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Changes of Perspective

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So I know you’re wondering how a respectable working-class Londoner like me got mixed up with magic. Being as magic - the formal Newtonian style, that is - is, as a good friend once told me, all toffs and monsters, and me not being the Oxbridge type. Although I have my degrees - both of them - from perfectly respectable universities, thank you very much.

It goes something like this.

At the time this story starts, I was living in a block of ex-council flats in what passed for a leafy suburb if you were a real Londoner like me, two bus stops from the District line. They were built around a courtyard that had been divided up into small gardens for the ground-floor flats when the building was sold off in the nineties, private owners not believing in things like common space, with the first and second story places making do with balconies that you could just about fit two people and a table onto if you were both skinny. I shared a second-story two-bedroom place with Jaget Kumar, who was a civil engineer I’d first met just over a decade ago when we were both at Coventry University, doing a bunch of the same physics and maths courses. Now we were both back in London, and the architectural firm I worked for often contracted his engineering company, so we’d re-connected. I’d been looking to move flats at the same time he’d been looking for someone to split the rent. Although we were both doing okay for guys who’d been trying to start professional careers in the midst of the Great Recession, it made London rent a little more affordable, if not so by the standards of the rest of the country. But there was one thing we both considered worse than paying London rents, and that was commuting. Besides, he was a good flatmate, always did his share of the chores and made himself absent if I had company, not that that had been happening much recently.

Next door to us were Lesley May and Beverley Thames, both managers. Lesley was a perky blonde white girl who ran the local chemist with the sort of steely determination that made it hard to get out of there without buying something, even if you’d just popped in to get out of the rain. Beverley had some indeterminate job for BMW that involved her jaunting out to the Mini plant at Cowley every other week. When I’d moved in I’d had a hard time deciding which one of them I fancied more, but Lesley had solved that problem for me by showing up to our housewarming party with a boyfriend before I’d had the chance to say more than hello. I wasn’t really sure what she saw in Zach Palmer, but he still showed up now and then so apparently it was something. I’d say it was a reliable source of weed, but as far as I could tell Lesley didn’t partake. (I didn’t, either, because in a block like this I can tell you who the cops were going to arrest first if someone called them about the smell of cannabis emanating from an upstairs apartment, and it was me and Jaget, the both of us being suspiciously young, brown, and male.) Beverley, Nigerian and curvy, had remained tantalisingly boyfriend- and girlfriend-free to date, but there was something about her I couldn’t figure out; we flirted a lot and meeting her on my morning run was pretty damn distracting, her in her exercise gear and all, but something was just – off, the reaction a little too intense. I figured that until I knew exactly what I’d be in for it was best to keep it low-key. And it wasn’t like she was pressing the issue herself. 

On the ground floor garden flat below us – the intervening first-story flat had changed hands three times since we’d been there and I couldn’t keep track of the residents – were Miriam and her wife Rebecca. Rebecca kept chickens, which was technically against the tenancy agreement, as I’d been informed angrily by Richard Folsom three doors down, but they were very generous with the eggs and the general agreement was that Folsom was too much of a dick to give him the satisfaction of seeing them dobbed in. Why he’d never laid the complaint himself I wasn’t sure, but it might have been Alexander Seawoll. Alex was an enormous shouty northerner who ran the Residents’ Association and had an irksome habit of simultaneously making implicitly homophobic remarks about people he didn’t like while maintaining what appeared to be a pleasant relationship with Miriam and Rebecca. Although most of the people he said that stuff to were men, and there’s a certain type of guy who doesn’t mind lesbians but thinks gay men are responsible for the downfall of civilisation or at least the bits of it they live in. Anyway, Alex made it clear that he would look with extreme disfavour on anyone who interfered with the whole chicken thing, which probably kept Folsom quiet, and the rest of us collectively mum. Besides, like I said, they really were very good about bribing us with fresh eggs.

The main target of Alexander’s ire in this block of flats was the gentleman – and I use the word intentionally – who lived next door to Miriam and Rebecca, Thomas Nightingale. He was a tall white guy, a little shorter than me, brown hair, grey eyes, a long-boned face, good looking in a sort of forties film-star way, and an astonishing collection of beautifully tailored suits that just didn’t go with the ex-council flat bit. As far as I could tell he didn’t have a regular job, either, at least not a nine-to-five one. His accent was posh, his manners impeccable, and the first time I’d met him at our bus stop I’d been half-certain he was coming on to me. Sadly, I’d never quite figured out if he had been, or it was just his good manners combined with my wishful thinking, in that first flush of attraction when you see someone you fancy. It was the kind of thing you could get in very hot water assuming anything about, with guys, so the moment had passed.

Anyway, neither men nor women appeared to figure in his life in a romantic context, although he got on with everyone and seemed to be particularly good friends with Molly, the extremely quiet and disturbing woman on the ground floor. She did something online, no-one was sure what, and communicated with her neighbours via text message and notes in exquisite copperplate. Sahra two doors down from her said she wasn’t even sure Molly had a surname, and Sahra was a copper with some obscure economic crime branch of the Met – yeah, they have those – so she should know if anyone did. For a long time I thought Sahra lived with David, who sort of floated around the place, but apparently he was both her co-worker and dating her flatmate; all three of them were police. It figured, since I didn’t think a live-in boyfriend would fit with Sahra’s whole Muslim ninja vibe, although it’s not really my business how other people do their religion. It’s always a bit weird living with the filth in the building, but Sahra and Jessie were cheerful enough and didn’t give anyone crap about anything they weren’t being paid to pay attention to, so no-one minded. I suppose even the police have to live somewhere.

It was Thomas I really couldn’t figure out, though, even more than the suspiciously tempting Beverley. I saw him down the local sometimes, especially if there was a rugby match on. He’d said he didn’t have a television and that he hadn’t grown up with one, which was just weird – he couldn’t have been more than forty, not that much older than me, so how he’d avoided it as a child I couldn’t fathom. He also didn’t own a computer, which, these days – who doesn’t own a computer? He read the Daily Telegraph and a surprising amount of science fiction, about which we’d had several good conversations and lent each other a book or two, and was weirdly vague about his past, apart from saying he’d downsized into this flat a few years ago when he realised he didn’t need the space. Divorced, or separated, or something, maybe. Alex Seawoll really didn’t like him, but wouldn’t talk about why, sticking to obscene disapproval of his standard of dress (unfailingly high – once we had a pipe burst and he’d come out of his place on a Sunday afternoon wearing a polo shirt, and that was the most casual piece of clothing I’d ever seen him in) and general existence. I’d almost wonder if they were exes if I didn’t know for a fact that Alex was divorced, and recently – his kids were there every other week. Besides, he really didn’t seem like Thomas’ type. Not that I had any real idea what that type was.

The other weird thing about Thomas Nightingale was that Miriam down below said he’d been there for as long as she and Rebecca had, and that was pushing fifteen years. He would have had to be young when he’d moved in, and according to her he hadn’t changed much at all, except maybe to look younger, she’d said with a baffled frown. And Miriam really didn’t do baffled – she was a tough-faced white woman who worked for the local council and was generally unimpressed by everything. Maybe he wasn’t forty; maybe he was a terrifyingly well-preserved sixty. It would explain the suits, sort of. But I had encountered plenty of Daily Telegraph-reading well-preserved sixty-year-olds – they represented a large part of the clientele of the architectural firm I worked for, having their houses renovated now they finally had the money to do what they wanted – and Thomas Nightingale wasn’t that type at all. Too posh, for starters.

*

“Maybe he’s, like, a wizard, and he doesn’t age,” suggested my cousin Abigail. She was eighteen and spent more time at me and Jaget’s place than she did at home, or it seemed like that some days. She’d been getting in more and more fights with her dad and I figured at least if she was taking up space on my couch she was somewhere safe, so I’d given her a key a few months ago, after Jaget had given his okay. Lesley and Beverley had given me the dirtiest looks when they’d found out and whipped her off for tea and at my best guess a seminar on how to fight off sexual predators. Lesley told me later Abigail had laughed so hard at that she’d choked on a piece of biscuit, which was on the whole a compliment. I always made sure to run her back to her dad’s in time for bed, though, in my trusty Ford Asbo. Once it had been in the shop and Thomas had given her a lift in his silver ’67 Jag, which is the envy and terror of everyone in the building (envy for the obvious reasons, terror in case they ever dent it). That had impressed her no end.

“He’s not a wizard,” Jaget told her scornfully. It was a rainy, windy, generally disgusting Sunday afternoon in January and he’d taken up the table to de-construct one of his beloved working steam train models. Abigail found this fascinating, but was too cool to ask about it, so she was just lurking on the couch, watching. “If you want to be a wizard you have to go to Oxford and then be an apprentice, or whatever, and they all belong to the Folly. You don’t live in a poky little flat in the suburbs and have a yappy little dog.”

It was true that Thomas’ dog, Toby, was a pesky little thing, but Thomas was pretty good about keeping him quiet and I liked the little bugger – I’d even done the dog-walking thing a few times when Thomas had been out of town. But it wasn’t very wizardly, that was true.

“He’s posh enough, though,” Abigail argued. “And he’s got all these books in Latin and stuff. And a cane. It could be a wizard’s staff. How would you know?”

“Jaget’s right though,” I said. “The only people who are wizards are part of the Folly.”

“They can retire, though, right? What do they call it – breaking their staffs? I read about it somewhere.”

“He’s not old enough to be retired,” I told her. “And, hang on – when were you in his flat?” She was right about the books, as it happened, because I’d been in there feeding Toby and I’m easily distracted and there was a whole wall of text to look at through the half-open study door, okay (because studies are what posh people do with their spare bedroom, if they have one.)

The only Latin I knew was from when our RPG club at university had gotten a bit carried away one-upping each other and we’d very nearly scripted entire fights in the language before coming to our senses - the DM and two of the players were classics and modern language majors, and the rest of us were hard sciences and engineering types trying to prove we could hack it with the humanities crowd. It had lent a nice air of authenticity the next time I played a cleric, though. Though obviously it had been some rather specific vocabulary. Anyway, even I could tell there was some esoteric stuff in Thomas’ collection. It was a bit weird. But Abigail had never been in his flat, as far as I knew.

Jaget looked sharply up and frowned at that too. He was almost as protective of Abigail as I was. He had older siblings but no younger ones, and I was an only kid, so I guess we’d both sort of adopted her that way.

Abigail rolled her eyes with magnificent disdain. “When he dropped me off in the Jag that time – he left his coat in his study, I just saw in the door. He’s totally nice, you like him. And I’m not thirteen anymore, you’re worse than my dad.”

This was true, as far as it went. But if anything happened to Abigail there was an entire list of people who’d kill me and her dad, traditional West African patriarch though he was, wasn’t even at the top of it: after all, he didn’t live next door to me. Or in the same flat as me. “Just checking, okay?”

“Fine, whatever,” said Abigail, but I think she was a bit touched.

*

Like I said, by this point I knew Thomas Nightingale as well as anyone in the flats, other than the mysterious Molly – what with the science fiction and the occasional dog walking and the mutual despair at Alex Seawoll’s existence in our vicinity – so when I ran into him the next Saturday manoeuvring a large box out of the Jag, containing an actual television, I offered to help him set it up, like the helpful neighbour I am. (I am - ask anyone. Anyone except Richard Folsom.) Besides, maybe then I could take another good look at the books, and figure out if Abigail had a point. I mean, she didn’t, but it would be nice to know.

It took about half an hour of fussing to get the thing set up – he’d organized to have cable put in before he’d bought the actual television, which displayed a truly terrifying degree of foresight – and after we had it on and it mysteriously and entirely accidentally was tuned to Arsenal v. Tottenham (there weren’t any rugby matches on, okay, I did check) he invited me to stay for a cuppa, which I said yes to, only partially with the intention of staring at his books while he made tea.

The problem with this was that the study door, while partially open, wasn’t really visible from where I was seated at his small table. Because apparently he was also too posh to let visitors sit on his couch, not that any of his furniture looked like it should be sat on, compared to mine and Jaget’s. So I was trying not to look sideways suspiciously and also trying to pay attention to questions like whether I took milk and generally letting my mind wander (what if they are magic books? Does that mean they’re books about magic, or books that are magic? Is this going to be a sort of Unseen University library situation? Could they be dangerous?) when my fingers brushed across the wide earthenware fruit bowl in the middle of the table.

Now, as many people will tell you, I’m pretty easily distracted. It was particularly bad during my last two years of secondary school and very nearly scuttled my A-levels entirely until the school counsellor referred me for an ADHD assessment. My mum was deeply unimpressed. It’s a tenet of hers that there are very few mental conditions in children, and probably adults, that can’t be cured by strict discipline and hard work. But she took me anyway, on one of her days off. I didn’t end up getting diagnosed, but we did work through a few ways to keep myself on task when I really needed to be, and it probably saved me from some awful fate. I was halfway through my last year when I found out that to apply for architecture programs, which was what I wanted to do, I needed a portfolio of drawings. I wasn’t much of an artist. This turned out to not be an insurmountable problem, but the surmounting was pretty bloody tedious. If I hadn’t got the help with focusing – it usually involved bribing myself with unfocused time at a later date, or making a note about my latest thought and then putting it aside so I could try drawing that curve yet again - I probably would have given up entirely.

My point being, letting my mind wander is very nearly a talent of mine, and it was wandering all over the place when I touched that bowl. That wasn’t unusual. What was weird was what I felt when I touched it. There was a sudden sense of – things I hadn’t been thinking about, things I had no reason to think about; a flash of heat against my fingertips, the smell of charcoal and steam and, of all things, pig shit. The last one seemed particularly out of place in this immaculately tidy flat – I mean, me and Jaget are well past the late-adolescence stage of living in a metaphorical pigsty, but we do leave stuff about, forget to clean coffee mugs out as soon as we’re done with them, the usual. Thomas’s place was painfully tidy. He’d even returned the various polystyrene debris from unpacking the television back into the box it had come in, what he hadn’t just put straight in the bin. So a smell like that, it caught my attention. I wondered if it was manure in Thomas’s garden, outside the French door retrofitted into the living room when the flats had been sold off and renovated - but the glass doors were closed and so were the curtains; it was winter, after all.

The smell was gone now, and Thomas was coming over with tea – he even had a tray for the teapot and cups and everything. I supposed it was about priorities. Again, I’m an architect, Jaget’s an engineer, we can afford to get semi-decent things for the flat if we want, it’s just that we both tend to rate, say, games consoles above household items. So we drink our tea out of mismatching mugs and shamefully fail to own an actual teapot, but a significant fraction of our minimal bench space was given over to a small-form espresso machine and we had a seriously nice gaming set-up. If Jaget ever moved out it was quite possible I was going to miss that espresso machine more than him. Thomas had only just arrived in the mid-twentieth-century vis-a-vis television ownership, but he had a proper tea set made of what I could tell was some very nice china. I was almost afraid to touch the stuff.

“Admiring the fruit bowl?” he asked, nodding at it. To be honest it wasn’t much to look at, broad and plain and holding a few apples and oranges. But it sort of – held the eye, like it was really...well formed. I don’t know; I’m an architect, I describe buildings.

“It’s very...well-made,” I said, because I’m hopeless with ceramics that aren’t brick-shaped. “Where’d you get it?” My fingers drifted along the curve of the edge again, just as Thomas was pouring the tea, and there it was again, more distinct now I was testing for it; heat and charcoal and that awful not-manure smell. But the heat wasn’t real, because when I curled my fingers into my palm, there was no temperature difference. It was like a hallucination. An olfactory hallucination. Or a...what was a hallucination of temperature called? Was there a word for it? Was I just going crazy? It was totally possible.

But Thomas was staring at me, eyes narrowed, and that was off too, because it wasn’t the look of bafflement from someone wondering why I was touching his fruit bowl. It was the look of someone who had some idea what I was thinking but didn’t want to say it.

“One of the stalls at Portobello Market,” he said, instead of whatever it was he was thinking.

“Really,” I said, picking up my teacup delicately. I’m not a very delicate person, either. The words does it normally cause people to hallucinate the smell of pig shit somehow failed to pass the tip of my tongue. “Did you know my cousin Abigail thinks you’re a wizard?”

This earned me an actual start from him – not that it would count as such from anyone else, but the tiniest jerk of his head – and that was wrong too; Thomas Nightingale definitely wasn’t the most expressive man I’d ever met, but that sort of outrageous accusation usually gets a reaction from people, even if it’s just “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Not that I ever expected to hear him use the word “fucking”. He was way too refined for that.

“I can’t imagine where she got that idea from,” he said instead, with what was clearly intended to be a ruefully deprecating smile, and took a sip of tea.

“So is this a magical fruit bowl, then?” I asked, because, yeah, it was rude, but I figured he owed me for helping set up the television and I suddenly wanted to know. And you know what he hadn’t said? “I’m not a wizard.” Or any words to that effect.

“No,” was all he said.

“Was it made with magic?” I asked, because, see, after David Mellenby and some of the other more scientifically-minded wizards published their work integrating the practice of magic into scientific theory in the fifties, some information about how it actually worked had made it into the public sphere – along with the fact that magic was an actual observable phenomenon at all. I had no more idea of how to do magic than how to fly, with or without magic. But the physics of magic had been the topic of an all-too-brief section of one of my second-year physics courses at university. I’d liked it enough at the time to pay attention and even do the suggested but not required reading, though, and one thing I did remember was that magic left - imprints on things. The degree of imprint was dependent upon the substance – stone and concrete held it well, wood and metal poorly, living things barely at all. Ceramics were pretty good, as I understood it. Now, the nature of the imprint hadn’t been explained at all, because of course that would have been way too close to letting the hoi polloi know when magic was being done, or had been. But gives you mysterious hallucinations was sounding pretty plausible.

Thomas narrowed his eyes at me again. “It...I believe it may have been. What on earth brought all this up?”

“Abigail, I told you. And I can sort of see her point - you’ve got a wall full of books in Latin and I don’t know what else, you carry a cane, you...wait, is that why the Jag? And the weird attachment to pre-microchip electronics? Because magic blows out microchips, I remember that, it’s one of the reasons it hasn’t really caught on. Well, that and the fact you have to get into Oxford just to study it, and that it went ‘into decline’ after World War II, whatever that means, and - holy shit, she was right, you are a wizard.”

I hadn’t meant it to come out like that all at once but the way he was looking at me as I rambled had just said I was right. I was right.

Wait, what?

“Are you sure you’re an architect?” he said. “You seem to have missed your calling as a detective.”

This was, I noted, an admission that I was in fact correct without actually using any words like Yes or You’re right or I am a wizard. And thus beautifully deniable.

I laughed. “Not really. I’m pretty easily distracted. I don’t think that’s the kind of life skill they look for in police officers.”

“What made you ask about the fruit bowl?”

Since we’d got to the part where my downstairs neighbour was apparently, you know, a wizard, I didn’t feel quite so stupid about telling him what it felt like when I touched it, so I did. He frowned at me the entire time, the frown of someone thinking.

Vestigium,” he said when I’d finished, after taking a few moments to frown some more and sip his tea. “You sensed the vestigium associated with the creation of the bowl.”

“Is that what you call it? When magic leaves traces on things?”

“Mmmm, yes.”

“Then how come everyone doesn’t notice it?”

“They do – a dozen times a day. They just dismiss it as a flight of fancy. It takes a particular sort of mind to pay attention to it.”

I touched the fruit bowl again, and, yeah, there it was, that same set of sensations. Not my imagination. Magic.

“Are you even supposed to be telling me this stuff? I thought it was all about trade secrets.”

Thomas smiled. “None of this is particularly secret, just not widely discussed. Besides, I’m retired, mostly.”

I scoffed. “Retired? Come on, you’re not that old.” But I remembered what Miriam had said – maybe sixty was underestimating it.

He hesitated. Oh, shit, it was underestimating it. “I’m a little older than I look.”

“What, like you’re really three hundred?”

No,” he said quellingly.

“Two hundred? A hundred and fifty?”

“Didn’t your mother teach you it’s rude to speculate about someone’s age?”

“Nope, that’s just for ladies,” I said cheerfully.

“I assure you it holds for gentlemen as well,” he said, with a raised eyebrow, but he was smiling again, so I figured I hadn’t upset him too much. I did like his smile.

The funny thing was, though, I’d been expecting to find out he was actually fifty or something, because people can be weird about their age, but - the normal reaction to someone suggesting you were three hundred was to laugh. I’m just saying. That was - interesting. I’d certainly never heard anyone suggest magic could extend your lifespan. Then again, I’d never heard anyone confirm it didn’t, although you’d think someone would have noticed.

“Can you do any magic spells, then?” I asked instead, because, c’mon, wouldn’t you? And Abigail would be furious when she found out. I’d seen photos and video, of course, of the real thing and replicated for TV shows and films, but apparently most magic wasn’t very interesting to watch; there was less footage out there than you’d expect. Also, you had to film it at a distance or use old-school microprocessor-free equipment, and who had that around anymore?

This did seem to be pushing it, but after a long moment he shrugged. “Oh - very well, but we need to turn off the television. And you’ll want to take the battery out of your mobile phone.”

The microchip problem, right. I turned off the television and, at his instruction, unplugged it as well, and pulled the battery out of my Galaxy. Not a lot of phones you could do that with these days. I noticed that Thomas just pulled out his slimline Nokia – so boring it was nearly an antique, phone-wise – and flipped a nonstandard switch on the side. Maybe if you were a wizard you bought your phone with a battery interrupt, just in case. It’d make sense.

I sat down again, folded my arms and looked at him. Not that I was experiencing a sudden wave of scepticism, you understand. I just didn’t want to seem too easily impressed. He raised an elegant eyebrow, opened his right hand, and said “Lux.”

A ball of light sprang into existence above his hand, and I felt it, in my head, like a, a...shape, just out of sight; but it was gone before I could grasp it. But it was magic, all right; real magic.

I was trying to be cool about it but I was grinning like an idiot, I knew. It winked out of existence.

“So that’s a magic spell, then? Lux?” Light, I thought, in the Latin; one of the bits and bobs I’d retained from that bout of Dungeons-and-Dragons-related study. As I said it, I opened my hand, but of course nothing happened, because I wasn’t a wizard, and probably couldn’t be - they didn’t publicise how people got picked for the Folly, apart from going to Oxford, but presumably it was some sort of thing you had to be born with. I did know a lot of them - guys, mostly - came from the same families. Not that I’d ever have gone to Oxford, even if I’d had the grades. You couldn’t study architecture.

“Not exactly,” Thomas said, and he did it again, just like that, but without the word. The feeling of it was still the same, though. “It’s more of a...placeholder.”

“The magic is in your mind,” I said.

“Precisely.”

“Well – thanks. For showing me. I know I’m being awfully nosy. I’m guessing you’d rather this didn’t get around?”

He nodded. “I am trusting in your discretion, in this. Consider it a fair exchange for the help with the television.” He gestured in that direction. “And – when Abigail visits you next – would you bring her around? I think I should speak with her myself about it.”

“Sounds reasonable.” I rose. “Anyway - thanks again, and thanks for the tea. Let me know if you can’t figure out the remote or something, yeah?”

“I’m not entirely at odds with modern technology, Peter, thank you,” he told me as he walked me to the door, but he was still smiling.

*

“How was your date?” asked Jaget when I got back upstairs.

“Fuck off,” I told him, but not in a serious way. “I was helping him set up his new TV.”

“And that took an hour and a half?”

“We had a cuppa. He’s, like...” I wondered, again, how old he really was. I’m a little older than I look. “Old. Must be pushing forty, easy.”

“Good-looking, though,” Jaget pointed out unhelpfully. “Dresses really well. Drives an amazing car. Definitely got money, although why he bothers living here I don’t know. You could do worse.”

“Oh, shut up.” Jaget, in the two years we’d been flatmates, had had plenty of opportunity to observe that the one or two goes I’d had at dating guys had flamed out even more spectacularly than when I dated women. They’d only got started in the first place because I was thoroughly shit at asking people out, and they’d asked me, and I’d figured why not give it a go. Mostly all I’d learned was that while sex with men was just fine, I wasn’t any more successful at maintaining those relationships than I was with women. In fact, Jaget himself was the person not related to me I’d had the longest relationship with, in a totally platonic way; he was strictly heterosexual and I was strictly uninterested in screwing up my living situation. “We were just chatting.”

“You’re getting very defensive about this,” said Jaget, so I threw a teatowel at him. That’s the mature and responsible way we settle our disagreements in this household.

Somehow, I resisted the urge to tell him about the magic thing. I’d promised, after all, and meant it. And it wasn’t – I didn’t know. It felt more real if I kept it to myself.

*

I kept my other promise, too, and dropped Thomas a text the next time Abigail set up camp on my couch, which was the following Wednesday. Jaget wasn’t home yet, so the timing worked. He came up and had a quiet conversation with her while I pointedly tidied the kitchen. I didn’t actually eavesdrop – I couldn’t without going suspiciously quiet, dishes are noisy things – but whatever he said left her wide-eyed and at least half-serious.

“Wow,” she said, once he was gone. “Did you know about that?”

“We had a chat,” I said. “Are you sticking around to eat? Because it’s pasta sauce from a jar or nothing, just so we’re clear on that. I hear they feed you at home occasionally.”

“Ugh, fine.” She wrinkled her nose. “You should learn to cook more interesting things.”

“Some of us have better things to do.” Also I’m not that fussy an eater, or too proud to live on takeaways more than I should. I just try not to do that when Abigail’s around. Didn’t want her getting the wrong impression about adulthood, I mean, more than she already was spending time around me. “Don’t you have homework or something?”

“Oh, come on, what are you, my father?” she grumbled, but she pulled her laptop out of her backpack and proceeded to shut up for at least half an hour, so she was doing something. I hoped it was her homework. She seemed pretty confident about her A-levels, and had got her letter from Oxford two weeks ago - if she was my sister I would have been so proud I’d burst, but she was just my something-removed cousin, so I was just generally proud. Maybe she could go and learn magic, if she wanted. I didn’t suggest it though, because if there was something more terrifying than Abigail as she was, it was an Abigail who could do actual fucking magic. I’m not sure the Peckwater Estate would survive.

“So, like, did he show you any magic?” she asked as I was dishing out the food. It vanished suspiciously quickly for the disdain she’d shown.

“Maybe,” I said. “But we’re not supposed to talk about it, right?”

“Why d’you think he’s here? Wizards live in the Folly, right? If they’re in London. Or they’re, like, important people. They don’t live somewhere like...” She gestured around at the admittedly minimalist dimensions of the flat. “Like this.”

Fair point; this place was better than the one I’d grown up in, and had been renovated more than once in the twenty-odd years since the council had flogged it off, but we were talking shoebox versus matchbox here. Currently they marketed flats in this building with the whole microhousing thing. I had colleagues who were really into it, but it drove me bonkers. Microhousing, sure - as long as you were single and not planning on taking up any hobbies. The only reason it worked for me was that I was single and didn’t have any hobbies, at least not hobbies that took up space. Jaget’s models were bad enough.

“Said he was retired.”

“Retired?” She made a face. “He’s old, but he’s not, like, old old.”

I shrugged. “Look, I don’t know. I don’t see him around that much, really. He’s just the weird posh guy downstairs.”

“You mean the weird posh wizard downstairs.” She gave me a sly look. “He’s probably not too old for you, you know.”

I gave her my flattest stare. It was Abigail, so it didn’t have much effect. “Remind me again why I let you come over here and bother me?”

She shrugged awkwardly, and traced a pattern in the leftover pasta sauce with her fork. She was already eyeing up the leftovers. Good thing I’d put Jaget’s half in the fridge already. “I dunno.”

“Yeah, me neither.” She shrank into her chair a little at that, so I pointed at the kitchen. “You want any more? I’m done.”

She was out of the chair before I’d finished talking, so she couldn’t have been that downtrodden.

*

I only saw Thomas a couple of times over the next two weeks – running into each other in the carpark or at the main entrance, when he was out walking Toby, once at the pub, that sort of thing. I’d thought he only went for the rugby so I hadn’t reckoned on seeing him there now he’d learned about the miracle of television in your home, but he was meeting a friend, which was also a surprise. He didn’t seem to have many of those. At least not to be close to. I wondered if it was a boyfriend, it being the week of Valentine’s Day and all, but it didn’t seem like it; the mystery endured. Abdul Haqq Walid was a tall red-headed Scot in his fifties or sixties who must get more double-takes than Sahra downstairs did when she told people she was a copper. Apparently he was a doctor at UCH - known to me only because it was where I’d been born.

“Gastroenterology, mostly,” he said.

“Among other things,” added Thomas. I made a note to ask about that later. See – I can manage my distraction.

“How d’you know Thomas, then?” Abdul asked.

“He’s my downstairs neighbour,” I explained. “We check each other’s mail when we’re out of town and I admire his car from afar.”

“Peter helped me with the television set,” Thomas added.

“Haven’t broken it yet?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s not the most complicated piece of equipment.”

“We’ll work you up to computers eventually,” I said.

“I can’t imagine what for. As far as I can tell from Abdul and everyone else they’re mostly useful for allowing you to be bombarded with communication you didn’t want in the first place.”

“That’s...not entirely inaccurate,” I conceded. “On the other hand, you can also have the accumulated knowledge of mankind at your fingertips. So there are some small benefits.”

“Not quite all the accumulated knowledge, I think,” Thomas said with a small smile, and I wondered how many of his magic books (books about magic? I still hadn’t sorted that one out) had made it online. Not many, if any, I was guessing, judging by his smile.

Abdul was giving me a narrow-eyed glance. “What did you say you did?”

“I’m an architect,” I said blandly. “Mostly renovating the interiors of older buildings – somewhere like London, you’re never going to run out of those.” It was astonishing, actually, how many buildings in this city preserved the façades of one era and the interiors of another entirely, or several others; your perspective changing as you stepped inside, history circling around you. I liked doing that, merging the old and new. It led to spending more time around wankers with more money than sense than I really liked, but beggars can’t be choosers and neither can architects graduating into the worst recession of the past fifty years.

“Oh, I see,” he said, and looked sideways at Thomas; I sensed that I was going to be a topic of conversation later, too. All this you-know-I-know-he-knows stuff was a bit tiring, really.

“Like this pub,” I said instead, and gave my one-minute spiel on how they’d redone the place from its original Georgian construction; it redirected the conversation like a charm, and also proved I was exactly who I said I was. I’m really not that interesting, after all. 

“So your friend Abdul,” I asked Thomas a day or so later. “Mostly gastroenterology?”

“Also cryptopathology,” he said. “And medical monitoring – the greatest hazard of wizardry is actually giving yourself a brain haemorrhage. Until they invented the MRI, the first sign of danger was when you had a brain haemorrhage, which was rather concerning. Nowadays we all have to get regular checkups.”

I vaguely recalled hearing that, too – another reason magic had never really taken off, apart from the “decline” and “Oxford degree” things – and noted that Thomas was getting more comfortable making references he shouldn’t be making; if he really was fortyish, the MRI would have been invented after he was born, and well before he’d become a wizard. “Yeah, but cryptopathology?”

“There’s more to magic than its mere existence,” Thomas said, and, okay, that was new; magic’s functionality was something everyone knew, the Folly, wizards, sure, but...what else was out there?

“Huh. Good to know.” I’d also noticed that I actually got more out of him by not asking questions, because if I got persistent he clammed up. This was demonstrated in action when he almost looked disappointed that I hadn’t said anything else. Maybe it was tiring, I thought, being a mostly retired wizard who apparently didn’t socialize much with the non-retired ones. Maybe he wanted to talk about this stuff with someone. And I was pretty damn curious myself; a perfect match, really.

*

The funny thing was, after the fruit bowl, I’d started looking for vestigia in other places – especially ones like older buildings or houses I was scouting for work. Just taking a moment to touch the stone, or concrete, or even metalwork, and see what came to mind. And I found them. Sometimes it was probably just my imagination; a lot of the time, actually. But some were so vivid I could taste them. When I could, I tried to verify stuff – one place we were preparing a quote for I laid a hand on the stone cladding of the outer wall and tried to think of nothing in particular and got a wash of heat and light and the smell of smoke and, weirdly, roast pork. When I checked, the place had burned in a fire in the eighteen-seventies, really bad; five deaths, which explained, queasily, the pork smell. And I know what you’re thinking, but this wasn’t a well-known incident and I’d deliberately not looked up its history before we did the site visit, so I couldn’t have known. Besides, the more I tried, the easier it got – well, that, or I was going mad. Also a definite possibility.

What got really weird was that it started happening with people, too. Like Thomas; not that I’m trying to imply I was touching him a lot or anything, but I met him coming back from a run and Toby got over-excited (the little git associated me with food, that was all, from the times I’d watched him) and wrapped the lead around my legs; I went straight over, legs still a bit wobbly from the run. Thomas charitably did not laugh, admonished Toby, and offered me a hand up. I took it, and got a shivery tingle that reminded me my interest in him wasn’t purely intellectual, especially not high on post-exercise endorphins. But behind that was something else altogether, the scent of wood smoke and pine needles and wet canvas, which was notable given that we were standing in a concrete carpark.

“Do people have vestigia?” I blurted out, and he blinked at me. “That depends. Magically...associated...people can, yes. It’s not common.”

“You do,” I went on, before I could stop myself. “Like...smoke and canvas and pine needles.”

This seemed to really disconcert him for some reason, but, I mean, I didn’t think I was being inappropriate about it, just – describing what I’d felt.

“I’ve been told that,” he said eventually. So it wasn’t just my imagination, then. “If you’ll excuse me – I really must get him inside,” and he pointed at Toby. I watched them go and tried to figure out what the hell that had been about.

The next person I noticed that way was Beverley next door; we were chatting in the corridor one day, just casual-like, and her arm brushed against mine. There was a surge of want, which was just my body reminding me that my brain might not be sure about Beverley but it fancied the pants off her, literally, and something else – running water, and the smell of green things, and...it was gone, but she was looking at me funny. Rats, I’d done it again; I needed to stop drifting off.

“What?” she said. “Do I smell funny?”

“No,” I said, and “not at all,” because I could recognized a straight line when I was handed one and in this case it was more of a hot potato.

“Hmph,” she said, and made her excuses right quick. I was sorry to see her go, but more curious about what it was I’d sensed.

See, I knew that she knew Thomas; I’d seen them chat occasionally and Lesley had mentioned that he was friends with her mother, not that I’d ever met her mother, although she had a succession of sisters, from the downright terrifying older ones to a rather sweet ten-year-old she babysat occasionally, as well as a pack of country cousins who for some reason were all white guys. Beverley didn’t look mixed race but it doesn’t always work the way it had for me and Abigail, as I’ve had cause to observe among my own extended family. All her family had been suspiciously uninteresting while, if I thought about it, actually being pretty weird – there was the one sister who worked for the radio, another who I thought was in politics, the not-twins I hadn’t seen often enough to tell apart...and I didn’t even remember any of their names.

“Magically...associated...people,” I asked Thomas. He seemed to have forgotten the carpark thing with Toby, if there’d been anything to forget. “Can they muck with your brain?”

He wanted to know exactly what I meant by that, so I clarified. “Be persuasive, I guess. Persuade you to do things, or forget things, or -”

“Is this about Miss Thames, next door to you?” he interrupted with a frown.

“Yeah. I mean, no, Bev’s always been nice, but her family’s a bit weird, aren’t they? And I never noticed that till now, and I’ve lived next door to her for years, I should have. And I -” okay, this was going to be embarrassing, but I’d live, “I fancied her, when I first got here, but sometimes I’m not sure why. And she definitely has some vestigia about her. It’s just – there’s something going on.”

Thomas regarded me for a few seconds, then sighed. “There are a number of...the term you would understand best is local deities, in the London region, associated with the Thames watershed.”

“Like, actual deities?”

“They are commonly termed genii locorum,” he said, and I thought about that for a second. I’d dug out my Latin dictionary (yes, we’d been that serious about one-upping each other, and I’d found it cheap in a second-hand bookshop) a few weeks ago, just for, you know, reference purposes, and definitely not in case I got another chance to browse Thomas’s bookshelves. “Spirits of the...nope. Something plural?”

“Spirits of places, yes. The Folly’s official position is that they are not, in point of fact, deities.”

“What’s yours, then?”

“That what we call them really isn’t relevant compared to what they can do.”

“And this relates to Beverley how?”

He smiled mysteriously. “Do you know her full name?”

“Beverley Thames?” I thought about it. We weren’t that far from...oh, shit. “Let me guess – Beverley Brook Thames?” Beverley was the goddess of our local river? Christ. A thought occurred. “Wait, what about her flatmate? Lesley May. She’s from Essex.”

Thomas shrugged. “As far as I know, Miss May is quite unmagical, although she does seem integrated into the demi-monde. The, ah, magical community, as it were.” I wondered if Zach-the-boyfriend had anything to do with that, too. He was definitely weird, but that could have just been the weed.

“When you say magical community,” I said suspiciously, “You’re not talking about wizards, or the Folly.”

“No.”

“You enjoy making me ask about this stuff, don’t you?”

The bastard actually grinned. “It is rather entertaining watching you try to hold back from asking yet another question.”

Great. So my next-door neighbour was a local deity and my downstairs neighbour had taken up breaking my brain with carefully-chosen pieces of information as his own personal form of entertainment. I needed better neighbours. Or at least ones who could decide whether or not they were flirting with me.

*

This probably would have gone on for months, or just trailed off into nothing, or I would have decided to give it all up and ask Thomas out, because, okay, screw it, I was a bit interested and we were both single adults even if one of us was of deeply indeterminate age – but he didn’t look that much older than me and yes I am that shallow – until I accidentally did magic.

Or, okay, not accidentally, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to work, except that if that were true I wouldn’t have had the battery out of my phone or been in the bathroom safely away from the rest of our electronics, although apparently I fried the other next-door neighbour’s microwave, which I didn’t find out about until months later. It was just a habit I’d got into when I was in the shower, or out running, or that sort of mindless thing – trying to replicate what I’d seen that day in Thomas’s flat, the feeling in my head when he’d said lux and that light had appeared above his hand. And the weird thing was the more I did it the closer it felt, like I was honing in on what it should actually be. So I kept doing it, you know, as you do. Because that would be a bit neat, right, if I could do a magic spell? I mean, just as a party trick, sort of thing. The one thing I did know about becoming a wizard was that apart from having to get into Oxford and then the program and the risk of giving yourself a stroke it took about ten years to learn all there was to know, which was why it was particularly ridiculous for Thomas to expect people to think he’d retired from wizarding age forty – he couldn’t have been much under thirty when he’d, what did they call it, got his staff. (I’d never worked out if that was why the cane, but I had my suspicions.) Although apparently back in the day they’d started them even younger, at ten or eleven - good old Victorian predestination through segregation - so maybe he had, too. If he really was that old.

So it wasn’t like I was going to learn it – quite aside from having no-one to teach me. The other thing I knew was that you couldn’t do it from books, you had to be taught directly. It was why the Folly didn’t have any trouble keeping magic to themselves; they just cracked down on anyone who taught it outside their bounds, and they cracked down hard. Which, now I thought about it, was a bit suspicious if magic really had been ‘declining’ for fifty years or more. Not that I ever would have stood a chance even if I’d made Oxford, because the Folly hadn’t even admitted women until the nineties and I didn’t think I’d ever seen, or heard of, a wizard who didn’t look a hell of a lot more like Thomas than me. And I didn’t want to get him in that sort of hot water, as he doubtless would be; he was a decent bloke. And there was absolutely no way I’d ever have a shot with him if I got him in trouble with the magic police, so there was that, too. I mean, not that I was thinking about that. Much.

But I kept working at it, you know, now and then, in my spare moments, and so it wasn’t as surprising as it might have seemed when, about eight weeks after I’d seen my first real piece of magic, I opened my hand and said “Lux” and there was light.

Only it wasn’t the round, perfect sphere Thomas had shown me, it was a flaming ball that washed my hand with heat, and I yelped and it disappeared almost immediately. I’d just got out of the shower, so I filled the sink, held my hand above it, and did it again, concentrating on the image of Thomas’s light, white and pearlescent.

It appeared again, less flame-related this time, and vanished nearly as quickly, and I had to run my hand under the tap because it was definitely a bit pink.

Jaget banged on the door. “All right in there?”

“Cut myself shaving,” I yelled back, and then had to nick my chin, biting my lip to keep quiet, to make it so. By the time I was out Jaget was impatient to get in and wasn’t looking at my hand, so I got away with it.

I spent all day at work thinking about it, mostly because my hand was still bloody sore. Most of what I had to do that day was just answering emails and working on a couple of quotes, so I had room for my mind to wander. So. Okay. I could sort of do a spell.

What the hell was I going to do with that?

In the end – and by that I mean ‘four days later, after I’d practiced making light a lot more and killed my mobile once like the idiot I was’ - I decided that confession was the best course of action, if only because if I did something stupid and someone found out Thomas was going to be in for it no matter what, so it was only fair to give him warning. Worst case he yelled at me and never spoke to me again, which was certainly not my preferred state of affairs but was probably fair enough on his part. Okay, no, worst case was that I ended up arrested, if that was what they did with people who did unauthorised magic, but I didn’t actually think that was going to happen.

So I knocked on his door that evening after dinner. He opened it quite quickly; I could hear the nine o’clock news on the telly. Apparently he was getting used to the accoutrements of the mid-twentieth century.

“Peter,” he said, sounding surprised but pleased. Well, he wasn’t going to be so pleased in a few minutes. “What is it?”

“Hi, Thomas. Can I have a word?” I asked, and his eyebrows rose. “Of course. Do come in.”

I’d thought really hard about how to say this, because I didn’t want him to get the wrong impression, and I was pretty sure there was a chance he would, and this was absolutely not the moment to confess my feelings. If I’d had feelings. I’m not saying there were feelings. I’m just saying that I wasn’t there to talk about my feelings, or his feelings, or indeed anyone’s. I was there to talk about magic.

“I guess I have an apology to make,” I said once the door was closed, and Toby had satisfied himself that I wasn’t there to entertain or feed him. “Only I kind of – I kind of have to show you. Could we, um, go into the garden?” It definitely wasn’t going to go over well if I blew up his new telly, but I wasn’t quite ready to announce it out loud.

He narrowed his eyes, but nodded, and strode over to open the French doors.

It was March and still cold, but not below freezing. I was too nervous to feel the cold much anyway. I didn’t have my mobile on me; I saw him take his out and leave it on the table inside, so I think he knew what was going to happen. Thinking about it much later, there were actually several other things I could have been about to confess to him, all of which involved magic, so leaving the phone behind made sense.

“I know I’m really not supposed to do this, but, well,” I said, and spoke the word and made a light. I still didn’t even know what the proper name for it was.

Like I said, it had been four days, and I had practiced a little bit, so this one lasted for maybe ten seconds. In the pearly glow Thomas’s face was totally still, his arms folded. Then the shape slipped from my mind, and it went out. The only light was from inside the flat, the television and the main overhead bulb, and half his face was in shadow; it was impossible to tell what he thought.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I know I’m not supposed to do it and you definitely didn’t mean to show me how and I absolutely haven’t told a soul, but if someone found out you’d probably be in trouble, so I thought you should know. Um. So.”

“How on earth,” he said, in tones of absolute astonishment, “did you learn how to do that?”

“Well, you showed me it,” I said, sounding a little surprised myself. “Twice. And I remembered what it felt like. And, honestly, I wasn’t trying to...okay, that’s not true. I was trying to replicate it, but I figured I’d get bored long before it worked. Or that it wouldn’t work at all. I mean, maybe I couldn’t do magic.”

“A common misconception, which the Folly has – sadly, in many ways – encouraged,” Thomas said, his arms still folded across his chest. “The average person may be more or less inclined to sense magic, at least without instruction, but performing it is merely a matter of demonstration and repetition. As you appear to have independently discovered.” He shook his head, slowly. “But it generally takes rather more teaching than being shown it. Good god.”

I wondered if the Folly encouraged that misconception because it stopped them being subject to things like, e.g., anti-discrimination laws; after all, it wasn’t their fault if upper-class white men were just naturally gifted at doing magic, and how was anyone who didn’t do magic going to prove otherwise?

“Honestly,” I said, “I was just too stupid to know when to stop.”

He sighed, and unfolded his arms. “Well, there’s no point standing out here. Come inside. We need to talk.”

*

“So what I couldn’t figure out,” I said, once we were indoors again, “is whether it’s illegal, in technical terms. I ran down to the library and looked it up, but the statutes are extremely vague.”

“That’s quite intentional,” replied Thomas, who was making tea, because there are some things you have to do when you’re English and you’ve had a shock and that’s one of them. I would have preferred a stiff drink but that didn’t seem to be on offer. Except then he got down a bottle from one of the top shelves and added an amber slug to his own cup, raising an eyebrow at me; I nodded hastily. Good to know I’d rattled him as much as myself. Or maybe not. I wasn’t sure.

“It’s not, technically, illegal to perform magic outside the auspices of the Folly,” he went on, carrying both mugs over – apparently this was not a matter for the good china. “But it is illegal to use magic to disturb the peace. This statute tends to be applied in much the same manner as the more mundane version.”

To arrest anyone who someone in authority needed a reason to arrest, check. “Got it. Are you going to dob me in, then?”

“As you have so accurately surmised,” Thomas said dryly, “no-one at the Folly would be terribly pleased with me, either, and they would be highly unlikely to believe I’d had so little to do with it. My relationship with the current leadership at the Folly is - complicated.”

“Well. Sorry.”

“Will you please stop apologizing for something you’re clearly not sorry for,” he snapped, and I felt my cheeks heat.

“You were right,” he went on, sipping his drink; I was too nervous to do so. “It was stupid. Firstly, you could have killed yourself. You still could. Secondly, you could have hurt someone else. You still could. Magic is a tool. It has many uses, but it can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands – or the right ones. Thirdly, you are not as unobserved as you appear to believe – there are a number of people in this building with various ties to the magical community, although I’m the only member of the Folly. And fourthly –” he stopped, glancing at my untouched mug. “Oh, I do apologise. Drink freely, without any obligation.”

I blinked – I had no idea what he meant by that. “I – what?”

“When you eat or drink at someone’s table,” Thomas explained patiently, “unless otherwise excused, you incur an obligation to them.”

“You’re not talking about having to have them round at yours or something, are you,” I said, and took a swig, because it seemed rude not to at this point, although also suddenly dangerous. The corner of his mouth twitched, and I knew he knew what I was thinking.

“When magic is involved, it’s a much more serious thing. There is a man – I’ve met him – who was sent to Beverley’s mother’s house to do some task, I forget what, thirty years ago. He ate a biscuit. He’s never left.”

“What, so if I’d drunk your tea without you saying that, I’d...owe you?”

“It rather depends on whose table you’re at, this is true. Although....”

I could finish that thought. “But I’ve been over to Beverley and Lesley’s a million times! We had that Christmas party there last year - I saw you, you came by!”

“I didn’t eat or drink anything,” Thomas noted. “But Beverley is a nice young lady, on the whole, and not terribly interested in inflicting obligations upon her casual houseguests. I would wager you’ve heard her say something about this before – were you paying attention?”

Now I thought about it, Beverley did usually mutter something like “eat freely,” when I was around, or Jaget and I were, but I’d thought that was more about not worrying about eating the last biscuit. “And Lesley?”

“As the flat is Miss May’s home, too, she can’t be under obligation by eating there.”

“God, that’s complicated. Okay. Always check before eating and drinking. Why is this suddenly such a problem? It didn’t come up last time I was here.”

“Because you did magic. And forgive me for saying this, Peter, but no matter what else happens you don’t seem likely to stop.”

And, okay, that was fair. “I will if you tell me to.”

He nodded. “I’m going to have to think about it. The other thing that must be addressed urgently – how long, precisely, have you spent doing this? In terms of, say, hours per day? It must have been that much for you to have managed the thing at all.”

I thought about it. “I don’t know. An hour? Two at most? You don’t mean – when you said I could kill myself, did you mean the whole brain haemorrhage thing? With just this?”

“I do mean that. You would have to work quite hard to give yourself a stroke by making a werelight, but if you did it for long enough, it’s possible.”

“Well. Shit.” I’d figured the stroke risk was if you were doing something seriously magical, not just a...length of time thing. “Is that what it’s called? A werelight?”

“It is.”

“Are they fire, then? Do they burn oxygen? The first one burned me, but then I-”

He coughed. “Peter.”

“Sorry. Safety tips. Go on.”

“You should never do this for more than two hours at a time, and if you do, there should be a six-hour gap in between. At some point I’ll run you down to Abdul’s office at UCH. He has an extensive collection of specimens demonstrating what happens to the human brain when it overuses magic. The Folly use it to terrify all the apprentices – he’s not on the official medical team but no-one else has been quite so interested.”

“I...look forward to it?”

“Don’t worry. He always gets a kick out of showing off his brain collection to someone new, so at least one of us will be enjoying himself.”

An afternoon of pickled brain slices, oh, lovely. Plus then I got to go home and fend off Jaget’s questions about what I’d been doing with Thomas. “Everyone has to have a hobby, I suppose. But about the oxygen thing -”

He gave me a really inscrutable look, and this was from a man who was often inscrutable. “Did you ever consider science as a career?”

“I thought about it,” I said. “You have to do a lot of physics courses for architecture, some chemistry – I could have switched – but it was the statistics that killed me; I’m no good at probability.”

Calculus is one thing, I can handle that. Or the applied stuff, mechanics, it makes sense to me when it’s about more than numbers, when the question is what it does to the structures I’m designing. Statistics is too theoretical; I can understand it when someone else does it, but if I try to do it myself I muck it up every time.

“Doesn’t architecture involve some of that?”

“Sometimes - when we can’t dump it on the civil engineers, Jaget and his lot.”

I wondered if anyone else had studied whether the werelights – well, they had to have had, but it was probably locked up somewhere in the Folly. Publish or perish was not a dictum of magical research, as far as I could tell. And, like I said, I had done that extra reading when it had come up in that physics course; it had been interesting enough that I’d even dug into the available literature. Not just for added verisimilitude for RPG sessions, either[J6] . There was so little out there that I’d hit bottom relatively quickly, even with interlibrary loan.

“I need to think about this,” Thomas said. “How about this, for the moment: you are not to do any more magic until we’ve spoken again – and I mean any more – and I’ll see if I can dig out David’s original paper on werelight energy consumption, and you can see if you can make anything of it. It’s around here somewhere.”

I didn’t like the “you are not to”, I won’t lie, but that did sound pretty fascinating. “Who’s David?”

“David Mellenby,” he said, and my jaw just about dropped, because almost all the available research there was on the science of magic – how it interacted with the known laws of physics – had Mellenby’s name on it; he’d worked on it throughout the fifties and sixties, and presumably died in the seventies. Wizards were not terribly public figures and I didn’t actually know what had happened to him. I’d have to check Wikipedia. “An – old friend of mine; I still have a lot of his notes and so on. They may be in storage – really I should have sent them on to the Folly when I moved into this place, although...anyway, it’s time to check what I’ve got in there. I haven’t looked at a lot of it in years.”

“Are you serious? You knew him?”

“We were apprentices around the same time,” he said, and that was as good a clue as I was apparently going to get to his real age; I did remember that Mellenby had been born around the turn of the century – the twentieth century, that was. Making this man sitting in front of me, looking like your average healthy forty-year-old – maybe a very fit fifty, if you included a rigorous moisturizing regimen – well over a hundred. But I worked that out later; right then I was still hung up on the fact that he knew, or had known, David Mellenby. “I’m honestly surprised you know who he is.”

“Are you kidding,” I said, “I told you, I did that reading on the physics of magic back at uni, I think I read everything he wrote, everything that was publicly available, the man was a genius, oh my god – um, that is, I know I sound like a sixteen-year-old girl right now but, seriously. Yeah, I know who he is.”

“And you’re neither a physicist nor a wizard,” said Thomas, sounding almost suspicious, but also weirdly – touched.

“I have obscure interests,” I replied defensively. “So?”

“I have no idea what to make of you,” he said, unexpectedly.

“Well, there you go. That makes two of us.” I held out my hand. “So, deal? I stop doing possibly illegal magic and you find that paper.”

“Deal,” Thomas said, and we shook on it. I got that vestigium again; I wondered if I always would, when I touched him skin-to-skin. I wondered whether it would be more intense if –

That was a line of thought I really couldn’t afford to go down right now.

“Peter,” Jaget said when I got back upstairs, “look, I know I’ve been giving you crap about this, but I just want you to know that it really doesn’t bother me. Just give me a heads-up if you’re thinking about moving out.”

