I obey.’ Khaba cracked the flail; with a clattering of teeth the horla swept past him and away through a narrow aperture in the roof; sour air buffeted the margins of the pentacle and set the caged things howling in the dark. The magician stood in silence, tapping the whip slowly against the palm of his hand. At last he spoke a name. ‘Ammet.’ A soft voice at his ear. ‘Master.’ ‘I have lost the favour of the king.’ ‘I know, Master. I saw. I am sorry.’ ‘How shall I regain it?’ ‘That is no easy matter. Apprehending these desert bandits would seem to be the first step.’ Khaba gave a cry of rage. ‘I need to be here! I must be at the court! The others will seize the chance to speak with Solomon and further undermine me. You saw their faces on the hill. Hiram could scarcely keep from crowing with joy as he watched me squirm!’ He took a deep breath and spoke more quietly. ‘Besides, there is my other business to attend to. I must continue to observe the queen.’ ‘Do not be distressed about that,’ the soft voice said. ‘Gezeri can report to you in the desert as well as anywhere. Besides, you have given too much time to your … secondary affairs these last few days – and see where it has got you.’ The magician ground his teeth. ‘How was I to know that the preening fool would choose today to inspect his cursed temple? He might have given me some warning!’ ‘He has the Ring. He is not beholden to you or anyone.’ ‘Ah! You think I do not know that?’ Khaba gripped the flail tightly; his curling fingernails dug deep into the ancient human leather. He bent his head forward to let something stroke the back of his neck. ‘How I wish … I wish …’ ‘I know what you wish, dear Master. But it is not safe to express it, even here. You have glimpsed the Spirit of the Ring – you have seen how terrible he is! We must be patient, have faith in our abilities. We will find a way.’ The magician took a deep breath, drew back his shoulders. ‘You are right, sweet Ammet, of course you are. It is just so hard to stand there and watch that vain, indolent—’ ‘Let us inspect the cages,’ the voice said soothingly. ‘It will relax you. But, Master, before we do, I crave a word. What of Bartimaeus?’ Khaba gave a piercing cry. ‘That vile djinni – if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be cast out of Jerusalem! A hippopotamus, Ammet! A hippopotamus on Temple Mount!’ He paused, reflecting. ‘And wouldn’t you have said,’ he added slowly, ‘that in face and form it bore a certain resemblance to—’ ‘Fortunately for us,’ the soft voice said, ‘I don’t think Solomon noticed.’ Khaba nodded grimly. ‘Well, I have whipped Bartimaeus soundly for his sins, but a whipping is not enough! The flail is too good for him.’ ‘I quite agree, Master. This is the last straw. He abused Gezeri a week ago; he has caused frequent dissension among the djinn. He deserves a proper punishment now.’ ‘The Inverted Skin, Ammet? The Osiris Box?’ ‘Too lenient … Too temporary …’ The voice grew urgent. ‘Master,’ it beseeched, ‘let me deal with him. I hunger, I thirst. I have not fed for so, so long. I can rid you of this irritant, and satisfy my cravings at the same time.’ There was a wet, smacking noise behind the magician’s head. Khaba grunted. ‘No. I like you hungry; it keeps you alert.’ ‘Master, please … ’ ‘Besides, I need all my djinn available and alive while we comb the deserts for these outlaws. Stop your whingeing, Ammet. I will give the matter thought. There will be time enough to deal with Bartimaeus when we return to Jerusalem …’ The voice was truculent, resentful. ‘As you will …’ Khaba’s posture had previously been tight and hunched, tense at the indignities fate had thrust upon him. Now he jerked upright, his voice newly hard and decisive. ‘In a moment we shall make ready to depart. First, however, there is the other matter. Perhaps we will have positive news at last …’ He snapped his fingers, spoke a complex string of syllables. There was a distant chime of bells. The imp-globes shivered against the ceiling of the vault, and drapes on some of the larger cages ruffled to and fro. The magician peered out into the darkness. ‘Gezeri?’ With a sharp odour of rotten eggs, a small lilac cloud materialized in the air beside the pentacle. Sitting atop the cloud was the foliot Gezeri, who today appeared as a large green imp, with long pointed ears and a pear-shaped nose. He made a series of complex and faintly facetious salutes, which Khaba ignored. ‘Your report, slave?’ The foliot affected an attitude of matchless boredom. ‘I have been to Sheba as you “requested”. I have wandered through its streets unseen, listening to the people. Be certain I let no whisper pass me by, no muttered comment go unheard!’ ‘I am sure of it – otherwise you would burn in the Dismal Flame.’ ‘That was my thinking too.’ The foliot scratched its nose. ‘In consequence I heard a lot of dreary nonsense. The lives you humans lead! The things that preoccupy your doughy little minds! Are you not aware of how brief your span is, how small your place is in this vast universe? Yet still you worry about dowries, tooth-rot, and the price of camels!’ The magician smiled bleakly. ‘Spare me the philosophy, Gezeri. I worry about none of those things. Here is my concern: what is Queen Balkis doing?’ Gezeri shrugged his bony shoulders. ‘In a word: nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary, I mean. Far as I can make out, she’s doing her normal round – meditating in the temples, meeting merchants, hearing representations from her people: all the usual sort of queenly claptrap. I’ve sniffed about behind the scenes, eavesdropped on all and sundry. What have I come up with? Nowt. There’s no sign of any response at all.’ ‘She has five days left,’ Khaba mused. ‘Five days … You are sure there has been no build-up of troops? No increase in defences?’ ‘What troops? What defences?’ The foliot gave its tail a derisive twirl. ‘Sheba’s not even got a proper army – just a bunch of skinny girls who hang about the queen. And the priestesses haven’t put so much as a second-plane nexus around the palace. An imp could stroll right in.’ The magician stroked his chin. ‘Good. Clearly she intends to make the payment. They all do, in the end.’ ‘Yeah, well, that being the case,’ the foliot said, lounging deep into its cloud, ‘why don’t you dismiss me? I’m fed up with all this summoning long-distance. Ooh, it gives me such headaches as you wouldn’t believe. And swellings in the strangest places. Here, take a look at this one … It’s getting uncomfortable to sit.’ ‘You will return to Sheba, slave,’ Khaba snarled, averting his eyes, ‘and keep watch on what occurs! Be sure to let me know if you notice anything untoward. Meanwhile I will shortly summon you again, swellings or no.’ The foliot scowled. ‘Must I? Frankly I’d prefer the building site.’ ‘Our work there is done for the present,’ Khaba said stiffly. ‘Solomon has … ordered us elsewhere.’ ‘Ooo, got cross with you, has he? Fallen a wee bit out of favour? Tough luck!’ Khaba’s lips narrowed to nothing. ‘Mark my words,’ he said, ‘one day there will be a reckoning.’ ‘Oh, sure there will,’ the foliot said. ‘Tell you what, why not make it now? Why not nip up to the king’s apartments tonight and pinch the Ring while he’s asleep?’ ‘Gezeri … ’ ‘Why not? You’re quick, you’re clever. You could kill him before he had a chance to turn the Ring … Well? What’s stopping you?’ It chuckled lazily. ‘Give it up, Khaba. You’re scared like all the rest.’ The magician gave a hiss of outrage; he spoke a word and clapped his hands. Gezeri squeaked; the foliot and its cloud imploded and were gone. Khaba stood rigid and furious in the blue-green shadows of his vault, staring into nothing. There would come a time when all those who belittled him regretted their folly most profoundly … There was a whisper in the darkness. Something stroked his neck. Taking a deep breath, Khaba swept the issues from his mind. He stepped down from his circle and crossed the floor towards the essence-cages. Time enough, before departing for the desert, for a little relaxation. 13 On the day of the Spring Festival the religious ceremonies had taken twice as long as normal, and the little girl was bored. She waited till the guard-mothers were kneeling to the Sun God, with their big old backsides raised to heaven, and cautiously looked around. The other girls were busy praying too, eyes tight shut, noses pressed against the stone. As the drone of their ritual chanting swelled to fill the air, the little girl got up, tiptoed past them all and clambered out of the window. She ran across the flat roof of the training hall, skittered along the wall beside the palace gardens, and dropped like a cat into the shadows of the street. Then she smoothed out her dress, rubbed her shin where it had scraped against the brickwork, and pattered down the hill. She knew she would get a beating when she returned, but she didn’t care. She wanted to see the procession. They were throwing orange blossom from the tower-tops, and the people of Sheba had been covered with it like snow. All along the streets they waited – townsfolk and men of the hill-tribes alike – waiting patiently for their queen. The little girl did not wish to stand at the front of the crowd, in case she was crushed beneath the chariot’s great wheels, so she scrambled up the wooden steps to the nearest guard post, where two slim women with swords at their belts stood watching the crowds below. ‘What are you doing here?’ one said, frowning. ‘You ought to be in training. Get back up to the hall, quickly.’ But the other ruffled the girl’s cropped dark hair. ‘Too late for that. Listen – here they come! Sit down and stay quiet, Asmira, and perhaps we won’t notice you.’ The little girl grinned, sat cross-legged on the stone between their feet. She leaned her chin on her fists, then craned her neck out; she saw the royal chariot come rumbling through the gates, pulled by its team of straining male slaves. The throne it bore was golden like the sun, and on it – vast and splendid, dressed in bright white robes that made her vaster still – sat the queen herself. She was like a painted statue, stiff and immovable, her round face white with chalk, staring straight ahead without expression. On either side marched guards with naked swords; to the rear filed the priestesses in a solemn line. On the chariot itself, just behind the throne, the First Guard stood smiling, her dark hair glistening in the sun. Into the city the procession came. The people cheered; blossom fell from the towers in new cascades. High on the guard post, the little girl grinned and jiggled. She waved both hands. On the far side of the narrow way, in the shadows of the nearest tower, there came a burst of yellow smoke. Three small winged demons, with scarlet eyes and whipping tails of sharpened bone, materialized in mid-air. At once the guards beside the girl were gone into the crowd. Those beside the chariot also started forward, swords readied, daggers pulled from sleeves. Screams sounded, the crowd scattered. The demons darted through the air. One was struck simultaneously by seven silver blades and vanished with a cry. The others spun aside on leather wings, sending loops of fire down upon the advancing guards. The little girl watched none of this. Her eyes were fixed upon the halted chariot, where the queen sat silent, staring straight ahead. The First Guard had not left her post; she had drawn her sword and stood calmly beside the throne. And now the real attack began. Three hill-men stole out of the melting crowd, ran towards the unprotected chariot. From within their robes they drew long thin knives. The First Guard waited. When the quickest assailant leaped towards the queen, she ran him through before his feet touched the ground. His falling weight pulled the sword out of her grasp; letting it go, she turned to meet the others, a dagger springing to her hand. The others reached the chariot; they jumped up on either side of the throne. The First Guard flicked her wrist – one was struck; he fell away. In the same instant she threw herself across the queen, blocking the final knife-strike with her body. She collapsed upon the royal lap, long black hair falling loose about her head. The other guards, having dealt with the demons, discovered the danger behind them. In a moment the third assailant had died from a dozen wounds. The guards surged around the chariot, dragged the bodies clear. Orders were given. The slaves pulled on the ropes to the rhythm of the whips, and the chariot continued on. Blossom cascaded onto empty streets. The queen stared straight before her, white-faced and impassive, the lap of her robes stained red. The body of the First Guard lay in the shadow of the city gate while the line of priestesses shuffled by. After they were gone it took several further minutes for shocked attendants to return to clear the street, and even then no one noticed the little girl sitting high upon the guard post, watching as her mother’s body was carried up the hill. Asmira opened her eyes. All was as it had been just before she slept. The tasselled shadow of her canopy swaying upon the camel’s back. The line of beasts ahead of her, stretching into nothing. The creak of the poles and the soft steady tread of pads on stone … Heat scoured her mouth; her head ached. Her clothes were a wet cocoon. She moistened her lips with her water-skin, ignoring the temptation to drink deeply. Nine days in the desert, and three since fresh water, and still the road went on. All around was a land of desolation and absence, of bleached hills fading to the edge of vision. The sun was a white hole in an iron sky. It warped the air into slices that danced and shimmered and were never still. Always, when she dozed during those endless desert days, Asmira found herself beset by whirling dreams that looped, repeating, stinging like blown sand. She saw the Queen of Sheba smiling in her chamber, pouring her more wine. She saw the priestesses on the palace forecourt, with the djinni raised and waiting, and all eyes on her as she bade farewell. She saw the Temple of the Sun and its eastern wall, where the icons of dead champions were displayed and her mother’s figurine shone so beautifully in the morning light. She saw the empty niche beside it that she had coveted so long. And sometimes … sometimes she saw her mother, the way she had always seen her, for eleven frozen years. That evening the camel train halted in the shelter of a sandstone ridge. Brushwood was gathered, a fire lit. The master of the caravan, who had some magical knowledge, sent forth imps to survey the rocks and give word if anything drew near. Afterwards he approached Asmira, who was gazing at the fire. ‘Still here, I see,’ he said. Asmira was stiff, weary and weighed down with impatience at the tedium of the journey. Nevertheless, she managed a smile. ‘Why should I not be?’ The master was a large and jaunty man, twinkly-eyed and broad of chest. Asmira found him somewhat disconcerting. He chuckled. ‘Each night I check to ensure everyone is human still, and not a ghul or fetch! They say that once a camel-master rode into Petra with thirty traders in his train; as he passed beneath the city gates, each rider’s cloak fell empty to the ground, and, looking back, he saw the way for miles behind littered with picked bones. All the men had been devoured, one by one!’ The guard-mothers had told Asmira that story too, about a trader of Marib. ‘A folktale,’ she said. ‘Nothing more.’ The master took out his djinn-guard and shook its silver bells fervently. ‘Even so, vigilance is essential. Deserts are dangerous places and not all is what it seems.’ Asmira was staring at the moon. It was a thin crescent now, and shone bright above the ridge. The sight gave her a sharp knot in her stomach. ‘We made good progress today,’ she said. ‘Will we reach Jerusalem tomorrow?’ The camel-master adjusted his paunch slightly and shook his head. ‘The day after, if all goes well. But tomorrow evening I shall relax, for by then we will be drawing near the city. No desert demons will dare attack us under good Solomon’s kind and watchful eye.’ In the fire’s light Asmira saw the towers of Marib burning. The knot in her stomach broke asunder. ‘Good?’ she said harshly. ‘Kind? These are not descriptions I had heard of Solomon.’ ‘Indeed?’ The camel-master raised his eyebrows. ‘What have you heard?’ ‘That he is a cruel warlord, who threatens weaker nations!’ ‘Well, there are many tales told about him,’ the camel-master admitted, ‘and I dare say not all of them are to his credit. But you will find many in this company who believe differently to you; they come to Jerusalem to seek his charity, or ask him to sit in judgement on difficult matters. No? You do not believe me? Ask them.’ ‘Perhaps I will.’ As night came and the flames rose high, Asmira fell into conversation with the person sitting beside her at the fire. He was a spice merchant bound for Tyre, a young man, bearded, with a quiet and courteous manner. ‘You have been very silent, miss,’ he said. ‘I have scarcely heard a word from you all journey. Might I ask your name?’ Asmira had long ago decided to avoid all mention of her real name and nationality, and had spent much of the journey devising an alternative. ‘I am called Cyrine.’ ‘Where do you travel from?’ ‘I am a priestess of the Temple of the Sun in blessed Himyar. I travel to Jerusalem.’ The merchant stretched his boots out nearer to the flames. ‘Himyar? Where’s that?’ ‘South Arabia.’ Himyar was in fact a small coastal kingdom west of Sheba, notable for goats, honey and its general anonymity, which is why Asmira had chosen it. She had never been there, and she doubted many other people had either. ‘What is your business in Jerusalem, to have come so far?’ ‘I wish to see King Solomon. Our kingdom needs his help.’ Asmira fluttered her eyelashes a little, and sighed prettily. ‘I hope it will be possible to gain audience with him.’ ‘Well, Solomon has daily councils, they say, where he listens to anyone who comes.’ The merchant drank deeply from his wine-skin. ‘Couple of farmers near Tyre, they had a beetle plague a year ago. Went to Solomon. He sent his demons; they killed the beetles. Problem solved. That’s what having a magic ring can do for you. Want some wine?’ ‘No, thank you. Daily councils, you say? You think I could get in?’ ‘Oh yes. Pretty girl like you, I’m sure there’s every chance.’ He gazed out into the dark. ‘I suppose, what with you coming from Arabia, you’ve not stopped here before.’ Asmira was thinking about what to do when she arrived in Jerusalem. She would go to the palace and request immediate audience at the next day’s council. They would bring her before the king. And then, when she was standing before him, and they were waiting for her to make some grovelling request, she would step forward, throw back her cloak and … Expectation burned like fire across her chest; her palms tingled with it. ‘No,’ she said absently, ‘I’ve never been to Israel.’ ‘No, I mean here.’ He gestured to the sandstone ridge above. ‘This place.’ ‘Never.’ ‘Ah!’ He smiled. ‘You see atop that spur, where a single column of sandstone rises? That’s a famous local landmark. Know what it is?’ Asmira roused herself, looked up. The column was certainly peculiar, its strata bulbous and contorted, with several stunted protrusions at the summit. As she looked, the sun’s last rays, running like scarlet water down its flanks, almost seemed to give it form … ‘That, they say, is the afrit Azul,’ the merchant said. ‘A slave of Solomon in the early years of his reign. He tried to destroy the magic Ring, or so the story goes, and such was the result. Turned to stone and never moved again!’ He turned aside and spat into the fire. ‘Good thing too, I say. Look at the size of him. Must be twenty-five feet tall.’ Asmira stared at the lowering pillar, conscious of a sudden numbness in her bones. She shivered; the night seemed newly chill. The rock rose up so high. It seemed almost to merge into the stars. And what was that? Could she see the traces of a vast and brutal face amongst the shadows near the top …? No. The wind and sand had done their work. The undulating surface no longer held expression. Drawing her cloak around her, she shuffled closer to the fire, ignoring further questions from the merchant at her side. Her stomach had turned to water, her teeth felt loose in her mouth. The fierce exultation in her heart had gone, snuffed out as if by a giant hand. All at once she truly understood the implications of what she was about to do. The scale of the transformed demon, its solid, blank immensity, brought home to her what all the fireside tales had not: the sheer contemptuous power of the man who wore the Ring. On the morning of the tenth day, the camel train reached a place where the sandstone hills pressed close upon the road. The upper reaches of the cliffs were bathed in sun; down in the gorge, where the camels walked, the light was grey and cool. Asmira had slept badly. The wave of fear that had broken over her the night before had drained away, leaving her dull and sluggish and irritated with herself. Her mother would not have reacted so to a simple lump of stone, nor would the queen expect it of her champion now. She sat hunched upon the camel, weighed down with gloomy thoughts. The gorge grew tight about the road; on the right-hand side the slope had collapsed into a mess of stones. Listlessly surveying the desolation, Asmira caught sight of something small and brown perched amongst the boulders. It was a desert fox, with large, black-tufted ears and gleaming eyes, sitting on a rock, watching the camel train go by. Her camel slowed to negotiate the rough ground, and for a moment Asmira came level with the fox. She was right alongside it, just a few feet away. If she had wished, she could almost have leaned out from her couch and touched it. The fox showed no fear. Its round black eyes met hers. Then the camel moved on, and the fox was left behind. Asmira sat very still, feeling the slow swaying of the camel under her, listening to its tireless pad, pad, pad amid the silence of the gorge. Then, with a gasp, she took her whip from its holster in the saddle and, wrenching on the reins, forced her camel onwards at a run. Her sluggishness was gone; her eyes were bright. Her hand sought the dagger hilt beneath her cloak. The master was four camels further up the gorge, and Asmira drew level only with difficulty. ‘Speed up! We need to speed up!’ The master stared. ‘What is it? What’s the matter?’ ‘Your imps – set them loose! Djinn too, if you have them – there’s something here.’ He hesitated only a moment, then turned to shout an order. As he did so, a ball of blue-black flame hit his camel from the left-hand side. There was an explosion of dark blue fire; the master and his camel were blown horizontally across the road and dashed upon the rocks. Asmira screamed, throwing up her hands against the buffet of burning air. Her camel reared in terror; she fell back, almost plunging from the saddle, then swung out sideways, clinging to the reins. Her outstretched hand caught hold of a pole upon her canopy; she hung to it, half dangling above the ground. The camel plunged and bucked. Craning her neck desperately from where she hung, Asmira glimpsed dark forms wheeling in the sky. Bolts of fire rained down upon the road. Other explosions sounded; and screams and panicked shouts. Buffets and echoes rebounded through the gorge, seeming to come from every side. Smoke blocked her vision. Her camel sought to turn, but another explosion behind made it lurch back towards the cliff. Pulling savagely on the reins with one hand, wrenching at the pole with the other, Asmira drew herself upright, narrowly escaping being crushed against the stones. Grasping the pommel of her saddle, she brought the silver dagger from her belt. Somewhere amid the smoke, black shapes thudded down to land upon the road; men and animals screamed in pain and terror. Asmira clung to her maddened camel, staring all around. Wresting control of it at last, she backed away through swirling darkness to press close against the shelter of the overhanging walls. Here she crouched, while bolts of fire went ripping past, and the shouts of the dying sounded, removing two more daggers from her bag. She pulled the silver necklace from her robes, let it hang loose upon her breast. Movement in the smoke, a silhouette: something inhuman questing near. Asmira took swift aim and loosed a dagger. There was a gargling cry, a brief, dull flash. The shape was gone. She held another weapon ready. Time passed; the smoke began to lift. A second shape came bounding up the road. As it drew level, it paused; the head had turned. Asmira, stiffening, raised her knife in readiness; her blood beat against her ears. The cloud parted. A creature with a reptile’s head burst forth, a bloodied scimitar whirling in its three-clawed hand. Asmira clutched her necklace and spoke a Ward of force. Yellow discs of light shot down and hit the creature, which flinched back, but did not retreat. It looked up at her, grinning, and slowly shook its head. Then it bent its legs and sprang at her, mouth gaping pinkly in delight. 14 Peace and quiet. That’s one thing to be said for deserts. They give you a chance to get away from the everyday pressures of life. And when those ‘everyday pressures’ consist of seven furious djinn and one apoplectic master magician, a few hundred thousand square miles of sand, rock, wind and desolation is exactly what you need. Three days had passed since my uncomfortable encounter with Solomon back at Jerusalem – time enough, one might reasonably feel, for water to run under bridges, tempers to become soothed and bad moods to ease gently into calm introspection. But had they? Not a hope. Khaba was livid, of course – that was to be expected. The king had belittled and humiliated him in front of his peers, and his cushy existence at the palace had been replaced, for the moment, with bandit-hunting on the open road. Though it’s true he wasn’t exactly slumming it – he travelled by flying carpet, complete with cushions, grapes and a chained foliot holding a parasol, and at night slept in a black silk tent complete with couch and incense bath – you could see he felt it deeply, and blamed me.1 The curious and disconcerting thing, though, was that beyond a few initial scourings back on the building site, Khaba hadn’t actually punished me much for my misdemeanour. This was so out of character that I found myself getting jumpy; I kept expecting his wrath to fall upon me when I least expected it, and as a result expected it all the time. I watched him and his shadow obsessively, but nothing nasty came my way. Meanwhile my fellow djinn were cross with me as well, indignant that the safe and predictable routines of life at the temple had been replaced with combing the arid badlands in search of dangerous djinn to fight. I tried to argue that outlaw-killing was far better suited to our ferocious talents than building work, but was by turns shouted down, insulted and plain ignored. Xoxen, Tivoc and Beyzer refused to speak to me at all, and the others were decidedly snippy. Only Faquarl, who had loathed the quarry, showed any disposition to sympathy. He contributed a few acerbic comments, but otherwise left me alone. The first two days were uneventful. Each morning Khaba emerged from his tent, berated us soundly for our failings, uttered random threats and packed us off in all directions. Each evening, having crisscrossed the skies from dawn to dusk, we returned empty-handed to face his censure. The desert was large and our enemy elusive. The brigands, whoever they were, lay low. On the afternoon of the third day I was the phoenix again, flying high above the southern trade routes. The town of Hebron had passed beneath, and Arad. Not far to the east I caught the mirror flash of the great Salt Sea, where bones of ancient cities lay bleaching by the shore. Ahead rose the mountains of Edom, gateway to yet vaster wastes, and at their feet a low, dark purpled mass: the waterless desert of Zin. The spice road here was a thin brown vein in the dirt, spooled between the lifeless ridges. If I followed it long enough, I would arrive at last at the Red Sea, and the trading depots where caravans converged from Egypt, Sheba, even distant Nubia and Punt. But my business lay close by. As I circled, my dark eye flashing as it turned against the sun, I caught an answering gleam below. It came from a track just off the main highway, a path winding towards a village in the hills. The gleam was definite, and warranted investigation. Down I dropped, enjoying the wind in my plumage and the simple freedom of the air. All in all, things weren’t so bad. I was alive, I was aloft, I was away from that wretched building site. True, I had some ‘monsters’ to track down and slay, but when you’re a swashbuckling djinni of more than average talent who’s survived the battles of Qadesh and Megiddo, and who (more to the point), has been cooped up in Jerusalem with some of the most irritating entities ever to squeeze inside a pentacle, a bit of a scrap is precisely what you need. I was too late for the scrap here, though. It had been and gone. Even while I was in the air, I could see the devastation on the little track. The ground was charred and blistered, and stained with something dark. Fragments of cloth and wood had been strewn over a wide area. I smelled old horror: spent magic, sundered flesh. The gleam I’d seen turned out to come from a broken sword-blade lying on a rock. It wasn’t alone. Parts of its owner lay nearby. As I landed, I turned into the handsome young Sumerian, dark-eyed and watchful. I stood and looked around. The remains of several carts were clearly visible, their wood split and blackened, their wheels smashed. The rocks of the cliffs on either side had sad, limp things scattered on them. I didn’t look closely. I knew what they were. One of the victims was lying in the centre of the road, a splintered shield beside him. His arms and legs were out-flung casually, almost as if he slept. I say almost advisedly, since he lacked a head. He, like his colleagues, had been robbed as well as murdered – the contents of the carts were gone. This was bandit work for sure, and it was recent. I guessed I was one day behind them at the most. They might still be near. I walked a little way up the winding track, listening to the wind whispering in the rocks, studying the ground. In general the dirt was too hard and compacted to reveal footprints, but in one place, where something – perhaps a water-skin – had been punctured and the dirt made briefly wet, I found the deep impression of a triangular, three-clawed foot. I bent low and studied it a while, then rose and turned to go back the way I’d come. And froze. Below me, the track curled off to the right, following a steady gradient down. Twenty or thirty yards away, just beyond the area where the attack had happened, it disappeared from view behind the valley wall. The cliffs on the left-hand side were abrupt and sheer, and brightly lit from above by the noonday sun. Every detail upon them – each rock, each fissure, the slow pink twist of the tangled strata – was picked out for me in perfect detail. As was Khaba’s shadow. The outline of his bald head was thrown in sidelong silhouette upon the sunlit cliff. I saw the smooth dome-shape, his long, beaked nose, the jut of his bony chin; his bulky shoulders and upper arms were visible too, but his lower half was lost in the tumbled rocks of the valley floor. It was as if the magician himself stood just out of sight round the bend in the road, facing uphill towards me. I stared at the apparition. The head upon the rocks stayed perfectly still. I took a slow step back, and immediately the head began to flow forwards around the curve of the cliff, rippling over its contours like dark water. As it came, it grew; and now its long thin arms rose into sight, with its long thin shadow-fingers stretching out towards me. My backward steps were somewhat faster now; I stumbled on the uneven ground. Still the shadow grew and stretched – a long, black arch with clutching hands, its face elongated, its chin and nose protruding to grotesque proportions, its great mouth opening wide, wide, wide … I gathered myself, stood fast; I let flame ignite between my fingers. There was a flapping noise in the air above. The shadow started; the questing fingers drew back in doubt. At incredible speed it fled back across the cliffs, shrinking, reducing, returning to its original position. Now it shrank still further, and was gone. Someone coughed behind me. Spinning round, a Detonation flaring at my fingertips, I saw a broad, plump Nubian lounging on a rock, studiously brushing flight-ice off his arms with taloned fingers while regarding me with detached amusement. He wore wings in the traditional style of Mesopotamian djinn – feathered, but split into four like those of beetles. ‘Bit jumpy, Bartimaeus?’ Faquarl said. I gazed at him dumbly. Wheeling round again, I stared back along the road. The cliffs were quiet and still – silent planes of light and shadow. None of the shadows had familiar form. None of the shadows moved. The blue fire coursing between my fingers fizzled and went out. I scratched my head uncertainly. ‘Looks as if you found something interesting,’ Faquarl said. Still I didn’t say anything. The Nubian walked past me, surveying the devastation on the road with a few sweeps of his practised eyes. ‘Not like you to get put off by a little bit of blood and sand,’ he remarked. ‘It’s not pretty, admittedly, but it’s not exactly Qadesh, is it?2 We’ve seen worse.’ I was still shaken, looking all around. Except for a few scraps of fabric flapping pathetically among the rocks, nothing stirred anywhere at all. ‘Doesn’t look like anyone survived …’ Faquarl came to the mutilated corpse in the centre of the road and nudged it with a sandal. He chuckled. ‘Now then, Bartimaeus, what have you been doing to this poor fellow?’ I came to life then. ‘That was how I found him! What are you suggesting?’ ‘It’s not for me to judge your little habits, Bartimaeus,’ Faquarl said. He stepped close and patted me on the shoulder. ‘Calm down, I’m only joking. I know you wouldn’t devour a dead man’s head.’ I nodded tersely. ‘Thank you. Too right.’ ‘You prefer a juicy buttock, as I remember.’ ‘Quite. Much more nutritious.’ ‘Anyhow,’ Faquarl went on, ‘the wounds are clearly old. Been lying there the best part of twenty-four hours, if I’m any judge of dead men.’3 ‘The magic’s cold too,’ I said, surveying the scattered debris. ‘Detonations, mainly – fairly high-powered ones, though there were a few Convulsions here and there. Nothing too sophisticated, but very brutal.’ ‘Utukku, you think?’ ‘I’d say so. I found a footprint: bulky, but not big enough to be an afrit.’ ‘Well, we’ve got a scent at last, Bartimaeus! I’d suggest going back to tell our master right away, but let’s face it – he’s unlikely to want to hear anything from you.’ I glanced about me once more. ‘Speaking of Khaba,’ I said quietly, ‘I had an odd experience just now. When you came down, you didn’t happen to see anything else here with me?’ Faquarl shook his gleaming head. ‘You seemed just as isolated as ever, if slightly more jittery. Why?’ ‘Only I thought I had Khaba’s shadow after me—’ I stopped myself, cursed. ‘Not thought, know – it was creeping after me along the gorge. Just now! Only when you turned up, it scarpered.’ Faquarl frowned. ‘Really? This is bad.’ ‘Tell me about it.’ ‘Yes, it means technically I may have saved you from a nasty fate. Please don’t tell anyone about this, Bartimaeus. I’ve got a reputation to maintain.’ He rubbed his chin meditatively. ‘Odd, though, that Khaba should move against you out here,’ he mused. ‘Why not back at camp? Why the secrecy? It’s an intriguing little problem.’ ‘I’m glad you feel that way,’ I snarled. ‘Personally speaking, it’s a bit more urgent than that.’ The Nubian grinned. ‘Well, what can you expect? In all honesty, I’m surprised you’ve survived this long. Khaba’s got a grudge against you after that hippo debacle. And then, of course, there’s the ongoing issue of your personality. That’s two good reasons to bump you off for starters.’ I stared at him askance. ‘My personality? Meaning what?’ ‘How can you even ask the question? I’ve been around the ziggurat a few times, Bartimaeus, but I’ve never known a spirit like you. Ghuls4 are bad enough, skrikers5 likewise – they may all have appalling habits, but by Zeus at least they don’t talk out of turn so loudly, or cheek their betters the way you do. Let’s face it, just the sight of you is enough to drive any reasonable spirit insane.’ Whether it was my recent shock, or the smug expression on his face, my temper snapped. Blue flames flared between my fingers; I stepped in fury towards him. Faquarl gave an indignant snort. Shards of green lightning crackled about his pudgy hands. ‘Don’t even think about it. You haven’t got a chance.’ ‘Is that so, my friend? Well, let me tell you—’ I halted; my fires died suddenly away. At the same time Faquarl let his hands fall back. We stood silent on the road, facing each other, listening hard. We could both detect the same sensation: an almost imperceptible shivering on the planes, with every now and then a faint, decisive thud. It was familiar and it was not far off. It was the noise of djinn being summoned. As one, we leaped into the air, our quarrel forgotten. As one, we changed. Two eagles (one plump, unsavoury; one a paragon of avian grace and beauty) rose up between the cliffs. We circled high above the wastes, which shimmered brown and white beneath the sun. I checked the higher planes, where colours are more muted and less distracting, and gave a cawk of triumph. Away to the south, distant luminosities moved upon the ground. The lights – evidently those of several spirits – were closing in on where the spice road passed among some barren hills. Without a word the eagles banked their wings. Side by side, we shot south towards the road. 1 You could tell this by the little evil looks he flashed, and his overall froideur when I passed by. Subtle clues, yes, but I’m a sensitive sort and I spotted them. The regular occasions when he shook his fists and cursed my name by all the death gods of Egypt only served to back up my theory. 2Battle of Qadesh: major engagement between the Egyptians under Rameses the Great and the Hittites under King Muwatallis back in 1274 BC. Faquarl and I had fought in separate divisions of the pharaoh’s armies, and helped carry out the final pincer movement that drove the enemy utukku from the field. Many great deeds were done that day, not all of them by me. Two centuries later, the battlefield was still a blackened waste, a field of bones. 3 He was. 4Ghul: a lowly class of djinni, a frequenter of cemeteries, a devourer of unburied morsels. 5Skriker: an unpleasant sub-type of imp, with large flat feet and creeping tread. Follows travellers in lonely places, whispering and calling, and drives them to their death. 15 Soon afterwards two bearded travellers could be seen trudging forth upon King Solomon’s highway. One was young and handsome, the other thick-set and dishevelled; both were stained with the sand of many miles. Each wore a dyed wool robe and had a heavy pack slung across his shoulders. They supported their steps with staffs of oak. Trudge, trudge, hobble, hobble – that was Faquarl and me doing our best to project an aura of human vulnerability. To cloak our actual potency, we’d made the change on five planes, and used Glamours to shield our true natures on the other two. Shoulders drooping with weariness, the men scuffed southwards through the dust and watched the dark hills draw in on either side. Here, as we’d judged while still aloft, were cliffs and overhangs that offered opportunity for ambush, if you were that way inclined. Faquarl and I had decided on an ambush of our own. Somewhere above were the hidden djinn we’d glimpsed from afar, but for the present we saw no sign of them. Everything was still, save for two vultures drifting slowly in and out of view against the sky. I snatched a look at them. Genuine, as far as I could tell. I lowered my gaze; on we went, step by weary step. In the middle of the range of hills, the cliffs receded a little and the road entered a wider defile, surrounded by scree slopes topped with jagged spurs of basalt. For the first time, the lonely and ever so vulnerable travellers stopped. Faquarl made a pretence of fiddling with his pack. I pulled at my beard, looked all around me with narrowed eyes. Quietness. Grasping our staffs more tightly, we set off again along the way. From behind, somewhere remote among the cliffs, came a tiny rattling of stones. Neither of us turned our head. At our backs sounded a skittering of pebbles, louder, halfway down the scree. Faquarl scratched his bulbous nose. I whistled tunelessly as I walked along. A heavy thud sounded on the road, the click of claws on rock. Still we trudged on, weariness itself. And now came the rasp of scales. The stench of sulphur. A sudden swathe of darkness filling the ravine. A cackle of demonic— All right, now was probably the time. Faquarl and I spun round, beards jutting, staffs raised, ready to attack – and saw nothing. We looked down. There at our feet stood the smallest, most rubbish foliot we’d ever set eyes on, frozen guiltily mid-path with one foot raised. It wore the terrifying guise of a shrew in a baggy tunic. In one furry paw it carried a weapon that resembled a toasting fork. I lowered my staff and gazed at it. It goggled back with its big brown eyes. On all seven planes the shrew looked the same, though to be fair on the seventh it did have a set of fangs. I shook my head in wonder. Could this be the hideous monster that had carried out such rapine on the desert road? ‘Hand over your valuables and prepare for death!’ squeaked the shrew, flourishing its fork. ‘Make haste, if you please. There is a camel train approaching the other way, and I wish to dispose of your bodies and join my fellows.’ Faquarl and I glanced at one another. I held up a hand. ‘Please, if I may: one question. In whose name do you act? Who summoned you?’ The shrew’s chest swelled. ‘My master is employed by the king of the Edomites. Now hand over your goods. I don’t want blood all over them.’ ‘But Edom is a friend to Israel,’ Faquarl persisted. ‘Why should its king seek to rebel against great Solomon?’ ‘This would be the same Solomon who demands a vast yearly tribute from the king, so that his treasury is emptied and his people groan beneath the burden of their taxes?’ The shrew gave a shrug. ‘Were it not for the Ring he wears, Solomon would find Edom rising against him in war. As it is, we must be content with simple banditry. Well, so much for international relations; we come now to your sad demise …’ I smiled negligently. ‘First, a detail. Check out the planes.’ So saying, I made a subtle change. On the first plane I was still a dusty traveller leaning on his staff. On the higher planes, however, the man was gone, and I was something other. Faquarl had done likewise. All at once the shrew’s fur went grey and bristled stiff and upright on its body. It shivered so violently that its fork began to hum. The shrew sidled backwards. ‘Let’s talk about this …’ My grin broadened. ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ I made a gesture; my staff was gone. From my outstretched hand a Detonation roared. The shrew sprang sideways; the earth at its feet exploded in crimson fire. Mid-leap, the shrew jabbed its fork; from the tip came a frail green shaft of light that raked across the ground, stabbing Faquarl’s toe unpleasantly. He hopped and cursed, threw up a Shield. The shrew hit the ground with a squeak and darted away. I peppered its wake with a string of Convulsions that sent avalanches tumbling up and down the gorge. The shrew sprang behind a boulder, from where its paw protruded at intervals, wielding the toasting fork. Further green bolts rained down on us, hissing and spitting against the edges of our Shields. Faquarl sent a Spasm whirling; the boulder shattered, became a heap of gravel. The shrew was blown backwards, fur smouldering. It dropped its fork. With a high-pitched oath, it leaped for the scree and began to climb. Faquarl gave a cry. ‘You go after it – I’ll cut it off on the other side.’ Hands smoking, robe and beard whipping around me, I vaulted onto a tumbled slab, jumped to an adjacent ledge, bounded up the slope from stone to stone. With my feet hardly touching the rocks, I quickly homed in on the desperate blur of brown that zigzagged ahead of me up the scree. Lightning crackled from my fingers; it drove down into the earth, propelling me upwards even faster. The shrew reached the top of the slope, and for a moment was outlined furrily against the sky. At the last instant it ducked away; my Detonation missed it by a whisker. From my back I sprouted wings – each feathered, pure white, divided in two like those of a butterfly.1 They flexed into life; over the crest of the dust-dry hill I soared, so the sun’s warmth burst upon my essence. Down below me was the shrew, stumbling, plunging down an undulating ridge of ground. Not far beyond I saw a rough encampment of tents, four of them set in a little hollow, surrounded by store-piles, the blackened remnants of a fire, three bored camels tethered to an iron post and many other spoors and scatterings. The owners of all this were three men (presumably the Edomite magicians, though to be honest all the tribes of the region looked the same to me), clad in robes of brown and caramel, with walking staffs in hand and dusty sandals on their feet. They stood in the shadow of the tents, as still as statues, in postures of calm attention, looking away from us towards the opposite side of the ridge, which abutted another curve of the desert road. The shrew’s yelps alerted them: spinning round, they saw its tumbling approach and, further off, my implacable, avenging form hurtling from the heavens. The men cried out; they scattered. One cried out a spirit’s name. From the ravine beyond came an answering call, deep and urgent. Now things were getting interesting. Down from above I plunged, giving vent to all the pent-up fury of my slavery. From my fingers a succession of fiery bolts strafed left and right into the ground. Stone shattered, dirt and sand burst against the bright blue sky. The shrew was finally hit in the centre of its furry back, blasting into a thousand plaintive motes of light. Two hulking shapes rose from the gorge beyond. Both, like me, were winged in the bifurcated Assyrian style; both, like me, wore human bodies. Unlike me, they had chosen rather more exotic heads, the better to spread terror to their victims on the road. The nearest, an utukku with a lion’s face, carried a bloodied spear.2 His comrade, whose head resembled that of an unpleasantly jowly, loose-skinned monitor lizard, preferred a scimitar; with horrid cries and feathered wings beating at the air, they flew towards me at speed. I would kill them if I had to, but I preferred to kill their masters.3 The Edomite magicians had each acted according to his nature. The first had panicked, spinning this way, then that, before finally tripping over his trailing robe and falling into the side of the nearest tent. Before he could regain his balance my Detonation expunged him in a ball of flame. The second stood his ground: from a bag beside the fire he drew a long, thin tube of glass. As I swooped towards him, he broke the tube against a rock and pointed the broken end at me. A cord of oily black substance emerged, swung lazily back, then darted out like a fisherman’s cast in my direction. I projected a Dark Node, which caught the centre of the smoky cord and, with a rude sucking noise, pulled it inwards into nothing. After the cord came the glass tube and the magician who held it: in the blink of an eye they too were sucked into the Node, which promptly ingested itself and so vanished. Upon the death of the Edomite, which came a few short moments after his disappearance into the Node,4 the lion-headed utukku gave a joyous cry, became a resinous vapour and dissipated on the wind. The lizard-headed utukku, clearly the servant of the third magician, still remained; flourishing his scimitar, he interrupted my flight-path with a series of violent hacks and thrusts that I struggled to avoid. ‘Why couldn’t you have killed my one?’ the utukku said, slashing at my midriff. I spun aside, darted, rolled over in mid-air. ‘I’m doing my best. Would you mind not trying to impale me in the meantime?’ The utukku dodged my Spasm; slashed with the scimitar. ‘It doesn’t work that way.’ ‘I know.’ Evading the next attack by inches, I careened to the left and banked close to Earth; shooting between two tents, I rose again, scanning the ridge for the third magician, and was just in time to catch a flash of brown and caramel beginning a hurried descent into the ravine. With murderous intent, and the utukku labouring behind, I followed the Edomite over the lip of the ridge, drifting like a hawk or other raptor following its mouse. There he was, slipping and scrabbling down among the rocks, his robe hitched up about his knees, his sandals torn away. His face was tilted downwards, fixed in concentration on the slope. Not once did he look over his shoulder: he knew his death followed hard behind him on bright, white wings. Beyond and below him, on the road, I glimpsed several other things: the sturdy form of Faquarl wrestling with a third utukku (this one with the head of a long-horned goat), two others lying dead beside him; and all around the remains of slaughter – camels and humans scattered like discarded rags across the blackened ground. A buffet of air; I twisted sideways just too late, and felt a burst of pain as the utukku’s scimitar cut through one wingtip, sheared off a few primary feathers and utterly ruined my delightful symmetry. My balance went; my aero-dynamism likewise. I tumbled to the scree below, landed inelegantly on my back and began to roll down-slope. The utukku came in fast, ready to commit the coup de gr?ce. To delay him (and this is not easily done when rolling at speed – try it yourself if you don’t believe me) I fired an Enervation over my shoulder. It hit him straight on, sapping his energies and making his movements treacly and sluggish. He dropped the scimitar. Wings drooping, limbs working listlessly, he fell to the ground and began tumbling in my wake. We rolled downhill amid an avalanche of stones. We fell onto the packed earth of the desert road. We struggled into sitting positions. We looked at each other, we each raised a hand. I was the quicker. I blew him apart with a Detonation. Pieces of his essence fell to Earth, spattering the death-dry rocks and stones like refreshing rain. I struggled to my feet in the centre of the road, brushing dust from my bumps and bruises, letting my wings uncrumple, my battle-lust subside. Over to my left Faquarl, having finally disposed of his goat-headed antagonist, was slowly, painfully doing likewise. Essence glistened brightly from a deep cut across his midriff, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. Not bad going. Between us, we had dealt with five utukku and two of the three Edomite magicians.5 The bandit danger on Solomon’s roads was decisively dealt with for now. Which reminded me. That third magician … Where—? A voice, high and imperious, spoke close by. ‘Demons, do not move or speak but by our command, save only to prostrate yourself in abasement before the High Priestess of the Sun in the blessed land of Himyar. I am my queen’s representative and speak for her and all of Himyar, and I demand of you your names, identities and nature, on pain of our extreme displeasure.’ Is it just me, or would a simple ‘Hello’ have been enough? 1Bit of a contemporary look, this: it was the latest thing in Nimrud that century. The white feathers were a drag during combat – they didn’t half show up stains – but made you resemble a celestial being: fearsome, beautiful, cold, aloof. This was particularly useful when out hunting humans, who were often so busy gawping at you they quite forgot to run. 2Clearly the shrew, whatever its many faults, had not lied to us. Other travellers were currently being waylaid below. 