It was a slow day, so I was reading a book at my desk and seeing into the future.
There were only two customers in the shop. One was a student with scraggly hair and a nervous way of glancing over his shoulder. He was standing by the herb and powder rack and had decided what to buy ten minutes ago but was still working up the nerve to ask me about it. The other customer was a kid wearing a Linkin Park T–shirt who’d picked out a crystal ball but wasn’t going to bring it to the counter until the other guy had left.
The kid had come on a bicycle, and in fifteen minutes a traffic warden was going to come by and ticket him for locking his bike to the railings. After that I was going to get a call I didn’t want to be disturbed for, so I set my paperback down on my desk and looked at the student. “Anything I can help you with?”
He started and came over, glancing back at the kid and dropping his voice slightly. “Um, hey. Do you—”
“No. I don’t sell spellbooks.”
“Is there, um, any way I could check?”
“The spell you’re thinking of isn’t going to do any harm. Just try it and then go talk to the girl and see what happens.”
The student stared at me. “You knew that just from these?”
I hadn’t even been paying attention to the herbs in his hand, but that was as good an explanation as any. “Want a bag?”
He put verbena, myrrh, and incense into the bag I gave him and paid for it while still giving me an awestruck look, then left. As soon as the door swung shut, the other kid came over and asked me the price for the second–biggest crystal ball, trying to sound casual. I didn’t bother checking to see what he was going to use it for—about the only way you can hurt yourself with a crystal ball is by hitting yourself over the head with it, which is more than I can say for some of the things I sell. Once the kid had let himself out, hefting his paper bag, I got up, walked over, and flipped the sign on the door from OPEN to CLOSED. Through the window, I saw the kid unlock his bike and ride off. About thirty seconds later a traffic warden walked by.
My shop’s in a district in the north centre of London called Camden Town. There’s a spot where the canal, three bridges, and two railway lines all meet and tangle together in a kind of urban reef knot, and my street is right in the middle. The bridges and the canal do a good job of fencing the area in, making it into a kind of oasis in the middle of the city. Apart from the trains, it’s surprisingly quiet. I like to go up onto the roof sometimes and look around over the canal and the funny–shaped rooftops. Sometimes in the evenings and early mornings, when the traffic’s muted and the light’s faded, it feels almost like a gateway to another world.
The sign above my door says Arcana Emporium. Underneath is a smaller sign with some of the things I sell—implements, reagents, focus items, that sort of thing. You’d think it would be easier to just say magic shop, but I got sick of the endless stream of people asking for breakaway hoops and marked cards. Finally I worked out a deal with a stage magic store a half a mile away, and now I keep a box of their business cards on the counter to hand out to anyone who comes in asking for the latest book by David Blaine. The kids go away happy, and I get some peace and quiet.
My name’s Alex Verus. It’s not the name I was born with, but that’s another story. I’m a mage; a diviner. Some people call mages like me oracles, or seers, or probability mages if they want to be really wordy, and that’s fine too, just as long as they don’t call me a “fortune–teller.” I’m not the only mage in the country, but as far as I know I’m the only one who runs a shop.
Mages like me aren’t common, but we aren’t as rare as you might think either. We look the same as anyone else, and if you passed one of us on the street, odds are you’d never know it. Only if you were very observant would you notice something a little off, a little strange, and by the time you took another look, we’d be gone. It’s another world, hidden within your own, and most of those who live in it don’t like visitors.
Those of us who do like visitors have to advertise, and it’s tricky to find a way of doing it that doesn’t make you sound crazy. The majority rely on word of mouth, though younger mages use the Internet. I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under “Wizard,” though that’s probably an urban legend. Me, I have my shop. Wiccans and pagans and New Agers are common enough nowadays that people accept the idea of a magic shop, or at least they understand that the weirdos have to buy their stuff from somewhere. Of course, they take for granted that it’s all a con and that the stuff in my shop is no more magical than an old pair of socks, and for the most part they’re right. But the stuff in my shop that isn’t magical is good camouflage for the stuff that is, like the thing sitting upstairs in a little blue lacquered cylinder that can grant any five wishes you ask. If that ever got out, I’d have much worse problems than the occasional snigger.
