Once Alex Verus was a diviner trying to live quietly under the radar. Now he's a member of the Light Council who's found success, friends...and love. But it's come with a price—the Council is investigating him, and if they find out the truth, he'll lose everything.
Meanwhile, Alex's old master, Richard Drakh, is waging a war against the Council, and he's preparing a move that will bring Alex and the life mage, Anne, under his control. Caught between Richard and the Council, Alex's time is running out. To protect those he cares for, Alex will have to become something different. Something darker...
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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 percent chance for the next hour, forty percent for one to two hours, twenty percent for later, and twenty for never."
"So that's a forty percent 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 be 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 cross fire."
"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 Tornadoes from the RAF, armed with Paveway guided bombs, will be on station when we launch the attack."