Russell Square is one of the odder areas of London. Squeezed between Euston Road to the north and Holborn to the south, it doesn’t have enough shops to be commercial and it doesn’t have enough houses to be residential. Instead it has a mix of universities and hotels, rich tourists and poor students rubbing shoulders in the busy streets. It’s supposed to be “literary,” associations from the old Bloomsbury group, though given that you’d have to be a millionaire to own property there nowadays I doubt you’ll find many artists living in the place.
What Russell Square does have a lot of is education: English-language schools for the expats, colleges for the students, and the British Museum for everyone. It was one of the colleges I’d come for, a long hulking brown-and-beige cinderblock called the Institute of Education, and as I approached I reflexively scanned ahead, searching for danger. I didn’t find anything and I didn’t expect to, but for some reason I found myself hesitating as I drew level with the front doors. For a moment I thought about turning away, then shook my head in annoyance and headed inside.
My name’s Alex Verus and I’m a probability mage, aka a diviner. I train an apprentice, do contract work for other mages, and run a magic shop in Camden when I’m not otherwise occupied with personal problems or with people trying to hurt me, the second of which happens more often than I’d like. I’m good friends with a handful of mages and one giant spider, and less good friends with the magical government of Britain, otherwise known as the Light Council. The Council don’t like me for two reasons: first, they think I was originally taught by a particularly nasty Dark mage named Richard Drakh and did various unpleasant things while serving as his apprentice, and second, they suspect me of being responsible for the deaths of two Light mages on separate occasions a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, it just so happens that both of those suspicions are true.
That wasn’t the reason I was here today, though.
As with most British universities the security at the Institute of Education is nonexistent, and I walked past the reception desk and descended into a big square concrete well with big square concrete pillars and big square ugly paintings. A sign at the bottom said LOGAN HALL, but instead of going straight in I veered left. The entry area narrowed into a corridor with few doors or windows. To my right I could hear a voice echoing, but I kept working my way around the edge of the hall, climbing occasional small flights of steps. Only when I’d circled to the back of the hall did I look through one of the doors.
The hall was a huge auditorium, faded red seats in semicircular rows slanting down to a raised wooden stage. There were hundreds of people seated within, but the one I was interested in was the man on the stage. He was standing on the podium delivering a lecture, and behind him was a projection screen that read European Integration in Historical Perspective. It was his voice I’d heard from outside.
I hadn’t opened the door, but there were wired-glass windows set into the wood that gave a good view inside, and I stood quietly, watching the man. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with a stooped posture and hair that had gone nearly but not quite all the way to silvery white. At a glance the two of us wouldn’t have looked much alike, but there was something in his features of my own, aged and tempered. He hadn’t seen me—the corridor was darker than the brightly lit hall and I knew the lights inside would reflect off the window glass. I could have opened the door to step inside, but I stayed where I was.
I’d been standing there for maybe five minutes when a soft noise caught my attention. Different movements make different sounds—the steady tread of someone walking, the scrape of shifting feet, the patter of someone in a hurry—and with practice you can learn to filter them, picking out the ones that don’t fit in. It’s nothing to do with magic, just simple awareness, a primal skill that anyone can learn but which most people in the modern age have forgotten. But anyone who lives as a predator or as prey learns it fast.
The sound I’d heard was the sound of someone trying to stay quiet and hidden, and I stepped quietly into the cover of the doorway, one hand moving to the hilt of the knife beneath my coat. The doorway blocked line of sight, hiding me from anyone behind or ahead. It blocked my view, too . . . but I don’t need a view to see.
The corridor was empty and ordinary, pale walls and faded blue carpet. But to my sight, it was a branching spread of possible futures, lines of light forking and multiplying in the darkness. In each possible future I took a different action, moved a different way, and in every one of them my future self changed to match it: thousands of futures, branching into millions and billions. I picked out two of the delicate strands of light and focused on them, letting them strengthen and grow. In one I stepped out of hiding and turned left; in the other I moved right. My future selves walked away from me and as they did I watched, guiding the possible futures to keep myself walking down the corridor, seeing what my future eyes would see. The right-hand self found nothing. The left-hand self heard a scuffle of movement. The left-hand branches multiplied, dividing, and I guided my future self down the path, where he chased after the sound. More futures branched out, and as they did I recognised a familiar element, a signature. I moved closer to look—
—and suddenly I knew who was following me. The instant that I did, the future wavered and faded into nothingness; now that I knew who it was, I had no reason to walk down there to find out. Physically carrying out all the possible actions I’d just run through would have taken the best part of a minute, but divination works at the speed of thought and the only limit on what you can do is how clearly and quickly you can focus. From beginning to end the whole thing had taken me less than a second.
From down the corridor I heard another stealthy movement. I’d kept quite still as I’d used my magic, and my pursuer had no way to know that I was there. Cautious footsteps advanced up the corridor. I waited, letting them approach, then stepped out into view, the fingers of my right hand flicking forward.
The girl who’d been following me jumped back. She was wearing jeans and a light green top and as soon as she saw me she started moving, but the metal disc I’d thrown bounced off her stomach before she could get out of the way. She began to drop into a stance, her right hand going to the small of her back.
“No use going for a weapon,” I told her. “You’re dead.”
With a sigh Luna dropped her arm and straightened. “How long did you know I was there?”
