Chapter 1: October, 2012
I have been waiting for a very long time to tell the truth, and to learn the truth. I have waited a lifetime. But the more of it I have experienced, the more fluid time becomes. It does not always progress in a strictly linear fashion. Sometimes it ebbs and flows, as in my own experience of ageing, and then growing younger again. Perhaps, then, I should not use 'lifetime' as a unit of measure.
Causality and order, too, are not quite so rigid as we are accustomed to think. For example: Probationary Constable Peter Grant met me for the first time when I walked up to him by the portico of the Actors' Church on a freezing winter night and said, "Hello. What are you up to?" However, I first met Detective Sergeant Peter Grant when he jogged up to my doorstep on a mild autumn afternoon and said, "There you are, sir. It is you, isn't it?"
Perhaps I should begin at the beginning. Unfortunately, I really have no idea just where that is.
Though I pretended ignorance, in truth I had some familiarity with the Harry Potter novels before I took Peter as an apprentice. Perhaps ten years earlier, when the imminent release of one of the middle books in the series caused a flurry of anticipation that occupied a significant fraction of the space and the sales clerks' attention in my favourite bookstore, I purchased and read the first two Harry Potter books. They were amusing enough but, of course, appallingly illogical. Two books were quite sufficient to understand the references that I had begun to overhear about "Muggles" and the "wizarding world." There was no need for me to waste time on more of them.
Partway through Peter's second year as my apprentice, I made my way up the iron stairs of the coach house to find him and Lesley on opposite ends of the couch with their legs tangled under a blanket in the middle. Lesley would occasionally leave her mask off in private, but she was wearing it now, perhaps to keep her face warm. The 'tech cave' did get rather chilly of an autumn evening.
Peter had muted the television as soon as I stepped in the door, and now looked at me expectantly. "Do we have a shout?"
I shook my head. "There will be some rugby on later. I thought you might show me how to find the right station."
"Of course, sir. Er. Thomas." He had not taken easily to the suggestion of using my Christian name during leisure time.
"There's plenty of time to finish watching your -" I glanced at the screen. "Oh. Harry Potter?"
"You rec'nise it?" Lesley said in surprise. Her speech was much better these days, but sometimes still slurred when she didn't prepare her words carefully.
"The actors and their costumes have been plastered in advertisements all over London for the past decade," I said. "So, which movie is this?"
"Er..." Peter did something which caused a few lines of information to appear at the top of the screen. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it said.
"Third one," Lesley said more informatively.
"We can watch something else, if you'd rather," Peter offered.
"No, no, carry on." I started to pull the chair away from the computer desk.
"Plenty of room on the couch... Thomas," said Peter, shifting around.
I thought Lesley's eyes narrowed, but Peter would not be dissuaded, so I sat on the end, warm from his body, while he moved to the middle where he could press up against Lesley with the blanket over both their laps. The couch was large enough that there was no similar excuse for proximity between Peter and me. But it was comfortable nonetheless. Peter lifted a corner of the blanket and I shook my head.
We watched the movie, which appeared to be approaching its dramatic climax. The story was more complex than the two books I had read, and a number of things happened that were more unpleasant than I thought appropriate for children's entertainment even in this modern age. Eventually there came a point where the girl revealed that she possessed a time-travel device, and she and the eponymous Harry went back in time a few hours to fix some, but not all, of the unpleasantness. After that, the plot wrapped up in short order.
"Does that work?" said Lesley. "Time travel, I mean." Her mask was, as ever, expressionless.
Peter muted the sound of the credits and turned to hear my answer.
I cleared my throat uneasily. "There's nothing about it in the literature except for speculation. No reliably recorded cases, and for the highly questionable anecdotal examples, there is no suggestion of what mechanism might have been responsible."
"So we can't just ask the Ministry for a time-turner?" Peter's voice was falsely light.
"Nothing of the sort. But I suspect, if time travel did work, it would in fact be something along these lines." I waved a hand at the screen. "No... popping back to correct some mistake and changing everything in the process. Instead you would find that you cannot change what has already happened."
"But they did change it," Peter said. "Buckbeak didn't get executed."
Lesley made an impatient noise. "Everything they witnessed turned out just the same. They were just wrong about what they thought happened."
"So... you can't change what happened, but you can change how it happened?" Peter said slowly.
"Hmm, something like that." I leaned forward, staring blankly through the scrolling words on the screen.
Peter, ever curious and distractible, continued to muse. "Then it relies on the time traveller having incomplete knowledge of the situation?"
"They thought they knew, but their knowledge was based on hidden assumptions," I said slowly. "Witnesses do tend to do that."
Lesley was evidently beginning to enjoy the debate for itself, and not only because she wished she could travel back in time and fix her own life. "All right. Suppose they had actually seen Buckbeak's dead body the first time around. You're saying they wouldn't have been able to change that, then?"
"Unless..." Peter said, "they went even further back and, like, drugged Buckbeak or trained him to play dead on command, or something like that."
"That's ridiculous, Peter, he was meant to have his head chopped off. They're not going to fake that with a drug, are they?"
"The key is, don't try to change what happens, just change the context, is all I'm saying."
Lesley scoffed. "You would think magical time travel would be good for more than just staging a play."
I stood abruptly. "I should be going."
Peter started, turning back toward me. "What about your rugby?"
"Not really teams that I care about. Thank you both for... a pleasant evening."
"Anytime, sir." He got up to see me out.
As I started down the stairs I could hear Peter musing, "So why do you think Dumbledore told them not to let their past selves see them? What would have happened?" Their voices faded away as I reached the bottom of the steps.
I suspected Lesley would make sure they returned to opposite ends of the couch. But they were enjoying their movie and their discussion well enough, so there was no need for me to get in the way.
In any case, I had some thinking of my own to do.
Chapter 2: September 1940 / January 2011 / April 2019
I carried my cup of tea out onto the steps at the front of the building so that I could study the sky under the westering sun. Low clouds had so far prevented any daylight bombings, but they were beginning to lift and, I suspected, would soon break up. Perhaps they would persist at least until dark. The moon was waning, only a few days past the full, but it wouldn't rise until late. Would the combination be enough to deter the German pilots? I hoped so, after two solid weeks of bombings, but it was far from a certainty.
Traffic was subdued along Drury Lane, and the pedestrians all had a tense, furtive hunch to their shoulders. A mother chivvied two children ahead of her, toward the base of the steps.
"But when's Daddy coming home?" the boy asked.
"Your father has to work late tonight, dearie. You know he has very important work to do."
"Why aren't we going to the shelter?" That was the girl, a few years older.
"The shelter is full. We'll be fine at home. Likely there won't be any bombs tonight. See the clouds? The planes can't see us if there are clouds. We'll be fine - now watch where you step, you're blocking the path."
A tall man was striding along to overtake the family in the same direction, breaking into a jog every few steps, which caught my attention. His suit jacket was of good quality but altered rather than bespoke, and the style was unfamiliar - not Continental, perhaps American? He hadn't bothered with a tie or hat or waistcoat. As he dodged out from behind the anxious mother I realised he was a Negro or mixed race, which seemed to strengthen the American hypothesis. His trousers were spattered with mud to the knees. He was moving along with his head up, alert and confident, and a moment later his searching eye caught sight of me.
He broke into a startling smile - his teeth were straight and white - and hurried up the steps to halt just in front of me. "There you are, sir!"
I lowered my teacup and blinked at him.
"It is you, isn't it?" His speech didn't sound American. It was clearly English and something like a London labourer's accent, but there was a cadence I couldn't quite pinpoint.
Was the man confused himself, or was he trying to confuse me? Neutrally, I said, "I am generally considered to be myself, yes."
He laughed easily. He had a half-healed cut over one eye, with a patch shaved from his eyebrow where it had recently been stitched. Below his eye was some minor discolouration, the last remnant of a fading bruise. "I came in down by Savoy Pier. Bit of a jog - as if I hadn't done enough walking already, just lately. So I thought I'd head for the Folly to find out what's going on, but since you're here I'll help with, er..." He turned to look out over the street, in the direction I was facing. "What are we doing, exactly? Are you in any trouble?"
"No, I'm just having a spot of tea," I said, considering. If he was heading to the Folly, he might be a practitioner of some sort. Could he be a Londoner who had travelled to America because no one here would train him, and then returned to help with the War effort? It still didn't quite explain the oddities of his speech, but it seemed a reasonable starting hypothesis. "Are you with the Virtuous Men?"
"Hmm?" He said absently. "No, I'm - wait, you don't know me? I figured I'm here for you. Because... well, I thought you must have brought me here."
"No," I said, "but I do work for the Folly. Inspector Thomas Nightingale." I shifted cup and saucer so I could extend a hand.
He looked at me in surprise for a moment and then smiled broadly. His grasp was firm and warm. "Detective Sergeant Peter Grant."
I paused. "You're with the Met?" Not a practitioner then, but a liaison?
"Yep. And the Folly. Although, you could just as well say I'm not from around here." He glanced up and down the street. "I suppose it doesn't really matter, does it, since this is all just a dream? Or a vision from the past or whatever."
My teacup was empty. "I think you'd better come inside and explain just what you mean."
I had not been invited to join the murder investigation, whether because the vast majority of the Met were unaware of my existence and expertise, or because no one had thought there was anything uncanny about the case. But I knew better: it requires strength in the upper range of human normal to behead someone with a sharp blade, but rumour had it this man had been beheaded with a single blow from a blunt instrument. That was unquestionably uncanny.
Even so, I had not been officially read in. So I chose a chilly night to step round to the murder scene and check for vestigia. Despite the elapsed time, I did find some traces in the area, but it was hard to tell if there was a definite connection. It was enough for me to become involved, though.
I started back to the Folly but soon found myself at a standstill, staring at an almost familiar face in the shadows near a church portico. He was younger than I recalled, which made sense, but I was nearly thrown by the shaggy hair (I did not yet know about his custom of an annual haircut, and this was well into the twelfth month since his last pruning) and the cheap serviceable clothes. His eyes were also a darker brown than I would have expected, nearly black, but I couldn't really tell that at night, or I might have turned away. As it was I was nearly driven off by the wary suspicion on his face when he saw me, so unlike the welcome I had always seen there in the past. In my past.
I stepped forward nevertheless. "Hello. What are you up to?"
His wariness increased. "I'm... ghost hunting." I could see that he was telling the truth, and also that he hoped it would deter what he thought was sexual interest in him. But I recognised his voice, unheard for decades, and the discovery that he was already aware of the uncanny only drew my attention, both personal and professional.
So he was not too young, but right on the cusp of discovering magic for himself, and ripe for teaching. I smiled as I pulled out my warrant card and saw his appalled reaction at how badly he had misread me, and what he had revealed to a superior officer.
I left Covent Garden with a spring in my step, already considering what inquiries to make about the young constable.
Three and a half days later, Peter Grant arrived at the Folly with a rucksack over his shoulder. I met him in the lobby, and he looked up at the statue of Newton, and I shivered. Then he made some short-sighted statements about Sir Isaac's capacity to found yet another branch of rational inquiry aside from those commonly known, and while I was correcting him I began to forget to be afraid.
I never did forget entirely.
I walked into the breakfast room to find Peter presiding over a selection of dirtied plates. He was still dressed from the night before, with smudges of dirt upon his trouser knees. When he turned to glance at me I saw that his left eye was swollen and plum-coloured.