The futures had settled and the phone was going to ring in about thirty seconds. I settled down comfortably and, when the phone rang, let it go twice before picking up. “Hey.”
“Hi, Alex,” Luna’s voice said into my ear. “Are you busy?”
“Not even a little. How’s it going?”
“Can I ask a favour? I was going through a place in Clapham and found something. Can I bring it over?”
“That’s not a problem, is it?”
“Not really. Is there a rush?”
“No. Well . . .” Luna hesitated. “This thing makes me a bit nervous. I’d feel better if it was with you.”
I didn’t even have to think about it. Like I said, it was a slow day. “You remember the way to the park?”
“The one near your shop?”
“I’ll meet you there. Where are you?”
“Still in Clapham. I’m just about to get on my bike.”
“So one and a half hours. You can make it before sunset if you hurry.”
“I think I am going to hurry. I’m not sure . . .” Luna’s voice trailed off, then firmed. “Okay. See you soon.”
She broke the connection. I held the phone in my hand, looking at the display. Luna works for me on a part–time basis, finding items for me to sell, though I don’t think she does it for the money. Either way, I couldn’t remember her being this nervous about one. It made me wonder exactly what she was carrying.
You can think of magical talent as a pyramid. Making up the lowest and biggest layer are the normals. If magic is colours, these are the people born colourblind: they don’t know anything about magic and they don’t want to, thank you very much. They’ve got plenty of things to deal with already, and if they do see anything that might shake the way they look at things, they convince themselves they didn’t see it double quick. This is maybe ninety percent of the adult civilised world.
Next up on the pyramid are the sensitives, the ones who aren’t colour–blind. Sensitives are blessed (or cursed, depending how you look at it) with a wider spectrum of vision than normals. They can feel the presence of magic, the distant power in the sun and the earth and the stars, the warmth and stability of an old family home, the lingering wisps of death and horror at a Dark ritual site. Most often they don’t have the words to describe what they feel, but two sensitives can recognise each other by a kind of empathy, and it makes a powerful bond. Have you ever felt a connection to someone, as though you shared something even though you didn’t know what it was? It’s like that.
Above the sensitives on the magical pecking order are the adepts. These guys are only one percent or so, but unlike sensitives they can actually channel magic in a subtle way. Often it’s so subtle they don’t even know they’re doing it; they might be “lucky” at cards, or very good at “guessing” what’s on another person’s mind, but it’s mild enough that they just think they’re born lucky or perceptive. But sometimes they figure out what they’re doing and start developing it, and some of these guys can get pretty impressive within their specific field.
And then there are the mages.
Luna’s somewhere between sensitive and adept. It’s hard even for me to know which, as she has some . . . unique characteristics that make her difficult to categorise, not to mention dangerous. But she’s also one of my very few friends, and I was looking forward to seeing her. Her tone of voice had left me concerned so I looked into the future and was glad to see she was going to arrive in an hour and a half, right on time.
In the process, though, I noticed something that annoyed me: someone else was going to come through the door in a couple of minutes, despite the fact I’d just flipped my sign to say CLOSED. Camden gets a lot of tourists, and there’s always the one guy who figures opening hours don’t apply to him. I didn’t want to walk all the way over and lock the door, so I just sat watching the street grumpily until a figure appeared outside the door and pushed it open. It was a man wearing pressed trousers and a shirt with a tie. The bell above the door rang musically as he stepped inside and raised his eyebrows. “Hello, Alex.”
As soon as he spoke I recognised who it was. A rush of adrenaline went through me as I spread my senses out to cover the shop and the street outside. My right hand shifted down a few inches to rest on the shelf under my desk. I couldn’t sense any attack, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
Lyle just stood there, looking at me. “Well?” he said. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
It had been more than four years since I’d seen Lyle, but he looked the same as I remembered. He was about as old as me, with a slim build, short black hair, and a slight olive tint to his skin that hinted at a Mediterranean ancestor somewhere in his family tree. His clothes were expensive and he wore them with a sort of casual elegance I knew I’d never be able to match. Lyle had always known how to look good.