“We were talking,” I said. “It’s not like that.”

“Really?”

“Really.” I headed for my bedroom; it was later than I’d planned to be down there, and while I didn’t have a nine-to-five job exactly, I couldn’t slope in whenever I pleased. “And in the unlikely event it ever is, I promise you that you will be the first to know.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t - but I’d screwed it up now, more than likely, because I was too stupid to know when to stop poking at something. Although it occurred that if Jaget thought I was spending time with Thomas because we had a thing, he wasn’t going to be asking any inconvenient questions about it. Just embarrassing ones. Those I could cope with.

*

Thomas didn’t speak to me for ten days – not avoiding me, just not making time for any sort of serious conversation. Not that I was counting or anything. He was talking to other people, though, because Lesley cornered me in the corridor outside our flats one day and asked why Thomas and Beverley had been talking about me.

“They’ve been talking about me?” I said, displaying my astonishing grasp of the situation.

“For, like, an hour.” Lesley was fair glaring at me. “What did you do?”

“You know, I’m a bit insulted you think I did anything.”

“Well, not to comment on your aspirations to laziness, but I can’t think of any other reason they would be.”

“What were they saying?”

She made a face. “Dunno. They obviously didn’t want me listening in and I couldn’t make it out from the kitchen.” All the flats in this building, even the larger ground-level ones, had kitchenettes that linked to the main living area; Lesley had evidently been lurking in hers trying to eavesdrop, unsuccessfully. She had good instincts, that girl. Should have been a copper, like Sahra and Jessie downstairs. I told her so.

She gave me a funny look. “I was. Didn’t you know?”

I hadn’t, actually. “When did you fit that in?”

She shrugged. “Right out of school. It didn’t last long. Really, no-one’s told you? I know Miriam and Rebecca know, and James on the first floor.” James was a voluble Glaswegian who played jazz for fun, so I avoided him as much as I could. He’d figured out who my dad was around the time of the funeral and naturally thought I’d want to talk jazz too. I could if I had to but it had been the longest-standing point of contention between my dad and me – he was a jazzman and I, well, wasn’t. I’d noticed Thomas had a decent collection, including some of Dad’s stuff, but he’d never mentioned it except to offer his condolences at the time, for which I had been extremely grateful.

“No, I had no idea. Sorry – didn’t mean to bring any bad memories up.”

“It’s been years.”

“Why’d you get out?”

She tapped her leg. It made a funny hollow noise. “This, and there was some stuff, around that time...I was a bit of an idealist, you know? Enforce the law, defend the public, that sort of thing. And then I found out – long story. So after the rehab and everything I quit, and started at the chemist, and got the flat with Bev not long later...and here I am.”

I must have glanced at her leg, because she followed my gaze down. “Seriously – you didn’t know about this, either? Do you pay attention to anything?”

I knew she always wore long trousers, even in summer, but I’d never asked why. “Is it – artificial?”

“Just below the knee. It was in the Covent Garden riot. Could have been worse – people died. Other coppers died. One of the girls I was at Hendon with, her face...it was almost better that she didn’t make it. I was lucky.”

If that was lucky I didn’t want to know what unlucky might have looked like. “I had absolutely no idea, no. I’ve heard you talk about Essex, and your job, and your family, but not that.”

“It’s not part of my life I try to think about too hard.” She smiled faintly. “I wanted it, very badly, and then it all went horrifically wrong. Never had something like that happen?”

“Can’t say I have.” Architecture had worked out pretty well for me as a career plan – I’d even managed to avoid being unemployed through the Great Recession, like a lot of the people I’d graduated with – and easily the worst thing that had happened to me was Dad dying. And that was the ciggies and the heroin, it was bloody predictable and predictably bloody. It was almost easier now. I thought it was certainly easier on Mum, not that she’d admit it. “For which I’m not ungrateful.”

“You still haven’t said what Bev and Thomas were talking about,” she said, circling shark-like back to her original point. “D’you really not know?”

Maybe they were commiserating over the horrors of having one Peter Grant fancy you, but I found that somewhat unlikely. “I honestly do not know. Tell me if you find out.”

Wanting something, and having it go horrifically wrong – was that what magic had in store for me? Christ. I really hoped not.

*

I got the actual suspicion that Thomas was checking up on me, because he made time to talk to Jaget – apparently casually, running into him in the hallway, but I was sure it wasn’t – and even my mother, when she was visiting me the next weekend. I’d spotted her car pulling up out my bedroom window and when she didn’t appear after ten minutes, I went downstairs to find her. There the pair of them were, in the main entrance hall, chatting away. I could feel my ears burning from twenty metres.

“Oh, there you are, Mum,” I said as I approached. “I saw your car – I was worried you’d got lost on the way up. Have you been catching up with Thomas?”

“I like to know you have good neighbours,” my mother told me. “Mr. Nightingale says you have helped take care of his dog when he was out of town – you were never that good about helping around the place when you lived at home.”

“We didn’t have a dog for me to walk,” I pointed out, quite reasonably. “You should probably let him get on with things. I’ve got the kettle on upstairs.”

Thomas and my mother exchanged polite goodbyes and lovely-to-meet-yous, and I gave him a hard stare, because he was checking up on me and I couldn’t figure out what he expected to find – he knew a lot more about my past than I did about his, and I didn’t have that much past to know about. It had been pretty straightforward and dull, as pasts went.

“See you around, Peter,” he said as he retreated.

“If you don’t like him, why did you help with his dog?” my mother asked as he was barely out of earshot.

“Who says I don’t like him?”

“You were giving him such a look!”

“I do like him,” I said, exasperated, and then revised it to sound a bit less – intense. “I mean, he’s a good bloke, I’ve known him for a couple of years now, I couldn’t say we were close but I’ve got nothing against him.”

“Oh, is it that way?” said my mother, and I rolled my eyes. “Mum. No. I just – he’s been talking to people about me, okay? Like he’s trying to figure something out. It’s weird. And then he just happens to run into you.”

“Well, maybe it’s that way with him,” my mother suggested, and then frowned – apparently this was less acceptable for some reason. “But isn’t he a little old for you?”

You have no idea, I thought. “I’m pretty sure it’s not that. Anyway, I’ve got a treat for afternoon tea – one of the women at work made us morning tea because she’s leaving next week and I made off with the caramel slice. Want some with your cuppa?”

“At least you look after your poor mother,” she said as we entered my flat, and I hoped that was the end of that.

*

On Thursday nights, Jaget spent serious time with the climbing wall down at the local gym – he was into caving and urban exploring in a big way and the indoor stuff was his way of keeping fit for it. Once a year or so he’d take all his leave and go off to Scotland or India or America or some other exotic location to wriggle his way into very small, enclosed, pitch-black spaces, because that was his idea of fun. It was that Thursday – the tenth day, again, not that I was counting – when Thomas Nightingale knocked on my door and my life really took a turn for the bizarre.

“Hello, Peter,” he said when I opened it. “Is this a good time?”

“Sure,” I said, stepping aside. “Come on in.” I’d been doing some sketching – for the house with the vestigium of the fire, as it happened – and I was spread out all over our table; the telly was on but it was just a re-run of a Grand Designs episode I’d seen before, the one with the kitset German house, so I turned it off.

“These are very lovely,” Thomas said, reaching out to – but not touching, which I appreciated, because I’d been working in charcoal – the sketches. Of course the plans were done on computer, but there wasn’t anything like pen, or at least writing implement, and paper for getting your ideas out.

“New project,” I said. “First you see the place, then you talk to the client and have the ideas, then you sketch, then you go back and forth about what they want, then it turns into real plans. The back-and-forth is usually the longest part. I like drawing up the actual plans best, though. It’s when it starts to be real.” It was entirely possible I was babbling. “Anyway – have a seat, if you like.” I was halfway through a beer, and offered him one, after washing my hands in the kitchen sink – charcoal, remember? He accepted, which might be a good sign or a bad one – I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know what a good sign would be. Or what it would mean. We sat on the couch, or rather, him on the couch and me on the armchair, since the table was a bit of a mess. He was holding a manila folder; it looked brittle with age.

“Is that the paper?” I asked, nodding at it. I put his beer down on the coffee table, with a coaster, even, because we’re not that uncivilized.

“It is,” he said, handing it to me. “I rather thought I remembered David going through much the same question you were asking back in fifty-six – it was never published but he did write it up.”

Inside the folder was a typewritten sheaf, something between organized lab notes and an actual scientific paper; there was no name written on it but some handwritten notes in ink so faded it was brown. On the nature of the werelight, the title read.

“Wait,” I blurted, “is this the original? Because I really shouldn’t –“

Thomas waved a hand. “It’s been sitting in a box for more than forty years. It was in storage, as it turned out – I’d forgotten quite how much...anyway, given how you’re looking at it, I’m quite certain you’ll take perfectly good care of it.”

“Would it be all right if I scanned it?” I asked. “That way I can give it back to you tomorrow – I have a flatbed here at home, sometimes people have fragile notes and photos and things and the office just has a run-through model.”

Thomas didn’t look like he’d understood much of that, but he nodded nonetheless. “I don’t see why not. It’s not confidential as such - nothing in there will tell anyone how to produce a werelight, just what happens when one is produced. I don’t think many people are that interested.”

“I suppose they have a bunch of copies at the Folly,” I said.

He looked thoughtful. “You know, I’m not sure they do, but you and Abdul are the only people I talk to these days who are at all interested in applying empiricism to magic – there may very well be a whole laboratory full of people there doing this sort of stuff but if so they haven’t asked me for it, and I’m not much inclined to go and offer it to them.”

Well, that was oddly aggressive, in a restrained British gentleman way. Thomas had described himself as “mostly retired”, but still a “member of the Folly” – how exactly did that work?

I went and put it next to the scanner in my bedroom, right away, so I wouldn’t forget. I wanted to get it back to him as soon as possible – I didn’t feel comfortable being responsible for something like that. And maybe Thomas was right and I was the only one who’d care that much anyway, which I couldn’t believe, there were plenty of nerdy Magic-A-Is-Magic-A types out there, but even so.

“I really do appreciate it,” I said, on re-entering the living room. “And I kept my end of the bargain, too – I mean, I guess you can tell?”

“No, not without following you day and night,” he said. “Which I have not been, obviously. That’s not how it works.”

“You have been, sort of, though,” I couldn’t help saying. “Bev next door and Jaget and my mum and Molly on the ground floor for all I know – you’ve been asking people about me and I don’t know why. I really don’t have anything to hide. The closest thing I’ve got to a secret is not telling people about my dad, specially if they’re into jazz, and that’s just because it gets awkward – and you know about that, anyway. What was it you wanted to find out?”

“Whether you were, indeed, who you claimed to be.” He picked up his beer, and I remembered.

“Oh, um, no obligation, drink freely? Is that right?”

“It’s the intention that counts,” he said, and drank, so I supposed it had been right.

“That’s all a bit spy fiction, isn’t it, though?” I went on. “I mean – what on earth would I be lying about, and why? Is this something to do with why you’re retired? Did you not believe me about how I figured out the spell?”

“Oh, I believed you,” said Thomas, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. This evening, I supposed to show willing, he was wearing a creamy Aran jumper over a crisp-necked polo – very nearly casualwear. Only the fact that I hadn’t changed after work aside from shucking my suit jacket saved me from feeling underdressed. “And so I have a question. You managed to work your way into one spell through sheer stubbornness and, may I add, a great deal of ignorance about what you were doing. Would you like to learn in a more formal fashion?”

This was absolutely not anything I had expected, and I must have stared at him for a good ten seconds.

“I’m sorry. I don’t think I – did you just offer to teach me magic?”

He nodded. I stared, again, and took a sip of my beer for good measure, to buy time. “But – why? I mean – I’m not saying no!” Definitely not no, because it was maybe stupid and certainly seemed like an offer that came with a catch, but in the simplest, straightforward interpretation – did I want to learn magic? More magic?

Fuck, yes.

“There’s a catch, though, isn’t there,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “That’s not the sort of offer you just make out of hand because I’m too stupid to know when to stop. So – do I want to, yeah, but first – what’s the catch?”

He smiled, thinly. “There are one or two, I suppose.”

“Don’t let me stop you.”

“I believe we’ve been over the part where you can kill yourself,” he began. “That’s actually more avoidable than not, especially if you let Abdul add your brain scans to his growing collection – I haven’t heard of anyone killing themselves that way for, oh, a good twenty or thirty years, and that sort of news would make the rounds. But it remains a risk.”

“Gotcha. What else?”

“Learning magic – really learning it – is difficult. I think you already have some understanding of that, but it doesn’t get easier – or it doesn’t get easier quickly. Before the war, when I was an apprentice – we started boys at ten or eleven, and they were trained by the time they were adults. Besides the actual magic, most of the literature isn’t in English – Latin, largely, some Greek, technical German...the Germans were very advanced in the nineteenth century, I have a friend who argues they may have been ahead of us in many ways. It can be a very consuming thing. That’s why it centres at Oxford; the students entering have much of the background already. I’m not offering to teach you all of it, I want that to be quite clear. I doubt you have the time to become a master and I couldn’t in clear conscience train someone to mastery under these circumstances. But there’s a lot of ground between here and there. ”

“Why even bother trying, then?” I asked, because I’m stupid. “For all you know I’ll get sick of it after a week or a month and then what? You’ve wasted your perfectly valuable time.”

“Will I have?”

I thought about this. “Not if I can avoid it. But that’s not an answer.”

“Perhaps I’m bored,” he said. “I retired – largely – fifty years ago and then instead of getting older and dying like the rest of humanity I turned around and went the other way, and I honestly don’t know why – practising magic usually shortens your lifespan if it does anything. Magic was supposed to be going out of the world, but it’s back, and it’s changing as the world does. The Folly should be changing, too, and it’s not. I can’t change the Folly, not directly – it’s too late for that, I walked away too many years ago. Even the apprentices I trained then are old men now. Newtonian magic, the practice of it – it has been so much of my life and I don’t talk to anyone else who really knows it, these days. And the people who do know it...have as little interest in me as I have in them.”

“Are you, well, allowed to teach me at all, though? If you’re – mostly retired?”

He shrugged. “It’s a technical loophole, under certain conditions. But it’s not illegal for me to take an apprentice, if that’s what you’re asking. Just unprecedented. Generally when Folly members go into retirement they officially give up the practice of magic. I never did.”

“And what – you thought someone was trying to trick you into...what?”

“It seemed rather too convenient, you suddenly showing an interest, when I’d known you for two years as it was. I wasn’t sure I trusted it - or what the motive could be. But you aren’t from the Folly. There’s a taste to how one does magic which is derived from one’s teachers; I couldn’t not know who’d taught you, or at least who’d taught them, and the only echo in your magic is – mine, because I showed you that werelight to begin with. You’re not fae, or demifae, or anything else. You’re perfectly ordinary.”

“Thanks, I think.” Although what the hell were fae? Like, actual fairies? I doubted that, but...yet another question for later. I took a breath. “So if you taught me magic – anyone from the Folly would know, if they saw me do it? You’d be on the hook either way.”

“More or less.”

“And you keep saying apprentice, and mastery – what does that make you? Because I want one thing clear; there’s no fucking way I’m referring to you or anyone as my master. Comes out all wrong.”

“Teacher, if you prefer,” said Thomas, who seemed to find that amusing. “But the former is traditional.”

“So’s child labour and beating your wife. And don’t tell me they do it at the Folly – they’re a bunch of white Oxford graduates, they would.” I took a breath. “So let me get this straight – high risk of brain haemorrhage, really difficult to learn, there’s a good chance I could get in trouble for it if someone doesn’t like your ‘technical loophole’ – they’re the police, after all, technically speaking -”

“Not officers,” Thomas corrected me. “I was, before the war, and after; but once they moved to the university system, with the Met’s insistence on everyone going through Hendon and then probationary training – I understand it happens occasionally but they’re almost all civilian consultants these days, in official terms.”

“Same difference if they bring the hammer down on me.” And I wasn’t a posh possibly immortal wizard, I was a mixed-race kid from the Peckwater Estate who’d made good, sort of, and could easily make bad again – I might have a degree, two degrees as it happened, and a good job, and wear a suit to work most days, but did that stop me getting stopped and searched by the police, entirely randomly, of course? Did it fuck. “That about the size of it, though?”

“Also, there’s an oath,” Thomas added.

“But you just said this was a partial offer, not the whole thing - and no-one’s going to know about it except you and me. Or not to start with, anyway...can I tell Bev and Lesley?”

“The Rivers claim they can smell practitioners and I don’t disbelieve them. You wouldn’t need to tell Beverley, who will doubtless tell Lesley. And so on. The oath – I may not be as much a part of the Folly as I was, Peter, but, yes...I will know. And you will know. You’ll be properly sworn in as an apprentice or you won’t do it at all.”

I gave him the direct stare. “How do you know I’m going to say yes?”

He smirked a little, but only fractionally. “You want to know.”

Fuck. I was ten types of idiot. Maybe if I said no and just asked him to dinner instead and we could –

Fuck. I was going to do it. And odds were then he’d never say yes to dinner, but...

Fuck. All right, then.

“Do we need a Bible or something?” I didn’t own one, and Jaget definitely didn’t (although he had dated a Catholic girl for a while whose family were from Kerala and had been Catholic since the sixteen hundreds, just to show you couldn’t assume anything.)

“Only if it would be meaningful to you.”

“Not really.” I raised my right hand. I was pretty sure that was still how you did these things. “Okay. How does it go?”

*

Jaget walked in just as I was picking up the beer bottles and Thomas was leaving, and said hi to Thomas in a deceptively casual way. Thomas greeted him politely and told him that I’d been showing off my sketches, then made himself absent. I scowled after him. Jaget had started smirking at “sketches” and hadn’t stopped.

“You know he’s fucking with you, right?” I said plaintively. “I’m actually surprised he didn’t say ‘etchings’.”

“But Peter, you don’t own any etchings,” Jaget said, and darted into the bathroom before I could get my revenge. Fucker.

*

And so began my entirely unofficial and perhaps dubiously legal apprenticeship in the ancient and noble art of magic. It started with a pile of books, including the book, Isaac Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Artes Magicis. Thomas had pillaged my brain of all the Latin I remembered, frowned severely, and dug out a textbook on that, too. “I don’t know why I still even have this,” he said ruefully, and neither did I; it was from nineteen hundred and twelve. I told him I had a dictionary.

“Do they still teach it at school, then?” he’d asked.

“Not my school,” I’d said.

“You learned at university, then?”

“Er - yes,” I’d told him, because I didn’t really want to get side-tracked into the wonderful world of modern roleplaying games. Fortunately, Thomas seemed to have some vague notion that everybody learned Latin at university - he’d gone straight into the police force, apparently, but had had friends at Oxford and Cambridge (of course he had). Well, it had been true in his day. I hated to disillusion him.

He was slightly more impressed with what I’d retained of German (my modern language GSCE, compounded by a semester studying abroad during my final year of my bachelor’s degree) and muttered something about Greek, but didn’t actually force any texts in it upon me.

The thing was, I really didn’t have anyone to blame for this but myself. If I didn’t want to study, or couldn’t be bothered - I didn’t get to learn any magic. It was as simple as that. There weren’t any grades, any tests, any certificates I was going to earn. It was just me and my downstairs neighbour who maybe was just bored enough to teach me how to affect the natural universe with the power of my mind. Actually, literally the power of my mind, because that was why magic fried your brain if you overdid it.

Somehow, though, the fact that it really was up to me - nobody was judging or weighing me, except maybe for Thomas, and he was pretty polite about it - was what pushed me. If I wanted this I had to make it happen. So I dredged up the grammar I’d toyed with nearly a decade ago, mensa mensa mensam, mensae mensae mensa, and frowned over Newton’s Principia - the magical one - with my dictionary and a pencil. I’d have killed for an e-book edition but I knew better than to ask if that was available. (I wondered if Thomas even knew what an e-book was. Well, he did read the newspaper. On actual paper. I was sure the Telegraph had at least run an editorial on the pernicious nature of the electronic reading device.)

The real kicker, though, was practice. The Folly had never actually issued any official statement saying that you had to have some inborn ability to learn magic, but they certainly implied it like anything. Fiction that incorporated real magic - not fantasy versions - assumed the same. And it wasn’t true at all, Thomas told me; his version was much easier to believe than the idea that I was somehow unknowingly special. Magic was like that pop science thing about it taking ten thousand hours to master anything - in fact it was exactly like it. And unlike golf or the piano, there weren’t any magical child prodigies who had a leg up; it was hard work all the way. Which made magic a great equaliser, really, or it should have if it hadn’t officially been restricted to about ten people a year who were already attending one of the most select universities in the country. But then, here I was.

And the when and where was tricky, too. The radius effect of magic on electronics was something that had both been calculated with some precision back in the seventies - they’d really caught the wave on that one, since microprocessors had barely been invented at that stage and certainly weren’t widespread. So I had a pretty good idea of what I could do without breaking a number of things I owned and/or really pissing off the neighbours. I got a lot of practice in when Jaget was asleep or out, in certain parts of our flat with everything turned off and unplugged, and more in Thomas’s flat or garden. Still more down one of the local parks, which had some nice shady corners, especially if I made strategic use of a backpack. In bright enough sun the werelight was barely visible, and in any darkness people would assume it was an electronic device of some sort. That wasn’t until after I’d stopped burning myself, though. I stuck to places with easily accessible water until then.

So I made werelights until my hand cramped - and apparently I’d already got through the really hard part, which was making one at all - and tackled Latin as hard as I could, hoping it wouldn’t tackle back. Jaget had taken to complaining that I was weirdly preoccupied and antisocial these days, but he was used to me going off on tangents like this, especially if I decided to research a property or a particular idea I’d had. I was very good at starting with “how shall I sketch the countertop for this design” and ending up at the Journal of Materials Science. I think he assumed it was something like that. He did once spot me with the Principia - that was very nearly bad.

“What the hell are you reading?” he’d asked. “Isaac Newton? God, is that the Principia Mathematica? Don’t tell me - you were thinking about curves on a building and decided to go back and derive calculus from first principles, just for fun. The amount of trivia you pile up, it’s disturbing.”

“Says the man who builds miniature steam engines just for fun and once spent half an hour telling me about boiler shapes,” I said. “If you want to have a nerd-off competition we’re both going to lose that one.”

“Don’t you mean win?” Jaget frowned.

“Whichever,” I said, but I discreetly moved some paper around so the Artes Magicis part of the title was covered up.

*

Jaget was one thing, but my next-door neighbours were another. Thomas had said that Beverley would know I was an apprentice, and he was right. Less than two weeks after he’d offered to teach me magic and I’d said yes, and I’d started supervised practice and wrestling with Latin, Beverley passed me in the hallway, sniffed – actually sniffed, like she was smelling something - and frowned at me. “Peter, have you been doing magic?”

I glanced around involuntarily; there wasn’t anyone in sight, but we were on the ground floor just inside the entranceway and Molly sometimes hung around there just sort of being spooky. “Um...maybe?”

She sniffed again. “You have. Oh my god. Does the - Thomas know about this? Is that why he was asking about you? Who’s teaching you? There’s no way anyone from the Folly would touch you with a bargepole. Oh my god, do you have any idea how much trouble you could be in?”

I didn’t, as it happened, so I concentrated on the bits I could answer. “He’s teaching me. Thomas, I mean. I sort of...figured out the first spell on my own and he offered. Can you really smell when someone does magic?”

“Who told you that?”

“Thomas did,” I said. “He said it was part of the whole river goddess package. Well, he didn’t say that exactly, but it’s what he meant.”

Beverley pursed her lips. “Did he. Wait – Thomas is teaching you magic?”

“Yeah, so?”

If her eyebrows climbed any higher they’d disappear into her dreads. “The Nightingale is your master?”

I must have winced at that; she shrugged. “Yeah, I know, but it’s what they call it. I’d get used to it if I were you. Do the Isaacs know about this?”

I was still lost back at “the Nightingale”. “Firstly, I don’t know what an Isaac is, and secondly, why’d you call him the Nightingale? It’s his surname.”

“It is, and he...it’s just what he’s called. He’s been called that since before...for a while. And you don’t even know what - Peter.”

She looked genuinely worried at that, and it started to worry me.

“Yeah, he’s a bit older than he looks, I got the memo. And Isaacs? Who’re they when they’re at home?”

“You know. Them at the Folly.” Because of Isaac Newton, I could only presume. “And the Nightingale is what we call him. Everyone who’s in the know who’s not the Isaacs.”

“Like...” I prompted her. She pursed her lips.

“People. Around. There’s more to magic than spells, you know.”

Well, there had to be, didn’t there? If Beverley was a river. Or whatever. I wondered what else there was. What other - creatures. People. Beings. Whatever. Magic had been known about pretty well since the fifties, but it was definitely the Folly’s line that magic, the way they did it, was as far as the supernatural went. Maybe not in other, less civilised countries, but in the UK? Newton or nothing. But that couldn’t be true, I realised. Not the way Beverley acted - not the way Thomas talked about her. So...what else was I missing? What else wasn’t being said?

“But...they don’t know about you, do they? The Isaacs.” She frowned again. “Remind me to keep you away if Ty ever comes round. Not that she’s done that recently, but you never know.”

“Ty’s your older sister, right?”

“That’s Lady Ty to you. Tyburn.” One of the lost underground rivers of London, that much I knew. “She’s like that with the Folly.” Beverley held up two crossed fingers. “It pisses Mum off something chronic.”

“Well, thanks for the warning,” I said. “Can you really smell magic on me?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. She leaned in again and took a good sniff at my neck; under other circumstances it might have been erotic, but it really wasn’t now. “Wizard, all right.”

Is that part of the, um, the river thing?”

Beverley shrugged. “Yeah. I guess so. What did he say about that, anyway?”

“You’re a river in south London,” I said promptly. “Which sounded bonkers but he seemed pretty sure about it and you’re not looking at me like it’s wrong, so there we go.”

Beverley narrowed her eyes at me. “Huh.”

“It’s only that I’d have thought you’d live in it,” I went on.

“In the river?” Beverley made a face. “Don’t be daft. Do you have any idea what that’d do to my hair?”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Does Lesley know about this?”

“Obviously,” Beverley replied, with a serious eyeroll. “You know, Peter, I thought better of you, I really did. I thought you had more sense, for starters.”

“What’s wrong with learning magic?” I asked.

“Well...nothing, I guess,” she said dubiously. “If that’s the way you’ve got to do it. But they don’t approve of it, you know - anyone outside their walls. I haven’t even heard of anyone picking it up, not in London, and you just decide to...learn magic. Like it’s a hobby.”

“I’ve never even met anyone from the Folly,” I reminded her. “Just Thomas. They don’t know who I am or that I exist and it is a hobby, for me.”

“Oh, the Nightingale’s all right,” she said. “The rest of them...you’d do best to keep away from the rest of them, if you want my advice. Far, far away.”

“I don’t remember asking for it,” I said, a bit snippily, because she was being all mysterious and condescending and shit and it wasn’t like I’d done anything wrong.

“Consider it a gift,” she said, and disappeared inside her flat.

Well. That had been weird.

*

Then there was Molly. Now I’d known Molly on the ground floor ever since I’d moved into the building - you couldn’t not know her. I’d go so far as to say she mothered everyone, except it - and she - was way too creepy to use a term like that. Molly watched everyone, lurking in doorways and corridors, her long black hair and black eyes making her look like she’d walked straight out of a Japanese horror movie. Although she didn’t dress like it - it was all seventies-style shift dresses and leggings, very chic, lots of black, and popular before she was born. Or, you know. Maybe not. I had no idea how old she actually was, and apparently it was possible to be much, much older than you looked. See: one Thomas Nightingale.

She walked like she was gliding, and she never spoke a single word. I’d even tried sign language back when I first moved in, the two or three signs I’d picked up, and she’d just looked at me like I was a moron. So not deaf, then. The only person she really seemed to like was Thomas - I saw him chatting to her, or rather at her, occasionally - and she liked Toby the dog, too, and he liked her back, doing the little yippy dance when he saw her that meant he was happy. I got it too, but only until he figured out I wasn’t there to feed him.

Molly also had an awful habit of coming up silently behind you and scaring the shit out of you - she had a particular fascination with doing this to Jaget, for some reason - but I was also pretty sure she was the reason this block of flats hadn’t had a break-in since forever, something I didn’t learn until I moved in and Miriam mentioned it to me. Any burglar who saw Molly was going to run in the opposite direction, I was fairly certain, and I often saw people I didn’t recognise walking briskly away from her with a creeped-out expression. Okay, some of them were probably the innocent friends and family of people who lived here, but I’d bet some of them weren’t.

She would also steal your laundry, but only in a well-meaning way. I’d gone to get mine out of the communal laundry room and found things mysteriously missing, which was par for the course, but it was always the things that needed mending or had particularly stubborn stains. They’d reappear on my doorstep repaired or stain-free, with a note. I’d asked Lesley about it the first time it happened and she said it seemed to make Molly happy. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen Molly happy, but Lesley and Beverley seemed to know her a little so I assumed they knew what they were on about. I know perfectly well women aren’t the Borg and they don’t have some weird intelligence network going on behind our backs, but sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference.

It was only after I started learning magic and found out that there were things in this world beyond wizards that I realised the mysterious Molly might be one of them. I had no idea what, though. When I’d asked Thomas, after that conversation with Beverley in the hall, he’d merely handed me another book; this one was in English, thank god.

“It’s almost totally useless as a practical guide,” he’d said, “but it should give you a fair idea of the kind of phenomena - and persons - you’re likely to encounter.”

“Encounter where?” I asked.

“Almost anywhere, now you’ve the touch of magic on you,” he said. “There are quite a few in this very block of flats. Beverley Brook aside, even.”

And one of them was Molly. I figured this out from subtle clues, like Molly texting me - one of two forms of communication she practiced involving words, the other being elegantly-penned notes - with nothing but the words You’re the Nightingale’s apprentice now?

Ugh, that apprentice word again. And the Nightingale, same as Beverley had said. And now I came to think of it, I still didn’t know how Molly had gotten my number when I’d first moved in although that could have any number of mundane explanations..

Yeah, I texted back. Why do you ask?

No answer was forthcoming, that day or the next. I actually ran into Molly two days later - I was leaving for work, she was mysteriously lurking in the stairwell, the usual - so I asked her myself.

“Oh, hi there,” I said casually. “Why were you asking me about Thomas and the magic thing, the other day? You’re not a wizard or something?”

Molly shrugged and gave me a look which said or something. Don’t ask me how I knew. Not telepathy; Thomas had been firm on that not working, which matched the public statements.

“So?” I asked.

Molly just stared at me, so I gave it up and left for work. I put it to Thomas after werelight practice that evening.

“So, Molly,” I asked, trying for casual. “What’s her deal?”

“Molly is...herself,” Thomas said, in tones that really didn’t invite further discussion.

“But she’s magical, or whatever,” I said. “Which kind of explains the miraculous stain removal. Don’t tell me she’s a brownie or something.”

“To the best of my knowledge brownies are purely mythological,” Thomas replied. “As I said. Molly is - unique unto herself. I don’t know where she came from, originally, and I don’t believe she does either. But she worked at the Folly, for many years, belowstairs.” I knew that was the posh way of saying as a servant. “When I was looking for a flat, Molly recommended this place to me. She’s lived here since the seventies, I believe, when it was still council housing.”

Okay, so, definitely not the age she looked, then. “Why did she leave the Folly?”

“There was some re-organisation at the time - they let a number of staff go.” Thomas looked somewhere between sad and angry. “Molly - should not have been dismissed, but...it wasn’t my decision.”

“Well, downsizing was the name of the game then,” I said, for lack of something better. “She likes to - watch over all of us here, doesn’t she?”

“It makes her feel useful, I believe,” Thomas said. “She also runs a - what are they called again - a food blog. I believe it’s very popular. But she spent most of her life looking after the Folly, and I think she misses it, sometimes.”

“And the, you know, not speaking thing?”

He shrugged. “She never has. It’s not a lack of intelligence, or other faculties, as you have no doubt observed. Whether she can’t, or won’t...it’s not really been my business to ask.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and changed the topic. Apparently there were corners and angles to the wide world of magic that even my new teacher didn’t know about. Wasn’t that something.

*

Magic had some side-effects that I’d never anticipated, too.

“It’s actually making me a better architect,” I told Thomas, a couple of weeks later. “I didn’t expect that.”

“How so?” Thomas asked.

“The vestigia.”

I’d expected that learning magic would be mostly about learning actual spells, but according to Thomas learning to sense vestigia properly was just as important - and just as difficult, since your brain is capable of sending you all sorts of random signals that aren’t magical in the slightest. We’d done a couple of field trips, if you want to call them that, to places with particularly strong vestigia - because the only way to get better at it was to have someone tell you when you were sensing the right thing.

“We do a lot of renovations and reconstruction – old places,” I went on. “I like to work with the history of the building, not against it. You can learn a lot from the vestigium of an old place.”

Sensus illic,” Thomas said. “That’s what it’s called when referring to the general feel of a building or site. Almost everywhere in London has a sensus illic, unless it’s very new - so much history, so many people, for so long. It’s similar in other very old cities. The countryside tends to be weakest in vestigia. Or perhaps in vestigia we can sense - obviously people like Beverley are products of nature, more than human activity.”

Sensus illic, then. And the hauntings, don’t get me started – ran into a ghost in this place I was looking at yesterday, being done up for a young couple. They wanted to make that room the nursery. I talked them out of it. Don’t think their two-year-old would appreciate the company.”

“Hmmm.” Thomas looked unexpectedly thoughtful. “You know, it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be useful in that way.”

“Really?” I said, with scepticism. “Because I know not everyone at the Folly is with the Met or whatever - they do other things. You’re really saying none of them ever went into architecture?”

“I’m not aware of a magical architectural tradition, no. Although in other countries - who can say? The Germans were very interested in the industrialisation of magic, before the war.”

“And after?” I asked, like an idiot.

His lips pressed together. “The problem was more - during.”

I thought about asking, and then I thought about what else Germany had industrialised during that period, and about keeping my lunch down. “Right. Gotcha. But getting back to the Folly - most wizards aren’t police, or with the police, or...whatever it is they do exactly. I know there’s a few who teach, one or two MPs, that sort of thing. What about the rest?”

Thomas shrugged. “A variety of careers - work with the Home Office, for example. I started out in the Met myself but I transferred to the Foreign Service later, spent a lot of the thirties running around the Empire.”

“Doing what?”

“Writing reports, mostly. Or that’s what it felt like.”

“But there were so many more of y- so many more wizards, then.”

“There were. I don’t recall the exact number now, but a little over five thousand, I believe, as of the war.” He never specified which war but I knew which one he meant - the Second World War, of course. “And now it might not be five hundred, and many of those hedge-wizards. Then again, I suppose by many definitions I’m a hedge wizard myself.”

A hedge wizard was apparently a Newtonian practitioner who had broken his (or her) staff, lignum fregit, Thomas said, and left magic behind. Or who had never finished the ten years of training it took to attain mastery - which accounted for more people than you might imagine, and explained why there were still only five hundred or so actual wizards in Britain despite more than that having been through the Oxford programme over the last seventy years. Or someone who had learned a little magic through routes other than the Folly - though that was very rare if not non-existent these days, apart from the example happening right in the room we were sitting in. It wasn’t that they were expected to forget everything they’d ever learned, Thomas explained, but rather that they were expected to practice very little magic and that privately, and in return were not generally called upon by the Folly.

“Except in times of great need,” he said, “which we are pleasantly short on, or have been for the past few decades.”

“Or have been?” I said immediately.

He made a sort of brushing-away hand gesture that I knew meant we weren’t going to talk about that right now. I was a bit suspicious about this, given his sudden decision to go imparting the forms and wisdoms to me, Peter Grant, working architect and man of no particular fame. But I could be patient, too.

“But no architects,” I said. “Really?”

“Not that I’m aware.”

“Well,” I said. “This should be interesting, then.”

Thomas looked at me dryly. “Oh, it already is.”

*

Later that month we took a trip to University College Hospital to see Dr. Abdul Walid’s impressive collection of pickled brain slices. The only upside was that Thomas took the Jag, and since there wasn’t a chance under the sun I was ever going to get to drive it – not that I had ever worked out elaborate fantasy scenarios where I had to, or anything – getting a ride was the next best thing.

“Why do you have it, though?” I had to ask. “The maintenance must be a pain. And she’s gorgeous, but the congestion charges alone for something this old-”

“It’s not old, it’s classic,” said Thomas, which I agreed with absolutely but the two were just slightly synonymous, especially when the car in question was almost as old as my mum. “And charmingly unburdened with electronics of any sort.”

I considered the number of microprocessors in the average modern automobile. “But you could just...not do magic in it?”

The look I got for that suggested I was exercising more logic than the situation required.

“Do you remember when the M25 came to a halt for nearly a day, when was it...last year? In June?”

I did. There’d been a traffic accident, and then a large number of nearby cars had mysteriously lost power...only two people had died, but it had taken that long just to clear the road. “I thought that was an accidental EMP?”

“It was magic. The Folly doesn’t like to discuss the actual extent of the damage it causes – it makes people nervous.”

“No shit. Surely someone’s quantified the range versus...magical output. Are there units for magical output? There should be units. D’you use werelights? Like candlepower?”

“Quite possibly but if so I’ve never seen the data, and no, no unit - there were a lot of suggestions but according to David they could never agree on one. Though those revolving around lux as a spell were the most popular, I believe. And after....the empirical approach to magic became unpopular in the late nineteen-seventies. Any other experiments like that would have been after my retirement.”

“What’s unpopular about empiricism?” I asked, baffled.

“You and Abdul are going to find yourselves in agreement about a terrifying number of things,” Thomas said. “And I believe the chief objection...among other things...was that if you permitted magic to become a branch of science then just anyone would start doing it.”

Since stopping “just anyone” from doing magic seemed to be the Folly’s raison d’etre, as far as I could tell, I believed it.

Abdul’s collection of brains was just as terrifying as promised, and I nodded dutifully when he pointed out the difference between the unhealthy, cauliflower-looking brain of someone who’d died doing magic – or died due to magic, I wasn’t quite clear – and your average normal brain.

“I get that you don’t want this to happen at all, but do we know how much magic corresponds to lesions?” I asked Abdul.

His eyes positively lit up. “Well now, that is an excellent question, although sadly understudied.” He directed this last at Thomas, who just looked bland. “Of course it’s not like you can get people to do magic and then just see how many lesions they develop. Or do animal studies. Or as if we have some sort of unit for magic in the first place -”

“I know, right?” I said. “That got me when I read the available literature at uni – it’s not like no-one was trying to apply the scientific method but they never successfully quantified it, and you can’t really do science without units -”

Abdul was nodding enthusiastically. “Precisely. I keep trying to explain this to those idiots at the Folly but they seem to think measuring magic is the first step to either getting rid of it or something worse, not that they’ll explain what that is -”

“I hate to break in, but it’s entirely possible that if you stopped referring to the bulk of my colleagues as ’those idiots at the Folly’ you’d have rather more success convincing them,” interrupted Thomas, who now bore the expression of someone whose worst fears about a particular course of action had all come true.

Abdul made a uniquely Scottish noise that indicated what he thought of that. “And Thomas here has been excessively unhelpful in the matter himself, since apparently he has better things to do, but if you’re going to be learning -”

“The basic problem is the unit,” I agreed. “I’m still not sure how they managed to pin down how magic was interacting with the physical world back in the ‘50s without actually doing that, but –“

“This is what happens when you let a bunch of humanities graduates run things. It’s all descriptive. Not that natural history doesn’t have its place, but if you really want to make predictions, and if we can’t make predictions then what is science for-

About ten minutes later we realized Thomas was nowhere to be seen, having presumably realized we weren’t going to be stopped. There was a text message on my phone – I have gone to get coffee. He never really had got the hang of textspeak. I’d known that for a little while, but it made much more sense now.

“You’d think he’d be more interested in this,” I said. “I mean, he was obviously close to David Mellenby, right? He lent me one of his papers – the werelight one?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve seen that one,” said Abdul. “Not that he really explained the phenomenon to my satisfaction, but given the paltry state of the field you take what you can get. I just wish I’d had a chance to meet the man – it would have been fascinating.”

“You didn’t miss him by much,” I said. “He died sometime in the mid-seventies, didn’t he? Wikipedia was a bit vague. Not that people don’t die in their seventies all the time.”

Abdul gave me a very odd look. “You don’t know what happened?”

I frowned. “Should I?”

He hesitated. “I don’t know all the details myself. There was something around that time...I think it has to do with why the Folly is a bit down on the empirical side of magic. It definitely has to do with why Thomas doesn’t speak to them much anymore. But the only thing I know for sure is what happened to David, and it’s not really my place. You’d have to ask Thomas.”

I wasn’t going to, of course, because you didn’t just come out and ask things like “Murder or suicide?” (or, for that matter, “is ‘close’ approved mid-twentieth-century code for ‘in a long-term relationship’?”)  but it was going to nag at me until I found out. Unless Thomas decided to just tell me. 

The man in question reappeared at that moment, carrying a paper cup of coffee. “Don’t tell me you two have run out of things to talk about already.”

“Just arrived at a natural pause in the conversation,” Abdul said cheerfully. “Here, Peter, let me give you my email.”

We exchanged business cards and shook hands.

“Abdul seems very interested in studying magic,” I said on the way home. “Any reason you didn’t offer to teach him?”

“He wasn’t interested,” Thomas said. “Not that I offered specifically, but he runs an active medical research programme as well as his clinical work – I think he simply wouldn’t have the time. It’s a demanding field of study.”

That I’d figured out already. And for a lot of people – I’d thought about it. I was nearly thirty. Not that it was on the table, but theoretically speaking if I worked very hard I might learn all there was to know, or all that could be taught about magic by the time I was forty. If I’d been married or had kids, or there’d been any prospect of the same in the near future, it wouldn’t be possible at all. It was as bad as doing a postgraduate degree except at least you got some fancy clothes and doctor in front of your name after that – and that only took three or four years. No wonder so few people learned - you had to have the time for it, and certainly the lack of a serious social life. It was possible I was a bit mad.

But, then again...magic.

*

“Peter,” Jaget said one evening, “why do we have so many fucking vouchers for money off apples?”

We had a Tesco clubcard and kept all the vouchers it spat out when one of us shopped attached to the fridge with a magnet. There were a lot for apples because I’d been exploding apples with impello, recently - very normal according to Thomas but a bit unexpected the first time it happened. But I couldn’t tell Jaget that. I should start throwing out some of the apple vouchers.

“Um, I don’t know,” I said. “Must be profiling us as the sort of healthy types who buy a lot of fruit.”

“Right,” Jaget said, frowning, but I was saved by Lesley showing up with beer as a bribe for hanging out with us; apparently Beverley was out on yet another date - there’d been a few with the same guy recently - and Lesley was looking for company. And we were just boring enough to be home of a Friday night.

Lesley gave me a significant sideways glance when she told me the bit about Beverley and her apparent new boyfriend, but I wasn’t bothered - curious, I’ll cop to, but not bothered. That prospect had come and gone, I felt.

“Who with?” asked Jaget, who also wasn’t bothered but largely because Bev was so not his type. Jaget’s girlfriends were all much geekier than that. Lesley had once pointed out it was like he dated my non-existent twin sisters, which was sort of disturbing to think about, so I tried not to.

“Some guy,” said Lesley. “A solicitor, I think.”

I made a face. “Bev? And a lawyer?”

“He plays the trombone in a band,” Lesley said. “I think one of her sisters went to the show to do a review and she tagged along, and it sort of went from there. She says jazzmen all...” She glanced at Jaget, and finished, “Her mum likes jazz.”

“Could have fooled me,” I said, because Beverley and I had bedrooms that shared a wall - thankfully pretty well insulated - and I had a decent idea of her tastes in music. Jazz generally wasn’t in it. “She’s never woken me up with jazz.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Lesley said. “You broke her radio.”

“I broke her radio?” I frowned. “How’d I do that?”

“She keeps it in her bedroom,” Lesley said meaningfully.

Jaget gave me such a look. “Ohohohoho - when were you in Bev’s bedroom, Peter?”

“I wasn’t!” I said indignantly, and “He wasn’t,” said Lesley at nearly the same time. Jaget frowned at us. “Then how the hell did he break it?”

I thought fast. I was practicing magic and it destroyed the microprocessors was not going to be a useful answer. “Oh, uh, did it get knocked off a table? When I...knocked that chair...against the wall?”

“Ye-es,” said Lesley. “Must have done. Anyway, she’s right grumpy with you. You should really replace it.”

“It was an accident,” I said, but Lesley just looked at me. “Oh, fine. Text me the model or whatever and I’ll see what I can do.”

Lesley did better than that - she brought round the broken radio the next day, with a nice big crack across it for verisimilitude.

“How’d you do that?” I asked.

“Hammer,” she said. “Just in case Jaget looks at it. Were you practicing magic in your bedroom?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “I didn’t know she had this up against the wall. I’m sorry, really. Anyway - I thought Bev was magic herself? How come she doesn’t blow stuff out?”

Lesley shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I did ask, once, and she said that it was - I dunno. Different. Her power’s all from nature, and her river, and...stuff. Wizards - you get it from things around you.”

This was reasonably close to the reading I had done, which indicated magic was drawn from one’s surroundings. It wasn’t electromagnetic but something about microprocessors mimicked the magic of the human brain - and other creatures. That was why they blew out - they got...drained. Apparently Bev was immune to that.

“Besides,” Lesley added, “it’s not like she’s doing river stuff in the flat - she has a whole house down by her river for that.”

“Why’s she living here, then?”

“Said she couldn’t stand living in the suburbs. And I was looking for a place, after I got out of the Met, and we were mates...she’s a good flatmate, you know.”

“Okay,” I said, because what did I know about the care and feeding of river goddesses, anyway? Especially the type who lived in ex-council flats and worked for BMW. “It’s not weird, though?”

Lesley punched me in the arm, but not hard. “Peter, people like Bev, they’re people. Just like you and me. Except not like you and me - even you now. But - people, you know?”

“I wasn’t saying she wasn’t people. Just...trying to figure out how this whole thing works.”

“Do you ever do anything else?”

“Nope,” I said, “and you love me for it.”

Lesley rolled her eyes as she left, but I like to think she did it in an affectionate way.

 

Chapter Text

After that Lesley evidently decided I was worthy of further induction into the strange world she and Beverley inhabited, which appeared to sort of coexist with the London I knew - the same people, just a totally different context. A magical one.

“We’re going to the market on Saturday,” she told me one day in May. “You should come. I think you’d like it.”

“What sort of market?” I asked. I was assuming it was one of those farmer’s market things, maybe an arts-and-crafts fair.

“The goblin market,” Lesley said. “Where magical London hangs out.”

Okay - that had my attention.

I said I’d think about it, but probably. Actually I definitely wanted to go, but I wanted to ask Thomas what he knew about it without having to tell him I’d committed - you know, just in case there was some really good reason for me to steer clear of it. I didn’t think it was likely Lesley would have asked if there was, but she didn’t know everything.

“I’m going to the goblin market with Bev and Lesley,” I told him. “They said they’d show me around.”

“A sensible notion,” Thomas agreed, surprising me. “What time were you going? I’d planned to catch up with someone this time around and I should really introduce the two of you.”

I told him, and we arranged a time to meet at the market.

The funny thing about the goblin market – I wondered how old that nickname was – was that it really wasn’t that different from any other market I’d been to, at least not at first glance. Lots of stalls, lots of people – this was London, after all, so you didn’t expect them to all look alike. Just people, basically. There were a few oddities – like a white guy with red hair and a pointed face who was so fox-like I wouldn’t be surprised if his name was Reynard.

Some of the stalls were selling things you’d expect – probably dodgy electronics, home-made soap, second-hand books – and some weren’t, like one with what looked like death-masks. It was the books that caught my attention, largely because one of them was the Principia – I wondered what the Folly would think about that. When I checked it had an elaborate stamp that I recognized from some of Thomas’s books, Bodleiana Biblioteca. I knew that was the Folly’s main archive, at Oxford; Thomas had told me, with only a mildly guilty expression, that forgetting to return books was a long-running tradition if you were a wizard, and besides he was fairly sure David had gotten them out, anyway. Which just meant he’d had them for forty years or more, of course.

The guy running the stall looked at me narrow-eyed when he saw me glance at that one, but relaxed when he saw Beverley and Lesley; apparently that cleared me of all suspicion of being Folly-related. Which I wasn’t, anyway. There wasn’t anything else at the stall which was immediately interesting – and Beverley was making irritated noises anyway, Lesley having gone off to say hi to someone – except a somewhat sizeable tome entitled Über die Grundlagen, die der Praxis der Magie zugrunde liegen. I hadn’t seriously had to break out any German since that exchange semester eight years ago, but I understood which lie under - underlie? - the practice of magic, so it caught my attention. All I knew about the practice of magic in Europe was that the Folly maintained it didn’t really happen, so the existence of what sounded suspiciously like a German version of the Principia was interesting.  I pointed at it quickly – but not too quickly, I didn’t want to look desperate.

“How much?”

What I really needed was my mum, who made bargaining into an art form, but absent her I made do and got away with it for a tenner. Lesley had warned me that the market was strictly cash-only, luckily; I didn’t make a practice of carrying much cash at all, in the normal run of things.

I wondered who exactly all these people were and what made them part of London’s apparently thriving underground magical community, but judging by every time I’d asked Lesley and Beverley about someone in our flats, it was considered a bit rude to just ask. So I was a bit surprised to get an explanation when I thought I saw Stephen, who lived on the first floor of our building – he was pretty distinctive-looking, weirdly big eyes and pale skin. I hadn’t known he had any ties to what Lesley called magical London and Thomas called the demi-monde and Beverley called people like us. Then I realised it wasn’t Stephen - just someone who looked extremely like him.

“Probably one of the Quiet People,” Lesley said. “I hate to say it but they all look the same to me. Not that most of them ever come aboveground, especially after that business a while back – that’s when Stephen and a few others moved out – but it could be one of the others who left.”

“Maybe Henry,” said Beverley. “I’ve seen him down the market a time or two.”

“Are you going to tell me what that actually means, Quiet People, or not?” I asked, because by this point I’d learned to just go ahead and say these things. Lesley and Beverley got a lot of mileage out of waiting to see how long it took me to break down and ask, and I’d got tired of giving them the satisfaction.

Once upon a time I’d thought the only inexplicable thing in our boring building of ex-council flats was Thomas Nightingale, too posh to be there, but these days it felt like Thomas was the only person who made sense. Sahra and Jessie downstairs were coppers, Lesley was an ex-copper, Beverley was a river goddess, Lesley’s boyfriend was half-fairy or goblin or whatever and that was why she’d never moved in with him or vice versa, Molly on the ground floor had way too many teeth for an actual human being and might be a fairy queen, and apparently Stephen on the first floor was one of the Quiet People.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Beverley said.

“They live under Notting Hill,” said Lesley, taking pity on me. “Do a lot of construction work, with Crossrail and everything. And pottery. I’ve never been sure why pottery.”

Under Notting Hill? Like...in the sewers? I think I saw that movie.”

Lesley snorted. “No, they’ve got their own tunnels. It’s nice. A bit weird, but nice.”

“Stephen’s not living in a tunnel, though. He’s a mate of Zach’s, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, Stephen is,” Lesley admitted, “but the rest of them aren’t Zach’s biggest fans these days. Stephen’s living in exile, kind of, it’s all a bit of a mess.”

“Why, what’d they do?”

Beverley grinned. “Oh, you’ll like this one.”

Stephen’s crime, I learned, had been aiding and abetting the elopement of Stephen’s fiancée with some dashing young American. The fiancée in question had been Elizabeth Ten-Tons, daughter of Matthew Ten-Tons, leader of the Quiet People – Lesley didn’t say king but I heard it – and more than four years later this was still a point of contention.

“He helped his own fiancée elope with someone else?”

“He liked her,” Lesley said, “he just didn’t want to marry her. And she didn’t want to marry him, so.”

“Decent of him, then.”

“Stephen’s all right,” said Beverley approvingly. “And for the record, Lesley and I knew nothing of this before it happened and definitely didn’t help Elizabeth sort out a passport, yeah? Because Zach’s a thing unto himself and it’s all right if Stephen wants to be on the outs with his own people, but if I’d got involved then Ten-Tons would have an official beef with me and my sisters and Mum, and that’s the kind of thing that gets a bit mythic, you know what I mean?”