My step faltered. "I thought last night's call out was merely to inspect a crime scene in Bromley?"
"It was, but then it got a bit... complicated."
I moved closer to him and caught his chin, turning his face toward the light. There were three stitches in a cut bisecting his eyebrow. I released him before my hand could start to tremble. "You've been to A&E. And no one called me."
"It's just a bit of a scratch," he said around a bite of sausage. Peter's table manners had improved after he came to the Folly, but only up to a point.
"Other injuries?" I said, assessing his posture, though it was hard to tell much while he was seated.
"Couple bruises. I'm fine, sir, honestly."
I spooned some kedgeree onto my own plate. "I should have been informed. You came within two inches of losing that eye."
"Yeah, but - I didn't, so. Anyway, that's why they made me go sit in A&E instead of just patching it up myself. Doctor says my eye will be fine, just needs a day or two for the swelling to go down, and they gave me some antibiotics to make sure there's no infection."
"And this failed exoculation occurred how?"
Peter grimaced and this time he insisted on chewing and swallowing first, as if I couldn't tell that he was merely trying to delay his answer. "Bit of flying debris from a, er -" He cleared his throat and finished in a small voice, "Booby trap."
"A demon trap? Or something more physical?"
"Yes," he said. "Both. I disabled the magical side, and the physical side, um, went off. Destroying most of the evidence. Fortunately we had time to get clear."
"You should have called me before taking any such risks!"
He looked stubborn. "Abdul says you're still on restricted duty from last month, and he's out here to check on you every week."
"Do you imagine I will have less work-related stress after my apprentice gets himself blown to bits?" I snapped.
Peter looked a bit hurt, as if he had hoped that his dispersal into small pieces would elicit some more emotional reaction than mere work-related stress.
Since I was facing a near certainty of losing him to some form of time travel within a week or two and could do (dared do) nothing to prevent it, my snappishness was a direct result of just such an emotional reaction. But I took a deep breath and forced myself to speak more levelly. "So, this was a Phoenix site?"
The ethically challenged practitioner that Peter had named 'The Phoenix' had fled the country more than a year earlier when we finally disrupted the core of his operations. Since then we'd been doing catch-up and clean-up, finding the Phoenix had fingers in more pies than we had guessed at the time. Some of the locations needed only straightforward investigation, but several were extraordinarily messy.
"It was a Phoenix lead that took us there, but the booby trap was someone else's work."
I leaned over the table. "That accomplice we've been looking for?"
Peter nodded, pausing again. "I recognised the signare when the trap went off."
More properly it should be termed vestigium, since signare was the magic of a spell being cast and vestigia were the aftereffects. But for a case of delayed effect such as a demon trap, the difference between the two could blur. In any case, I thought that was hardly the most pertinent part of what Peter had said, so I waited for him to finish.
"It was Lesley."
Chapter 3: September 1940 / September 2013
I led Sergeant Grant to my flat half a flight above the ground level. He looked around my sparsely-furnished sitting room in evident puzzlement as I punched the light switch and went about closing the curtains, making sure they were tightly sealed. Sunset was not far off.
"You live here?" he said tentatively, still standing near the door.
"For the time being. Come in, sit down."
"Er. My shoes are a bit dodgy." The same mud splattered on the legs of his trousers marked his shoes. They were, at least, utilitarian work shoes rather than fashionable dress shoes which would have been ruined by such treatment.
"Take them off," I offered. "We can give them a bit of a clean."
"Oh. You don't have to, er... so why aren't you living at the Folly? There's servants there, right?"
"It's too crowded. Everybody and his brother has come back to town to help with the War effort, so the Folly is chock-a-block." In addition, David had become strangely importunate, insisting that I should accept his attentions once more. Eight years ago when he'd married he told me it was purely a matter of form, to preserve his reputation, and I should do the same. Instead, I'd accepted an assignment to India. Whatever David or his wife thought of their marriage, I could not find it in me to abet a man in breaking his vows. Keeping my own flat was another way to hold David at arm's length.
It did mean, however, that I had to see to my own meals, which could be a weary business with the odd hours I kept. But I had the basic amenities, so I set the kettle on the stove, put the dirty teacup I had been using in the sink, and found an old bent knife suitable for scraping mud from shoes.
Sergeant Grant was standing sock-footed in the doorway of the tiny kitchen, looking about with interest. "What year is it?" he asked.
I paused and contemplated him. "You don't know the year."
"I've been travelling backwards in time," he told me. "You didn't know that?"
"I told you, I'm not responsible for bringing you here," I said slowly, while I considered what he had said. Travel in time was quite impossible, so far as I knew. "Are you saying that you know me - you will know me - in the future?"
"That you are, in fact, from the future?"
"That's right." He seemed rather torn between amusement and dismay at my disbelief.
Needing something to do with my hands, I backtracked to the door and retrieved his shoes, then carried them to the sink so I could scrape at them.
Grant watched me bemusedly until he realised what I was doing. "Oh, no, I can do that, sir, let me."
I paused to look at him, considering the quality of his clothes and speech. He wore a very nice wristwatch, possibly an heirloom. He didn't have a gentleman's refined manners, but he also didn't behave like a servant and it would be insulting to treat him as one. "You're my guest, aren't you?"
"Yeah, but you're an inspector, and I'm just a sergeant. Now, if there were any constables about we could make them do it, but all things considered I think I should clean my own shoes."
So I handed him the knife and he bent over the sink. The mud had clumped and dried in the shoes' surprisingly deep treads. The soles appeared to be vulcanised rubber, like a car tyre.
A moment later, Grant conjured a werelight so that he could see what he was doing.
The signare startled me. There was a clear impression of heavy cloth, which characterised most practitioners of the Folly. The rest of it I didn't recognise: something warm and oily, something sharp and sparking, a faint hint of pine and tea. "You're a practitioner," I said weakly.
He gave me an amused sideways glance. The statement had been rather obvious.
"A Newtonian practitioner," I elaborated. "Trained by someone from the Folly."
"Told you that, didn't I?"
When he'd said he worked with the Folly I had imagined some kind of police liaison, though I could fill that role perfectly well myself. Instead, it appeared that he had formal training. "But none of the schools associated with the Folly would accept, er, someone like you." I had travelled the world enough to know that things were different elsewhere, and that many considered English snobbery to be stultifying, even ossifying, contributing to the weakening of the Empire. But here, that snobbery was the rule of the land.
"Not the right sort, am I?" His tone was light, as if mocking the Folly's attitudes, but even from the side I could see the tension in his face.
"You're from the future," I said in wonder, not certain that I believed it yet. "A future where such prejudices are gone?"
He turned fully to look at me then, assessing my attitude. "Not gone," he said at last. "It's still England, you know. Class matters, and my Mum's a cleaner. Race matters, and my Mum's from Sierra Leone. But it's not as bad as it used to be. There's laws against explicit discrimination. No reason I can't earn promotions, aspire to a higher position, all that."
"You're young for a sergeant," I offered.
He laughed and pulled out a leather wallet from his inside jacket pocket. "Here's my warrant card," he said, passing it to me before turning back to the sink.
I hadn't meant to imply disbelief in his rank, even though I was still doubtful that time travel was possible. But I was curious, so I took it. The leather had the Met's familiar crest on the front and opened to reveal a startling card. It was of some stiff plastic, not mere laminated pasteboard as mine was. It had his name and rank as he had told me, but also a photograph in stunning sharp colour, and below the photograph a strange geometric pattern that shifted and shimmered as I tilted the card. "What's this?" I asked, brushing my thumb over the pattern. There was no particular vestigium connected to it, only a faint trace of what I had detected from Grant himself. So it was not magical in itself, but spells had been cast near it.
He glanced over. "Hologram. For the electronic readers."
I wanted, very badly, to ask what year it would be issued. But on the chance that this was truly a matter of time travel, that might be unwise. I passed it back to him. "Are you certain you should be showing me this sort of thing? Perhaps I'm not meant to know it."
He was working on the second shoe now. "What d'you mean?"
The kettle was beginning to rumble and pop. I pulled my two best teacups from the cupboard, and found two matching clean spoons. "Time travel seems a dangerous business, doesn't it? What if you tell me something I shouldn't know and I change my actions because of that knowledge?"
"Oh," he chuckled. "Don't worry about it. This isn't real. Just a dream I'm having, something like that."
I frowned. "I'm fairly certain I existed yesterday, and the day before that, and long before you came along."
"Well, you would think that, wouldn't you? But really I'm probably trapped underground -" he shuddered "- or lying in a hospital bed, something like that. I have these visions sometimes so that I can learn some sort of lesson, or something. It's not real time travel. If I change something in the dream it doesn't change in reality, so I might as well have some fun while I'm here, right?" He frowned, seeming less than certain of his own conclusion.
The kettle whistled. Grant was done with the sink, so I poured out the stale tea from the pot I'd brewed earlier and put in some of the good Ceylon leaf I'd brought back from India, covering them with boiling water. Grant had set his shoes on the rubber mat by the door to finish drying, and now he leaned against the kitchen doorframe watching me load things onto a tray.
"I'm afraid I don't have any sugar. And only milk instead of cream." I waited for his verdict before filling the creamer.
"Milk's fine." His stomach growled loudly, and he stiffened upright, looking embarrassed. "Er - sorry about that. It's just this vision thing has gone on for a while, you know, and last night - last time, whatever - I was running about for miles."
I set out extra shortbread before putting the tin away. "How about some sandwiches, then? I'm a bit peckish myself." I had bread and cheese, but no butter. I pulled the remains of Sunday's roast from the icebox and released the spell keeping it fresh.
Grant startled back a step. "What was that?"
"Hmm? Oh, it's a simple stasis spell to keep food fresh. You're not familiar with that one?" I carved off a piece of the meat and then re-cast the spell on both meat and milk before putting them away.
"Is that a variant of state?" Grant asked.
"That's... not the way I learned how to use it." There was an odd note of offence in his voice, as if I personally had failed him. "Maybe because in my time we have these things called refrigerators for keeping food fresh."
I gave him a narrow look while I sliced the meat and cheese. "I'm familiar with refrigerators, but they're very noisy, and rather expensive if you're just taking a flat for a few months. I use an icebox instead, but I missed the ice delivery last week because I was out every morning." I was just glad the milkman was still willing to leave deliveries at my door, though I suspected the missing cream and butter might be due to lightfingered neighbours rather than shortage. I piled everything onto the tea tray and hefted it. "Let's go into the sitting room."
Grant made himself comfortable on the settee and I took the chair, setting the tea tray on the low table and preparing him a cup as soon as it had steeped sufficiently.
"Have some shortbread while I toast a sandwich for you." I arranged a plate with two slices of bread, one with cheese on top and the other with meat. Then I conjured a small ball of flame and played it over the food until the cheese bubbled and the edges of the meat were crisp.
Grant laughed, nibbling on a bit of shortbread. "There's another trick I haven't seen you use before. Much handier than a toaster." This close, I could see that his fine watch was showing the wrong time.
"Quicker, too." I realised that I had been too distracted to offer him the proper assurances before he ate, but apparently Grant did not stand on ceremony. Or, possibly, he just trusted me. I put the cheese slice together with the meat slice and centred the sandwich on the plate, passing it across to him. "Mind the plate, it's still a bit hot."
"Thank you, sir." He set the plate on his knee and sipped at his tea while I prepared a sandwich for myself. "So... would anyone at the Folly know about time travel?"