Luna is half English and half Italian, with fair skin, wavy light brown hair, and a lot more confidence than she used to have. She’s an adept rather than a mage, the bearer of an ancient family curse which protects her at the expense of killing anyone who gets too close, and she’s been my apprentice for around two years. Nowadays her control’s developed to the point where being around her is almost safe, as long as you don’t touch her. “If you’re going to make a habit of shadowing mages,” I said, “you’ll have to get better at dodging.”
“Yes, oh master,” Luna said resignedly, bending to pick up the thing I’d thrown at her. It had been a one-pound coin, and as her fingers touched it I saw the silver-grey mist of her curse engulf it. As she did, she shot a quick glance at the door behind me, trying to see what was inside.
I rolled my eyes inwardly. “Come on, upstairs,” I said, starting back towards the stairwell. The voice of the lecturer continued from behind me, but I didn’t look back.
| | | | | | | | |
“I thought I told you to mind the shop,” I told Luna.
The inner courtyard of the Institute of Education was stone with scattered trees. A faculty building that looked like a giant concrete staircase loomed over us, and high in the sky above, the thin grey cylinder of the BT tower loomed over the faculty building. The sky beyond the tower was grey; it was an overcast day. Students walked and cycled past in ones and twos, and a cool wind gusted across the stone.
“It’s not like the world’s going to end if it’s not open for a few hours,” Luna said. “You close it up all the time.”
“I close it up. Operative word: I.”
“I’m supposed to be your apprentice,” Luna complained. “It’s not like you’re paying me to be shop assistant.”
Luna used to work for me part-time finding and buying magic items, but when I took her on as an apprentice I started paying her a stipend; mage training takes as much time as a full-time job and I wanted her focused on her lessons. “Actually, your apprentice duties are whatever I say they are,” I said. “So in fact, right now, shop assistant is exactly what I’m paying you to be. Besides, you need the practice.”
“Shadowing you seems like practice.”
I gave Luna a look.
Luna put her hands up. “Okay, okay. Look, I’m bored. Nothing’s happening at class, there aren’t any tournaments so no one wants to practice, and I hardly ever see Anne and Vari these days. Even Sonder’s stopped showing up. And you haven’t exactly been Mr. Sociable.”
I didn’t answer. I don’t know what my expression was like, but Luna drew back slightly. “Well, you haven’t,” she said defensively.
We walked a little way in silence. A pair of girls came towards us, talking, and we split to let them pass between us. “What were you doing there?” Luna asked.
“Looking for someone.”
“Is it something to do with Richard?”
“I was just wondering—”
“It’s nothing to do with Richard.”
“I was thinking of talking to the guy giving that lecture.”
I gave Luna a sharp look. She had a carefully neutral look, which made me suspicious. “So who was he?” Luna asked after a pause.
“Who was who?”
“The lecture guy.”
I very nearly told Luna to get lost. It wasn’t a nice way to treat her, but I’ve got a knee-jerk reaction to talking about anything really personal. My instinct with anything like this is to keep it to myself.
Up until last summer, my life had been going pretty well. I’d taken in a pair of young mages named Anne and Variam, and between them, Luna, and a Light mage named Sonder, I’d had something close to a real social life for the first time in ten years. I’d started to believe that I might have finally gotten away from my past.
I was wrong. In August, a group of adepts calling themselves the Nightstalkers showed up, looking for revenge for one of the uglier things I’d done while I’d been Richard’s apprentice. They couldn’t find Richard, but they found me all right and would have killed me if my friends hadn’t come to help. In the aftermath I’d told Luna, Sonder, Anne, and Variam why the Nightstalkers were after me and what I’d done for them to hate me so much.
Luna had taken it surprisingly well. She’d read between the lines and figured out most of the story before I’d even told it to her, and had decided that her loyalties lay with me. Variam, prickly but fiercely honourable, had chosen the same way. But Anne and Sonder had been less sure, and while they were still making up their minds I’d led the Nightstalkers, young and inexperienced and painfully idealistic, into a trap in which nearly all of them had been killed. I hadn’t had much choice, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it.
Both Anne and Sonder cut off contact with me when they found out. I’d had a short and painful conversation with Anne in which she’d made it clear that she thought what I’d done was unforgivable, and from the brief attempts I’d made since then to talk to Sonder I was pretty sure he felt the same way. A part of me agreed with them.
Keeping my past a secret hadn’t done me any favours that time. In fact, it had probably made things worse.
“He’s my father,” I told Luna.
“What’s with that tone of voice? I do have parents.”
“Uh . . . you never talk about them.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason for that. After they split up I didn’t see my dad for a long time, and when I did it was after my time with Richard.” I hadn’t been in good shape back then. I’d spent most of the previous year as a prisoner in Richard’s mansion, getting periodic visits from one of Richard’s other apprentices. “I told him bits of the story, skipped over the magic parts, but I did tell him what I did to Tobruk.” Namely, that I’d killed the evil little bastard.
“My dad’s a pacifist,” I said. “He doesn’t believe in violence.”
“Why is that so hard to believe?”
“Well, you’re, um . . .”
I gave Luna a narrow look. “What?”
“. . . I’m not finishing that sentence. So the conversation didn’t go well?”