Because sometimes women are women - even when they’re smart-aleck one-legged ex-coppers and river goddesses in South London – Beverley pulled out her phone and I got shown all the latest Facebook pictures of Elizabeth and Jim Gallagher and their two-year-old daughter Mary in various New York parks. Jim Gallagher looked pretty boring, to be honest. Elizabeth was a pale woman with large eyes and long brown hair. She didn’t look very supernatural but then neither did Beverley.

By that point we’d been once around the market and Beverley had run into one of her sisters and her husband - at least I thought he was, like I said, Beverley had a lot of sisters and I didn’t have them all straight - so I went off to find Thomas, like I’d said I would.

*

Thomas’s ‘someone’ was a middle-aged woman with dirty blonde hair and pale blue eyes. I wondered if she was a girlfriend, against all probability, but he merely introduced her as Varvara Sidorovna Tamonina. “Varvara is a fellow practitioner,” he said.

“Also outside the structure of your Folly,” she told me, in a featureless radio-presenter accent that marked her as foreign right away, if the name hadn’t been enough of a giveaway. “I’m still not really sure whether they know I live in London, but I’m not about to go knock on their door and ask.”

“Where did you train, then?” I asked, seating myself and managing to catch the waitress’ eye; Thomas and Varvara both had beer, so I ordered one as well.

“Russia. During the war, a long time ago now.”

“Nochniye Koldunie,” Thomas added. “The Night Witches. The Russians trained all-female magical units.”

“I might be the only one left, you know,” Varvara said. “Training did for many, the Germans went through those who made it to the front, and time’s done the rest.”

She meant World War II, then. “So does that mean that you’re, you know, like him?”

“Varvara and I suffer the same strange affliction, yes,” said Thomas, and Varvara laughed.

“Affliction. Suffer. Only you English would find eternal youth an affliction. Not that either of us is young, so much, but better than old age, yes?”

Apparently they’d run into each other back in the eighties – Thomas left the details politely vague and I got the impression “run into” might have been code for “fought” – and been in touch ever since, both human practitioners on the edges of London’s magical community.

“So this is your unofficial apprentice,” Varvara said, scrutinizing me. “What are you, when you’re not translating Latin and opening your hand meaningfully? This process you use, it’s so slow.”

“On the other hand,” Thomas said blandly, “it’s also so terribly survivable.” Apparently the Night Witches had had a truly horrific death rate in their rushed training.

“I’m an architect,” I told her. She looked genuinely surprised.

“An architect? Well, I never would have guessed. Thomas, where ever did you find him?”

“Neighbours,” I said. “First time I met him was at the bus stop.”

“The bus stop?” said Varvara, in a way that indicated she knew about the Jag.

“Public transport is often faster,” said Thomas.

She eyed his suit. “I can’t see you being very good at making yourself inconspicuous.”

“Actually, I thought he was trying to pick me up,” I told her, just to see what happened, and also because I didn’t think I’d ever admitted that to Thomas before. Varvara laughed, and Thomas, of all things, actually went a little red around the ears. It occurred to me, suddenly, that for all I knew he had been trying to pick me up, and just retreated at my confusion. And where would that have led, if he hadn’t, I wondered. The thought must have shown on my face, because when he finally glanced at me his gaze caught and held, and I was a bit hot around the ears myself, all of a sudden, in a fairly particular way.  

This train of thought was interrupted by Varvara. “Thomas, I don’t believe it of you! Trying to rob the cradle like that.”

He frowned quellingly at her, but she just chuckled.

“Don’t worry, he’s been a perfect gentleman ever since,” I assured her. Which was...good, right? Because learning magic was definitely more important than the other. Definitely.

I was not sounding nearly as convincing as I needed to, and the only person I was trying to convince was myself.

“I’m beginning to reconsider this introduction,” muttered Thomas, sipping his beer in a way that I’d almost call sullen in anyone else.

“So how does the Folly feel about Varvara?” I asked Thomas, later.

“I haven’t the faintest idea and I’m not about to ask,” Thomas said. “I didn’t meet her until well after I’d retired from all that. I don’t think they’d be very impressed, though.”

“Because she’s outside the walls.”

“Mmmm, quite. Her training was very – combat-oriented, as well. It’d make them nervous. She’s not any more dangerous than a great many other people in the demi-monde, but the Folly does quite rightly regard human practitioners as a slightly different category – one they have more of a responsibility for. But as I said – to my knowledge, and hers, she hasn’t come to their attention.”

“Are there a lot of people like you? With the, you know, not getting older thing. Or getting younger again. Or whatever it is.”

“No. I’ve heard rumours – but Varvara’s the only other one I’ve met.”

“And you’ve never wanted to know why?”

He laughed. “Do you know, Abdul once asked me exactly the same thing? And he’s taken enough blood samples over the years, if you’re wondering. But he doesn’t have an answer, or if he does he’s never told me what it is. And – I didn’t want to know, for a long time. I’ve talked to Varvara; it started happening around the same time for both of us, the early seventies, perhaps the late sixties, but neither of us were paying enough attention to note a cause, if there was an obvious one...now it just seems dangerous to think about it too much.”

“You didn’t want to know?” I asked, because if it were me –

“I was angry,” Thomas said. “It didn’t seem fair.”

Early seventies – that was around the time David Mellenby had died, wasn’t it? Whatever had happened, because I still didn’t know. I’d never asked, exactly, but I was fairly sure they’d been more than friends. Maybe that would be enough to make you angry – realizing that your partner, or whatever they’d called it then, was dead and instead of getting older you were going to go on, and on. It’d be lonely. And if it was just him and Varvara, among wizards – no wonder they were friends.

“Well, it isn’t, is it?” I said. “And Bev makes it sound like it’s the same for her and her sisters – she said Father Thames has been there for thousands of years. People’ve done some very strange things going after immortality or even good approximations of it. I’m not surprised the Folly doesn’t want to have to try and explain that to the general public.”

“Among other things,” said Thomas. “Yes.”

“So why did you want me to meet Varvara, then?”

“A combination of things. Varvara was rather curious to meet you, for one. And I thought you might want to get a sense of the wider world of magical practice. It’s never all really been inside the Folly, you know - they just pretend very hard that it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I’m getting that.”

I asked him about the book I’d picked up at the market - he looked at it with curiosity. “A German grimoire - fascinating. I wonder where it came from.”

“It sounds similar to the Principia,” I said. “Seen it before?”

“No, but various countries had their own texts,” Thomas said. “1799, hmm - sounds about right. Probably out of the White Library - that was the main German magical institution of the eighteenth century.”

“But not anymore?”

“No. It was the Weimar Academy until the Second World War, and they were rather forcibly demilitarised after, magically speaking. While West Germany existed the Folly provided them assistance on the same sort of matters they co-operate with the Met on, on a case-by-case basis - but I don’t know what happened after reunification, or what was going on in the East back then, for that matter. Either way, nobody wanted a repeat. Not even the Germans, I believe.”

“A repeat of what?”

“The war,” was all Thomas said. That there’d been some sort of magical component to World War II was a historical fact and fodder for a great deal of very bad science fiction and fantasy, but exactly what it had been wasn’t a public matter. Like so much else about the Folly.

“I wonder where this came from, then?”

“It could have been anywhere,” said Thomas. “It’s certainly been long enough.”

*

I still wasn’t clear on exactly how many sisters Beverley had. Wikipedia informed me that there were a lot of rivers in London, and I didn’t remember her having that many sisters, but maybe not every river got its own personal goddess. I had no idea how that worked, apart from this idea that they were linked to the magic generated by the life associated with the river - what Nightingale Thomas called vestigia. And according to Beverley there’d been some thing where the gods of the rivers of London proper, as they had been, had died when the city expanded and their rivers were turned into sewers. Until Bev’s Mum had come along and taken over and had some large and indeterminate number of daughters. By some indeterminate method. Her younger sisters Olympia and Chelsea were the same age and not twins, for instance, however the hell that worked.

But what I did remember was that Beverley’s sister Ty - Lady Ty to you, Bev had said - was the one who was working with the Folly, sort of. And although I had trouble keeping a lot of Beverley’s sisters straight, especially the not-twins, I remembered Ty, because she drove a seriously nice Beamer. Which was parked across the road when I got home from work.

I’d taken the bus and Tube in, as was generally my habit, so I couldn’t sit in my car and wait; I had to decide what I was going to do. What were the odds she was going to be leaving as I walked in? Beverley hadn’t wanted me to meet her. She’d smell me for a wizard, the way Beverley could. I didn’t personally think I merited the title of ‘wizard’ quite yet, and Thomas definitely wouldn’t think so, but it wouldn’t make any difference. I wondered how that worked - if I never did another spell again, would I still smell like magic? For how long? In a year? In ten years?

The thing was, though, I didn’t think I could give it up. I mean, I could try, but it was too - the words I wanted to use were “wonderful”, and “awful”, but not in the modern meanings. In the old, original senses - like that famous description of St. Paul’s as “amusing, awful, and artificial” - meaning pleasant to look upon, evidently designed by the hand of man, and filling one with awe. The spells, sorry, formae, I’d learned might be minor tricks as far as Thomas or any real wizard was concerned, but they filled me with awe and wonder, all right. And I wanted to know.

And the one thing I was sure of was that this probably wouldn’t be helped by a close encounter with someone who worked with the Folly. So I decided to run down to the shops; they were back towards the bus stop and in the normal scheme of things I would have done that on the way, but the exercise wouldn’t hurt. Besides, we were probably out of milk.

That trick, however, worked about as well as you’d expect. I was just pulling out my keys, thinking I was home free, when Tyburn stepped out of Beverley’s place, the next door down.

I’d seen her once or twice, which was how I’d spotted the car. A fair-skinned woman with a nice straight media-friendly nose, a wardrobe that appeared to consist entirely of suits - at least that I’d seen - and a really unimpressed expression on her face. Or maybe that was just whenever she saw me, I wasn’t sure. The point was, she knew who I was, in that I was Beverley’s next-door neighbour; she didn’t know I’d taken up magic as a hobby.

I knew the whole practitioner/wizard/whatever-detection thing Bev and her sisters had going on was smell-based, so I was hoping if I just stayed far enough away, I’d be all right. I glanced up, as you would to see who was leaving or entering next door, and then down again like she wasn’t that interesting. I’d got the door unlocked and was about to open it when she walked up to me, and I had to look up. I hoped I didn’t look as trapped as I felt.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Who’s asking?” I shot back, because I’m a Londoner. “You’re Bev’s older sister, right?”

She didn’t even acknowledge this. “Wrong question, perhaps. I know who you are - you’re Beverley’s neighbour Peter. You hang around her hopefully.”

This hadn’t been true for at least a good year, and besides which I was fairly sure the hopeful hanging around had been totally mutual at the time, even if it hadn’t gone anywhere. But I was going for unconfrontational. “I’m her neighbour, yep. I’m not going out with her, if that’s what you’re asking. Don’t think we’re really each other’s type.”

The look that got me said Tyburn thought I wouldn’t be anyone’s type, but whatever; I’ve been dismissed by scarier women. I’ve been to West African weddings. Being dismissed isn’t the scary bit. It’s when they start sizing you up to see which unmarried daughter you might suit, that’s when you want to get out of there.

“What I don’t remember,” Tyburn went on as if I hadn’t said anything, “is you being a...practitioner.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, like my manners were better than they are. “I’m an architect.”

“I can smell it on you, you know,” she said, conversationally, like it was no big deal. “You all smell the same, wizards. Pride and vanity.”

I didn’t need to fake a laugh at that, because practitioner might be accurate, and apprentice, but wizard I certainly wasn’t. “Um - sorry, I don’t remember your name - Ms. Thames - do I look like a wizard to you?”

I gave her my best sceptical glance, the one reserved for people accosting me to sign petitions on the street or hanging around a Tube station trying to get small change.

“That’s rather the thing,” Tyburn said. I hoped the sense that let her know I’d been having slightly illicit dealings with magic wasn’t literally a really good sense of smell, because then she’d know I was starting to sweat. “You don’t. I have...contacts...at the Folly. I know most of its members. And someone like you...they’d never have let you in the door. Either door. So where have you picked it up?”

And right then - I wanted to tell her. After all, she was Beverley’s sister, right? Safe enough. I wanted to open my mouth and say oh, it’s no big secret, d’you know Thomas Nightingale, lives downstairs? He teaches me. He’s part of the Folly too, you know. Well, sort of.

But whatever she was getting off me - whatever vestigia told her I was a wizard, or at least a magical practitioner, that I’d cop to - I was getting something off her, too. She smelt of leather, cigars, Belgian chocolate. Of hemp rope and death. Tyburn, of course, was where they’d had the gallows. I knew what it was; seducere, the glamour, but knowing didn’t break the spell. Knowing that it wasn’t safe didn’t break the spell. I still wanted to speak - it was a real effort not to. All I needed to do, all I should be doing, was turn and walk into my flat - so it was rude, so it was suspicious, so what? She was already suspicious and already trying to mind-control me, I wasn’t the rude one in this scenario. And I couldn’t get my hand on the doorknob. I just couldn’t. 

I probably would have done something really, really stupid, but I was saved by a deus ex machina, better known as my flatmate appearing out of the stairwell. I had never ever been so happy to see Jaget, not even during the bursting pipe incident.

“Hi, Peter,” he said, and then gave me and Tyburn a funny look. “Are you one of Bev’s sisters?”

She turned her head to look at him, and the impulse to talk was gone, just like that; I tried not to sag with relief, and used the break to open the door and step in.

“Lovely talking to you, Tyburn, bye,” I said quickly. “Jaget, you need to come check this out right away.”

I knew if I went in and left him out there, she’d be interrogating him next, and that was going to lead to all sorts of questions I wasn’t sure I was supposed to answer. Plus he was my friend, after all, and you can’t leave your friends to be mind-controlled by stray goddesses, it’s just not what you do.

Jaget looked really suspicious at this but followed me in anyway; I shut the door firmly behind him and locked it. Just in case.

“What the hell, Peter?” Jaget asked.

“She was giving me the third degree about Bev,” I said, which was...almost sort of approaching truth. “I reckon Bev hasn’t told them about the new boyfriend yet - what was his name? Mickey? - and she thinks it’s me. I didn’t like to spill.”

“Oh, right,” Jaget said; apparently this was believable. Thank god. “Glad I could come to the rescue, then. You’re home early.”

“Got lucky with the Tube,” I said. I was still a bit shaky; the force of the impulse to talk had been so strong. No wonder the Folly didn’t want people to know about things like Beverley and her sisters. It was bloody terrifying. “I’m, um, I was thinking about stirfry, you interested?”

“You cooked last night,” pointed out Jaget.

“I know,” I said. “I’m just in the mood for it. Wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, if I were you.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining,” Jaget said. “Just so’s you’re not going to hold it against me.”

“Nope, not at all.” I needed something to do, to keep my mind of what had just happened; it had freaked me out way more than I wanted to admit, and definitely more than I wanted to let on to Jaget.

I called Beverley after dinner - I could have just popped round but I wasn’t sure it was safe.

“I know you’re home,” she said when she answered. “It’s safe, you can come on over. She left ages ago.”

“Well, excuse me for being cautious,” I said, and did as she suggested.

“So you think Tyburn’s not going to rat me out to the Folly?” I asked her once I got in. Lesley was out.  “She tried to - I don’t know - make me answer her. It was creepy. Can you do that?”

“Maybe,” Beverley said. “That’s not the point. I don’t think she’s going to tell on you. Not yet. Not when she doesn’t know where you learned magic. There’s a lot of reasons she makes nice with them but it’s not because she likes them - don’t get me wrong, she’d toss you to them without thinking twice if she thought she’d get something out of it, but if you didn’t say anything, she doesn’t know what she’d get out of it. So she won’t. She’s going to be pissed at you, though. Ty hates it when people don’t do what she wants.”

“I’m still not sure what would happen if the Folly did find out about me,” I admitted. “It seems to be one of those grey areas. They seem to be a grey area, pretty generally.”

“The Folly.” Beverley snorted. “You can’t trust anyone from that place. Strictly toffs and monsters.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, they’re all up themselves, aren’t they? I remember when a bunch of them came to see my mother, when I was a kid – stared down their noses at her. My mother. The goddess of the River Thames. That’s the reason we made nice with Father Thames and his boys upstream – we’re still arguing about the boundaries, but they’re better than the Folly. Anything’s better than the Folly.”

“And the monsters bit?”

Beverley scowled. “You hear stories, you know? Experiments. They don’t think any of us are people, not really – anyone who isn’t a wizard.”

“If they’re as dodgy as you say, what’s your sister doing working with them?”

“Ty wants to be in - control of things,” Beverley said, very neutral. Very - controlled. “And she thinks we’d do better working with them than working against them. I suppose some of them think the same thing.”

“But your mum doesn’t - so why doesn’t she get Ty in line?”

“Not your business,” Beverley said coolly, and punched me in the arm for emphasis. It hurt. “My point is, this is how it is, right now, at least in London. Magical London. There’s the Folly, and then there’s the rest of us, and they have no idea what’s going on with us and we don’t want anything to do with them if we can avoid it. And if you have any sense, you’ll keep out of their way, too, if you possibly can. Don’t worry about Ty for now.”

“What did you mean, earlier?” I asked. “About hearing stories. That’s not just not wanting anything to do with them, that sounds like scary shit. I thought they were the police - sort of.”

“The police are for normal people,” Beverley said scornfully. “Come on, Peter, you know how that works.”

And I did - I knew exactly how that worked, having them look at you like you were the problem just for existing. How much further would that go for people who were magical? Who could make you do what they wanted just by asking nicely?

I still wanted to know what she meant by experiments, but I didn’t think she was in a mood to answer me.

“But you think Thomas is okay,” I said, because that was important.

“He’s the Nightingale,” Beverley said.  “He’s not part of the Folly, not really, not for a long time now. They look at him crossways, too, ever since he stopped getting older and got younger instead.”

“Started getting younger,” I said. “You don’t know how old he is, exactly?”

“Ask him yourself,” she sniffed. “Not my place to say.”

“Or why? He said he doesn’t know. I met Varvara, too, so it’s not just him. Is it just a thing that happens to wizards?”

Beverley snorted. “No. People would have noticed, don’t you think? No, they get old and die like anybody. Well - like most people. The Nightingale is...something else. I think the Folly thinks he’s more like us than them, now. But I don’t know, either, and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you.”

“So the Folly are creepy but you won’t say why, your sister’s probably not going to rat me out to them but you won’t say why exactly, you think Thomas is okay but you won’t say why...is there anything you will say?”

“Some of us don’t go around gossiping about other people’s business,” said Beverley, which was blatantly untrue on her part, but whatever. “I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself in for with all this.”

“Totally unspecified peril?”

“Something like that,” Beverley said. “Just remember the peril bit, and you might be okay.”

*

I’d put the German text - grimoire, Thomas had said - I’d gotten at the goblin market aside, and only returned to it a week or two later.- As an intellectual curiosity. What was really curious, though, was that a couple of sheets of paper fluttered out when I flipped through it; a handwritten letter, in a cramped script. A quick glance told me it was German, same as the book, and there was no way I was going to be able to decipher it easily; quite apart from the handwriting problem, if it was anything like as old as the book, it might not even be in Hochdeutsch, the main modern dialect of German. About all I could tell right now was that it was from someone called Bruno, to someone called Erik. One word did catch my eye, though; Stadtkrone, city-crown. That had been part of the architectural theory of the German architect Bruno Taut, who’d fled from Germany to Istanbul prior to the Second World War – he thought that cities should have buildings to centre them, secular cathedrals. I’d studied his work when I’d done my exchange semester; you could see the echoes of it in buildings like the Gherkin in London today. He’d had some correspondence with Erik Stromberg, I thought I recalled - Stromberg’s work had been totally different, though. And why would a letter from one to the other be in a grimoire, of all things? I wondered...but I really didn’t have time to try deciphering it now, so I set the letter aside for later. The book proved to be very similar to the Principia, from what I could understand (Google Translate was more involved than I’d care to admit - at least to Thomas) although with a rather different mind-set on some of the formae.

I told Thomas about the letter one evening.

“Did you translate it? Any clues to the book’s owner?”

“Yep,” I said. “I can’t be positive, but I think it was from Bruno Taut to Erik Stromberg – and the way it reads, they were both practitioners. Which I’d never have guessed, given their output – well, Taut is okay, but Stromberg was strictly a classical brutalist, it’s all concrete and -”

“Assume that I have no idea who these two people you’re talking about are,” said Thomas.

“Oh, right, sorry. They were architects. Both German, both buggered off overseas during the thirties when the writing was on the wall about Hitler rising to power – Taut went to Istanbul, Stromberg came here and blessed us with wonders like Skygarden Tower.”

“May I take it you’re not a fan?”

“I’m insulted you think there’s any possibility I would be.”

“Consider the implication retracted. But what do you mean, you think they were practitioners?”

“Taut’s definitely talking about magic, in the letter. Which was in a grimoire, note – which came from...somewhere. Now I think about it, there was a break-in at Stromberg’s house, last month; it made the papers, in a tiny corner. Maybe someone nicked it from there.”

“It seems doubtful this Stromberg chap just had a grimoire lying around the place – or his family did; he’s dead, surely?”

“Oh, ages ago; sometime in the eighties, I think. And I guess probably not. Then again, look at what you’ve got lying around the place.”

“I would have thought we’d have found him, before the war, though...” Thomas looked thoughtful. “There was a real push to identify practitioners among the flood of expatriates we got during the thirties, for obvious reasons. When we did identify them, they were asked to join the war effort.”

“Or...?” I asked, since that seemed like a sentence that ended with an or.

“Or shipped to Canada for the duration.” Thomas shrugged. “And there was another round afterwards...if this Stromberg was a practitioner, he kept it very, very quiet. Though I suppose it doesn’t matter much, if he’s dead.”

“It might not matter to you.” I grinned. “But magical architects are pretty interesting to me, for obvious reasons. You know, I think there’s some correspondence between Taut and Stromberg in the RIBA archives; nothing about magic, I’m pretty sure someone would have picked up on that, but I might go looking next time I’m there, see if the handwriting matches up. I’m curious now.”

“Magical architects,” Thomas said doubtfully, then “Well, now I am’m curious too; let me know what you find.”

“Will do.”

*

Now, it wasn’t as if Thomas had no friends, but they rarely came over - I’d never met Abdul before that time in the pub, for example, and as far as I could tell he was one of the closest friends Thomas had. So it was a bit of a shock to come back from my after-work run one day and see someone leaving Thomas’s apartment.

He was somewhere between my age and Thomas’s apparent one, wearing a tailored navy-blue suit with a red pocket handkerchief, and had brown hair, brown eyes, and that sort of blandly handsome white-guy face that’s instantly forgettable even in its attractiveness, if you go for that sort of thing. It was one of those drizzly summer days England is famous for, but still warm enough for me to work up a real sweat exercising outdoors, so I was wearing an assortment of tasteful sweat stains to go with my trackpants and a Doctor Who t-shirt. His gaze swept over me like I wasn’t even there; it was almost worse than actual condescension would have been. Belatedly, behind him I noticed Molly lurking near the end of the corridor, but in an especially vicious way. (Molly lurked like it was an art form, and I’d got pretty good at telling when it was meant nicely and when it wasn’t.) I took a right turn instead of a left towards the stairs; the blandly handsome wanker walked right past me and out the doors. Molly made to disappear back into her flat, but I called after her. “Molly!”

She stopped and turned, raising an eyebrow. I glance back - he was gone. “That guy - did you know him?”

Molly hesitated, then nodded.

“He’s from the Folly?”

Another nod, this one sharp.

“Is there - some sort of problem?”

She shrugged, spread her hands as if to say I don’t know what goes on with them, and went inside. I really wanted to know what that had been about, but I was also in dire need of a shower and change, so I went upstairs to mine instead of bothering Thomas directly - I’d be seeing him that evening for practice, anyway.

On the way up the stairs my phone buzzed. I’d left it on for my run, not anticipating any magic. It was Molly.

The wizards never come to speak with the Nightingale. Why now?

Great question. 

When I opened the door to my flat, I had to tread carefully; Jaget had covered the living room floor with a disassembled model train, one of his fancy working ones.

“You know, no-one made you go into civil engineering,” I told him as I headed for the shower. “You could have gone and worked for the Underground or something.”

“Nah,” Jaget said. “Sometimes you have to separate what you love and what you do.”

I wondered if that was true.

Thomas confirmed later that evening, while I was attempting to fix apples in place mid-air - harder than it sounded - that the mysterious visitor had been a bona-fide wizard, from the Folly.

“What was it about?”

“It was odd,” he said thoughtfully. “He was asking about the making of staffs. It was...unexpected.”

“Is that something you specialised in, or whatever?” I asked.

“You could say that. Before the war making them was the specialty of an entire group, it wasn’t something individual wizards did. I studied with them for a time. They mostly retired, after the war...I don’t know who’s still around, that they trained. It may just be me. I certainly hope not, but it’s possible.”

 “Well, then - that kind of institutional memory has to be valuable. I’m surprised no-one’s coming knocking before. You have to use a staff to do any really serious magic, right? Unless you’re really courting a stroke.”

“You do. But I didn’t get the sense this was...an institutional inquiry. My contact with the Folly officially has been sparse, in the last thirty years or so. Occasionally I’ve run into someone surprised I’m not dead yet. I’m certainly not inviting any of them in for tea and a chat just because they show up on my doorstep, whatever this one was hoping for.”

“Going to ask the contacts you do have what it was all about, then?” My next apple drifted gently out of the spot I’d fixed it in, without even a push; it was supposed to be able to withstand being whacked with a cricket bat. I sighed, let the forma go, and tried again.

No,” Thomas said firmly. “If they want my help they know how to find me. And by that I mean the Folly as a whole. Until then they’re more than capable of solving their own problems, or at least not making them worse than they already have.”

“You worked there for what would have been most of a normal person’s life,” I said. “What makes you dislike them so much these days?”

“I don’t dislike them, Peter,” he replied testily. “I just disagree with some of the ways they do things. How they handled the Woodville-Gentle incident in the seventies, for example – but the crux of the thing is, they view their job as maintaining some sort of bastion against everything...else. The Rivers, the fae, the magic that isn’t quite so amenable to control and explanation. Most of them don’t even think of magical folk in general as human.”

It was almost exactly what Beverley had said, and I must have made a face, because he nodded. “Exactly. And the current approach to recruitment – it...perpetuates the existing mind-set.”

“What do you think their job should be, then?” I winced, as he poked at the apple I was levitating with a stick and it drifted - slowly and stickily, but definitely a drift - away.

“Again.” I fixed the apple with scindere again, trying to keep the forma steady. “Historically the Folly’s job was to be more of an - interface. Particularly now, when the entire structure of the magical world has shifted.”

“And they’re not doing that well?”

He made an amused noise. “They’re not doing it at all - after magic...declined...in the forties and fifties they assumed it never really came back in the same way. You saw the goblin market - the Folly may know it exists but I’ve never seen any of them there. They pay attention in case of actual damage or crime, but that’s about it.”

“They’re a bunch of upper-class white Oxbridge graduates,” I said. “It’s not exactly a surprise they can’t be bothered getting involved. Who’s going to make them change?”

“I don’t know if they can change,” said Thomas. “Not without some precipitating event. They go about their business and assume the world is going to stay the same.”

He poked at my apple; it didn’t move, even when he gave it a good whack. “Better.”

“The world doesn’t stay the same, though,” I said. “Beverley said her mum’s only been river goddessing since the sixties. The Quiet People, they can’t have been living under Notting Hill for all that long, really - maybe a couple of hundred years? Less? All sorts of things, changing.”

“I know,” he replied. “But I know that because I, for lack of a better term, left - and I didn’t go rusticate in the countryside. The mind-set is, ah, self-reinforcing. And as long as the Folly controls who becomes a member of the Folly...it will continue to self-reinforce. But it’s not something I have the power to change.”

“Really?” I pointed at my apple, fixed in mid-air, and then at myself. “Seems to me you’ve started changing it already.”

Thomas looked a bit alarmed by this take on things. “That wasn’t exactly my intention.”

“Wasn’t it?”

He didn’t have anything to say to that.

*

So after all of that I was pretty well paranoid about the Folly, but as far as I could tell it was just a weird set of coincidences; or, more realistically, it was that I was now aware of certain facts about my neighbours that I hadn’t been before. Before this year, before I’d stumbled into magic, if I’d seen Bev’s sister visiting her, or some posh guy coming out of Thomas’s place, I’d have thought nothing of it. I hadn’t known Thomas well enough to know how unusual the one was, or paid enough attention to Beverley’s family to worry about the other.

And that was how this all worked, I was starting to realise. People knew about the Folly, knew that magic existed in a technical sense, but the Folly did such a good job of suggesting that it wasn’t all that interesting (and how much did the fact that mind-control, or at least suggestibility, was a thing have to do with that?) that it didn’t go anywhere. The rest of it - the really bizarre bits of the magical world - were all kept just out of sight, just around the corner, in your neighbour who was just a bit weird, that thing you thought you saw and then forgot, that feeling that vanished.

Because the human brain is really fucking great at seeing things that aren’t there. Pattern recognition, right? As an architect it can actually be a bit of a bugger, same with any sort of abstract design work. We all remember that alternative interpretation for the 2012 Olympics logo, don’t we? That sort of thing. It’s always wise, once you’ve done your preliminary design, to pin it up, take a few long steps back, close your eyes, and then look at it without focusing. Sometimes you catch things you didn’t expect. But they’re not actually there. Sometimes you’ll be in your flat late at night and think you see someone; it’s just furniture, a shadow, a coat left hanging. So no wonder all sorts of goddesses and mysteries and things could pass everyone by. They just got dismissed as tricks of the eye.

Magic intruded into my life in a very different and more problematic way, though, when I arrived for a site visit at my current main project to find that everyone was standing around outside and the whole place was swarming with police.

I found Sandeep, the project manager, quickly enough. “What’s going on?”

Sandeep groaned; he and I knew each other reasonablye well, having worked together on several projects. “They’ve found a fucking body, haven’t they?”

“Shit,” I said. “It’s not one of -”

“No-one I’d ever laid eyes on before,” Sandeep said. “And he was here when the first people got on site; been there since last night, it looks like. Bit of a mess, too, you don’t want to see it. I called the police and we all got bundled out as soon as they arrived - they told us not to leave. I’d say we’ll be lucky if we get back in there by tomorrow.”

“Did you ask?”

He shook his head. “They’ve been taking statements, but the woman who did mine said she didn’t know.”

“Well, if it’s someone who broke in - god knows why - then finding out how long it’s going to take is the most important thing. Want me to have a go?”

Sandeep shrugged. “You might as well. I think they’re sick of me asking.”

Mostly I just wanted to know if there was any point me sticking around - and also what the hell was going on. It was going to be a hassle, all right. Obviously it was a much bigger hassle for whichever poor sod had ended up with a half-renovated office building on the edge of Soho as their current - although certainly not final - resting place, but I couldn’t do anything about them; that was the police’s job. I had to worry about mine.

I was just wondering who to talk to about the timeframe - it wasn’t going to be productive to talk to anyone Sandeep had already bothered - when I saw, of all people, Sahra Guleed walking briskly towards where Sandeep and I were standing, huddled in the alleyway.

“Sahra!” I called; she started, and turned towards me. I jogged over. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were with the economic crime unit, or whatever. Not murder investigations.”

“It’s related,” she said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

I gestured at the project board. “I’m the architect. Got here for a site visit and your lot were swarming all over. I’m trying to find out how long it’s going to be.”

“Tell you what,” Sahra said. “I’ll try and find out for you, how’s that? Save you getting the brush-off from a bunch of my colleagues trying to do their jobs. Save them from you getting in their way, too.”

“Sounds fair,” I said.

Related to what, I wanted to ask, but she was already on her way.

I went to wait with Sandeep, and at least get an idea of where they’d been yesterday, try to figure out what sort of crimp this was going to put in the whole thing; this particular project had been on and off getting started because the building was listed, and this was really the last thing we needed. The client was a committee - it was going to be offices - so that just made it worse. At least it was looking like a fine morning, if we were going to be standing out here on the street waiting to hear.

Sahra came back out about fifteen minutes later.

“Good news, or bad news?” she asked me.

I sighed. “Bad news.”

“You’ve got to stick around; they want to talk to you.”

“That’s the bad news?” I hadn’t really expected anything else.

“As far as it goes. The good news is that it probably won’t be more than a week before you’ve got the site back.”

I gave her a dirty look. “I think you got those the wrong way around, just for the record.”

Sahra rolled her eyes. “Be a bit more grateful; a week’s pretty good as this stuff goes.”

“I’m still not sure what you have to do with all this,” I said. “Body on a building site doesn’t seem very economic.”

Sahra just shrugged. “It’s a wide-ranging specialist unit. Anyway - stuff to do. Hope you don’t lose too much of your day.”

“Me too,” I said.

*

The police officer who came to talk to me introduced himself as Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lewis. He was a white guy, about my own height, with blond hair that was thinning and greying, late forties or early fifties. He was direct but not suspicious; or at least he did a good job of not appearing suspicious. Given there was nothing for him to be suspicious about, this shouldn’t have been notable, but most of my interactions with the police up until that point in my life had been of the your-existence-makes-us-suspicious type, so I sort of expected it.

“I just have a few questions,” he began.

“Well, I may or may not have answers,” I said. “I got here this morning and you lot already had the place taped off; the last time I was here was last week and there certainly weren’t any dead bodies lying around the place then. I hear it’s not someone working on the renovation?”

“We think not,” he said. “But if you could confirm whether or not you recognise him -” The Met had firmly entered the twenty-first century, it seemed; he handed me a tablet. The picture was head only, and whatever had killed him hadn’t damaged the guy’s face. He was white, brown hair, a few lines around the eyes but probably not much past my own age; late thirties at the outside. I’d never seen him before in my life, and told Lewis as much.

“Thank you,” he said, taking the tablet back and making a note in his notebook; I wondered why he wasn’t using the tablet for note-taking as well. “And you have no idea what he might have been doing in the building around, say, nine o’clock last night.”

“Like I said. I’m the architect, but I’m not the project manager for this one; now they’re this far into the work I just come by every so often to make sure it’s all going according to the plans. The last time I was here was a week ago, because they had to make a last-minute change to the window frames. I was just back today to see how the installation was going. I don’t even know everyone who’s on-site – there’s a lot of sub-contracting. But there shouldn’t have been anyone here at that time last night, regardless of who’s been on and off the site.”

“We don’t think he was attacked in the building,” Lewis said. “He may have been looking for help here.”

“Attacked?” I couldn’t help asking. “Like, a mugging or something? I’d be surprised, in this area. I know we’re on the edge of Soho but this place is being done up for offices, it’s pretty quiet.”

“He appears to have been...mauled.” Lewis sounded like that was a test of some sort, him saying it; a test of what, I had no idea.

“By a dog?” That would be a surprise.

“By something,” said Lewis.

I gave him the serious side-eye at that, I’ll admit, because what the hell was that supposed to mean? Something? Admittedly my perception of the kinds of things that existed in London had been greatly expanded over the last few months, but none of the people I’d met would have been capable of mauling, and they weren’t somethings, either. And besides – and then I remembered that my mind really should have jumped to escaped big cat, not must remember to ask Thomas if shapeshifters are a thing. “That sounds ominous. Is this some sort of problem we should be worried about?”

“I doubt it,” Lewis said patiently. “But we’ll let you know, of course.”

“Sahra said we could expect to be locked out for a week at the most.” I really hoped that was true. “Can you confirm that?”

Lewis looked puzzled. “Sahra – you know Sergeant Guleed?”

“We’re neighbours,” I said. “Have been for a couple of years.”

Weirdly, this didn’t relax him at all. Instead, his whole attention sharpened – like it was suspicious that I was neighbours with one of his fellow police officers, what the fuck? “Are you.”

“Um...yeah?” I said.

“Would you give me a minute?” he said, and walked away. I was left standing there wondering what the fuck this could possibly be about. When he came back, he was moving briskly.

“Do you know a Thomas Nightingale?” was his first question.

“Yes, I – what the hell’s that got to do with anything?” I blurted out, because what did it have to do with anything?

“He’s a....person of interest to the Folly.”

Which I knew, I guess, but - “The Folly? The wizards? What the - I’m not following you. You’re with the police?”

“I am. With the Specialist Assessment Unit - which you probably haven’t heard of. But I’m also a member of the Folly.”

This was genuinely startling. “Is that a thing? Sorry, ‘police officer’ and ‘wizard’ aren’t overlapping categories -– at least that I’ve ever heard of.”

Lewis gave a wry smile. “No, generally they aren’t - the Folly’s role with the Met is mostly - a consulting one, I guess you’d say, but there are one or two of us who’re more integrated into the regular police service.”

“That doesn’t explain why you’re interested in the fact that I know one of my neighbours, because of this murder. I can tell you for a fact he was at home last night,” I said, because I could. Of course – I realised as soon as I’d said it that I didn’t have a good excuse for why I knew that. “He’s teaching me magic” really wasn’t going to cut it. I improvised. “He screwed up the programming on his remote and asked me for help, sometime in the middle of the evening. He’s a bit technologically inept, or maybe just allergic – only got a television earlier this year, and I think he still doesn’t own a computer, it’s a bit weird. But each to their own, I suppose.”

“What’s the nature of your relationship with him?”

I raised my eyebrows, because that was a bit personal. “We’re friends, I guess. I’ve walked his dog for him when he was out of town a time or two. We read some of the same books. That sort of thing.”

I remembered that that was probably a bad choice of example, where wizards were concerned, when Lewis asked me what sort of books, exactly. I definitely wasn’t going to tell him about the Praxis der Magie, for starters, let alone the Principia Artes Magicis.But it happened to be true, even before the whole magic thing; I rattled off a couple of titles, both of which Thomas and I had genuinely talked about and/or lent each other – the last Iain M. Banks, an older Charles Stross – neither of us were much for his later turn to urban fantasy. I said that. Lewis smiled, like it was a joke; it was, if you knew Thomas was a wizard. Possibly not the most diplomatic thing I could have said, either. Oh well.

“But I’m really not sure why you’re interested in my reading habits,” I finished. “Or, you know, Thomas. Like I said - he was home last night, and I just can’t imagine him having anything to do with - he’s a nice guy. God, that sounds stupid, but I mean it; he’s a genuinely nice person.”

And he was, as far as I knew. Of course, you didn’t know, did you, until you saw someone under pressure - but compared to plenty of people I’d lived next to or near or with, Thomas was unfailingly pleasant and polite.

All this seemed to pass muster; Lewis wrote it down, but he was less tense the longer I talked. “As a matter of fact I very much doubt he had anything to do with this, but I had to ask about the connection. It seemed – coincidental.”

“But why?” I asked, because I never can leave well enough alone.

“As I said, he’s...someone we have an interest in,” Lewis replied, choosing his words as he spoke.

“Like, what, because he’s a wizard or something?” my mouth said before my brain could catch up, but apparently my subconscious was smarter than I was, because that didn’t confirm I knew anything.

Lewis hesitated. “Or something.” Those two words again.

And, of course, what was Thomas, these days? Immortality definitely wasn’t normal, even for Newtonian practitioners – he and Varvara had made that clear.

“Is that...something I should be worried about?” I asked, because. Well. Was it?

“No, no,” Lewis said quickly. “It’s just - an unusual coincidence, I think. You know, I probably didn’t need to bring it up at all. Feel free to forget about it.”

I tensed, half-expecting - but that was all; I didn’t feel any sudden compulsion to do as he said. Luckily for me, he’d looked down at his notebook, and didn’t notice my flinch.

“Anyway, thanks for staying to speak with us,” he said, as if they wouldn’t have chased me up if I hadn’t. “I don’t think we’re going to need to speak to you again.”

Is he a wizard?” I pressed, because the me of six months ago sure as hell would have. The me of this afternoon was pretty damn curious too.

Lewis looked me in the eye, and said “I really can’t discuss that.”

I let my eyebrows rise, because that wasn’t a direct no. “I see.”

“Thanks,” he said again, and went off to speak to Sandeep.

So what the hell did all that mean?

The whole thing left me confused and annoyed, although I’d set enough time aside for the site visit that it didn’t actually screw with the rest of my day’s plans too badly. I really wanted to ask Thomas about it, but when I got home I was more interested in dinner and then I bottled out, I suppose; I couldn’t think of how to phrase it. “A police officer who says he’s also a wizard thought the mere fact I lived near you was suspicious?” Why? Why did he have such a...distant relationship with the only official organisation for magic in the UK?

I had to talk to him about it the next day though because the murder made the paper, and the radio, both his news media of choice.

“Wasn’t one of your current work projects near here?” he asked me.

“It’s our site, matter of fact,” I said. “Real pain all around for us – although it’s no-one who was working there, thankfully.” The news – internet, newspaper, or radio report, take your pick – had identified the guy as a police officer. That was weird, and probably increased the odds the project was going to be delayed even further – the Met wouldn’t be letting this one go. “But there was one weird thing.”

“Oh?” said Thomas.

“The police officer who interviewed me – a DCI Richard Lewis – he wasn’t interested at all but he got very curious when I said I lived in the same building as Sahra. Sahra downstairs – apparently she’s got something to do with the case, but she wouldn’t say exactly what. And then he wanted to know if I knew you.”

Thomas frowned. “It was reported as an animal mauling, wasn’t it?”

“By a dog. Or something. Inspector Lewis’s exact words. You...don’t seem very surprised.”

“If it is Folly business...I know why he might make the connection, yes.” I waited, but Thomas didn’t elaborate.

“So it could have been something magical? Like, what, a werewolf or something?’’

Thomas shook his head. “So far as I know there’s never been a confirmed instance of a werecreature of any sort.”

“Violation of the law of conservation of mass, for starters,” I said, and he laughed.

“David used to quote me that one whenever the topic came up, yes. Although there were some German units, during the war - but we never did get to the bottom of that one. And the only other thing....”

I waited, again, but he didn’t say anything else, again, so this time I pushed. “The only other thing?”

“It’s possible,” Thomas said, slowly, “to create - fusions, through magic. Of humans and - other creatures. Chimeras, they’re called.”

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it,” I said dryly.

“It’s pretty awful stuff,” he said, low and serious. “The last time - anyway, I imagine that’s what Lewis is thinking of. I don’t know the man, before you ask; how old was he?”

“Late forties, early fifties, maybe,” I said.

Thomas shrugged. “So not even out of primary school, by the time I lost contact with most people in the Folly; not surprising I don’t know of him, then. I wasn’t aware that Sahra was working with the Folly, though. That’s an interesting piece of news.”

“News to me, too,” I said. “She always says specialist and economic crime; well, magic’s specialist, I guess. Wait - does that mean she’s a wizard?”

Thomas shook his head. “No. No, I’d know about that, if someone like Sahra had been taken on as an apprentice - and she went straight into the police, if I recall; you still have to go through Oxford, for an apprenticeship. But there’s a section of the Met that’s responsible for liaising with the Folly - she must be part of it.”

“Pity.”

“Yes, it is,” Thomas agreed. “Well - I suppose I’ll be hearing from them, if they’re really interested in that line of inquiry; that’ll be a change.”

He still didn’t say why he wasn’t surprised, though, and I...didn’t ask. I did inquire, after a week or two, whether he’d ever heard anything from them; he said not. I didn’t, either, unless you count the call from Sandeep the project manager to tell me they’d released the site. The case dropped out of the papers very, very quickly and quietly, which I found suspicious, considering the dead man had been a police officer - that just didn’t happen that often, not like that. Suspicious enough that I bothered to ask Sahra about it, when I saw her around the flats one day.

“Not going anywhere fast,” she told me. “That happens, with murders - either it was the husband or the wife or whatever, and you know who you’re arresting within the first day, or it was a total stranger and it takes forever to pin it down. Not much in between, despite what detective novels like to tell you.”

“Did they ever figure out what it was, though?” I asked. “With the mauling. By the dog. Or something.”

“I don’t know,” Sahra said airily, and immediately found a reason to end the conversation; that was convincing, hah. So there was something weird going on. But I was never going to find out what it was, because as Sahra said, real life bore a striking lack of resemblance to a detective novel. Although Thomas and I would make a great odd-couple detective TV show, I thought. ITV sort of thing. Totally different backgrounds, quirky crime-solving, the odd bit of sexual tension.

Anyway - I really didn’t need the Folly asking too many questions about me right now, maybe ever. Or Thomas, either. So all for the best.

*

All of this made me do some serious thinking, I have to say. It had been about seven months since I’d learned that my weirdly posh downstairs neighbour was actually a wizard (mostly retired). Nearly four since he’d offered to teach me magic, for reasons that I still wasn’t quite clear on, and since I’d said yes, because - oh, come on. Magic.

Since then it was like I’d had a blindfold ripped off. Magic wasn’t just something restricted to one fading institution run by Oxbridge graduates who wanted another reason to feel superior to the general populace - it was everywhere. The rivers of London each had their goddesses, the rivers of the Thames upstream their gods; if you went to the right place at the right time you could visit a goblin market; a tribe of lost magical mining navvies huddled under Notting Hill. The city was thrumming with vestigia, with the echoes of magic past and present. And according to what nearly everyone I’d met had told me, the Folly - the official, approved portion of British magic - existed in an uneasy truce with this world, and might even be actively antagonistic to it. There were hints and rumours of darker secrets I had no idea about. And connected to at least some of them was Thomas Nightingale, my friendly neighbourhood wizard and master - strictly in the apprenticeship sense of the word.

But how much did I, or could I, trust what he had to say?

After all - the Folly were the official lot, integrated with the police and the government and everything else. There’d never been so much as a whisper of the sort of scandals that routinely disrupted those other two institutions. Sure, I was implicitly inclined to distrust them just because of who they were - you couldn’t say privileged white guys had the best record when it came to running the world - but in terms of actual reasons, I was a bit short. Except that they kept magic to themselves. Except that Beverley was coolly distrustful of them. And Lesley. And Thomas. And - just about everyone I’d met who had anything to do with magic.

But then again, magic was dangerous. I’d seen Abdul Walid’s brain collection, burned myself the first time I’d ever conjured a werelight, seen the potential and terrifying power of some of the magical community, Thomas’ demi-monde. Beverley’s sister had nearly mind-controlled me into spilling my guts to her and hadn’t even had to raise a sweat doing it. And Thomas himself was admittedly at odds with the Folly for reasons he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak about directly. Lewis had found the mere fact that I knew Thomas suspicious enough to ask about - which suggested the Folly had their ideas about him. And it wasn’t as if I could just look up a Folly wizard, or indeed call Lewis back, and ask for their side of the story. Not that I really had Thomas’ side, come to that.

Now, of course, Thomas had put me neatly in both his debt and his own danger. No matter what he said about technicalities I was pretty sure the Folly would take a very dim view of me learning magic from him, so if I did want to talk to them - well, I could get myself in deeper than I could guess. “Using magic to cause a breach of the peace”, hah, you could spin that any way you pleased. And now Thomas had me as an apprentice and...accomplice, maybe? But for what? That was what I couldn’t work out. He seemed perfectly content to just putter along. If there was some grand scheme here I had no idea what it might be. What it could be. Unless - that wizard who’d shown up to speak with him in June. Did Thomas really not know why?

The thing was, though, aside from my fevered thriller-movie speculations - and, you know, the fact that my world really had been turned upside down this year - I did trust him, Thomas Nightingale. He was unfailingly polite and pleasant to everyone in these flats, even Alex Seawoll with his inexplicable distaste for him. He was literally kind to children and small animals - at least that I’d observed. As a teacher, he was sometimes despairing, and occasionally sarcastic, and if he had a day job I wouldn’t be encouraging him to give it up in favour of education. But he was never disdainful or cutting - I’d had much, much worse in secondary school and even at university. I might or might not be his type, and I’d put money on would, but he’d never pushed anything or made me uncomfortable. A lot of people trusted him and spoke approvingly of him - people who weren’t fans of the Folly, true, but people I also liked and trusted, at least a little. Bev and her family, Molly downstairs.

Now, I know the first thing everyone always says about people who turn out to be dangerous and untrustworthy is that they never suspected. But that’s not really true, is it? What they usually mean is that whoever it was only acted out their true natures to people who weren’t believed or ignored. It’s like when a politician finally says something awful about a group of people who are thought to matter; usually they’ve been talking shit about women or immigrants or gay people for years, they just weren’t getting press for it. I hadn’t seen Thomas interact with members of the Folly, but the people I saw him interact with on the most regular basis were the people the Folly didn’t think much of. And they were the ones who liked him. That had to count for something.

Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t planning something - I couldn’t even imagine what - because everyone is the hero of their own story, aren’t they? But, like I said: I didn’t know what it could be, and...if I had to choose, it would be Thomas over the Folly, every time, no question. And that wasn’t even because I liked him, I mean, I did, I’m not totally blind to my own biases. Spending all this time around him was reminding me of that, in a low-grade simmer that I was trying not to let do any of my thinking for me. Besides which, he was I found him attractive and good company, and he’d taught me magic and it was really, really easy to want to support him. But that just made me shallow, it didn’t make me wrong.

So there it was, I supposed: if there were sides to be taken, I was on his.

I just wished I knew what the hell that meant, really.

*

Between magic and brushing up on languages and my actual job and the odd bout of stewing over my current life choices, it was a nice diversion to actually make small talk with someone - someone who lived in my block of flats, even - that didn’t revolve around anything even vaguely supernatural. (There was always Jaget, of course, who had somehow remained blissfully unaware of everything going on around him, but my small talk with Jaget right now tended to be about stuff like who’d cleaned up the espresso machine last and making excuses for why I hadn’t touched my games console in well over three months. And that led right back to the whole question of magic.)

This opportunity was granted to me by Miriam, from the flat next to Thomas, when she stopped by to see if Jaget and I could use some eggs. (We could, as it happened.) I was not totally devoid of social graces, so I asked her in for a cuppa; she took coffee. Miriam worked as a planner for the local council and looked nearly as tough-minded as she was. On the surface of things we didn’t have a lot in common, what with her being a grumpy white middle-aged lesbian in a long-term relationship involving chickens and me being a young(ish) mixed-race heteroflexible guy whose life currently revolved around architecture and magic, sometimes at the same time, but I had a lot of respect for her. We had a mutual dislike of developers - the wrong sort of developers, anyway, and we agreed on what the wrong sort was. Our main point of difference was that she got on with Alex Seawoll and I didn’t, but it takes all sorts.

We had a pleasant chat about how our lives were going - I told her about the latest design I was working on, and how the Soho build was going. She wanted to know why I’d been seen on her floor so much of late and I told her that I’d been hanging out with Thomas, except that I didn’t say hanging out, because I wasn’t sure Thomas would have understood the term. I was pretty sure Miriam interpreted this as a cover for me being too embarrassed to admit to shagging him - remember, she’d been there since he’d moved into the building and knew that he had to be a bit older than he looked. But she was too polite to say so, at least to my face. This was several steps ahead of, for example, a certain flatmate of mine, so I was grateful for small mercies.

Apparently the crisis that was currently entertaining the council planning office where she worked was the proposed, long-delayed, and perhaps now imminent - if “imminent” meant “within the next two years” - demolition of Skygarden Tower.

I had a semi-professional interest in the whole thing. Skygarden was one of the notorious council blocks of London, for one; various groups had been trying to get it brought down for years, despite the fact that it was apparently perfectly sound and still inhabited by quite a few people, and council housing had mile-long waiting lists these days. Having grown up in it, this was the sort of thing that got my attention, so I’d read more than one article and blog post about it. For another, it was the best-known work of Erik Stromberg, who may or may not have been the recipient of the letter I’d found in that grimoire. Him having designed it didn’t make its listing explicable in my book, but it hadn’t been revoked yet.

“I’m not working on that one, thank god,” Miriam told me. “The poor woman who is, Louisa - she looks like she’s got the devil himself after her.”

“The trees are nice, I have to admit,” I said. “We did a tour when I was back at university for my Master’s. You don’t have to like every style but you do have to understand them. It’s kind of a tragedy...you know why they called it Skygarden?”

“No, but I have a funny feeling I’m about to be told,” said Miriam.

I took that as the encouragement it was undoubtedly intended to be. “The flats were all meant to have attached gardens - they built the balconies with drainage and everything. You could have had lawns. Theoretically. The fucking hanging gardens of Babylon, in Southwark. But they lost their nerve and concreted it all over before the building was ever occupied.”

“Hanging gardens of Babylon? In Southwark?” Miriam snorted. “Only if you wanted a sky full of weeds.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, well. And they’d have got a bunch of problems with them, most likely. The design wasn’t bad but I’m not sure the materials were up to it. Stromberg did some weird stuff with the mass damper in the main tower, too...but anyway, you don’t want to hear me ramble on about that.”

