"Sorry, sir—I was reading—"
"Not that book you weren't, you dozy fool. It's fourth-level, written in Cop-
tic—you'd never have a hope. You were asleep and don't deny it. Right, snap to
sharpish, or I really will leave you behind."
Nathaniel's eyes had been closed at the moment his master walked in: he
found it easier to memorize things that way. All things considered, this was perhaps
fortunate, since he didn't have to come up with any further explanations. In an in-
stant the book was lying discarded on the chair and he was out of the library at his
master's heels and following him in a heart-pounding flurry down the hall, through
the front door and out into the night, where Mrs. Underwood, in a shiny green
dress and with something like a furry anaconda wound loosely round her neck,
waited smiling beside the big black car.
Nathaniel had only been in his master's car once before, and he did not re-
member it. He climbed into the back, marveling at the feel of the shiny leather seat
and the odd, fake smell of the pine-tree odoriser dangling from the rearview mirror.
"Sit back and don't touch the windows." Mr. Underwood's eyebrows glowered
at him in the mirror. Nathaniel sat back, his hands contentedly in his lap, and the
journey to Parliament began.
Nathaniel stared out of the window as the car cruised south. The countless
glowing lights of London—headlamps, street lamps, shop fronts, windows, vigilance
spheres—flashed in quick succession across his face. He gazed wide-eyed, blinking
hardly at all, drinking everything in. Traveling across the city was a special occasion
in itself—it rarely happened to Nathaniel, whose experience of the world was con-
fined mainly to books. Now and then, Mrs. Underwood took him on necessary bus
trips to clothes and shoe stores, and once, when Mr. Underwood was away on busi-
ness, he had been taken to the zoo. But he had seldom gone beyond the outskirts of
Highgate, and certainly never at night.
As usual, it was the sheer scale that took his breath away; the profusion of
streets and side-roads, the ribbons of lights curving off on all sides. Most of the
houses seemed very different from the ones in his master's street: much smaller,
meaner, more tightly packed. Often they seemed to congregate around large, win-
dowless buildings with flat roofs and tall chimneys, presumably factories where
commoners assembled for some dull purpose. As such they didn't really interest
The commoners themselves were in evidence too. Nathaniel was always
amazed by how many of them there were. Despite the dark and the evening driz-
zle, they were out in surprising numbers, heads down, hurrying along like ants in
his garden, ducking in and out of shops, or sometimes disappearing into ramshackle
inns on street corners, where warm orange light shone through frosted windows.
Every house like this had its own vigilance sphere floating prominently in the air
above the door; whenever someone walked below, it bobbed and pulsed with a
The car had just passed one of these inns—a particularly large example oppo-
site a subway station—when Mr. Underwood banged his fist down on the
dashboard hard enough to make Nathaniel jump.
"That's one, Martha!" he exclaimed. "That's one of the worst of them! If it was
up to me, the Night Police would move in tomorrow and carry off everyone they
"Oh, not the Night Police, Arthur," his wife said, in a pained voice. "Surely
there are better ways of re-educating them."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Martha. Show me a London inn,
and I'll show you a commoners' meeting house hidden inside. In the attic, in the
cellar, in a secret room behind the bar... I've seen it all—Internal Affairs has raided
them often enough. But there's never any evidence and none of the goods we're af-
ter—just empty rooms, a few chairs and tables.... Take it from me—it's filthy dives
and pits like that where all this trouble's starting. The P.M.'ll have to act soon, but
by then who knows what kind of outrage they'll have committed. Vigilance
spheres aren't enough! We need to burn the places to the ground—that's what I
told Duvall this afternoon. But of course no one listens to me."
Nathaniel had long ago learned never to ask questions, no matter how inter-
ested he was in something. He craned his head and watched the orange lights of the
inn dwindle and vanish behind them.
Now they were entering central London, where the buildings became ever big-
ger and more grand, as befitted the capital of the Empire. The number of private
cars on the roads increased, while the shop fronts grew wide and gaudy, and magi-
cians as well as commoners became visible strolling on the pavements.
"How are you doing in the back, dear?" Mrs. Underwood asked.
"Very well, Mrs. Underwood. Are we nearly there yet?"
"Another couple of minutes, John."
His master took a glance in the rearview mirror. "Time enough then to give
you a warning," he said. "Tonight you're representing me. We're going to be in the
same room as all the major magicians in the country and that means men and
women whose power you can't even begin to guess at. Put a foot out of line and
it'll ruin my reputation. Do you know what happened to Disraeli's apprentice?"