“My dad’s a political science professor who thinks violence is a sign of barbarism. I told him to his face that I’d committed premeditated murder and didn’t regret it.” With hindsight that had been a spectacularly bad idea, but I hadn’t been in much of a condition to think it through. “How do you think the conversation went?”
We’d made our way off the university campus and back out onto the London streets, heading north towards Euston Road. “Do you talk to him much?” Luna asked.
“Last time was a couple of years ago.”
“Does he know that you’re . . . ?”
“A mage? No. He thinks I got involved with criminals and that Richard was some sort of mob boss. I suppose if I worked at it I might be able to convince him that Richard was a Dark mage, but I don’t think that’d be much of an improvement.” And if I told him what I’d done to those adepts last year . . .
“How about if I went and talked to him?” Luna suggested.
“No. This is one area I do not want you messing around in.” I looked at her. “Clear?”
I saw Luna’s eyebrows go up and she shot me a quick glance. “Clear,” she said after a moment.
We walked in silence for a few minutes. I waited to see if Luna would push her luck, but she stayed quiet. We worked our way through the London back streets, the traffic a steady noise in the background. “So,” I said at last. “How about you tell me why you’re really here?”
“You’re working up to asking me for something.”
Luna made a face. “Yes, it’s that obvious,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”
“If it’s a bad time—”
“Luna . . .”
“Okay, okay,” Luna said. “Have you heard anything from Anne? As in lately.”
I looked at her curiously. “No.”
“You sent her that message.”
“And I got a very polite nonanswer.” It had been my third try. Give Anne credit, she does at least answer her mail. “Would have thought you’d be in closer touch than me.”
Luna sounded like she was choosing her words carefully. “Do you think you could invite her to move back in?”
I looked at Luna in surprise, about to ask if she was serious. The look on her face told me she was. “I know things didn’t end all that well,” Luna continued hurriedly, “but it was nine months ago. She might have cooled off, right?”
“Why are you asking about this now?”
“Well, it’d be safer, wouldn’t it? I mean, that was why you invited them to stay.”
Back when I’d first met Anne and Variam, they’d been staying with a rakshasa named Jagadev. Rakshasas are powerful tigerlike shapeshifters from the Indian subcontinent—mages don’t trust them and vice versa, both with good reason. Jagadev had kicked them out shortly afterwards, leaving them as apprentices without a master, which in magical society is a lot like skinny-dipping in a shark tank. Anne and Variam’s only real protection had been their membership in the Light apprentice program, a kind of magical university. Trouble is, you’re not allowed into the program unless you’re a Light or independent apprentice in good standing, which Anne and Vari weren’t. To fix that I’d invited them to move in with me, effectively taking Jagadev’s place as their sponsor, up until last summer when they’d both moved out. In Vari’s case he’d become a Light apprentice for real, signing up with a Light Keeper. Anne hadn’t.
“Back then they didn’t have anywhere else to go,” I said. “It’s different now. Vari’s got a master, and Anne’s got that place down in Honor Oak.”
“But she doesn’t have anyone sponsoring her.”
“Yeah.” We crossed the street, heading north. “But at least she’s still in the apprentice program.”
I looked at Luna. “What?”
“So, about that . . .”
“Please don’t tell me she left.”
“Uh . . . technically, no,” Luna said. “It was more like ‘got expelled.’”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. When?”
“The announcement was yesterday.”
“Why now?” I said. “She and Vari joined up what, two years ago? Did some teacher get vindictive or something?”
“No,” Luna said. “They’re saying she attacked another student.”
I stared at Luna. “Anne attacked another student?”
“Yeah,” Luna said. “You remember Natasha?”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay . . .” Natasha was a Light apprentice I’d met the year before last. She’d thrown a tantrum over Luna knocking her out of a tournament, to the point of shooting her in the back with a spell which might have killed Luna if Anne hadn’t been there to heal her. I hadn’t been able to do anything to Natasha officially—her master was too well connected and she’d gotten away with only a slap on the wrist—but I’d met Natasha’s master afterwards and explained very clearly what would happen to her apprentice if she did anything like that again. Apparently the lesson had stuck because Natasha’s master had kept her away from Luna ever since. If Anne had gone after Natasha, odds were Natasha had done something to deserve it.
But still . . . “Are you sure it was Anne who started it?” I asked. “Natasha didn’t attack her first?”
“I don’t think she got the chance. She went straight down and started screaming. They had to sedate her to shut her up and she hasn’t been back since.”
I gave Luna a slightly disbelieving look, but she didn’t look like she was exaggerating. She didn’t look particularly upset, either, but there was a tinge of worry there as well—no matter how good her reasons for disliking Natasha, she knew this was serious.
“Has the expulsion gone through, or is it hanging?”
“They fast-tracked it. Natasha’s master isn’t pushing her own charges yet, though.”
“She couldn’t, not easily. Would bring up too many awkward questions about why her apprentice wasn’t expelled for doing the same thing to you in Fountain Reach.” I thought for a second, then shook my head. “Won’t help with the expulsion, though. That’ll be from the program directors.”
“So?” Luna said. “What do you think?”
“Having Anne move back in? It won’t fly. Might have helped if we’d done it a month ago, but it won’t be enough to get her reinstated.”
“Oh, screw getting reinstated, most of those classes are a waste of time anyway. I’m worried about her. Being on your own as an apprentice is a really bad idea, right? Isn’t that what you keep telling me?”
