I was spared further questioning, as the driveway suddenly straightened and we
broke out of the belt of trees. And up ahead we saw Heddleham Hall.
The boy gasped.
It didn't have quite the same effect on me. When you've helped construct sev-
eral of the world's most majestic buildings, and in some instances given pretty use-
ful tips to the architects concerned,
a second-rate Victorian mansion in the
Gothic style doesn't exactly wet your whistle. You know the kind of thing: lots of
twiddly bits and turrets.
It was surrounded by a wide expanse of lawn, on which
peacocks and wallabies were decoratively scattered.
A couple of striped tents had
been erected on the lawns, to which sundry servants were already carting trays of
bottles and wineglasses down from the terrace. In front of the house was a massive,
ancient yew; under its spreading limbs the driveway split. The left-hand fork
swooped elegantly round to the front of the house; the right-hand fork trundled
meekly round the back. As per our orders, we took the tradesmen's route.
 Not that my advice was always taken: check out the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
 Not a good enough description for you? Well, I was only trying to move the story
on. Heddleham Hall was a great rectangular pile with stubby north—south wings, plenty
of tall, arched windows, two stories, high sloping gables, a surfeit of brick chimneys, or-
nate tracery that amounted to the Baroque, faux-battlements above the main door, high
vaulted ceilings (heavily groined), sundry gargoyles (likewise) and all constructed from a
creamy-brown stone that looked attractive in moderation but en masse made everything
blur like a big block of melting fudge.
 So decoratively that I wondered if their feet had been glued in position.
My master was still drinking the whole sight in with a lustful look.
"Forget your pathetic daydreams," I said. "If you want to end up with one of
these, you've got to survive today first. So—now we're inside, we need to formulate
our plan. What exactly is it?"
The boy was focused again in an instant. "From what Lovelace told us," he said,
"we guess that he is going to attack the ministers in some way. How, we don't
know. It'll happen once they've arrived, when they're most relaxed and unawares.
The Amulet is vital to his scheme, whatever it is."
"Yes. Agreed." I tapped the steering wheel. "But what about our plan?"
"We've got two objectives: to find the Amulet and to work out what trap
Lovelace is preparing. Lovelace will probably have the Amulet on his person. In any
event, it'll be well guarded. It would be useful to locate it, but we don't want to
take it from him until everyone's arrived. We've got to show them that he has it:
prove he's a traitor. And if we can show them the trap too, so much the better.
We'll have all the evidence we need."
"You make it sound so simple." I considered Faquarl, Jabor, and all the other
slaves Lovelace was likely to have to hand, and sighed. "Well, first we need to ditch
this van and these disguises."
The driveway came to a sudden end at a circular area of gravel at the back of
the house. The florist's van was parked there. A set of white double doors was open
nearby, with a man dressed in a dark uniform standing outside. He indicated for us
to pull over.
"All right," the boy said. "We unload the van and seize the first chance we get.
Wait for my orders."
"Hey, do I ever do anything else?" I managed to skid the van to a halt a few
millimeters away from the ornamental shrubbery and got out. The flunky ap-
"That's me, guv'nor. This here's... my son."
"You're late. The cook has need of your items. Please bring them to the kitchen
with all speed."
"Yes, guv'nor." An uneasy feeling ran through my essence and rippled the bris-
tles on the back of my neck. The cook... No, it wouldn't be. He'd be elsewhere,
surely. I opened the van door. "Son—snap to it, or you'll feel the back of my hand!"
I took a certain bleak pleasure in loading the boy up with as many jars of Syrian
olives and giant land snails as I could, then propelled him on his way. He staggered
off under his load, not unlike Simpkin in Pinn's shop.
I selected a small tub of
larks' tongues and followed him through the doors and into a cool, whitewashed
passage. Various servants of every shape, sex, and size were racing about like star-
tled hares, engaged in a hundred tasks; everywhere there was a great clattering and
hubbub. A scent of baked bread and roasting meats hung in the air, emanating from
a wide arch that led on to the kitchen.
 Don't think I'd forgotten Simpkin. On the contrary. I have a long memory and a
fertile imagination. I had plans for him.
I peered through the arch. Dozens of white-clothed under-cooks, chopping,
basting, rinsing, slicing... Something turned on the spit in the fireplace. Stacks of
vegetables were piled high on tables beside open pastry cases being filled with jel-
lied fruits. It was a hive of activity. Orchestrating it all was a sizeable head chef,
who at that moment was shouting at a small boy wearing a blue uniform.