“It lends a little colour to the whole thing,” Miriam admitted. “But frankly, at this point I’d blow the place up myself if it meant an end to all the wrangling. I think if they don’t sort it out soon poor Louisa’s going to throw herself in front of a train.”

“What’s holding it up, though?” I wondered. “It’s unique, I’ll give it that, but they’ve knocked down better buildings. They’ve knocked down buildings with actual history. This one didn’t even predate my father.”

“It’s the trees,” Miriam said. “Not the building. I know you think landscaping is an excuse to avoid doing actual architecture -”

“Slapping a lawn and some rocks in front of your building is not landscaping,” I interjected.

“- but they’re a special subspecies of plane trees or something,” she went on. “Don’t ask me the details, I don’t want to know.”

“Says the lady with the garden flat,” I pointed out.

“Do you see any fucking trees in my garden?” she asked. “No, you do not. Vegetables, chickens, and some annuals for variety. You want botany, talk to Thomas.”

“He is weirdly enthusiastic about green things, I’ll grant you that,” I said.

“Well, seems like you’d know, these days,” she said knowingly. I changed the topic as rapidly as possible.

But I was sort of curious, so I did ask Thomas, after all. He told me that he had no idea about which particular subspecies of plane trees they might be. I said I wasn’t actually sure what a plane tree looked like, which got me an extremely unimpressed look, but I’d sort of been angling for it so it was just entertaining. He did know why it hadn’t been de-listed, however.

“It’s Sky,” he said. “She lives there. I believe it’s Tyburn who’s handled the bureaucratic end of things, but if they did bring down the tower and clear the site, it would be the end of her.”

“Who’s Sky?” I asked.

“A, ah.” Thomas thought about it. “Another genius loci, but associated with the trees, not a river. I suppose one could think of her as a nymph. She’s very friendly with the Rivers of the south bank.”

“I wonder,” I said. “Stromberg designed Skygarden, you know. And there’s that letter I found. Maybe it’s magical.”

“As far as I know Sky’s association is strictly with the trees,” Thomas said. “Not the building. And from what I’ve read about the place it doesn’t sound very magical. Did you ever look up that correspondence in those architectural archives of yours?”

“No, haven’t gotten around to it,” I admitted. “But thanks for the reminder - I should do that.”

“You just want there to be magical architecture,” said Thomas, with a small smile.

“Well, if there isn’t any, I’d have to invent it,” I said, “and what kind of chaos would that cause?”

*

If you want to be an architect in Britain, you have to be professionally certified by the Royal Institute of British Architects - no exceptions and no workarounds. If you’d actually sat my fifteen-year-old self down and explained what a process it was, I would have recoiled in terror - so it’s a good thing that no-one did until I was already enrolled into my bachelor’s degree, honestly. There’s the degree, of course, then an internship, then you go back for your second degree, then you sit your professional exams - then you’re a certified architect, at least seven years later. On the other hand, when you’re being really formal you get to put the letters after your name, which is kind of neat. I’m sort of surprised the Folly doesn’t do anything like that - but then I suppose until the fifties they were practically a secret organisation, so maybe it’s not that surprising.

One of the advantages of being an architect based in London is easy access to the British Architectural Library - a lot of it is online these days but a lot of it isn’t. It’s where they store all the letters and papers and so on of those architects deemed worth remembering, of which there are more than you probably think if you’re not an architect yourself. It’s open to the public, if you’re curious. It’s a massive collection, so massive that it’s really no good unless you know what you’re looking for; fortunately, I did. Erik Stromberg’s papers were in a back section, not the easily accessible area - but it wasn’t much work to get them where I could look at them, when I asked the terribly helpful librarians.

There were a couple of letters from Taut, and the handwriting matched that letter I’d found in the grimoire - or I thought it did, I wasn’t any sort of expert. Neither seemed to make any mention of anything magical, though. They also had a number of books from Stromberg’s personal library, a recent addition – I was surprised that the National Trust had sent them here but apparently they’d decided that having the actual books wasn’t really contributing much to the house, and they might as well be where working architects and architectural researchers could access them. I took a look at the list, because of what Thomas was always saying about practitioners and books. There wasn’t anything that looked very magical – or so I thought until I got halfway through the list. Wege der industriellen Nutzung von Magie. Towards the industrial use of magic.

Well. Wasn’t that interesting?

When I got my hands on it, it was a small, red-bound paperback size book; nothing special. It had been extensively annotated by someone with a pencil, probably the E.S. whose initials were inside the cover – Erik Stromberg, of course. I’d noticed the same thing with all the books I’d borrowed off Thomas. Apparently that was another way could tell a practitioner, the total inability to keep their thoughts to themselves. And it had just been sitting here, in plain sight - I wondered what the librarians had thought when they’d categorised it.

The trouble with the British Architectural Library is that it’s not a library in the public sense; I couldn’t just walk out of here with this book. (That was assuming I wanted to be recorded as having gotten out a book on industrial magic, of course.) But what I did have was a smartphone, about half an hour, and a book that had been helpfully annotated by the last person to own it. I couldn’t digitise the whole thing but I could get pretty close. So I set to work.

“Someone was doing magical architecture,” I told Thomas the next day – I wasn’t trying for smug but it might have come out that way. “Or at least they were trying to. Check out what I found.”

If it had been absolutely anyone else of my acquaintance I would have just emailed Thomas the pages I’d scanned already, but of course that would have required Thomas having, you know, email. Or a computer. Or any device invented after approximately nineteen-sixty. Having gotten to know him over the past few months I was honestly surprised he even owned a mobile phone, since that seemed dangerously modern by his standards, but he said that Molly had talked him into it. (I could only presume via a series of notes complaining about how much quicker it would be to text him.) Instead, I brought my tablet with me.

This meant we got side-tracked for half-an-hour while I demonstrated the tablet to Thomas, who picked it up surprisingly quickly – well, I suppose they’re designed to be easy to use.

“I can’t believe you’ve never played with one of these,” I said.

“I didn’t really see the point,” Thomas said. “Technically you’re not doing anything you can’t do with a pen and paper -”

Aren’t you,” I retorted, and we spent another ten minutes on the efficiency of a search function when confronted with a whole lot of text. It was actually kind of fun doing this sort of thing with Thomas, because while he was practically technophobic in terms of how much modern technology he’d picked up, if he wanted to learn about it he did so with impressive speed – you never had to explain anything twice. And, well, it was nice to know that I could teach him a thing or two, even if it wasn’t quite as cool as magic. And if it meant sitting next to each other on the sofa, Toby at our feet – I’d gotten upgraded (or downgraded, hard to tell) to the sofa by now – and passing the tablet back and forth, with lots of leaning close, you know, that was all right, too. Thomas certainly didn’t seem to mind.

The gist of what Stromberg had been interested in, in the book, appeared to be the notion that you could somehow “mine” magic from areas that were high in it – high in vestigia, I supposed. Thomas allowed how that was possible, but wasn’t sure how effective it would be. Or what you’d do with the magic afterwards.

“Well, Skygarden’s been there for nearly fifty years, with who knows how many thousands of people living there,” I said. “It could be an incremental thing.”

“But how would you store it? And why do you keep coming back to this Skygarden place?”

“It’s his most well-known design, by far,” I said. “And then there’s the mass damper. I’d forgotten about it until now, but all this made me remember it.” 

“The what?”

“So I’ve visited the place, once. A bunch of us went there on a field trip, when I was doing my Master’s; greatest hits of late brutalism, that sort of thing. The weird thing about Skygarden, the thing I never figured out, was the mass damper. It’s a counterbalance, basically - it dampens down oscillations when the tower moves with the wind and so on.”

Thomas wore the usual sceptical frown members of the non-architectural (or engineering) inclined public do at the concept that tall buildings are subject to something like wind.

“I’m serious,” I said. “You need them. Anyway - Skygarden had one, but it was weird. Like a big plastic stick hanging right down a central shaft. And then at the top - there was this big metal concrete dome, with a locked door. It wasn’t the lift machinery and it wasn’t water storage, it was - something else. None of us could figure out what it was all about, and the blueprints weren’t any help.”

One of my classmates had hunted them down; the metal dome and the plastic mass damper hadn’t even been on the blueprints. It had been generally bizarre, but all of us had had too much else to do to worry about it at that point in our lives, so the question had been dropped.

“And plastic can store magic,” Thomas concluded for me.

“Exactly.”

“Alright,” Thomas said. “So you have a practitioner who’s also an architect, mining magic from daily life...for what purpose?”

“I don’t know, you’re the wizard,” I told him. “To power some sort of spell...I guess it’d be an enchantment, a magically imbued object? Make everyone...happier? Make them better?”

“Why do you say better?” Thomas wanted to know. “Better than what?”

“That’s what they wanted,” I said. “Sort of. Stromberg’s generation of architects – they thought they could make people...better, happier, through architecture. Not just the way all of us want to make buildings that work for people – they wanted to bring it to the masses. That’s why all the council estates and things. It didn’t work, of course, and I don’t think you could say Skygarden made anyone happier, but that was the theory.”

“Hmm,” Thomas pondered this. “Maybe...maybe it was meant to store magic and Stromberg planned to come back and activate a spell, once there was enough. He died unexpectedly, you did say.”

“It’s a possibility.”

“It does make me wonder,” Thomas said. “Magic was – restricted, after the war. It started to...reactivate...in the sixties; that was why the Folly began to train people again. I would think we’d have noticed a German practitioner building magical buildings in our home city.”

“Would you’ve, though?” I asked. “Council flats in Southwark? Would you’ve really?”

Thomas didn’t look impressed, but conceded the point. “The question is, though - if this is so...what else of this scale didn’t we notice?”

“Well, I don’t know. Anything coming to mind?”

That shut him down, weirdly and abruptly - so weirdly that I made a note of it. Something had come to mind, but he didn’t want to talk about it. A conversation for another day, maybe.

What I really wanted to do now was drop by Skygarden and see if my hazy memories about the suspicious mass damper had been right, but it just wasn’t very high on my priority list, between work, magic, and maintaining some façade of a social life. So I made a note to do something about it when I had a weekend day free, and otherwise put it out of my mind. Magical architecture sounded pretty amazing, but I could barely do the equivalent of magical sand castles, right now – the really basic ones that you do with a bucket and a trowel and a couple of pieces of driftwood – so it wasn’t like going and looking at the place would do much good, probably. Besides, they might still be going back on forth on whether to demolish the place, but if what Thomas said was true it was never going to happen - and my one meeting with Lady Ty had convinced me quite thoroughly of her ability to make things happen. Or not happen.

Yeah, I know, I know - but at the time, could you really blame me?

And besides, even if I had gone to take a look - what good would it have done?

*

The next week Thomas had to leave town unexpectedly for a funeral in Herefordshire.

“Friend or family?” I asked.

“Former colleague,” he said. “Name of Hugh Oswald. He gave up magic in the fifties, but we were in touch a little - his granddaughter is...well, I’m not quite sure. David used to mutter something about someone called Lamarck.”

“Lamarckian evolution, really?” I said.

Thomas looked totally blank - he was perfectly intelligent but he had the weirdest gaps in his general knowledge.

“It’s a discredited theory...sort of,” I told him. “Normal evolution is natural selection, right - existing traits are selected for because the most successful produce the most offspring. Lamarckian evolution was the idea that your experiences through your life could change you, and then you could pass those changes on to your kids - like, maybe giraffes evolved because their ancestors stretched to reach leaves and their necks got longer. It doesn’t work like that, but there is some evidence...” I trailed off, spotting that I was losing him. “Um, you know, Abdul can probably summarise it better than I can. What does this have to do with magic?”

“Newtonian magic isn’t a genetically conferred ability, except insomuch as all humans have it -”

“Oooh, that’d be an experiment,” I interrupted. “Could you get a chimpanzee to replicate a forma, if you demonstrated it? They can do sign language. Or does it require strict sapience?”

As I was saying,” Thomas said, “many children and grandchildren of Newtonian wizards - especially in the last fifty years or so - end up...different. In a magical way.”

“That’s a bit unspecific.”

“The word traditionally used is fae, but that’s also unspecific, just in Latin. Think...of the Quiet People, or some of the others you see at the goblin market. Mellissa is a nice girl and certainly quite magical. She called to let me know about the funeral, so I’ll be leaving early tomorrow and probably stay the night. She wanted help with his library.”

“She’s not just giving it to the Folly?” I asked.

“Some attempts were made to, ah, make a study of this particular phenomenon in the first few years of this century. Mellissa was a teenager at the time. She doesn’t have the fondest memories of the Folly.”

They don’t think we’re people, Beverley had said to me, and I had a fair idea of what that could mean in the context of make a study of this particular phenomenon. Human history was littered with the bloody remnants of what happened when someone decided other people weren’t people.

“How bad are we talking, on a scale, of, say...Andrew Wakefield to Dr. Mengele?”

I half-expected to have to explain Andrew Wakefield but Thomas did read the paper, so he told me it was more that end of the Totally Unethical Experiments scale.

“That’s not exactly covering themselves in glory, though,” I said. “Charming. I wonder less and less why you don’t talk to them the more I hear. D’you want me to walk Toby while you’re out?”

Thomas said that would be extremely helpful, if it wasn’t too much trouble, and we said goodbye for the evening.

I went down to his place to take Toby out after work the next day - Thomas had taken him out that morning. It was a grey and muggy day in August but at least the light was still lasting late into the evening, and the clouds had started to break up with sunset. Toby was thrilled to see me, and brought me the lead as soon as I opened the door. I was planning to do a little practice in the garden once I’d done walking him - Thomas’s flat was way clearer of breakable electronics, and he wouldn’t mind. My mind was mostly on the formae I was going to work with, and a little on the Folly, and what they’d been getting up to ten or fifteen years ago - hadn’t that been well after empiricism had ‘gone out of style’?

Of course, that was when I walked out the door, Toby trotting at my heels, and almost smack into a real live Folly wizard - the blandly handsome wanker who’d come over to bother Thomas back in June. Today’s suit was charcoal-grey, instead of navy-blue, but the pocket handkerchief was still red, and the face as forgettable as ever – apparently there was an actual spell that could do that, which wasn’t going on here, because I could have picked him out of a police lineup if I had to, as long as it didn’t consist of, say, male Tory MPs. It was just a really boring face.

“Who the hell are you?” he said.

“Who the hell are you,” I replied, because I’m witty like that.

“Where is he?”

“Seriously,” I said again, “who the hell are you?”

“I’m looking for Thomas Nightingale,” he said superciliously. He did posh even better than Thomas did.

I decided my best bet was to play the helpful but not terribly bright neighbour. I had a funny feeling he might find that an easy role to believe. “Ohhhhhhh, you should have said. I’m afraid he’s out of town, at a funeral – I’m walking Toby here for him.” Toby, obedient to the sound of his name, growled at the guy. I frowned and tightened the leash. “I’m sorry, he’s normally so much better behaved than this.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a friend?”

“Um, sort of?” I said, trying for awkward. “I mean, we’re all pretty close in these flats, you know, he checks my mail when I’m away and I take Toby for walks. Has something happened? He left me his number for emergencies – can I give it to you?”

“No, that will be all. You can go now,” he said. The suggestion was so strong that I might have walked off then and there if Toby hadn’t actually tried to throw himself at the man in a burst of barking. That snapped me right out of it, and I reeled him back in. “Oh, Jesus, I don’t know what’s gotten into him – let me just lock up and I’ll be out of your hair.”

I turned and locked the door, feeling his eyes on me. I had a funny feeling that unlocked access to Thomas’s flat was exactly what he wanted, but if he did break in, now, it would have to be a break in. I smiled nervously. “Right, sorry, do you want me to let him know you dropped by? What was your name again?”

Go,” he said, and if I hadn’t been ready for it, it would have carried me all the way out of the building. Well, fuck. I acted as if it had – it was what he wanted – and was very thankful my phone was off. As soon as I was out of sight I switched it on and texted Rebecca next door – she should be home at this hour, she taught at the local secondary school. Some guy hanging around outside Thomas’s place. Think he’s up to no good. Got to run but you should check it out.

She replied when I was halfway down the block. Saw him and he left. Guy in a grey suit? Do u know why he was there?

Looking for T, I replied. Work associate I think? Definitely dodgy though. Thanks 4 checking.

No prob.

My next move was to call Thomas, of course, but it went to voicemail; I left a message just in case, keeping it carefully casual. The Folly worked with the police, after all. Hey, it’s Peter - just wanted you to know I ran into a friend of yours when I was taking Toby out – he was looking for you. Didn’t get his name, sorry. Hope it wasn’t an emergency or anything. Toby’s doing fine. See you tomorrow.

“You did precisely the right thing,” Thomas told me the next day. “He didn’t try to break in, if you were worried – I would know, and I doubt he wants me to know.”

“Can you find out if this is an official thing? Once is weird, twice is...especially weird.”

“If it was official, they’d just haul me in for questioning. They can do that, you know.” I must have looked worried, because he patted me on the arm. “I wouldn’t worry about it. They’re used to thinking of me as a peculiar relic of a long-ago age. I doubt he’ll even remember you were there.”

“Me either,” I said, because I was pretty sure Helpful Black Guy Walking The Dog wasn’t going to register on the Folly’s threat list. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t come back. What the hell do you think he wants? Apart from bothering you about magic staffs? And why’s he here now?”

Thomas looked troubled. “I really have no idea.” 

“Toby didn’t like him,” I said. “Went nuts when he tried to use the glamour on me. I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get Richard Folsom showing up to complain about the barking, if he was home.”

“He tried to -” Thomas was really frowning, now. “That...really isn’t acceptable. Aside from being a very difficult technique. He’s good, whoever he is.”

“How difficult is very difficult?”

“I’ve never tried to use it myself - but a seventh-order spell. Likely that’s what Toby was reacting to. Apart from being a good judge of character, of course.”

Toby, who knew when he was being talked about, trotted over to sit at Thomas’s feet and get the scratch between the ears that was his due.

“Toby reacts to magic?” I had noticed he got excitable when we were doing it - but I’d thought that was just a play for attention.

“He seems to,” Thomas said.

“Is that...normal?”

Thomas laughed. “No. Not at all. But that’s how I got him in the first place, you know - I found him on Hampstead Heath, barking at the top of his lungs at a ghost. I’m still not quite sure how he got there. His owner had been murdered, of all the things, but why Toby ended up running away to the Heath…I wonder if the two are connected, but the only person who knows that is Toby, and he isn’t talking.” 

Toby himself gave a satisfied whuff, content in the knowledge that he was a topic of conversation.

I wanted to ask about the ghost on Hampstead Heath, but I restrained myself - just. “And your average dog doesn’t pay attention to ghosts?”

“Not any more than they do to humans. But that was a strange spring, that year...were you in London in 2011?

“First year of my Master’s,” I said. “I was living up in Kentish Town, though, near my parents.” Dad had still been alive then. “I know what you mean. There were a lot of murders, weren’t there? Shootings and things. And then the Covent Garden riots, whatever the hell that was about.” The ones that had resulted in Lesley May getting invalided out of the police.

“There were a lot of murders, but they weren’t shootings,” said Thomas, surprising me. “You wouldn’t know about that, of course, it was kept out of the papers. I mostly heard about it through Abdul. The Folly was trying to deal with a...well; a ghost. A particularly vicious one, a revenant. It was possessing people, acting out a story. The riot was just the last act.”

That sounded...terrifying. “How did they stop it?”

“They didn’t.” Thomas shrugged. “The story played itself out, the revenant went away again - though god knows if it will reappear. Not the Folly’s finest moment, if you ask me.”

*

“Peter, how lovely to see you again,” said Varvara Tamonina as I entered the building one early evening; it looked like she was on her way out. “I suppose Thomas will tell you, but I’m going to be out of town for a while.”

I figured she wouldn’t have dropped by because she was doing a package trip to Spain. “Really. How long?”

She shrugged. “Indefinitely.”

That...didn’t sound good. I said as much.

“It isn’t, which is why I was doing Thomas – and now you – the courtesy of letting you know. I was offered a job, you see, two days ago. Over the phone, burner mobile, not a voice I recognized, I can’t tell you who it was...but they wanted someone to get rid of a genius loci.”

It took me a second to process that. “Someone tried to hire you to do a hit job on one of the Rivers?”

She shrugged again. “They didn’t get around to specifying the target. I said I had to think about it, of course, and now I am leaving London to think about it at a safe distance.” She smiled. “Oh, Peter, look at you trying to work out whether I would do it. Of course not, you silly boy – a job is a job, but too many people know my face. And if it was one of the Rivers – no, no. Far too many of them. Maybe it’s different on the Continent, I don’t know - if the Folly have ever done anything right, here, they’ve given everyone an enemy to line up against.”

“I’d be a little more reassured if your answer had been ‘no, murder is wrong’,” I said.

“Of course you would have, but I’m not here to tell you pleasant little lies. Or Thomas either. In any case, I think it is best for me to be a long way from here for a while. It has been too long since I was on the continent. Perhaps magic is making its way back there, too. I know many of the rivers on Germany have their spirits still...but I think perhaps France might be healthier; I don’t know whether anyone still practises in Russia and I’m not interested in finding out.”

“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked, because I didn’t think Varvara was going to leave the city for anything less than a real crisis.

“I’m not sure.” She studied me critically. “But the man who got in touch with me...I think perhaps he was from the Folly. And if that doesn’t make you very worried, Thomas should wash his hands of you.”

It made me very worried, all right. The Folly was bad enough when it was just a bunch of smug white guys trying to stop the ravening hordes sullying their precious traditions, as well as looking down their noses at anyone magical who wasn’t a Newtonian practitioner. You could do plenty of damage with those sort of attitudes. If a Folly member was actively attacking one of the genii locorum...

“It makes me worried,” I said aloud. “And so what – you’ll wait until the coast is clear?”

“We will see,” said Varvara. “I have Thomas’s number. I will be in touch. Try not to do anything stupid, yes? I think it would make Thomas terribly upset, and I do like Thomas. There are so few people who understand what it is, what he and I have gone through.”

I promised that I wouldn’t do anything stupid, or at least try not to, and Varvara kissed me on the cheek and left. I wasn’t actually sure how much I believed anything she’d said, but Thomas probably had a better handle on that than I did, having known her so much longer.

“Oh, I believe her,” he told me when I knocked on his door and asked him. I’d interrupted him in the middle of doing some dishes, so in apology I picked up a teatowel and dried. The trouble with all these flats, as nicely as the renovations had been done, was that there just wasn’t anywhere to squeeze in a dishwasher. Good thing I’d grown up without. “Varvara doesn’t rattle very easily, and she’s been kicking around in the demi-monde for decades now. I’m not sure I agree with her conclusions, but something is up and I don’t know what it is.”

“Is that something you learn as part of Newtonian magic?” I asked. “How to make totally fucking opaque but really ominous statements at every turn?”

Thomas fought back a smile, but it turned serious quickly. “Peter, do you think I’m hiding something from you?”

“I don’t know,” I said, opening a cupboard to put away the glasses I’d dried. “I thought about it for a while, after that guy from the Folly dropped by when you were in Herefordshire. I mean, how much do I really know about you? And you keep making these vague pronouncements about stuff being wrong and...it’s pretty creepy, I’ll be honest.”

He looked troubled, pausing with his hands still in the sink.

“The thing is, though,” I went on, “between the Folly and you, based on everything I’ve seen and heard, I’d pick you. And that’s not even because I want to keep learning magic - well, not much.”

There wasn’t a lot of room in the kitchenette, and the urge to back that up with a casual hand on his arm or – I resolutely tried not to imagine anything more than that, not that my hindbrain cooperated – was strong, but Thomas didn’t really do casual touching. So it would be weighted with a lot more meaning than was probably a good idea right now. I kept steady eye contact with the air next to his head, just to be safe.  

“That’s reassuring, actually,” he said, and I think he meant it too. “The reason I’m so totally fucking opaque, as you charmingly put it, is I don’t know what’s going on. If Varvara filled you in on why she’s leaving town - that’s as much solid information as I have. I can’t imagine why the Folly would want to make trouble with the demi-monde as they are or what they stand to gain. If it is the Folly as an institution. And if it is - I can’t imagine what I can do about it. I just have a terrible sense there are things going on I know nothing about. But either way, I won’t stand for you getting dragged into it - it’s my fault you’re aware of it at all. So you needn’t worry about it.”

“I don’t suppose there’s a spell for precognition?” I asked, seizing on a less fraught topic.

He shook his head. “No; and I’ve never spoken to anyone who’s claimed the gift, either - that I believe. Certainly not the genii locorum or any of the fae or anyone else touched by magic.”

“Well,” I said, “nice to know the laws of physics hold to some degree. No violations of causality.”

Thomas finished with the last plate, and pulled the plug from the sink. “Do you know - David used to say much the same thing.”

“That’s because he was a very smart man, given everything I’ve ever heard and read,” I told him. “We still on for this evening? I can come back after tea.”

“I hadn’t actually made plans for supper,” Thomas admitted, looking around his kitchenette. “How would you feel about getting takeaways and just having the lesson now?”

“Fine by me,” I said, and we took Toby and went down the Indian place half a mile away, then took it back to his flat and had dinner and a lesson on the finer points of aqua. Also I got some extra reading and some questioning on my progress with Latin. It was interesting and sort of...cosy and, I want to make this abundantly clear, not a date.

I went back to the flat with the sinking realisation that if Thomas was up to anything I didn’t like, there was no way I was going to believe it short of some really solid evidence. Because I absolutely did trust him.

Well, fuck.

*

“I’ve received an invitation to tea,” Thomas told me a couple of days later. “And so have you.”

Have I?” I said. “Who from?”

“Oxley and his wife,” Thomas told me. After learning about Beverley, I’d done a little reading on the tributaries of the River Thames and I knew that this was one of Father Thames’ sons, upriver from Teddington Lock. “He’s Father Thames’ organizer, much as Tyburn is for Mama Thames. He wishes to discuss the Folly with me, and invites me to bring my new apprentice, about whom his cousin Beverley has only good things to say.”

I snorted. “I’m not sure I believe that. I mean, Bev’s a friend, but you should hear her on the topic of my taste in music.” Actually the real problem was our tastes were similar enough that when we disagreed we did so with lots of conviction - that and playing music was still a sore spot because of the whole accidentally killing her radio thing.

Thomas didn’t think much of my taste in music either, apart from a few places where we met by accident. His taste ran much more to really old-school numbers, the hits of the twenties and thirties, as well as some more obscure jazz. I liked a bit of trance to work to, apart from having imprinted on the pop hits of the nineties. However, he nobly refrained from commenting on it. My only real problem with his tastes was that in the theoretical event I managed to make a move I’d have to break my rule about not dating jazz fans - I’ve broken up with people over it, I’m serious.

“Nevertheless. It would be diplomatic for you to come along.”

I was curious, actually, not that I’d admit it. “Okay, then. When was it for?”

The following Friday afternoon, apparently, which I confirmed was okay after checking my work calendar – I didn’t have any meetings or calls scheduled and I could work late that evening, although any magic practice I’d planned on doing was going out the window. The compromises of adult education, I suppose. I was just lucky I had a job with a reasonably flexible schedule, not nine-to-five.

Oxley and his wife Isis, who might or might not be a river spirit herself – the Isis was the stretch of the Thames that ran through Oxford, and she had the look – lived in a surprisingly modern and chintz-laden bungalow on, of course, the River Oxley. We took tea at a table on a veranda that led down to the river; Thomas accepted the tea, the usual waiver having been offered, but refused the Madeira cake, so I followed suit. Pity – I quite liked Madeira cake.

“I have to admit I was surprised when the word reached me the Nightingale had an apprentice,” said Oxley. He was a wiry white man with a thatch of brown hair, apparently in his thirties, but Thomas had told me on the drive over (another chance to admire the Jag, I wasn’t complaining) that he’d been the spirit of the river since the High Middle Ages, according to Oxley, and had certainly been in the Folly records for as long as they went back, which was just over two hundred and forty years. “You’d never shown any sign of looking for one that I’d heard, and don’t all your apprentices come out of Oxford, in this day and age?”

“Traditionally, yes,” said Thomas. “At least traditionally since the war. Peter is what I believe is nowadays referred to as a non-traditional student.”

Oh, great; he thought he was being funny. And maybe he was, a little, but damned if I was going to admit it. “Thomas showed me a spell and I thought I’d give it a go,” I said. “Then it worked, and I had no idea what to do. I think he was mostly trying to reduce the potential property damage.”

“Be fair,” he said, “I had no idea at that stage how proficient you were going to prove at making things explode.”

“And how does the Folly feel about this?” asked Oxley’s wife Isis, in her musical Jane Austen tones.

“The Folly is not, to the best of my knowledge, aware of Peter at this precise moment,” Thomas replied delicately.

“Not entirely true,” I corrected. “I did speak with that one inspector - but he’s only aware of me as an architect who had the bad luck to have a body dumped on a project site and your neighbour. Not as anything else.”

“Are you planning to make them aware?” asked Oxley.

“In due course,” said Thomas, which I translated as when they can’t do anything about it, and perhaps never. “You are aware I never officially retired from the Folly, so, in a real and important sense, the Folly is aware I have an apprentice. Just not the members of the Folly who aren’t me.”

“See, this is why we don’t deal much with wizards,” Oxley said, frowning. “You’re all such cunning men.”

“And women, these days, darling,” Isis put in. “One or two at least, I’ve seen them when I was in town. Very formidable ladies, all of them.”

You’d have to be, I thought, to crack that sort of barrier. Twice as good, and all that. It went for a lot of things, when someone like you had never done whatever it was you were doing.

“But you didn’t ask me here – or Peter – for gossip,” Thomas went on. “What is it that concerns you, precisely?”

“It’s connected, to be sure,” said Oxley. “You’ve been on the outs with the rest of your kind for these forty years, and so perhaps you haven’t noticed they’re even less fond of us than they were in your day – all these men, and women I grant you, who’ve grown up since the war, since magic faded and came back all anew. They think we’re messy, Thomas Nightingale, they think any magic they do not control or understand is – undesirable. And yet they understand even less than wizards did when you were about on their business, because there are fewer of them, and they stay more within their walls.”

“Granted it’s had its benefits, in some odd ways,” Isis said. “If not for the Folly’s – intransigence, I doubt we ever would have made common cause with Mama Thames and all her daughters, and who knows where that might have lead? It was delightful, too, that year we had Beverley to stay with us. Such a charming girl. And I do so love attending the theatre, now and again. But there is no trust among any of us, for the Folly, and when we hear things...”

“What, exactly, are these rumours you hear?” asked Thomas, with only a hint of impatience.

They weren’t anything clear, frustratingly; just whispers in the wind.

“We hear that they are frustrated they must deal with us at all,” Oxley said. “That we are a relic of how magic used to work, and wouldn’t the world be a tidier place without us? After all - all that magic floating around, keeping us alive and bound to our rivers. What could the Folly do with that?”

Thomas actually went a bit pale at this, and even I felt a twisting in my gut.

“But how would they- I mean, how could they?” I blurted out.

“That’s what we don’t know,” Oxley said, low and grim. “And perchance your master may be able to tell us.”

“This fits with other things I’ve heard,” Thomas said. “Though what I heard didn’t come from the Folly, necessarily - perhaps just one of its members.”

“Is there a difference?” I asked. Because I doubted any of the Rivers would see one.

“Not to my mind,” said Oxley, confirming what I’d thought.

Thomas shrugged. “There’s a difference of degree in the problem. Wishing you’d all go away isn’t tantamount to actively destroying you, and one or a few practitioners would be a lot easier to deal with than the whole lot of them.”

“But if so, then they’re guilty of failing to police their own membership,” said Oxley. “And if any of us take matters into our own hands, even defensively - they’ll not be kind, after.”

“No,” Thomas said. “I wish I had more to tell you, right now. In any case, you have my word that I will, if anything - relevant - reaches my ears.”

“You will be held to it,” Oxley said, and then smiled. “But enough of that. How fares London otherwise?”

There was some light gossip, which I couldn’t make much contribution to, so I mostly kept my mouth shut and listened. I was capable of it, after all - now and again.

“It was lovely to meet you, Peter,” said Isis as we left. “I do hope we’ll see you again. Perhaps in the spring – the Court will be held again.”

“The Court of the Thames?” said Thomas, sounding surprised. “Where?”

“It’s being negotiated,” Oxley said, with a flick of his fingers.

“And the Folly offers no objection?”

Oxley smiled, thinly. “It is not the Folly’s place to object, if the mother and father of the River wish to hold court. Lady Ty advises that we consult them, but the rest of us are not of that mind.”

“Lady Ty seems very friendly with the Folly, these days,” Thomas said, voice deliberately light.

“She seeks power through them, of course,” Oxley said. “Which is not like to end well for her or them or both, but while Mama Thames places her trust in her daughter Tyburn, why, so must we.”

“But don’t fret,” Isis said brightly, “there’s no reason for Ty to hear you came to tea. I’m sure Beverley tells her everything she needs to know, so why should we interfere?”

I was sure Beverley told her older sister as little as she could.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m not in any particular rush to meet her again.”

“For the moment, you shouldn’t be,” Isis told me, patting my arm maternally. “But when you do, just try to be – polite.”

“I’m always polite,” I told her, with my best smile, and it’s true as far as it goes, although keep in mind that at that point I had no idea exactly how many of my buttons Ty was capable of pressing. .

On the way back, Thomas said “That went well, I thought. Although what they had to say was troubling.”

“Could they do that?” I asked. “Actually kill some of the genii locorum – any of them?”

Thomas glanced at me. “The Old Man’s sons died, Effra and Fleet and Ty and all the rest of them, and lay dead a century and more before Mama Thames’s daughters came to take their places. They can be killed just as easily as you or I, under certain circumstances, if caught far enough from their rivers. Though how it would benefit the Folly to do so I can’t say. They don’t all have spirits, you know, even all the rivers in England, and the countryside is usually quite bare of vestigia and other magic. But none of this was my specialty...I might even have to go to the Folly and consult the library, although it’s been so many years since I did that it would be a signal in itself.”

“You know,” I said, “when I agreed to learn magic, back in the winter, I had no idea there’d be this much politics in it. I thought it would all be very – academic.”

“So did I.” Thomas sighed. “But I fear that a lot of this has been boiling under the surface for years now. It’s just emerging now. And I’m damned if I know why.”

Now one thing I had noticed about Thomas, over the last two years, not just the last months, was that he almost never swore – I think every dirty word I’d heard him say had been quoting someone else, and there’d been few enough of those. So for him – that was pretty serious.

“I guess I picked a bad time to experiment with magic,” was all I said.

“Yes and no,” Thomas said, as he put his foot down and we purred onto the motorway. “You very well might have ended up caught in the crossfire of all this anyway, living where you do – if there’s a crossfire to be caught in. At least this way you have some protection against it.”

“What about all the other poor idiots living in our building, then?” I asked.

“We will simply have to make it our business to ensure that they’re kept out of it. If there’s something to be kept out of.”

Those sounded like famous last words to me, but I didn’t want to tempt fate further. “I’m not sorry, though,” I said instead. “I mean – no matter what happens, I don’t think I’m ever going to be sorry about this.”

Because Thomas might aver that plenty of people found magic too tedious or hard or whatever and gave it up to live ordinary lives, especially after the war, but I knew less than ten spells and you couldn’t have separated me from it with a crowbar. Maybe that was just me – maybe I was too stupid to know when to stop. But I didn’t think so. 

“Well,” Thomas said, with a small smile - one that did really stupid things to my stomach. “Good.”

*

The granddaughter of Thomas’s dead friend, or colleague, or whatever - the one in Herefordshire - came to visit in mid-September. Different, Thomas had said, but I couldn’t see much about her that seemed out of place; then again, neither had Thomas himself, or Beverley next door, once upon a time. She was a white woman maybe a little older than me, with peroxide-blonde hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt - nothing out of the ordinary, at least not to look at. I wouldn’t actually have met her except that she came bearing gifts - books in cardboard boxes - and I volunteered myself to help carry, it being a Saturday and me being around. Thomas gave me a look that said perfectly well he knew I was being a bit nosy, but he accepted the help nonetheless.

Whatever it was that was different about Mellissa Oswald wasn’t obvious to the more supernatural residents of the flats either, not at first glance; Molly passed us in the corridor and didn’t give her a second look. Mellissa Oswald gave Molly a second look, but so did everyone because Molly was naturally kind of creepy. Except that the second look Molly got from Mellissa Oswald wasn’t the usual did-I-accidentally-stumble-into-a-Japanese-horror-movie look; it was wary, like Molly reminded her of something she’d half-seen once and didn’t want to see again.

“Hi, Molly,” I said, just to show willing and that Molly was a perfectly normal creepy supernatural resident of our building. Molly inclined her head, but said nothing, of course, because Molly. Thomas was ahead of us opening the door to his flat.

“Friend of yours?” Mellissa said cautiously.

“Friend of Thomas’s,” I said. “I don’t know her that well. She has the flat just down the hall.”

“Oh,” said Mellissa, and nothing else. I wondered who - or what - Molly was reminding her of. 

She stayed for tea, which I was not invited to - not that I expected to be. Thomas let me look at the books afterwards, anyway - although what he said was since he was sure I was curious I was welcome to look if I helped him sort them. That seemed fair enough.

None of them were magic magic books, like some of the ones in Thomas’s collection, the ones entirely in Latin - or even the scientific texts and odd little publications for circulation within the Folly that I knew had been David Mellenby’s. But they were relevant to the magical world, as it were; books of folklore and history and other adjacent things. Nothing on architecture - yeah, of course I checked; now I knew that someone had thought about it, even if the hints I had were frustratingly vague, I wanted to know more. I wasn’t even trained, really, and I was already wondering about materials, about vestigia, about how you could make a building more welcoming to magic - or maybe resistant to it - there had to be some way around the microprocessor degradation problem for the modern home, even if it was just careful spacing.

“Do you even have room for all of these?” I asked Thomas. We were sitting on the floor of his study, sorting; the door had been shut to keep Toby out after the third time he’d nosed over a stack of books

“Lord, no,” he said, surveying the piles. There was one for books he already had copies of, and another for things that weren’t particularly rare or interesting, although Mellissa seemed to have sorted the collection quite thoroughly for that sort of thing - or perhaps her grandfather had. Then there were things like something claiming to be the County Practitioner’s notebook for Herefordshire. Whatever that meant. I put it on the small pile I was mentally labelling ‘things I’d like to read in my copious spare time’. “I’ll have to call Harold. I know Hugh was annoyed with them, but a lot of these the Folly already has copies of; it would be good to know at least what they don’t have, and then I can work out what might be slipped into their collection quietly.”

“Or you could just...give them to them?”

“I don’t think they’d be appreciated,” Thomas said. “And - anyway.”

He just didn’t want to talk to them, did he? Even for something as innocuous as this. It seemed peculiarly inflexible for someone who clearly had a great deal of flexibility - and I meant that entirely as a single entendre. He’d adapted to the modern world better than a lot of people who’d been born fifty or sixty years after him. But on this, he wouldn’t budge.

“Well, it wouldn’t really be in the spirit of it, to be fair,” I said instead. “I don’t think Mellissa would like it. What’s the deal with her, by the way?”

“That’s not really a polite question in these circles,” he told me.

“But she’s magical.”

“As I said, once. A lot of the children and grandchildren of wizards have shown up...different...in the last fifty years or so. The why remains unclear.”

“I got bees,” I said. “Definitely something bee-related.”

“Hugh took up bee-keeping in retirement,” said Thomas. “I believe Mellissa runs the business now. Anyway - there’s something else I wanted to show you. Aside from all this.”

It was an old canvas bag, army green. The contents weren’t that prepossessing to look at. Two lengths of wood, capped with iron and with leather grips; made for bashing heads in, in a curiously primitive way. I couldn’t imagine any war in the last half-millennium when they’d have been more useful than anything that involved a blade. I said as much.

“They’re a little more than they look,” Thomas said. “Touch one.”

I noted he hadn’t said pick one up, so I touched. And I could feel it, right away. Power, humming along it.

“These are...staffs, aren’t they,” I said. “Staves. Magic staves.”

“From nearly seventy years ago,” Thomas agreed, picking one up and hefting it in a frighteningly expert way. “I took two of these to war, as well. Used them up and lost them, somewhere. I’m surprised Hugh still had his.”

“Wait,” I said. “I thought barely anyone knew how to make these things anymore? Why’s he sent them to you?”

“Hugh broke his staff after the war,” Thomas said. “A lot of wizards did, for various reasons. And after Mellissa...anyway, I don’t think he liked the Folly very much, by the end. Mellissa said he thought I might get some use out of them, if anyone would.”

“For what?”

“As I seem to say quite often these days, I don’t know. But it was a kind thought. For the moment I suppose they’ll just be going in the back of my wardrobe. Maybe one of these days there’ll be some reason to get them out.”

“You have your own staff, though,” I pointed out. “Don’t you?” I’d always wondered about the cane, after all.

“Indeed - but they don’t last forever, and reforging requires access to a forge. Which I don’t have, and haven’t had for...fifty years or so.”

“Fair point, it’d be a bit difficult to get a forge into this place,” I said. “Despite all its other amenities. Do you really know how to use a forge?”

“It’s a useful skill,” Thomas argued, then let out a small laugh. “Or it was. Maybe it will be again, who knows?”

I couldn’t imagine why, but I was hardly in a position to make an argument against acquiring skills that had no obvious relevance or use in your daily life. “Well, come the zombie apocalypse, I’m sure you’ll be in high demand.”

“Right.” Thomas shot me a look. “Zombies - not a thing, by the way.”

I shrugged. “You never know, right?”

Chapter Text

It was a month later - early October, autumn having set in briskly and firmly - that I felt it. And I mean felt it, something shivering through my bones. Nothing directly physical, but I could have pointed to it like a lit beacon; it was magic. Serious, serious magic. I would have gone to the window of my office, but it was pointing in the wrong direction, and it felt more distant than anything I could see out it, anyway. So I stood up from my desk, and walked out of the office, and down the stairs, and out onto the street. Which looked about like the street always did. So I went back up, and that was when I heard about it.

Someone had blown up Skygarden Tower.

Well, the BBC wasn’t putting it quite like that, of course; they said it had been a controlled demolition from an unknown source. Controlled was good news, demolition...wasn’t. The last I’d heard from Miriam they’d still been going back and forth on it; could this have been some sort of industrial accident? But no; there’d still been people living there, not a lot, but some. Reports were that there’d been a bomb threat, and an evacuation. No word on whether it’d been complete.

My first thought was crap, I should have gone and looked at it before now. And my second was magical architecture, magical...explosion?

The news still couldn’t decide if that meant it was terrorism, some sort of dreadful accident, or - well, if they could have thought of a third option, they would have. My personal money was on magic, but that was motivation-neutral, so it still didn’t really answer the question. I won’t say we shut down the office; it was more a sort of general agreement that fuck-all was going to get done for the rest of the afternoon, so we might as well all start heading home now. It was going to take forever, there was no getting around that. Larger offices and businesses would be closing down deliberately. By the time I got onto the street it was already jammed.

They hadn’t shut down the Tube, thank god, and I think a lot of people were avoiding it; I wasn’t going to, but I decided at the last moment I would after all. I wasn’t worried about terrorists or whatever. I was worried about some other idiot being worried about them. Walking home was going to take a while - two or three hours - but getting arrested or otherwise detained would take a lot longer. These are the trade-offs you make, sometimes.

So by the time I did make it home I was tired and sweaty and pretty grumpy all around. The mobile network was barely keeping up, of course - I’d texted Mum to say I was fine and heading back to my place because otherwise she’d try calling me, I knew.

The feeling had long dissipated, but I could still have pointed in the direction of Skygarden if you’d asked me to. What had that been, what sort of magic could have set that off? What sort of magic had been done? Or had I been right, about what Stromberg had designed the building for - and bringing it down had just let off whatever magic had been stored in it?

Well, home was where I’d likely get most of my answers - assuming certain of my neighbours had also returned there.

The first person I ran into when I got there was Beverley, in the front entrance of the building, and she was - it was like there were stormclouds trailing in her wake, the inexorable power of rising water. It was like a wave that hit me before I was even within two metres of her. It was terrifying.

“What do you know about this?” she demanded as soon as she saw me, grabbing my arm. I pulled back; it had hurt, and the stormcloud feeling had just gotten worse when she’d touched me.

“That’s my line,” I said, bewildered. “All I know is that someone demolished a tower block and it felt like a magic bomb going off in my head and - I thought you’d know what was going on!”

“Bev!” I turned; it was Lesley, running into the building. Now I knew about it I could see the slight oddness of her gait on the artificial leg. “I just got your text - what’s going on? Is it about the Skygarden thing?”

Beverley drew in a shaky breath and nodded, and I could see how much on the edge she was. I wanted to give her a hug or something, but I wasn’t sure how she’d take it; she’d seemed mad at me just now, I didn’t know why, and - there was still that edge, that weird vestigium.

Lesley, thank god, had no such qualms; she walked right up and threw her arms around Beverley. “I’m sorry.”

“Um,” I said. “Yeah. Sorry. Did - was there - did you know someone there?” I remembered, suddenly, there’d been a genius loci there - the tree one, Thomas had said - I couldn’t remember her name. Was she dead?

Did it have anything to do with that call Varvara had gotten? Had it been - wizards? Was that why Beverley had yelled at me?

“Sky,” Beverley said. “Sky. She was - when the tower came down - it killed her trees, it killed her, they killed her.”

I didn’t ask how she knew.

“Okay,” Beverley said, “okay.” She stepped back from Lesley, and addressed me. “We’re going to go talk to your master.”

“Fuck, Bev, don’t call him that,” I said.

“Don’t push it right now, Peter,” she snapped, and turned. I followed, because I was a bit worried about what she was going to do; so did Lesley, and from the look she gave me I think she was thinking the same thing.

When Thomas opened the door I could hear the television was on, which wasn’t usual; he might own one but he just didn’t have the habit of leaving it on in the background, that was always the radio. Beverley didn’t even ask permission, just barged in; I would have waited for an invite but he’d already turned to face her, so I went in anyway, Lesley just behind me. She had the sense to shut the door before Beverley started shouting.

Beverley didn’t beat around the bush, just burst out with it. “They killed her.” Her face was all twisted up like she wanted to cry but was too angry for the tears to come out. “Not just anyone else who was in there, Sky, they killed her. It wasn’t terrorists, it wasn’t an accident, it was them, your friends at the Folly –”

“They are not my friends,” spat Thomas, and he was angry, too, in a real, bone-deep way like I’d never seen before, and it was nearly the same as it had been with Beverley, outside; the sudden sense that I was looking at someone I didn’t really know. That nickname, the Nightingale, was making more sense.

“Does someone want to explain what the hell actually happened?” I asked, because I didn’t have the first fucking clue what was going on.

“Seconding that,” said Lesley. “Someone demolished Skygarden, it killed Sky - but what the hell was all the magic about? Is that why you think it was the Folly?”

“Well, you felt it!” Beverley retorted. “It was like a fucking magic bomb going off - maybe it was a magic bomb, I don’t know! But it brought down the tower and Sky’s dead and who else would it have been?”

“It was a conventional controlled demolition,” I said. “I know what those look like, I saw the footage. No point using magic for that - regular explosives would be much, much easier. But I felt it, too, the magic. That was...like nothing I’ve felt before.”

“Nor I,” Thomas said. He sounded less angry now and more weary. “Something new under the sun, after all. And I don’t know it was the Folly, Beverley. But I can’t tell you right now that it wasn’t.”

“We’re going to kill them,” said Beverley, quiet now. It wasn’t the good sort of quiet, though. “This isn’t on. I don’t care what sort of deal Tyburn thinks she has with them, this. Is not. On.”

Lesley patted her shoulder soothingly, but her own face was a mask that let nothing through.

I don’t know where it would have gone from there but Toby had apparently decided that if there was going to be an argument he wanted in on it; he started to yap, with increasing volume. It broke the tension, I’ll give him that.

“Quiet,” Thomas said firmly, and Toby gave over yapping but sat by the couch, eyes darting from one to the other of us, making small whining noises. He wasn’t happy.

In case you’re joining us now..., said the television. Lesley picked up the remote and switched it off, didn’t even bother asking. We all looked at each other.

“Well,” said Thomas. “Tea?”

I ended up making the tea, because despite making the offer Thomas looked like he was going to break something if he tried - there was the faintest of twitches in his jaw, like it was taking all of his control to speak normally - and the man did have terrifyingly good china, it’d be a shame. Besides, I’d spent enough time at his by now to know where everything was. Toby trotted over to supervise me

“In the first instance,” Thomas was telling Beverley, as I put down the teapot, “we have no idea precisely who is responsible for this, or why it occurred, and the Folly remains a large institution. You can’t tar them all with the same brush.” Actually I thought we could and maybe we should, but he’d been one of them once, I guessed, maybe sort of still was, in a weird way. It seemed like he had to believe that, or he wouldn’t know who he was.

“In the second,” he continued, “You’d be starting a war. And there is the question of your sister. She has, as you say, some sort of arrangement with them. It would be...complicated.”

“It wouldn’t just be me,” Beverley countered, thin-lipped. Thomas poured, but she didn’t touch the tea until he murmured, “You’re under no obligation, etcetera,” and even then her grip on handle was tight. “Wait until Mum hears about this. And Father Thames and his boys. The whole city’s going to go up.”

“We don’t know what happened, exactly,” Thomas said. “Or what was intended. Or why. At that distance - that was the release of more magic than a human practitioner could safely use, more than many could safely use, even working together. It would be extremely ill-considered to do anything before you know that.”

“Well, this is going to set off everyone, isn’t it?” Lesley said pragmatically. “Whatever happened and why - mostly the Folly gets by ignoring the rest of us and we ignore them back, but this sort of thing - it’s a threat. They’ll deserve a...a war.”

“I am not counselling against it,” said Thomas, and this was so surprising I nearly choked on my own tea. “The current situation with the Folly is no longer tenable, if one or more of them think they can get away with this sort of destruction in pursuit of whatever ends they deem necessary. What I am saying, Beverley Brook, is that if you wish to start a war, you had better know how you mean it to end.” 

“With them gone,” Beverley said, dangerous and low. “What good do they even do? They sit there, they don’t let anyone learn magic who’s not one of them, they think they know everything and they don’t know anything, the only time they do anything useful is if something happens to normal people and then only if they think one of us did it. What do we even need them for?”

“Does that really seem practical?” Thomas asked.

“No,” I interrupted. “They’re practically indistinguishable from the government, let’s be honest – bunch of white Oxbridge boys. Some of them are literally MPs, for fuck’s sake. Not to mention, if it’s the rest of us versus the Folly, they aren’t the only magicians. If a wholesale conflict breaks out in the UK, how do the people on the Continent handle it? Or whatever they’ve got in America, god only knows.” Other countries had versions of the Folly but most of them weren’t as public, insomuch as the Folly was public. When you looked at what the American government did on a mundane level I really wasn’t sure I wanted to know if they had practitioners working for them, for instance.

“Well, what do you want to do?” Lesley challenged me scathingly. “Just let it go? Sit them all down for tea and biscuits and hug it out?”

“I agree with Thomas. You have to know how you want this to end. What does it look like? What’s left?”

Beverley sighed. “I don’t know. If the Folly was all people like you two, that’d be one thing. People who didn’t think they were better than the rest of us just because they’d learned magic out of books. People who thought they were part of this. People who didn’t come barging in when it suited them and ignore anything awful that happens if it happens to the wrong people.”

I snorted. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the Folly like me. And I haven’t met any of them much like Thomas, either.”

“You might be surprised,” said Thomas. “Some days you remind me excessively of people I used to know there.”

“People you used to know,” Beverley said, pointedly. “You don’t know them now. You left. You don’t know what they are.”

“Okay,” Lesley interrupted. “Let’s think this through. What can we actually do? What’s your mum going to do? Or Father Thames? What happens next?”

Beverley wrapped her dreads around her fingers, tugging thoughtfully. “Well - Mum and Father Thames are going to talk to each other...shit, no, they’re going to call a meeting. Shit.” She fumbled out her phone. “Okay, nothing yet. But that’s what they’ll do.”

