Authors: Benedict Jacka
The guy with the grenade let it cook for two seconds after pulling the pin, and the other guy covered the doorway with his gun. Probably would have worked against anyone with normal reflexes. But one of the early tricks I learned with divination was how to apply it to thrown items. I can pick up an object and hit a target first time, every time, with only a second or so to aim – all I have to do is pick out the future in which I get the shot right. It takes a little work to synchronise the divination with your muscle memory, but once you do, it’s not hard to adapt it to other uses. Such as throwing stuff back.
I brought my palm around in an open-handed slap as the grenade came flying in, and batted it back down the stairs. There was the bang of a shot, but I already knew it was going to miss. I dropped flat instantly and felt the floor vibrate in the
of the explosion from below. I shook my head, trying to clear the ringing in my ears.
became a writer almost by accident, when at nineteen he sat in his school library and started a story in the back of an exercise book. Since then he has studied philosophy at Cambridge, lived in China and worked as everything from civil servant to bouncer to teacher before returning to London to take up law.
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Alex Verus novels
Published by Orbit
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Benedict Jacka
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Copyright © 2016 by Jordanna Max Brodsky
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
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The call came just before seven.
It was a Saturday evening in December. I’d closed late; it was the last weekend before Christmas, and the shop had been packed all day. It was past six when I finally shooed out the last customers, shut and locked the door and turned off the lights before heading upstairs. Hermes had snuck in again, and was lying curled up on my armchair, the white tip of his bushy tail tucked in around his nose. I dropped on to the sofa with a yawn and started going through my emails.
My eyelids were drifting closed when the communicator chimed. I’d been so drowsy I’d barely even seen it coming. Hermes opened one amber eye and watched as I pulled myself to my feet, took out the blue-purple disc from my drawer and activated it. A miniature holographic figure in blue light materialised on top of the disc. ‘Hey, Talisid,’ I said, setting the disc down on my desk. ‘What’s up?’
‘Are you alone?’
‘There’s no good way to tell you this,’ Talisid said. ‘Levistus has sentenced you to death. You’re to be executed in one week.’
Hermes lifted his head. He shifted position slightly as he did so, black forepaws stretching straight out, white neck and chest exposed as he looked at me and the image of Talisid. With his colouring, he looked exactly like a larger-than-average English red fox. Blink foxes don’t have any visible traits that set them apart from mundane foxes; only the look in the eyes gave any hint that—
‘Alex?’ Talisid said. ‘Did you hear me?’
I’d been staring at Hermes. I’d heard Talisid’s words, but they weren’t registering. ‘Yeah,’ I said. I found myself looking at the fur on Hermes’ back and tail, watching the hairs move and shift. ‘What?’
‘I can’t talk long,’ Talisid said. ‘There was a closed Council session. The resolution goes into effect one week from today at 6 p.m. Once it does, you’ll be an outlaw. Your property can be seized and any mage or Council representative of the British Isles can take hostile action against you with no legal repercussions.’
‘Yes. There’s more. The resolution also applies to your dependents. That means all three of the rest of your team. Luna Mancuso, Anne Walker, Variam Singh. Their names are listed with yours.’
I stared at Talisid.
Talisid looked behind him at something out of view. ‘I have to go. I’ll call in an hour or two and we’ll decide what to do. There may be some way around this.’
‘We’ll speak soon.’ Talisid’s image winked out.
I found myself alone in the room with Hermes. I walked away from the desk and dropped back on to the sofa in the same spot I’d been sitting in. It was still warm. The call had taken less than sixty seconds.
I felt stunned, disconnected. None of this seemed real. Earlier in the year, I’d become a Keeper auxiliary, and in the months since, I’d spent more and more time working with them, taking on new cases almost every week. I’d thought that things had been going better with the Council, not worse. Now – this. I tried to think, work out how this could have happened so fast, but my thoughts kept slipping away. I reached for my phone and touched the number of a contact. It rang five times before it was picked up. ‘Hey, Alex.’
‘Luna,’ I said. ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I gave her the news in a few short sentences.
Once I’d finished, there was a pause. ‘Oh, shit,’ Luna said at last.
‘Have we got a plan?’
‘Not over the phone.’
‘Okay. What should I do?’
‘Get Anne,’ I said. ‘Get Vari.’
‘Got it.’ Luna hung up.
I set the phone down and looked at it. The flat was quiet; the only noise was the sound of the city outside. An aeroplane was passing by far above, the sound drifting down through the Camden streets.
Luna had asked if I had a plan. I didn’t.
There was a thump as Hermes jumped to the floor. I turned to see him trot across the carpet to where my hand was dangling off the edge of the sofa. He sniffed my fingers and looked up at me, amber eyes alert and questioning.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, forcing a smile. ‘We’ll figure something out.’
Hermes sat back on his hind legs. I looked over him towards the window and to the night sky beyond.
When Luna sets her mind to something, she doesn’t hang around. The gang started arriving within the hour.
Variam showed up first. I felt the signature of the gate spell from the storeroom on the ground floor, followed by the sound of Variam bounding up the stairs two at a time. He came striding through the door, wide awake and quick. ‘Luna told me,’ he said. ‘It’s true? Levistus?’