"I thought you said this wasn't really time travel."
He waited until my sandwich was ready before taking a bite of his own. "Well, yeah. I think. I mean, before it was always... more dreamlike. Like astral projection or something? But this one has gone on for a while and it seems real, it's just all out of order. I'd like to know how to get back to my own time, you know?"
"Surely it's easy to travel forward in time," I said. "All you have to do is wait."
His eyes narrowed as if he thought I was baiting him deliberately. "Ta ever so."
"Or, if this is merely a dream of yours, perhaps all you need to do is wake up."
"Sure, if I knew how. I thought, maybe, if I go to sleep inside the dream, I'd wake up in the real world. But instead I just keep skipping about to another time and place."
"That does sound distressing," I admitted.
He leaned forward, the plate wobbling on his knee. "You don't really believe me, do you?"
"It's rather a lot to take in," I pointed out. "Especially the part where you think I'm not exactly real, or I wouldn't exist without you here. But... that warrant card of yours is quite remarkable, I confess."
"You think so? What about this, then?" He set his teacup and empty plate on the coffee table and then placed something else next to them. I picked it up.
It was a rectangular piece of polished black ceramic or glass, bound about the edges with steel, and a steel plate on the back. It was about the size of a cigarette case, but more slender and apparently quite solid. It was heavy and warm from lying in Grant's pocket. I conjured a werelight to look at it more closely. Here and there along the edge were tiny buttons and sockets in silver and black. The largest was a toggle switch that didn't quite look like it belonged with the rest. I made to flip the switch.
"Wait!" he yelped. "Turn off the werelight first. Magic doesn't agree with silicon semi-conductors."
I frowned at the incomprehensible words, but let go of my light before toggling the little switch. The device buzzed unexpectedly and I nearly dropped it. Grant laughed and took it from me, but held it with the shiny black face towards me.
Then it lit up like a cinema screen. Glowing symbols shifted across the glass, a blue line stretching the width of it, then eventually turning into a grid of numbers. Grant touched several of them in sequence, and a complex of tiny hieroglyphs appeared, astonishingly bright with vivid colours, all superimposed upon something that looked like a colour photograph of a great metropolis.
"What is it?" I asked. My eye discovered what looked rather like Tower Bridge off to one side of the glittering cityscape, but I didn't recognise any other landmarks since everything was in miniature and half of it was obscured by the little symbols.
"Here, come sit here where you can see better." He moved a couple of feet along the settee to make room for me, and I sat in the warm spot he had just vacated. "It's a phone. Cell phone, we call them, or mobile."
"Some type of... wireless telephone?"
"Yeah. Except right now it's trying to connect to a network that isn't there. See? Zero bars, so I can't make any calls." He was pointing to something in the corner of the device, but all I saw were a bewildering array of small symbols. "But really, it's a lot more than just a phone. It's a computer. You know what those are, right?"
"A calculating machine?"
"Well, yeah, it has a calculator. Arithmetic, trigonometry, whatever maths you want. But it's a lot more than that - at least, when it's connected to the network it is. It's an encyclopaedia - a whole library, in fact. And a bookstore, too. You can order food, or a cab."
"You can do that with any telephone," I commented.
"Can you look at the restaurant's menu and read reviews from other customers before you decide what to order? What else... oh yeah, there's a camera." A few quick motions of his thumb, and then he held the thing at arm's length while pressing close along my side. It clicked and flashed a bright light at us, then Peter pulled the device closer again so that I could see it now showed a photograph of the two of us upon my settee, in full lifelike colour. Peter was grinning in the picture, while I gazed off to the side looking rather bewildered.
"Good heavens," I murmured.
"If it had a connection, and if anyone else had a phone like this, I could send the picture directly to their phone. It plays music, too. Here." Another series of flicks and presses, and I heard a band playing slow, jazzy music.
I leaned forward. "That's very clear sound. No crackling like a radio or gramophone."
"It doesn't get much louder, but you can hook it up to big speakers or headphones if you want loud."
"But that music isn't from the future. It's Rina Ketty, isn't it? That's a very popular song."
"Yeah, I just didn't think you'd consider this to be music." He dragged his finger across the glass, and the next sound that came out was bizarre - a dull thump like a heartbeat, high-pitched squealing, and male voices chanting belligerent words that I couldn't make out.
I drew back, and Grant chuckled, stopping the noise with the touch of a finger.
"I've got my entire music library on here and a lot of my Dad's stuff, too. There are games you can play if you're bored. Look up the weather forecast anywhere in the world. And maps, too. The whole globe right down to street level. It can tell you where you are when you're lost, and give directions to get to where you want to go."
I looked up. "But it can't tell you how to get back to your time?"
He slumped a little. "No. It can't. Not even if it had cell towers and satellites to talk to." He reclaimed the device and turned off the switch on the side, tucking it into his pocket. He adjusted his watch band. "So that's why I thought, maybe I should look in the Folly's library, or ask the people there. Must be a lot of collective intelligence with all those wizards hanging about, right?"
"I don't recall seeing anything about time travel," I told him. "Perhaps a few folk legends, but nothing systematic, nothing rational." The technology that he had just tucked away in his pocket made my mind swim, and it seemed far more likely that he was telling the truth about being from the future. I turned to face him and he took the hint, moving back a bit to put space between us so we could face each other. His arm was along the back of the settee, not quite touching my shoulder. "Look, Grant..."
He startled. "Peter. You always call me Peter."
"All right then, Peter. If you're from the future, you must know what happens with this dreadful war."
He went still, and the pinched look about his mouth made my stomach tighten. But then he grinned and said, "The good guys win. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I? History is written by the victors, and all."
"That's... very profound," I said, not certain whether to be relieved. At least he had not said too much, even though I had crumbled to temptation by asking him.
"Isn't that a saying already? Oh wait, it's Churchill, isn't it? Or somebody?"
"I don't recognise the phrase."
"Fine. But, Inspector -"
"If I'm to call you Peter, shouldn't you be calling me Thomas?"
He gave a more genuine smile. "Yeah. I guess. There's no obligations between us now, are there? Fine. Thomas, weren't you the one saying that I shouldn't tell you too much?"
I sighed. "You're right. I shouldn't have asked."
"So... no details but I can tell you, the war isn't going to last forever. And afterwards - okay, not to say everything's perfect in my day, because it isn't, but a lot of things are better."
"Such as laws against prejudice?"
"That's a big one. Oh, hey, you know, that goes for gays, too."
I stiffened, a chill sweeping down my spine. "I beg your pardon?"
"Homosexuals. Don't they say 'gay' these days?"
They did, although it wasn't used that way in polite circles. "I don't know what you're implying," I began.
"Relax. It's legal, right? In my time, which it really should have been the whole time. I mean, why should lesbians have it easy just because nobody could bear to describe to Queen we-are-not-amused what two women can get up to?"
I wanted to tell him to stop, that this was an entirely inappropriate topic of conversation, but my throat didn't seem to be working.
"But see, it's not just legal for two men to hook up, they can even get married if they want. Or two women, for that matter."
I stared at him, still frozen.
"So... that's one thing that's better in the future?" he said, beginning to waver in the face of my continued silence.
"Surely standards of morality cannot have changed so much," I got out.
"What's immoral about love? I mean, there are still some people who get a bug up their arse about it, but that's a private opinion, right? No reason to make laws about what people do in the bedroom so long as no one's getting hurt. No reason to fire anyone for it, either. We've got a lesbian DCI running the murder team. Not to mention you."
"What about me?" I said, keeping my voice and gaze steady through an act of will.
He pushed the coffee table a few inches away and stood up. I followed automatically.
"You," he said, "have every legal and moral right to do this." And he kissed me.
It was just lips at first, with his fingertips on my chin, but then his hand slid back into my hair and perhaps a minute later I realised that we were locked in a full embrace, each clasping the other tightly, and still kissing. He tasted of tea and roast beef, and if his chin was raspy, if he smelled like a man who had travelled miles over muddy terrain since he last bathed, the scent and texture only made it all the more real.
I had embraced darker men, and taller men, and even men I had known for a shorter time. In fact, I had had quite a variety of lovers, always under the shadow of the fear of discovery. But there was something about Peter Grant's confidence, his surety that there was absolutely nothing wrong with what we were doing, that communicated through the kiss and made it feel astonishingly right, and all else ceased to matter. While he held me there was no War, no David, no Offences Against the Person Act - only warmth and pleasure.
I pulled away at last and blinked at him, to find him looking equally dazed. "Well, that was a bit of all right," he said breathlessly.
"Are you mad?" I asked him. Somehow my voice failed to sound at all stern.
He laughed. "Not yet. Time travel's pretty confusing, though. And frustrating. Could go mad from deprivation." He bent towards me again.
I pressed a palm against his rather nicely-muscled chest. "We can't do this."
"Why not? There's no one to see or care. Do you have somewhere to be?"
"No..." I found myself melting against him once more. That sense of rightness and safety was overwhelming, but it wasn't a glamour or vestigium. It seemed to be some intrinsic characteristic of his, that was strangely more intoxicating than any titillating naughtiness or thrill of danger ever could be.
"Thomas," he murmured against my neck, "if you really don't want this, you'd better say so now." He continued to nuzzle, sliding his grip up my tie to the knot. "And, if you do want this, is there somewhere better than the couch?"
I took a deep breath. "The bedroom is this way."
I had thought Peter would have some reaction after Lesley turned against us, that he might show some anger against me for my mistakes, or against the entire Newtonian system of magic for failing Lesley. I was nearly certain Peter wouldn't leave his apprenticeship, but I waited for some coolness or a drunken tirade or an attempt to invent a spell that would bring Lesley back.
There was nothing. To the casual observer, Peter would appear to be the perfect apprentice, the perfect copper. He did any work that I set him quickly and efficiently, with few or no experiments on the side. He spent most of his free time in the "tech cave," and when he went out he returned at a responsible hour. He shut himself down so much that he scarcely even commented on Molly's most extreme flights of culinary fancy.
When he went to Herefordshire and did something supremely stupid that might have got him killed, I was almost relieved to have it over with. He returned to London as a hero, a saviour of children with a lovely girl on his arm, and I thought he would be fine, at least for a while.
Then Beverley Brook stormed into the tech cave on Peter's night off, while I was attempting to navigate the mysteries of HOLMES. "Where is he?" she demanded without preliminaries.
I considered her dress, which was highly impractical and in my youth would have been considered indecent even for a streetwalker. "The last that I knew, Peter was with you," I pointed out.
"Walked out on me, didn't he? Left me at the restaurant and didn't even pay the tab. I had to juice the barman and the cabbie." She threw herself onto the couch, every line of her posture betraying considerable annoyance.
I started to feel some alarm. "Did he get a call?"
"He just told me he'd had enough, and he walked out."
It took some time to 'log out' of the HOLMES system, and I could not leave the computer until the process was finished. "May I ask what was the topic of conversation?"
"No, you may not ask," Beverley said mockingly. "'S private, innit?"
I began to wonder just how much she had owed for the bar tab, and whether Peter was in a similar state. He hadn't taken a car to dinner, at least. That suggested he had planned some relaxation, but I doubted that he had planned a quarrel with his girlfriend.
The computer screen changed to indicate that I had logged out successfully, so I began to shut down the device. "I will find Peter," I assured her. "Do you want me to call and let you know he's all right?"