"It was a state address much like this one. The apprentice tripped on Westmin-
ster steps while Disraeli was being introduced to the assembly. He knocked against
his master and sent him tumbling head over heels down the stairs. Disraeli's fall was
broken by the Duchess of Argyle—fortunately a well-padded lady."
"Disraeli stood up and apologized to the Duchess with great courtesy. Then he
turned to where his apprentice was trembling and weeping at the top of the steps
and clapped his hands. The apprentice fell to his knees, his hands outstretched, but
to no avail. A darkness fell across the hall for approximately fifteen seconds. When
it cleared the apprentice had gone and in his place was a solid iron statue, in exactly
the wretched boy's shape. In its supplicating hands was a boot scraper, on which
everyone entering the hall for the last one hundred fifty years has been able to clean
"Really, sir? Will I see it?"
"The point being, boy, that if you embarrass me in any way I shall ensure that
there's a matching hat stand there too. Do you understand?"
"I do indeed, sir." Nathaniel made a mental note to check the formulae for Pet-
rifaction. He had a feeling it involved summoning an afrit of considerable power.
From what he knew of his master's ability, he doubted he would have the slightest
chance of accomplishing this. He smiled slightly in the darkness.
"Stay beside me at all times," Mr. Underwood went on. "Do not speak unless I
give you leave and do not stare at any of the magicians, no matter what deformities
they may possess. And now, be quiet—we're there, and I need to concentrate."
The car slowed; it joined a procession of similar black vehicles that moved
along the broad gray span of Whitehall. They passed a succession of granite monu-
ments to the conquering magicians of the late Victorian age and the fallen heroes of
the Great War, then a few monolithic sculptures representing Ideal Virtues (Patri-
otism, Respect for Authority, the Dutiful Wife). Behind soared the flat-fronted,
many-windowed office towers that housed the Imperial Government.
The pace slowed to a crawl. Nathaniel began to notice groups of silent onlook-
ers standing on the sidewalks, watching the cars go by. As best he could judge, their
mood seemed sullen, even hostile. Most of the faces were thin and drawn. Large
men in gray uniforms stood casually further off, keeping an eye upon the crowds.
Everyone—policemen and commoners alike—looked very cold.
Sitting by himself in the insulated comfort of the car, a glow of self-satisfaction
began to steal over Nathaniel. He was part of things now; he was an insider on his
way to Parliament at last. He was important, set apart from the rest—and it felt
good. For the first time in his life he knew the lazy exhilaration of easy power.
Presently the car entered Parliament Square and they turned left through some
wrought-iron gates. Mr. Underwood flashed a pass, someone signaled them to go
on, then the car was crossing a cobbled yard and descending a ramp into an under-
ground car-park lit by neon striplights. Mr. Underwood pulled into a free bay and
switched off the ignition.
In the back, Nathaniel's fingers dug into the leather seat. He was shaking with
They had arrived.
They walked beside an endless row of glittering black cars toward a pair of
metal doors. By this time, Nathaniel's anticipation was such that he could hardly
focus on anything at all. He was so distracted that he scarcely took in the two slim
guards who stopped them beside the doors, or noticed his master produce three
plastic passes, which were inspected and returned. He barely registered the oak-
paneled lift that they entered, or the tiny red sphere observing them from the ceil-
ing. And it was only when the lift doors opened and they stepped out into the
splendor of Westminster Hall that, with a rush, his senses returned to him.
It was a vast space, wide and open under a steeply pitched ceiling of age-
blackened beams. The walls and floors were made of giant smoothed blocks of
stone; the windows were ornate arches filled with intricate stained glass. At the far
end a multitude of doors and windows opened on to a terrace overlooking the
river. Yellow lanterns hung from the roof and projected from the walls on metal
braziers. Perhaps two hundred people already stood or strolled about the hall, but
they were so engulfed by the great expanse it seemed the place was almost empty.
Nathaniel swallowed hard. He felt himself reduced to sudden insignificance.
He stood beside Mr. and Mrs. Underwood at the top of a flight of steps that
swept down into the hall. A black-suited servant glided forward and retreated with
his master's coat. Another gestured politely and they set off down the stairs.
An object to the side caught his eye. A dull-gray statue—a crouching boy
dressed in strange clothes, looking up with wide eyes and holding a boot scraper in
his hands. Although age had long since worn away the finer details of the face, it
still had a curiously imploring look that made Nathaniel's skin crawl. He hurried
onward, careful not to get too close to his master's heels.