“Then I suggest you wait and see what happens there,” said Thomas. “If it would make you feel better, I can attempt to feel out what the Folly’s position on this is. I can’t promise much or anything quickly - possibly not for a few days - but everyone in London with any magical ability felt what happened this afternoon. I can speak with some of the retired members, and most of them have children or grandchildren or nephews who are currently active...whatever the official story is, within the Folly, I can find that out. Or, rather, the official story within the Folly, as opposed to whatever they tell the Rivers - and if those aren’t the same, it will be...instructive.”

Beverley pursed her lips, and nodded. “Fine. I’ll tell Mum you’re on that. And Ty’ll ask her own questions, of course.”

“You’ll let me know what they decide,” Thomas added.

“Done,” said Beverley.

“What if it wasn’t the Folly, though?” Lesley asked. “I mean - the official Folly. What if it was someone in it? You know, on their own bat?”

“What about that guy who keeps asking you about staffs? Staves? Whatever?” I said; if we were going to speculate baselessly I might as well pitch in.

Thomas opened his mouth, then frowned, and closed it.

“What...makes you suggest that?” he said, eventually.

“A magic staff is a way to store magic,” I said. “They’re difficult to make and almost no-one knows how and you’re one of the few people left who do. And the Folly doesn’t hand them out except on special occasions. No-one at the Folly talks to you any more, but this guy bothered to hunt you down and try and talk to you. What was his name, anyway?”

“I don’t remember,” Thomas admitted ruefully.

“You don’t remember?” Lesley repeated, outraged. Must be the ex-copper thing.

“He wasn’t that interesting, and my chief interest was in getting him to leave,” he said. Lesley and Beverley exchanged an impressive eye-roll. I have to admit I thought this was pretty weak, but then, while Thomas might not look his age, I knew that the older people got the fewer fucks they gave, and I guessed the number of fucks Thomas had to give about members of the Folly was somewhere in the negative digits. So I believed he wouldn’t have remembered the name.

“Anyway, that guy,” I said. “He’s interested in getting more magic. And Skygarden. Well - Skygarden. We were talking about this. If it was storing magic...”

“Are you serious?” said Beverley.

“How is this relevant?” asked Lesley.

Thomas shook his head. “But why?”

I don’t know. Like I told you once - you’re the wizard, I’ve got about six formae and a really long reading list. What sorts of things do wizards do that need stored magic, that they can’t do on their own? And what would someone want with it that would be worth doing this for?”

“Nothing that could justify these means,” Thomas said. “And if it were something - authorised - there would be easier and quicker ways. Besides, if anyone did intend to gain access to stored magic - they didn’t succeed, or did so only partially; that was the release of magic we all felt, across the city. Things might be a bit - unstable - for the next while.”

“So it probably is someone running around behind the rest of their backs,” Lesley said. “In that case, shouldn’t you point that out to them? If they can’t control their own membership, Bev’s right, they’re really good for nothing.”

“I wouldn’t know who to start with,” Thomas said, troubled.

“It doesn’t matter,” Beverley said coolly. She’d been quiet, for the last few minutes. “It doesn’t matter. If it was one of them that’s as bad as all of them.”

“Yeah, but if you want whoever it was banged up for it, you need the rest of them,” Lesley said. “Like it or not.”

“There’s some of them that work for the regular police, aren’t there?” I suggested. “Like Sahra’s boss, the one who talked to me in June. If whatever that murder was, it was someone doing seriously bad magic - or whatever you call it - he was after them, alright. He was all suspicious about you -” I nodded at Thomas “and that was just on the basis of - whatever the reason is you’re not talking to them. That might be worth a try.”

Thomas shook his head emphatically. “No. No, as I said, I have a few contacts I want to ask - other people who’ve retired; people I trust. Harold Postmartin at Oxford isn’t the head archivist anymore, but he still keeps track of a lot of what goes on. That will give us the fastest answers.”

Beverley’s phone started to ring right then; she held up a hand and answered it.

“Yeah? Yeah, I know. Okay. On my way. Or - alright, if you want. See you out front in five? Yeah. Bye.”

She hung up and rose from her chair. “That was Effra; she’s picking me up. Meeting, like I said. You guys...work on your theory.”

“I wouldn’t suggest it to the rest of your family quite yet,” said Thomas. “It needs some work.”

“You think I’m grasping,” I said.

“No. I think it’s plausible. I just don’t know if it would be....helpful, at this juncture.”

“You don’t want anyone to start throwing accusations they can’t back up,” Beverley corrected.

“Well, that won’t be helpful,” said Lesley, pragmatic as ever. “If you do need to throw anything, best if they don’t see it coming.”

Thomas frowned at this, but didn’t say anything else.

“I’ve really got to get back to work, too,” Lesley said, standing up. “Let me know if you figure any of this out. This is nuts, all of it.”

“Certainly,” Thomas said.

I was sure I was right, though - and equally sure that nobody at the Folly was going to know what the hell had happened, except for whoever had just done...whatever they’d just done. And how had they known there might be something magical about Skygarden? Thomas certainly hadn’t, and I couldn’t see a bunch of wizards spending much time at a place like Skygarden to find out. Unless Stromberg had told someone, had some contact?

I might have a theory, but I had no clue what was actually going on.

*

So despite it all there was nothing much for me to do but wait – apart from my job, of course, and magic practice, and going back to the letter and the notes from that book again and trying to decide if I had a good theory or if I was just making stuff up. The destruction of Skygarden remained a topic of conversation at work for a while, of course – but I couldn’t bring up magic in those conversations, let alone the weird peculiarities of the building’s design. The story in the media appeared to be that it was some sort of really awful industrial accident, despite the fact that the early reports had clearly mentioned a bomb threat, and an evacuation. They’d gotten almost everyone out, even. Almost everyone. There’d been people who hadn’t answered their doors, people on the highest floors. Eight people. But they’d been trying to demolish the place for years, said the reports, what a pity it had come down accidentally, etcetera, with a side-order (in the right types of paper) of disdain for the kind of people who’d insist on staying in flats scheduled for demolition, so maybe it hadn’t been anyone’s fault, exactly?

Which was all complete bollocks, of course, but I got the strong impression that as little as anyone in the magical community was pleased by all of it, the idea of the lid being blown off how far magic actually went – that it wasn’t just a few posh guys with some neat tricks – pleased all of them even less. Beverley told us that the Rivers, her mother and Father Thames – I never had worked out exactly why there was a goddess and a god of the Thames, since they appeared to be totally unrelated – had decided to wait it out. If only for lack of anyone to really get mad at.

“The Folly said they were making inquiries but that if it was anyone it was undoubtedly a rogue magician, unquote,” she said. “Mum and Father Thames summoned them – they were mad about that, too. Mum told them that it was their responsibility even if it was someone they didn’t control, because really what are they for if they don’t keep a lid on people using magic to do this sort of shit, but they just muttered a lot. The trouble is that if we wanted to hit back we don’t know where to hit. They’ve got too many of the cards - they could just start having people arrested, if they really wanted to make trouble.”

“What is it with your mum and the Folly, anyway?” I wanted to know.

“They never liked her,” Beverley said. “After she walked into the river and the River walked out with her - they laughed in her face, some of them, when she told them she was the goddess of the Thames; of course, she shut them up right quick, but Mum remembers that. And then when some of my sisters came along they tried to tell her that maybe she didn’t need daughters, some of their rivers had been fine without orisa for a century - well, they didn’t say orisa, obviously, but you know.”

“How do river goddesses come along?” I wanted to know. “I mean - your mum, like...had you, right? Normally?”

“She found me in Beverley Brook,” said Beverley Brook.

“Like...floating? In a basket?”

“Just in the brook.”

I considered this. “But how do you materialise eight pounds of baby in a brook? No wonder the Folly was put out - your mum must have been breaking the laws of thermodynamics, at least.”

“Hah bloody hah,” said Beverley, and punched me in the arm - it hurt, too. “And I’m not telling, it’s not your business.”

“So the Folly doesn’t want your family around at all, basically,” I said. “Is that it?”

“Basically, yeah.” Beverley pressed her lips together. “And now with Sky - well, makes you nervous, doesn’t it? Or it makes us nervous. And that’s on top of everything else.”

“What do you mean, everything else?”

“Nobody really put it together until now,” she said, “but people have been...drifting off. Maybe going missing; it’s hard to tell. Not a lot of people, nothing obvious, but some of the ones who sleep rough, you know, like Zach - they’ve stopped coming by the market.”

“You think the Folly’s done something to them?”

“Maybe. I mean - they don’t pay attention, normally, unless someone gets in their way. But Sky, now. Sky never did anything. She wasn’t in anyone’s way.”

“But that’d be...murder,” I said. “Wouldn’t it? Or kidnapping, at the least, if the people who’ve stopped showing up aren’t...if they’ve just got them somewhere. That’s really not legal, even for an organisation like the Folly - you’d think they’d have at least a thin excuse before they took people away.”

“You think they care?”

I couldn’t say I did. 

The beginning of autumn had also brought unusually hard rains, and there’d been a series of floods across the greater London area, as well as upstream. I wondered about that, but I didn’t ask Beverley. I don’t think she’d have taken it the right way. Or given me a straight answer.

Thomas had heard back from his grapevine of retired practitioners and said that the story within the Folly wasn’t quite that simple. “Harold tells me that the official word is that while it was obviously deliberate, they suspect simple financial fraud rather than anything magical. Clearing that much land for development will be profitable for someone, obviously. And Sky’s death was therefore an unfortunate accident.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “They felt it. I felt it. I barely qualify as an apprentice wizard.”

“Quite,” Thomas said, “but the argument is that the...release of magic...was some sort of side-effect of Sky’s death; she wasn’t a major genius loci but she wasn’t minor, as these things go.”

“And is that what happens when a genius loci dies?” I asked. “Some sort of...magic release?”

“No,” Thomas replied. “It isn’t. But none of them have ever witnessed that sort of event, to my knowledge.”

I wondered when he had, and why, but it seemed a bit gruesome to ask. “So that’s it. They’re not going to do anything?”

“There is some internal debate on the subject,” Thomas said. “At least one of the Folly members who works with the Met is pursuing an investigation.”

“The one who chased me up about knowing you? Sahra’s boss?”

“Yes, as it happens.”

“And what do you think?”

“I think,” Thomas said, “it’s not my job anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time.”

I found this a deeply unsatisfying answer, but it wasn’t my job either, and – it could get messy very quickly, I supposed, since the one person at the Folly who did appear to be taking all this seriously had also exhibited some fairly deep suspicion of Thomas himself. So I got it. I just didn’t like it.

*

The topic arose again, though, when Jaget and I went to the pub one evening – meaning to catch up a bit – and ran into Thomas, who was there with Abdul Walid. He and I had been chatting now and again, since he was much more interested in the question of how magic worked than Thomas was, even if he couldn’t do it himself. I wanted to run my Skygarden theory past him, but I couldn’t while Jaget was around. But it got really hard when the conversation ended up coming around to that murder - or at least dead body - on that job of mine in Soho, back in the summer.

“At least you haven’t had any more bodies turn up at work,” Jaget said. “That’s a real downer, I tell you.”

“What, when’s that ever happened to you?” I asked. As a civil engineer Jaget spent about as time around construction sites as I did, which was to say, not that much, but enough.

He shrugged. “There’s been a couple of accidents, it happens – I wasn’t around for it, though.”

“I don’t know,” said Abdul. “When bodies turn up at my work it’s usually quite interesting.”

“That’s not the word I’d use,” said Thomas. “It always meant something had gone terribly wrong.”

“And where were you seeing bodies?” asked Jaget.

“I used to be in the police,” Thomas said, which was – true enough. “A while ago now.”

“God, what is it about our flats?” Jaget asked. “I heard once Alex Seawoll’s an ex-copper, too, and now you, and then there’s Sahra and Jessie – bit weird, really. And didn’t you say once you thought about joining the police, Peter?”

“Only when I was waiting to see if I’d got into university,” I said. “Wondering what I’d do if I didn’t, sort of thing. But I did, so it never came up again. Anyway, that was years and years ago. And what do you mean, Alex is an ex-copper?”

“Oh, he is,” Thomas said. “He left the force quite some time ago, I believe.”

Jaget looked like he’d just thought of something. “That anything to do with his totally irrational attitude to you?”

“We were in different specialist units,” Thomas said. “His departure from the force had something to do with some of the people in mine, as I understand it. It’s not a personal thing.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” I said; Thomas just shrugged.

Jaget chose that moment to use the facilities, and as soon as he was gone Abdul leaned in a little closer. “Speaking of that body on your construction site, Peter, Thomas. I thought you two might be interested to know – there was some foreign DNA on it, skin under the fingernails, sort of thing. They got it sequenced and there weren’t any matches. That’s not the interesting bit, though. The interesting bit is that they were chimeric.”

Chimeric – from a chimera. One of the things Thomas said could have caused that particular death. Definitely unethical magic, he’d said. Well.

Thomas tensed, his eyes narrowing. “I presume you passed this on to the Folly?”

“I did,” Abdul said. “Except I got a very polite and dismissive response, telling me I’d got it wrong.”

“What are the odds of that?” I asked, curious. Abdul took it as intended.

“Fairly low. I’m not a geneticist, to be fair, but I am a biologist and I understand enough of the basics to be going on with.”

Who was this response from?” asked Thomas, intent.

“Robert Weil,” Abdul says. “Folly member, one of the people who works with the Met, their forensics bloke, basically. So he knows what he’s talking about. But he’s wrong on this.”

“Unless someone...doesn’t want that to be the answer,” I said slowly.

“Yes,” said Thomas, and I wanted to know what he was going to say next, but then Jaget returned, so we had to leave the topic of magic alone.

*

“So,” I said to Thomas the next evening. “Abdul’s chimeric DNA getting brushed off - arrogance or conspiracy?”

“Impossible to tell,” Thomas said. We were sitting in his garden. The sunlight on the small brick patio was keeping us warm, but it wasn’t going to last once the shadow of the fence caught up to us - not this late in the year. We’d need to go indoors. 

I’d been putting it off for weeks, but I realised I had to - I had to try and find out what the deal actually was with why he’d left. Had it been something he’d done? Something they’d done? I knew it had to do with David Mellenby’s death. But the details were unclear. And he wasn’t going to tell me if I didn’t, I’d figured that out. But with all of this - I thought I needed to know. I was just going to have to ask him, and take the consequences.

“Back in the summer, you said that there’d been a last time, with someone making chimeras,” I said. “You keep saying stuff like that, about last time, or what did you call it, ‘the Woodville-Gentle business’ - but you never go any further than that. Do you think it’s related to whatever’s going on now?”

Thomas looked down at his little garden table. “Maybe.”

“If there’s something going on with the Folly - if I might get caught in the crossfire, like you said once - is this something I need to know about?”

He looked up at me, and just kept looking for a long time - considering. I didn’t look away.

“It has to be something serious, I get that,” I said. “And I’m not asking you to tell me everything. I’m just asking for something.”

Finally he nodded.

“You need to understand,” he began. “It goes back to the war. The Second World War, that is. It was – not entirely a mundane conflict. We sat out the first one, but the Nazis – they practised some very nasty forms of magic indeed and rounded up most practitioners living on the Continent, either to be conscripted or killed. No-one is entirely sure what happened, but one of the side-effects of the conflict appeared to be a decrease in magic. In the late forties and fifties, it seemed to be declining, going out of the world.”

“I knew that. It’s the Folly’s cover story now, isn’t it? That magic’s just a sort of...irrelevancy. Stops people asking too many questions.”

 “It was true, for twenty years or so. David and some of the other more empirically-minded wizards tried integrating it into a scientific framework, as a way to understand why it was...going away, or whatever was happening. Which was one of the reasons the existence of magic in general became public knowledge; part of that was David’s correspondence with physicists. The senior Folly members were never very happy with him about it, but the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. It was also why the traditional teaching system switched from beginning at secondary-school age to university – there seemed no point taking boys at age eleven or twelve and training them in something that might have no use in their adult lives. Besides, training had stopped during the war, so we’d have lost a whole generation otherwise – the ones who were entering university as the war ended.”

“Really only boys?” I asked, though it was what I’d heard. “Everyone always says that about stuff, but look at somewhere like Bletchley Park – three-quarters of the workers there were women. They just didn’t get any of the credit.”

“It wasn’t thought appropriate for women,” Thomas said. “That’s no real excuse, but it was simply a very different time.”

 “Right,” I said, trying not to sound too sceptical, and he gave me a wry smile. I supposed he was putting his money where his mouth was in terms of non-traditional wizarding apprentices, with me.

“That wasn’t true everywhere, of course - you’ve met Varvara, after all. The unit she was trained in was entirely female. Anyway...it started to come back, in the mid-sixties. The magic. Some of the newer people we’d trained got very...experimental. And one of the side-effects was...I don’t want to get into this too deeply, and you wouldn’t appreciate it if I did, but...there were...incidents. Really black magic -”

I gave him my best side-eye, and he paused. “Oh, really, Peter?”

“We have two options here,” I said. “You can volunteer to read the essay Abigail did for her English A-Level on colour-related imagery in genre fiction, which is not as tedious as it sounds – I know, I helped her with the copy-editing – or we can agree to use a term like, I don’t know, unethical magic. Also, I can’t believe Beverley or someone hasn’t called you out on this ages ago.”

They had, I could tell, because he looked briefly guilty. “Very well. Some really unethical magic. The practitioners in question were dealt with a long time ago – we’re talking about the seventies, still, well before you were born – but it exposed a real feeling of...disconnection, shall we say, in the Folly, from the rest of the – what you might call the magical community. When I say the magic was coming back – it wasn’t just for us; Beverley’s mother didn’t become the goddess of the lower Thames until the sixties, and her daughters have all emerged since. That wasn’t popular, with a lot of people. With the reduction in the Folly’s numbers, the demi-monde were simply less willing to play along. And some of the...experimentation...targeted them; people the responsible parties thought wouldn’t be missed.”

I was starting to not like this very much at all, any of it, but I nodded for him to continue.

“By the point it all went really wrong I’d retired, more or less – I was getting on. Then, anyway. But when it all came out...it went back to the war, you see; at one point we’d bombed a German research site and it had been a point of contention with – certain people – ever since, what we might have lost. It emerged that some practitioners, members of the Folly, had been attempting to replicate – it was – it was very bad. It hadn’t been official, but there’d been a whole group of them - it required a general housecleaning, which lowered the Folly’s reputation a great deal with the government. And how the Folly went about cleaning it up was...nearly as bad. Among other things, after it had all come out, and the dust had settled, several people – part of the group who’d been most involved with research into magic and its modern applications, but hadn’t known about what their colleagues were up to - committed suicide.”

By the time Thomas had gotten to the end of that he wasn’t looking at me at all; he was staring out across the garden, into the past. My mind put together “World War II”, “German research site”, “It was very bad”, and “committed suicide”, and I felt sick. I wasn’t going to ask for details. But I did have to –

“Was David Mellenby one of them?”

I didn’t want to but after what Abdul had said, all those months ago – and I think I’d already guessed by that point, somehow.

“Yes, and no,” Thomas said levelly, but every line of him was tense. “The man most responsible for it – the ringleader, I suppose you could say – was called Albert Woodville-Gentle. He had been an apprentice of David’s, in the fifties. A lot of what had been done was – based on David’s work, but David hadn’t known - he’d been retired too, by then. He did kill himself. It was - it happened in the war, too, he’d had a lot of correspondents in Germany and some of what they’d discussed had gone into the German research. He took it very badly. And then to have it happen all over again, and the way people talked about him...we’d moved out and got a house after sixty-seven, when it didn’t seem so damn hypocritical – I was a DCI with the Met, before I retired – anyway, so you can imagine that didn’t improve his reputation, at the time. It all just - added up.”

I digested that, especially the reference to nineteen sixty-seven – the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Britain – and was sort of stuck between, hah, I was right, David Mellenby’s boyfriend is teaching me magic, I am not worthy, and, holy shit, he killed himself? Over what someone had done with his research? 

“I’m sorry,” I said eventually.

“It was more than forty years ago,” Thomas said, but quietly.

What, is there a use-by date on grief? I thought, but was smart enough not to say it. “I know. I’m still sorry.”

“Thank you.” We looked away from each other for a moment, so we could both pretend his eyes weren’t a bit wet, like good Englishmen should. “Anyway. I more or less washed my hands of the Folly, after that. And, given everything that had gone on, no-one was running after me, either. And then – not very long after, I realized I was getting...younger.”

“Right. That must have been a bit weird.”

“It was entirely unprecedented, so far as I knew.” Not being on the best of terms with his fellow wizards at this point, Thomas had apparently gone looking for answers in the demi-monde. He hadn’t got any; the closest he’d come was running into Varvara Tamonina. “But she didn’t know why, either.”

By the eighties half of the Folly had forgotten he existed, and the other half were too embarrassed or nervous to talk to him. Continually getting younger – his current appearance was evidently where he’d settled out in the early part of this century – hadn’t helped.

“I can’t say I’ve been comfortable with what the Folly has turned into. If this really is either someone on their own or an institutional thing, they’re just repeating the same old mistakes - and the rest of us may very well pay the price for it. Woodville-Gentle had this…club...in Soho; don’t ask for the details, you don’t want them. But when the Folly was dealing with it, they did a general sweep of the area. A lot of members of the demi-monde got caught up in it. A lot of them got killed. That’s the sort of thing that concerns me.”

Well. That went a long way to explaining the general attitude to the Isaacs, in the demi-monde - or why the Rivers upstream and down had put aside whatever long-held feud they’d apparently had.

“So what are you planning to do about it?” I asked.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. I think how the Folly does magic, who they choose to do magic – it doesn’t work anymore. They don’t want to change, they don’t think they need to. But I can’t change it – I should have stayed, I should have fought it when I had the power and the position...but I gave it up; I left, David and I, we both did. We thought we were old and we’d earned our retirement together, damn what anyone else thought about it. And we were. But then I got – not young again, precisely, but...to here. I think that’s...part of why I offered to teach you. I wanted to do something. To try and demonstrate that being a practitioner and being like what the Folly is, now - that they’re not the same thing.”

“You feel like you have a – responsibility.” I was trying to think out loud. “To – be a go-between?”

“I feel as if I have a responsibility to prove...that not everything from the tradition I learned, not everyone who learns in that tradition, is untrustworthy; that the institution I practically grew up in, worked for, helped lead...that it means something more than clinging on to its own power. That we’re not all...whatever they are becoming.”

“Not all wizards?” I said, straight-faced, but he didn’t get the joke.

“Not all wizards what?”

“Never mind. Is there really no-one in the Folly you can get an honest answer out of? About whatever’s going on? Just to try and find out whether it’s one of them, or all of them, or something in between? And what else might be coming down the line?”

“You have to understand...” He sighed. “When I retired – when we retired – it was the late sixties. Most of the current leadership of the Folly were apprentices then, or soon after, during the unpleasantness in Soho. Their formative impressions of me, and of course David, were dominated by the attitude to same-sex relationships at the time – it hadn’t been so very long since Turing. They were told to avoid David and I, I expect, once we - once it became general gossip. And then with Woodville-Gentle having been David’s apprentice, and David killing himself - no-one ever said to my face that I must have known something of what was going on. But I know it was said. So much for anyone who was part of the Folly at that time, and the younger members, I have had essentially no contact with. As I said, many probably don’t know I’m alive, and the rest...I wouldn’t know where to start. I haven’t set foot in the place in two decades, and not visited on any regular basis for perhaps three. That’s why I was so very surprised by my unexpected visitor. Who...I must now wonder about.”

“Pity you didn’t get a name.”

Thomas made a face. “I really did just want to get rid of him as quickly as possible.”

“I don’t blame you.” We sat in silence for a moment. “Look - thanks. For telling me.”

“You did need to know,” he said. “Eventually. I was putting it off. It’s history, but...it’s not the kind that’s gotten any easier with time.”

*

The question for me, though - considering everything - was: the Folly had told the Rivers Skygarden wasn’t their fault, and that if it was any practitioner’s fault, it was someone beyond their control. Which seemed thoroughly unbelievable when you considered what sort of attitude they took to uncontrollable practitioners - and from what I could tell, it wasn’t like they were making any concerted effort to find whoever they thought it might be. And at least the retired people Thomas had checked with were getting the same story - if they knew Stromberg had been a practitioner or up to something magical when he designed the place, there was no hint of that, much less whatever the magical thing had been. So was there some group within the Folly behind this, people who had figured out Skygarden’s mystery, wanted to steal stored power? And how could anyone outside the Folly find out who they were?

I wondered about that guy who’d given Abdul the brush-off about the chimeric DNA - that seemed like a place to start. Robert Weil, the name had been. Thomas said he didn’t know who Weil was – too young, after his time. And he wasn’t the one who’d visited Thomas, earlier in the year – I checked the guy’s Facebook. Thomas was quite appalled at how much personal information people just put out about themselves, by the way. Of course he didn’t have one. You’d think people who worked for a semi-secret magical organization would know better, too, but no.

I organized to have coffee with Abdul and talk over my Skygarden theory and his chimeric DNA and just what the hell he thought was going on with the Folly – after all, he worked with them, sort of, and he didn’t seem nearly as allergic to the institution as Thomas was. Not that I blamed Thomas, after what he’d told me.

“So, someone’s making magically modified organisms and they’re mauling people to death,” I said. “Isn’t that the kind of thing the Folly’s supposed to prevent? Doesn’t that Folly policeman who was all over our site have anything to say about it?”

“Now you mention it,” Abdul said. “I haven’t heard from DCI Lewis at all, over this - which is odd. Unless Weil never told him about the DNA...but I can’t imagine why he’d do that.”

“Unless he’s in on it.”

Abdul thought about this. “I couldn’t rule it out. But Weil seems a bit gormless for that sort of thing. Still...it is odd. But about the Folly, and their job - yes, you’d think they’d be all over this. But the fact is, since that whole disaster in the seventies – I don’t know how many of the details you know...”

“I asked, he told,” I said. “The broad outlines, anyway. And about David, and what happened.”

“Well, then. They’ve been very uninterested in experimental magic, ever since, and generally take the position that nobody within their august walls would even think of doing that sort of thing. So I’m not totally surprised they don’t want to hear about it; there is some statistical chance I’m wrong, of course. Never assume malice, etcetera. But it’s concerning. And then...Thomas says you’ve a theory about this whole Skygarden tragedy.”

“Oh, he does?” I was a bit taken aback. “I didn’t know he’d mentioned it. I wanted to run it past you, yeah.”

“You’d be surprised how often you’re a topic of conversation with him,” said Abdul meaningfully, and I – really didn’t know what to say to that, because obviously asking how often is that exactly, tell me more was out of the question, so I just went ahead and laid the theory out like he hadn’t said it.

“Interesting,” Abdul said when I was finished. “I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but...interesting.”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I just remember that day I was there, and thinking - no-one does something like that, the mass damper, I mean, without a purpose. Stromberg was a disaster as far as making the city prettier goes, but you can’t say his work didn’t have a thesis. And something stored up a whole lot of magic in that place - we felt it when it came down. So the question is - what was knocking it down meant to achieve?”

“I was thinking about that,” Abdul said. “Based on what you and Thomas say there was a powerful lot of magic flying around that day – but was that really all of it? What if someone was trying to...siphon it off, somehow? And they had to bring down the structure to do it. But if you’re going to steal magic, you’ve got to want to do something with it...”

“I think someone’s just bored,” I said. “Or frustrated with the way the Folly does things. Or realized that they could do damn near anything, with enough magic – I mean, subject to the laws of physics – and wants to see exactly how far they can go. I mean, does it matter, though?”

“Motive seems to be the key to solving these things, quite often,” Abdul mused.

“Yeah, well, I’m not a detective, or even a police officer. I’m just too curious for my own good. I hear there’s this one police officer who might be chasing it up - my neighbour Sahra’s boss, this Lewis guy. And Sahra’s alright. But Thomas’ll never talk to him, or any of them, I don’t think - and I can’t, or if I do it’s not safe. What with the whole learning thing, you know. But he should. He could.”

“You’ve got to understand,” Abdul said. “He really did wash his hands of the lot of them, back then. He spent his whole life working for the Folly and then – he’s not minded to give them any of his new one, such as it is.”

“But people have died,” I said.

“You’re an architect,” said Abdul. “Why do you care?”

“Because I think I know something that might be important,” I said. “Because yeah, I’m an architect – I create spaces for people to live in, okay, I try to make this city a, a better place, I really do mean that, and some total wanker is going around taking all the things that make London even more amazing than I thought it was – all the magic – and blowing up fucking tower blocks and it’s not on. It’s just not on. And Thomas acts like it’s not his problem and I don’t get it.”

“If he lets it be his problem he’s not going to be able to stop,” Abdul said. “Do you have any idea how bored he was getting, before you turned up and talked your way into learning magic?”

“Extremely, excessively bored?” I said. “It’s the only real explanation I’ve been able to come up with for why he’d suggest it in the first place. He never did a lot of teaching, he’s said that. I think he’s having fun figuring it out as he goes along.”

“I agree,” Abdul said. “He’s been lingering around the edges of all this for years, now; since I met him in the eighties. Now he’s getting involved, because of you, because of all this - and he’s realising what a terrible mess it is, how the Folly’s been behaving, how everyone magical who isn’t them feels about them. And now this - someone doing something really seriously wrong. If it is the Folly, as a whole - he’ll feel obliged to try and fix it. If it can be fixed. So he’s hesitating.”

“Well - he should. Or someone should. Or Bev and her family and maybe everyone else; they’re just going to start ignoring them altogether, and the Folly don’t strike me like the type of people who take well to being ignored.”

“There’s nothing stopping you going to Lewis, or someone, I think. Stick to the architecture, to what you found - there’s enough mentions of magic in that without having to talk about you learning it. If you think any of them can be trusted to investigate themselves. If you think it’ll help. I’ve worked with Lewis on a few cases. He takes his job very seriously - he’s very methodical. Can’t say I know him well, but if he’s investigating this already...as long as it isn’t all of them in on it, I think it might be worth it.”

“If someone was...stealing magic...then they must mean to do something with it, right? And that’s what bothers me. This might be the start of something a lot worse. So - someone’s got to look into it, and it won’t be Thomas, and I wouldn’t know where to start playing amateur detective. But he’d be furious with me, if I went behind his back like that, and I’m not sure he’d be wrong either.”

“He might be,” said Abdul. “Or he might not be; it might be the kick he needs, on this. I don’t know myself.”

“I don’t know,” I said, putting my face in my hands for a second; just a second. “He confuses me. He keeps himself so...locked down; I mean, I’ve practically spent more time around him this year than Jaget, and I live with Jaget, and I still don’t know...I can’t figure out where he fits in. He gets on okay with everyone in the, what does he keep calling it, demi-monde, but there’s that whole the Nightingale thing. Even Bev’s sort of wary about him. But I haven’t seen anything to be really wary about. And then - I’m worried I might, if I go behind his back with this. I don’t know.”

“I feel obliged at this juncture to suggest that the two of you should really think about just getting over yourselves and going on a date, once you’ve sorted this whole question out,” said Abdul, like the extremely unhelpful person he was turning out to be.

“Firstly, that’s totally changing the topic, and secondly I don’t think he’s interested,” I said, sort of reflexively.

Abdul gave me a seriously dubious look. “I feel obliged to suggest it because if I have to listen to you going on about him even half as much as I’ve had to put up with the reverse I’m going to go stark raving mad.”

This seemed reasonable. My coffee suddenly became fascinating. “I don’t want to screw it up, okay? The whole - learning magic thing - I want to keep going, I don’t want to - and getting into bed with him isn’t more important than that.”

And...I didn’t really want it to say it out loud, to Abdul or maybe anyone, but the thing was? My track record with long-term relationships was appalling. Well, non-existent, if we’re being honest. I got distracted or bored or - I just wasn’t good at it. It had been the same way with friends, for a long time. People like Jaget and Lesley and Beverley, friends I stayed in touch with for this long - they’d never been common, for me. I liked Thomas way too much to risk getting bored, or whatever my problem was. And if that meant sticking to learning magic and non-date-like spending time together and - whatever the hell we were doing - then I could live with that.

I was pretty sure.

I cleared my throat. “So. My options are wait and see what happens - or risk exposing myself to the Folly. And getting Thomas in trouble.”

“That’s about the size of it, yes.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Thanks.”

“Are you going to do it?”

“I’m going to think about it.”

“When you do,” Abdul said, “your best bet is going to be to make a clean breast of it to Thomas right away. You know your reasons and they’re not bad ones.”

“And if I’m wrong?” I said. “If it really is some sort of ghastly institutional conspiracy and something awful happens to me, too?”

“Well,” Abdul said. “We’ll know why. So it’ll be helpful either way.”

“You’re so fucking reassuring.”

“You want reassurance,” he said, “don’t come to a pathologist.”

*

I realised, though, that I did have another option from the ones I’d outlined to Abdul: Sahra Guleed, my downstairs neighbour. She might not be a wizard, but she worked for the Met on magic-related crimes, and worked for Lewis specifically. And I’d known her a while, we got on. I didn’t think she’d throw me to the wolves. Of course, because she was my neighbour and she’d known me a while, and she lived on the ground floor, she knew how much time I spent with Thomas - but surely she’d take the obvious explanation as read; everyone else seemed to. I’d told Lewis that Thomas and I were friends, or friendly acquaintances, back in June, but that was nearly five months ago now. If I had to let him think we were dating, I could do that. I doubted it would be the thing that made Thomas the most upset, if I went through with this.

I wondered how much Sahra knew about all the people who lived in our building - Beverley, Molly, Thomas, Stephen...me, now. How much she knew about the demi-monde. How much she knew about magic at all, if her boss was a wizard. She’d never said anything, but then she wouldn’t have, would she?

It got put out of my mind by the holidays, though, and I might have kept dithering all the way past Christmas if I hadn’t run into her in the carpark.

“Hi,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“Don’t ask,” Sahra said moodily, shutting her car door with more force than was really necessary. “My boss has got this bee in his bonnet and there’s not enough hours in the day to get through it all.”

“You’ve got plenty of colleagues, though?”

“It’s...a bit confidential,” Sahra said, cagily, and after that - you couldn’t have stopped me.

“Is it about Skygarden?”

Sahra froze, for a bare second, then frowned at me. “What makes you think I’m working on an investigation to do with that?”

“You work with the Folly,” I said. “Your boss is a wizard. He told me so when he interviewed me, back in June.”

“And what do you think Skygarden’s got to do with magic?”

“This is going to sound a bit crazy,” I said, “but...would you believe I found a book on magic in the papers of the architect who designed it?”

“Not really,” Sahra said bluntly, “but...well, maybe. That’s Erik Stromberg, right? The architect.”

“That’s the one. He was supposed to think Skygarden was his finest work, which was always a bit confusing because the place is - well, it used to be -”

“Ugly as sin, I know.” Sahra was chewing on her lip. “That’s...interesting. Thanks.”

Then she buggered off before I could even get into my actual theory - as much of it as I was prepared to tell her - and I was left with the sinking feeling I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake.

I knew I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake when someone knocked on my office door the next day. I’d closed it to try and get a couple of things put away before what was likely to be an all-afternoon meeting, and the blind was down, so it was a total shock when I opened the door to see Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lewis. I didn’t recognise him for a second, then I did, like getting a bucket of cold water poured over me. I think I just stared for a good couple of seconds, before I managed to approximate confusion. But the damage was probably done.

“Can I help you?” I said, because I was brought up to be polite - to start with.

“Mr Grant,” he said. “I’m DCI Lewis - we spoke in June? I work with DS Sahra Guleed, who lives downstairs from you.”

“I remember. Like I said - can I help you with something?” Had that one comment to Sahra yesterday got him here? This quickly?

“I’d like to have a word about what you said to Sahra yesterday. About Erik Stromberg, the architect for the Skygarden estate. Is this a good time to speak?”

I wanted to say no - but I’d brought this on myself, hadn’t I. And it was going to look weird enough to my co-workers, a police officer showing up to talk to me - it was going to look a lot weirder if I refused.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ve got a meeting at two, but I can talk now. Come in. Can I get you coffee or tea or anything?”

Lesley had told me once that when she’d been a copper that was always the first bad sign - not being offered anything to drink. I didn’t want to send any bad signs, at least not more than my panicked freeze in the door had. At least he hadn’t shown up at the flat. I couldn’t remember offhand if there was anything in the living room I wouldn’t want a Folly wizard to see, them being likely more observant than Jaget.

Lewis declined coffee or tea - which was good, I wasn’t sure how the obligation thing worked at work compared to at home and offering the disclaimer would have been a big red flag.

“So what did you want to know, exactly?” I asked. He’d shut the door behind him, without asking. Not a great start.

“You told my sergeant that you’d found reference to magic among Erik Stromberg’s papers,” he said immediately. “I was hoping you could expand upon that.”

“Uh, well,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”

I gave him a highly edited version - saying I’d been at the RIBA archives looking up something else, and since Skygarden had been in the news, I’d been curious to see what material they’d had on it among Stromberg’s donated papers. I thought about telling him this had been after it came down, but it’d be easy enough to prove my visit had been a lot longer ago than that; so I didn’t. I told him about the book.

“What was the title, again?” Lewis asked, and wrote it down when I told him - I got it slightly wrong, on purpose. For added verisimilitude. I explained about my exchange semester in Germany, during the third year of my bachelor’s degree, and how I’d studied some of Stromberg’s work during my Master’s. Lewis listened patiently, taking the occasional note. I even brought up that long-ago series of lectures on the physics of magic - I was curious, I said, so I’d gone through it, but I hadn’t really understood any of it. That was where I broke from the truth entirely.

“My German isn’t that good,” I told him, “and Google Translate really isn’t very helpful for this sort of thing - too old and too technical. And obviously all the magic stuff - I didn’t get that. But after Skygarden got demolished, and nobody really seems to know why...I did wonder. I’ve never heard of magical architecture, but wouldn’t that be incredible?”

I realised I might be sounding a bit too enthusiastic, and tried to tone it down. “I mean - obviously, it’s not likely; there’s no architecture program at Oxford.”

“Oh, did you check?” said Lewis, sounding amused by this.

“When I was figuring out where to apply, you know,” I said, because that was true. “On the off-chance. But architecture was what I really wanted to do, and - besides - someone like me was never going to get in. I grew up on a council estate.”

“I’d like to say that’s not true,” Lewis replied, surprising me, “but I can’t. But go back to the book. Were there any notes in it - anything underlined, anything it looked like Stromberg was particularly interested in, if you can remember?”

“I can do better than that,” I told him, and grabbed my tablet to bring up the pages I’d scanned. Lewis nodded as he looked through them, and asked if I could email the images; I agreed. I just about thought I’d gotten away with it when he said “I’m still wondering, though - why did you think it was relevant? To the building getting blown up?”

I took a deep breath, and prepared to prevaricate to the fullest extent possible. “The day it happened - we all came home early from work, the city shut down, you know that - and when I got home my next-door neighbour was yelling about it. She thought...she thought it was something to do with the Folly.”

“Your next-door neighbour is...”

“Bev,” I said, looking Lewis straight in the eye. “Beverley Brook, if you want her full name.”

This startled him - I’m not sure why; surely his lot kept a better track on Bev and her family than that. And surely Sahra knew about her - surely. “Really?”

“Really.” I thought about making a joke of it, what a funny coincidence, she’s named after the river, what were her mum and dad thinking, but I didn’t like to push it. 

“You do have interesting neighbours, don’t you, Mr Grant?”

“They’re alright, as neighbours go,” I said. “Friendly. Not too friendly. It’s a good place to live.”

Lewis looked at his notebook, and at my tablet again, and said, considering, “What did you think of this theory about gathering magic from daily life?”

And because I’m ten kinds of idiot, I almost opened my mouth to say “Seems to make sense, you get some pretty strong vestigia from everyday activities, look at those pots the Quiet People make - that’s daily life and craftwork if anything is,” but I’m not quite that stupid so I said “Oh - nothing - I mean, what do I know about magic?”  

Lewis looked at me a moment more, then said, a little too casually, “Is Thomas Nightingale your master?”

I went absolutely blank. The trouble was that if some white guy had asked me that six months ago I would have blown up at him, and I still wanted to, but I also knew what he was really asking, and that fraction of hesitation told Lewis everything he needed to know, because he was a good cop.

"Is he?" Lewis went on, harder now.

"Excuse me?" I said, but it was way too late. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

"You know what I mean," he said grimly. "So I'll ask you again -"

"Thomas Nightingale is my teacher," I said, to stave him off, because you have to have standards. "Only a bunch of white boys from Oxford would still be calling their teachers that like it was the fucking nineteenth century."

He looked startled; like he hadn't expected me to answer in the affirmative. "But – really? You’re an architect."

"And you're a police officer," I said. "Is that really any more absurd?"

I was managing with the banter but all I could think was fuck, fuck, fuck, I couldn’t keep it together. He knows. How much trouble am I in, exactly? Fuck.

"I was a wizard before I was a police officer, and there’s a bit of a tradition in the police, anyway," Lewis said dryly. "Christ. You’re his apprentice. How did you talk him into that? As far as I know he’s effectively retired."

I wanted to parry - but - I’d admitted it already. I couldn’t make it worse by answering that question.

"I didn't," I said. "He suggested it. Well – it's a bit more complicated than that – I sort of worked out lux on my own after I saw him do it – I think he felt responsible for minimizing the potential property damage."

"You –" Lewis was really staring now. But it was amazement - not anything worse. Not yet. "Christ. No wonder."

"And, I mean, you'd have to ask him why, exactly. I'm not sure I really know myself. But gift horses, mouths, right?"

"It's not necessarily a gift," Lewis said. Suspiciously pleasantly. 

I snorted. "See, you all say that sort of thing, and yeah, I know about the dropping dead of a stroke thing, I get that it's risky, and I get that it's hard work, but you get to do magic. The Folly's got away all this time letting people think it's barely more than party tricks and – how do you not have people banging on your door demanding to learn?"

"Because we also let them think that it's an innate talent and only a few people have it," Lewis said. "Which is a lie, of course. But such a believable one."

"You can thank half a century of genre fiction for that," I said. "Or maybe it goes deeper – people really want to believe you're born special, not that it's fucking hard graft. But then again, plenty of people are born that way, aren't they? Like - well, you know about Beverley. It's just the rest of us have to do it the hard way. I get why all of that has been kept under wraps, by the way. Just imagine what UKIP would have to say about - about people like her."

"Foreigners stealing the jobs of hardworking British deities?" suggested Lewis, who was trying not to smile - like this was all easy, funny, like it didn’t matter.

"That sort of thing,” I agreed, and decided - I might as well push on. “Thomas - said it's not technically against the rules for him to be teaching me. I get the impression it's a pretty fine technicality, though.”

“Did Nightingale tell you to talk to me?” Lewis wanted to know. “I assume you’ve talked over this with him.”

“No. He’s not – no. He doesn’t want to get involved. I might not be learning magic very much longer. Well, for all I know you’re going to report me or whatever, anyway.” I tried to say it casually, but it came out tense. I was tense. This could still go wrong very quickly. 

"I try to avoid hypocrisy," Lewis said, and I waited, but he didn't elaborate. Well, that was interesting.

“How much trouble am I likely to be in, with the Folly?” I asked. “Just - let me know.”

“I don’t know,” Lewis said. “This - hasn’t happened. Not for a very, very long time. And Nightingale was right, I guess; it’s not technically against the rules. Or it wouldn’t be, if he’d reported it.”

“But he didn’t,” I said.

“But he didn’t, because that piece of gossip would have gone around the place at light speed, and it’s news to me,” Lewis agreed. “He may not have known about that loophole, anyway - it might have been after he cut contact.”

“So,” I said, feeling - a bit sick, to be honest. “What now?”

“Nothing, now,” Lewis said. “You went out on a limb talking to Sahra, and you were trying - trying to be helpful, I believe. And this - it really is helpful for our investigation, I wouldn’t have known where to start looking for stuff on Stromberg, or that he was a practitioner at all.”

“In that case,” I said, “there’s a bit more to it.”

I told him about the grimoire, although I was cagey about where I’d found it - I didn’t mention the market, mumbled something about a second-hand shop - and the letter. I didn’t offer to give them to Lewis. He asked if I had a copy, and I said I could forward that as well - I’d scanned it and used a handwriting-reading program to clean it up.

“Seriously, though,” I said. “What now?”

“I’m not going to tell the Folly about you,” Lewis said plainly. “Or Nightingale. If that’s what you’re asking.”

“If it’s not technically against the rules, why does it matter?”

“The Folly,” Lewis said, choosing his words, “has a very particular attitude about magic, and who gets to do it - well, obviously it does. I don’t think they could have you arrested for anything, and in any case I don’t think anyone in the SAU would want to - I certainly wouldn’t. But less direct consequences, those would be easy enough to arrange - disciplinary action by your professional body, getting you de-registered, for instance.”

That was like a punch to the gut; being struck off as an architect?

“But - that goes through the registration board - there aren’t even any Folly members on it, and they look at professional misconduct -”

“Who are the Folly, when we’re not being wizards? I’m a police officer - that’s unusual. In fact, a lot of my colleagues would probably call it eccentric, if you asked them - then again, they think a lot of my life choices are eccentric.” Lewis made a face.

“You’re not the only one, though - you said as much.”

“No, but the others are off in other parts of the country - not London. It’s just me with the Met. Anyway, what I’m saying is - I’m the oddball. Most of the rest of them are influential despite the fact they’re wizards, not because of it. If they wanted to get you de-registered, they could.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a friendly warning,” Lewis said. “You did ask what could happen. That’s the obvious consequence - anything else would require...actual misdeeds on your part, which don’t appear to be present.”

“Right. Thanks. Totally reassuring.” But I knew what he meant; if they wanted to get me, they’d find an excuse. I wasn’t the right sort of person, after all.

I realised that it was getting close to two. “Look - as fascinating as this conversation is...I do have that meeting.”

“Yes, of course,” Lewis said, putting his notebook away. “You’ve given me a lot to think about - if I have more questions, the architectural sort, would you be willing to answer them?”

“I - suppose. Yes, I would.” I didn’t know what to think. There was a lot I hadn’t told him, come to that - did he know about the chimeric cells, related to the June murder? Had Abdul told him that? Or that the grimoire might have been stolen from Erik Stromberg’s house? Or about Sky, the tree nymph of Skygarden? Or the weird mass damper - well, he almost certainly didn’t know about that; he wouldn’t know it was weird, even if he’d looked at the blueprints. Or even Thomas’s visitor from June - the one who’d wanted to know about staffs. If that was connected at all. So...I supposed I had more to tell him. If it was safe.

“And you’ll tell Nightingale that we talked? If he’s willing - if you wouldn’t mind asking...I think I might want to talk to him, too.”

He might not want to talk to you,” I felt obliged to point out.

“I know,” Lewis acknowledged. “That’s why I’m asking you.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “I can’t make any promises.”

“No, I understand.” Lewis stood, and I did too. “I’ll be in touch.” He gave me his card. I didn’t give him mine, because fuck it, he could look me up - our firm had a website. And I could see he expected to get it, and when you’re up against people who can throw around fucking mind-control, glamour, whatever, a little act of defiance is really reassuring.

I did shake hands with him, though, which neither of us had offered when he’d shown up - no vestigium, though, not like I’d been expecting. He did it readily, which is a good sign with that type of guy - thanked me for my time again, and left.

I spent the ten minutes between that and my meeting with my face in my hands, trying to fight back the urge to throw up.

*

Lewis had said he’d be in touch with me, but he hadn’t said how exactly. So I was a little surprised when there was a knock on my door that evening, not so long after I’d got home - the meeting had been a trainwreck, I hadn’t paid attention to more than one word in five - and it was Sahra Guleed to see me.

It was Jaget who opened it. I twisted around to see who it was and was surprised to see Sahra standing there in her serious-business black hijab and leather jacket - the ones she wore to work.

“Oh, hi,” Jaget said. “Come to arrest us for something?”

“Why, you done something I should be arresting you for?” Sahra said, but it was good-humoured. “I need a word with Peter, is he in?”

“Right here.” I stood up from the sofa and came over. “What’s up?”

She was giving me a funny look, one I couldn’t quite work out. “Is this a bad time? Are you guys eating?”

“Yeah,” I said, “is it urgent?”

“Mind dropping by after?”

I was supposed to have a lesson that evening, and I owed Thomas a confession about my meeting with DCI Lewis today. But this - was almost certainly about that meeting, so. “I can if it’s quick.”

She hesitated for just a second. “Yeah, should be.”

I said I’d be down in fifteen minutes or so, and she left. Jaget was looking back and forth between us. “What d’you reckon all that’s about?”

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “But...if I’m not back soon, text me or something, yeah?”

Jaget frowned. “Peter, she’s police.”

There was no good way to answer that which didn’t make it sound like I was involved in something dodgy, so I said, “Yeah, I know, I’ve just got stuff to get done this evening and I don’t want to get stuck helping her with whatever the fuck it is - might need you to fake up an emergency or whatever.”

Jaget relaxed. “Oh, sure, I can do that.” He shook his head. “You need to stop being so chummy with the neighbours, you know.”

“Maybe I do.”

Sahra opened her door the instant I knocked on it, like she’d been waiting. She didn’t invite me in, either - instead she stepped out and closed it behind her.

“So what’s all this about, then?” I asked.

“Walk with me,” she said, and I found this all deeply suspicious, but went anyway. Because it was Sahra, right, I’d known her for two years and it seemed safe enough - besides which if she wanted to give me grief she could just arrest me for something and be done with it, at least if she could come up with a good enough excuse.

“I’m a bit lost, I gotta say,” I told her as we walked. “Seriously. What’s this about?”

“My boss wants me to keep an eye on you,” she said, as we came out into the carpark.

If she meant DCI Lewis...that wasn’t so good. “Your boss? Lewis?”

She stopped, turned to me, and smiled - but not happily. “Seems we’ve got something in common, you and me.”

“And what’s that?” I asked, but I had a funny feeling I knew.

It still made every hair on my body stand up when the werelight appeared over her palm, though - that sudden, incontrovertible evidence of magic; of something that might be explicable but was no less amazing for it. Turning the key in the lock of the universe, here in a carpark.

“Fuck me, you can do magic,” I said, because I’m eloquent when I’m startled. 

She rolled her eyes. “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

“Lewis is teaching you?” I asked.

She nodded. “I’ve been apprenticing with him for about five years. It’s really handy with the police work, actually.”

“Fuck me,” I said again. “Does the Folly know about this?”

“What do you think?”

“How many of us do you think there are?”

“You mean, off-the-books apprentices?” She looked thoughtful. “Dunno. Might be just the two of us. I know Lewis thought I was the only one until today.”

“I know Thomas doesn’t know about you,” I said, “but he doesn’t really talk to anyone at the Folly anymore.”

“Wait, Thomas?” she asked.

“Thomas Nightingale,” because Lewis knew so there wasn’t much point beating around the bush. “You know - Thomas who lives on the ground floor. He’s - been teaching me.” That got me a sympathetic grimace - I bet she was about as keen on the whole master thing as I was. “Lewis didn’t mention that?”

“He doesn’t call him Thomas,” she said, dryly. “But, yeah. It was mentioned. He’s got a bit of a reputation with the rest of the Folly, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. There was that murder you guys investigated on one of my sites this summer, and your boss gave me the third degree just for being his neighbour.”

“Do you know what’s with that?” she asked.

I hesitated. “It’s - complicated. It’s not anything he did, though, at least not anything he did that was actually wrong. According to him, anyway - and I trust him. I don’t know what they say about him at the Folly.”

“They called him the Nightingale, the one time I heard Lewis talking about him to another wizard,” Sahra said. “And I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or a curse. Maybe both.”

“I thought you weren’t with them?”

“Yes and no,” she said. “I’m assigned to the Specialist Assessment Unit - that’s the part of the Met that works with the Folly - so I work with them, but officially us police types don’t get to learn magic, we just get to be bossed around by wizards when magic’s part of the case. Civilian consultants, ugh. So I see plenty of them, but it was Lewis who decided it’d work better if I actually knew magic. He’s one of the only ones who actually went to Hendon and the rest of it, you know, like they did back in the day. Not that they had Hendon back then.  So officially I work with them, and unofficially I learn magic from Lewis.”

“How’s that supposed to work out?” I asked. “Like, one day he’s going to be, oh, here’s this wizard I trained earlier, I guess you have to let her in now?”

She shrugged. “I think at first it was sort of - an experiment. And now - he thinks they should be doing it with more people, but I think he tried to bring it up a couple of times and got knocked back pretty hard. So maybe, yeah, if it comes to it. Or maybe not. I don’t think he knows anymore.”

An experiment, I thought. “And do you like it?”