“Preaching to the choir.”
“She could end up as a slave to a Dark mage or worse. Right?”
Which was exactly what had happened to Anne a few years ago. It was something we had in common. “It’s possible, yes.”
“What do you mean, ‘so’?” I looked at Luna. “Yes, you’re right. Being a mage or an adept on your own at Anne’s age is a really bad idea, especially when the apprentice grapevine makes sure everyone knows about it. So why are you telling all this to me? You should be talking to her.”
Luna didn’t look happy. “Let me guess,” I said. “She said no, so now you’re coming to me?”
“Well . . . yeah. Could you ask her?”
The flip side of Luna’s new self-confidence is that it’s made her a lot less shy about asking for what she wants. “She’s made it pretty clear that she doesn’t want to talk to me, and even if she did I don’t think moving back is high on her to-do list.”
“It doesn’t hurt to ask.”
“Is that your new motto for dealing with mages, or something?”
Luna came to a halt in the middle of the pavement, forcing me to stop and turn to her. “Look, I’m worried. She’s my best friend, even if I hardly see her nowadays. I know you two don’t get on anymore and I haven’t said anything, but . . . can’t you give it a try? It’s not as though you lose anything if she says no, right?”
Traffic went by in the street, and pedestrians changed their course to avoid us. Luna gave me a pleading look, and all of a sudden my objections felt a lot weaker. I still didn’t want to do it, but it wasn’t as though Luna were really asking for much . . . and she wasn’t wrong about the danger Anne might be in. “All right,” I said.
| | | | | | | | |
I parted company from Luna and headed south. With her out of sight it only took a couple of minutes for my thoughts to skip away from her and Anne and go back to circling the uncomfortable subject of my father.
It was probably just as well that Luna had shown up. Without her to give me a push, I might have ended up skulking outside that hall for hours. I’d been telling Luna the truth—my father had been utterly horrified at what I’d done to Tobruk (and to several others, for that matter). The bit I hadn’t told her was that even though I couldn’t see any remotely realistic way in which I could ever change my father’s mind, I’d kept on trying anyway. I’d seen my father maybe a dozen times over the past ten years, and every time the meeting had ended up devolving into the same bitter argument. He couldn’t see how violence was ever the right choice, and I couldn’t see how that attitude could ever make sense—we always said the same things and reacted the same way, as though we were acting out the script for a play we both knew by heart, with tiny variations that ultimately didn’t make any difference. Even now, as I walked through the London streets, I found myself running through the arguments with my father for the thousandth time, debating the points and imagining the counterarguments he’d make so that I could respond to them.
On a rational level I knew it didn’t make sense. The fights with my father never achieved anything—all they did was make me strung out and depressed—yet somehow I kept having them. It was as though I needed to prove something to him, make him admit that I was right and he was wrong. It’d never happen, and I knew it would never happen, but still I carried on doing it. About the only thing that could pull my mind away from it was work.
Luckily, I had a meeting scheduled for exactly that.
| | | | | | | | |
I met Talisid in the Holborn restaurant we usually use for our discussions, an Italian place close enough to the station to be convenient and spacious enough to be private. Talisid greeted me, courteous as always, a middle-aged man an inch or two under average height, with a balding head and greying hair. At first glance he looks so bland that he could be part of the furniture, but a closer look might suggest a little more. I’ve known him for two years and I trust him more than anyone else on the Council, which isn’t saying much. We ordered and got down to business.
“We’ve heard back from the Americans,” Talisid said once we’d finished with chitchat. “They’re offering to drop the issue in exchange for more information on Richard.”
“I already told them I don’t have any more information on Richard. Am I going to have to have this conversation with every country’s Keepers?”
“Just the two, so far,” Talisid murmured.
The leader of the pack of adepts who’d come after me last year had been an American citizen named Will. After what had happened to him the American Council had started making noises, and since Talisid owed me a couple of favours I’d asked him for help. For the last few months Talisid had been acting as my go-between, as well as advisor on the kind of points of law you really don’t want to ask about in public. The really screwed-up part is that under mage law, what I’d done to Will and the Nightstalkers had been perfectly legal. There’s a reason adepts don’t like the Council much.
I twirled my butter knife absently. “How bad an idea would it be to tell them to get lost?”
“They’re not going to try to extradite you, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Talisid said. “But if you’re ever planning to set foot in North America, it might be a better idea to clean this up now rather than later.”
“Fine,” I said with a sigh. “Tell them—again—that I’ve no idea where Richard is or what he’s been up to, but I could fill in their files about the rest of those adepts. Maybe they’ll trade for that.”
“It’s possible. There might be a more direct approach.”
I eyed Talisid. “Such as?”
“The American Council are as interested in the reports concerning Richard as we are,” Talisid said. “If you could confirm or deny them . . .”
I sighed. “Not this again.”
“You are uniquely qualified to investigate the issue.”
“Investigate what? A bunch of rumours?”
“Those same rumours have persisted for almost a year,” Talisid said. “In my experience that tends to indicate an active source. Besides—”
“Is there any actual proof?”
“No,” Talisid said after a very slight pause.
“I’m not keen on poking around asking questions on the Dark side of the fence just so the Council can feel better about themselves. I’m not exactly popular there, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I would have thought it concerns you rather directly as well.”