At the foot of the steps they paused. Servants approached bearing glasses of
champagne (which Nathaniel wanted), and lime cordial (which he didn't, but re-
ceived). Mr. Underwood took a long swig from his glass and flicked his eyes anx-
iously to and fro. Mrs. Underwood gazed about her with a vague, dreamy smile.
Nathaniel drank some cordial and looked around.
Magicians of every age milled about, talking and laughing. The hall was a blur
of black suits and elegant dresses, of white teeth flashing and jewels sparkling under
the lantern light. A few hard-faced men wearing identical gray jackets lounged near
each exit. Nathaniel guessed they were police, or magicians on security duty, ready
to call up djinn at the slightest hint of trouble—but even through his lenses, he
could spot no magical entities currently present in the room.
He did, however, notice several strutting youths and straight-backed girls who
were evidently apprentices like himself. Without exception they were chatting
confidently to other guests, all very much at ease. Nathaniel suddenly became
acutely conscious of how awkwardly his master and Mrs. Underwood were stand-
ing, isolated and alone.
"Oughtn't we to talk to someone?" he ventured.
Mr. Underwood flashed him a venomous look. "I thought I told you—" He
broke off and hailed a fat man who had just come down the steps. "Grigori!"
Grigori didn't seem particularly thrilled. "Oh. Hello, Underwood."
"How delightful to see you!" Mr. Underwood stepped across to the man, prac-
tically pouncing on him in his eagerness to start a conversation. Mrs. Underwood
and Nathaniel were left on their own.
"Isn't he going to introduce us?" Nathaniel asked peevishly.
"Don't worry, dear. It's important for your master to talk to the top people.
We don't need to talk to anyone, do we? But we can still watch, which is always a
pleasure...." She tutted a little. "I must say the styles this year are so conservative."
"Is the Prime Minister here, Mrs. Underwood?"
She craned her neck. "I don't think so, dear, no. Not yet. But that's Mr. Duvall,
the Chief of Police...." A short distance away a burly man in gray uniform stood lis-
tening patiently to two young women, who both seemed to be talking animatedly
to him at the same time. "I met him once—such a charming gentleman. And very
powerful, of course. Let me see, who else? Goodness, yes... you see that lady there?"
Nathaniel did. She was startlingly thin, with cropped white hair; her fingers clasped
the stem of her glass like the clenched talons of a bird. "Jessica Whitwell. She's
something to do with Security: a very celebrated magician. She was the one who
caught the Czech infiltrators ten years ago. They raised a marid and set it on her,
but she created a Void and sucked it in. All on her own she did that, and with
minimum loss of life. So—don't cross her when you're older, John."
She laughed and drained her glass. Instantly, a servant appeared at her shoulder
and refilled it almost to the brim. Nathaniel laughed too. As often happened in her
company, he found some of Mrs. Underwood's serenity rubbing off on him. He re-
laxed a little.
"Excuse me, excuse me! The Duke and Duchess of Westminster." A pair of
liveried servants hustled past. Nathaniel was pushed unceremoniously to one side.
A small, shrewish woman wearing a frumpy black dress, a gold anklet, and an im-
perious expression elbowed her way through the throng. An exhausted-looking
man followed in her wake. Mrs. Underwood looked after them, marveling.
"What a hideous woman she is; I can't think what the Duke sees in her." She
took another sip of champagne. "And that there—good heavens! What has befallen
him?—is the merchant Sholto Pinn." Nathaniel observed a great, fat man wearing a
white linen suit come hobbling down the steps, supporting himself on a pair of
crutches. He moved as if it gave him great pain to do so. His face was covered with
bruises; one eye was black and closed. Two menservants hovered about him, clear-
ing his way toward some chairs set against the wall.
"He doesn't look too well," Nathaniel said.
"No indeed. Some dreadful accident. Perhaps some artifact went wrong, poor
man...." Bolstered by her champagne, Mrs. Underwood continued to give Nathaniel
a running guide to many of the great men and women arriving in the hall. It was the
cream of government and society; the most influential people in London (and that
of course meant the world). As she expanded on their most famous feats, Nathaniel
became ever more glumly aware how peripheral he was to all this glamour and
power. The self-satisfied feeling that had warmed him briefly in the car was now
forgotten, replaced instead by a gnawing frustration. He caught sight of his master
again several times, always standing on the fringes of a group, always barely toler-
ated or ignored. Ever since the Lovelace incident he had known how ineffectual
Underwood was. Here was yet more proof. All his colleagues knew the man was
weak. Nathaniel ground his teeth with anger. To be the despised apprentice of a
despised magician! This wasn't the start in life that he wanted or deserved....
