"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Underwood," Ms. Lutyens began. "It was such a nice day—"
"Oh, that doesn't matter. That's quite all right. It's just that my husband needs
Nathaniel straight away. He has guests over, and wishes to present him."
"There you are, then," Ms. Lutyens said quietly, as they hurried back up the
garden. "Mr. Underwood isn't overlooking you at all. He must be very pleased with
you to introduce you to other magicians. He's going to show you off!"
Nathaniel smiled weakly, but said nothing. The thought of meeting other ma-
gicians made him feel quite queasy. Through all his years in the house he had never
once been allowed to meet his master's professional colleagues, who appeared there
intermittently. He was always packed off to his bedroom, or kept out of harm's
way with his tutors upstairs. This was a new and exciting development, if a rather
frightening one. He imagined a room stuffed full of tall, brooding men of power,
glowering at him over their bristling beards and swirling robes. His knees shook in
"They're in the reception room," Mrs. Underwood said as they entered the
kitchen. "Let's look at you...." She wet her finger and hurriedly removed a pencil-
lead smudge from the side of his forehead. "Very presentable. All right, in you go."
The room was full; he'd got that part right. It was warm with bodies, the smell
of tea, and the effort of polite conversation. But by the time Nathaniel had closed
the door and edged across to occupy the only space available, in the lee of an orna-
mental dresser, his magnificent visions of a company of great men had already
They just didn't look the part.
There wasn't a cape to be seen. There were precious few beards on display, and
none half as impressive as that of his own master. Most of the men wore drab suits
with drabber ties; only a few sported daring additions, such as a gray waistcoat or a
visible breast-pocket handkerchief. All wore shiny black shoes. It felt to Nathaniel
as if he had strayed upon an undertakers' office party. None of them seemed like
Gladstone, in strength or in demeanor. Some were short, others were crabbed and
old, more than one was prone to pudginess. They talked among themselves ear-
nestly, sipping tea and nibbling dry biscuits, and not one of them raised his voice
above the consensus murmuring.
Nathaniel was deeply disappointed. He stuck his hands in his pockets and
His master was inching himself through the throng, shaking hands and uttering
an odd, short, barking laugh whenever a guest said something that he thought was
intended to be funny. Catching sight of Nathaniel, he beckoned him over; Nathan-
iel squeezed between a tea plate and someone's protruding belly and approached.
"This is the boy," the magician said gruffly, clapping Nathaniel on the shoulder
in an awkward gesture. Three men looked down at him. One was old, white-haired,
with a florid sun-dried-tomato face, covered in tiny creases. Another was a doughy,
watery-eyed individual in middle age; his skin looked cold and clammy, like a fish
on a slab. The third was much younger and more handsome, with slicked-back hair,
round glasses, and a xylophone-size array of gleaming white teeth. Nathaniel stared
back at them in silence.
"Doesn't look like much," the clammy man said. He sniffed and swallowed
"He's learning slowly," Nathaniel's master said, his hand still patting Nathaniel
on the shoulder in an aimless manner that suggested he was ill at ease.
"Slow, is he?" said the old man. He spoke with an accent so thick that Nathan-
iel could barely understand the words. "Yes, some boys are. You must persevere."
"Do you beat him?" the clammy man asked.
"Unwise. It stimulates the memory."
"How old are you, boy?" the younger man said.
"Ten, sir." Nathaniel said politely. "Eleven in Nov—"
"Still a couple of years before he'll be any use to you, Underwood." The young
man cut over Nathaniel as if he did not exist. "Costs a fortune, I suppose."
"What, bed and board? Of course."
"I'll bet he eats like a ferret, too."
"Greedy, is he?" said the old man. He nodded regretfully. "Yes, some boys are."
Nathaniel listened with barely suppressed indignation. "I'm not greedy, sir," he
said in his politest voice. The old man's eyes flickered toward him, then drifted
away again as if he had not heard; but his master's hand clamped down on his
shoulder with some force.
"Well, boy; you must get back to your studies," he said. "Run along."
Nathaniel was only too happy to leave, but as he began to sidle off the young
man in the glasses raised a hand.