“Richard’s gone,” I said. It came out more harshly than I’d intended. I’d had a dream last year in which Richard had definitely not been gone, and it had shaken me more than I was willing to admit. But months had passed and nothing had happened, and eventually I’d been able to make myself believe that it really had only been a dream. The only reason I hadn’t managed to put it out of my mind completely was that everyone else kept bringing it up.
Talisid opened his mouth and I raised my hand to cut him off. “You’ve asked me to do this what, three times now? The answer’s still no.”
Talisid paused again, studying me, and I felt the futures swirl. “As you wish,” he said at last.
Food arrived and occupied us for some minutes. “Have you been following the political developments?” Talisid asked.
“The movement to include Dark mages on the Council has picked up again. The main one pushing for it appears to be your old friend Morden.”
“He’s not my friend, and no, I hadn’t heard. Doesn’t this come up every few years?”
“This time may be different—the unity bloc has been gaining influence. I was wondering if you’d heard anything.”
“That kind of stuff’s above my pay grade.”
“Would you be interested in changing that?”
I shot Talisid a look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The faction I represent has reasons to be concerned with the current state of affairs. A better-developed intelligence network would be useful.”
“And you want me to do what, play James Bond?” I said in amusement. “I think most of the agents in those stories had a really short life expectancy.”
“It’s a little less dramatic than that,” Talisid said with a slight smile. “It’s information we need, not commando raids. We simply never know as much as we’d like to. It’s more for the future than right now—there’s nothing that needs immediate attention. Just something to think about.”
“Hm.” I started to lift my water glass, then stopped. “Wait a second. Is this what you’ve been planning all along?”
“How do you mean?”
I stared at Talisid, glass in hand, as things suddenly fell into place. “This is what you’ve been working up to, isn’t it? I always wondered why someone as high up as you would be keeping up a relationship with an ex–Dark diviner. You’ve been hoping I’ll sign on with you. Have you been testing me all this time? Was that what all those jobs were about?”
Talisid raised a hand. “Slow down.”
“Bit late for that.” I was running over my past encounters with Talisid, making connections. “So which is it?”
“While your conclusion is . . . not exactly incorrect, you have things slightly out of order.” Talisid didn’t look particularly surprised, and I realised that he must have been anticipating the way the conversation was going to go. “I originally approached you because your position and abilities were favourably placed to help us. On the basis of that performance I approached you again, and so on. I didn’t involve you in past events in order to make you this offer. I’m making you this offer because of your performance in past events.”
“And what exactly is the offer?”
“Verus, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I said that we needed information, and that was what I meant.” Talisid watched me mildly. “You aren’t under any obligation to undertake tasks that you don’t want to. Isn’t that exactly the basis on which we’ve worked before?”
The difference is that I’d be an employee instead of a freelancer. But I didn’t say that out loud, because as usual, Talisid was being reasonable. I had worked for him enough times by now, and he had dealt honestly with me each time. Looked at that way, it wasn’t really that big a step.
Except . . . it would mean joining the Council. “I appreciate the offer,” I said with an effort. “But I don’t think I’d make a very good Light mage.”
Because I used to be a Dark mage and half the Council hates me for it. Because the Council left me to die when I needed them most and I hate them for it. Because I think the Council are treacherous weasels. And because I don’t think I’ve got any right to call myself a servant of light, even if most of the Council don’t deserve that title either . . .
“Verus?” Talisid said when I stared past him without answering.
“Let’s just say I don’t think we’d get on,” I said at last.
“I’m aware of your history.” Talisid’s voice was gentle, and I looked at him in surprise. The sympathy in his eyes might be fake, but if it was it was a convincing fake. “But what’s done is done. I think you could have a future with the Council. I won’t press you, but the offer is open. When you have the time, think it over.” Talisid paid the bill and walked out towards the exit, leaving me sitting at the table staring after him.
| | | | | | | | |
I took the Tube from Holborn, changing at Liverpool Street and again at Whitechapel to take the London Overground south over the river. It was a long journey, and it gave me plenty of time to think.
Talisid’s offer had come as more of a shock than it really should have. I’d been working for him for two years, on and off, and if I’d been paying attention I would have noticed the way things had been heading a while ago. Probably the reason I hadn’t picked up on it was that it had simply never occurred to me that anyone on the Council would actually want me on their side.
The more I thought about it, the more tempting it sounded. Talisid wouldn’t be able to snap his fingers and put me into the Council’s inner circle, but he could do a lot towards getting me accepted. And being a Light mage, even a probationary one, would make my life easier in a hundred little ways. I’d have a stronger legal footing in case of any disputes, which would make it that much less likely that anyone would challenge me in the first place, and it would really help with Luna’s education. I’d be able to get her into restricted classes in the apprentice program, maybe even find her a Light chance mage as a specialist instructor.