Mrs. Underwood jerked his arm urgently. "There! John—do you see him?
That's him! That's him!"
"Rupert Devereaux. The Prime Minister."
Where he had come from, Nathaniel had no idea. But there suddenly he was: a
small, slim man with light brown hair, standing at the center of a scrummage of
competing dinner-jackets and cocktail dresses, yet miraculously occupying a solitary
point of grace and calm. He was listening to someone, nodding his head and smiling
slightly. The Prime Minister! The most powerful man in Britain, perhaps the
world... Even at a distance, Nathaniel experienced a warm glow of admiration; he
wanted nothing more than to get close and watch him, to listen to him speak. He
sensed that the whole room felt as he did: that behind the surface of each conversa-
tion, everyone's senses were angled in that one direction. But even as he began to
stare, the crowd closed in and the slender, dapper figure was hidden from his view.
Reluctantly, Nathaniel turned away. He took a resigned sip of his cordial—and
Near the foot of the staircase, two magicians stood. Almost alone of all the
guests in that vicinity they were taking no interest in the Prime Ministerial throng;
they talked animatedly, heads close together. Nathaniel took a deep breath. He
knew them both—indeed, their faces had been imprinted on his memory since his
humiliation the year before. The old man with the florid, wrinkled skin, more
withered and bent than ever; the younger man with the clammy complexion, his
lank hair draping down over his collar. Lovelace's friends. And if they were present,
would Lovelace himself be far away?
An uncomfortable prickling broke out in Nathaniel's stomach, a feeling of
weakness that annoyed him greatly. He licked his dry lips. Calm down. There was
nothing to fear. Lovelace had no way of tracing the Amulet to him, even if they
met face to face. His searchers would actually have to enter Underwood's house be-
fore they could detect its aura. He was safe enough. No, he should seize this oppor-
tunity, like any good magician. If he drew close to his enemies, he might overhear
what they had to say.
He glanced round; Mrs. Underwood's attention had been diverted. She was in
conversation with a short, squat gentleman and had just broken into peals of laugh-
ter. Nathaniel began to sidle through the crowd on a trajectory that would bring
him around to the shadows of the staircase, not far from where the two magicians
Halfway across, he saw the old man break off in mid-sentence and look up to-
ward the entrance gallery. Nathaniel followed his gaze. His heart jolted.
There he was: Simon Lovelace, red-faced and out of breath. Evidently he had
only just arrived. He removed his overcoat in a flurry and tossed it to a servant, be-
fore adjusting the lapels of his jacket and hurrying for the stairs. His appearance was
just how Nathaniel remembered it: the glasses, the hair slicked back, the energy of
movement, the broad mouth flicking a smile on-off at everyone he passed. He trot-
ted down the steps briskly, spurning the champagne that was offered him, making
for his friends.
Nathaniel speeded up. In a few seconds, he had reached an empty patch of
floor beside one sweeping banister of the staircase. He was now not far from the
foot of the stairs, close to where the end of the banister curled round to form an
ornate plinth, topped with a stone vase. Behind one side of the vase, he glimpsed
the back of the clammy magician's head; behind the other, part of the old man's
jacket. Lovelace himself had now descended the staircase to join them and was out
The vase shielded Nathaniel from their sight. He eased himself against the rear
of the plinth and leaned against it in what he hoped was a debonair fashion. Then
he strained to distinguish their voices from the hubbub all around.
Success. Lovelace himself was speaking, his voice harsh and irritable. "...no luck
whatsoever. I've tried every inducement possible. Nothing I've summoned can tell
me who controls it."
"Tcha, you have been wasting your time." It was the thick accent of the older
man. "How should the other demons know?"
"It's not my habit to leave any possibility untried. But no—you're right. And
the spheres have been useless, too. So perhaps we have to change our plans. You
got my message? I think we should cancel."
"Cancel?" A third voice, presumably the clammy man's.
"I can always blame the girl."
"I don't think that would be wise." The old man spoke softly; Nathaniel could
barely hear the words. "Devereaux would be down on you even more if you can-
celed. He's looking forward to all the little luxuries you've promised to provide.
No, Simon, we have to put a brave face on it. Keep searching. We've got a few
days. It may yet turn up."