The chef's sleeves were rolled up. He had a thick white bandage wrapped
round one arm.
I checked the seventh plane.
And ducked back out of sight. I knew those tentacles far too well for there to
be any doubt.
My master had entered the kitchen, placed his precarious load on a nearby
work surface and was coming out again, none the wiser. As he rounded the door I
thrust the larks' tongues into his hand.
"Take those too," I hissed. "I can't go in."
"Just do it."
He had the sense to obey, and quickly, for the servant in the dark uniform had
reappeared in the corridor, and was observing us intently. We headed back out
again for the next load.
"The head cook," I whispered, as I pulled a crate of boar pâté to the back of
the van, "is the djinni Faquarl. Don't ask me why he likes that disguise, I've no idea.
But I can't go in. He'll spot me instantly."
The boy's eyes narrowed. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"You'll just have to trust me on this one. There—you can manage another sack
of ostrich steaks, can't you? Oops. Perhaps not." I helped him to his feet. "I'll unload
the van; you take the stuff in. We'll both think what to do."
During the course of several round-trips for the boy, we thrashed out a plan of
campaign. It took a fair bit of thrashing to reach agreement. He wanted us both to
slip past the kitchen to explore the house, but I was extremely reluctant to go
anywhere near Faquarl. My idea was to unload, ditch the van in the trees some-
where and creep back to start our investigations, but the kid would have none of
this. "It's all right for you," he said. "You can cross the lawns like a gust of poisonous
wind or something; I can't—they'll catch me before I'm halfway. Now that I'm at
the house, I've got to go in."
"But you're a grocer's boy. How will you explain that when you're seen?"
He smiled an unpleasant smile. "Don't worry. I won't be a grocer's boy for
"Well, it's too risky for me to pass the kitchen," I said. "I was lucky just now.
Faquarl can usually sense me a mile off. It's no good; I'll have to find another way
"I don't like it," he said. "How will we meet up?"
"I'll find you. Just don't get caught in the meantime."
He shrugged. If he was terrified out of his wits, he was doing a good job of hid-
ing it. I piled the last baskets of plovers' eggs into his hands and watched him wad-
dle off into the house. Then I shut the van doors, left the keys on the driver's seat
and considered the position. I soon abandoned my idea of disposing of the van in
the trees: that was more likely to attract attention than just quietly leaving it here.
No one was worrying about the florist's van, after all.
There were too many windows in the house. Something could be watching
from any of them. I walked toward the door as if I were going inside, checking the
planes en route: far off, a sentry patrol passed above the trees, just inside the in-
nermost dome; that was okay—they'd see nothing. The house itself looked clear.
As I neared the door I stepped to one side, out of view from within, and
changed. Mr. Squalls became a small lizard that dropped to the ground, scuttled to
the nearest patch of wall, and ran up it, making for the first floor. My creamy-
brown skin was ideally camouflaged against the stone. The minute bristles on my
feet gave me an excellent grip. My swivel-eyes looked up, around, behind. All
things considered, it was another perfect choice of form. Up the wall I ran, wonder-
ing how my master was getting on with his more cumbersome disguise.
As he set the basket of eggs down on the nearest surface, Nathaniel looked
around the kitchen for his intended victim. There were so many people bustling
about that at first he could see no sign of the small boy with the dark blue uniform,
and he feared that he had already gone. But then, in the shadow of a large lady pas-
try chef, he saw him. He was transferring a mountain of bite-sized canapés to a
two-storied silver platter.
It was clear that the boy planned to take this dish elsewhere in the house. Na-
thaniel intended to be there when he did.
He skulked around the kitchen, pretending to be emptying out his baskets and
crates, biding his time, and growing ever more impatient as the boy painstakingly
placed each cream cheese-and-prawn pastry on the dish.
Something hard and heavy tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.
The head cook stood there, pink-faced and glistening from the heat of the
roasting spit. Two bright black eyes looked down on him. The chef was holding a
meat cleaver in his pudgy hand; it was with the blunt edge of this that he had
"And what," asked the chef, in a gentle voice, "are you doing in my kitchen?"
Nothing about the man, on any of the planes to which Nathaniel had access,
remotely suggested he was inhuman. Nevertheless, with Bartimaeus's warning in
mind, he took no chances. "Just collecting up a couple of my father's baskets," he
said politely. "We don't have many, you see. I'm sorry if I've got in the way."