"You've got a tongue in your head, I see," he said. "Not afraid of your elders."
Nathaniel said nothing.
"Perhaps you don't think we're your betters too?"
The man spoke lightly, but the sharpness in his voice was clear. Nathaniel
could tell at once that he himself was not the point at issue and that the young man
was challenging his master through him. He felt as if he ought to answer, but was
so confused by the question that he did not know whether to say yes or no.
The young man misinterpreted his silence. "He thinks he's too good to talk to
us at all now!" he said to his companions and grinned. The clammy man tittered
wetly into his hand and the old, red-faced man shook his head. "Tcha," he said.
"Run along, boy," Nathaniel's master said again.
"Hold on, Underwood," the young man said, smiling broadly. "Before he goes,
let's see what you've taught this whippet of yours. It'll be amusing. Come here, lad."
Nathaniel glanced across at his master, who did not meet his eye. Slowly and
unwillingly he drew near to the group again. The young man snapped his fingers
with a flourish and spoke at top speed.
"How many classified types of spirit are there?"
Nathaniel replied without a pause. "Thirteen thousand and forty-six, sir."
"Petronius postulates forty-five thousand; Zavattini forty-eight thousand, sir."
"What is the modus apparendi of the Carthaginian subgroup?"
"They appear as crying infants, sir, or as doppelgängers of the magician in his
"How should one chastise them?"
"Make them drink a vat of asses' milk."
"Hmmph. If summoning a cockatrice, what precautions should one take?"
"Wear mirrored glasses, sir. And surround the pentacle with mirrors on two
other sides also, to force the cockatrice to gaze in the remaining direction, where its
written instructions will be waiting."
Nathaniel was gaining in confidence. He had committed simple details such as
these to memory long ago, and he was pleased to note that his unerringly correct
answers were exasperating the young man. His success had also stopped the
clammy man's snickering, and the old magician, who was listening with his head
cocked to one side, had even nodded grudgingly once or twice. He noticed his mas-
ter smiling, rather smugly. Not that I owe any of this to you, Nathaniel thought
witheringly. I read all this. You've taught me next to nothing.
For the first time there was a pause in the barrage of the young man's ques-
tions. He appeared to be thinking. "All right," he said at last, speaking much more
slowly now and rolling the words luxuriously over his tongue, "what are the six
Words of Direction? Any language."
Arthur Underwood uttered a startled protest. "Be fair, Simon! He can't know
that yet!" But even as he spoke, Nathaniel was opening his mouth. This was a for-
mula contained in several of the books in his master's large bookcase, where Na-
thaniel was already browsing.
"Appare; Mane; Ausculta; Se Dede; Pare; Redi: Appear; Remain; Listen; Submit;
Obey; Return." He looked into the young magician's eyes as he finished, conscious
of his triumph. Their audience murmured their approval. His master now wore an
unconcealed grin; the clammy man raised his eyebrows; and the old man made a
wry face, quietly mouthing, "Bravo." But his interrogator just shrugged dismissively,
as if the incident were of no account. He looked so supercilious that Nathaniel felt
his self-satisfaction turn into a fiery anger.
"Standards must have dropped," said the young man, taking a handkerchief
from his pocket and wiping at an imaginary spot on his sleeve, "if a backward ap-
prentice can be congratulated for spouting something we all learned at our mothers'
"You're just a sore loser," Nathaniel said.
There was a moment's hush. Then the young man barked a word, and Nathan-
iel felt something small and compact land heavily upon his shoulders. Invisible
hands clenched into his hair and jerked it backward with vicious strength, so that
his face stared at the ceiling, and he cried out with pain. He tried to raise his arms
but found them pinioned to his sides by a hideously muscular coil that wrapped it-
self around him like a giant tongue. He could see nothing except the ceiling; deli-
cate fingers tickled his exposed throat with horrible finesse. In panic, he cried out
for his master.
Someone came close, but it was not his master. It was the young man.