"More like tell him to call," she snapped. "And he better be ready to apologise!"
"That will be his own choice," I said, but my thoughts were quickly sketching out how riverine diplomacy would be affected by Peter's romantic problems. Life could never be simple, could it? I stood, ready to begin the process of searching for Peter, but Beverley remained sprawled upon the couch. "I'll show you out," I said pointedly.
She got up with a sigh and flounced to the door. I let her descend the stairs first - such manners are little attended these days, but it was really a necessity given the shortness of her skirt, however uninterested I might be.
When we reached the ground level she paused and turned to me. "Let me know," she said. "That he's okay, right? We'll sort out the rest of it later."
I nodded. Beverley had the same arrogant sense of entitlement as all her sisters, but she was a decent child underneath all the attitude.
I checked to see that both cars were indeed still in the garage, then headed for the Folly proper. First Molly, to make sure that Peter hadn't come home already; then perhaps a few judicious phone calls. There was no need to bring the full weight of the Met to bear on such a problem, but Peter had friends who could help me search more discreetly.
I was passing through the atrium heading for the back stairs and the kitchen when a scrape of sound drew my attention. Peter was in the lobby, supporting himself against the door guard's booth. He must have been dropped off by a cab at the front entrance.
I paused in the door between lobby and atrium. Peter advanced a few steps, then stopped to stare at the statue. He swayed and frowned, glaring as if Sir Isaac had personally offended him.
"Peter," I said softly.
He glanced at me and went back to staring at the statue. A wavering arm pointed. "Why... why?"
I swallowed hard. "Come on, let's get you upstairs." I moved forward to take his arm.
"No. Why's there so much magic?" He got out, only a little slurred. "Onna statue?"
I got my shoulder under his and my arm around his back and helped him stagger into the atrium. "There was a tradition in my youth, each new master wizard casting a spell on the statue to cause a minor alteration. To move a finger or curl of hair or change a word on his book."
Peter laughed, caught himself on an arm chair and seemed to consider sinking into it. I tried to hold him up since I doubted I would be able to lift him out of the chair once he was down. "Like... mush-mush-mushtache and glasses?"
"Eventually it escalated to that point," I said, untruthfully.
"But, 'syours, innit? Your magic. On the statue?"
"When I became Master of the Folly I took it upon myself to restore the statue to its original state," I said, an outright lie. "It took quite a bit of spellwork to make it stable again. I must advise you not to attempt any further alterations. Here now, up the stairs. One at a time..."
"Not going to have Molly carry me over her shoulder?"
"Only if you make it necessary. You can do this, Peter. Up!"
He made it to the first landing and then sank down to sit. I let him rest for a moment. His laughter had stopped and he was beginning to look glum. "Bet Bev's mad at me."
"She was concerned about you."
He blew a scornful breath that didn't quite achieve a snort. "She just wants to boss me around. Own me. She claimed me from the Fairy Queen, y'know."
I had been planning to claim him myself, but having done so I still might not have been able to get us both out of Fairyland, so I had been glad to leave the task to Beverley. Now I wondered on what grounds she had laid her claim.
"Nobody owns me!" Peter shouted down the stairs. "I'm a free man."
"Yes, even your master isn't your Master, I know," I said with a sigh. In the light of the glass dome above, I could see how his eyes had grown lighter with just a few hours in Fairyland. They were more milk chocolate than dark, now. "Ready for more steps yet?"
He shook his head. "Tired of women bossing me about. My mum, Beverley... Lesley."
Ah, there it was, the real reason for his melancholy, perhaps. Or perhaps not; I wondered how his mother had reacted to the change in his eyes.
"Told Lesley if she came back she could order my love life."
That pulled an involuntary laugh from me. "She must find that tempting."
"But I don't want to be bossed around anymore. Bev... Bev made me..." He frowned into the middle air.
My breath caught. "Is there something I need to know about, Peter?"
"No...? I dunno. It was a river thing. But she didn't tell me until after, and she made me walk naked along the road in the cold. I don't want to be a father, Thomas."
I blinked, both at the statement and the name. "Are you going to be a father?"
"Dunno. Bev says not. Just..." He waved a hand. "Inspiration, not genetics. But she should have told me, right? I got a right to know."
"Of course you do." At this point I wasn't certain I wanted to know precisely what had happened, but I suspected it would fall to me to sort it out. If Beverley had taken some action without warning Peter in advance, that might be something I could use for leverage, as little as I cared for the thought. But that was a problem for later.
"I mean, I can resist glamour if I want to. But if there's a glamour, how do I know what I want?"
"Quite," I sighed. That was a familiar dilemma that I had encountered a few times for myself, and the only answer seemed to be the sort of self-knowledge that came with greater age. "But just at the moment, Peter, if you don't want women pushing you hither and yon, you'd better get up these stairs before I call Molly to help."
He sighed and let me pull him to his feet and we assayed the steps once more. Peter draped himself over me more thoroughly as we climbed, and at one point his hand found my backside. I pretended not to notice, but when we got to Peter's floor and I was reaching for the door handle, he insinuated himself between me and the door, pressing his body along the length of mine.
I took a careful breath. "I thought you said you didn't like being bossed around by your sexual partners?"
"Mmm," he mumbled into my neck. "Not... 'xactly what I said." He was no more than half aroused, likely due to the influence of the alcohol.
"Then why are you trying to seduce your boss, Peter?"
He pulled back a little and frowned at my face, trying to bring it into focus. His hands played with my collar, stroking restlessly along the skin of my neck and behind my ears. I lifted my own hands to catch and still them, carefully keeping my hips canted so he couldn't tell how much I was affected.
"You're the only one who doesn't," he said seriously. "You don't push me around."
"I make you translate Latin," I pointed out. "In fact, it's about time we get you started on Greek."
He groaned, nearly falling for the distraction. But then he said, "You don't, really. You tell me things for my own good, you get annoyed when I don't listen, but you don't make me. You never would." He leaned or slumped into me, aiming for my lips.
I turned my head and let him slobber on my jaw instead. "Peter. I'm your master... your teacher. Also your superior officer. Also far older, more knowledgeable, and more experienced with both magic and sex. The reason that I don't 'push you around' is that if I did, you would have no choice at all. No free will. Do you understand me?"
"Mmm," was all he could manage.
"Come on then," I sighed, pulling him closer against me to get his weight off the door. He accepted that happily until I swayed us both into his bedroom and across the room to let him topple onto the bed. He tried to reach out to pull me down with him but I evaded his grasp. I pulled his shoes off but didn't attempt further rearranging. I took a glass from his nightstand and carried it down the hall to get water from the bathroom tap. When I returned, he was snoring. I headed for the nearest phone to call Beverley and let her know that he was okay but would need some time before seeing her again.
Breakfast would be awkward, depending how much he remembered. Perhaps I could make sure the awkwardness was all on his part. After all, I was not the inexperienced one here.
Chapter 4: September 1940 / May 2019
Peter proved enthusiastic, not at all shy or shocked by anything I did or suggested. And yet, to my surprise, he was not experienced. Or rather, he was clearly well-practised between the bedsheets, but not with partners who had the same endowments that he had.
He was happy to learn, though, applying himself to the lesson until his lush lips were red and slick, and I was panting and twitching. When I suggested something that might be more along his line, he rolled over to reach down to the floor where his trousers had fallen, and from his billfold he extracted two small packets. One of them, to my astonishment, proved to hold a French letter.
"I'm hardly likely to get pregnant!" I exclaimed.
He laughed. "Better safe than sorry. Who knows what I might have that isn't supposed to be around in this time? Could get in trouble just breathing, or using the loo. Anyway, this makes cleanup easier, after. And -" He bent to kiss me, which lasted a while, and he almost lost his thread of thought. "And... it's good for staying power too. Wouldn't want to make a poor showing, after all."
I had never thought of it that way, but I accepted his logic. His second packet held a slippery liquid, lighter on the fingers than petroleum jelly and smelling enticingly of sandalwood and vanilla. From there, everything proceeded very satisfactorily, and I had to concede his point about staying power.
Afterward, he fell asleep sprawled across my chest, and I finally had the opportunity to stroke his tight curls, which he had not been inclined to permit while awake. I snapped off the bedside lamp and lay half-dozing, tempted to summon the cigarette case from my jacket but too worn out to control a spell that finely.
I tried to make myself think of all the complex implications of time travel and whether I truly believed his remarkable story. Instead, I kept drifting into the oddness of his considering an act justifiable that was so loudly condemned by so many. Even others with the same inclinations, even my previous lovers, had rarely been immune from bitterly (or titillatingly) repeating the slurs that they had heard others use. David, when he married, had wavered between claims that it was all for show to preserve his reputation, and the forlorn suggestion that perhaps changing his ways would save him from damnation. I didn't like to think what that implied about his renewed interest in me since my return to England.
Peter didn't seem to think damnation had anything to do with it. 'What's immoral about love?' he had said, so casually, when most of the world would claim such carnal acts were wholly unrelated to the finer emotions of the heart. And most of the world would be quite right, wouldn't they, given how quickly I had tumbled into bed with a man I'd just met? It wasn't love of the heart but of lower parts that waxed so quickly, however warm his embrace made me feel. And yet Peter apparently thought it all good and righteous.
I didn't know whether to take this as evidence that he truly was from a society quite different from any currently in existence, or that he was himself a unique creature with a deranged, if charming, outlook on life. He was certainly unique in my experience, at least.
I wasn't sure how long we had been lying there when I began to hear the rumble of distant explosions and the drone of engines. The growing tension in my muscles made Peter stir.
"Mmm," he said into my throat. "That was lovely. I really needed that." Then he stiffened and drew back. I thought he was reacting to the bombing, still miles away, but instead he said, "Wait. I just woke up."
"It is rather the done thing, after sleeping," I said.
"No." He sat up and drew a hand over his face. "I mean, I just slept and woke up, like normal, like - I'm not jumping through time anymore?" He looked around my bedroom in the weak light of the hallway fixture, with the curtains pulled tight and the fireplace sitting chill and empty. "I'm... stuck here?"
I hitched myself up to sit against the headboard. "What makes you think something has changed?" I asked, not sure if I was merely playing along with his delusion.
He shook his head. "Before, I only stayed in one place for a few hours. Well, I suppose the one time was longer than this. But I never had a chance to sleep and wake up before I was someplace else." He considered. "I always showed up right next to you, before, but this time I came in... down by the Savoy... which I think is where I was when this whole thing started. When I - well, that's a complicated story."
He looked at me. "Yeah. Every other time, you knew me. And you were always in some kind of trouble. But this time, far as I can tell, you're not. This time we had a chance to, um..."
"Have some dinner and a rest," I put in. "Perhaps that's the point? If, as you say, this is all intended to be some sort of lesson to you -" Not that I cared to believe my entire existence was merely along the lines of a classroom demonstration. "Then you would need to be rested in order to learn."
"Maybe." He rubbed his face again, and then stretched luxuriantly. "I do feel much better now. And you..." He cocked his head at me. "You're gorgeous when you smile, you know that? Makes you look, um, a lot younger. You should do it more often."
My face heated but I managed a smile for him. A moment later there was the boom of an explosion. They were getting closer, moving upriver, I could hear.
Peter started. "Is that thunder?"
I frowned at him. "Peter. It's 1940." I watched to see what that meant to him. What would history, written by the victors, have to say about this war?