The chef pointed his cleaver at the door. "Leave."
"Yes, sir. Just going." But only as far as the passage directly outside the door,
where Nathaniel propped himself against the wall and waited. Whenever someone
came out of the kitchen, he ducked down as if he were doing up his shoes. It was
an edgy business and he dreaded the appearance of the chef, but otherwise he felt a
strange exhilaration. After the first shock of seeing the mercenary at the gate, his
fear had fallen away and been replaced with a thrill he had rarely experienced be-
fore—the thrill of action. Whatever happened, there would be no more helpless
standing by while his enemies acted with impunity. He was taking control of events
now. He was doing the hunting. He was closing in.
Light, tripping footsteps. The pageboy appeared through the arch, balancing
the double dish of canapés on his head. Steadying it with one hand, he turned right,
heading up the passage. Nathaniel fell in alongside him.
"Hello, there." He spoke in an extra-friendly fashion; as he did so, he ran his
eyes up and down the boy. Perfect. Just the right size.
The lad couldn't help but notice this interest. "Er, do you want something?"
"Yes. Is there a cloakroom near here? I've had a long journey and... you know
how it is."
At the foot of a broad staircase, the boy halted. He pointed along a side pas-
sage. "Down there."
"Can you show me? I'm afraid of getting the wrong door."
"I'm late as it is, pal."
With a groan of reluctance, the boy turned aside and led Nathaniel along the
corridor. He walked so fast that the dish on his head began to wobble precariously.
He paused, straightened it, and continued on his way. Nathaniel followed behind,
pausing only to draw from his uppermost basket the hefty rolling pin that he had
stolen from the kitchen. At the fourth door, the boy stopped.
"Are you sure it's the right one? I don't want to barge in on anyone."
"I'm telling you it is. Look." The boy kicked out with a foot. The door swung
open. Nathaniel swung the rolling pin. Boy and silver platter went crashing forward
onto the washroom floor. They hit the tiles with a sound like a rifle crack; a rain-
storm of cream cheese-and-prawn canapes fell all around. Nathaniel stepped in
smartly after them and closed and locked the door.
The boy was out cold, so Nathaniel met no resistance when he took his
clothes. He had infinitely more difficulty in gathering up the canapés, which had
scattered and smeared themselves in every crack and cranny of the washroom. The
cheese was soft and could often be shoveled back onto the pastry, but it was not
always possible to resurrect the prawns.
When he had arranged the platters as best he could, he tore his grocer's shirt
into strips and bound and gagged the boy. Then he pulled him into one of the cubi-
cles, locked the door on the inside, and clambered out over the top by balancing on
the toilet tank.
With the evidence safely hidden, Nathaniel straightened his uniform in the
mirror, balanced the platter upon his head, and left the washroom. Reasoning that
anything worth discovering was unlikely to be in the servants' quarters, he retraced
his steps and set off up the staircase.
Various servants hurried past in both directions, carrying trays and crates of
bottles, but no one challenged him.
At the top of the stairs, a door opened onto a hallway, lit by a row of high,
arched windows. The flooring was polished marble, covered at intervals by richly
woven carpets from Persia and the East. Alabaster busts, depicting great leaders of
past ages, sat in special niches along the whitewashed walls. The whole effect, even
in the weak winter sunlight, was one of dazzling brightness.
Nathaniel passed along the hall, keeping his eyes peeled.
Ahead he heard loud, laughing voices raised in greeting. He thought it wisest to
avoid them. An open side door showed a flash of books. He stepped through into a
beautiful circular library, which rose through two full stories to a glass dome in the
roof. A spiral staircase wound up to a metal walkway circling the wall far above his
head. On one side, great glass doors with windows above them looked out onto the
lawns and a distant ornamental lake. Every other inch of wall was covered with
books: large, expensive, ancient, collected from cities all over the world. Nathaniel's
heart skipped a beat in wonder. One day he too would have a library like this....
"What do you think you're doing?" A panel of books had swung to one side,
revealing a door opposite him. A young woman stood there, dark-haired and
frowning. For some reason, she reminded him of Ms. Lutyens; his initiative failed
him: he opened and shut his mouth aimlessly.