‘Let’s wait until everyone’s here.’
Variam nodded, probably assuming that I was doing it that way because it was more efficient. ‘Were you at a ceremony?’ I asked.
‘Sort of,’ Variam said. He was wearing his black turban and the dark red formal robes that Arachne had made for him last year. They were the dark red of glowing coals, the colour chosen to set off his brown skin. It was hard to be sure, but the robes looked less baggy on him than they had been. Variam’s small, but ever since starting his apprenticeship with Landis he’d been putting on muscle. ‘Was a drinks thing.’
‘Landis okay with you leaving?’
‘Yeah, but he’s going to want an explanation when I get back.’
I was spared from having to reply to that by the signature of another gate spell. We both looked towards the door as Luna walked in. ‘Anne’s on her way,’ she said.
‘I think she had someone with her,’ Luna said. She was wearing a pale close-fitting top and dark leggings, and her hair was up in a ponytail, slightly matted with sweat; she must have come from the gym without stopping to change. ‘But she got the message.’
‘You were out duelling?’ Variam asked.
‘Some of us don’t get to go to fancy parties.’
‘Excuse me?’ Variam said, obviously annoyed. ‘I
if you wanted to come.’
‘Yeah, how did you think that was going to play out, again?’
‘Well, sorry for trying to—’
‘Jesus!’ I said. ‘You two are literally under sentence of death and you’re
doing this? Really?’
Luna and Variam shut up, looking away. We waited in silence.
Anne arrived just before eight. She climbed the stairs more slowly than Luna and Variam had, and she paused in the doorway, looking between me and Luna and Variam. ‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ she said in her soft voice.
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘Take a seat.’
‘Ah…’ Anne hesitated. ‘There’s something I should probably tell you first.’
‘What is it?’
‘I asked someone else to come.’ Anne said. She didn’t look comfortable. ‘I hope that’s okay.’
‘What?’ Variam said. ‘Who?’
‘He’s downstairs,’ Anne said. ‘Outside the shop.’ She looked at me, obviously waiting for my response.
I looked ahead through the futures, picking out the one in which I rose and left the room. I followed my future self downstairs and through the shop, watching as he opened the door and looked out into the street to see—
I snapped back to the present and watched the future vanish. I stared at Anne. ‘Him?’
‘He was there when I got the call,’ Anne said defensively.
And what the hell was he doing at your place?
I didn’t ask. Luna looked at Anne. ‘Who are you guys talking about?
‘You know how things ended last time,’ I told Anne. ‘Why is he even here?’
‘Probably because of me,’ Anne said. She looked straight at me. ‘I know you two have had problems, but we need the help.’
I looked away. Variam looked between the two of us. ‘Okay, are you two going to spit out the name any time soon? Because this is getting old.’
‘Fine.’ I got to my feet and walked downstairs, following the path that my future self had taken a minute ago.
The shop floor was dark and I switched on the light, the glow bathing the room. Yellow-white light glimmered back at me, refracted through crystal balls and glinting off the steel of the knives and ritual daggers laid out on the far table. I unlocked the shop door and opened it. Cold air rushed in, dry and near-freezing and carrying the scent of winter.
The boy – young man, really – was standing out on the pavement, his breath making white puffs in the air. He wore a thick coat and his black hair was peeking out from under a woollen cap. No glasses this time; he’d apparently lost them since I’d last seen him. We looked at each other.
‘Sonder,’ I said.
‘Hi,’ Sonder said.
There was a pause. ‘It’s kind of cold,’ Sonder said. ‘Can I come in?’
I thought about it for just long enough to make it clear that I was thinking about it, then stepped aside. Sonder entered and I shut the door behind him. The sounds of the street faded and we were alone in the shop.
‘Okay,’ I said, turning to Sonder. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I know what Anne told you. Are you here to help Anne, or the rest of us?’
Sonder hesitated. I saw the futures shift between possible answers, then die away, and I knew I wasn’t going to get a reply. ‘The guy behind this is Levistus,’ I said. ‘You understand what you’re risking, getting involved with us?’
Sonder frowned slightly. ‘I’m not an idiot.’
I sighed slightly. ‘Come on up.’ No one else was coming. I just wished I knew whether adding Sonder would make things better or worse.
Variam and Luna didn’t react when I led Sonder into the living room – Anne had obviously broken the news to them while I’d been downstairs. Neither Luna nor Variam looked one hundred per cent enthusiastic – Variam had never liked Sonder all that much, and while Luna and Sonder had been sort-of-friends in the early months of Luna’s apprenticeship, they’d never been close. With hindsight, that friendship had probably been more on Sonder’s part than on Luna’s. Luna’s early contacts in magical society had been few and far between, and to begin with having a mage her age who actually treated her well had probably been a nice change, but as she’d started to get to know people on her own initiative she’d drifted away. Sonder had wanted to stay friends – actually, more than friends – and Luna had given him a fairly definite rejection. I still didn’t know how well Sonder had taken that.