But . . . there were reasons to hesitate, too. There’s a reason I fell out with the Council: I don’t agree with half their policies and I don’t trust them to keep to the other half. I also have a small but significant number of enemies on the Council, including a nasty piece of work named Levistus, and getting closer to them wouldn’t do any favours to my life expectancy. Most of all, though, I wasn’t sure how well the Light mages of the Council would like me. Going from Dark to independent is one thing; going from Dark to Light is something else. Talisid might be able to get me in the door, but he wouldn’t be able to hide the fact that I was the ex-apprentice of a particularly notorious Dark mage, with a worryingly high body count of my own. Now, there are altogether too many Light mages who couldn’t care less about body counts, but the fact that a couple of the deaths attributed to my name were Light mages would probably make even them think twice. And ironically enough, the Light mages whose good opinion I’d most value and whose respect I’d most want to earn would be exactly the ones least likely to trust me.
Maybe staying outside the fold as an independent was better.
But was that wisdom talking, or fear?
Anne lives in Honor Oak, a mostly forgotten part of South London with an abundance of hills. Pricewise it’s not as expensive as the inner city, but nothing in London is exactly cheap and I was pretty sure the only reason Anne could afford to live there was because Sonder had set her up in Council-owned property. (The Council is not known for its spontaneous generosity but it owns a lot of buildings it doesn’t use, and given the amount of stuff it’s responsible for, a lot gets by under its radar.) Anne’s place is near the top of a hill, by the side of a gateway leading down into a wooded area. It was after working hours, but as I looked ahead I was surprised to see a small crowd.
Anne’s flat was on the first floor of a converted building, and there was a line of people outside her door. As I studied them from a distance I realised that they were queued up (more or less) and waiting to go inside. Now that I thought about it, I remembered Luna had told me something about Anne running a clinic out of her flat. Luna had made it sound small-scale, though. By my count there were a good fifteen people there.
There wasn’t any danger, but it did pose a problem. Anne had never explicitly told me to stay away, but I knew that her current feelings towards me were ambivalent at best. Getting her to talk to me was not going to be easy, and having a crowd waiting outside would more or less guarantee a response of not-now-I’m-busy. No obvious solution presented itself, so I found a nearby spot to observe from.
The people outside Anne’s flat were a mixed bag: male and female, white and Asian, short and tall. The youngest was a babe in arms while the oldest looked to be fifty or so. Most were working class, a smaller fraction were middle class, and there were two or three that I was pretty sure were addicts. The different members of the queue were very obviously uncomfortable with each other, and there was the sort of low-grade tension in the air that you get in job centres and NHS waiting rooms. From within the flat I could just make out Anne’s soft voice, along with the sound of the man she was talking to.
I sat on the landing above Anne’s flat and waited. Twenty minutes passed, then forty. Every now and then Anne would finish with one person and admit a new one, or a new arrival would show up at the back of the queue. The queue seemed to be getting longer rather than shorter, which didn’t bode well for the “wait for her to finish” plan. I toyed with a few ideas to speed things up; the plan involving a smoke bomb and the fire alarm was tempting, but I had the feeling Anne wouldn’t appreciate it. In the absence of anything else to do, I fell back on my short-range eavesdropping to see what Anne was up to; it’s not as reliable as other methods of magical surveillance, but it’s virtually impossible to detect. (Yes, it’s spying. I’m a diviner, it’s what I do.)
Just as Luna had said, Anne was running a clinic, and she was getting a really big variety of patients. Some were what you’d expect, like the woman with flu or the man with backache. Some were odd, like the guy claiming he’d been bitten by his cat. And some were depressing, like the girl who’d cut her wrists and now was afraid someone would see it. Anne asked, gently, why she’d done it. After some probing, the girl revealed it was because her boyfriend had been threatening her. Anne asked if she’d considered leaving; the girl said she couldn’t, she loved him. The conversation more or less hit a dead end from there.
Watching Anne’s technique for treatment was interesting. She hardly used any active magic at all; she’d just do a quick check-over, then recommend a remedy. She’d make a show of doing a physical examination, but I was pretty sure what she was really relying on was her lifesight. It’s one of the signature abilities of life mages, letting them “see” someone’s physiology and the workings of their body just by looking at them, and it makes diagnosis really easy, not to mention being great for spotting people. Lifesight’s probably the weakest spell Anne knows, but in magic, as with many other things, the most powerful techniques aren’t necessarily the most useful. In theory Anne could just cure anybody who walked in, healing their wounds and rebuilding their bodies, but doing so would exhaust her quickly—healing spells consume a lot of physical energy, as well as being really hard to pass off as coincidence. By using her abilities to diagnose people and then recommending a nonmagical treatment, she could help them a lot more efficiently and without any risk of being revealed as a mage. It was a smart way to handle it.
As I kept watching, though, I started to notice something odd in how the patients reacted to Anne. Anne didn’t seem to be charging money, she was attentive and polite to everyone who came through the door, and she was faster and more accurate than any doctor. Her patients ought to have been grateful, and some were . . . but a surprising number weren’t. Many had a kind of entitled attitude; they didn’t seem to acknowledge anything that Anne was doing for them, they just treated it as their due. Others would argue when they didn’t get the diagnosis they wanted. Strangest of all, though, were the ones who seemed weirdly uncomfortable in Anne’s presence. They’d ask for her help but with reluctance, as though even being near her made them uneasy. And it wasn’t just one or two; it was something like every third person through the door.
After I’d been watching for somewhere over an hour, I heard a commotion. A new guy had arrived at the end of the line; apparently he hadn’t been pleased by the length of the queue, because he’d started shoving his way to the front. The people already in the queue—some of whom had been waiting for over an hour—objected. The shouting and swearing grew steadily louder until the new arrival barged into Anne’s flat. I listened to the raised voices for a few seconds before rising to my feet and slipping downstairs past the crowd, homing in on the noise.
