The tenth novel in the urban fantasy series which began with Fated – the Alex Verus novels are magic-filled fan favourites, perfect for readers of Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch
‘You don’t have to do this,’ Anne said.
We were in Canonbury, one of the districts within Islington. It’s one of London’s upmarket areas – not on the level of Westminster or Chelsea, but a long way from cheap. London has a lot of places like Canonbury, old expensive terraced houses crammed into winding tree-lined streets, with small parks in between where people walk their dogs. For the most part, mages don’t visit them. It’s true that mages are more common in cities, but there are close to ten million people in London, and that’s enough to dilute the mage population pretty heavily, even if they wanted to spread out, which they don’t. So they cluster, and the areas in between fall off their radar, to the point where the average mage knows about as much about the residents of Canonbury as the average resident of Canonbury knows about mages. It’s symmetrical, I suppose.
Right now we were standing under a sycamore tree, looking across the street towards a house on the other side. It was a July evening, with the sun setting behind the rooftops, and the air was still and warm. From around us, voices and chatter drifted up, the sounds of traffic coming from the main roads nearby. Anne had led me here by a roundabout route, taking a path down an old canal lined with benches and willow trees. It had been a pretty walk and I’d enjoyed it, but I had the feeling it had been a delaying tactic.
‘Neither do you,’ I told her.
‘Yes I do,’ Anne said. ‘You don’t have to.’
‘Would you really prefer to go in on your own?’ I asked. ‘Anyway, look on the bright side. You’re not going on trial this time.’
‘That’s what you think.’ Anne thought for a minute. ‘How long will we have?’
‘Until we get the go signal?’ I asked. ‘Call it about a twenty per cent chance for the next hour, forty per cent for one to two hours, twenty per cent for later and twenty for never.’
‘So that’s a forty per cent chance of being stuck here all night.’
I leant in and kissed the side of Anne’s head. ‘Come on. Are we really going to come this far, then turn around and leave?’
Anne sighed. ‘I suppose not.’
We crossed the street and walked up the steps to the house. It was on the large side for a terrace, with bay windows. Anne rang the bell and as we stood waiting, we heard footsteps approaching from the other side.
The door swung open, light and noise spilling out into the summer evening. From down the hallway I could hear the sound of chatter and raised voices. The woman who’d opened the door was in her fifties with greying hair, and wore an evening dress and a pearl necklace. ‘Oh good, you’re here. We were starting to think you wouldn’t make it. Alex, wasn’t it? Do come in. Anne, the coats are going in the hall.’
* * *
I sat at the dinner table and felt out of place.
There were seven others in the dining room. The woman who’d greeted us was sitting at the head of the table, presiding over the meal. At her right side was her husband, a thin, melancholy-looking man currently focused on drinking his soup. Occupants three through six were the two daughters and their partners. Number seven was Anne.
‘. . . just can’t understand how anyone like that can get elected,’ the younger daughter was saying. ‘I mean . . . no? Just no?’
‘Well, it’s lack of education, isn’t it?’ the boy who’d come with her said. ‘The funny thing is that they’re voting against their own interests. You’d think they’d be able to see . . .’
It was odd to think that this was the house that Anne had grown up in. Well, one of them. According to Anne, when she’d first been placed with the family, it had been in Finchley – they’d moved to Canonbury when she was twelve so that the elder daughter, Elizabeth, could go to a better school. That had been fourteen years ago, and apparently they’d been living here ever since.
I looked around at the dining room. Most of the walls were taken up with shelves, with plates and bowls mounted upon them, well spaced. There were several chests of drawers, all covered with white lace tablecloths. Despite its size, the room felt cramped. It didn’t really feel like a room for living in, one where you could stretch out and put your feet up: it was a display room, every piece of glass and china arranged for effect. A partition led into the living room, and a door at the side opened into a hallway containing the stairs and the entrance to the kitchen.
The older boyfriend was talking now. He was English, with short brown hair and narrow glasses, and looked to be a good five to ten years older than his fiancée. ‘. . . real problem is that people aren’t listening enough to experts,’ he was saying. ‘Instead they’re being influenced by private elements in the media. All these billionaires who can just manufacture fake stories. I mean, we try to do the best we can to provide a more balanced view, but . . .’
‘It must be very difficult,’ the mother said sympathetically. Her husband sipped his soup.