Sahra gave me a scornful look. “Peter. I can do magic.”

We shared a stupid conspiratorial grin, because I knew exactly - exactly - how she felt about that.

“So why are you talking to me, then?”

“He told me I should keep an eye on you, and this way - if you do anything stupid or need to get in touch, you know to come to me. Otherwise you’d be flailing around in the middle of an emergency, maybe, complaining about how you never knew, and best not, yeah?”

“Are you keeping an eye on anyone else?” I asked, struck by a sudden thought. “Like - say - one Thomas Nightingale?”

“Well...now I am,” she admitted. “But not when I moved in, if that’s what you’re asking. Jessie already had the place, I knew her from probationary training - she’s stationed out of Belgravia, that’s where the SAU work out of, the Folly doesn’t want uniformed coppers cluttering up their sacred halls. And the rent was decent. I didn’t even know who he was until a few months ago, when I heard the name - I mean, I knew who he was, but I didn’t know who he was.”

And that might be true, or it might not be. “Okay. So - if I get any more bright ideas or into trouble, I’m supposed to run screaming to you?”

“Since I’m the girl on the spot, as it were.”

“All right, then.”

There was one other thing I wondered. “Did you take the oath?”

“Well, you still do that when you join the police, you know, it - oh. That oath. Yeah.” She frowned at me. “And...so did you?”

I shrugged. “It was part of the deal; if I wanted to learn. So I did. I just wondered, is all.”

“Did you ever figure out what the clothing bit was about?” she asked me.

“No. Did you?”

“No.” We laughed, a wry chuckle.

“But...” she said. “My boss is police, and so’m I. You’re not, and neither’s the Nightingale, not any more - he’s been retired for about as long as my boss has been alive. So why did he make that a condition?”

“Why did he offer to teach me magic at all?” I returned. “I still haven’t figured that one out, exactly. The closest I can figure is that he was a bit bored. Which isn’t the best reason, let’s be honest. So I think...he thought that made it, well, not official. Official-ish. In the spirit of the thing.”

“And do you think that?”

I thought about this. “Yes. Yeah, actually, I do. Even if the Folly doesn’t.”

“Okay,” said Sahra.

I still wasn’t sure how casual this whole thing really was, but - it might not be a bad thing, to have someone I could talk to right there. If needed. I thought she was telling the truth, and that was - that was pretty great, actually; someone else a bit more like me, who’d learned magic, been learning it. Someone else on the edges of things. And it made a lot of what Lewis had said make a great deal more sense. He didn’t want to dob me in, or Thomas - he was in the same boat we were, and so was Sahra.

I thought I liked that. 

*

The day was getting weirder and weirder but before it finished I had to go and see Thomas, at least to make a clean breast of things. I was fairly convinced I’d done the right thing, even if the law of unintended consequences had overtaken me quicker than I’d expected, but whether he’d see it that way - well.

He was expecting me, so when I knocked on his door he opened it quickly enough. “Ah, come on in, Peter.”

I decided to just get it over with. “A couple of things happened today. And I need you to hear me out - all of it. You’re not going to be happy about it, but bear with me.”

“What did you do,” he began, but I shook my head.

“Really. All of it.”

He went very tight around the lips, but said only “Very well, then.”

So I told him – all of it.

At first, when I told him Lewis had come to my work, that I’d provoked it by speaking to Sahra about Skygarden, I thought he was angry - and maybe he was, a bit. He went very quiet, and a bit pale. People always get scared of the kind of person who goes red-faced and shouty when they’re angry, but for my money it’s the quiet ones you really need to worry about. Toby, sensing the tension, whined nervously until Thomas shushed him. After a while we sat down at the table. Thomas faced me across it like - like I didn’t know what.

“How did you know he wasn’t responsible for it?” he said at one point.

“Well, I, um, I didn’t, not for sure,” I confessed. “But he was so suspicious of you and it just didn’t – it didn’t fit. And we can speculate all we like but we’re not the cops or anything like; someone who can, you know, arrest people needed to be checking it out. Besides - I talked to Abdul about it, he thought it was a sensible idea. And worst case if it was all a big conspiracy and talking to Lewis meant I showed up dead, if we’re going to get all thriller-movie about it, you’d know who -”

Thomas pinched the bridge of his nose. “If you showed up dead – “

“Okay, unwarranted speculation there,” I said hastily. “And – there’s a bit more to it?”

He let me go on, and I explained about Lewis making me for an apprentice – that whole ‘master’ question really is a dead giveaway when you’re me, and I was willing to bet for Sahra too – and exactly why Lewis wasn’t going to be in a tearing hurry to dob either of us in to the rest of the Folly.

“Sahra Guleed is an apprentice?” Thomas’s eyebrows shot up. “And that far into her training?”

I shrugged. “So he says. And so she says. She can do magic, I know that for sure. I couldn’t feel the signare but you said I wouldn’t at this stage, so it doesn’t mean anything. You’d know if she was his apprentice if she did magic around you, right? Or - you’ve never met him, so maybe not.”

Or did it hand down over more than one generation, magically speaking - would Thomas recognise in Sahra’s signare the echoes of whoever had taught Lewis? But that was getting off-topic, even I could tell that.

Thomas had been leaning forward, intent on what I was saying. He didn’t slump, Thomas was much too in control of himself to slump, but he did sort of sag slowly backwards. “I had no idea what I was getting myself in for when I made that offer to you, did I?”

I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or an insult, or not really directed at me at all. “To be fair, I don’t think either of us really had any idea.”

That won me the flicker of a smile. “Granted. And – having heard you out – I think you did the right thing.”

I was a bit surprised by that, and a bit pleased, but mostly – “I wasn’t asking for your forgiveness or your permission. This wasn’t about magic, not directly.” I’d promised to do as he said for that, but that was as far as it went – the only moral authority he had over me was what I let him have, and I was certain I’d made the right decision, telling Lewis what I’d told him.

He nodded slowly. “I understand that. Nevertheless. I’m not angry about it.”

“You looked pretty bloody angry from where I’m sitting -”

“Did I?” He grimaced. “Then you don’t know me as well as you think.”

I realised it hadn’t been anger that had put that look on his face - it had been fear. He’d been afraid for me, afraid of what the Folly might to do to me.

I wasn’t sure what to do with that.

 “But, Peter, please,” he went on, “I would really rather prefer if you didn’t decide to do things you thought might involve you, er, ‘showing up dead’ without doing me the courtesy of telling me in person. The situation permitting, obviously.”

“So you can remind me why I shouldn’t?”

“So I can help,” he said sharply. I re-translated his last few sentences into normal human English and was quite touched, really.

“Fair enough,” I said. “Pity to waste all your hard work, the last few months. Although it would have been a lot more reassuring if you’d told me not to be ridiculous and that there wasn’t any chance of -”

Peter,” he said again, and actually put his hand over mine, on the table. Oh. We were having a moment. No one had told me. “As messy and probably dangerous as this whole thing is, the situation really does not require any solitary heroics, do you hear me? So please do try to avoid them from now on.”

The touching was all very – something, but there was an edge to his voice that made me remember he’d fought a war, seventy years ago or not.

“No heroics, absolutely,” I told him. “If I wanted heroics I wouldn’t have gone into architecture.”

I could have stalled with Lewis, after all, pretended I didn’t really know anything; maybe I should have. If he’d tried to glamour me into telling the truth - well, that would have been a good thing to know, wouldn’t it? If he was that sort of person or not. I’d handled it badly.

“Good,” was all Thomas said, and then we just sort of sat there, for what felt like forever but must have only been thirty seconds or a minute at most, because I had no idea what to say and he didn’t seem to either but I wasn’t going to move my hand until he moved. We weren’t looking at each other because that would tip it over into awkward, or at least I wasn’t looking at him, so I just sort of stared at his hand on mine. He had nice hands, long-fingered and neatly trimmed nails. The one resting on mine was warm and dry and oh, fuck, I was in so much trouble.

And then the moment passed and we got on with other things, like the lesson I was actually there for. But I left his flat that evening still thinking about the feeling of his hand on mine.

Instead of everything else I should have been thinking about. Well. I did say I was easily distracted.

*

“Hiiiii, Peter,” trilled Sahra as soon as I walked into the building, less than a week later. Given that Sahra would have been voted Person Least Likely To Trill if we’d put it up to a vote among all the inhabited flats, this was of serious concern.

“Hi?” I said.

“We need to talk,” she went on, in much flatter tones.

“Can I go and put my things down?” I asked, tapping the strap of my messenger bag. I do have a briefcase for when I want to do the ultra-professional thing but the messenger bag is much comfier. I’d use a backpack if I thought I could still get away with it.

“Need to talk to Nightingale too, anyway,” she told me. “I’m going to go check if he’s in. See you down here in five?”

I agreed, because what else was I going to do? I’d asked Thomas if he’d be willing to talk to Lewis, and he’d said he’d think about it, no promises, but Sahra lived down the hall from him, he could hardly avoid talking to her. I knew he’d asked her about the whole apprentice deal - he’d been curious about that. So if she wanted to ask him about something, I supposed he’d probably agree - well, I’d see, wouldn’t I?

When I knocked on Thomas’s door four and a half minutes later - I’d run straight up the stairs, thrown my things down, and left before Jaget could ask inconvenient questions about why I was running straight out again - Sahra was already there, sitting at his delicate round table and looking tense. Thomas opened the door and nodded me in. I was in and out so much these days that we were past the usual pleasantries.

“We’ve had a murder,” Sahra said without preamble.

“Murders are your business, aren’t they?” asked Thomas, taking the other chair. I perched on the armchair - it was nearer the pair of them than the sofa, although none of these flats were what you’d call sizeable so I could have reasonably participated in the conversation from just about anywhere in the room.

“At the Folly,” Sahra went on, and that got Thomas’s attention.

“At the Folly?” he said incredulously, eyebrows nearly reaching his hairline.

“Well, not physically,” she temporised. “But one of my governor’s colleagues. He got found in a club in Soho - dead, and it definitely wasn’t natural. Whether it was supernatural...they’re still arguing about it.”

“How did he die, then?” I asked.

Sahra hesitated, then told us. Thomas didn’t blink a bloody eyelash. I was suddenly really, really glad I’d had an early lunch.

“Something...bit off...his penis,” I repeated, just to be sure I’d heard her right.

“They’re still working on the autopsy,” she said. “I think they called in Dr Walid at UCH.”

“I can get in touch with Abdul if necessary,” Thomas said. “He’s a friend. But it doesn’t sound like the sort of injury one would, er, mistake.”

“Not really,” Sahra said with slightly more cheer than I felt the situation really called for. I’d been sitting on the side of the armchair with my legs slightly apart and it was taking real force of will not to change position. “It doesn’t have to have been supernatural, but this is the first time a Folly wizard’s been murdered in...Lewis says it’s been a while.”

“I can’t say for certain whether it’s happened in the last forty years, but that would be well within living memory,” said Thomas. “Before that - I don’t recall a case in my lifetime. All the wizards I knew who perished by violence were killed in the war - that was very hard on the Folly, perhaps one in five or six were killed. More than in any war previously, and that doesn’t count those who retired due to injury afterwards. But murder, suspected or real - no.”

“The thing is,” I said, “are you telling us this because your boss thinks it was an inside job, or because he thinks it wasn’t?”

“That’s the question,” Sahra replied. “If it wasn’t - the, er, mechanism suggests some sort of fae, doesn’t it? And we all know the Folly and the demi-monde aren’t on the best of terms right now. Though why one of them would want to do in this Jason Dunlop guy, I have no idea. If it was...is it related to the Skygarden incident? And why? And how?”

I wanted to ask a bunch of questions, like what did he do and what might he have known, but Sahra and her boss were the fucking police. They should know. But I asked anyway because I’m no good at keeping my mouth shut sometimes.

“You have to have a theory, though, right?” I said. “Or you wouldn’t even be bothering to talk to us. What did this guy do?”

“He was a journalist,” she said, and that surprised me, but not Thomas.

“What’s a wizard doing being a journalist?” I asked.

“Investigative reporting,” she said. “And - uninvestigative reporting, if you get my drift. Generally they - we - do a good job of keeping the wrong things out of the papers but it helps. Anyway, I never met him, this is just what Lewis said.”

Apparently Lewis had asked Dunlop - very quietly - to look into who was doing the clean-up work on the Skygarden site. It was a big pile of rubble now, and totally unsafe, so he couldn’t just walk in himself and look for magic, or send Sahra - but if someone had brought down Skygarden knowing that it was some sort of magic sink, and wanted to use the magic for something, there had to be a way for them to cart it away. And the easiest way to do that would be through whoever the legitimate contractors were. That had been two weeks ago. Now Dunlop was dead, in a particularly messy way, and whatever he’d found out was gone with him.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “He must have had notes or something.”

“We’re looking,” Sahra said. “But nothing so far - we’ll go through the phone and email records, see if we can piece together what he did look into, but you’ve got to understand this was all strictly unofficial, so it’s not like he was logging his actions.” Whatever that meant. “Killing him is bloody stupid, if you ask me - just makes us more suspicious.”

“Quite,” said Thomas. “Do you think whoever it was knows that Inspector Lewis is investigating this line of inquiry?”

“Depends, doesn’t it?” said Sahra. “On how whoever it was found out Dunlop was looking into it in the first place. What it does mean is that we can’t really rely on other help from the Folly.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” Thomas said. “In this sort of situation the best move is to throw the whole thing open - you’ll warn your target, of course, but there’s probably information you’re missing because people don’t know it’s important.”

“He got knocked back,” Sahra said. “When he tried that. By upper management. No-one wants to consider that someone at the Folly’s behind this. Not enough evidence, apparently.”

“Well, this has to make them think twice about that, surely,” I said.

Sahra smiled tightly. “Except the obvious explanation is that it was someone from the demi-monde - and they know perfectly well how everyone feels about the Folly right now, so that’s plausible. Which makes them even less likely to okay a Folly-wide investigation into possible corruption, or...whatever this is. And absent that, bring people in one by one just ups the odds that it gets back to whoever this is before we can get to them - it’s like I just got dumped into a John le Carre novel. Bunch of white guys, nobody to trust.”

“That’s...cunning, and evil,” I said. “Fuck. Do we know it wasn’t someone in the demi-monde, though?”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Sahra said. “I’ve got a photo. I know what I think, but I want to hear what you two think.”

It wasn’t good - a capture from a CCTV somewhere - but it looked remarkably like Molly.

“Uh, Molly’s evil twin sister?” I said at once.

“It’s not her, if you were wondering,” added Thomas. “But I can see the resemblance. I don’t know anyone who looks that much like her, though.”

Sahra sighed. “Yeah, I know it’s not her - but it’s nice to hear that from someone else, and Lewis was, um, not totally convinced. I’m going to have to go ask her about it - maybe it’s someone she knows?”

“Would you mind if I did that?” asked Thomas. “I think - she might find it a bit distressing.”

Sahra frowned. “I shouldn’t. But...okay. Sure. And if you could find a way to ask her about the, um, modus operandi, if...”

Thomas did not look happy about that prospect. “I...think you have to assume this woman is some sort of chimera. That...modus operandi, thank you...certainly isn’t natural to Molly’s, um, to people like Molly. There’s been a certain degree of, ah, interbreeding, which would be...difficult, in this circumstance.”

“But why would you -” Sahra would have gone green if she could have. “Ugh. That’s - ugh. What kind of sick bastard comes up with this sort of thing, much less - ugh.”

“It’s reminiscent of...a certain mind-set,” Thomas said. “From the Soho incident, in the seventies. You...should ask Lewis about it.”

“Maybe they’re connected?” I suggested, a bit hesitant - I didn’t really want to bring up...but I thought I had to. “Whoever’s creating chimeras now, and whoever was responsible for...whatever went on back then?”

“They were executed,” Thomas said flatly. “And a lot of people who weren’t involved retired, or - or. So if there is a connection, it would have to predate that.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll ask,” Sahra said. “It might help. If you’d asked me before this I would have said if we ever did have a problem with a Folly wizard it’d be easy to solve, because of the signare - but this avoids the whole signare problem, using chimeras. We can’t tell who it was just from the corpse.”

“You could kill someone with magic undetectably pretty easily, though,” I said. “Couldn’t you? Even with the signare thing.”

“That would depend entirely on whether you wanted the magic or the killing to be undetectable,” Thomas said, considering it. “If you just needed to kill them and for it to not be obvious that it had been with magic - there are a number of ways I can think of offhand.”

“Narrow-gauge fireball,” Sahra said immediately. “Make it look like a bullet wound. It’d look weird in forensics but it might not ever get to us, so you could get away with it.”

“Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that,” said Thomas. “I was thinking more in the lines of hitting someone in the head with something you’d propelled magically - depending on the object the signare would dissipate relatively rapidly. Or just push them off a high point, that sort of thing. You’d never get near them, so there wouldn’t be any forensic contamination. But really none of those are easier than just murdering someone without magic. And in terms of making a death look natural, with magic - that would be much, much harder. I’d have to do some research.”

“How long have you spent thinking about this?” I asked Thomas, half-amused and half-creeped out; well, you would be, too.

“Not long enough,” said Sahra, “since he hasn’t figured out how.”

“It’s a bit encouraging, though,” I said. “If he’s using these sort of methods - it’s not exactly going to work on you.”

There’s always whatever happened to that bloke we found at your site,” said Sahra. “I’m just as capable of getting mauled to death as the next person, if the next person is a half-trained wizard. But, yeah, don’t think that doesn’t make me very happy. And Lewis is safe enough too - gay and married, you’re not going to catch him picking up strange women in Soho clubs.”

“What was the connection to the case, for that other man?” Thomas asked her, changing the topic before either of us had to disclaim or admit to our vulnerability, I noticed.

Sahra’s smirk said she’d noticed that too, but she just said “Now that’s an interesting one - he was BTP. On shift that evening, too. It looks like whoever dumped him there was hoping he’d be walled up before he was found, but he wasn’t quite dead when they left him - that’s why he was spotted when the first workers got on site that morning.”

BTP in this case meant British Transport Police, apparently - the people who policed the Underground, and the rest of the transport network. It wasn’t a distinction that made much difference to me, but it definitely made one to Sahra.

“So what’s a copper from the Underground doing getting mauled to death by a chimera?” Sahra asked rhetorically. “That’s our question. Which we don’t have an answer to - except that he was working in the same general area as Dunlop ran into this woman. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.”

“Maybe he stumbled upon a hidden underground mad science lair,” I joked.

Sahra snorted. “Maybe.”

“That’s a good point, actually,” said Thomas. “This sort of work requires space and time and equipment - you’re not going to have someone whipping up chimeras in his garden shed.”

“On that,” Sahra said. “Yet another thing for me to do in my copious spare time - go through all the property various Folly members own, and see if there’s anything nearby...assuming our target isn’t working out in the countryside.”

“Most of the Folly are based in London these days, aren’t they?” said Thomas. “Excluding those who’ve broken their staffs. Even I’m here, still, and I never thought I’d end up staying here.”

That was an attitude I found baffling. “Where else would you want to live?”

“There’s more to life than London, Peter,” Thomas said with a raised eyebrow.

Sahra and I exchanged looks, because this was patently untrue, but he had grown up somewhere rural, hadn’t he? I knew plenty of people who were always on about how much they wanted to go back to wherever they were from, someday, but somehow they never quite managed to leave. 

“There’s people, yeah, hedge wizards and so on,” Sahra said. “But anyone we’re interested in would have to be here...or close enough to visit often, surely. Although depends what you call close - my boss commutes in from Swindon. Swindon, I ask you.”

Commuters. Some people’s life choices really were inexplicable.

*

“I left one thing out,” Sahra told me the next day. “There was one line of inquiry suggested, about this whole thing. Nightingale.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said. “Seriously. You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

Sahra shrugged. “Look at it from the Folly’s point of view - he’s a practitioner. He’s very, very good - or so I’m told. That woman from the club - she sort of looks like Molly, doesn’t she? And they’re friends, him and her, have been for...if I’ve got it right, the better part of a century.”

“More or less, yeah,” I agreed. “But -”

“And,” she went on, “He doesn’t like the Folly, he does get on with the demi-monde - who the Folly lot find innately suspicious - and, getting into stuff I know and they don’t, he’s picked up an apprentice who’s a trained architect...it’s a pretty convincing picture.”

“And a totally inaccurate one,” I shot back. “Because as the trained architect I can tell you right away - I certainly wasn’t helping him to do anything involving Skygarden. And besides, you’re looking for someone who can make chimeras as well, right? Thomas doesn’t know the first thing about biology, believe me, I had to explain the function of the small intestine to him last night after you left - don’t ask - or if he does he’s doing a sterling impression of someone who doesn’t.”

“Calm down,” Sahra said, making palm-down motions. “It’s not my theory. I’m just telling you.”

“Then why didn’t you tell him?”

“Wanted to see what he said, first,” she said. “Just in case.”

“Because I’m going to tell him. You know that, right?”

“I figured. I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise - he used to be a copper himself, he’s smart, he’s got to know he’s a great suspect.”

It wasn’t a surprise, either, when I told him; Thomas just sighed, and said he’d expected as much, and really it was more surprising they hadn’t dragged him in by now. “But my guess is they’d rather not pin it on anybody, if they can avoid it.”

I went a bit cold at that. “But - people died - someone from the Folly has died, for fuck’s sake - they’re practically the police, this is their job -”

“Someone from the Folly has been killed,” Thomas agreed. “And I imagine they will assiduously hunt down this woman - whoever she is and whatever she is. I imagine she’s unlikely to survive being found. But as for the rest of it - they’re not the police, Peter, they consult for them. The wellbeing of the city in general is - not their concern.”

“So what is?”

“Keeping magic under control,” Thomas said. “Keeping that control in their own hands. Principally. From what I gather.”

“Fuck,” I said. “That’s - fuck.”

“Quite,” Thomas said. “Which is why it...concerned me, when I heard this Lewis had found out about you.”

“Is that what you’re calling it?” I wanted to know. “Being concerned?”

“I do rather feel responsible.”

“You might have a few years on me, Thomas, but you’re not responsible for me, I’m responsible for myself,” I corrected him - because unofficial apprentice or not, I was. Thomas might have given me the opportunity to mix myself up in this but he’d hardly made me do it.

“That’s not really how it feels on my end,” he said. We were standing in the kitchenette, Thomas leaning against the counter, and there wasn’t much room between us. I could feel it, all of a sudden, and when I caught his eye I knew he could, too; it was at that tipping point where the lack of distance had its own magnetic pull, which increased the closer we got. This wasn’t - we hadn’t talked about this, not even obliquely. I didn’t know if I wanted to bring it up or not, to hear whatever reasons he had for not - whether it was merely lack of interest, beyond simple attraction, or something more complicated, like taking the apprentice thing too seriously, or - I didn’t know what.

I’d meant what I’d told Abdul, that it was too much of a risk, that I wanted everything else more badly than I wanted to get Thomas into bed; but right this second, I was remembering exactly how badly I would like to get him into bed, if given the opportunity, and I thought just maybe he was too, and when Thomas cleared his throat and looked down I didn’t know whether I was sorry or not.

“I,” Thomas said. “Anyway. I’m wondering - did you say Inspector Lewis had given you his card?”

“You’re going to talk to him?” I asked.

“Under the circumstances - I really think I should. Don’t you?”

He informed me the following day that Lewis wanted to talk to both of us about his investigation, and that since I’d dragged both Thomas and myself into it – not his actual words but I paraphrase the sentiment – Thomas pretty well expected me to agree to this. Which I did, because I had dragged him into it, I guess, and also because I’d never seen Thomas talk to another actual wizard and was extremely curious.

I’d heard Beverley call Thomas the Nightingale, in that tone that was a little respectful and a little mocking and a little awed, somehow all at once. I’d heard what Sahra had said about what she’d heard. I’d seen Lewis’s reaction, in June, when I’d copped to knowing Thomas.

But I was still surprised by the way Lewis looked at him, when he showed up that Saturday. Half suspicious and half like he didn’t think he was real. When Thomas introduced himself, Lewis said “I, ah, I know,” like you might say when you met a minor celebrity or a favourite author. Thomas looked distinctly sceptical. Sahra looked sceptical, too, like she thought better of her boss - but then she’d lived down the hall from Thomas for a while now, longer even than I’d been here, so she still probably thought of him more as her strangely posh neighbour than...whatever Lewis thought of him as.

“It’s been rather a while,” Thomas said, once we were all sitting down, “since I had an official visit from the Folly.”

“You still haven’t,” said Lewis. “If you want to count this as anything it’s an official visit from the police.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” I muttered.

“It’s not meant to be,” Sahra assured me brightly - I gave her the look she deserved, for that.

“And why isn’t it officially from the Folly?” Thomas wanted to know. “You swore the oath, and you’ve not broken your staff. Which makes you part of the Folly. Which makes this official.”

Lewis barked a laugh. “They’re just not interested, or not in the same things I’m interested in. We’ve got a BTP officer mauled by a chimera in Soho, and a council estate block brought down in Southwark, and now Jason’s dead - and they’re interested in that, they want to find the woman who did it - but the rest of it...I’m not doing this for the Folly; I’m doing it in my role as a police officer.”

“Oh, did Abdul get through to you, then?” I wanted to know. “About the chimera DNA?”

“Dr Abdul Walid?” Lewis looked surprised. “Yes - just before you spoke with Sahra - he said Robert had told him he was wrong...how do you know Walid?”

“Abdul and I go back a little way,” said Thomas. “A chance friendship, that’s all. It sounds like you might want to start with this Robert Weil, then, if you’re looking within the Folly.”

Lewis grimaced. “It does, doesn’t it? Except that I’ve known Robert for two decades and he’s a wet rag, frankly, none of this is his style - and more to the point, he admitted quite readily that he hadn’t passed the information on because he didn’t think Walid was right. I’m not sure how much you know about Walid’s work with us, but outside of his hyperthaumaturgical degradation research, he tends to get...overlooked, quite often. He’s considered a bit too...interested. So it’s suspicious, but it’s not necessarily indicative.”

“I am aware,” Thomas said dryly.

“They don’t like that he’s a convert,” said Sahra bluntly, though that made Lewis shift in his chair. “The usual, you know.” She nodded at me; I knew. I’d been taken for Muslim more than once - especially if I didn’t order whatever had bacon in it.

“You think it’s someone within the Folly, though,” said Thomas.

“It’s the most likely thing,” responded Lewis. “We just don’t get practitioners from overseas here very often - and this has all the hallmarks of someone based in London. And based on what Mr Grant told me about Skygarden, this has to be a practitioner, not any other kind of - person. No one else would be interested in stored magic, not like that.”

“Someone trained outside the Folly?” suggested Thomas.

Lewis shook his head. “To the best of my knowledge, everyone trained outside the Oxford programme since it began is in this room right now.”

“To the best of your knowledge last week, Sahra was the only person trained outside the Oxford programme since the fifties,” I said. “Your knowledge isn’t necessarily complete, is it?”

Sahra’s lips twitched.

“No, it’s not,” Lewis acknowledged readily; it made me like him a little bit more. “Not even close.”

“Officially or not,” Thomas said, “what is it, exactly, that you want to know - that you think Peter or I can tell you? If your problem lies within the Folly, it’s been far too long since I had regular contact for me to identify it.”

“No,” Lewis said. “It’s not what you know about the inner workings of the Folly that I think might help us on this. It’s what you know as someone who stands outside it.”

We’d talked, Thomas and me, about what it made sense to tell Lewis and Sahra - and we’d ended up coming down on nearly everything. With some careful elision, obviously; Varvara’s phone call seemed like an important piece of the puzzle, but Varvara’s identity wasn’t, even if she was out of the country right now. As Thomas had said, she didn’t know whether the Folly knew about her and it wouldn’t be very gracious of us to give her away, even to someone as seemingly inoffensive and well-intentioned as Lewis. But everything I’d figured out about Skygarden, the rumours in the demi-monde, even what Miriam had said about her colleague who’d been hounded about the Skygarden de-listing; all of that.

“We already looked at that,” Lewis said. “Or, not us personally - but the initial investigation, the wider Met one, that never went anywhere. But the woman at the council who was working on it died, shortly afterwards - a car accident, not ruled suspicious.”

“Come on, though,” Sahra said. “Nothing provably suspicious. But suspiciously convenient.”

“That would be very difficult, though,” Thomas said. “If you mean to imply it might have been seducere; although if she were suicidal already...”

“Impossible to prove,” Lewis concluded. “But convenient - as Sahra says.”

What they really wanted to know about was Thomas’s mysterious visitor, the one who’d been interested in staffs.

“The ultimate problem,” Lewis said, “is that without a better idea of what the whole thing’s about, I can’t rule any of my colleagues out easily - some seem very unlikely but that’s not the same thing.”

“Could you identify him?” Sahra wanted to know.

“I could try.” Thomas tapped his fingers on the table. “But it was months ago now - I never saw him the second time.”

“I did,” I said, “but to be honest nothing about him was terribly memorable.” I’d even tried doing a sketch, once I’d realised it might be useful, but I’ve never been good with faces - when I was practising it was strictly buildings, still is.

“Well, even a generic description limits the suspect pool,” Lewis said. “We’ll have to see about getting some photos - if you’re willing to try.” Which we were, of course.

“What are you going to do,” Thomas wanted to know, “if it’s not just one or two people? If it’s...something more than that?”

Lewis looked taken aback. “But - surely it can’t be.”

“Why not?” asked Sahra. “No offence, boss - but why not?”

“Well,” Lewis said, after a pause. “It can’t be stood for, that’s...the problem, I guess. Even if...it’s widespread.”

“Then I would think,” Thomas said, “that’s something you should think about. Because even if it isn’t - that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to thank you for chasing this. Right now they don’t have a mess to clean up, aside from Dunlop’s death. If you get anywhere, they will.”

“I knew that,” Lewis said. “But if we don’t go after something like this, what are we for?”

I’d heard that question asked, hadn’t I? It was the most promising thing Lewis had said, as far as I was concerned.

So I thought it had gone pretty well, really. I left at the same time as Lewis and Sahra did - it sounds silly, but it was my turn to do the vacuuming this week and I really needed to do some laundry, household chores sadly not stopping just because I was neck-deep in magical shit. Which meant I had a front-row seat for when Beverley came down the stairs; she saw me and Sahra, and gave Lewis a weird look. Then a closer one. I saw the moment she recognised him as a practitioner because it was all over her face; a little bit worried, a little bit confused, a lot angry.

“You,” she addressed him, crossing her arms and planting herself between him and the door. There was a light in her eye that made me nervous. I’d been heading for the stairs myself, so I backed up a little and tried to look inconspicuous. Sahra was looking between Beverley and Lewis like she didn’t have the first clue what was going on. “Wizard. What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”

“Ms Thames,” said Lewis. “I was visiting -”

I don’t care,” Beverley said, steely-eyed. “You Isaacs can’t just come wandering onto my manor, that’s not how the agreement works.”

“Should we intervene?” muttered Sahra to me.

“You want to get between your boss and the local goddess, be my guest,” I muttered back. “Bev can take care of herself, and she’s the only one of them I’m worried about.”

“I had an invitation,” Lewis said, trying to sound firm and succeeding - sort of.

“From who?” Beverley shot back, incredulous.

I realised that was my cue.

“He was visiting Thomas, Bev, it’s alright,” I said - although I wasn’t sure it was alright. “And he’s going now. He and Sahra are looking into the Skygarden thing. I had that theory, remember? He wanted to know about it.”

Beverley turned her gaze on me, and it was a level of reproachful that even my mum would have had trouble managing. “Peter. You’re talking to the Isaacs?”

I shrugged. “Uh - just one of them?”

Peter,” she said again. “I told you that wasn’t safe.”

Well, she’d been right about that. “Yeah - I know.”

“And what’ve you got to do with this?” Beverley demanded of Sahra. “You’re Sahra Guleed, right? I thought you were police.”

“I am police,” said Sahra. “This is DCI Lewis, he’s my governor.”

“He’s an Isaac.”

“He’s an Isaac and my governor,” said Sahra.

Beverley narrowed her eyes. “And what does that make you?”

“My apprentice,” Lewis interrupted. “Is that a problem?”

“Depends,” Beverley said. She eyed Sahra dubiously. I knew they didn’t really know each other - I’d figured Beverley would have to have spotted her for a practitioner, though. Apparently not. “Are you going to be poking around my manor any more? Your bosses told my mum and the Old Man you weren’t looking into Skygarden - that it wasn’t your problem. That if it was a practitioner it was someone outside your control. Like that matters.”

“I know,” Lewis said. “I’m conducting an investigation on behalf of the police. Not the Folly. I think...” He trailed off. “I may need to speak with Mr Nightingale and Mr Grant again, and of course Sahra lives here. But - I can promise that if someone in the Folly is behind this, I want them found as much as you do.”

“No you don’t,” said Beverley, and it was bitter. “It wasn’t your friend they killed. Do you even know about Sky? Do you even care? If it is one of you that did it, what are you actually going to do with him? Slap his wrist? Tell him oh, that was naughty, don’t do it again, actual people might get killed next time?”

“Actual people have been killed,” said Lewis, and then hesitated, because he’d clearly meant to cite the people who hadn’t been evacuated from the tower block - not to mention that BTP copper - and that was missing the point, of course. By a fucking country mile. I saw Sahra wince. He recovered, but not so quickly Beverley didn’t notice. “Your friend Sky included.”

“That’s not a promise.” Beverley’s voice was flat. “And you said this was for the Met, not the Folly.”

“I can’t make any promises about what happens if I catch them,” Lewis said, “but I can’t do anything if I don’t.”

“Fine.” Beverley uncrossed her arms - only to put her hands on her hips, which wasn’t much better. “You can come by, and I won’t call it a violation of the agreement - but if you do find whoever did this, whether they’re Folly or not...Mum and the Old Man are going to want a say in it.”

Lewis sucked in a sharp breath. “I can’t promise that.”

“I wasn’t asking for a promise,” Beverley said. “I was telling you how it’s going to be.” She looked at Sahra. “And you and me need to have a chat. And you, Peter...”

“We can talk later, Bev, I promise,” I said.

“We will talk later,” she said.

Oh, Christ. I was never going to get the laundry done.

*

Beverley wasn’t mad at me, not exactly - but she definitely wasn’t happy. She was even less happy about Sahra; apparently one wizard in her block of flats (her words, not mine) was one thing, and that wizard being the Nightingale, but two apprentices was something else altogether. She did calm down about it once she thought through what it meant, Lewis having an apprentice outside the Folly’s books, and that apprentice being Sahra, too.

“You should have told me, though,” she said. “When you found out - you’ve had time.”

“I didn’t think you’d be interested - or I thought you might already know; you can smell us, right? Practitioners. Why didn’t you smell her?”

Beverley shrugged. “Never got close enough. You were right next door, it was easy.”

“Well - I’m sorry, okay? I did think you knew.”

“Fine.” Beverley sighed. It was mostly worry now, not anger - but she was genuinely worried, and that worried me. “But you can’t trust them, Peter, even if this Lewis bloke says he wants to investigate it - if he’s really Met as well then nobody at the Folly’s going to pay him much attention; they don’t do that. So even if he finds out who...will it matter?”

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I suppose - I thought it would. That they’d have to do something. Thomas thinks it will. Does that count?”

“Of course he does,” said Beverley. “He wants to believe they’re not all a total waste of space; he used to be one of them. But I don’t think he’s really thought about what might happen if they find out about you - or Sahra downstairs, now.”

“He has,” I said. “I can promise you that.”

“Alright, then,” Beverley said. “I’m letting it go for now. But I want you to let me know what’s going on. Because we’re mates - if nothing else.”

“I’ll let you know,” I promised. “If there’s anything to know.”

 

Chapter Text

The only thing that really happened in the next week was Sahra presenting me and Thomas - well, me - with a very thick folder. She wanted us to try and identify the guy who’d come by Thomas’s place in June, and again in August.

“By the way,” I said, “Is your boss always that clueless? Because I’m not totally confident he knows what he’s doing.”

“He’s pretty good actually,” said Sahra. “At the policing stuff, anyway, I don’t think they really rate him as a wizard - but that could just be because of the policing stuff. Mostly he just...he’s the same as the rest of them in a lot of ways, he just means well, you know? Or means better, at least. And that gets him as far as meaning well ever does.”

“I hear you.” I took the folder. It was very thick, did I mention.

“You must have this online somewhere,” I said in disbelief. “You seriously want us to go through all these photos?”

“I very seriously do,” Sahra said. “You’re right, there is a database - but not one I can get access to on a computer I can put you in front of. I’ve stripped out all the identifying stuff, this is just photos. I don’t want you getting speculative about the other stuff. Even if you can’t make a positive ID, if you can at least winnow it down...”

I did my best, and so did Thomas - we did it separately, so as not to confuse each other. But there wasn’t one photo I could pick out and say, that’s him, that’s the man who came to speak to Thomas. I’d seen him twice, true, and I could give a general verbal description - but the folder Sahra had given me had several hundred photographs in it and maybe ninety percent of them were of white guys. Even once you winnowed out the ones it definitely wasn’t - too old, wrong hair colour, wrong eye colour, just wrong - I couldn’t get the pile of maybes below twenty, and neither could Thomas. Our piles weren’t the same, either - if you put them together you had about thirty men, all in their thirties or maybe early forties, brown hair, light-coloured eyes, blandly handsome, possibly actual evil wizards.

Sahra sighed when she saw how thick the maybe pile was. “Oh, lovely.”

“I might be able to identify his voice,” I said.

“It was hard enough getting all their photos,” Sahra said. “There’s no way I’m getting recordings of all their voices.”

“Sorry,” I said. “This is what we got. You know when he came by here...maybe you can cross some of them off based on that.”

But even then, Sahra said they couldn’t eliminate more than half of them - which left fifteen suspects, a pretty large pool. Honestly, watching her go through all this, I was surprised just how much paperwork being a detective apparently involved; mind you, you could say the same thing of architecture - I spent a lot less time actually designing things than fifteen-year-old me had expected to - but somehow I’d thought police work would be different. Evidently not.

Good thing I’d stuck to architecture, then. I hate paperwork.

*

The paperwork actually led to something else - something that Beverley would have been mad at me about if she could have been, but she couldn’t; Lesley was a big girl, after all. I don’t even know whether they had an argument about it. Like I said, the soundproofing in the flats wasn’t half-bad. But the balance of probability said they did.

It started because I asked Sahra how things were going, a few days later.

“Slowly,” she said. “It’s the records - we’re pulling everything we can on every Folly member who might be involved and even with the boss helping out that’s only two sets of eyes to go over all the paperwork.”

“I thought you had civilian staff for that sort of thing.”

“Sort of,” Sahra said. “The SAU’s always been a bit short on civilian staff, we’ve got a spot open right now, and we’re a tiny unit as it is, nobody has a lot of spare time. And this is literally just me and Lewis, he doesn’t want to bring anyone else in on it.”

“Why not?” I asked. “They’re not from the Folly.”

“He’s worried about it getting out,” Sahra said. “You know, with Dunlop and everything - he’s got a family, you know? He doesn’t even want anyone at the Folly to know he’s still working on this, officially he told them he was wrapping it up. And with the Met - he could go higher up but he wants actual evidence before he does that.”

“I’d offer to help, but I have an actual job,” I said. “Maybe you could ask Thomas? He’s a pretty good speed-reader when the mood takes him.”

“That’s not a bad idea, actually,” Sahra said. “Or if you know someone who wants the job we have going who’s reliable on this. I suppose that’d be one way of making contacts in the demi-monde.”

“You know...” I said. “I don’t know if she’s job hunting, but I might have an idea. If she’d be okay with getting back into the Met in a civilian position. But I don’t -”

“Ohhhhhhh,” said Sahra. “Lesley?”

“You know about what she used to do?”

“She was seconded to the Murder Team, they were working with us on the Punch case,” Sahra said. “Not that we knew that was what it was...not that you’d know what it was, but that was the case that made Lewis ask me about being an apprentice, said he needed more magical back-up. I met her once or twice then, heard she was out on medical leave and then she quit. Then I ran into her again when she moved in here.”

“Right,” I said. “Lesley. She’s so bloody bored running the chemist, you can tell. I mean, no idea if she’d say yes - but she’s as smart as they come and she’s been sharing a flat with Bev for years, so you’re not going to surprise her with anything. And I guarantee she’s not interested in the Folly finding out about this. The only trouble might be persuading her to work with your boss, even this much - Bev won’t be impressed, and they’re good friends.”

Sahra was nodding. “Yeah - okay. And no guarantees Lewis will like it either - he talks a good game but Beverley does make him twitchy, if you hadn’t noticed. And Lesley shares a flat with her.” 

“Does she make you twitchy?” I wanted to know.

Sahra shrugged. “Nah. I don’t really buy the goddess thing - well, I wouldn’t anyway, but whatever she is, she seems normal enough.”

“I don’t think it matters whether you buy it - I don’t think this is a Discworld kind of thing, she doesn’t need people to believe in her to exist.”

“Your mind works in truly bizarre ways, Peter,” said Sahra, proving she and Lesley were going to work together just fine. 

She must have got on to Lewis quickly, and been persuasive - and persuaded Lesley, too - because Lesley gave notice at the chemist the very next week. I took her out for a drink to celebrate.

“I don’t know what you’ve got me into, Peter,” Lesley said dubiously. “I was well away from all that, you know.”

“You don’t have to,” I said. “If it’d be traumatising, or whatever, working as civilian staff. I know - it meant a lot to you, being a copper.”

“Fuck off,” Lesley said amiably. “I’m not worried about being traumatised, I’m worried about being dead. My new boss is after whoever just blew up a whole tower block and murdered a fucking tree nymph, okay? It’s not the safest thing going. And it put Bev in a right strop.”

“You still don’t have to. It was just an idea.”

“Nah,” she said. “I was good, you know. Really good, at the police stuff. I let them talk me out of trying to get back in because it just seemed so hard, with the recovery and all the physio and...and nobody was pushing for it, none of my senior officers or anything. Fuck them, basically. I want back in.”

With the light in her eye right then - I wouldn’t have wanted to stand in her way, let’s put it that way.

“And Bev?”

“Over it,” Lesley said. “She’s a goddess - mercurial is in the job description. According to her, anyway. I think mostly she’s glad I’m helping, but it’s the Folly, sort of, so she had to be mad. And she was worried about me, too. But I’m not going to have to find a new place, if that’s what you were wondering.” 

“Well, then,” I said. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” she said, and actually smiled.

*

Between one thing and another it had been a few months since I’d seen Abigail – she’d been working over the summer, a job in a shop that had gotten her out of the house enough that she apparently hadn’t felt the need to take refuge with me and Jaget, and then of course she’d gone up to Oxford once the university term had started. I’d kept up with her in a vague way through social media and the occasional email, but it was a surprise – not a bad one – when she texted me in mid-December and said she was back for the winter break and could she come over and talk to me?

“So how’s things?” I asked.

“You know, fine,” she said, with all the detailed eloquence of your average nineteen-year-old. “How’s things been around here?”

“Weird,” I told her. “I keep coming home and there’s nobody camping on my couch, our biscuit supply is lasting suspicious lengths of time, no-one’s told me how old and boring I am for at least a month...”

“You’re still old and maybe boring,” Abigail reassured me immediately. “But not as old and boring as most of my professors.”

“Thanks, I think.”

“I want to apply to the Folly program,” Abigail said, all in a rush. “You know – to learn magic.”

This was so unexpected I just sort of gaped at her.

“You don’t think I can do it, do you?” she went on stubbornly. “But I can, I want to – I’ve been asking, you don’t have to be special, you know, you just have to get in and be taught.”

“I think you can do it,” I said. “I think you could. It’s just – Abigail – do you have any idea what that would mean? Really mean? They’re not – I don’t think -”

After everything, after this year, I didn’t think the Folly was...safe. Not for Abigail. Any more than it would have been for me. I mean, that wasn’t a good reason for her not to try; but I worried about what would happen to her.

“I want you to help me,” Abigail said, and that was when I knew something was up.

“And how exactly am I going to do that?”

“You need someone to recommend you,” she said, hunching over her elbows in a conspiratorial fashion. “I mean, they say it can just be one of your tutors or whatever, but what they mean is they want someone who’s already a wizard to put in the word for you.”

“And you’re telling me this because....?” I felt a prickle of unease, because did that meant Abigail knew that – but no; there was no way she’d think the Folly would pay the first bit of attention to what I had to say.

“Because your boyfriend’s a wizard?” said Abigail, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I barely restrained myself from leaning forward and thumping my forehead gently against the table. Or maybe not so gently.

“Okay, one,” I said, once I was done making faces, “not my boyfriend, two, I think the Folly like him about as much as he likes them, by which I mean not at all, three, who even told you that?”

“I dunno. People.”

The question was - was ‘people’ Jaget or someone else?  “Fine, whatever. Still not my boyfriend.” Not that the position wouldn’t be open if he was – argh – no, I’d promised myself I was going to not think about this. Too complicated. Just – way too complicated. And all that other stuff I’d told Abdul.

“But you could ask him?” Abigail pleaded.

“I really don’t think it would help, Abigail,” I told her with all the sincerity I could muster. “I mean it – there’s a reason he lives in these flats, okay, and it’s not because he gets on with the rest of them.”

“I want to ask, anyway,” she said, stubbornly. “I want this, okay, Peter? I want to try. And if it’s not going to be any good then I might as well not bother – they make you write essays and things and – I have other stuff to do. But...I want to try.”

“Okay, okay,” I said, giving in, because – I wasn’t in any position to judge, was I? “I’ll ask.”

I want to ask,” she repeated, getting that steely glint in her eyes that meant trouble for someone. “I don’t want you to forget or say it like it’s not important.”

“Well, go on then.” That stung a bit, actually – but I remembered being Abigail’s age, and knowing that what the adults in your life thought was important and what you did were rarely the same thing. I supposed I counted as an adult in her life. Terrifying thought, that. “I think he’s in – go knock on his door and ask.”

I’d half-expected her to demur at that, or insist I come along, but instead she just bounced out of her chair and was out the door before I could say anything else. She was back about ten minutes later, bright-eyed.

“He said he’d see what he could sort out,” she burst out before I could say anything.

“Yeah?” I said. “Nice. I hope you said thank you.”

Abigail scowled at me. “You could try being a bit excited.” But she couldn’t hold it for long, and the grin spread out across her face again. “I’m gonna do it, Peter.”

“The application rate is actually really low,” she confided in me afterwards - I’d somehow ended up feeding her dinner again. It was Jaget’s rock-climbing night, so he was out. “Everyone’s so intimidated they don’t even apply - and then you need the recommendation. And then it’s on top of your actual degree. So the odds are pretty good, really.”

“What are you even going to do, if you get in?” I asked Abigail.

“Learn magic, duh,” she said, with terrifying insouciance.

“Obviously. I mean after that.”

“Like that’s not amazing enough?”

“Anyone can do it, you know,” I said. “If they’re taught. If they can be bothered to learn.”

You can’t,” she said, with a smirk. “So I’ll be one up on you.”

I hesitated, and her eyes narrowed. “Oh, come on. You can’t.”

“Turn off your phone,” I said.

“No way.”

“Go on.” I switched mine off. Centre of the living room was all right, if I was quick about it. “Turn it off.”

So she did. I held out my hand and did a werelight, just for a second or two; by this point I could do one in my sleep, just about. Her jaw dropped. It was pretty satisfying.

“How long has this been going on?” she demanded.

“Since...March, around then?”

“You mean that’s what you and Thomas Nightingale’ve been doing? You’re not going out? He’s teaching you magic?”

“Who did tell you we were going out?” I gave in and asked.

“Jaget,” she said. “He reckons you’re going to move out and you should just tell him so, but he says he can’t take anything for granted until you do.”

“Well, I’m not and we’re not and don’t listen to Jaget.” I was going to have to jump on that one - I had no intention of going anywhere anytime soon, and if my flatmate thought I did, that could get messy. “And you never answered my question. You learn magic, then what?”

“Learn magic better than you,” she clarified.

Obviously. I’m just mucking around with it, really. And after that?”

“I dunno,” she said. “Maybe I can go be a proper police officer, too. Or - it doesn’t matter right now. I probably still won’t get in, you know.”

“It’s going to be hard,” I said. “You know that, right? I don’t mean the magic, that’s hard too, but - all the rest of it.”

“You think it’s not hard already?”

I’d known Abigail since she was tiny, and it was hard to remember sometimes that she was an actual legal adult and everything, off at university. Her expression wasn’t a child’s right now - too sad, too old. But she still looked like a kid, to me - well, so did most people her age, these days. I wondered what they looked like to Thomas. I wondered what I looked like, to Thomas. I was pretty sure it wasn’t like a kid. I’d caught the occasional appreciating glance or two - and not just back when I’d first met him, either. But that was...beside the point, right now.

“Because it sucks, you know,” she went on, in confiding tones. “Some people are all right, but half of them just don’t know any better and it’s all, you know, where did your parents come from, where did you come from, they must be so proud you’re here, like - like they need to go on and on about how special it is that I’m at Oxford at all.”

“I know,” I said, “but it’ll be worse, with the Folly people - they didn’t even let women in until the eighties, nearly the nineties - after I was born. You’re going to have to be twice as good, four times as good, just for them to think you’re doing okay. Only it won’t be okay. It’ll be acceptably. It’s going to be uphill all the way.”

“I know,” Abigail said. Her eyes got flinty. I remembered the battle over her hair, when she’d been twelve. “But if the only people who can get you in are people like them...no-one else is ever going to learn. So I’m going to. I’m going to get in, and I’m going to be a wizard, and then I’m going to make sure other people can, and I’m going to bring their whole stupid system down from the inside and they’re never even going to know about it.”

“Abigail,” I said. “At the interview - don’t tell them that.”

“I’m not stupid,” she said. “But - do you think it’s a good idea? You think I can do that?”

I thought about it. “Yeah. You learn from the inside, I’ll keep learning magic on the outside - and we’ll meet in the middle some day.”

We grinned at each other, conspiratorially. It’s good for young people to have goals - or so they tell me. And sometimes you have to tear things down before you can build them up again.

What exactly Thomas had said to her I didn’t find out until the next day.

“So your cousin intends to be a wizard,” he said to me. “Runs in the family, does it?”

“I didn’t know anything about it until yesterday,” I said. “Sorry for letting her bother you, but she makes Lesley look easy-going when she gets an idea in her head. What did you tell her, exactly?”

“That it wouldn’t do her any good to get any sort of recommendation from me, as I believe you told her yourself – but I think Harold Postmartin might be willing. He’s run the archives for decades, and seeing as he’s at Oxford it’s plausible that he’d know Abigail. In any case, I’ll ask.”

“Why?” I asked, simply.

“Because that’s the problem, isn’t it? That someone like Abigail – who as far as I can tell would be quite as capable as anyone – is never going to get near the Folly, because she doesn’t know the right people. It’s not a...useful way of ordering the world. As you, and Abdul, and now Lewis have pointed out to me – I chose to walk away from the ability to fix that directly, a long time ago. This is an – indirect approach.”

“They’re not going to know what hit them,” I said, reflecting.

“No, they’re not,” he said, and we grinned at each other in mutual appreciation for Abigail’s particular brand of stubbornness. And if it lasted a second or two longer than it should have before we looked away – well, nobody needed to know that except me. And Thomas. 

*

Apparently we needed some space for the forma Thomas wanted to show me this fine Sunday, so we co-opted, of all things, Beverley’s back garden. She had a whole house on her river in Richmond, which I never would have guessed.

“I only really go there to swim,” she said when she gave me the key. “Too far out to live there. Maybe one day if I have kids, you know.”

“So what are we learning today?” I asked Thomas, as we stepped into the back garden. It wasn’t a garden really, mostly just a lawn than sloped down to the river and a small wooden jetty, shaded on either side by great weeping willows, winter-bare. There were flowerbeds, but they were empty aside from a few hardy weeds that hadn’t yet succumbed to the cold; well, Bev had never struck me as the gardening type. I noticed Thomas looking disapproving though. Weeds wouldn’t even dream of coming near his garden. And it wasn’t even magic; I’d seen him weeding himself, often enough.

“This,” Thomas said. He’d brought what looked like an archery target, but made of paper stretched across an easel; I’d helped him get it out of the Jag. We set it up right by the water, planted very firmly in the lawn - Thomas gave it a few good whacks. This made me a little uneasy but perhaps it was a control thing. Thomas was very insistent about the absolute requirement for control, in magic - beyond anything else.

But then when we got back to the other end of the garden, he raised his arm - and threw a fucking fireball at the target. It blew a four-inch hole in the paper.