“Who else is here?” I said.
Lyle sighed. “No one. Good grief, Alex, have you really gotten this paranoid?”
I checked and rechecked and confirmed what he was saying. As far as I could tell, Lyle was the only other mage nearby. Besides, as my heartbeat began to slow, I realised that if the Council was planning an attack, Lyle was the last person they’d send. Suddenly I did feel paranoid.
Of course, that didn’t mean I was happy to see him or anything. Lyle began walking forward, and I spoke sharply. “Stay there.”
Lyle stopped and looked quizzically at me. “So?” he said, when I didn’t react. He was standing in the middle of my shop, in between the reagents and the shelves full of candles and bells. “Are we going to stand and stare at each other?”
“How about you tell me why you’re here?”
“I was hoping for a more comfortable place to talk.” Lyle tilted his head. “What about upstairs?”
“Were you about to eat?”
I pushed my chair back and rose to my feet. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Once we were outside I breathed a little easier. There’s a roped–off section to one side of my shop that contains actual magic items: focuses, residuals, and one–shots. They’d been out of sight from where Lyle had been standing, but a few more steps and he couldn’t have missed them. None were powerful enough to make him think twice, but it wouldn’t take him long to put two and two together and figure out that if I had that many minor items, then I ought to have some major ones too. And I’d just as soon that particular bit of information didn’t get back to the Council.
It was late spring and the London weather was mild enough to make walking a pleasure rather than a chore. Camden’s always busy, even when the market’s closed, but the buildings and bridges here have a dampening effect on stray sounds. I led Lyle down an alley to the canalside walk, and then stopped, leaning against the balustrade. As I walked I scanned the area thoroughly, both present and future, but came up empty. As far as I could tell, Lyle was on his own.
I’ve known Lyle for more than ten years. He was an apprentice when we first met, awkward and eager, hurrying along in the footsteps of his Council master. Even then there was never any question but that he’d try for the Council, but we were friends, if not close. At least for a little while. Then I had my falling–out with Richard Drakh.
I don’t really like to think about what happened in the year after that. There are some things so horrible you never really get over them; they make a kind of burnt–out wasteland in your memory, and all you can do is try to move on. Lyle wasn’t directly responsible for the things that happened to me and the others in Richard’s mansion, but he’d had a pretty good idea of what was going on, just like the rest of the Council. At least, they would have had a good idea if they’d allowed themselves to think about it. Instead they avoided the subject and waited for me to do the convenient thing and vanish.
Lyle’s not my friend anymore.
Now he was standing next to me, brushing off the balustrade before leaning on it, making sure none of the dirt got on his jacket. The walkway ran alongside the canal, following the curve of the canal out of sight. The water was dark and broken by choppy waves. It was an overcast day, the sunlight shining only dimly through the grey cloud.
“Well,” Lyle said eventually, “if you don’t want to chat, shall we get down to business?”
“I don’t think we’ve got much to chat about, do you?”
“The Council would like to employ your services.”
I blinked at that. “You’re here officially?”
“Not exactly. There was some . . . disagreement on how best to proceed. The Council couldn’t come to a full agreement—”
“The Council can’t come to a full agreement on when to have dinner.”
“—on the best course of action,” Lyle finished smoothly. “Consulting a diviner was considered as an interim measure.”
“Consulting a diviner?” I asked, suddenly suspicious. The Council and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms. “Me specifically?”
“As you know, the Council rarely requests—”
“What about Alaundo? I thought he was their go–to guy when they wanted a seer.”
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss closed Council proceedings.”
“Once you start going door to door, it isn’t closed proceedings anymore, is it? Come on, Lyle. I’m sure as hell not going to agree to anything unless I know why you’re here.”
Lyle blew out an irritated breath. “Master Alaundo is currently on extended research.”
“So he turned you down? What about Helikaon?”
“He’s otherwise occupied.”
“And that guy from the Netherlands? Dutch Jake or whatever he was called. I’m pretty sure he did divination work for—”
“Alex,” Lyle said. “Don’t run through every diviner in the British Isles. I know the list as well as you do.”