Anne and I had been a couple for a year now. I’d suggested meeting her family more than once, but Anne had put it off, and now that I was here it wasn’t hard to see why. My time on the Council had gotten me into the habit of paying attention to social hierarchies, and on reflex I’d found myself analysing the other people around the table. The mother was the head of the household, and both the elder daughter, Elizabeth, and her fiancé, Johnathan, apparently had her approval. Elizabeth wore an engagement ring with a large diamond, positioned prominently. Neither the mother nor Johnathan wanted me here. In the case of Johnathan, the reason wasn’t hard to guess: he considered himself the alpha male of the group and I was an intruder. The mother’s issues were less obvious, and I suspected they were something deeper, something involving Anne.
The younger sister apparently held less favour in her mother’s eyes, judging by the choice of seating. Neither she nor her boyfriend had been paying attention to me so far, but I knew that when trouble started, it would come from her. As I formed the thought, I couldn’t help but smile. Trouble. What a dramatic way to put it.
‘Why don’t you ask Alex?’ the younger daughter said brightly.
Johnathan had been in mid-flow; the question caught him off-guard. ‘What?’
‘Well, you were just saying that the government ought to do more, weren’t you?’ the younger daughter said. According to Anne, her name was Grace. ‘Didn’t she say you work for the government?’
‘More or less,’ I agreed.
‘So what do you think the government should be doing to cut down on populism?’
‘Come now, Grace,’ the mother cut in smoothly. ‘We shouldn’t ask him to talk business at the dinner table.’
‘No, that’s fine,’ I said. ‘The first answer would be that it’s a loaded question.’
‘You’re assuming that populism’s a bad thing that needs to be stopped.’
I shrugged. ‘Most of the time, when someone says “populism” in that context, they mean “something that’s popular that I don’t like”. If they like it, they call it “democracy” or “representation”. It isn’t the government’s job to promote your opinion at the expense of everyone else.’
‘But come on, now,’ Johnathan broke in. ‘You have to admit that so many of our recent problems have been because the government hasn’t been stepping in.’
‘That’s one way to look at it.’
‘Don’t you agree?’
‘Actually, the majority of my work these days revolves around solving problems originally caused by the people I work for.’
Johnathan paused; obviously the conversation wasn’t going the way he’d been expecting. The other people at the table had fallen silent, watching our back and forth. The only one who wasn’t looking at us was Anne.
Johnathan tried to rally. ‘I suppose the core of the problem is the recent trend of anti-intellectualism.’
‘Is that what you’d call it?’
‘So you think the issue is . . . what? That people don’t respect cleverness enough?’
‘Not just cleverness,’ Johnathan said. ‘Expertise, depth of knowledge. Wisdom, even. Instead they end up following people who promise them easy solutions.’
‘Well, there’s definitely some truth to that,’ I said. ‘I have to spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that the situation’s more complicated than establishment bad, rebels good. And there’s a real danger of getting demagogues in a situation like that. People are so focused on the establishment that they don’t notice that they’re being duped by the ones who are claiming to be on their side.’
There were several nods. Johnathan was about to speak, but I kept going. ‘But none of that really explains where the animosity towards the establishment came from. And it’s a mistake to chalk that up to anti-intellectualism. They don’t think that the people in charge are stupid or uninformed. They just don’t trust them. Big difference.’
‘So you’d say that the problem’s a lack of communication?’
‘You mean that the problem is that the government hasn’t done enough to get its message out?’
I nodded. ‘Then no.’
‘The people I’m dealing with think the establishment doesn’t care about them because, for the most part, the establishment doesn’t care about them. Stepping up the propaganda isn’t going to make much difference.’
‘It’s not propaganda.’
‘Whatever you call it, if you keep saying one thing and doing another, people eventually notice.’
Johnathan tried to think of something else to say. The mother cut in. ‘Which department did you say you worked for again?’
‘It’s usually security work.’
‘You mean you’re part of the police?’ Elizabeth said.
‘Not exactly,’ I said. ‘I can’t really go into details.’
‘Because if you told us, you’d have to kill us?’ the younger boyfriend said.
I smiled politely at the stale joke. There were several laughs. ‘Guess we’d better be careful what we say around you,’ the boy said. ‘Might be being recorded.’
‘You don’t need to be so melodramatic,’ Johnathan said. He was trying to keep his tone light but there was an edge to his voice. ‘He probably spends all his time sitting in meetings.’
‘A lot of my days are like that.’