“I can’t!” I burst out. “That’s a weapon.”

“Legally it’s considered a firearm,” Thomas agreed.

“Well I don’t have a fucking firearms licence,” I pointed out, “and it’s going to set off about fifty alarms if I apply for one – what am I going to say, that I’ve taken up competitive pistol shooting? Because they do check.”

“I would agree with you,” Thomas said. “And under the circumstances I hadn’t actually planned to teach you this spell at all. But this wasn’t my idea to start with - it was Richard Lewis’s. He doesn’t trust any longer that everyone within the Folly is operating under the rule of law, and neither do I. This isn’t the same as handing you a gun. Like any spell, like every spell, it takes time to learn. That’s why the sooner we start, the better.”

“I can’t imagine a situation where I’d be better off throwing fucking fireballs at someone than doing nearly anything else,” I said. “I really mean that.”

“I can. I can imagine several.”

I put my face in my hands, sat down hard on the low brick wall separating the paved area with the rotary washing line from the lawn, and tried to think. “Okay, but...”

“Please trust me on this,” Thomas said, quietly, sitting down next to me, our elbows brushing. “It’s not a decision I came to lightly. If I’d thought it was going to cause nothing but trouble I wouldn’t have brought it up at all; Lewis isn’t your, ah, your teacher, I am. And he is in no position to give me orders. It was a suggestion, which I agreed with. You’re not under any obligation, but - you should learn this.”

And the kicker was, I did trust him. He’d said no solo heroics and he’d meant it, so I knew he wasn’t expecting me to go out and do – well, anything. But if he thought there was a chance I’d need a defensive weapon like this, really need it...and, hell, from a purely legal standpoint if the Folly ever did lose its shit about me learning magic they’d probably just assume I knew it anyway; there wasn’t really anything to lose.

We sat there in silence for a minute, but it was a together sort of silence.

“Okay,” I said, standing up. “Okay. What do we call this one?”

“You don’t call it anything at all,” Thomas said. “From the outset, you aim to learn and perform this spell in silence.”

Well. Fuck. That was almost scarier than all the rest of it.

*

Up until now, magic had basically been a hobby. A really entertaining hobby, but nothing that serious. Now - now it was serious, because I was sort of involved with this investigation and people were dying and while I had absolutely zero illusions about my ability to deal with a real threat - even with the whole fireball thing, where I was just about up to burning my way through a paper sheet or two - I would like to be able to get away, at least long enough to call for real help.

In aid of this, I asked Sahra how she handled practice, with the whole unfortunate blowing-microprocessors-up aspect to magic. I’d been lucky with our flat so far but Jaget was only out of the place so often, and I couldn’t just hang out in Thomas’s garden every spare moment I had - although I did end up at his place a surprising number of them.

“It’s a pain,” she admitted. “At least we’ve got one of the garden flats. I know you and Thomas use his. I’ve got everything in our place on multi-socket extensions so I can switch it all off at the wall quick. Jessie does shifts so that gives me time. Or I go to my parents’ - they’ve got a decent-sized garden themselves and I tell them I’m meditating. They keep the whole Folly electronics-free, you know - got all the computers and stuff in an outbuilding. Lucky bastards.”

We were at her place, as it happened - her flatmate Jessie was on shift as she spoke, so it was just the three of us, her and me and Lesley, catching up on the latest developments. Really we should have been doing this with Thomas, because I was going to end up talking to him about it, but Sahra seemed to find him weirdly intimidating. I think she got it off Lewis. I’d gotten a good sense of how Thomas felt about the Folly but apparently how the Folly felt about him was a whole other story. Everything had been very quiet over the holidays, no new deaths, no new information at all; maybe our mysterious opponent or opponents had taken an extended vacation abroad, to get away from winter. I wouldn’t have blamed them.

“It’s Crossrail,” Lesley was saying, drumming her fingers on the table.

“What’s Crossrail?” I asked.

“So Lewis has got me collating the paperwork on the some of the companies who were involved with Skygarden before, and the demolition clean-up now - following your whole magic heist theory. There’s a whole lot of shell ownership stuff, but some of it leads back to some of the companies involved with Crossrail.”

“Meaning what?” asked Sahra. “We’re back to the secret underground lair?”

“That copper who got killed?” Lesley said. “He was BTP, not Met. So yeah. It’s a theory. But the Underground is huge, it’s ridiculous - you could hide a whole fucking civilisation down there, apart from the one that’s already there.”

Sahra looked dubious. “Yeah, but why bother? When you could just rent or buy a regular building.”

“Sense of the dramatic?” I suggested. “And we should ask Stephen if he’s heard about anything funny going on underground - him or the rest of the Quiet People.”

“He’s not going to know if any of the other Quiet People have heard, they don’t talk, remember?” said Lesley.

“What the fuck’s a Quiet Person?” asked Sahra.

“Tunnel-dwelling Earthbenders descended from a group of navvies who helped build the Underground. They live under Notting Hill,” Lesley explained, much more efficiently than I could have. “One of them ran off with an American exchange student a few years ago, big scandal. Stephen knew about it and he didn’t get kicked out, exactly, but it’s all a bit...tense. You seriously didn’t wonder why he’s always with the sunglasses?”

“You weren’t kidding about the underground civilisation, were you,” said Sahra, in some disbelief. “And I figured he was a druggie - but he doesn’t have anyone suss hanging around the flats and that’s not my line, so I didn’t think too much about it.”

“You sound suspiciously sad he’s not,” I said.

“When you’re police it’s always nice to think you’ve got a legal excuse to arrest your neighbours, if necessary,” Sahra said cheerfully. I gave her a dirty look. Lesley laughed, the traitor.

“You’re not going to ask about the earthbending thing?” I asked Sahra.

She shrugged. “You know, in the last five years I’ve seen river goddesses, probably shapeshifters, fucking unicorns...avoid the unicorns, if you can, they’re basically carthorses with an offensive weapon on their foreheads. Earthbenders - whatever. If you come across the actual Avatar, then you’ll get a reaction.”

“Does the virgin thing work?” Lesley wanted to know.

“It’s not the sort of thing anyone’d want to stick around and test.”

“Also, how would they tell?” I said. “And what does the story mean by virgin, anyway - if it’s just the heterosexual definition, do you get a pass if you’re gay, or would that just be lesbians? Or what if -”

“Yeah, yeah, we get the point,” Lesley interrupted. She never wants to hear my theories. It’s tragic. “But Peter’s got a point about Stephen, Sahra. Want me to ask him for you? Worst thing that happens is he doesn’t know anything, and we’re stuck in the same place.”

“Mmmm, better run it by the boss first, he’s keeping a tight circle on this one. Well, as tight as he can, given all the shady types who apparently want in on it.” Sahra indicated me and Lesley, as obviously untrustworthy as we were. “But I’ll do that. I think he’ll like it. God knows we need something, and he’s not getting very far digging around in the Folly.”

“I know Thomas said his friend Harold up at Oxford is taking a look at the records, seeing what people have been researching,” I offered. Sahra nodded.

Lesley groaned. “Yeah, don’t remind me - that’s the other thing I’ve been going through at work. Lists of books. A whole lot of stuff that’s totally irrelevant and half of my time gets spent checking what the titles even mean...I’m beginning to miss the chemist. Wizards read way too much.”

“Umm,” said Sahra and I at the same time; I didn’t know what her reading list looked like but the stack of books under my bed would convict me within fifteen seconds if anyone from the Folly ever looked at them. “You kind of have to.”

“It’s actually really interesting,” I said.

“Remind me never to take up magic,” said Lesley, whose ideas of entertainment tended strictly to the audio-visual.

“I wouldn’t worry,” said Sahra. “Also - is everyone in this building knee-deep in magic somehow?”

“Well...yeah, or at least they know something funny is going on.” Lesley blinked. “Did you really not know that?”

“With the exception of Jaget,” I added. “Who remains blissfully unaware.”

“One day he’s going to find out and it’s going to be hilarious,” said Lesley.

“One day,” I agreed, because probably. “But not today. I’ve got enough going on right now without having that conversation.”

*

In late February, Lesley finally got the go-ahead from Lewis to ask Stephen if he knew about anything weird in the Underground - a different sort of weird than the usual, that was.  But as soon as she told him why she wanted to know, about her new job, he clammed right up; the Quiet People didn’t like the Folly any more than anyone else, of course. So Lesley came and got me and Sahra - Sahra was a proper copper, after all, and the whole thing was my fault, according to Lesley.

“I’m not helping the Folly,” Stephen said, as soon as he laid eyes on Sahra.

“We’re not the Folly,” Sahra said, sounding very reasonable. “Me or Peter here - we might be practitioners but we’re not Isaacs, not really, you think they’d let us in there?”

“Your boss is, though,” Stephen told her, his big grey eyes narrowing.

“He's not my boss,” I said. “Not anything like. I'm just helping out of a sense of community spirit.”

“Well, you and the Nightingale, that’s one thing,” Stephen allowed. “But if it wasn’t the Folly who did all this, I’ll eat my hard hat and that’s the truth.”

“Probably it was,” said Lesley. “That’s why we’re asking you for help - Sahra’s boss can’t just go around accusing the rest of them, they’d toss him out too and then what would that do? And you know how things are lately - everyone’s up in arms, the Rivers are this close to telling the Folly where they can shove it, god knows what the Folly will do if they do that. That doesn’t help any of us who are trying to keep our heads down.”

“There were some disappearances,” Stephen said, after a moment. “Last year, the year before. Around Tottenham Court Road station. I don’t know the details, I don’t see the rest of...my family, the Quiet People, you know. Not so much anymore. But Elizabeth’s still in touch, her dad got soft about it once she and Jim had their Mary, and she wrote to me - was worried about me.”

“Disappearances?” Sahra said professionally, whipping out her notebook; Stephen eyed it with alarm. “How many? Did they just vanish?”

“That’s what I heard,” Stephen said. “Two or three men. No bodies, nothing. And there aren’t that many things that could do that, not down in the Underground - it’s not like Elizabeth says it is in New York, you wouldn’t believe what they’ve got down there.”

I wanted to ask about the odds of cannibals, but I didn’t, because it seemed tactless at best. “So what did you think it was?”

“The Folly, who else?” Stephen sounded tired. “They don’t know about us - well, we hear they don’t, and we weren’t about to go asking. But...I heard Ten-Tons went to the Rivers, and the Rivers went to the Folly, and they said they didn’t know anything about any fae going missing. That’s what they call us too, of course. And they wanted to know why they were being bothered with it.”

“Find out who these people are,” Lesley said at once. “Their names, their details - we can file missing persons reports.”

“You don’t get it, Lesley,” Stephen said. “We’re not people.”

“Look, he’s right,” Sahra grimaced. “We can’t file official reports - no official records of their existence. But we can - and I promise this, Stephen - we can look into it, me and my boss. We will. I promise. But right now - we’re trying to find whatever bastard brought down Skygarden, and is doing...whatever he’s doing, and we’ve got nothing. If there is somewhere he’s hiding out, and we can find it...”

“All right,” Stephen said, after a long moment. “I’ll go take a gander for you, around where you think it might be - and you’ll find out what happened to the missing ones. If you can.”

“Well -” Sahra hesitated. “Look, if you’ve got a location in mind already...we don’t need you putting yourself in danger.”

Stephen shrugged. “I can get away down there - don’t worry about me. I don’t even need to get too close, I can just take a listen, see if there’s anything that shouldn’t be there.”

“If you’re sure,” Sahra said, and they shook on it. “How long do you think it’ll take you?”

Stephen considered this. “Can’t get away tomorrow or the next day...end of the week? I’ll let you know what I find as soon as I know anything.”

He seemed confident enough. So it was a nasty shock when Sahra showed up at my place Monday evening, face grim. I came out into the hall - Jaget didn’t need to hear this.

“We have a problem,” Sahra said without any preamble. “Have you seen Stephen lately?”

“Not since...I dunno. Thursday, maybe?”

“He’s vanished,” she said. “Totally fucking gone. No idea where. And he said he was checking out that Crossrail thing for us - that he’d let us know by end of the week. Last week.”

“For fuck’s sake, you’re the police,” I said. “What are you asking me for?”

“I don’t have anything to go on, Peter,” she hissed back. “Just that he’s gone. I’m asking everyone here if they’ve seen him - trying to figure out when he went.”

“You can’t find him with magic?”

She shook her head. “I can’t, any rate. And I’m pretty sure Lewis would have brought it up if he could.”

“And you can’t report him as a missing person because....I know he’s got ID and all the rest of it, he lives here, he pays his rent. He exists - officially, I mean.”

“The Folly will find out,” she said tersely. “The rest of the Folly, I mean - and we still don’t know where our problem is inside it. If it is inside it. After all - there’s no guarantee someone else didn’t train people outside the Folly, after all these years, is there? Look at you and me. We’re assuming it’s them, but who knows?”

This was a terrifying consideration. “Okay. Well - no, I haven’t seen him. Is there anything else I can help with?”

“Only if you know where he keeps his spare key. I want to search his place. And no - not legal, before you ask, but it might tell me how long he’s been gone.”

“Can’t you magic open the lock?” I asked.

She made a so-so motion with her hand. “Yeah, but no; it’ll leave my signare on it. Also, the only spell I know to do that knocks the entire lock out of the door. It’s not what you’d call subtle.”

“That’s a real fucking problem, forensically speaking, isn’t it?” I said. “It’s like every time you do a bit of magic you’re leaving a note saying it was you.”

“Actually it’s pretty great when we’re investigating magical crime,” Sahra said, “which I’m still doing, technically, it’s just, more...extra-legal. I don’t suppose you know how to pick locks?”

“Nope,” I said, “but I know someone who does.”

This would have been much more satisfying a response if it hadn’t turned out that Zach Palmer - who as luck would have it was at Beverley and Lesley’s place  - did know where the spare key to Stephen’s place was hidden, which kind of negated the whole lock-picking-skills thing. But as Sahra said it wouldn’t leave any suspicious scratches on the lock and from her perspective, i.e. that of someone who might actually be doing an official police investigation, that was all to the good. 

She made us wait outside so she could search the place properly – although she let Lesley help when she volunteered, seeing as Lesley had had the training and everything, even if she wasn’t a sworn constable anymore. Me and Beverley and Zach tried to lurk in a non-suspicious way in the corridor, which is a lot harder than it sounds when you’re me and Beverley and Zach, and therefore look to a lot of people, especially white people, like we’re lurking if we stand in a group no matter what we’re actually doing.

“How’s things with Mickey?” I asked Beverley, just to pass the time. She’d insisted on coming along - part of that whole keeping tabs thing.

She perked up. “Really good, actually. He took me round to his mum and dad’s for dinner last week. I think they liked me. I’m supposed to get a drink with his sister sometime, she was lovely.”

“You can fucking glamour them, of course they liked you,” said Zach.

Beverley shot him a look of total disdain. “Okay, goblin boy, contrary to what you seem to think I do have normal interactions with people.”

I filed goblin boy away for reference, in the sense that I should probably avoid using it and back away slowly if it got tossed around, judging by Zach’s scowl.

“Does that mean he gets to meet any of your family?” I asked.

Beverley shook her head emphatically. “Oh, no. Not yet. But fingers crossed. Mum likes jazzmen. She says it’s a river thing.”

I remembered Lesley saying that - it made sense, in the weird way that magic often did.

“And how’s it going with the magic?” she asked me. “Learned any new tricks recently?”

“Not that you don’t know about,” I said, which was true enough. “We’ve been borrowing your garden, after all.”

Lesley poked her head out and beckoned us into the flat; we all stood in a circle in the living room. It was the mirrored layout of me and Jaget’s place, I noticed.

“He’s been gone for at least two days,” she said.

“And not on a trip,” said Sahra. “He’s left the wrong stuff.”

“He hasn’t gone back to the tunnels, or anything?” asked Beverley.

“Nah,” said Zach. “I’d have heard. There was some words exchanged, sort of thing, back when he walked out. It’d be news if they were talking again.”

“D’you think he’s dead?” Lesley asked Sahra.

“I don’t know,” Sahra said. “I don’t know. That might be better. Shit.”

“Might be better?” I said incredulously.

She pressed her lips into a thin line. “If this is really tied to the stuff from the seventies – the Soho club – yeah. It might be the nicest thing that could have happened to him. There was some...it was really bad, okay? I got nightmares reading the reports. And I know Lewis gave me the sanitized version. So – maybe.”

“Then we’ve got to find him,” I said. “As fast as possible. He offered to help, you owe him.”

“And I say again,” Lesley interrupted, “you’re - we're the police, so let’s get some help in.”

“I’m calling my boss,” Sahra said. “That’s all I can do right now without his say-so. If this goes wrong it could get really bad, you understand? We’re already down ten people and an entire tower block.”

“You do that,” I said. “I’m going to go round up Thomas. Speaking of help.”

“You really think he’ll be interested?” Sahra said, already pulling out her phone.

“He swore an oath,” I said. I remembered. I remembered because he’d had me swear it too, hadn’t he? Part of the deal. “Same as you did.”

Thomas wasn’t there when I knocked on his door, and when I looked at my watch I realized he was probably walking Toby. I was debating whether to call him or head out the way I knew he usually walked or both when he appeared in the corridor.

“Is something wrong?” he asked as soon as he saw me. I supposed I didn’t look too happy. Toby wanted to play, but I had to ignore him.

“Stephen went to look at something for DCI Lewis and he’s gone missing,” I said. “It might have been a couple of days. Sahra says she can’t just call it in, because they’re still not sure who at the Folly might be behind it.”

“Give me five minutes,” said Thomas, and I tried not to sag in relief.

“Right,” I said, and went back up to find the others. 

*

We all packed into Thomas’s flat because Sahra and I both had flatmates who were going to look at us funny if we tried to have this meeting at ours. God knows what they thought we were up to. Zach made his excuses; he clearly didn’t want to be any more involved than he already was and I didn’t blame him. But, to his credit, he was genuinely upset.

“You’re going to find him, yeah?” he said just before he scarpered.

“We’re going to find him,” Lesley said firmly. “Now let us get on with it, okay?” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and sent him off. I still couldn’t figure that one out. Unless Lesley just liked knowing she was in charge of the relationship. Beverley insisted on staying - she said if this was going to get as messy as she thought, her mum would want her to.

“Lewis is on his way over,” Sahra reported, having just got off the phone.

“Good,” said Thomas. “Firstly - what do we know, about where he could have gone?”

“We’re concentrating on the Soho area,” Sahra said. “Not where it all went down last time; that site’s clear. But the reports we have of Jason Dunlop’s murderer, sorry, suspected assailant, are from that area.”

“I’m surprised anyone would choose to operate out of the same area, given the similarities in method,” Thomas said doubtfully. “You’d think anyone from the Folly would be smarter -”

“You’re assuming that no-one else at the Folly knows about this,” said Sahra. “I’m not ruling out the giant conspiracy quite yet. Besides, you know how it works, it’s not as if we’d know anyone was there unless they were doing really serious magic.”

“And the working theory is that it’s underground, right? Because of the Crossrail stuff,” Lesley said. “And that BTP cop who got mauled. And Stephen said a couple of the Quiet People had gone missing, too.”

“Them, too? So that’s why Stephen agreed to have a look ‘round,” said Beverley. “I couldn’t figure why he would, not for your lot, even by proxy. And then...?”

“And then he vanishes,” Sahra concluded. “The thing is - I think that means we were right. We asked him because if anyone was going to find something hidden underground in this city, he was.”

“What and where being the question,” Thomas said.

“He said the Quiet People who went missing were near Tottenham Court Road station,” Lesley said. “Now I don’t have HOLMES access here, more’s the pity, but the short version is that there is a discrepancy on some of the Crossrail plans; an emergency access shaft that goes missing. We were waiting for Stephen to get back to us about it.”

“And there’s this one guy,” Sahra said. “He’s one of the ones you and Thomas both picked out, with the photos. And - he looks good for being involved, and there’s a connection to that area there, too.”

The ‘one guy’ was called Gareth Sutton, wizard and mid-level hedge fund manager; talk about divergent interests. His photo was even on the company website - I still couldn’t swear blind that was him who’d visited Thomas, after all this time, but it was certainly possible.

“At least he’s not an MP or something,” Lesley said. “That’d be really complicated.”

“Like it isn’t already,” said Beverley. “Like they’re just going to let you arrest him. But I don’t care who he is - how are you going to find Stephen?”

Apparently Sutton “looked good” because several investments in various companies traced back to him, if you looked hard enough - including a company that was involved in the Skygarden demolition clean-up. And one that part-owned a building right next to the possibly non-existent emergency access shaft.

We were interrupted by Lewis arriving. Beverley gave him a cool look, but made room for him around the table all the same. Sahra had called him as soon as she’d realised Stephen hadn’t been seen, but apparently he’d been on his way back to Swindon (commuters, I don’t know) and it had taken him this long to get back into town.

“What could you even fit in a space like this?” he wanted to know. “It doesn’t look like there’s room for anything - an emergency access shaft can’t be very large.”

I realised that was my cue. “Depends on what you want. It’s a tower, basically - a wizard’s tower, hah. Just underground. Lesley, were there dimensions on the plans?”

Lesley thought about it. “Yeah, but I don’t remember.”

“Okay,” I said. We were working off Google Maps on Sahra’s tablet. “So it can’t extend past here or here unless it’s deep-buried, because of all the other stuff that’s under an area this built-up, and that wouldn’t work for something that was allegedly an access shaft...and it can’t go deeper than, say, twenty metres, why is technical. That’s a lot more space than it sounds like, even accounting for maintenance and machinery space, if it’s divided up into floors - maybe two hundred square metres, a bit more? How much space does an evil wizard need, anyway?”

“That rather depends what he’s doing there,” said Thomas. “Storage or labs seem most likely. “

“Well, it’s a lot,” I said. “As big as a decent-sized house. But an access shaft - the real trouble is we’re not going to be able to sneak in or sneak around easily, there’ll be stairs and maybe a lift and otherwise it’s just a big cylinder.”

“Then we’ve got to go in mob-handed,” Sahra said. “As many bodies as we can get. CO19 and all. We can always make up something afterwards, if it’s supposed to be an emergency access shaft it probably counts as illegal occupation anyway.”

“I concur,” said Thomas. “The last time - the last time we conducted...an operation of this nature...that I was involved with, we had considerable, er, conventional backup. It proved necessary. And anyone from the Folly you can be certain of. In fact, as many as you can be mostly certain of.”

If we go tonight, we’ll go in mob-handed all right,” Lewis said, “but as far as magical backup goes there isn’t going to be anyone from the Folly.”

If?” said Beverley and Lesley together.

“That,” Thomas said, “is extremely unwise. When’s the last time anyone in your generation actually saw a real magical duel? Two fully-trained wizards can cause a great deal of damage. You may or may not be able to subdue whoever’s behind this - if there’s only one of them - but one half-trained apprentice for backup is insufficient. With apologies to you, Sahra.  And you seem to have a name now - so surely you have some idea of who you can trust?”

“None needed,” Sahra said wryly. “I know what I can do and what I can’t. And he’s right, sir, he’s absolutely right. If it’s more than one - we’d be screwed. We don’t even have staves.”

“Don’t you have anyone making them anymore?” Thomas muttered.

Lewis shrugged. “It wasn’t a popular practice before the war - and most of the Sons of Weyland retired, shortly after, as you’d know. There’s maybe two or three people in Britain who still know the tricks and they don’t just go handing them out, not after the Soho business. That much power in any one person’s hands...it’s not considered safe.”

Thomas pinched the bridge of his nose, which was as good as anyone else throwing their hands in the air. “I’m actually beginning to regret retiring.”

“The point is,” Lewis went on. “If, because I don’t want to go in tonight, regardless of - regardless. Not like this. What I want is proper backup, and to be as certain as I can be of what we’re going to find. Whatever it is, whatever Sutton’s hiding down here, if there’s anything - he’s been hiding it for a while; those plans were a few years old.”

“If you don’t, we will,” said Beverley. “Just so we’re clear on this. There’s been enough people going missing. We know where Stephen was going, and if he found something - we have to try.”

“No, I know,” Lewis said. “And with what happened to Dunlop...Sahra talked this Stephen into doing us a favour, a considerable one. And if it’s anything like the last time was, like the Soho club...” He trailed off. “We don’t have a choice. We have to check it out now, knowing what we know. I just don’t like it.”

“You all talk about this Soho thing like it’s a fucking concentration camp,” said Beverley. “I heard it was bad - but what was it? They never told any of us. Or not Mum or my older sisters, anyway. Just rampaged around Soho like they were putting out forest fires and some of the fires were people.”

“I saw concentration camps,” Thomas said, quietly. “They gave me fewer nightmares, on the whole.”

We all tried really hard not to think about that one, even Lewis and Sahra, who’d seen the reports, or so Sahra had said.

“The thing is, given that time is apparently not on our side, there isn’t anyone I can call up,” Lewis said. “I’d need to be sure - absolutely sure - they weren’t involved in this. And anyone I might be willing to take a chance on isn’t really trained for this sort of thing, or can’t get here in time - most of us don’t train for any sort of combat, you know, it’s been a very long time since we went to war. So no. No magical backup that’s not in this room.” He hesitated. “Besides - if I go to the top with this...you know as well as I do what might end up happening. Or better.” That last was directed at Thomas.

“And what’s that?” Lesley asked sharply.

“The last time there was anything...like this,” Thomas said, “if it’s related...the general procedure would just be to clean it up.”

“Clean it up,” Lesley said, dangerously.

“He means kill everyone,” Beverley said. Her tone was very, very short. “And oops, none of this ever happened. Besides, they were probably dangerous anyway, safest thing. They did a fucking sweep of the Soho area right after...whatever it was, last time, looking for...I don’t even know what. Some people got away, some people...didn’t.”

“That’s not acceptable,” Lewis said. “Not to me. But I can’t promise it wouldn’t happen.”

Lesley’s face was angry, really angry. “Why the hell would you sign up with people like that?”

“Well, they don’t exactly advertise,” Lewis retorted, evidently stung. “They say magic, not -”

“There was more negotiation, before the war,” Thomas interrupted. “They felt in control of things. Afterwards, they didn’t. And so. The Folly isn’t dangerous because they’re in control, they’re dangerous because they know they aren’t.”

“But - were you there, last time?” I said, and I didn’t want to; it felt like there wasn’t enough air in my lungs for it; but it needed to be said.

“I was involved,” Thomas replied, levelly. “Yes.”

“I thought you only got called in after, you were retired -” Lewis began, but Thomas waved a hand.

“It was after the fact, does that really matter? I was part of the Folly then, and I didn’t stop it. There weren’t any heroes there. But all this is beside the point, for now. You’re quite right, you can’t go to the Folly for something like this. Not safely.”

“So no-one not in this room,” Lewis said again, very precisely.

“Are you asking for my help with this?” said Thomas, even more quietly.

“I am.” Lewis straightened, and turned to face him. “You have some idea about what we might be walking into. There’s not a wizard alive who’s better qualified. And - you swore an oath, once.”

“Yes, I did.” Thomas looked down at the table, then up again. “Very well.”

“Three-to-one is better odds,” Sahra said prosaically. “Crossing our fingers that it’s one, of course.”

“If we’re talking about training, I’ve had it,” Lesley said. “I can’t toss fireballs or whatever but I’m not going to lose my shit if they start flying. I want in.”

“You’re civilian staff,” Lewis argued.

“You have noticed actual police officers are in a minority in this room, right?” Lesley said. “Besides, if - when we find Stephen he deserves to have someone who’s actually a friend around.”

I want to make it clear that I didn’t actually want to do this. In fact, I really, really did not want to do this. But if we were speaking of oaths, well.

“Peter, please. No,” Thomas said as I opened my mouth.

“Why’d you make me take the oath?” I said, instead of what I’d been going to say, which was “Fuck it, me too.”

“Because -” He actually looked nonplussed. Now there was a first.

“Because?” I prompted.

“Because that’s how it works,” he said. “At least, that’s how it should work, if you want to learn magic, in this country.”

“So, then,” I said. “What was the point, if not now?”

He looked at me for a long time, in fact everyone in the room was looking at me, and I felt like a bit of an idiot, all things considered, because did I mention I really wasn’t that keen on the whole thing? But. I’d dumped this whole thing in Lewis’s lap, and now here we were, and. It had always been too easy, this whole thing. I’d figured there had to be a cost that would come due.

“All right,” Thomas said, finally. I noticed he didn’t bother consulting Lewis. “All right, then.” He shot a sardonic look at Beverley. “But don’t you start. I’m not minded to face your mother if something goes wrong.”

“But,” Beverley said sweetly, “you’re not my mum, or even my older sister, and you couldn’t stop me if you fucking tried. I already said I’d go if nobody else did - I’m not letting you lot wander down there and start who knows what.”

“Cheer up,” said Lesley. “At least Zach’s too smart to want in on this. Think of the mess that’d be.”

Lewis was looking around the room and realising what a pickle he was in; he had backup, sure, but I was barely trained, neither Sahra or I were technically supposed to be apprentices at all, Beverley’s power was circumscribed by an agreement I didn’t fully comprehend - and I wondered if she did - Lesley was a civilian and possessed of absolutely no supernatural abilities whatsoever, and Thomas was...something else, I was beginning to get the impression. 

“I’m beginning to think,” Lewis said, “that I’m in need of better colleagues.”

“Ones you can trust?” Thomas grimaced. “You rather are. I suggest you get a move on with training them.” He glanced at Sahra. “Although I suppose you already are.”

“You should have stayed,” Lewis said, suddenly. “Back then.”

“No,” Thomas replied, calmly. “I shouldn’t have. I couldn’t have. Ask any of your superiors. But this - this I can help with. And - there’s one other thing.”

When he pulled out the staves Mellissa Oswald had dropped off, a few months back, Lewis and Sahra’s eyes went wide.

“Oswald’s granddaughter left these with me,” he said as he handed them over. “She didn’t feel like giving them to the Folly. We might as well make use of them now.”

“And you?” asked Lewis.

Thomas picked up his cane. Hah - I knew it. “I’m well-equipped. Peter, I do apologise, but even if we had an extra it might not be of much use to you yet.”

“Fair enough,” I said, although I was the tiniest bit jealous. I’d held one of those, felt the power in them. “I’ll cope.”

There was a bit more fussing around but it didn’t take us more than ten minutes to get out of there. I felt weird, a bit dissociated; this couldn’t be real, right? But it was.

“And, Peter,” Thomas said, as we walked out to the carpark.

“Yeah?”

“Do -” He looked at me as if he didn’t quite know what to say. “Do be careful.”

“No heroics, I remember,” I told him. “But that better go for you, too. No need for any heroics, from either of us.”

He hesitated, then nodded. “Quite.”

We were bringing up the rear, and no-one was looking at us, so I reached out and tangled my fingers with his, just briefly. Just a little - moment of solidarity. He squeezed back, once and hard, and then we let go.

God. I hoped we knew what we were doing.

*

The one problem with our plan is that armed raids by the Metropolitan Police Service don’t just happen at the drop of a hat - but we needed to get in there as fast as possible. The entrance to our putative mad wizard’s lair was at the top end of Dean Street, in Soho. By the time the six of us got there, it didn’t look any different than a normal Tuesday night; plenty of people, not an unusual thing in sight. Unless you counted us, obviously - two wizards, two unofficial apprentice wizards, a goddess, and Lesley. But you couldn’t tell any of that by looking.

We stood across the street and down a bit, out of the range of the security camera covering the building’s entrance - just in case. Despite what you might think, London’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras aren’t all run by the police or even MI5; they can belong to just about anybody. And if I was an evil wizard with a secret underground lair, I’d want to know if anybody was congregating above it - particularly the police, and especially the portion of the police represented by my non-evil wizarding...colleagues, I supposed I could call them. Could I? 

“We’re going to need to get the area cordoned off,” Lewis was saying.

“Don’t want the public getting in the way, right,” Lesley added. She was looking especially perky - I think she’d really missed the whole policing thing.

“You mean getting hurt?” suggested Beverley.

“That too,” Lesley agreed.

“How long until we can go in?” Thomas wanted to know. We were all trying to lurk without looking like we were lurking - or loitering, more to the point - and Thomas was doing a surprisingly good job of it for someone who seemed to think it was a good idea to show up to a possible fight in an oyster-white Burberry trench coat. Then again, Beverley was in a skirt, which just seemed like a terrible idea, but when I’d asked she said her serious business outfit was a neoprene wetsuit and that wouldn’t be much use here, a point I had to concede. Me - I’d just made sure I had my running shoes on. In case of needing to run.

“Backup’s due in about fifteen minutes,” Lewis said. “No point doing anything until then - it’s just extra warning that we’re coming.”

“They could be doing anything to him,” Lesley said, tapping her foot - and then noticing herself doing it, and stopping.

“Or he could be dead already,” said Sahra.

Alive, dead, or bloody furious, I thought, but some humour is just too grim for speaking out loud.

Lewis still had his phone in his hand, and it started to buzz - he’d answered it almost before I heard the noise.

“Hello,” he said, and then “Yes? They are? But who - Oh. I see. When was that? Thank you. Yes. Thanks.”

His face got stiller and stiller as the conversation went on. I wasn’t sure what that meant, though I doubted it was good - and the tension on Sahra’s face said it certainly wasn’t.

Lewis put the phone in his pocket. “The whole thing’s been blown.”

“How?” snapped Thomas, immediate.

“Robert Weil dropped by work, and someone asked him why he wasn’t with me - I told everyone I’d organised backup from the Folly; they assumed who it’d be, of course. Apparently as soon as he heard that he walked straight out.”

“Yeah, but who was he off to warn?” Sahra said. “The Folly, or Sutton?”

“Is there a difference, for our purposes?” Thomas wanted to know.

“One’s a lot more direct,” said Lewis. “Either way. I...don’t think we can afford to wait for anyone else.”

“Fuck,” said Lesley. “And they still might see us coming.”

“Not a problem.” Sahra leaned around the corner, and made an abbreviated version of the lux gesture, just a twitch outward of her fingers - but I didn’t see any light. I looked in the same direction as her, at the camera in our line of sight, but it didn’t look any different. But she’d definitely done some magic.

“What was that?” asked Thomas, in tones of professional curiosity.

“Variation on lux,” said Lewis. “Basically just lobs focused magic at whatever computer chip-containing thing you want to turn to sand.”

“Are we done talking shop?” Beverley demanded. “Because we need to get in there right now.”

The building we wanted housed an international money exchange, and it was closed. We got in through the back door, out of sight of the street. Lewis used a spell that knocked the lock straight out of the door - that must be the one Sahra hadn’t wanted to use on Stephen’s door. It was dark, and quiet; those of us who could brought out werelights. It only took a minute or two of searching to find the entrance to the basement. Any access to a subterranean lair would have to be down there. The stairs looked suspiciously well-trafficked, given how empty the actual basement was - a few cardboard boxes and some old office furniture, but that was it, nothing and nobody hiding. There was a clear line from the bottom of the steps to a solid steel fire door, which had no obvious reason for being there.

“One entrance, one exit,” murmured Thomas. “Oh dear.” He motioned everyone to either side of the room, and we all went; even Lewis. Thomas took a few definite steps back, and then opened the door. I missed whatever formae he used, but it popped all the pins neatly out of the hinges and the doors just fell straight down into the corridor we were standing in, with a reverberating bang. Thomas darted through, looking either way; Lewis was right on his heels. After a moment Lewis gestured the rest of us forward.

I had been expecting darkness, but the space behind was lit by very ordinary fluorescent lights; they revealed incongruously ordinary lift doors, although there was nothing to say how many floors the lift serviced and the call button had a card reader. To the left were metal steps, going down; the stairwell had recessed lights, as well. And they were on. It was quiet.

“But is it too quiet?” I heard Lesley mutter to herself. Thomas was already heading down the steps, making surprisingly little noise. I kept a wary eye on the lift. Lewis was right behind him, still. Sahra had taken up the rearguard position, watching the basement we’d just come into. Lesley was creeping down the stairs; I would have followed but my attention was caught by Beverley, who for some reason had taken a moment to commune with some of the pipes visible on the basement walls; at my best guess they were mains water and grey water for the building above.

“It’s not connected to whatever’s down there,” Beverley said, when she spotted me looking. “Just checking.”

“You guys go on,” Sahra said; we were all still being very quiet. I could hear the murmur of the others’ voices in the stairwell. “I need to keep an eye out for when our back up does -”

She was cut off by an electronic ding; it was the lift doors. I turned.

Everything after that seemed to go in weird slow motion. I saw the person in the lift, but I couldn’t process it - not properly. I’d heard Thomas say chimera and Lewis say mauled to death and I knew there were people in this world who were rivers and trees and whatever Molly was, but none of that was real preparation for seeing a tiger-man standing in the lift. That was the only real description I could think of.

Fuck,” said Beverley.

Sahra was the only one of us who reacted properly. “Armed police, don’t move!”

He grinned - if that’s the right word for something with that many teeth - and didn’t even bother replying; just pounced straight at her, legs bending in a way that human legs really, really shouldn’t.

I probably should have tried magic but I was too taken aback to manage it. Instead I grabbed for one of the rollable office chairs and skimmed it across the floor. Tiger Boy dodged it, but it slowed him down, and in that second Sahra had dropped into a crouch and thrown up a shield; I knew proper shields were slippery, because I’d poked at Thomas’s. He hit it and slid over her and off, already rolling to land on his feet, but he got what looked like a firehose to the face and went down again; I looked in the direction it was coming from and saw Beverley with a hand on the water main. Whatever she’d done had made the water jet straight out in a way that shouldn’t really have been physically possible, there shouldn’t have been that much pressure. Now our opponent just looked like an angry cat, fur plastered to his skull. But Sahra had popped back onto her feet and when he tried to rush her he ran straight into an invisible wall, so hard he reeled back and cracked his head against the real wall behind him. While he was recovering from that she lashed out at one of his knees with the iron-capped staff, and there was a distinct crunch.

“A little help here,” she yelled, and Beverley and me piled in.

I’m still not exactly sure how Sahra got the handcuffs on him but it involved a nasty hole getting torn in her nice leather jacket and some serious scratches for the rest of us. She kept his jaw shut, I thought with scindere or something like, which was probably the only thing that saved us all from serious injury. We were all getting pretty wet - Beverley’s broken main wasn’t disobeying physics but it was leaking water all over the basement floor.

“What the hell,” I heard from behind me; Lesley. I was too busy helping hold Tiger Boy down - physically and then with magic, once I’d had a moment to clear my head - to turn around.

“Found anything?” Beverley asked her.

“Yeah - no. Not Stephen,” Lesley was saying.

“Hold on,” Sahra said, and there was another whack with the iron-capped staff. The body below us went limp. “Okay. Okay. Where the hell is our backup? You guys better see if they need help down there.”

“Are you going to be alright?”

“He’s out,” Sahra said. “Here - take this. I’ve got to go check the street, see who’s coming. I blew my Airwave.” She handed me the staff. It had blood on it. I tried really hard not to think about that. “Beverley, can you stop the water?”

“Not like you mean,” Beverley said. “Too much pressure. But hold on.” She walked over - I swear the water parted around her, she wasn’t even wet - and prosaically shut the pipe off with the main valve.

“Boring,” I said.

“Whatever,” said Beverley.

“Hurry up,” said Lesley.

Those of us who were not river goddesses sloshed mundanely across to the lift - by a stroke of total luck, the chair I’d thrown had rolled backwards and jammed the doors open. I jumped over and fixed a werelight to the control panel. That would be drawing off the electronics right away, and with any luck the lift would be non-operational - aside from the door jam - in a minute or so. We didn’t need any more surprises.

By the time I got down the stairs to the first landing, Thomas was stepping out of the door there; Lesley was down there again too, looking sick and miserable, and Beverley grim.

“What’s -” I started to ask, but Thomas shook his head. “Don’t, please. The best thing we can do is search the rest of this place as quickly as possible.”

“Sahra’s gone to find that backup she and Lewis are supposed to have,” I said.

“We can start from the bottom,” Lesley said, mouth set. I wondered what was in that room. I wondered what Lewis was still doing in there.

“Then let’s,” Beverley said. The four of us headed down. At the first landing, Thomas peeled off, to check that room; Lesley and Beverley and I headed straight for the bottom. There was no point being quiet now. Whoever was here had to know it. Or maybe not - as we went I tapped as quietly as possible on the wall behind the interior stair handrail. I’d expected a token sheet of plywood or maybe gypsum board, separating the external stair from the interior spaces, just a shell since the floors were supported by beams out to the exterior wall, but it was something much sturdier - and more soundproof. That bothered me, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to explain.

The stairs bottomed out about twenty metres down, by my estimate. We were well underground. Good thing none of us were claustrophobic.

There were two doors - one in the exterior wall, one in the interior.

“Pick a door, any door,” I said.

“Well he won’t be out the exit,” said Lesley, and threw open the interior one - then flattened herself against the wall, seeing if anyone was going to come through. Nobody did.

It revealed a corridor cutting straight through the cylindrical space we were in, with rows of doors on either side. The supports for the floor above were exposed along the ceiling, steel I-beams which I’d seen slotting in to the outer wall as we’d come down the stairs. It was all disturbingly featureless and when I tried one of the doors, it was locked.

“Cells,” Lesley said succinctly; they had flaps in the doors, nothing you could even get an arm through. “Stephen. STEPHEN!”

Then, thank god, one of the flaps rattled.

“Lesley, is that you?” croaked a voice I thought I recognised. Lesley certainly did.

“It’s the cavalry,” Lesley told him, moving to that door.

Beverley poked me in the shoulder. “Well - you’re the wizard in the room, get it open.”

I snorted. “Not even close.” I couldn’t do the lock-popping spell or burn through it - when I tapped the door was solid - but whoever had built the place had hung the hinges on the outside, presumably against impromptu escape attempts. They hadn’t anticipated rescues, I suppose. The staff Sahra had handed me hummed in my hand as I bashed at them with impello, nothing fancy - but all three sets tore right off, the screws pulling out. I could suddenly see why the question of staffs was so important to the wizard who wanted to do serious magic without melting holes in their brain.

“Give it a shoulder,” Lesley told Stephen. The resulting thump was weak, but opened enough of a gap for the three of us to grab the door by the hinge side and wrench it around; the bolt holding it shut held, but it came open far enough for Stephen to slip out.

“Is there anybody else here?” Beverley wanted to know.

Stephen shook his head; he swayed, but Lesley grabbed him in time to stop him falling. “No, I don’t think so.”

He looked like shit, to put it frankly. His pale skin showed every bruise, and the bags under his eyes said he might not have slept since he’d gone missing. He was blinking, too, like he couldn’t quite focus. With the door open I could see the lights in the room - cell - were bright, and there was no light-switch visible. With how sensitive he was to light, I realised, it must be nearly impossible for him to see. Continuous illumination is recognised as a form of torture under the Geneva Convention, as long as you don’t ask the CIA.

“Right, then,” I said. “Let’s move. We need to let the others know that’s mission accomplished as far as we’re concerned.”

“Who’s the others?” Stephen wanted to know. Lesley had slung one of his arms around her shoulders and he wasn’t putting up a fuss about the help.

“Just a few of us from the flats,” Beverley whispered, in deference to the volume he was setting. “Peter and me and Lesley and Thomas and Sahra. And Sahra’s boss.”

“The neighbourhood fucking watch,” said Stephen, with what was almost a chuckle.

“Damn straight,” Lesley said. “Now let’s go before Lewis has to explain us to his backup.”

Back out on the stairs - that other door was still shut - I could hear voices further up; Thomas, definitely, and Lewis too, and at least one other I didn’t recognise, but they didn’t sound panicked. Backup must be here. Oh well - we were going to have to go through them to get out, so Lewis was going to have to explain us either way. Our evil magician must have got the tip-off and stayed well away, whether he was Sutton or someone - or someones - else. At least we’d found Stephen, and he was alive, and - I didn’t want to know about anything else. That was Lewis’s problem.

Lesley and Stephen were first up the stairs, then Beverley, me bringing up the rear. We’d gone up one level - I’d counted five altogether coming down - when I halted; the door there was very slightly open, a more yellow light leaking out into the stairwell. It must be Thomas or Lewis or one of the non-magical SAU coppers, searching. But - I should check.

“What is it?” Beverley wanted to know, stopping a step or two up; Lesley was moving as fast as Stephen was capable of, so they were nearly around the next corner.

“Just a second,” I said, and pushed open the door - just to check, and backing away as soon as I had.

This level was a library - or maybe an office - some combination of the two. I saw books, shelves, a desk. And a man - not Thomas. And not Lewis. And not a police officer, I was pretty sure. I still didn’t recognise him - not properly - but I was willing to bet it was Gareth Sutton. He turned; he was holding a briefcase. Clearing out, I realised. Before the official party worked their way down this far. I wondered if he’d been in here the whole time we’d been upstairs.

Beverley was next to me now.

“Shit,” I heard her mutter, very quietly.

“Well, well,” said Sutton, who didn’t seem nearly as surprised as I would have hoped by our presence. Then again - he’d known someone was coming. “One of the Rivers. I must say, I didn’t expect your...group...to get involved.”

“Mum doesn’t hold with this sort of thing,” Beverley informed him, tossing her dreads back over her shoulder. She moved a little in front of me. I let her, for now - and made sure the staff I was holding was covered by her. Sutton’s gaze had passed right over me once she appeared, like I wasn’t even there. I was okay with that. Let him think he knew what was in front of him. 

“Your mother sent you?” That did make him frown. “For what?”

“Like I said,” Beverley repeated. “You had a mate of mine in here, and she doesn’t hold with that sort of thing - so I came to pick him up. Now are you going to let us walk out of here, since we got what we wanted, or do we have a problem?”

I edged a bit closer to her, and tried to think of the formae I wanted without making the shape in my mind. The minute I did - the minute I tried to cast anything - he’d know what I was, what I could do, as pathetic as it was. If there was anything I could do that would work, against someone fully trained.

“I’m afraid we have a problem,” Sutton said - and he sounded casual, but I could hear noise from further up the stairs, Lesley and Stephen must be up there and they’d be wondering where me and Beverley had got to, I hoped. No footsteps on the floor directly above, though. “This sort of interference is entirely against the agreements - not that I’ve ever put much stock in those.”

“Fair enough,” Beverley said. “They’re wearing pretty thin, these days. So how about this? You go downstairs and out your back door, and we’ll go up, and everyone’s going to have what they want.”

I couldn’t tell if she meant it or she was buying time. It didn’t really matter. I was trying to figure out something else

He smiled - unpleasantly. “I think not. It’s not as if you can really do anything, after all - we’re a long way from your river.”

“You’ve got no idea, do you,” said Beverley, and I remembered the pipe upstairs; I wondered where the water came in for this structure, lair, whatever you wanted to call it. There had to be water. And Beverley could do a lot with water.

He’d been moving towards us, and we’d backed out onto the stairs.

“You’re going to come with me,” he said, and the glamour was so strong I fucking felt it. Thank god it wasn’t directed at me, is all I’m saying. 

Beverley laughed outright. “Yeah, that’s not going to work on me.” She put a hand on the wall behind her. There was a thud and a gurgle. I could feel it suddenly, or maybe it was just my imagination, the rock and soil around us, London’s clay - built as it was on the floodplain of the tidal Thames - and throughout it, pervasive, soaking, the snaking underground rivers, waiting to fill all those empty spaces...if they were just given the right persuasion.

Goddess, I remembered, and right then and there - as I never had before and might never again - I really, really believed it. And I also believed that I really, really didn’t want to be trapped in an underground space if Beverley invited the water in - buying time or not.

So I did the one thing I was pretty sure had a chance of working.

And it didn’t involve throwing any fireballs, despite the fact I’d bothered to learn how.  I knew that a real practitioner, a trained one, could bat anything I could come up with aside just like that. Thomas had demonstrated for me one day in Beverley’s garden - I hadn’t liked it one little bit, tossing even my ridiculous and tiny fireballs at him, but he’d just grinned and caught one, right out of the air. Not even bothered with a shield - apparently it was possible to contain them with a spell of your own, a complex one involving several formae. Anyway - I knew there wasn’t much point bothering with fireballs.

But I had had plenty of time, in the last - however long we’d been in here, it felt like hours - to observe how this place had been constructed. And I had a staff - and some idea, now, of how much extra oomph it gave me, magically-speaking. And I was pretty sure there was nobody on the floor above right now - because that was going to be important.

I saw Sutton bring his hand up and I recognised the motion - the same one I’d learned from Thomas, with the fireball spell, and he’d learned from whoever had taught him, and at some point almost certainly there was an ancestral convergence with whoever had taught Sutton, and it was just enough warning for me to grab Beverley and pull her up the stairs at the same time as I smacked one of the support beams right above Sutton with impello - up and just a bit to the right. I couldn’t see it, because the ceiling for that level had been finished, but I knew where it had to be.

The effect - with staff - was a lot more spectacular than I’d expected. There was a very loud crunch as the beam ripped through the floor above, tossed upwards, and then an even louder scrape and rumble and bang as it came down outside the support slot and kept going, right into the floor below. I didn’t know whether it had come down on top of Sutton and wasn’t about to go looking because I was moving up the stairs as fast as I could - which was almost as fast as Beverley could. I was impressed.

Luckily the person Beverley ran smack into was Lewis, coming down - there were conventionally-armed police behind him, and that probably would have been messier. Thomas was there, too.

“He’s down there,” I said urgently, and then Beverley and me both had to plaster ourselves to the wall as a lot of people headed down the stairs - Lewis and Thomas at the front. We made our way more carefully up. The basement entrance was full of people, now, and someone with a first-aid kit had Stephen in hand. Sahra was doing a lot of pointing and talking. Lesley was in a corner, leaning against a table.

“Oh, thank god,” she said when she saw us. “What held you two up?”

“Our -” I looked around, checking if anyone was listening too closely. “Our suspect was at home, after all. It was a bit tense. That’s where Lewis and Thomas just went.” I glanced behind me, at the entrance to the stairs; I couldn’t hear anything specific. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. “Is this just the conventional backup, or what?”

“Yeah,” Lesley said. “Whoever Robert Weil called, it wasn’t Folly backup. Sahra’s arguing about whether that needs to happen now - Lewis was, but then we realised you two hadn’t come up and they went to look. I just hope -”

I never found out what she just hoped, because the next second there was a concussive wave of - something; pressure, but more than that. Death, and decay, and a thin scream. It nearly made me gag. Lesley tensed, too, and Stephen and Sahra, and Beverley clapped a hand to her mouth - but everyone else in the room didn’t even blink.

Magic, then. I wanted to run towards it - but what good would that have done?

Thomas was down there, though. Everything seemed suddenly very quiet, like it was coming through a pane of glass. I didn’t know where to look. Lesley didn’t say anything else. She’s good like that, usually.

After what must have been five minutes or so, but felt like a lot, lot longer, one of the non-magical cops came past the lift.

“Sergeant Guleed, your boss wants you down there,” she said to Sahra. “And - Mr Grant?”

We were both aiming to be quick, but I took the stairs so fast I nearly ran right into the beam I’d dislodged, part-way down - you had to duck under it. Thomas was at the bottom, not even a smudge of dust on his coat - how he’d managed that I had no idea. That exterior door was open, and Lewis was visible a little way through, lit by a werelight; he motioned to Sahra, and she hurried over, but Thomas was pretty much all I could see, through a crushing wave of relief that I hadn’t realised was poised to flood over me.

“You’re all right,” I blurted out before I could think about it, lifting my hands like I was going to - but I remembered where we were, and ended up with my hands on his shoulders, just sort of hanging on. He reached up and put his hands on my forearms, I thought maybe to move my hands away but he held on, and leaned in, and we were standing there, with our foreheads touching, in the dust and the weird shadows of werelights. It calmed me down enough for my breathing to slow.

“All right, Peter?” he asked quietly, and I realised he was gripping my arms a lot tighter than necessary - the sort of tightness that said he’d been at least as afraid as I had. Whether it was of the same thing, though - that I still didn’t quite know. And this wasn’t the time to ask, even as close as we were, his breath on my lips.

“I’m okay,” I said, just as quietly, and just as shakily, and he nodded. I lifted my hands away, slowly, and we moved apart - then I shoved them in my pockets, for lack of anything else to do, as a guard against wanting to touch him again, make sure he was real, he was all right. “We’re - everybody’s okay. Stephen, too. We got him. Did you - did you find Sutton? Was that him?”