"Yes? Oh. Oh!" He pushed the covers aside, ready to get up. "Are we - should we - shouldn't we go to a shelter, or something?"
I shrugged. "The shelters will have closed their doors long since. I think it's midnight or even past. In any case, the shelters can only accommodate a fraction of the population of London, you understand. Some people have Anderson shelters in their yards, but most just stay inside and pray."
He stared at me, appalled.
"It would hardly be fair for you and me to take up space in a shelter when we're well able to shield ourselves from impact," I pointed out.
"I suppose that's true," he conceded.
"We might as well get dressed, though." I climbed out of bed myself, snapping on the bedside lamp once more.
"Want to look our best for when the bombs come down?"
"We're not likely to get more sleep tonight, any road."
"True." He started sorting his things out from mine, and retrieving what had been dropped in the hall. "So, you don't have to, um, be somewhere? Doing something?"
I sighed. "I was out with the fire brigades the last ten nights. They told me not to come in tonight. Granted, when they said that, the clouds were quite low and they thought there might not be any bombing at all."
"Should talk to the rivers," he said obscurely. "You might be able to get them to make a nice dense fog or something."
I pondered what he might mean by that as I pulled on my clothes. It seemed to be a reference to genii locorum, but so far as I knew there were no river spirits in the London area. Not until above Teddington Lock, and the planes rarely followed the Thames so far.
Just then there was a buzz and a whistle, followed by a crash so loud that I flinched and threw up a shield with aer congolare, feeling Peter cast something with an impello base just a moment later. The windows rattled sharply, and the lights flickered once, then went out.
"That was close," said Peter a little breathlessly, releasing his shield.
"Very close," I agreed, and called up a werelight so I could find my shoes.
When we got out onto the street, we could clearly hear the swarming-bees sound of the planes above and see the glow of the fire. In fact, we could see quite a few glows looking up the road and down, but the brightest was only a few buildings away on the corner with High Holborn. It would be a beacon for other planes to target.
We ran in that direction and saw that a great bite had been taken out of the building, obliterating the corner flats from the fourth floor down to the first. The structure was no older than I was, built after a number of older buildings were razed to allow the street to be widened. Its brick facade was, apparently, not distinguished by exceptional structural integrity. Bricks and debris and fragments of furniture and worse things were scattered all over the street. The edges of the floors that surrounded the hole sagged distinctly, ready to come down as well if the wind should change. The fire was burning at the back in the still-standing portion of the ground floor, but it looked as if it might set the upper floors alight soon enough. A plume of smoke and dust rose into the night, illuminated from below.
A number of people were standing about, some clearly dazed. I caught one on the steps of a neighbouring building and commanded him to go to a telephone and call it in. Then I went to a man with blood pouring down his face, asked him how many were left inside, and drew him to a distance to sit down. I repeated this with as many of the others as I could, staging patients for when an ambulance was able to get to them. A bustling middle-aged woman who might be a nurse began tending to the worst of them.
Peter was circling the edge of the building, assessing how to get at the damaged bits and helping people stumble out over the wreckage. A few minutes later I felt his signare and looked up to find that he had cast a raincloud above the fire. I was astonished that anyone remembered that old spell, which had hardly been used outside of Ambrose House. Then I ran to Peter and caught his arm.
"Not water," I told him urgently. "There might be electrics."
He glanced at me. "The power's out for the whole block."
"You can't be certain of that - all the windows are blacked out."
"There might be gas, as well."
"I know, that's why we need to get the fire out!" he snapped.
"Use aer congolare," I told him. "Right at the base of the flames. You might have to hold it for a few minutes. Keep the area as small as you can; there may be people buried underneath, and they don't need our help to smother any faster." I cast the spell quickly to demonstrate, then let him take over. In addition to being safer and more effective, aer congolare was considerably more discreet. I could only hope that the rain cloud slowly shrinking overhead was taken for some strange atmospheric reaction to the plume of smoke.
Peter made quick progress on the flames, so I went back to organizing and questioning the people from the building. The husband and wife from the second floor flat (which I judged had taken a direct hit) were missing, as was the gentleman from the floor above. The fourth floor, the highest, had been unoccupied. The family from the first floor had gone to a shelter, and the two young ladies sharing the ground floor flat had escaped with surprisingly minor injuries. There was also a family with two children in the basement flat, and no one had seen them since dinnertime.
The front steps of the building had been obliterated, and the areaway was clogged with debris. There might be access from the back, or it might be easier to dig down from above. I hurried back to Peter's side to share this information with him, and he started moving further into the demolished section of the building, sweeping a brilliant beam of werelight over the wreckage like an unusually powerful electric torch. Fortunately, it was bright enough that no one could likely see he was not actually holding anything in his hand except light itself.
"There!" he said suddenly, his light illuminating a hand covered in dust and ash so it was the same colour as all the surrounding material.
He was about to climb over a little hillock of debris, but I caught his arm and held him while a section of floor broke free from one of the upper hallways. "Watch it!" I snapped, diverting the falling section of wood away from us and the buried person whose hand Peter had seen. More cautiously, we edged around to get to the buried man.
It wasn't a man. Just someone's left arm, raggedly detached and partially burnt.
Peter stared and swallowed hard. I had seen quite a lot like this in the last two weeks so I was less shocked, but I still didn't care to look too closely. "An older gentleman, not frail. And not married," I added, noting that there was no wedding ring nor an indentation where one might have sat before being knocked off. "This would be the inhabitant of the third-floor flat, I presume."
I found a detached section of carpet and wrapped the arm up before carrying it out to the kerb. There was another body laid out there under a torn sheet. It had been carried out from one of the other flats that was mostly intact, but apparently the tenant had been sitting right where a length of beam came through the wall.
When I returned to where I had left Peter, he was gone. I called his name and used my own werelight to search even though it was not so tightly focused as the one I had seen him make.
"Down here!" came his muffled voice at last.
At the back of the ruined area, the most dangerous section where debris was still falling and the fires occasionally reignited, there was a hole in the floor. Peter's light was trickling out from below that hole.
I crouched down and shouted into the hole, "Are you mad?" It was more forceful than when I had asked the same question a few hours earlier.
"I found them!" he yelled back, and a minute later he appeared with a small figure in his arms. It was one of the children from the family in the basement flat: a little boy, moving and blinking but apparently in shock. I realised that this was the same family group I had seen passing by the steps of my building a moment before Peter ran up them and turned all my conceptions upside-down.
I lifted the boy from Peter's arms and then helped him out of the hole with an impello.
"There's more of them down there. Sister - I'm not sure if I can get her out, she's a bit stuck - and mum, further in. The girl says mum was talking earlier, stopped now." He was bent over, leaning on his knees and panting from more than exertion. I realised the ashy colour of his face was not only dust.
"Just wait for a minute and we'll plan this out properly," I told him sharply, and carried the boy over to a line of eager rescuers waiting on more stable ground.
"We've got to get some of the weight off the girl and her mum," Peter insisted when I got back to him. "I'm thinking, one person down there with a shield to hold everything steady, and then the other up here with impello to move stuff out of the way."
"Yes," I agreed, for it was a fairly standard approach, but usually done with a team of six wizards. Two of those would be to hold onlookers back and make sure the use of magic wasn't alarming the general public. "You go back down below and I'll -"
His head jerked sharply and his breath began to heave again.
I frowned and changed tacks. "No, on second thought it makes more sense if I go down the hole. You're bigger than I am."
He stared at me, his eyes wide. "I... thank you, sir. I really don't like close spaces."
"Now, how far back are they, under all this?"
He pointed out his guess, and I made some suggestions for what to move first and what might be unstable, and then we split up.
The hole in the floor let me down into what seemed a partially collapsed hallway. It would be very unpleasant for anyone who was sensitive to cramped spaces. I crept along it with my werelight, calling "Hello?" After a few yards I could hear the girl's quavering voice in reply. She was in a collapsed room where something had fallen against the door, jamming it open by just a few inches. This must have been where the little boy squeezed through, but the girl told me her legs were trapped.
"What's your name?" I asked her.
"Violet, where is your mother?"
"She was on the other side of the room. I heard her talking before - she said we must be brave."
"Violet, I'm going to come in there with you, if I can." I used a cutting spell to detach sections of the door, piling them in the hallway behind me, and squeezed into the bit of the room that I could reach. The ceiling, or perhaps a collapsed section of wall, was only a few feet above the floor and tilted crazily.
With my head and shoulders in the room I could see Violet, wincing from the brightness of my werelight. She had a cut on her cheek but was not too bloody. I inched a bit further in to try to see where her legs were caught: under a tabletop, I thought, with a great many other things on top of it.
A thump and a wash of magic above told me that Peter was ready to begin with the shifting. I cast a fourth-order terra variant to hold the wall, ceiling, door and tabletop steady. "Just hold still for now, Violet. We're going to try to make it easier to get you out of here. You must tell me at once if anything begins to hurt, all right? Now, hold on while I look for your mother."
I couldn't go any deeper into the confined space, but I could send my werelight along. I also knew a spell to sharpen hearing in a particular direction, and I used that to cast my ears out almost like a searchlight. Faintly, I could detect someone breathing in shallow gasps, four or five yards from me through a great tangle of clutter. I wormed my werelight through holes, trying to get a look in that direction. Everything was the same dusty greyish colour except for one shocking splash of red; I concentrated my attention there and put up another terra stabilisation in that vicinity. Then I projected my voice upward about ten feet and said, "Ready, Peter."
I had already noticed he seemed to be fond of the impello formae, which was the most sensible method for clearing the debris in any case, so I was not surprised at the spells being worked above my head. I was impressed by their power and precision, and considerably more so when, after a pause to sort out some kind of blockage, there came a pulsating kind of impello that was remarkably effective at breaking jumbled bits free. The parts breaking free would have included half the room I was crouching in if I had not been holding all steady for Violet and her mother; I could feel Peter's spell sliding off the barrier of my own. I extended the stabilising spell belatedly to protect myself, as the wall or ceiling pressing against my shoulder shifted in an uncomfortable way.
It was only a few minutes before Violet said tremulously, "It's not so heavy now. I can move my legs, I think." Dust sifted down from above, and then light: Peter's focused beam shone down right between my face and Violet's.
"Stop for a moment!" I projected, waiting for the dust to still before I moved toward Violet again. Much of the tangle above her tabletop had gone away, and I could now get an impello under it and lift to free her legs. I pulled her carefully toward me. Her legs seemed whole, not twisted or bleeding; they had merely been pinched by all the weight holding the table down.
I hesitated over whether to send Violet directly up through the new, smaller hole, or to try to get her back to where I had come down. A faint moan from across the room decided me, and I pulled Violet close to me, sending my werelight up. "Try to widen this access, Peter - cautiously," I called up. Then I hunched over Violet and used aer congolare just above us to resist anything falling, including further drifts of dust. A few minutes later I was standing in the new hole, lifting Violet up to Peter's waiting arms.
While he carried her off to the rest of the helpers, I tried to get closer to the mother. I could smell smoke in this area, and also the mother's blood. She wasn't dead yet, but might be soon if we couldn't free her. If Peter hadn't got that fire out so quickly, she would likely have burnt long before now.