‘Well, has everyone finished?’ the mother said. There was a murmur of agreement and she looked over. ‘Anne, I think it’s time to bring the dessert in.’
Anne nodded and rose to her feet. I didn’t look after her as she left; Johnathan’s last words had stirred up memories. Meetings . . .
* * *
The Keeper briefing room was ugly, peeling paint and cheap tables. The chairs were uncomfortable enough that most of the people in the room had chosen to stand, forming a loose circle. Blinds had been pulled down over the windows, and the only light was coming from the illuminated map at the centre of the room.
The map was a projection, three-dimensional and sculpted out of light, and it showed a section of landscape a little over a square mile in size, the hills rising almost to waist height and the valleys falling to the level of my knees. The bulk of the terrain was covered in trees; most of the rest was undergrowth or open field. There was only one building, low-slung with two long wings. From above, and at this scale, it looked quite small.
‘The Order of the Star’s current plan is to attack in a pincer,’ I said. As I spoke, I channelled through the focus: translucent blue arrows appeared on the map, sweeping down from east and west towards the mansion’s two wings. ‘They’ll gate as close as possible to the edge of the ward radius, then move in. Constructs will be on point, with security forces in the second wave and guarding the flanks. Primary objectives are here and here—’ Green dots appeared in the wings. ‘—with secondary objectives spread through the ground and first floors.’ Lighter green dots appeared as I spoke, covering the building. ‘The goal is to take the above-ground sections of the building in the initial surprise attack.’
‘Excellent!’ Landis said. Tall and lanky, he was half-leaning on one of the tables. ‘Wonderful thing, optimism. Might I enquire what the plan is should they fail to do so?’
I smiled slightly. ‘Director Nimbus didn’t feel it necessary to go into the details.’
There were various noises of displeasure from around the room. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong,’ one of the other Keepers said, ‘but I thought you were on the Junior Council.’
‘Doesn’t that mean you outrank Nimbus?’
‘Also correct,’ I said. ‘However, he demanded field command for this operation, which the Council granted. Director Nimbus also made the decision for the primary attack force to drawn from the Order of the Star, holding Shield Keepers in reserve. Which is the reason we’re here.’
‘Director Nimbus can’t find his own arse with both hands and a map,’ a third Keeper suggested.
‘Didn’t quite hear that,’ I said, and looked around the circle. ‘Opinions?’
The Keeper who’d pointed out my rank crouched down, studying the landscape thoughtfully. The light projection fuzzed around his legs. His name was Tobias, and he was a dark-haired man in his forties who, for reasons best known to himself, wore a large Stetson hat. ‘Don’t like it,’ he said.
‘Reasons?’ I asked.
Tobias pointed down at the landscape. ‘Too far from the entry point to the target, not enough cover. Easy crossfire.’
‘With surprise—’ another Keeper said.
‘One never wants to depend entirely on surprise,’ Landis said. ‘Drakh has unfortunately proven quite skilled at anticipating attacks in the past. Which regretfully leads me back to my earlier question as to the presence or otherwise of our backup plan. I do hope that we’re not it?’
‘Unfortunately, I rather suspect we are.’
Tobias nodded as if he’d been expecting it. ‘Of course,’ another Keeper said. ‘Wouldn’t be a job for the Order of the Shield otherwise, would it?’
‘Why don’t we just blow the place up?’ someone asked.
‘Because the objective isn’t to destroy the mansion,’ I said. ‘The Council want Richard Drakh, alive if possible. Secondary objective is to recover any strategic intelligence and imbued items within the building.’
‘For what it’s worth, I agree with you. However, the Council has decided that our operational objectives are to take the mansion intact.’
‘Lovely,’ Landis said, rubbing his hands together. ‘Any chance of backup?’
‘After a fashion,’ I said. I activated the focus, and a pair of aircraft appeared at head height above the mansion, circling lazily. They were small and sleek, grey-coloured with swept-back wings. ‘The Council has – reluctantly – exercised its influence. A flight of Panavia Tornados from the RAF, armed with Paveway guided bombs, will be on station when we launch the attack.’
‘Didn’t you say the Council wanted the place intact?’ Tobias asked.
‘I managed to convince them that the risk of the attack failing was high enough that it was worth preparing a backup plan,’ I said. ‘Needless to say, this option should be considered a last resort. It’ll be a pain in the neck for the Order of the Cloak to cover up, it’ll cause significant collateral damage, and most of all, from the Council’s point of view, it’ll mean we’ll have no idea whether Richard Drakh or any of his cabal are dead.’