“It was, according to Lewis, and I’m afraid he escaped,” Thomas said. “And the way out is - mined, if you will; it’s going to take a while to check it, so there was no question of pursuit. That’s what Lewis and Sahra are looking at - it’s a demon trap. You must have felt me disarm it.”

Through the door, I could see Sahra and Lewis bending over something - a sheet of metal, it looked like.

“If that was disarming, I’d hate to see one go off,” I said. “Or feel it. I hate to ask the obvious question, but what is a demon trap?”

“It’s a...weaponised ghost,” Thomas said. “Just the presence of this would be enough to condemn Sutton, if he hadn’t tried to kill us already. I hadn’t seen one since the seventies - and the war, before that.”

“Weaponised ghost,” I repeated. “I suppose you have to kill someone, to get the ghost.”

“You torture them to death. Yes.”

“I wonder if that’s what he wanted with Stephen.” That didn’t bear much thinking about. “Thank god we came after him. But - what did you want me down here for?” I figured it couldn’t just be to make sure I was still in one piece - although I did think, the way Thomas was still looking at me, that that was part of it. But I couldn’t afford to think about that right now.

It turned out Thomas’s principal question was, in my professional and suddenly relevant opinion, how likely the whole place was to collapse on everybody’s heads, since I’d done some serious structural damage. I told him very unlikely, since the support beams for the floors were separate and individual.

“I wouldn’t be too enthused about its long-term stability, but you should be okay to thoroughly search the place,” I said. “And then I think you’d want to fill it in, anyway. But ask a structural engineer to do a proper check - that’s just my best guess.”

“And Lesley and Beverley are still upstairs with Stephen?”

“You want us to clear out?” I asked.

“That would be for the best,” Lewis said, joining us. Sahra was still crouched over the - demon trap, making some sort of notes. “Given what we found I really have to call in the rest of the Folly, now, and Sahra’s presence is explicable - yours and Lesley and Ms Thames’s isn’t.”

“So that’s it?” I asked. “As far as we’re concerned. But Thomas - your presence isn’t very explicable, either.”

“No,” said Lewis. “You should probably -”

“Oh, I’m staying,” Thomas said, flicking some imaginary dust off his coat sleeve. “It will be obvious to anyone with the slightest modicum of training that I was here. So I might as well stay to explain myself.”

“But,” Lewis said.

“They’re going to try and keep this quiet,” Thomas said, placidly. “I intend to make it as loud as possible. And I can’t do that at a distance.”

*

I don’t know what the other police thought, but they let me and Stephen and the girls get out of there without stopping to take our details - which was good enough. Sahra must have explained us away somehow. I thought we were going to have a problem with transport; we’d all of us come in Lewis and Sahra’s cars, and they were stuck here for who knew how long. We weren’t really in a state to face the Tube, and there was no way any of us were going to manage to flag down a taxi, not in the next hour. But Beverley solved that for us - apparently one of the police officers had spontaneously offered her a ride home. And me and Lesley and Stephen could come along. She got the front seat, though.

“Did you make him do that?” I asked, once we’d gotten out at the flats.

“Oh, come on,” Beverley said. “We just did a public fucking service.”

“Your mum wouldn’t be pleased,” Lesley said, in tones that suggested she really wanted to disapprove but couldn’t work up the willpower.

“As the public service in question, I’ve got to agree you probably deserved a lift,” said Stephen.

“Mum’s going to know I was there, you know,” Beverley warned. “And Ty. I might’ve mucked with her river the tiniest bit. I’m going to be in so much trouble.”

“Can we worry about that tomorrow?” I asked. “Or never.”

“It’s not something you have to worry about,” said Beverley.

It felt like we’d been out all night but it wasn’t much past eleven when I walked in my own front door. We’d dropped Stephen off at his place, and he assured us all he wanted was his own bed - I couldn’t blame him. I’d hoped to get in unnoticed, but Jaget was getting a glass of water in the kitchen.

“You’re back late for a work night,” he said, and then he really focused on me. “Peter. What happened? Are you all right?”

I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, to be brutally honest. I had dust all through my clothes, and my shoes were still squelching a bit from Beverley’s waterbending. I had a set of cuts on my right arm that looked like you’d scaled up cat scratches ten times - which was about what had made them. I could still taste something awful at the back of my throat, a leftover of the demon trap. I’d just survived a facedown with an ethically challenged magician in a cross between a wizard’s tower and a genuine mad scientist’s lab. I felt like nothing was ever going to be all right ever again.

“Yeah, fine,” I said. “Just out with Bev and Lesley and some of their friends. Ended up staying later than I meant to. The Tube was a bit mad on the way home. Must have been the full moon or something.”

*

The problem with volunteering as unofficial magical backup on an after-hours raid on an evil wizard is that when your day job is something else entirely, you still have to get up the next morning. When my alarm went off I swore profusely, but the worst thing I could do today was call in sick, so I got up. I took stock of things in the bathroom as I showered; the shallow cuts had scabbed over, but I had some spectacular bruises. The circles under my eyes were making a fair bid to swallow my face.

And there was always the chance I’d given myself a brain lesion, but since I hadn’t dropped dead of a stroke that was probably not my main concern. I’d passed the staff back to Sahra before we’d left; I wondered whether she and Lewis still had them, or whether they’d gone back to Thomas. It didn’t seem fair for the Folly to get them, but I supposed that depended on how much they counted as the Folly. Sahra didn’t, I thought. Lewis - maybe. Maybe not.

I did skip my morning run, because there are limits.

Jaget wanted me to tell him about my night out. I told him that I’d gone out with some friends, had a pint, nothing too interesting. I told him we’d run into Stephen and he’d just been out of town for a couple of days. I lied through my fucking teeth and I hated every second of it.

When I got into the office I thought it must be written on my face, what had happened, but no-one said a thing. It wasn’t just exhaustion gnawing at me; I was worried about Thomas, about Sahra, even about Inspector Lewis - they’d stayed behind to meet with the Folly wizards who’d shown up after. How had it gone? Was the Folly going to bury this, like they had before? Were they actually going to accept they had at least one and maybe more practitioners who’d gone totally off the rails? Were they going to find out about Sahra, about me, about Lewis and Thomas’s teaching magic outside the fold? What was I going to find when I got home?

I must’ve checked my phone every five minutes, but there was no word. I wanted to text Thomas, or call him, but I held off; I felt like that was opening the box. I’d find out whether the cat was alive or dead eventually. If I sent a message, and he didn’t respond - I’d be tripping the quantum state, forcing the outcome.

Look, I know it’s a terrible metaphor. I was really, really sleep-deprived.

About three o’clock I finally gave it up as a bad job, told everyone I was coming down with something, and went home - I didn’t have any meetings or site visits or anything that afternoon, and I couldn’t stand the wait any longer. My phone rang when I was walking home from the bus stop. I’d stiffened up pretty good since the morning - since last night, so I wasn’t moving fast, but the next bus had been a twenty-minute wait and it was still quicker to walk.

It was Thomas.

“Are you okay? They let you go already?” I babbled as soon as I answered. “What happened after we left?”

“Hello to you too, Peter,” he said. He did have an old-fashioned approach to telephone protocol. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I got run over by several lorries in succession,” I admitted. “I’m walking home from the bus stop. Almost there. And how are you feeling?”

“Tired,” he admitted readily. “I fell asleep on the couch when I got home, but Toby woke me up and then I couldn’t get back to sleep again. But otherwise I escaped unscathed, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “Give me ten minutes to get home, then come up to mine and I’ll see what I can do by way of espresso. It won’t make up the sleep but it might keep you going.”

Thomas laughed. “That sounds perfect.”

I kept my word and made him a triple espresso - and one for me, because my couch was looking seriously tempting, and it wasn’t just that Thomas was sitting on it, freshly-showered by the look of him but not anything like as neat as he normally was. It was a bit weird, seeing him up here - since I had a flatmate and he didn’t we almost always ended up at his place, for magic lessons or whatever. Luckily Jaget had done a quick tidy last night while I’d been out fighting an evil wizard - not that either of us needed to be embarrassed about the place normally (especially compared to, say, Bev and Lesley’s) but I hadn’t quite hit the point with Thomas where I was prepared to lower my standards like that.

“So what happened after we left?” I asked him. He sat down next to me on the couch without prompting - right next to me, too, not safely in the other corner. I didn’t mind.

“You left just in time,” he told me. “First we had the forensics people - they were rather upset. Unsurprisingly. Then some of Lewis’s other colleagues arrived, and the volume of conversation got quite raised. They were distinctly unimpressed by the way he’d handled the whole thing. Then they realised I was there.”

“And...?”

Thomas sipped his coffee. I realised I’d been so tired, and so had he, that I hadn’t offered the standard waiver on eating and drinking; and he hadn’t asked for it. Oh, what the hell. Between the apprentice thing and everything else - I figured we were obliged to each other near-permanently anyway.

“And that threw them off their game. Lewis and I managed to make sure we had as much of the ensuing argument as possible within earshot of the Met officers, as well. I imagine there’s going to be a great deal of scrambling, but at a minimum, they can’t hide this from the police service - and they are not fond of their magical consultants. By the time I left it was being bumped up the chain of command rapidly.”

“What about that - chimera? Or whatever he was? The one Sahra managed to slap a pair of cuffs on. I’m still not sure how she did that and I was helping.”

“That’s another argument. The Folly doesn’t really have the capacity to hold prisoners - we bricked up the cells after the war. Right now I believe he’s still at Belgravia.”

“He was...Sutton’s muscle,” I said slowly. “And then there’s the question of how he ended up like that...I’m pretty sure he was trying to kill us, too. But - what does happen if he gets remanded to the Folly?”

“What do you think? It still might happen. But under the circumstances - at least in regular police custody he’s got half a chance.”

“Imagine that as a tabloid cover.” I chuckled, but it wasn’t happy, really. “There was nothing in the papers, this morning. Or the radio, or anything else - and it was all in the middle of Soho, plenty of people must have noticed something going on.”

“There won’t be. But that’s not the important thing - not right now. The important thing is that if the Folly want to pretend this never happened, they’re going to have a damn hard time of it - Lewis has a paper trail, a prisoner, records, evidence, and he’s conducted the investigation to date under the auspices of the Met.”

“It won’t change anything with them, though, will it?” The coffee was doing nothing for me but putting me in that hazy altered-reality state you get when you combine lack of sleep and stimulants. “It’s going to be an isolated incident, one bad egg, nothing to see here. Even if it actually comes to arrests, or a trial - can it even come to trial, if they find Sutton? How do you confine a wizard? I know I could think of a dozen ways to break out of prison just knowing what I know. Someone fully-trained -”

“That’s always been the problem,” Thomas said, cradling his coffee mug like it was a lifeline. “There’s really only one serious punishment available, and technically the death penalty was abolished a while ago.”

“You said they executed people in the seventies,” I reminded him. “I think I get why they aren’t bothered about making people like Sutton’s chimera disappear - they don’t think they are people. But their own, I would have thought they’d choke on that, legal or not.”

“The Folly doesn’t consider itself outside the law, precisely, but it can be difficult to tell the difference. On that occasion, however...there was also an element of pour encourager les autres about that particular decision.”

“Will they execute Sutton, if they catch him?”

“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “Probably. If they catch him. If they actually want to catch him. If they’re smart, they’ll just offer him to the Rivers and wash their hands of the consequences. It would go a long way towards assuaging their anger. On the other, it makes them accountable in a way they refuse to accept they can be. So they won’t.”

I slouched back, sinking down into the couch and stretching out my legs; it had followed Jaget around several flats and we should probably think about replacing it one of these days. “It can’t go on like this. The Folly. Everyone thinks they’re this quaint institution, sort of harmless, and I’m not saying there’s not some call for regulating magic - it’s scary stuff - but they’ve staked out their territory and they defend it like it’s the only thing they’ve got left, and damn the consequences for everyone else. What are they even good for?”

“As they currently are? I don’t know.” Thomas sighed. “And before you ask, there was no mention of you or Sahra - or anyone else’s presence, although doubtless Beverley is being called to account by her mother. I wondered, you know, when Lewis figured you out, and then told us about Sahra...if it would be possible...”

“If what would be possible?”

“To...regularise your situation a little,” and I realised he’d seriously considered telling the Folly about me, making me - official? Somehow? I didn’t know how I felt about that.

“I’m guessing not, though,” I said.

He smiled wryly. “They’re looking for targets right now and you’d be ever so much more tempting than one of their own. As would I, under the circumstances. I’d be surprised if they don’t consider my possible complicity at least once or twice more, even now. So no. I...didn’t think that through, when I offered to teach you; I suppose I thought hazily that they’d have to accept your existence, if it ever came up. After last night, after how they reacted...I didn’t think. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I said, though maybe he could have spent a bit more time thinking about it - now I really understood how much influence the Folly had. “I would have said yes anyway. Besides - what do I need the Folly for? I’ve got you, and now I can talk magic to Sahra as well, and Varvara whenever she gets back to town, and Abdul’s always happy to speculate about the science bits, and then there’s the whole demi-monde and besides it’s not my job - so what do I need the Folly for, anyway?”

“Hmmmm,” said Thomas, like I’d said something actually profound, instead of babbling. “Well - you’d like the library.”

“Okay, fine,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Now you’ve made them all suspicious, you might as well go back and start using their library anyway. If there’s any books left there. Judging by how many you’ve nicked -” another yawn intruded “- they’re probably all dispersed to everyone’s homes by now, anyway.”

“I didn’t nick anything,” Thomas said, but he was yawning too - they’re contagious, did you know? There was a study. “I borrowed them. Or David did. And I’ll return them. Eventually.”

I chuckled, because he did sound indignant, and then got distracted by the dust-motes dancing in the afternoon sun, streaming in the kitchenette window, and I don’t remember anything else until I woke up, what must have been an hour or more later - the sunlight was gone from the window. I was still in much the same position I’d been on the couch; the main difference was that Thomas was soundly asleep on my shoulder, clutching my left arm. It was the most relaxed and vulnerable I’d ever seen him look. It was the closest we’d ever been, physically. I wanted very badly to kiss him awake, but those weren’t the terms of our relationship right now; although, after everything that’d just happened, I’d never wanted to change that more.

Then I heard someone at the door, probably Jaget, and was caught between needing to wake him up right this second or face ceaseless mocking from my flatmate forever and the aforementioned other wanting. Luckily Thomas solved my dilemma for me by waking up; he sat straight up, suddenly alert, letting go of my arm, and by the time Jaget had the door open we were both on our feet.

“Peter, you’re home already? Oh - hi, Thomas,” said Jaget, hooking his bag off his shoulder and getting to work on his coat - it was a little damp, it must have started raining.

“Hello,” Thomas said, somehow managing to sound casual.

“We were just on our way out,” I said, and hustled Thomas out of there before Jaget could ask any awkward questions, like why I was home early.

“Where are we going?” Thomas wanted to know, once we were in the corridor.

“I...have no idea,” I said; I was still a bit sleep-blurred, in that way you get when you’re sleep-deprived and you let yourself nap in the mid-afternoon. I had a thought, and checked my phone; there were messages from everyone - Beverley, Lesley, Sahra, even Molly wanting to know what was going on.

“Why is Molly texting me?” I asked Thomas.

“Because I didn’t respond, I expect,” he said; he had his own phone in hand. “I should go and let Toby back into the flat, at least; I put him out just before I came up and if I’m very lucky he hasn’t dug under the fence and got to Miriam and Rebecca’s chickens yet.”

“Now that’s something to be scared of,” I said. The last message on my phone was from Lesley, ten minutes ago, and just said come over when you wake up. I wondered what her work had been like today.Lesley wants us to go over. You should come when you’ve checked on Toby.” 

It was just Lesley, when I knocked on her door; she said Beverley had been called on the carpet by her mum and wasn’t back yet. “She’s going to be in a mood, you can bet.”

I snagged a chair at their table; if I took a spot on the couch I might just doze off again. “Probably reasonably.”

Lesley wanted to know what had happened after we’d gone, but before I could get started Thomas did show up - I’d wondered - with Molly in tow.

“She wanted to know what happened and I’d rather not tell the same story to everybody individually,” said Thomas. “If you don’t mind.”

“Oh, no, come in, both of you,” Lesley said; she seemed happier to see Molly than Thomas, frankly, although I knew she’d texted him as well. Beverley arrived home five minutes later, in as much of a mood as Lesley had predicted.

“Please tell me the Folly doesn’t know I was there,” was the first thing she said to Thomas. “That’ll be the last straw with Mum. She’ll make me go upriver again forever.”

To the best of my knowledge, they were sufficiently distracted by everything else,” he told her. “I really wouldn’t worry.”

Beverley collapsed on the couch with a dramatic sigh. “Oh, good. So what exactly happened after -”

There was a knock on the door; it was Sahra. “Oh, you’re all here. Good. I got sent home to sleep, but I wanted to check on you lot first.”

She smiled uncertainly at Molly, who smiled back - close-mouthed. I’d only seen Molly smile with teeth once and it was pretty fixed in my memory.

“Has someone checked on Stephen?” Sahra wanted to know. “Is he alright?”

“Zach looked in on him while we were at work or getting yelled at by our parents,” Lesley said. “He’s fine. He was asleep.”

“Does that mean Zach, like, broke into his place and watched him sleep?” Beverley asked dubiously. I did wonder what it must be like, sharing a flat with someone who was dating Zach - his sense of property boundaries did seem to be a bit porous.

Lesley screwed up her face. “Yes, but not like that, oh my god, Bev.”

“So like that, basically,” Beverley concluded. Lesley chucked a rolled-up chocolate bar wrapper she’d been toying with at her. “Ow. But he’s okay? He looked pretty knackered. Not to mention - whatever else happened to him. He wasn’t really talking much.”

“He’s okay,” Lesley said. “He never really talks much.”

“I’ll go knock on his door in a bit, just let him know we’re checking in,” Sahra said. “We owe him one. We really, really owe him one.”

None of us wanted to be by ourselves right now, or with people who didn’t know what had happened. We talked it over, in short sentences and limited descriptors; Thomas and Lesley really didn’t want to talk about whatever had been on the first level, and I...didn’t really want to know.

“Lewis wouldn’t let me go in there,” Sahra said. “Flat-out ordered me not to.”

“There are things in this world,” Thomas said, slowly, “that you can’t learn anything from - anything worth knowing. He was saving you nightmares, that’s all. It was kind.”

“I’m police,” Sahra said, with a direct look. “Kind isn’t in the job description, last I checked.”

“Nevertheless,” said Thomas, “it’s worth something.”

We didn’t want to talk about it anymore, or at least I didn’t, but I wasn’t really ready to go home and face Jaget, pretend to be normal, quite yet; I wondered what he thought. I’d deal with it later. So we just sort of stayed - the conversation, or conversations, drifting on to other things, less terrifying ones; like Beverley’s stories about the year she’d spent living in the rural Thames Valley, aged fifteen, learning to use a shotgun and poach rabbits with snares and the details of the local ecology. That fascinated Thomas - all that botany, I suppose. Lesley and Sahra were obviously bonding over work stories, the weirdness of being in a unit that was part of the Met but not quite in it - it was like being the tax collectors, Sahra said at one point, everyone knew they were necessary but nobody wanted them to show up.

“But at least with you I don’t have to get creative with reasons for things,” she said to Lesley. “Like how I know something’s magical.”

I was surprised how much Molly could contribute to a conversation without actually speaking - I knew how expressive she could be with a look. I wondered if she couldn’t talk, or just wouldn’t. I’d always assumed it was the first, but - assuming things; I needed to stop doing that.

At some point it was generally agreed we needed to eat something, and pizza got ordered. At a suggestion from Molly, or so it looked like - Beverley seemed to know her a lot better than I’d realised - the evening news was put on. There were a lot of depressing things, including some warnings about unexpected potential flooding in the Thames estuary - everyone except Sahra looked at Beverley, who just shrugged and said it wasn’t anything to do with her.

How often is flooding to do with...” Sahra trailed off.

“Local geniuses?” said Beverley, lips twitching when this made Thomas sigh minutely. “Depends.”

“On?”

“Lots of things.”

Either way, it was a reminder that the world was still spinning much the way it always had. And that was surprisingly comforting, at the same time as it was totally bewildering.

“I just don’t understand the point of this,” Thomas said at one point. “These programmes are so uninformative compared to the newspaper. Or even radio.”

Molly rolled her eyes. Eating was putting her pointy teeth on full display, but she was a guest here and it wasn’t my flat, so I was doing my best not to notice it - although it was difficult when she licked some sauce off her lip with a disturbingly prehensile tongue. Sahra was giving her some serious side-eye, but Molly just looked straight at her; she gave up, and ducked her head.

“Sorry, I was staring, I know.”

Molly flicked a hand, as if to say you’re not the first.

“I can’t believe how much I missed,” Sahra said. “Three years I’ve been here, and I’d been learning magic for two when I moved in - and all of you were right under my nose.”

You were under our nose, too,” said Lesley.

“How often does that happen?” Sahra wondered. “People have magic, and just pass each other by.”

“All the time,” Beverley said. “There’s no secret handshake - well, not really. But you meet people, at the market, you know, and around. We stick together, we have to. Effra and Fleet say it used to be different, back before - before Mum came to the Thames, even. People didn’t know each other as much. And then...”

“You know, Peter,” Thomas said, “You were asking me what the Folly was even for. Pointing the demi-monde in one direction isn’t a small achievement.”

“You say that like they did it on purpose,” Lesley snorted.

“I could make some really unflattering comparisons,” I said, “but I won’t. And Lesley’s right. They hardly did it on purpose.”

“And yet,” said Thomas. “Here we all are.”

“It’s nice to know,” Sahra said. “That there’s more to magic than my boss and his extremely annoying non-police colleagues.”

“Are they really all that bad?” I had to ask. I knew what Thomas thought, of course, but -

Molly wrinkled her nose, and nodded. Beverley just gave me a look like why was I even asking? But Sahra did think about the answer.

“No,” she said finally. “But even the ones who aren’t - even Lewis - they say they don’t like it and so on and whatever but do they ever do anything about it? No. Even with me - I mean, he’s trying, but what are the odds I’ll ever get to be a wizard officially, no matter how good I am?”

“Well,” said Beverley, “you know where to find the rest of us.”

“Yes,” said Sahra. “Now I do.”

*

Against all my expectations, nothing very exciting happened over the next two weeks. Beverley didn’t get sent upstream, after all, and she impressed her mother - and several of her older sisters, to hear her tell it - by helping Stephen to get back in touch with the rest of the Quiet People. He wasn’t moving back to the tunnels - said he liked the rest of London a bit too much for that, and besides Lesley said he’d started dating someone who definitely wasn’t a Quiet Person, and there was no chance she’d want to move down there. But finding out what had probably happened to the ones who’d gone missing had helped.

Not that they’d been found - bodies or...anything else. I didn’t ask, but Lesley did, and she told me. But apparently Sutton had told Stephen he was the first Quiet Person - not that Sutton had used that term, and I didn’t ask what he had said, either - that he’d caught alive. Which sounded just charming, didn’t it? But we’d gotten him out in time. That was what counted. From everything anyone could tell, the whole underground lair thing had been a laboratory site, essentially; Sutton had been warned by Robert Weil, after all, who was in the Folly’s custody, and I wondered what was happening to him, exactly. I didn’t ask about that, either. Sutton had only been a few minutes ahead of us, after all, and probably if I hadn’t stopped by that open door he would have just walked down the stairs and out his back exit before anyone else had gotten that far down, having sent his chimera to delay us. That must have taken nerves of steel.

Tiger Boy - the chimera - had a name, I did find out, which was Jake, incredibly mundanely. But no surname, and he wasn’t talking about where he was from or who he’d been, before. Everyone was agreed there had to have been a before, particularly Abdul Walid. I wondered if Sutton had wanted to make a chimera just for fun or practice or whether there’d been an actual point to it. Thomas had muttered something about Soho and refused to speculate further on that point. Well - he’d said a club in Soho, I thought I remembered, and I wondered if it were as boring as creepy but imaginable sexual deviancy on someone’s part. That seemed almost too obvious, though.

The Folly was beginning to thrash its way through an investigation. Thomas had followed up his intervention that night in Soho by appearing at the Folly itself - allegedly to use the library, as I’d suggested, and he even brought me back some reading. I heard from Lesley that Lewis had said that alone had created upheaval, as people tried to figure out what he was doing. I wondered if any of them would even guess at the truth. The upside was that he was asked, a week later, to consult with the investigation into Sutton, having been involved with events forty years prior. Whatever they thought of him, the current leaders of the Folly had all been too junior then to know everything that had happened. It was an excuse to check into him, too, but I wasn’t worried so much about that. There wasn’t anything for them to find, unless they wanted to. And that was a different sort of problem altogether.

Lewis did something else, too - and I wondered if Sahra had said to him what she’d said to us, that evening at Beverley’s, about him actually needing to do something, something apart from having Sahra as an apprentice. He introduced Thomas and me, very, very quietly, to the only other wizard in London who didn’t work for the Folly directly. Or who wore two hats, to be more specific. Linda Dance was a researcher at Imperial College. And, unlike all the other Folly practitioners I’d heard about to date, she was a she; a plump woman in her forties with a little grey in her ashy blonde hair that she didn’t bother to dye out and a very intense manner. Apparently she and Lewis had been in the same year at Oxford. You’d have to be intense, I thought, to be one of the first women accepted into training at the Folly; not the first, she explained, that had been a few years before her, but in the first ten.

She’d gone and done a PhD in physics once she’d finished her magical training, and was about as impressed as I was with the Folly’s current attitude to experimental magic - which wasn’t going to get any better, with what Sutton had done. We talked over Skygarden, and what Erik Stromberg might have been doing with magic and architecture - Lewis was getting her to help with the remnants they were recovering from the site, and she was interested in my opinion. Then the conversation segued into the whole unit problem I’d talked about with Abdul once, and before very long she was telling me that I shouldn’t hesitate to bother her with any other questions I had about magic that Thomas couldn’t answer, or that he didn’t see the point of - which did happen now and again.

“He’ll find that a relief,” I said. “Theoretical speculation isn’t really his first instinct. Especially the sort of questions that don’t really have answers.”

“Oh, but those are the best ones,” said Dr Dance, her eyes lighting up. “They help you ask the right questions.”

She’d also promised to give Lewis a hand in teaching Sahra, and said she’d be happy to with me, as well.

“I don’t know how far I’m really going to go with this,” I told her, though I wasn’t planning on stopping any time soon. I wasn’t sure if I would, or could, ever - Thomas had said back at the beginning he didn’t mean to train me to mastery, but I was beginning to get the feeling the gameboard had shifted too much for that. Still. It was early days, even now.

“Oh, that’s fair,” she said. “But it’s a hell of a job, teaching someone by yourself - and even Thomas Nightingale doesn’t know everything about magic.”

“He’s never claimed to,” I told her.

Thomas liked this idea very much, once he’d met her - even if our mutual enthusiasm for science made him shake his head a little. I did wonder if perhaps he liked the idea of me not being reliant entirely on him for the whole magic thing - if it made him feel less constrained about...other options. In fact, he liked her so much he offered to let her look at David’s notes, which put her in full fangirl mode for a good ten minutes.

“You can’t find this suspicious,” I pointed out to him, “she’s a physicist and a wizard.”

“It’d be a bit more suspicious if she wasn’t interested, actually,” Thomas said out of the side of his mouth as we waited for her to run out of steam. But he was smiling.

*

Three weeks after that terrifying night in Soho, on the spring equinox, they held the Court of the Thames. I first heard about it from Beverley, who said I should go.

“What the fuck’s a court of the Thames?” I asked her.

“It’s a thing mum and the Old Man do,” she told me. “You know, get together, have their retainers pay their respects, that sort of thing. It sort of doubles as a big party - all sorts of people show up. This is the first time it’s been in London for...a while. Big deal for the likes of us. The Nightingale’ll be there. You’re his apprentice, you should be too.”

“What about the Folly?”

Beverley shook her head. “Nah. Not their scene. They’ll send someone to say hi, sort of thing, but they’ll come and go before you even spot them. It makes them uncomfortable. So you’ll come? Mickey’s band is going to be playing, it’ll be good.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, because you know me and my inability to stay away from jazz gigs. I know he’s good and all, Bev, but really.”

She elbowed me. “Don’t be such a sad-sack.”

“I should see whether Thomas thinks it’s a good idea - since I’m trying to keep a low profile right now. But yeah, tentatively, I’ll be there.”

I didn’t get the chance to ask Thomas, though, because he brought it up first. We’d gone down to the pub, just the two of us - not for any particular reason. Or in any particular way. I knew, now, I was going to have to figure out how to ask him out sometime soon. But I hadn’t managed it quite yet; unless he counted “I’m going down the pub, want to come along?” as being asked out, which I didn’t, personally, but I supposed if I got a goodnight kiss then I’d know he did. I certainly wasn’t going to object in that instance.

“There’s an - event, next weekend,” he told me. “The Court of the Thames. It hasn’t been held in London since the mid-nineteenth century.”

“Bev told me about it,” I said. “She seems very keen for me to go. Said you would be.”

“I will,” Thomas acknowledged. “And I was hoping you’d come.”

“Right. An...apprentice thing, Bev said.”

“That too, I suppose. I suspect Mama Thames and the Old Man will want to lay eyes on you, after everything that’s happened recently.” He hesitated. “But that...wasn’t quite what I meant.”

I knew what I wanted him to mean. “Just for my peace of mind - would you mind being a bit more specific?”

“I was hoping you’d come with me?” said Thomas, veering upwards into a question at the last second. But he looked me right in the eye when he said it.

“Um,” I said. “Yeah. Okay. Sure.”

“Right,” said Thomas, looking down at the table again. I could see him smiling, though, a quiet thing, not nearly as stupid as the one I was wearing.

“Great,” I said, and we were about that articulate for the next half-hour.

We walked back to the flats together, and in the main entrance I finally asked the question that’d been on my mind. “Why’d you ask now?”

Thomas didn’t do me the discourtesy of pretending he didn’t know what I meant. “I suppose...” He stuck his hands in his coat pockets, and thought about it. “It’s always been a bit of a vexed question, going out with anyone, to use the modern vernacular - in the last decade or so. For a long time before that I just wasn’t interested. But between whatever’s going on with me, and the Folly, and - I couldn’t conceive of explaining all that to someone. And then you were in deep enough trouble already, even if it did seem as though you might have - an interest.”

“And now you figure you can’t guarantee my safety either way, so why not?”

“Well,” said Thomas. “I stopped remembering why not, and just thought about why. If you were still interested, of course.”

“Positive thinking,” I said. “I like it.” I stepped up close, and hesitated - just long enough so he could read my intentions. When he smiled, I figured that was good enough, and kissed him.

It wasn’t the best first kiss I’ve ever had, if I’m going to be perfectly truthful, but that was less down to Thomas and me and more down to the sudden cold feeling down my spine that usually meant Molly was lurking somewhere; I pulled back with a start as she glided past us. Well - we were standing in a public space. But still. She could have lurked less obviously.

“Ah,” Thomas said. “Molly. Good evening.”

Molly didn’t say anything, of course, but with a smirk like that, she didn’t need to.

“Okay,” I said. “Right. Court of the Thames. Saturday, isn’t it?”

“Saturday,” Thomas confirmed, and the rest of that week went very, very slowly indeed.

Beverley was wrong about the Folly not showing up that Saturday, though, or not quite right. I spotted a couple of wizards going off to pay their respects - not through any supernatural practitioner-sensing abilities, just because they were the white guys in tailored suits looking deeply uncomfortable with their lot in life - and hung tactfully out of their line of sight, although Lesley snorted and told me all I had to do was hang on Thomas’s arm and play the Slightly Ethnic Younger Boyfriend for all I was worth.

“Shouldn’t be too hard,” she added, smirking at me.

“Yeah, because that’ll be totally not suspicious,” I said, scowling at her. She didn’t actually know that this was a...date-like activity...and I wasn’t about to tell her after that jab.

The wizards absented themselves pretty quickly, though, and Bev dragged me up along with Thomas to pay our respects to the King and Queen of the River. Mama Thames was just what I’d have expected from Beverley’s mother, a cat-eyed Nigerian matron whose glamour could knock you over or give you an erection at fifty paces, and Father Thames was a straw-haired old man with a cunning look. I suspected all the travelling show people about were associated with him. They gave me a once-over and murmured some niceties, but the real stare I got was from Lady Ty, standing at Mama Thames’ right hand. She certainly hadn’t forgotten who I was - and I don’t think she liked me any more as the Nightingale’s apprentice than she had as Beverley’s next-door neighbour-slash-potential boyfriend, either. I mean, she smiled politely at me. But it was a very specific sort of smile.

“Did I ever mention Lady Ty isn’t that keen on me?” I asked Thomas as we made our escape, er, exit. “I hope she hasn’t changed her mind about not mentioning me to you-know-who.”

“Quite,” Thomas murmured back. “But her - arrangement with the Folly is one of convenience, not alliance. Since Skygarden - I don’t think she thinks that’s in her interest. And I’m sure she’s aware of how much Beverley would dislike it.”

I snorted. “I wouldn’t count on that too much.”

He shrugged. “These arrangements and understandings are the blood and breath of this world, as you are doubtless learning.”

Was I ever. I wondered how Lesley - straight-arrow, the-rules-are-the-rules Lesley - had ever gotten mixed up in it like she had.

The real surprise about Lesley, though, came when we made our way back to where some tables and chairs were set up. We’d stopped to get a beer on the way - oatmeal stout for Thomas, a pilsner for me. I spotted Lesley first, with Sahra - well, she was an apprentice too, wasn’t she, so not such a shock. Beverley had gone off to check on Mickey and the band, I presumed. What was a surprise was the presence of Sahra’s boss, complete with husband and children - one in a stroller, one old enough to run around and cause trouble.

“Hello, Richard,” Thomas said easily, displaying no surprise. He’d known about this, the bastard. And first-name terms, that was new. Apparently he’d warmed up to Lewis a bit after all.

“’Lo,” I said as well. “Fancy seeing you here - your official delegation’s been and gone.”

“Oh, this isn’t official,” Lewis said. “Philip and I just thought it’d be nice to get the girls out of the house.” Thomas and I got introduced to his husband, Philip - American and Filipino, I was surprised to discover - and their two kids. Biological or adopted, I wasn’t sure; neither resembled either parent obviously, but they weren’t obviously not genetically related, either.

I wondered how much Philip knew about his husband’s job - his real job, but that question was quickly answered when he said, in his flat accent, “So, Thomas Nightingale. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Not all of it terrible, I do hope,” Thomas said.

“Mostly not,” Philip said. “Been hard to get Richard to shut up about it, to be honest.” He gave Lewis a teasing look, and Lewis rolled his eyes in the approved my-spouse-is-mocking-me manner.

“Hey, Peter,” said Sahra. “Been introduced to the Thames, then?”

“Both of them,” I said. “And Lady Ty gave me such a look. I’m going to be feeling between my shoulderblades for weeks.”

Sahra’s mouth twisted in wry agreement; she had what looked like orange juice, the only person at the table over the age of six not holding a beer. “She gives me the shivers, too. Anyway, you’ve got to tell Lesley congratulations.”

“What’s the occasion?” inquired Thomas, but he had a look that told me he had a pretty good idea what.

“I just signed my life away,” Lesley grumbled, “to DCI Lewis here. I’m not sure if I should be congratulated or locked away, to be honest.”

“You have a new apprentice?” Thomas asked Lewis, sounding approving.

“That’s right,” Lewis said. “Sahra’s getting along well enough, and now I’ve roped in Linda - and maybe a couple of others, maybe...there’s enough hours in the day to make it work.”

“Congratulations,” I told Lesley, lifting my plastic pint glass to tap it to hers. “I don’t know whether you should be locked up either, but congratulations all the same.”

Lesley gave me a dirty look, but she was pleased, I could tell. I think she’d been getting grumpy about being the only person in her immediate social circle without magic powers. Well, I would have been, if it was me.

“Hmmm,” said Thomas. “Have you, now? Who else, aside from Dr Dance?”

Lewis rattled off some names I didn’t recognise, two of them definitely female and one Indian (or possibly Pakistani, I wasn’t sure.) I was getting a feeling for the kind of people who weren’t happy with the way the Folly was currently being run. Apart from, you know, the whole evil magician lurking in their midst and committing acts of terrorism.

“Hmmm,” Thomas said again, and he looked very thoughtful. “You know, Richard, that sounds more like a faction than a...couple of people.”

“Mmmm, does it?” said Lewis. His elder kid was begging Philip to be allowed to go off and look at something; Philip got up to take her there, leaving the stroller and the sleeping younger girl with Lewis. He rocked it absently. “Is that a problem?”

“I don’t know,” Thomas replied. Sahra and Lesley were both looking at him, hard-eyed - no question whose side they were on. Or whose side I was on, I supposed. “It sounds - a little bit organised.”

“Look,” Lewis said, “some total bastard is trying to f-” He glanced down at the stroller. “Trying to screw up this city, and to screw with a whole lot of people - these people - the ones around us right now - and the call is coming from inside the building. You want to bet Sutton doesn’t have a faction? Doesn’t have men who knew what he was about, and never said anything? Suspected, and never said anything? Who’ll disbelieve the whole thing, because he’s the right sort of person? Because I don’t.”

“No,” said Thomas. “It’s not a bet I’d take. But they’re forewarned, of course - so you’ll have the devil of a time finding them.” 

“The question is,” said Lewis, still looking at Thomas, “are you in or out?”

“And what a ridiculous question it is,” Thomas said. “We brought this to your attention in the first place.”

I wanted to point out that it was me who’d done that, thank you very much, but it was probably better to let that one slide.

“To new apprentices and better ways of doing things,” said Lewis, and all five of us - me, Thomas, Lewis, Lesley, and Sahra - touched our plastic cups together in a toast. It should have felt silly but it didn’t.

Arrangements and understandings are the blood and breath of this world, Thomas had said not ten minutes ago, and he was more right than even he knew.

“I’ve had word from Varvara, by the way,” Thomas said once we’d all drunk. “She says Paris has been lovely but she’s thinking of returning to London. Perhaps in the summer.”

This gave Lewis a slightly constipated look. I got the impression that however the Folly felt about Thomas Nightingale that went triple or perhaps quadruple for Varvara Tamonina. “Is that supposed to be good news?”

“Who’s Varvara?” asked Sahra and Lesley at the same time.

“Like if Baba Yaga had aged backwards to forty and spent a lot of time during World War II fighting German werewolves,” I told them. “You’ll like her.”

“Actual werewolves?” they said, again in chorus.

“We never did work that out,” Thomas mused. He shot me a sideways look. “And I wouldn’t let Varvara hear you describing her like that.”

“I’m not that sort of idiot,” I said. To Lewis and Sahra - “Have you two gone and paid your respects yet?”

“Not yet,” Lewis said.

“You should,” Thomas said. “If you mean to go on as you’ve started.”

“Why are there two of them, anyway?” Sahra wanted to know. “Seems a bit complicated. They married, or what? Is he Beverley’s dad?”

Thomas laughed outright. “Good god, no. No - Father Thames was the spirit of the entire river, for...well, exactly how long I don’t know...more than a thousand years, at least. He retreated upriver in the mid-nineteenth century, after Tyburn and Fleet and Effra were lost -”

“Tyburn and Fleet and Effra used to have other...spirits?” I broke in.

“Father Thames’ sons, yes. They died. Mama Thames took over a vacant position, as she tells it, sometime in the sixties - and her daughters are the rivers of London, now, Beverley and all her sisters.”

“The Old Man didn’t like that, though, did he?” Lewis said. “I remember when I was at Oxford - some of the masters talked about it. They were hopeful that Mama Thames and her daughters might be...replaced. Or at least brought under the Old Man’s authority. That was the way it was put.”

I was deeply sceptical that this had ever been a possibility, and the expression on Lesley’s face said the same thing; I wondered if she’d heard that story before.

Was it?” Thomas’s expression said he was deeply sceptical of this, too. “How over-optimistic of them. Well, I was...not paying a lot of attention to the politics of the demi-monde at the time, I must admit, but there was a great deal of antagonism. I’d think you’d know a little more about this, Richard - you must have been at Oxford at the same time as Tyburn.”

“I was, but I don’t think we met,” Lewis said. “She didn’t socialise with any of the Little Crocodiles, exactly - I mean, we knew who she was, of course...”

“Little Crocodiles?” Lesley wanted to know.

“Just a nickname.” Lewis shrugged. “For all the Folly trainees, at Oxford.”

“Bit of a weird one,” said Sahra.

“Like, from Alice in Wonderland?” Lesley wanted to know. “How doth the little crocodile, etcetera? Weird, alright. What was it supposed to mean?”

“I...don’t really know.” Lewis was frowning. “It was...Professor Wheatcroft who came up with it, I believe. Quite a while back - maybe when the first class came through, in the fifties. Or not all of them; I’m not sure. I know it’s not a nickname the older members use, but some of them...I’m not sure when it started.”

“Wheatcroft.” Thomas’s eyes narrowed. “Geoffrey Wheatcroft.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Lewis agreed. “He died - oh, it must be going on a decade ago. I suppose he was one of your generation, wasn’t he?”

“Not by two decades or so. But I knew him - knew of him, at any rate.” Thomas paused, then shook his head. “Anyway - you wanted to know about the Rivers. Well, if the Folly wanted to deal with antagonism, they certainly succeeded, one way or another; what the proximate cause was I’ve never been sure, but they came to an agreement about ten years ago - or, no, closer to twenty, now. Mama Thames reigns unchallenged below Teddington Lock, in the tideway, and Father Thames above it. I believe whoever the Folly had negotiating may have been a bit...overemphatic, about how they wanted things to be arranged. Alliances are one thing; being told what to do - now that’s never been the arrangement, and neither of them would stand for it, the Old Man or Mama Thames. They started an - exchange programme, I suppose you’d call it, with the children. Beverley went first, when she was fifteen or so, and they’ve gone back and forth - Nicky’s upstream now, I think, and I don’t know who’s down. Even Oxley and Isis spent a summer in the city, once.”

“Nicky?” asked Sahra.

“The Neckinger,” Lesley said. “I’d forgotten - well, that explains a bit. If she’d been here when Sky - her river goes right below Skygarden, you know, she and Sky were close. She’d have...she’d have. I don’t know. Just as well she was upstream.”

“They called a truce because of the Folly?” said Lewis.

“Because the Folly made them afraid,” Thomas said. “There was some talk of holding the Court here years back - but the Folly didn’t like it, and they held their peace, at the time. Now...it’s its own sort of message, all this.”

I took a look around; there were plenty of perfectly ordinary Londoners here, of course, it was a party, and not a few tourists, come to that - but plenty of not-so-ordinary Londoners, too. Some I recognised from the goblin market, some I didn’t. This was the demi-monde, saying something; saying, we’re not going away. This is our city, too.

And the Folly had come and gone grudgingly, as if they didn’t exist at all.

“I see,” said Lewis. “So - pay our respects, you say. On whose behalf?”

“The Metropolitan Police Service’s?” Sahra suggested.

“Or just your own,” said Thomas. “As practitioners. As wizards. As - part of this community.”

“Right,” said Lewis. “Right.” He looked down at his sleeping daughter. “When Philip gets back, then - I’ll do that.”

“Want me to wait for you?” Sahra wanted to know. “And Lesley, what about you?”

“Been and gone,” Lesley said. “I do live with Bev, you know. But I can pop up again with you two, if you like. In the spirit of the thing.”

Lewis agreed that might be a good idea. I wanted to know more about this Wheatcroft bloke - the one who’d made Thomas narrow his eyes.

“What is it about Geoffrey Wheatcroft that makes you suspicious?” I asked him. Everyone else looked a bit puzzled - like they hadn’t noticed; Thomas might as well have held up a sign, if you were looking for it. I’d been spending too much time with him, clearly. Well, that I knew.

“What makes you think I’m suspicious?” Thomas wanted to know.

“’Cause you were,” I said. “And?”

“He...was rather a mentor for Albert Woodville-Gentle. As I recall.”

We all digested that for a moment.

“I think Sutton was close to him, too,” Lewis said eventually. “I’m not sure - I’d have to ask some of his class. But - I think so.”

“An obvious link, I would have thought,” Thomas said. “Though he was exonerated at the time. Not even asked to break his staff.”

“He mentored a lot of people,” Lewis said, quietly. “He didn’t run the Oxford programme - but near enough.”

“Well, then. There’s a lot of work to do.” Thomas sipped at his beer. “Best get started.”

“And it starts by paying my respects to the god and goddess of the Thames?”

“Yes,” said Thomas. “I rather think it does.”

*

The rest of the evening involved a lot more enjoying ourselves and a lot less talking shop, I’m pleased to report - even some dancing, during the odd set that we could agree on. I know good jazz when I hear it, after all, even if it’s not my favourite thing. We got home about midnight, neither of us drunk to speak of. Thomas was driving, anyway - he had a real distaste for my Ford Asbo and I honestly couldn’t blame him.

Lesley had hitched a ride with us - Bev was sticking with Mickey - and went straight on up; she looked done in.

“That went well, I thought,” Thomas said. “I find I’m still quite awake.”

“Me too,” I said, and he asked if I’d be interested in coffee, and I said yes, because I’m not an idiot, and also because I was still well awake and really not sure whether he meant coffee or, you know, coffee.

“So,” said Thomas once we were in his flat. “Er. Coffee?”

“Yes,” I said, too fast, and then - “Um. Either.”

And then we just sort of stared at each other, a bit helplessly, because when you’ve been not doing something for as long as we had it’s difficult to know where to start. If we were - or maybe he did just mean coffee -

“Either?” Thomas said, cautiously.

I put on my most serious face. “Thomas, I don’t know if you know about this, since you only found out about the joys of television last year, but there’s this convention where if you ask someone -”

He was starting to smile, and I was interrupted briefly when he put a hand on my shoulder, but I did want to finish my train of thought. “-ask someone in for coffee, after you’ve been out, it doesn’t mean coffee, it means -”

Then I was interrupted properly when he pulled me in and kissed me, properly, arm around my waist and everything, nothing tentative about it. I’d been right, when I’d wondered all those months ago; I did get a flash of his own personal vestigium again, with this much body-to-body contact, but it was much less strong than all the other sensations of kissing, the myriad distractions of having my arms around him and vice-versa. All those months ago, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all. Not that I was paying much attention now.

We were both smiling when we broke away.

“Peter, I hate to tell you this,” he informed me, his eyes dancing, “but that particular convention somewhat predates the television.”

“I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page,” I said.

“Well, quite,” he agreed, and it sounded so charming I kissed him again.

Things proceeded nicely from there, because, like I said - I didn’t know about him, but I’d been thinking about this for a while. Especially the last few days. And Thomas kissed me like he had, too; intent and maybe a little possessive. We probably would have done terrible things to his sofa if Toby hadn’t woken up, in his basket in the corner, and we’d migrated to the bedroom out of self-protection.

“I do want it to be clear this wasn’t necessarily my intention,” Thomas said at one point, when we’d gotten to the stage of clothing coming off.

“You liar,” I said. “This was totally your intention. You asked me in for coffee at quarter past midnight.”

“Fine, guilty as charged. But in my defence, you weren’t precisely fighting me off with a stick.”

“I’ve got you right where I want you,” I said, grinning, and started making headway on his shirt buttons. It was a bit difficult with Thomas kissing along my jawline, not to mention what he was up to with his hands, but I had motivation to persevere.

A little later, well into the witching hour, we were lying curled up together in his bed. I wasn’t sleepy, quite yet, just lazy and content. Thomas, who was proving to be surprisingly cuddly in the post-coital state, was draped over me, tracing abstract patterns into my shoulder with a finger.

“You know, when you offered to teach me, way back,” I said, thinking aloud, “I thought pretty hard about saying no and asking you out to dinner instead.”

“Really?” He sounded genuinely surprised.

I let myself card my fingers through his hair, still a little damp with sweat - we’d gotten more athletic than I’d expected - because I could, and because I wanted to. “I figured it was one or the other.”

“It probably should have been,” he admitted. “Or perhaps I feel like it should have been.”

“Well, good thing we took a third option. I like those.” 

“This isn’t going to help our case with the Folly, long-term. I do hope you’re aware.”

Nothing is going to help our case with the Folly, so why bother trying to meet some unattainable standard to make them happy? All that gets us is a lot of sexual frustration.”

“Oh, I know.” Thomas smiled against my shoulder. “That wasn’t a suggestion we don’t. Just an observation.”

“Besides,” I added, “it’s not like they’re not going to assume it anyway, so why not live down to their expectations? It might buy us a bit of time, if you’re going to be talking to them again. I’m just your handsome architect boyfriend, nothing to see here. Christ - Sutton thought I was Bev’s boyfriend, like she’d be dragging Mickey into what we were doing. I hope she’s given him fair warning about what he’s in for.”

Of course as soon as I said it I realised that boyfriend might be going a bit far when we’d only just managed to make it into bed, but Thomas only laughed. “I can just imagine their faces. But point taken.”

“Do you think it’s going to do any good? You speaking with them again? Really?”

“No,” he said, after a moment. “Not really. But I didn’t realise quite how - at least I might intimidate a few of them into thinking twice about things. We’ll see how long that lasts. And...it’s a counter-measure, more than anything else. Lewis and his friends, you, Sahra, Lesley, Abigail at Oxford; that’s the future. Not them. The trick is making sure they don’t notice that until it’s too late.”

That sounded ominous, but I was distracted from it by the hand tracing patterns on my shoulder slipping down my arm, onto my hip. Thomas levered himself up to brush a kiss across my mouth, then another, more serious; I twined my free leg around his, rolled my hips experimentally.

“Not tired yet?” I asked.

“Are you?”

“No,” I said, curling my fingers around his thigh, pulling his other leg a little higher. “Not yet.”

We didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. Well, what can I say - we had a full year of not shagging to make up for. 

*

I went back to my flat to shower in the morning because I needed a shave and Thomas used an honest to god cutthroat razor. I pointed out the safety models were old enough for him to have picked them up and he pointed out that they were disposable and environmentally unfriendly. I gave the several inches of razor-sharp steel the serious side-eye and absented myself, although not without a proper kiss goodbye. 

“Where were you,” said Jaget when I came in, “did you have your phone off?”

“I went back to Thomas’s after the thing yesterday, and yes, and also since when do I have to report in?” I said as I headed for the bathroom.

Thomas’s?” he spluttered, but I was already closing the door behind myself.

When I got out, he was in the kitchenette eating toast and glaring at me. “I thought you said I’d be the first to know!”

I pointed out that by virtue of the fact I hadn’t run into anyone else on the way upstairs he was, in fact, the first to know.

“Don’t pretend like this is just you two tripping and falling into bed, either,” he warned me. “It’s a thing. I’ve been watching.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “So?”

“So are you moving out or what?”

“Nah,” I said. “Bit early to be asking that, don't you think?” For the foreseeable future, anyway. I wasn’t sure how this was all going to work. Or what it meant. But I was really curious to find out.

“I don’t know, Peter,” Jaget said. “You’ve been acting a bit funny the last year anyway - is there something else going on? Apart from you and Thomas finally sorting yourselves out?”

I looked at him, and thought about secrets, and the fact that we were up against someone who really wouldn’t scruple to kill us, not to mention an entire organisation of people who were dubious on the concept of human rights, and the fact that as far as I could tell half the people in this building were magical to some degree, and Abigail at Oxford, and...well. Odds were Lewis or Sahra or whoever could use a consult from a civil engineer at some point.

“You probably won’t believe me,” I said.

“Yeah, you reckon?” Jaget leant on the kitchen bench. “Because I know it’s something to do with you, and Thomas, and that night you all went out and came back looking like you’d been in a fight with a brick factory and lost, and Lesley’s new job, and Bev, and...I just can’t figure out what the fuck it is. Unless Abigail was right and he really is a wizard. And not just in bed.” He pointed.

I clapped my hand over the bruise I hadn’t realised was on my neck, and scowled at him. “Keep on like that and I won’t tell you.” It was a total lie, of course.

“Okay, okay.” He raised his hands in defence. “I’m listening. So what is going on?”

I looked around, and calculated how far I was from anything electronic. I was near the bathroom door, so it should be okay, actually, if I was quick.

“So this is what’s going on, or part of it,” I said, and lifted my hand in front of me. “Lux.”

I only held the werelight for a second or two - all that was safe. But the expression on Jaget’s face was everything I could possibly have hoped for.

“Fuck me,” he breathed. “You can do magic.”

“You think that’s impressive,” I said, “You should see what Thomas can do, sometime.  But yeah. I can do magic. Now let me tell you why.”