We carried out the same procedure of terra to stabilise, pulsed impello to clear debris, then aer in the later stages. It took several rounds of effort to get to Violet's mother, and by that time the real rescue brigade had arrived, including a Folly wizard: Stackmire, whom I'd worked with a bit in the last few weeks. With his help and the other rescuers to ensure that none of the onlookers saw anything untoward, we freed Violet's mother within the hour. The blood I had seen turned out to be from a head wound and some ugly damage to her arm. I wasn't certain doctors would be able to save the arm, but at least the woman was alive at the time she left our care.
The fires were out. No further bits of the building were falling. All of the residents had been accounted for, save for the couple in the flat that took the direct hit. Official persons were taking charge of the remainder of the work. That left Peter and me with nothing more to do.
The sky was beginning to grow pale with approaching dawn. The sound of planes and bombs had stopped at some point while we were working; I hadn't particularly noticed.
"I suppose I shouldn't have done that," Peter said in a low voice, slouching along the sidewalk with hands in his pockets. He was covered in dust from head to foot; his curls and his skin and his dark suit were all almost indistinguishable in colour underneath a fine powder of ash and brick dust. I was rumpled and grimy myself but not quite so badly off, since I'd been underground while all that vibrating spellwork was kicking up the worst dust overhead.
"What? Whyever not?" I asked him. We'd just spent hours straining to keep a few more people alive - what could be wrong with that?
"Well. Suppose this isn't a dream. Maybe it's real time travel, right? Then what am I meant to do? Not change anything. That's got to be the most important thing. Otherwise I'll never be able to get home."
I frowned. "Perhaps you were sent here to change something very important. Something to make the war end sooner, perhaps?"
He snorted. "Yeah, right. Me. Change the course of a world war?"
"Is that so implausible? Instead of worrying you might have changed things without meaning to, why not do it and mean it?"
"If I change too much, I won't be born, and then I can't travel back in time to fix it, so then it doesn't change and I will be born, and go back, only to make sure I won't go back... that's a paradox. Isn't that bad for the space-time continuum, or whatever?"
I considered this. I had been thinking much the same when I worried if it was wrong to ask him for information about the future. And yet... "If paradox were truly as dangerous or impossible as it sounds, then time travel should be quite as impossible as well, should it not?" Of course, as far as I had ever known, time travel was impossible.
"I'm playing dice with the fate of the universe!" He stopped walking and pointed back up the street. "That, what we just did? Saving a couple of kids' lives? Can you think of anything more likely to change the future?"
"I suspect the children would have made it in any case. It was their mother who wouldn't have survived, if rescue had been any slower in coming."
"Oh, great. 'Cause preventing kids from being orphaned, giving them a chance at a younger sibling, is going to have much less effect on the future."
"Do you really wish you'd done any differently? Held back and let others do the work?"
His shoulders sagged and he turned to start up the steps to my flat. "No. I couldn't have done that."
"There you are. Condemned by your own nature. But take heart," I pointed out. "Perhaps the mother would have lived anyway. Or perhaps she'll still die in hospital, tomorrow instead of today. Perhaps all your effort made no difference at all."
He stared at me as I fiddled with the key to the flat. "That... really doesn't make me feel any better, Thomas."
"It's war, Peter. You're not supposed to feel good about it."
When Peter swung around the door into the small dining room for lunch, I nearly choked. He had changed since I saw him this morning, and was now wearing a charcoal-grey suit jacket and trousers over a crisp white shirt, with no tie. The stitches above his eye had been removed, the bruise had faded and the eyebrow was just beginning to grow back.
"Something in the newspaper, sir?"
I glanced down at the paper in my hands - a German one - and set it aside. "Nothing important. Come sit down, I believe Molly has our luncheon ready."
"Lovely, I'm famished."
We spoke very little while the food was set out. Molly had made gradual adaptations to modern cuisine; today was marinated beef sandwiches on toasted bread, with curried soup, and also a rice dish that made Peter exclaim in pleasure. He happily ladled a great mound of the reddish rice onto his plate, but warned me to approach it with caution.
He glanced around to the door to make sure that Molly was gone before saying, "If she's done it right, it's meant to be really spicy."
I chanced a bite and coughed. "Yes. Quite. Lovely soup, though!"
Peter approached it all with enthusiasm. I wanted to heap more on his plate and tell him to fill up, he would need it. Instead I merely asked, "How was your practice this morning?"
"Pretty good, sir. I got the new shield to work a couple of times, but not a lot of power in it. I think it came out right, but I really need something to test it against. Can you help me with it tomorrow?"
"Time permitting," I said, knowing that it would not.
"Good, it'll go a lot better with both you and I."
"You and me," I corrected wearily.
"What? But you're always on me to -"
"Peter," I sighed, "your grasp of grammar should be sufficient to understand that the preposition 'with,' like all English prepositions, takes the accusative."
"Accusative? But... English doesn't have declensions."
"English nouns have only singular and plural forms, but personal pronouns have five cases. I, my, mine, me, and myself." I looked at him. "You truly had not realised that the basic grammar principles apply to our language, as well as the dead ones?"
He shook his head. "I'm pretty sure most of the English-speaking population doesn't actually apply those principles, either."
"Well, the simple way to tell is by breaking the phrase apart. It'll go better with you. It'll go better with me. Therefore it'll go better with you and me." And then I froze, because of course we would not be practicing together tomorrow, and likely never again.
"Huh," he said. "So, if you and me are going to -"
He laughed and took another big bite from his sandwich.
I could not think of anything helpful to say for my last meal with my apprentice, except that lectures on grammar were probably not what I wanted to remember. 'Take something warm to wear'? He would only leave it in the car. 'Don't trust anyone, particularly me'? He would demand to know what I meant, and why, and it would lead to revealing all the secrets I had kept for so long. "Are you still supposed to be taking antibiotics with your meals?"
"Oh!" He patted his pockets. "Left them upstairs again. I only have a couple of doses left, anyway."
I sighed. "I don't see why you should obey a doctor's orders when you never obey mine."
"'Course I do, sir. When you really mean it." He shifted a little uncomfortably in his chair.
I didn't pursue his reference but tried to keep my voice light. "Or when you're not distracted. Here, you might as well finish my rice." I handed my plate across to him.
In the distance, a telephone rang.
Peter pulled his mobile from his pocket to check it, and grimaced that he had left it turned off when he finished his practice. I thought it was only sensible to leave it off anywhere in the Folly, but Peter normally disagreed.
"I must get you to show me how to choose whether a call goes to voicemail or is forwarded to the Folly's phone," I murmured, but that was another thing that wouldn't happen.
"Actually," he said, "it was set for voicemail. Missed a call from - yep, it's Stephanopoulos. Which means this is probably for me." He stood and headed for the door just as Molly stepped in and looked at him significantly. "I got it Molly, thanks - the rice was lovely!" He actually pecked a kiss onto her cheek on the way out the door, which made her look outraged.
I set my napkin down. "Please save dessert, Molly." I didn't suppose I would want it, later.
Peter was using the phone in the mundane library. I popped up to his painfully neat bedroom, where I very rarely entered. The tiny travel-sized pillbox was on his nightstand; it rattled when I picked it up. I continued down to the firing range and found that, of course, he had left his staff there. It was nearly finished except for a final varnish: close enough in appearance to a police baton that a member of the public likely wouldn't notice the difference, while just unlike enough that a police officer might hesitate to carry it away. I picked it up and felt the buzz of Peter's magic under the wood.
I caught him on his way through the atrium. "You have a call-out?"
"Something weird Stephanopoulos wants me to look at. Probably nothing. I'll be back for dinner, likely."
No, he wouldn't. "Don't forget these." I passed him the pillbox, and then the staff.
"Oh. Really, you think I should -?"
"It won't do you any good if you don't have it with you. If you need it, you won't get any advance warning."
"Right, that makes sense." He tucked the pillbox into his shirt and the staff under his arm, fumbling with a notebook where he had likely written down Stephanopoulos' information.
"Take care, Peter." They were wholly inadequate last words, and I fought hard against the urge to embrace him.
He looked at me oddly, sensing my mood but unaware of what lay behind it. "Can I take the Jag?"
Of course he would take advantage of any sign of weakness on my part. "You might as well," I sighed. "Just - go carefully, will you?"
"Sure thing. See you later!"
And he was gone.
I took a seat in one of the atrium's armchairs with a view into the lobby and the very edge of Newton's plinth, and awaited Stephanopoulos' call.
Chapter 5: September 1940 / May 2019
Peter's grim mood deepened when we got into the flat and discovered that not only was the electricity still out, but so were the gas and water. I opened the curtains to let the morning light in and used magic to fill the kettle and heat it for tea. Peter likewise filled a washbasin enough for his hands and face, but he lamented how much he would like a bath, or a shower.
So I caught up my cane, marched into the bathroom, and poured a great gush of aqua into the tub, filling it deeper and hotter than wartime restrictions or the building's rather weak water heater would have permitted. I set out a sliver of soap, towels and washcloths, and then waved to Peter to have at it.
He stood watching me with his teacup in one hand. "Where does it come from?"
"I beg your pardon?" I asked.
"The water. I used to think it came out of the air, but for enough to fill that tub, you'd have to suck the whole flat dry. You'd make sparks when you walk and your hair would be standing on end. Not to mention the energy to heat it."
I blinked. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"When you conjure aqua, where does it come from?"
"It's magic, Peter, it doesn't come from anywhere."
"Magic still has rules, doesn't it? It has to make sense."
I shook my head in bewilderment. He sounded like David, whose fascination with the mechanisms underlying magic had always baffled me. "Of course. Follow the correct forma, focus your thoughts, don't overdo it. Those are the rules. Now, are you going to take advantage of the bath I've so generously provided for you, or should I enjoy it for myself?"
He gulped the last of his tea, set the cup down and began to strip off. "Thanks. I don't think I could have filled it deeper than a couple of inches myself."
While Peter was in the bath I pottered about looking for clothes that might fit him, as well as changing my own outfit. Idly, I began humming the tune that his tiny telephone device had played, a song that was very popular in France these days. It seemed a sad song, all about endless waiting, but still it had an air of - perhaps not hope, so much as determination.
On the second stanza, unexpectedly, Peter joined in through the half-open door with a pleasant baritone. "J'attendrai, car I-don't-really-know-the-words, my-French-is-pathetic-anyway, something-something-some, dans son nid."
I laughed at his scramble to fit in too many syllables of nonsense, and took up the thread as the melody rose: "Le temps passe et court, en battant tristement dans mon coeur si lourd." Then the two of us together sang the final line: "Et pourtant, j'attendrai ton retour."
"You can't say things like that in English," I concluded, pushing the bathroom door the rest of the way open and loitering there to watch him passing the washcloth over fine muscles and smooth skin the colour of perfectly toasted bread. "Not without sounding a dreadful sap."
"Right, because sadness and feelings are a French vice, nothing to do with heart of oak, right?"
"Just so. Care for a fag?" I asked him, pulling out my cigarette case.
"Oh, very funny," he said, rolling his eyes in annoyance.
"What did I say?" I cast a small hot lux at the end of the cigarette.
He twisted around in the bath to look at me. "Wait, you're serious? Since when do you smoke?"
"Since I was at Oxford." Why did he seem so surprised?
"Putting out a burning building wasn't enough toxic smoke inhalation for you?"
I let the smoke trickle out my nose. "That's different. Cigarette smoke is soothing to the lungs."