‘I don’t think we need to bomb the place to know the answer to that,’ Tobias commented.
‘We have been telegraphing this attack for a pretty long time, yes,’ I said. ‘Still, those are our orders. Any other questions?’
I looked around the room. A couple of the Keepers shook their heads.
‘Then let’s get ready,’ I said. ‘We’ll be moving out in a little under one hour. Operation is scheduled to start at ten-oh-five.’
‘Into the bloody breach again,’ someone commented.
I smiled slightly. ‘Let’s hope it’s not as literal this time. Look on the bright side. In a couple of hours, this war might be over.’
‘And how exactly—?’
* * *
I snapped back to the present. Anne was standing next to me, holding a tray. ‘Would you like some?’
I stared for a second, then shook off the memory. ‘No. Thanks.’ The dessert was something white and creamy. I hadn’t noticed her bring it in.
‘. . . women’s healthcare is so bad in this country,’ Elizabeth was saying. ‘I had to wait nearly two hours for an appointment and I didn’t get a proper interview until I saw the doctor. It could have been an emergency and they wouldn’t have known . . .’
‘Johnathan?’ Anne asked, moving around.
‘Oh, I really shouldn’t.’
‘Come on, Johnathan,’ the mother said with a smile. ‘You can’t come all this way and not try some. I insist.’
‘Well, I’d love to, but . . . I hate to be a bother, but is it chilled? Anything lactose-based really sets off my allergies if it’s at room temperature.’
‘Oh, that’ll be fine,’ the mother said. ‘Anne will put some in the freezer and check on it every few minutes. Then you can have it once it’s cool.’
I looked at her in disbelief.
Anne caught my eye before I could say anything: she gave a tiny shake of her head and I held my tongue. Anne disappeared into the kitchen.
The rest of the people at the table were ignoring me now. The conversation had switched over to education and which schools were the best, and I wasn’t being included. I was fairly sure it was deliberate, but I had trouble making myself care. My thoughts kept wanting to go back to last October.
The raid on Richard’s mansion hadn’t been a disaster, but it hadn’t been a success either. The Council had ‘won’, in the sense that they’d been left in possession of a smoking pile of rubble. There had been a handful of prisoners who’d been outside the mansion when the bombs had hit, but as with the raid on the Tiger’s Palace, none had been mages. Richard hadn’t shown himself on the battlefield at all, and most of his forces had withdrawn through gates before the airstrike. I’d taken some flak for calling the strike, but not that much. It hadn’t been clear who was winning or losing prior to the pullback, but if the battle had played out, the Council forces would have taken significant losses. As things were, they’d lost very few.
All the same, the Council hadn’t been happy. They’d been hoping that the strike on Richard’s mansion would end the war, or at least shut down his operations. Instead, Richard had simply set up shop in a new base, and one that was sufficiently well-hidden that the Council had yet to track it down. The one plus from my point of view was that I’d gained a few converts among the Light ranks. The news had got out that I’d been the one to insist on having those Tornados standing by, and that had raised my popularity a bit. It hadn’t done anything to make the mages of the Council like me any more, but the security forces, and to a lesser degree the Keepers, had noticed. People whose jobs put them on the front lines pay attention to these things.
But regardless of my personal fortunes, in the larger scale, the attack had been a failure. To win the war, the Council needed to kill Richard, or force him to the negotiating table. They hadn’t done it in the three months between the Tiger’s Palace raid and the mansion attack, and they hadn’t done it in the nine months between the mansion attack and now.
‘. . . further away from London would be much cheaper, obviously,’ Elizabeth was saying. ‘But I don’t know . . .’
‘Yeah, that means you’d have to live with country people.’
‘Yes, not really our sort of company.’
Anne reappeared, carrying a serving of the dessert, and set it down in front of Johnathan. ‘What temperature is it?’ Johnathan asked.
‘It’s fairly cold,’ Anne said.
Johnathan tested it. ‘Ah, good.’
‘Will that be all right?’ the mother asked him.
‘Well, we live in hope, as they say! But it does look delicious.’
‘Oh, thank you,’ the mother said to him with a smile. ‘Anne, while we’re finishing up, could you do the dishes from the main course? That way the sink will be clear for the dessert plates.’
I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. ‘Did you send your servants home for the evening?’