"You cocksure guttersnipe," the young man said softly. "What will you do
now? Can you get free? No. How surprising: you're helpless. You know a few
words, but you're capable of nothing. Perhaps this will teach you the dangers of in-
solence when you're too weak to fight back. Now, get out of my sight."
Something sniggered in his ear and with a kick of powerful legs removed itself
from Nathaniel's shoulders. At the same moment, his arms were freed. His head
drooped forward; tears welled from his eyes. They were caused by the injury to his
hair, but Nathaniel feared that they would seem the weeping of a cowardly boy. He
wiped them away with his cuff.
The room was still. All the magicians had dropped their conversations and
were staring at him. Nathaniel looked at his master, silently appealing for support
or aid, but Arthur Underwood's eyes were bright with rage—rage that appeared to
be directed at him. Nathaniel returned the look blankly, then he turned and walked
along the silent passage that parted for him across the room, reached the door,
opened it, and Walked through.
He shut the door carefully and quietly behind him.
White-faced and expressionless, he climbed the stairs.
On the way up he met Mrs. Underwood coming down.
"How did it go, dear?" she asked him. "Did you shine? Is anything wrong?"
Nathaniel could not look at her for grief and shame. He started to go past her
without answering, but at the last moment stopped short. "It was fine," he said.
"Tell me, do you know who the magician is with the little glasses and the wide,
Mrs. Underwood frowned. "That would be Simon Lovelace, I expect. The Jun-
ior Minister for Trade. He does have quite a set of gnashers, doesn't he? A rising
star, I'm told. Did you meet him?"
"Yes. I did."
You're capable of nothing.
"Are you sure you're all right? You look so pale."
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Underwood. I'll go up, now."
"Ms. Lutyens is waiting for you in the schoolroom."
"I'll go right along, Mrs. Underwood."
Nathaniel did not go to the schoolroom. With slow, steady tread, he made his
way to his master's workroom, where the dust on the dirty bottles gleamed in the
sunlight, obscuring their pickled contents.
Nathaniel walked along the pitted worktable, which was strewn with diagrams
that he had been working on the day before.
You're too weak to fight back.
He stopped and reached out for a small glass box, in which six objects buzzed
With slow, steady tread, Nathaniel crossed to a wall-cupboard and pulled at a
drawer. It was so warped that it stuck halfway, and he had to place the glass box
carefully on the work surface before wrenching it open with a couple of forceful
tugs. Inside the drawer, among a host of other tools, was a small steel hammer. Na-
thaniel took it out, picked up the box again, and, leaving the drawer hanging open,
left the sunny workroom.
He stood in the cool shadows of the landing, silently rehearsing the Words of
Direction and Control. In the glass box, the six mites tore back and forth with
added zest; the box vibrated in his hands.
You're capable of nothing.
The party was breaking up. The door opened, and the first few magicians
emerged in dribs and drabs. Mr. Underwood escorted them to the front door. Polite
words were exchanged, farewells said. None of them noticed the pale-faced boy
watching from beyond the stairs.
You had to say the name after the first three commands, but before the last. It
was not too difficult, provided you didn't trip over the quicker syllables. He ran it
through his head again. Yes, he had it down fine.
More magicians departed. Nathaniel's fingers were cold. There was a thin film
of sweat between them and the box they held.
The young magician and his two companions sauntered from the reception
room. They were talking animatedly, chuckling over a remark made by the one
with clammy skin. At a leisurely pace they approached Nathaniel's master, waiting
by the door.
Nathaniel gripped the hammer firmly.
He held the glass box out in front of him. It shook from within.
The old man was clasping Mr. Underwood's hand. The young magician was
next in line, looking out into the street as if eager to be gone.
In a loud voice Nathaniel spoke the first three commands, uttered the name of
Simon Lovelace, and followed it with the final word.
Then he smashed the box.
A brittle cracking, a frenzied droning. Glass splinters cascaded toward the car-
pet. The six mites burst from their prison and rocketed down the stairs, their eager
stings jutting forward.
The magicians barely had time to look up before the mites were upon them.