"Right, tell that to King... um, I guess I shouldn't say that." He snapped his mouth shut quickly and wrung out the washcloth to rub it damply over his face and hair. "Anyway, why should you worry about cigarettes when you still have coal fires and pea-soupers to worry about, right?"
"Not to mention German bombs and buildings burning down," I pointed out, wondering why he had such an obsession with smoke when there were so many other things likely to kill me sooner. Perhaps this was another thing that was very different in the future. If homosexuality was to become legal, would smoking be outlawed? It was a novel thought that made me suck more deeply on the cigarette, and I turned away to resume looking out clothes.
There was a cream-coloured shirt with subtle embroidery that I had got in India, rather large on me, which proved to set off his broad chest nicely. Trousers were rather more difficult. Peter was only a few inches taller than I, but his legs were much longer than mine - a runner's legs, where I had instead the long spine of my mother's north country ancestors. The first pair of slacks I offered Peter looked rather ridiculous flapping about his shins, but then I remembered I had an old pair of David's khakis stuffed in the bottom of my steamer trunk. It was rather absurd that I had never given them back, carrying them with me even when David married, even when I went abroad.
The khakis had creases in odd places, but they fit Peter admirably, particularly around the backside. I perched on the edge of the bed and watched with amusement as he shook out his legs one by one. The morning light poured in through the windows, lighting his skin to the color of honey. "That looks good."
He looked up sharply as if he suspected me of mocking him, then softened into a rueful smile. "You look good," he said as if retorting to an insult.
I blinked in confusion.
"No, I mean it," he insisted. "Blue eyes suit you."
"I like your eyes too."
He scoffed. "What - brown?"
"It's a very warm colour." And lighter than I would have expected from his complexion. "Not... amber, exactly. Perhaps more like a hazelnut."
The bath had eased his dark mood, although he was still worrying about something - perhaps his concerns regarding paradox. The last of that worry bled away now as he looked at me, daylight from the window behind him making a halo of his tight curls. He cupped the side of my face and was just brushing a thumb along my cheekbone, when there was a sharp knock at the front door.
I answered it to find David Mellenby waiting in the hall, with Stackmire at his shoulder. "David, what brings you here?" I asked in surprise. Normally he was quite busy with his research at the Folly.
"Thomas. May we come in?"
"Of course." I stepped back to make room for them, then remembered belatedly that I had left Peter half-dressed in my bedroom. But now the bedroom door was closed and he was standing quite respectably in the hallway, wiping his hands on a towel as if he'd just stepped out of the bathroom instead. He set the towel aside, adjusted his wristwatch, and came forward to be introduced.
"David, this is Detective Sergeant Peter Grant. Peter, these are my colleagues David Mellenby and Henry Stackmire, from the Folly."
Peter nodded and extended his hand. David actually hesitated a moment before taking it, which made Peter's face harden. Stackmire was less reluctant but there was something else in his manner that made me very uncomfortable.
"You're with the Met?" David asked, too casually.
"That's right," Peter replied.
"How odd. Henry here had the impression that Thomas had taken an apprentice."
"Why would you think that?" I demanded.
"I saw him casting magic," Stackmire put in. "At the house down the street. His signare is almost identical to Nightingale's," he told David.
"Yes, so you said." David was watching Peter keenly.
"I find that rather hard to believe," I said. I couldn't feel my own signare but it had been described to me. The texture of heavy cloth I might have in common with Peter, but so did most of the wizards in London. I had noticed a scent of tea, and something faintly like pine; both of these were characteristic of my own magic, but they weren't very strong in Peter's casting. The more obvious impressions of tropical oil and a shower of sparks were entirely unfamiliar.
"Inspector Nightingale offered me a cup of tea when we were done helping at that bomb site," Peter said mildly. He made it all sound very normal, a couple of coppers relaxing after the job was done. It didn't explain the bath or the change of clothes, but perhaps Stackmire hadn't picked up on those details.
David was not so easily shifted from his focus. "Mr Grant," he began.
"Sergeant," Peter corrected in a low voice.
"Sergeant Grant. Who is your master?"
Peter leaned back a little, trying to remain casual, but I could tell he was ready to jump. "I'm a free man. Nobody owns me."
"Who taught you magic?" David pressed.
"Why does this matter?" I asked, though I could guess. The stuffy old men of the Folly guarded their secrets jealously. They would never approve an apprentice of Peter's class or race.
"Thomas, have you been teaching this man in secret?" he demanded.
"No. I never met him before yesterday."
David turned back to Peter. "Can you conjure a werelight?"
"Of course he can, I saw him doing much more advanced stuff," said Stackmire.
"Which clearly took more than a day to learn," I pointed out.
Peter waited and said nothing, his gaze flicking between David and me.
"Sergeant Grant, please conjure a werelight for me."
"Why?" said Peter. The word was spoken softly with almost no inflection, but David stiffened as if it were the height of insolence.
"We need to know who's been training you," he snarled.
"So they can get into trouble?" Peter asked.
"Taking an unapproved apprentice is against our code," David said darkly. "Whoever taught you must face an inquiry and reprimand."
"I don't want anyone to get in trouble," said Peter carefully.
"A werelight, now!" David snapped.
Peter held out his hand, and a light appeared above it. It was not a glowing globe like most werelights, including the ones I had seen Peter cast earlier. Nor was it a directed beam like the one he had used at the bombed building. Instead, this was a tiny brilliant spark, sharply contained. There was no signare, no sense of the forma. It was as if it hadn't been created through magic at all. For a moment I wondered if his little mobile telephone device was capable of projecting such a light. But Peter's pockets were obviously empty, and both his hands had been in clear view when he created the light. He let it go after only a few seconds.
David sucked in a swift breath. "You're coming to the Folly," he said.
Peter paused for too long. "Can I get my jacket first?" He gestured vaguely upward as if to give the impression he lived on an upper floor of the building.
He was going to make a break for it, I knew. He would head tamely toward the door, and then he would cast something and run. And David would cast back. David was the cleverest wizard at the Folly and among the strongest. He could best me four times out of ten on speed alone, eight times if the contest required more thought. Peter wouldn't have a chance against David, unless I intervened.
But I could not intervene. I didn't agree with what David was doing, but I understood well enough why the Folly was so cautious about who was permitted to use magic. I had my own oaths of loyalty, and I couldn't take the side of a man I'd met yesterday against friends and colleagues I'd known for years.
All I could think to do was to prevent the violence from starting. "Peter Grant," I said firmly, and his head jerked. "You are under obligation to me; you ate my food and drank my tea. I adjure you to go peacefully with these men and offer no resistance."
I saw the command sink in, saw the moment he felt the obligation settle over his shoulders and dig hooks into his magic. A very powerful and experienced wizard could resist the pull of such obligations, but he wouldn't be good for much else while he was resisting. Peter had no chance. He had no choice.
"Thank you, Thomas. Don't worry, old fellow, we'll get to the bottom of this right away." David took Peter's arm and tugged him toward the door.
Peter's eyes met mine briefly, white-rimmed with shock or anger, but he said nothing. Then he turned away and followed where David led.
The telephone rang and I picked it up at once. "Hello, Nightingale here."
"That was quick, I didn't even hear it ring." So few people bothered with proper greetings these days.
"Inspector Stephanopoulos, how can I help you?"
"We're down at Victoria Embankment Gardens, the narrow end just in front of the Savoy Hotel. I've got Grant down here looking into a crime scene. We thought it was stale news, but apparently there's a live device -"
"Tell him to wait until I get there," I said sharply, knowing it was useless.
"There's also a hostage, and we have a limited timefra-" Her voice cut off in mid word. A moment later, the phone resumed its dial tone.
And then I felt it, a wave sweeping up from the south: heat and terror and fury tapering off into a strange loneliness. In the kitchen, Toby howled. A few seconds later, Molly swept into the atrium looking alarmed.
"Yes," I said numbly. "I know." I looked toward the lobby and the plinth where Newton stood. But it wasn't time for that yet; I had to be certain of what had happened.
Molly caught my elbow and pointed south. Toby was still yelping mournfully in the kitchen.
"I believe Peter is... gone," I told her. "We shall see if I'm able to get him back." I hung up the phone.
All the cards had been dealt now, and it was only a matter of looking at them. But all must be done in the proper order, so I went to the coach house and took down the keys for the latest in a succession of Fords, all of which Peter insisted upon calling 'Asbo' regardless of the model. I pulled the car out and put the spinner on top, heading south.
The newer car models are far safer and more comfortable, but they are chock full of silicon gadgets and will immediately break down if the driver uses any magic while the car is running. Peter, after years of effort, had developed a technique for limiting the effect of certain simple spells. It was as if he cast the forma in miniature, creating a tiny werelight or an impello that would only move small objects. I still fretted that this would impede his progress with higher-order spells, but it seemed he was able to produce a classical forma at will when he needed to build upon it. This trick of his had likely saved a few mobiles in addition to the car's clock and temperature display, but more importantly it could be quite useful for casting in secret when a hostile practitioner was nearby. Despite its usefulness, I did wonder how much further along in his studies Peter might be without all the divagations of his insatiable curiosity.
Victoria Embankment was swarming with police, but they let me through the lines at once. I had scarcely put a foot out of the car when I heard my name called. Beverley Brook was running toward me, in some distress. She must have used glamour to get through the cordon.
"Nicky called me," she gasped. "She said it was a mistake, she didn't mean it."
"Didn't mean what?" I asked, glancing toward the hub of all the activity, which seemed to be a crater in the park's grassy earth. A large tree at the edge of the crater looked nearly ready to topple, with a number of people clustered cautiously to the side conferring about it.
"I don't know!" Beverley wailed. "But I felt it - didn't you? It felt awful."
"Yes..." I caught a flash of Stephanopoulos' pale hair and headed in that direction, holding up my warrant card. A constable tried to stop Beverley and I realised she must have let her glamour drop. "She's with me," I muttered, and then we were in.
"Nightingale," said Stephanopoulos with a tone of relief, but a moment later her face tightened into something that looked like worry. "I hoped you were on the way. My phone died. Everybody's phones died."
"The device went off," I said. "While Peter was looking at it?"
"That's right. We don't know exactly what happened, but we haven't found - there's no sign of -"
"I will ask for a more detailed account in a moment," I said, "but first I must be sure there are no other immediate threats."
"We don't think so. Well, the tree is about to fall."
I glanced at the tree and gripped my staff. The branches swayed and the trunk groaned and creaked and stood properly upright again. I suspected too many of its roots had been severed for it to survive, but it was stable for the moment. The crowd around the base of it surged away and then cautiously moved forward again.
I turned back to Stephanopoulos. "You said there was a hostage. Did he survive the blast?"
"She's being loaded into an ambulance over there." She pointed.
"I must check her before they take her away. If there are more traps they might be connected to a person."
"Hold the ambulance!" she bellowed, and helped carve a path through the various constables, gas and electric technicians in the way.
In the back of the ambulance was a young woman on a gurney. She was covered in blankets but a paramedic had her arm out to check something and I could see she was very wet and muddy. I turned to glance at Beverley, who had followed on my heels to the doors of the ambulance. "Was this your sister's doing?"
"Partly, I think," she whispered unhappily. "She didn't know!"