The conversation at the table stopped as everyone turned to look at me. ‘Excuse me?’ the mother asked.
I could feel Anne’s eyes on me but I didn’t meet them. ‘Well, you know.’ I kept my voice pleasant. ‘I was wondering who handles the domestic duties when you don’t have guests over to do it.’
The father looked back and forth and hesitated, obviously wondering if he should be intervening. The daughters and their boyfriends watched warily. ‘I really don’t appreciate your tone,’ the mother said.
‘I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood.’ I rose to my feet. ‘Tell you what, since I’m not having dessert anyway, I’ll go help. I’m sure we won’t be too long.’
Without waiting for an answer, I turned and walked out into the hallway. The mother stared after us, but by the time she’d made up her mind about what to say, we were already gone.
* * *
Did you really have to do that? Anne asked.
We were in the kitchen washing up. The running of the tap made enough noise that it would have been hard to eavesdrop, but we weren’t talking out loud; we were using a dreamstone, a focus I own that allows for mind-to-mind conversation. It had other powers too, ones that were considerably more dangerous.
Anne and I had fallen into the habit of using the dreamstone whenever we were alone, and often when we weren’t. Anne’s my Council aide, and we’d spent most days over the past year in and out of the War Rooms or the other Council facilities around London. I have a lot of enemies in all of them, and when you work in a place like that, you learn to be careful about being overheard.
Have to, no, I said. Wanted to, yes.
Anne made a frustrated noise. Dreamstone communication is expressive; you get all the emotions that tone of voice can contain, along with a lot more. You didn’t have to insult them.
I took a plate from Anne to rinse. I didn’t insult them.
You were being rude.
Not half as rude as them. Seriously, chilled desserts? I have literally met Dark mages who treat their slaves more politely.
Anne gave a mental sigh. You know, after I’d been living in the Tiger’s Palace for a couple of weeks, I realised Jagadev was reminding me of her. I suppose that should have been a bad sign.
About Jagadev, or about her?
I’m not sure.
I finished with the plate, stacked it on the drying rack and took another. What the hell is that woman’s issue? I mean, I know she’s not your mother, but you’re still related, right?
Not closely, Anne said. First cousin once removed . . . I did tell you it was complicated.
That’s one way to put it.
You sound like Vari, Anne said. He always hated her.
So was this how you spent most of your childhood? I asked. Being the live-in maid?
Well, I sort of acted as a nurse some of the time too.
Beth had allergies, and Grace had some problems with a skin condition, so they needed someone to stay home.
So you were the nanny to a pair of spoilt teenage girls. How the hell did you put up with this?
It was that or the foster system. I didn’t exactly have much choice.
We washed a few more plates in silence. I’m sorry, Anne said at last. I wanted you to have a good evening. Instead you’re spending it like this.
Trust me, I’d much rather be washing dishes with you than sitting at the table with them.
Anne smiled. I was just thinking about how the Council would react if they could see us.
They’d probably wonder what this strange new magical ritual is that involves plates and a sink full of water.
Anne laughed out loud at that one. We kept working in comfortable silence.
As we worked, I flipped idly through the futures, looking to see if anything caught my eye. It’s rare for me not to use my precognition these days: there are very few places where I feel safe enough to relax, and this wasn’t one of them. A shift drew my attention and I looked more closely. Huh.
What is it?
Your sixty per cent chance just came in.
Anne glanced down at the plate in her hands; it was one of the last ones. Do you think we should finish up?
I think between the six of them they can probably survive.
We walked down the hall to the front door. We didn’t try to sneak, and as we passed the dining room the conversation stopped. ‘Hello?’ someone called out.
‘Apologies, all,’ I called back as I put on my coat. ‘Something’s come up.’
There was a scrape of chairs from the dining room, and after a moment Johnathan appeared in the doorway. ‘You’re leaving?’
‘Urgent call,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’
The mother had appeared behind Johnathan, along with one or two of the others. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Well, I’m sorry you have to go. Perhaps Anne could—’
I cut her off. ‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. Anne’s my second-in-command. They need her and so do I.’ I paused. ‘I expect she hasn’t told you, but she’s probably higher-placed in the government than anyone you’ve ever met.’
Anne shot me a look, but the expressions on the women’s faces were more than worth it. I opened the door. ‘What’s so urgent anyway?’ Johnathan asked.
I stepped out into the summer night. ‘Meetings.’