I grinned. “I’m the only one you can find, aren’t I? That’s why you’re coming here.” My eyes narrowed. “And the Council doesn’t even know. They wouldn’t have agreed to trust me with official business.”
“I don’t appreciate threats,” Lyle said stiffly. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use your abilities for these matters.”
“You think I needed magic to figure that out?” Annoying Lyle was satisfying, but I knew it was risky to push him too far. “Okay. So what does the Council want so badly you’re willing to risk coming to me?”
Lyle took a moment to straighten his tie. “I assume you’re aware of the Arrancar ruling?”
I looked at him blankly.
“It’s been common knowledge for months.”
“Common knowledge to whom?”
Lyle let out an irritated breath. “As a consequence of the Arrancar conclave, mages are required to report all significant archaeological discoveries of arcana to the Council. Recently, a new discovery was reported—”
“—and subjected to a preliminary investigation. The investigation team have concluded quite definitely that it’s a Precursor relic.”
I looked up at that. “Functional?”
“They weren’t able to determine.”
“It’s sealed? I’m surprised they didn’t just force it.”
“Oh,” I said, catching on. “They did try to force it. What happened?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential.”
“A ward? Guardian?”
“In any case, a new investigation team is being formed. It was . . . considered necessary for them to have access to the abilities of a diviner.”
“And you want me on the team?”
“Not exactly.” Lyle paused. “You’ll be an independent agent, reporting to me. I’ll pass on your recommendations to the investigators.”
I frowned. “What?”
Lyle cleared his throat. “Unfortunately it wouldn’t be feasible for you to join the team directly. The Council wouldn’t be able to clear you. But if you accept, I can promise I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
I turned away from Lyle, looking out over the canal. The rumble of an engine echoed around the brick walls from downstream, and a barge came into view, chugging along. It was painted yellow and red. The man at the tiller didn’t give us a glance as he passed. Lyle stayed quiet as the barge went by and disappeared around the bend of the canal. A breeze blew along the pathway, ruffling my hair.
I still didn’t speak. Lyle coughed. A pair of seagulls flew overhead, after the barge, calling with loud, discordant voices: arrrh, arrrh. “Alex?” Lyle asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “Not interested.”
“If it’s a question of money . . .”
“No, I just don’t like the deal.”
“Because it stinks.”
“Look, you have to be realistic. There’s no way the Council would give you clearance to—”
“If the Council doesn’t want to give me clearance, you shouldn’t be coming to me in the first place.” I turned to look at Lyle. “What’s your idea, they need the information badly enough that they won’t care about where you’re getting it? I think sooner or later they’d start asking questions, and you’d cut me loose to avoid the flak. I’m not interested in being your fall guy.”
Lyle blew out a breath. “Why are you being so irrational about this? I’m giving you a chance to get back in the Council’s favour.” He glanced around at the concrete and grey skies. “Given the alternative . . .”
“Well, since you bring it up, it just so happens that I’m not especially interested in getting back in the Council’s favour.”
“That’s ridiculous. The Council represents all of the mages in the country.”
“Yeah, all the mages. That’s the problem.”
“This is about that business with Drakh, isn’t it?” Lyle said. He rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Alex, it was ten years ago. Get over it.”
“It doesn’t matter when it was,” I said tightly. “The Council haven’t gotten better. They’ve gotten worse.”
“We’ve had ten years of peace. That’s your idea of ’worse’?”
“The reason you’ve had peace is because you and the Council let the Dark mages do whatever they want.” I glared at Lyle. “You know what they do to the people in their power. Why don’t you ask them how good a deal they think it is?”
“We’re not starting another war, Alex. The Council isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the mages that are a part of it, Light or Dark. You’re just going to have to accept that.”
I took a breath and looked out over the canal, listening to the distant cries of the seagulls. When I spoke again my voice was steady. “The answer’s no. Find someone else.”
Lyle made a disgusted noise. “I should have known.” He stepped away and gave me a look. “You’re living in the past. Grow up.”
I watched Lyle walk off. He didn’t look back. Once he’d disappeared around the corner I turned back to the canal.