3This is a generally sound principle. When forced into sudden battle with another spirit, you have no way of assessing their character. They may be repugnant and loathsome, or genial and pleasant, or any combination in between. The only certain fact is that they would not be fighting you were it not for the charge put upon them, and thus it makes sense to expunge the master and spare the puppet. In the case of the utukku, of course, it was safe to assume they had the morals of two ferrets fighting in a bag, but even so, the principle remained. 4This curious time delay always occurs in such cases. I sometimes wonder what, in those fleeting seconds, the victim’s consciousness sees or experiences inside the Node, alone in that infinity of nothing. 5 Plus the shrew. But I’m not really sure you can count him. 16 It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed we had company. It was just that I hadn’t cared. When you’re in the middle of a fight, you stick to the basics, namely trying to disembowel your enemy while stopping him tearing off your arm and beating you around the head with it. If you’ve any energy left over, you use it for swearing. Prostrating yourself before watching strangers doesn’t feature highly in the programme. Particularly when it’s them you’re saving. So I took my time here, flicking the desert dust off my limbs and inspecting remote regions of my essence, before turning to see who’d spoken. Not twelve inches away, a face regarded me with an expression that mingled arrogance, derision and the hope of obtaining grassy foodstuffs. This was a camel. Following its neck upwards, I discovered a couch of red and yellow silks set upon its saddle. Tasselled drapes hung below it; above, slumped on broken poles, there swung a canopy, now sadly burned and torn. On the couch sat a young woman, little more than a girl. Her black hair was drawn back and mostly hidden by a silken headscarf, but her eyebrows were elegant and quizzical, her eyes as black as onyx. Her face was slim, its structure graceful, her skin-tone dark and even. A human might have accounted her beautiful. My expert eye also detected signs of wilfulness, high intelligence and stern resolve, though whether these qualities added to her beauty or detracted from it is not for me to say. This girl sat straight-backed upon her camel-couch, one hand resting on the forward pommel of acacia wood, the other loosely holding the beast’s reins. She wore a hempen riding cloak, stained ochre from the desert storms, and singed in places by utukku fire; also a long woollen garment, woven with geometric designs in yellow and red. This was wrapped tight about her torso and more loosely about her legs. She rode side-saddle, her feet neatly encased in little leather shoes. Bronze bangles hung upon her slim, bare wrists. Around her neck she had a silver pendant, shaped like a sun. Her hair was slightly disordered – a few strands had fallen across her face – and she had a small fresh cut beneath one eye; otherwise, she seemed none the worse for her ordeal. This all takes a lot longer to recount than it did to observe. I stared at her for a moment. ‘Who spoke,’ I said, ‘you or the camel?’ The girl frowned. ‘It was I.’ ‘Well, you have a camel’s manners.’ I turned aside. ‘We’ve just killed the utukku who were attacking you. By rights you should be on your knees thanking us for your deliverance. Wouldn’t you say so, Faquarl?’ My associate had at last drawn close, tentatively prodding at his gaping chest wound. ‘That goat!’ he grumbled. ‘Gored me with a horn just as I was strangling the other two. I ask you. Three against one! Some djinn haven’t the slightest conception of common courtesy …’ He noticed the girl for the first time. ‘Who’s this?’ I shrugged. ‘A survivor.’ ‘Any others about?’ We surveyed the forlorn wreckage of the camel train, scattered about the gorge. All was silent, all was still, apart from a couple of riderless camels wandering in the distance, and some vultures circling lazily. No other survivors met the eye. Someone else I couldn’t see was the fugitive Edomite magician. It struck me suddenly that he would be useful to bring back to Jerusalem alive. Solomon would be interested in hearing at first hand the reasons for the bandits’ activities … The girl (who still hadn’t thanked us) was sitting on her couch, regarding Faquarl and me with her big dark eyes. I addressed her curtly. ‘I’m looking for one of the bandits who attacked your party. Came springing down the rock-face here. You must have seen him. Mind telling me which way he went – if it isn’t too much trouble?’ With a languid gesture, the girl indicated a large granite boulder on the opposite side of the road. Two feet projected from behind it. I hurried over, to discover the Edomite lying there, a silver-bladed dagger protruding neatly from the centre of his forehead. The silver’s aura made me nauseous; nevertheless, I shook him anxiously, in case he was just dazed. It was no good. Bang went the live witness I was hoping to take back to Solomon. I looked towards the girl, hands on hips. ‘Did you do this?’ ‘I am a priestess of the Temple of the Sun in blessed Himyar. That man’s demons destroyed my fellow travellers. Should I have let him live?’ ‘Well, a little bit longer would have been nice. Solomon would have wanted to meet him.’ Annoyed as I was, I looked at the girl with a certain grudging respect. Priestess of the Sun or not, skewering a moving target without getting off her camel wasn’t bad going, though I had no intention of admitting it. Faquarl had been regarding the girl as well, in a rather thoughtful manner. He nodded in her direction. ‘Where did she say she was from?’ The girl overheard; she spoke in ringing tones. ‘I say again, O demons, that I am a priestess of the Sun and representative of—’ ‘She’s from Himyar.’ ‘Where’s that?’ ‘Arabia someplace.’ ‘– the Great and Royal House of Himyar! I speak for the queen and all her people, and we demand—’ ‘I see …’ Faquarl beckoned me aside. We moved off a little way. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said softly. ‘If she’s not an Israelite, then she’s not covered by the protective clauses, is she?’1 I rubbed my beardy chin. ‘True …’ ‘And she’s not set foot in Jerusalem, either.’ ‘No.’ ‘Plus she’s young, she’s appetizing—’ ‘Demons! I demand a word!’ ‘Very appetizing,’ I agreed. ‘Good set of lungs on her too.’ ‘And since, Bartimaeus, since we’re both a little jaded after all our hard work—’ ‘Demons! Attend to me!’ ‘Since we’re both, I might go so far as to say, a little peckish—’ ‘Demons—’ ‘Hold on a minute, Faquarl …’ I turned to address the Arabian girl. ‘Would you mind not using that word?’ I called. ‘“Demon” is an extremely pejorative term.2 It offends me. The correct way to address either of us would be something along the lines of “Revered djinni” or “Masterful spirit”. All right? Thank you.’ The girl’s eyes opened wide, but she said nothing. Which was a relief. ‘Sorry, Faquarl. Where were we?’ ‘We were both a little peckish, Bartimaeus. So, what do you say? No one’s going to know, are they? Then we can fly back to our master and bask in our triumph. We’ll all be on Temple Mount by nightfall, sitting cosily around the fire. Meanwhile Khaba will be restored to Solomon’s good graces, and he’ll call off that shadow of his and save your sorry skin. How’s that sound to you?’ It didn’t sound at all bad, particularly the bit about the shadow. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Bagsy her haunches.’ ‘Now that’s not fair. Who killed more utukku today?’ ‘You can have the pick of the rest of her. And I’ll throw in the camel too.’ Bickering pleasantly, we turned back towards the girl, to discover her looking down upon us from on high with an expression so thunderous that even Faquarl flinched. She had pulled her shawl back from her head, so that her hair fell loose about her slender neck. Her face was fearsomely serene. Her slim arms were tightly folded, her fingers tapped pointedly upon her sleeve. Slight as she was, with badly singed clothes and dishevelled hair, sitting as she undoubtedly was upon an ugly camel beneath a sagging canopy, she still had enough force of personality to bring us both up short. ‘Exalted spirits,’ she said, in a voice of iron, ‘I thank you both for your intervention in this present disaster. Without your timely aid I would most certainly have perished, like these unfortunate merchants who were my recent companions. May their souls ascend most speedily to the Sun God’s realm, for they were peaceful men! But now hear my words. I am an envoy and sole representative of Himyar’s queen, travelling in haste to Jerusalem to speak with Solomon of Israel. My mission is of paramount importance. Great matters hinge upon its success. I therefore dema— I request that you assist me, that I may complete my journey at best speed. Aid me in this, and I shall come before your masters, whoever they may be, asking that they free you from your present servitude and send you back to the great abyss3 from whence you came.’ She raised a hand towards the sky. ‘Before the Sun God and the sacred memory of my mother, this I hereby vow!’ There was a resounding silence. Faquarl rubbed his hands together. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Let’s eat her.’ I hesitated. ‘Hold on – didn’t you hear what she said about winning us our freedom?’ ‘Don’t believe a word of it, Bartimaeus. She’s human. She’s a liar.’ ‘She’s human, yes … but she’s got something about her, don’t you think? Reminds me a bit of Nefertiti.’4 ‘Never met her,’ Faquarl sniffed. ‘I was in Mycenae then, if you recall. Anyhow, who cares? I’m hungry.’ ‘Well, I think we should wait,’ I said. ‘She could intercede with Khaba—’ ‘He’s not going to listen to her, is he?’ ‘Or Solomon, maybe …’ ‘Oh, right. Like she’s going to get anywhere near him.’ This was all probably true enough, but I was still irritated with Faquarl for his comments earlier that afternoon, and that made me stubborn. ‘Another thing,’ I said. ‘She’ll be a witness to our fight.’ Faquarl paused, but shook his head. ‘We don’t need a witness. We’ve got bodies.’ ‘She called us “exalted spirits” …’ ‘Like that makes any difference!’ Faquarl gave an impatient growl and made a side-step in the girl’s direction, but I moved slightly to block his way. He pulled up short, eyes bulging, tendons flexing in his jaw. ‘This has always been your trouble!’ he snarled. ‘Getting all soft-headed over a human just because she’s got a long neck and a steely eye!’ ‘Me? Soft-headed? I’d eat her soon as look at her! But she might be able to help us, that’s my point. Your problem is you can’t control your appetites, Faquarl! You’d eat anything that moves – girls, stench-mites, mortuary imps, the lot.’ ‘I’ve never eaten a mortuary imp.’5 ‘I bet you have.’ Faquarl took a deep breath. ‘Are you going to let me kill her?’ ‘No.’ He threw his hands up in disgust. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself! We’re slaves, remember – slaves of humans like that girl there. Will they ever do us a good turn? No! Building sites and battlefields6 – that’s all they’ve wanted us for, ever since Ur. And it’ll never end, Bartimaeus, you know that, don’t you? It’s a war between us and them – and I mean all of them, not just the magicians. All those dough-brained farmers, their clasping wives, their snotty, squalling children – they’re just as bad as Khaba and the rest. This girl’s no different! They’d happily cast us into the Dismal Flame without a thought, if they didn’t always want new walls built, fields dug, or need some other tribe of brainless humans killed!’ ‘I don’t deny any of that,’ I cried. ‘But we’ve got to be practical about chances that come our way. And this is a chance. You don’t want to go back to the quarry any more than I do, and it’s just possible that this girl might— Oh, now where are you flouncing off to?’ Like an irritable toddler,7 Faquarl had spun round and marched away. ‘You like her so much,’ he called, ‘you stay with her. You keep her safe. I’m off to fetch Khaba, and we’ll see if she can magic us up our freedom. Maybe you’ll be proved right, Bartimaeus. Or just maybe you’ll come to regret not feasting on her while you can!’ So saying, he spun a cloak of scarlet flame about his wings and sprang into the sky, and with a final oath that caused small avalanches to tumble down the lonely gulleys, rose up to meet the sun. I turned to stare at the silent girl. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘It’s just you and me now.’ 1 At Solomon’s behest every summons in Jerusalem, made by no matter which magician, included within it certain strict clauses forbidding us to harm the local population. This wasn’t anything new in principle – all the old city states of Mesopotamia had used similar injunctions – but they’d been confined to citizens by birth, so there was always the possibility of snacking on a visiting trader, slave or captive on the side. Solomon, in his wisdom, had expanded the clauses to include anyone who set foot within the city walls, which made for an admirably inclusive municipal environment, and also a good number of grumpy, hungry djinn. 2Demon: the actual term used at this juncture was in fact the Old Akkadian word r bisu, which in its origin simply means ‘supernatural being’. But as with the Greek daimon (still several centuries in the future), it was all too often employed as an abusive generality, as likely to refer to a pimple-bottomed imp as to a debonair djinni-about-town. 3Great abyss: not the most accurate or flattering description of the Other Place that I’ve ever heard, but a very common misconception. In fact our home is nothing like an abyss, having no ‘depth’ to speak of (nor any other dimensions), and not being at all dark either. It’s just like humans to impose their own imagined terrors upon us, when in fact all true horrors are found in your world. 4Nefertiti: principal wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten, 1340s BC. Started out bringing up the children, ended up running the empire. Looked damn good in a headdress too. Let’s just say you didn’t mess with her. 5Mortuary imps: small, pudgy, white-skinned spirits employed by the priests of Egypt to help them mummify the bodies of the great and good. Specializing in all the icky bits of the process, such as brain removal and filling up the canopic jars, they tasted abominably of embalming fluid. So I’ve been told. 6Building sites and battlefields: sometimes, indeed, we were forced to hop between one and the other at a moment’s notice, which could be inconvenient. I once fought three ghuls single-handed in a sudden skirmish at the gates of Uruk. They wielded spiked maces, flaming spears and double-headed silver battle-axes. Me? I had a trowel. 7 Only bigger, brawnier and more blood-stained. 17 ‘Well,’ the demon said. ‘It’s just you and me now.’ Asmira sat rigid in her saddle, feeling the sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Her heart was pounding so hard against her ribs she felt sure the demon must see it, or at least notice the trembling of her hands, which she had placed in her lap for that very reason. Never let them see your fear – that was what the guard-mothers had taught her; let your foes think you nerveless, resolute, impossible to daunt or threaten. She did her best to keep her face impassive and hold her breathing as steady as she could. With her head coolly turned aside, she kept her eyes trained on the creature’s every movement. Her fingertips rested on the dagger hidden beneath her robes. She had seen a glimpse of its power when it had destroyed another of its kind with a blast of explosive fire, and she knew that, if it chose, it could easily kill her too. Like the monsters that had attacked her in the gorge, it was clearly far more dangerous than the spirits she had summoned during her training or the petty demons of the hill-tribes. It was probably an afrit of some kind; perhaps even a marid. Silver was her best defence now; her Wards might irritate it, but would do little more. Not that the demon wasn’t irritated already. It glanced up into the sky, where its companion had become a fiery dot on the horizon, and uttered a soft curse. With its sandalled foot it kicked a stone far off across the gorge. Asmira knew well enough that higher spirits could adopt any shape they chose, the better to beguile or dominate those around them. She also knew how foolish it was to take heed of how they looked. Yet this one gave her pause. Unlike the horrors that had attacked the caravan, unlike its own companion – which had seemed to delight in exuding a swaggering ferocity – this spirit concealed its wickedness beneath a pleasant form. When it had first tumbled into view, it had been a bearded traveller, badly stained with marks of battle. At some point since (and she had not noticed exactly when the change occurred) it had subtly transformed into a young, fair-featured youth, with dimpled cheeks and merry eyes. Its hair fell in curled black ringlets about its brow, and its limbs were hale and strong. Something of its cast of face and skin reminded Asmira of the men of Babylon who visited the Sheban court, but the style of its clothes was simpler than theirs – just a plain, wrapped knee-length skirt, and necklaces of amethyst upon its naked chest. On its back was a pair of white wings, neatly folded and very magnificent. The largest feathers were longer than her forearms. On the edge of the left-hand wing a soft gelatinous substance hung limp and raw, glistening coldly in the afternoon light. Other than this imperfection, the guise was very beautiful. Asmira watched the winged youth, her heart thumping in her breast. Suddenly it turned its head, and its eyes met hers. She looked away, and immediately felt furious with herself for doing so. ‘I hope you can deliver on your promise, O Priestess of Himyar,’ the youth said. ‘I’ve put my essence on the line for you.’ Asmira had not understood the argument between the demons, which had been conducted only partly in Arabic, and partly in languages that were unknown to her. Forcing herself to meet the dark, cool gaze, she kept her voice as imperious as before. ‘Where has it gone?’ she said. ‘The other demon? And what of my request?’ The youth raised a languid eyebrow. ‘Dear me. That naughty word again.’ It stepped suddenly towards the camel. In a flash of movement, Asmira’s silver-bladed dagger was out of her belt and balanced in her hand. The youth stopped short. ‘Another knife? How many have you got in there?’ Asmira had lost one dagger during the chaos of the battle, and had left another in the Edomite. She had two more in her leather bag. She said haughtily, ‘That is none of your concern, demon. I asked you—’ ‘And I asked,’ the creature said, ‘if you’d refrain from using bad language in my company. Whipping daggers from your knickers isn’t wildly polite either.’ It laid a dark hand upon her camel’s flank and patted it gently. ‘How about you put the thing away? I can feel the silver’s chill from here, particularly in this wing of mine. This wing that I wounded just now,’ it added pointedly, ‘in defence of you.’ Asmira hesitated, numb with indecision, panic roiling in her stomach. Stiffly, she lifted her cloak and tucked the dagger back into her belt. ‘That’s better,’ the demon said. ‘Oh, and you’ve a silver disc dangling about your neck … Mind tucking that away too?’ Asmira did so. The winged youth said no more. Giving the camel a final pat, it walked a few yards off and stood surveying the gorge. After a while it began whistling the notes of a rhythmic dervish song. Anger at her own compliance, and at the demon’s cheery indifference to her questions, almost made Asmira retrieve the dagger and throw it at its back. But she kept her face calm, and forced the fury down. The creature was associated with Solomon, and might yet be of use to her. Any chance of getting swiftly to Jerusalem must be pursued. Besides, it was true what it said – it had come to her aid. ‘You must forgive my caution, O spirit,’ she called. ‘Without my defences I would be dead. Please understand I keep them ready at my side.’ The young man glanced over; the keen dark eyes appraised her. ‘Helped ward off the utukku, did they? I was wondering how you survived.’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘My dagger saved me. A lizard dem— a lizard spirit, I mean – leaped at me, but I slashed out at it, and the silver took it by surprise. It jumped back, and was about to attack again, when it suddenly got distracted and disappeared.’ The winged youth chuckled. ‘Ah yes, that would have been me arriving. Perhaps you saw the blind panic on its face?’ In Asmira’s experience demons were not very intelligent. This one’s self-satisfaction was so evident that she sought to take advantage. ‘I did indeed!’ she said quickly. ‘And I can only apologize that I did not thank you the instant you arrived. I was still distressed by the assault, and did not realize I was speaking with one of the great ones of the air. May the Sun God chastize me that I was blind to your radiance! But I perceive it now. I say again that you have delivered me most nobly from death and I am for ever in your debt! I thank you humbly from the bottom of my unworthy heart.’ The young man gazed at her and raised one eyebrow in an ironic fashion. ‘Do they always speak like this in Himyar?’ ‘Usually we are less emotional and employ a more formally complex sentence structure.’ ‘Really? Well, I’m used to complex stuff, so I could follow what you said just now. But I warn you, round this part of the world they wouldn’t be able to cope with much apart from that bit about your unworthy bottom.’ Asmira blinked. ‘My unworthy heart.’ ‘That too, I should think. Well now, in answer to your questions, you don’t have to worry any more. Faquarl’s gone to fetch our master, who will doubtless escort you to Jerusalem as you requested. If, in return, you could intercede with him and win our freedom, we would be very much obliged. Lately our servitude under Solomon has been getting rather grating.’ Asmira’s heart quickened. ‘Solomon himself is your master?’ ‘Technically no. In practice, yes.’ The young man scowled. ‘It’s complicated. Anyway, the magician will be here soon. Perhaps you could spend the time rehearsing a few gushing tributes on my behalf.’ Whistling, the demon moved off slowly amongst the scattered debris of the camel-train. Asmira watched it, thinking hard. Ever since the adrenaline of battle had ebbed inside her, she had been fighting to keep control of herself and her surroundings. To begin with, shock had fogged her mind – shock at the sudden ambush, at the destruction of the men with whom she had travelled for so many days, at the hideous vigour of the lizard demon and the way it had withstood her Ward. At the same time she had had to face down Solomon’s spirits, concealing the fear she felt for them. This had not been easy, but she had succeeded. She had survived. And now, as she observed the demon, she felt a sudden fierce surge of hope. She was alive, and her mission was before her! Not only had disaster been averted; Solomon’s servants were actually going to take her straight to him! In just two nights’ time, the attack on Sheba would come. Such speed might make all the difference. Some way off, the demon was pacing back and forth, looking at the sky. It had seemed reasonably talkative, if somewhat proud and prickly; perhaps she should converse with it a little more. As a slave of Solomon it would know many things about the king, about his personality, his palace and – possibly – the Ring. With a brisk movement she jerked the reins. The camel folded its forelegs and tilted forwards, so that it knelt upon the sand. Then it folded its rear ones too. Now it sat; Asmira swung herself off the couch and dropped lightly to the ground. She examined her singed riding cloak briefly, and smoothed it down. Then, leather bag in hand, she walked towards the demon. The winged youth was lost in thought. Sunlight glinted on the bright, white wings. For a moment Asmira was conscious of its stillness, and the look of melancholy on the quiet face. She wondered what it saw before its eyes. With annoyance she realized her limbs were shaking. It glanced at her as she approached. ‘Hope you’ve thought of some good adjectives for me. “Ferocious”, “zealous” and “awe-inspiring” all trip off the tongue nicely, I find.’ ‘I’ve come to talk with you,’ Asmira said. The dark brows angled. ‘Talk? Why?’ ‘Well,’ she began, ‘it’s not often I have a chance to speak with such an exalted spirit as you, particularly one who saved my life. Of course I have often heard tell of the great beings who raise towers in a single night, and bring rain upon the famished lands. But I never thought I would actually speak with one so noble and gracious, who—’ She stopped; the youth was smiling at her. ‘What?’ she said. ‘This “exalted spirit” thinks you want something. What is it?’ ‘I hoped your wisdom—’ ‘Hold it,’ the demon said. Its black eyes glittered. ‘You’re not talking to some half-baked imp here. I’m a djinni, and a pretty eminent one at that. A djinni, moreover, who built the walls of Uruk for Gilgamesh, and the walls of Karnak for Rameses, and a good many other walls for masters whose names are long forgotten. Solomon the Great is in fact only the latest in a long line of exalted kings to rely heavily on my services. In short, O Priestess of distant Himyar,’ the young winged man went on, ‘I’ve a high enough opinion of myself already not to need any extra flattery from you.’ Asmira felt the colour come rushing to her cheeks. Her fists clenched against her side. ‘Got to get these little things sorted out, haven’t we?’ the djinni said. It winked at her, and leaned casually back against a rock. ‘Now, what is it you wanted?’ Asmira regarded it. ‘Tell me about the Ring,’ she said. The djinni gave a start. Its elbow slid sideways off the rock, and it was only with a bit of hasty scrambling that it avoided toppling out of view. It adjusted its wings with much ruffling of feathers, and stared at her. ‘What?’ ‘I’ve never been to Jerusalem before, you see,’ Asmira said artlessly, ‘and I’ve heard so many wonderful tales of great King Solomon! I just thought that since you were so eminent and so experienced, and since Solomon relies so heavily upon you, you might be able to tell me more.’ The djinni shook its head. ‘Flattery again! I keep telling you …’ It hesitated. ‘Or was it sarcasm?’ ‘No, no. Of course not.’ ‘Well, whichever it was,’ the young man growled, ‘let’s have less of it, or, who knows, I might just go along with Faquarl’s little suggestion.’ Asmira paused. ‘Why, what was Faquarl’s little suggestion?’ ‘You don’t want to know. As to the object to which you refer, I know you’re only a simple girl from the backside of Arabia, but surely even there you must have heard—’ It looked cautiously up and down the gorge. ‘The point is, in Israel it’s best not to discuss certain subjects openly, or indeed at all.’ Asmira smiled. ‘You seem fearful.’ ‘Not at all. Just prudent.’ The winged youth seemed out of sorts now, and scowled up at the dark blue sky. ‘Where’s Khaba got to? He should have been here long since. That fool Faquarl must have got lost or something.’ ‘If Faquarl’s the name of the other djinni,’ Asmira said lightly, ‘then your name—’ ‘Sorry.’ The djinni held up a resolute hand. ‘I can’t tell you that. Names are powerful things, both in the keeping and the losing. They should never be bandied around, either by spirit or human, since they are our deepest, most secret possessions. By my name I was created long ago – and he who learns it has the key to my slavery. Certain magicians undertake great trials for such knowledge – they study ancient texts, decipher the cuneiform of Sumer, risk their lives in circles to master spirits such as me. Those who have my name bind me in chains, force me to cruel acts, and have done for two thousand years. So you can perhaps understand, O maiden of Arabia, why I take good care to ensure my name is kept safe from others that I chance to meet. Do not ask me again, for it is forbidden knowledge, sacrosanct, secure.’ ‘So it’s not “Bartimaeus” then?’ Asmira said. There was a silence. The djinni cleared its throat. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Bartimaeus. That’s what your friend Faquarl kept calling you, anyway.’ There was a muttered curse. ‘I think “friend” is putting it a trifle strongly. That idiot. He would insist on having a row in public …’ ‘Well, you keep using his name too,’ Asmira said. ‘Besides, I’m going to need to know your name if I’m to intercede with your master, aren’t I?’ The djinni made a face. ‘I suppose so. Well, let me ask a question now,’ it said. ‘What about you? What’s your name?’ ‘My name is Cyrine,’ Asmira said. ‘Cyrine …’ The djinni looked dubious. ‘I see.’ ‘I am a priestess of Himyar.’ ‘So you keep saying. Well, “Cyrine”, why all this interest in dangerous things, like small pieces of golden jewellery we can’t discuss? And what exactly are these “great matters” that bring you to Jerusalem?’ Asmira shook her head. ‘I cannot say. My queen forbids me to discuss them with anyone but Solomon, and I have taken a sacred vow.’ ‘Aren’t we prim and proper, all of a sudden?’ the demon said. It regarded her sourly for a moment. ‘Strange that your queen should have sent a lone girl on such an important mission … Then again, that’s queens for you. They get ideas. You should have heard Nefertiti when the mood was on her. So …’ it went on idly, ‘Himyar. Never been, myself. Pleasant spot, is it?’ Asmira had not been to Himyar either and knew nothing about it. ‘Yes. Very.’ ‘Got mountains, I suppose?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Rivers and deserts and things?’ ‘Lots.’ ‘Cities?’ ‘Oh, a few.’ ‘Including the Rock City of Zafar, delved straight into the cliffs?’ the demon said. ‘That’s in Himyar, isn’t it? Or am I wrong?’ Asmira hesitated. She sensed a trap and didn’t know the answer that would avoid it. ‘I never discuss particularities of my kingdom with an outsider,’ she said. ‘Cultural reticence is one of the traditions of our people. But I can discuss Israel and will do so gladly. You know King Solomon and his palace well, I assume?’ The winged youth was gazing at her. ‘The palace, yes … Solomon, no. He has many servants.’ ‘But when he summons you—’ ‘His magicians summon us, as I think I’ve said. We serve their will, and they serve Solomon’s.’ ‘And they are happy to serve him because of the—’ This time Asmira did not say the word. Something of Bartimaeus’s trepidation had infected her too. The djinni spoke shortly. ‘Yes.’ ‘So you are all in thrall to it?’ ‘I and countless others.’ ‘So why do you not destroy it? Or steal it?’ The djinni gave a noticeable jump. ‘Shh!’ it cried. ‘Will you keep your voice down?’ With hasty movements it craned its neck back and forth, peering along the gorge. Asmira, reacting to its agitation, looked too, and for a moment thought the blue shadows of the rocks seemed rather darker than before. ‘You do not talk about the object in such terms,’ the djinni glowered. ‘Not here, not anywhere in Israel, and certainly never in Jerusalem, where every second alley cat is one of the great king’s spies.’ It rolled its eyes to the skies and continued quickly. ‘The object to which you refer,’ it said, ‘is never stolen because he who wears it never takes it off. And if anyone even thinks of trying anything in that regard, that same aforesaid person just twizzles the object on his finger and – pop! – his enemies end up like poor Azul, Odalis or Phi