The woman strode forward. She wore an elegant dress, jewels flashed at her
slender throat. Nathaniel collected himself. "Erm... would you like a prawn thing?"
"Who are you? I've not seen you before." Her voice was hard as flint.
He cudgeled his brain into action. "I'm John Squalls, ma'am. I helped my father
deliver some supplies to you this morning. Only the pageboy's been taken ill, just
now, ma'am, and they asked if I could help out. Didn't want you to be short-staffed
on an important day like this. Looks as if I took a wrong turning, not being famil-
"That'll do." She was still hostile; her narrowed eyes scanned the platter. "Look
at the state of these! How dare you bring such—"
"Amanda!" A young man had followed her into the library. "There you are—
and thank goodness, food! Let me at it!" He plunged past her and seized three or
four of the most forlorn canapés from Nathaniel's silver dish.
"Absolute lifesaver! Famishing journey from London. Mmm, there's a prawn on
this one." He chewed heartily. "Interesting flavor. Very fresh. So tell me, Amanda...
is it true about you and Lovelace? Everyone's been talking...."
Amanda Cathcart began a tinkling little laugh, then gestured curtly at Nathan-
iel. "You—get out and serve those in the entrance hall. And prepare the next ones
"Yes, ma'am." Nathaniel bowed slightly, as he had seen the parliamentary ser-
vants do, and exited the library.
It had been a close shave, and his heart was beating fast, but his mind was calm.
The guilt that had beset him after the fire had now hardened into a cold acceptance
of his situation. Mrs. Underwood had died because he had stolen the Amulet. She
had died; Nathaniel had survived. So be it. Now he would destroy Lovelace in his
turn. He knew the likelihood was that he would not survive the day. This did not
worry him. The odds were stacked in his enemy's favor, but that was the way it
should be. He would succeed, or die trying.
A certain heroism in this equation appealed to him. It was clear and simple; it
helped block out the messiness of his conscience.
He followed the hubbub to the entrance hall. The guests were arriving in
droves now; the marbled pillars echoed with the noise of their chattering. Ministers
of State shuffled through the open door, taking off gloves and unwinding long silk
scarves, their breath hanging in the cold air of the hall. The men wore dinner jack-
ets, the women elegant dresses. Servants stood on the fringes, accepting coats and
proffering champagne. Nathaniel hung back for a moment, then, with his platter
held high, dived into the throng.
"Sir, madam, would you like...?"
"Cheese-and-prawn things, madam...?"
"Can I interest you in...?"
He wheeled about, buffeted this way and that by a battery of outstretched
hands that preyed on his dish like seagulls swooping on a catch. No one spoke to
him or even seemed to see him: several times his head was struck by an arm or
hand blindly reaching out toward the platter, or raising a canape to an open mouth.
In seconds, the uppermost dish was empty save for a few crumbs and only a few
desultory morsels remained on the lower. Nathaniel found himself expelled from
the group, out of breath and with collar awry.
A tall, lugubrious-looking servant was standing near him, filling glasses from a
bottle. "Like animals, ain't they?" he mouthed under his breath. "Bloody magicians."
"Yes." Nathaniel was barely listening. He watched the crowd of ministers, his
lenses allowing him to see the full extent of activity in the hall. Almost every man
and woman present had an imp hovering behind them, and while their masters en-
gaged in smiling social chatter, talking over one another and fingering their jewels,
the servants conducted a discourse of their own. Each imp postured and preened
and swelled itself to ridiculous degrees, often attempting to deflate its rivals by sur-
reptitiously prodding them in delicate places with a spiny tail. Some changed color,
going through a rainbow selection before ending with warning scarlet or bright yel-
low. Others contented themselves with pulling faces, imitating the expressions or
gestures of their rivals' masters. If the magicians noticed all this, they made a good
show of ignoring it, but the combination of the guests' false grins and the antics of
their imps made Nathaniel's head spin.
"Are you serving those, or taking them for a walk?"
A scowling woman, broad of hip and waist, with an even broader imp floating
behind her. And at her side... Nathaniel's heart fluttered—he recognized the watery
eyes, the fishlike face. Mr. Lime, Lovelace's companion, with the smallest, most
maladroit imp imaginable skulking behind his ear. Nathaniel remained expres-
sionless and bowed his head, offering up the dish. "I'm sorry, madam."
She took two pastries, Lime took one. Nathaniel was staring at the floor
meekly, but he felt the man's gaze upon him.
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