The room inside Anne’s flat was sparsely furnished, obviously meant for public access rather than her own use, but there were touches of her personality all the same: green-upholstered chairs, potted plants by the window. Two doors led inwards, both closed. The crowd had spilled a few feet inside but were hanging around the door, apparently unwilling to get any closer.
The reason for their reluctance was standing in the middle of the room, shouting at Anne. He was a big guy, powerfully built with a scarred and shaven head. There was a spider’s web tattooed on the side of his neck, and ACAB was spelt out across the knuckles of his right fist in blue India ink. His speech was a little hard to decipher but he seemed to want something, and Anne was standing right in front of him.
Anne is tall and slim, with black hair and reddish brown eyes. She’s got a quiet way of speaking and moving which tends to make her blend into the background, although it wasn’t working very well this time. Some people seem to find her looks off-putting, though I’ve never really understood why.
Anne is one of the few people I know who could make a legitimate claim to having had a worse childhood than either Luna or me—about five years ago, while she was still in school, she was kidnapped by a Dark mage named Sagash who wanted to mould her into his apprentice. With Variam’s help she managed to get away, but it took most of a year, and Anne’s never told either Luna or me exactly what happened in those nine months. She gave me a quick glance with no sign of surprise as I walked in; she’d seen me coming. “Hi,” I said.
“—can I?” the man was demanding in a loud voice. “I’m what this government’s made me, aren’t I? My dad sent me to reform when I was a kid, and they treated me like a criminal. Well, now they’ve got what they—”
“Need a hand?” I asked.
Anne held a hand up and turned halfway between Tattoo Guy and me, speaking with her soft voice. “Not a good time.”
“I’d go through the public and the police like they were nothing. They wouldn’t know what hit them. They’re vermin, they’re nothing to me. They wouldn’t know what—”
“Do you mind?” I asked the man.
Tattoo Guy glared at me. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Friend of a friend. Sorry, do I know you?”
I watched as the guy’s brain switched gears. It was a slow process, and I saw the possible futures branch out before me. He could bluster, he could back down, he could kick off a fight. I was kind of hoping he’d choose the last one. Tattoo Guy was big and nasty, but my standards of “nasty” are seriously skewed compared to normal people, and as far as serious threats went he didn’t even make it onto my radar. I’d had a stressful day and the prospect of taking it out on someone was more attractive than it should have been.
“Alex!” Anne said.
I gave her a sideways glance. “What’s up?”
“You know what.” Anne looked slightly frustrated. “I appreciate the help, but I’m fine.”
Tattoo Guy had been looking between us in confusion; now his expression changed to something uglier and I felt the futures shift. With me, Anne, and the crowd in the door all watching him, he would have to be seriously stupid to start something, but stupid and aggressive people are in absolutely no danger of extinction and Tattoo Guy was proving a fine example of the breed. “Hey! I’m fucking talking to you!”
“I’m sorry,” Anne told him. “I don’t keep any drugs here. If you sit down I can—”
“Shut the fuck up!” Tattoo Guy took a step forward, leaning over Anne. He didn’t have much of a height advantage to lean with, but his bulk made up for it. “Don’t bullshit me. They all lied and I fucking made them pay for it, yeah?” He started to take another step forward, and as he did he reached out for Anne. “I—”
As the man’s hand reached out my fingers twitched. I wanted to step in and I could see the sequence of moves with crystal clarity: I’d block his arm, he’d grab me, I’d shrug him off, he’d have all the excuse he needed to swing at me, and I’d have all the excuse I needed to drop him. He might be strong, but I was quicker and better trained and could predict his every move. There was only one way it could end . . .
. . . and Anne had just specifically told me not to do that. Anne knows what I can do, and that was why she’d said don’t. She wasn’t in any danger—up close she’s far more deadly than me. If I stepped in, I wouldn’t be doing it for her sake; I’d be acting out of pride, trying to prove something.
I held my ground. The man grabbed Anne, thick fingers going all the way around her upper arm. “I’m not fucking telling you again.”
Anne held the man’s gaze and all of a sudden she looked subtly different. Most people flinch when they’re grabbed, but Anne didn’t. She stared up at the man without reacting; it didn’t even look as though she was breathing. “I don’t have what you’re looking for,” she said clearly. “Let me go, please.”
I saw the man hesitate. Somewhere in his toxin-fogged brain, the message was probably trying to get through that Anne wasn’t acting very victimlike. But if someone’s dumb enough to start a fight in front of a crowd, then it usually takes clearly overwhelming force to make them back down, and Anne doesn’t look dangerous. He reached for her neck.
Something flickered in Anne’s eyes.
Divination magic can look forward in time, but not back. When someone’s making a choice, then if you’re quick you can get a glimpse of what they’re choosing between. For a fraction of a second, as Anne raised her hand, I saw a spread of possibilities open up, fleeting images jumping out from the branches: a subtle spell, stillness and quiet, a slumping body, someone screaming their lungs out, more talking—wait, back up, what was that last—?
—and gone. Anne’s fingers touched the man’s wrist and green light glowed, there and gone in an instant. The spell was complex, one I hadn’t seen before.