Three made a beeline for Simon Lovelace's face; raising his hand, he made a rapid
sign. Instantly, each mite erupted into a ball of flame and careered off at an angle to
explode against the wall. The three other mites disobeyed their command. Two
darted toward the clammy, doughy-faced magician; with a cry, he stumbled back,
tripped over the doorsill and fell out onto the garden path. The mites bobbed and
dived above him, seeking exposed flesh. His arms thrashed back and forth in front
of his face, but to no avail. Several successful jabs were made, each one accompa-
nied by a howl of agony. The sixth mite approached the old man at speed. He ap-
peared to do nothing, but when it was just inches from his face, the mite suddenly
pulled to a halt and reversed frantically, cartwheeling in midair. It spun out of con-
trol and landed near Simon Lovelace, who trod it into the carpet.
Arthur Underwood had been watching this in horror; now he pulled himself
together. He stepped over the threshold to where his guest was writhing in the
flower bed and clapped his hands sharply. The two vengeful mites dropped to the
around as if stunned.
At this point Nathaniel thought to make a judicious retreat.
He slipped away to the schoolroom, where Ms. Lutyens was sitting by the ta-
ble reading a magazine. She smiled as he entered.
"How did you get on? Sounds like a boisterous party for this time of day. I'm
sure I heard someone's glass smashing."
Nathaniel said nothing. In his mind's eye he saw the three mites exploding
harmlessly into the wall. He began to shake—whether from fear or disappointed
rage, he did not know.
Ms. Lutyens was on her feet in a trice. "Nathaniel, come here. What's the mat-
ter? You look ill! You're shaking!" She put her arm around him and let his head rest
gently against her side. He closed his eyes. His face was on fire; he felt cold and hot
all at the same time. She was still talking to him, but he could not answer her....
At that moment the schoolroom door blew open.
Simon Lovelace stood there, his glasses flashing in the light from the window.
He issued a command; Nathaniel was ripped bodily from Ms. Lutyens's grasp and
carried through the air. For a moment, he hung suspended midway between ceiling
and floor, time enough to catch a glimpse of the other two magicians crowding in
behind their leader, and also, relegated to the back almost out of sight, his master.
Nathaniel heard Ms. Lutyens shouting something, but then he was upended,
the blood rushed to his ears, and everything else was drowned out.
He hung with his head, arms, and legs dangling toward the carpet and his bot-
tom aloft. Then an invisible hand, or an invisible stick, struck him on his rump. He
yelled, wriggled, kicked in all directions. The hand descended again, harder than be-
fore. And then again....
Long before the tireless hand ceased its work, Nathaniel stopped kicking. He
hung limply, aware only of the stinging pain and the ignominy of his punishment.
The fact that Ms. Lutyens was witness to it made it far more brutal than he could
bear. Fervently he wished he were dead. And when at last a darkness welled up and
began to carry him away, he welcomed it with all his heart.
The hands released him, but he was already unconscious before he hit the
Nathaniel was confined to his room for a month and subjected to a great num-
ber of further punishments and deprivations. After the initial series of penalties, his
master chose not to speak to him, and contact with everyone else—with the ex-
ception of Mrs. Underwood, who brought him his meals and dealt with his cham-
ber pot—ceased forthwith. Nathaniel had no lessons and was allowed no books. He
sat in his room from dawn until dusk looking out across the roofscapes of London
toward the distant Houses of Parliament.
Such solitude might have driven him mad had he not discovered a discarded
ballpoint pen under his bed. With this and a few old sheets of paper he managed to
wile away some of the time with a series of sketches of the world beyond the win-
dow. When these became tedious, Nathaniel devoted himself instead to compiling
a large number of minutely detailed lists and notes, drawn over his sketches, which
he concealed under his mattress whenever he heard footsteps on the stair. These
notes contained the beginnings of his revenge.
To Nathaniel's great distress, Mrs. Underwood had been forbidden to talk to
him. Although he detected some sympathy in her manner, her silence gave him
cold comfort. He withdrew into himself and did not speak when she entered.
It was thus only when his month's isolation came to an end and his lessons
started up once more that he discovered that Ms. Lutyens had been dismissed.
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