"It'll ruin me if it's all for nothing! Do you know how much that room's cost?"
"Calm down. You're raising your voice."
"All right. But you know what I can't stand? Whoever did it is here, some-
where. Watching me, laughing... When I discover who, I'll—"
"Keep your voice down, Lovelace!" The clammy man again.
"Perhaps, Simon, we should go somewhere a little more discreet...." Behind the
plinth, Nathaniel jerked himself backward as if propelled by an electric charge.
They were moving off. It would not do to come face to face with them here.
Without pausing, he sidestepped away from the shadow of the staircase and took a
few steps into the crowd. Once he had got far enough away to be safe, he looked
back. Lovelace and his companions had scarcely moved: an elderly magician had
imposed herself on their company and was jabbering away—to their vast impa-
Nathaniel took a sip of his drink and composed himself. He had not under-
stood all he had heard, but Lovelace's fury was pleasingly evident. To find out
more, he would have to summon Bartimaeus. Perhaps his slave was even here right
now, trailing Lovelace.... Nothing showed up in his lenses, admittedly, but the
djinni would have changed its form on each of the first four planes. Any one of
these seemingly solid people might be a shell, concealing the demon within.
He stood, lost in thought for a time, at the edge of a small group of magicians.
Gradually, their conversation broke in on him.
"...so handsome. Is he attached?"
"Simon Lovelace? Some woman. I don't recall her name."
"You want to stick clear of him, Devina. He's no longer the golden boy."
"He's holding the conference next week, isn't he? And he's so good-looking...."
"He had to suck up to Devereaux long and hard for that. No, his career's going
"The P.M.'s sidelined him. Lovelace tried for the Home Office a year ago, but
Duvall blocked it. Hates him, can't recall why."
"Duvall's got the P.M.'s ear, all right."
"That's old Schyler with Lovelace, isn't it? Whatever did he summon to get a
face like that? I've seen better-looking imps."
"Lovelace chooses curious company for a minister, I'll say that much. Who's
that greasy one?"
"Lime, I think. Agriculture."
"He's a queer fish...."
"Where's this conference taking place, anyway?"
"Some godforsaken place—outside London."
"Oh no, really? How desperately tedious. We'll probably all be pitchforked by
men in smocks."
"Well, if that's what the P.M. wants..."
"So handsome, though..."
"You are shallow, Devina; mind you, I'd like to know where he got that suit."
Mrs. Underwood, her face flushed—perhaps with the heat of the room—
materialized in front of Nathaniel. She grabbed his arm. "John, I've been calling and
calling! Mr. Devereaux is about to make his speech. We need to go to the back;
ministers only at the front. Hurry up."
They slipped to the side as, with a clopping of heels and a shuffling of gowns, a
vigorous herd instinct moved the guests toward a small stage, draped with purple
cloth, that had been wheeled in from a side room. Nathaniel and Mrs. Underwood
were buffeted uncomfortably in the general rush, and ended up at the back and to
the side of the assembled audience, near the doors that opened out onto the river
terrace. The number of guests had swelled considerably since they had arrived; Na-
thaniel estimated there were now several hundred contained within the hall.
With a youthful spring, Rupert Devereaux bounded up onto the stage.
"Ladies, gentlemen, ministers—how glad I am to see you here this evening...."
He had an attractive voice, deep but lilting, full of casual command. A spontaneous
round of cheers and clapping broke out. Mrs. Underwood nearly dropped her
champagne glass in her excitement. By her side, Nathaniel applauded enthusiasti-
"Giving a state address is always a particularly pleasant task for me," Devereaux
continued. "Requiring as it does that I be surrounded by so many wonderful peo-
ple..." More whoops and cheers erupted, fairly shaking the rafters of the ancient
hall. "Thank you. Today I am pleased to be able to report success on all fronts, both
at home and abroad. I shall go into more detail in a moment, but I can announce
that our armies have fought the Italian rebels to a stalemate near Turin and have
bunkered down for the winter. In addition, our alpine battalions have annihilated a
Czech expeditionary force"—for a moment, his voice was drowned out in the gen-
eral applause. "And destroyed a number of their djinn."
He paused. "On the home front, concern has been expressed again about an-
other outbreak of petty pilfering in London: a number of magical artifacts have
been reported stolen in the last few weeks alone. Now, we all know these are the
actions of a handful of traitors, small-time ne'er-do-wells of no consequence. How-
ever, if we do not stamp it out, other commoners may follow their lead like the
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