The man staggered and stopped. The aggression went out of his eyes and all of a sudden he just looked confused.
“Please sit down,” Anne said. Her voice was still polite, and the man obeyed, collapsing into one of the chairs as though his limbs were very heavy. Anne turned to me. “I’m a little busy.”
I looked back at Anne—what had I seen for a second there?—then shook it off. Maybe I’d imagined it. “Is this your way of asking me to come back some other day?”
“Yes.” Anne looked at me steadily. “I’m sorry. This isn’t a good time.”
I paused, then nodded. I left through the crowd, pushing my way past. Behind me, I heard Anne start to shoo them out.
| | | | | | | | |
Beside the building that held Anne’s flat was what looked from the outside like allotments or a small park, sealed off behind an iron fence and a locked gate. It wasn’t signposted but my phone labelled it as the Garthorne Road Nature Reserve.
Inside, the reserve was much bigger than it looked from the street, spreading out to either side and forming a long strip of land behind the houses that hid it. A railway cutting ran through the centre, forming a fenced-off valley with forested slopes. I got in over the fence, did a quick scout, then sat at a wooden bench and waited.
Time passed. The sun set and the sky faded from blue to indigo to black, lit from below by the orange glow of the London skyline. I’ve always been drawn to places like this, hidden away behind streets and buildings—I like nature, but I’m an urban person at heart and it’s deep in the city where I feel most comfortable. The nature reserve was very nearly pitch-dark, the streetlights blocked off by trees and houses, and the wind rustled in the leaves in a steady rise and fall. From time to time a train would pass along the railway line, rattle and bang and roar, leaving an eerie quiet in its wake. As I sat still and silent, rustles of movement began to filter through the undergrowth, the reserve’s nocturnal inhabitants growing accustomed to my presence. I saw the quick scuttling movements of rodents, and a hedgehog bustled past only a few feet away. The wind was beginning to blow away the clouds, and stars gleamed down from patches of clear sky.
It was nearly ten o’clock when I heard the sound of someone moving from the direction of the entrance to the reserve, footsteps on grass coming downhill towards me. I could tell the exact moment that I came within Anne’s lifesight, because she stopped. I saw the possibilities branch—would she keep coming, or would she back off?—but just as I knew that she’d seen me, she knew that I’d seen her. The future in which she left winked out, she kept coming, and a moment later I saw a slim shadow against the trees. “Hey,” I said.
“I thought you were going,” Anne said. I couldn’t see her face in the darkness.
“I didn’t say where.”
I heard Anne sigh. “I’m going to have to phrase what I say more carefully, aren’t I?” She paused. “How did you know I’d come here?”
I shrugged. “This place suits you.”
Anne had come to a halt beside an old clay oven. I’d expected her to keep her distance but she started forward, slipping around the edge of the woodpile before sitting on the bench opposite me, curling her feet up to sit cross-legged. We sat for a little while in silence.
“It’s nice here,” I said eventually. I meant it. Despite the railway line and the streets all around, the reserve felt peaceful.
“It’s not mine.”
“You come here often, don’t you?”
“When I can,” Anne said. From across the bench I could just make out her features, dim in the starlight.
There was a pause. “So,” I said. “How’s the clinic going?”
“It’s okay.” Anne sounded tired.
“Are you still working at that supermarket?”
“Yes.” Anne looked up at me. “I don’t think you came to ask about my job.”
“I heard you left the apprentice program.”
“Is that what they’re saying?”
“Not exactly.” I paused, but Anne didn’t fill in the gap. Oh well, tiptoeing around wasn’t working anyway. “They’re saying that you got expelled because you attacked Natasha.”
Anne was silent.
“Is it true?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters. Don’t you at least want to give me your side of the story?”
Anne sounded weary. “Why bother?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. “Did Natasha attack you? Or set you up, or something?”
“No,” Anne said with a sigh. “She just . . . acted like Natasha.”
“So . . . what did you do?”
“Do you really want to know?” Anne looked up at me, meeting my gaze in the darkness. “I triggered all her pain receptors and looped them so that they’d keep firing for a couple of hours.”
I stared. I couldn’t picture Anne doing something like that. Okay, come to think of it I had seen her do something exactly like that—worse, in fact—but . . .
“It doesn’t do any permanent damage,” Anne said when I didn’t answer. She sounded defensive.
“What did she do?”
“Nothing,” Anne said in frustration. “Nothing different. She said something about what I must have done to stay in the program. It wasn’t the worst thing she’s said, it’s probably not even in the top ten, and Natasha isn’t even the worst of them. There wasn’t anything special about it. It was just . . . one last straw. That was all.”
“What were all the other straws?” I said quietly.
Anne let out a long breath. “Do you know how long I’ve been in the program?”
“No.” The first time I’d met Anne had been at Luna’s apprenticeship ceremony, almost two years ago. “Two years?”
“Three and a bit.” Anne looked at me. “Do you know how many days I went to classes and someone didn’t remind me that the Light mages didn’t want me there?”
I shook my head.
Revue de presse
“Harry Dresden would like Alex Verus tremendously—and be a little nervous around him.”—Jim Butcher, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Benedict Jacka writes a deft thrill ride of an urban fantasy—a stay-up-all-night read.”—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author
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