I climbed into the ambulance and asked the paramedic to give me a moment, which he took poorly. I let Stephanopoulos explain while I examined the young woman. The mud had been wiped imperfectly from her face. She was conscious, but dazed, and watched me dully as I bent close. There were overlapping layers of vestigia: Peter's palm oil and crackling ozone at the forefront, but nearly as strong were the charcoal and pinpricks I associated with the Phoenix. Nearly buried at the bottom I could just catch a cascade of flower-scented hair that I knew came from Lesley May. Interestingly, there was no hint of the screaming terror from the trap itself which had saturated most of this area.
Gently I touched the woman's head, arms and feet under the blankets, but there was nothing fresh or active. "She's safe to transport," I told the paramedic, and stepped down from the ambulance. "Right, now tell me what you saw," I told Stephanopoulos. "Or if there was anyone closer, I want to talk to them."
She shook her head. "The crime scene was in a basement flat over there, at the end of the park. That's where the woman was taken from. While we were examining that scene, two of the constables on guard noticed a circle of metal set in the ground, out here in the park. They thought it was a sewer access, but there were signs of fresh digging around it, and then they saw something that looked like plastic explosives -"
"On top? Above ground?" I pressed.
"Yes, attached to the metal. Not exactly what you would expect for a terrorist setup, but of course there might be others in tunnels under the ground or something like that. Once it was brought to our attention we could hear the hostage underneath, calling for help. She said there was water rising above her waist."
"Peter hates that sort of thing," another voice put in. "Too much like what happened to him when he was buried under Oxford Circus."
I recognised the man as Peter's friend Kumar from BTP, but I wasn't clear on exactly how he'd come to be here. There did seem to be representatives present from a great many agencies, no doubt because of the alarm regarding possible terrorism.
"Water rising?" I murmured to Beverley, and she nodded grimly.
Stephanopoulos resumed her account. "Grant said the explosives were a decoy - possibly real, possibly not, but the greater danger was one of those demon trap things. He said he knew how to disarm it."
"He does," I said darkly, "provided there are no complications - such as explosives, for instance."
"Well, he had us all back off at least twenty metres and he got a branch from a tree and started poking around with it. This was when I called you. I was off at the back of the group so I didn't see exactly what happened next."
"It looked like an explosion, only slower," Kumar said. "First a white flash, like you'd expect from plastics. But it only went out so far and then stopped. Like something was holding it in a bubble. A sphere shape." He gestured to the hemispherical bowl of the crater in the ground. In the middle a shaft went further down into muddy water, presumably where the hostage had been held. "And the sound of it was weird - a rumble instead of a crack, and then it cut off all of a sudden."
"The bubble floated up into the air, then out over the river," Stephanopoulos filled in. "And then it drifted off downriver. But I wasn't really certain if it was moving away or getting smaller."
"Both, I think," Kumar said. "Hard to tell the distance to a floating thing, but it just zipped away down the river while it was shrinking."
"And the bubble was filled with light? With fire?" I asked, and they both nodded. "Did it change colour?"
"From white to yellow?" Kumar suggested. "Just a little, I think."
That meant the energy was bleeding off, but not by much. What had possessed Peter to contain the energy of the explosion inside his own shield? "You said Peter had a tree branch," I said slowly. "Was he holding anything else?"
"His baton," Stephanopoulos said at once.
"Right." I took a breath. "Let me check this... hole, then." I walked around the edges of the crater, holding my hand out toward the middle to feel for vestigia. I felt the same jumble I'd got from the hostage, but nothing else.
Stephanopoulos pointed me to where the round metal plate had fallen to the ground, and I headed in that direction, tilting my head to Beverley as I went. "What did Nicky tell you?"
She stepped closer and kept her voice low. "She said Lesley asked for her help. You know she likes - liked - Lesley."
"It was meant to be a prank, a practical joke. I... I'm not sure exactly what Lesley told her, because Nicky was pretty upset when she called me. But Nicky really thought it was just going to be, like, inconvenient and embarrassing, not something dangerous. She wasn't going to hurt the woman, just scare her to make Peter rush so he would skip steps."
"Apparently, that part worked quite well." I crouched next to the steel plate, which had been bent nearly double. Here the trap vestigia were clearer, along with the signs of both the Phoenix and Lesley. I tried to trace the shape of the spell - no, spells; one simple and one far more complex.
Beverley caught her lip, tears shining in her eyes. "Look, I wouldn't have thought Lesley could do anything like this, okay? You can't expect Nicky to pick up on every little clue!"
I straightened and held up a hand. "You do realise this constitutes a serious breach of the agreement."
"But Nicky saved her! The woman. Soon as the explosion went off, Nicky pulled her underwater and kept her safe, then let her up when it passed off. She's going to be fine."
"Very gratifying. I'm not sure we can say the same for Peter, however."
Beverley gulped. "He was inside that bubble? With all the fire in there too?"
"He was," I said grimly. "Evidently he was trying to keep everyone else safe, even at risk of his own life."
"After he got burned so bad that time last year? Will he... get better again?"
"I don't know." I started back toward Stephanopoulos. "We'll have to find him first."
When we reached the others I explained what I had found. "You can look but I don't believe you'll find any further devices. The material your men saw was not a true plastic explosive, although I expect the resemblance was intentional. It was devised by the Phoenix."
"But it did explode," Stephanopoulos pointed out with a frown.
"Rather strangely, as Sergeant Kumar noted." I remembered some of Frank Caffrey's lectures on 'how it works' when I only wanted to know 'how do I use it.' "The velocity and, er, yield likely did not match what would be expected of a chemical explosion. That's because this was effectively a magical explosion, and it was the second of three layers in this trap. The first layer was a demon trap, as Peter saw. He did disarm it successfully, but that was expected - disarming it was the trigger for the second layer, the magical explosion. And that set off the final effect, a translocation spell to carry the... victim to some other location."
"So someone was trying to capture him?" said Stephanopoulos. "Or you?"
"Or whoever stumbled into the trap. Translocation requires a great deal of energy, so the multiple layers were needed to build that energy. Peter disarmed the first trap and almost managed to prevent the translocation spell, but unfortunately he had the explosion to deal with as well. That means he was attempting to contain the excess energy at the same time that he diverted or resisted the translocation spell."
"So what happened to him?" Stephanopoulos demanded.
"The spell took him away somewhere, but not where the maker of the trap intended." I followed that truth with a glib lie: "I don't know where he ended up, but I should be able to find out. Of more concern is that I don't know what state he might be in, so my priority is to find him quickly."
"We'll put out an alert to all stations. Do you know who set the trap?" she asked.
"You will have to ask Ms. Brook about that." I turned to Beverley. "Tell your mother I will need an audience - after I find Peter. Keep Nicky under watch until then."
Chapter 6: September 1940 / February 1945
When David and Stackmire had taken Peter away, I forced myself to turn back to the bedroom. Peter's dusty clothes were neatly folded upon a chair. I rifled through the pockets of trouser and jacket, finding no ration book but a couple of small notebooks with plastic covers instead of cardboard. One notebook had a small pen tucked into the spiral binding; though it seemed a cheap thing of bakelite, it drew a remarkably clean line with no halts or clots. The notes themselves were in a free, round hand that looked almost childlike, but they appeared to be about police cases, with some abbreviations I knew and many I didn't. Where dates were noted I saw no year listed, and I closed the notebook before I could be tempted to search for one.
There was Peter's miniature mobile phone, and I hesitated over that since it held a great deal of dangerous information. He had said that magic disagreed with its workings; should I ruin the thing deliberately by turning it on with an active werelight held close? I decided just to tuck it in my own pocket, and if anyone investigated I could ruin it 'accidentally' before they found anything out.
There was a tiny plastic box, large enough for a pair of cufflinks, but with nothing inside. There was a ring of keys that mostly looked normal, aside from one with an oversized black handle that had buttons recessed into it. The keys went into my jacket along with the wallet holding Peter's warrant card. There was a fatter billfold that flipped open as I lifted it, and I saw several small plastic cards with numbers tucked into individual slots, some also holding photographs in colours as vivid as the warrant card. The bills peeping out of the middle were in strange pastel colours, showing large numbers and the top of someone's head, but with an effort of will I resisted the temptation to study them more closely or look for a date on anything inside. I closed the billfold and tucked it away.
I was conscious that all of these things were important evidence that Peter did indeed come from the future, but it might be dangerous to share that evidence. He had spoken of paradox and feared that what he had already told me might cause a problem in - what had he called it? - the space-time continuum, which sounded much like one of David's phrases. Likely Peter would be reluctant to tell more people about his astonishing tale of time travel. I wanted his things safe with me if they might make a difference to his case, or in the happy chance that I could merely return them to him. But I also suspected Peter would want them kept hidden from David and the others.
I placed everything in my inner pockets, then took up my own keys and wallet before heading to the door. I hesitated before pulling my cane from the hatstand, knowing that if I needed the thing I was likely already lost. I took it with me nevertheless.
I hung my hat and overcoat in the Folly's lobby under Isaac's benevolent gaze and continued in to find the atrium full of proper gentlemen lounging and talking in small groups, reading newspapers and boasting about how they weren't complaining that their breakfasts had been ruined by rationing. On another day I might have been one of them. Several men greeted me but I answered abstractedly, until my eyes fell on Stackmire trying to hide behind a paper.
"Where did they take him?" I demanded. "Kettering's office?"
Kettering was the Master of the Folly, our acknowledged leader for many years. Although our oaths did not explicitly require obedience to him, he shaped the policies that all the wizards of the Folly must adhere to. Kettering had brokered the magical truce with the Germans during the Great War, which no doubt had saved many lives both among practitioners and footsoldiers. But there were some who had resented that inaction and wanted to take a more active role in the present conflict, and as a result Kettering's authority was more fragmented than it once had been. Still, he was the obvious person to take charge of investigating a supposed rogue practitioner who might or might not have been trained by someone from the Folly.
But Stackmire shook his head. "Not upstairs. Down."
There were cells on the lower levels for incarcerating black magicians. Some of them included wards to prevent the use of magic inside. But Peter Grant was hardly in such a dangerous category. I frowned and headed for the stairs.
"Nightingale," Stackmire called. "You'd really do better not to interfere. Mellenby's on a crusade."
I grimaced. "Then someone needs to show him the truth."
I hurried down the stairs, past the firing range with all its encouraging posters, where a number of the younger men were honing their skills or teaching each other new tricks. Past the warded cells where several black practitioners had been kept until war was declared and they were moved to another facility somewhere in Wales. I was relieved to note that none of those cells were in use, but further along the rough brick hallway was another small windowless room without the warding upon it, and beyond that door I heard voices. I turned the latch and pushed open the heavy door.
Peter Grant was at the far end of the narrow room upon a straight-backed chair, glowering at two men who sat and one who stood with their backs to me. David Mellenby was the one who stood, Kettering and Pynchon on the chairs. It was Pynchon who had been at the forefront of the drive for wizards to take a more active role in the war. The Jerries weren't holding back, he claimed, and neither should we. He wanted magical practitioners - trained and accredited by the Folly, naturally - on every ship, in every regiment, on every airfield.
Pynchon was in his sixties, a decade younger than Kettering - past his prime physically and magically, but just reaching his apex politically. He had always been something of a mentor to David Mellenby. In fact, as an old family friend, he was David's godfather. I wasn't sure if Pynchon was responsible for David's increasingly bellicose attitude, or whether they were feeding each other's ambitions, but the two of them in combination made me nervous.
David was craning over his shoulder to frown at me. "What do you need, Thomas?" he demanded.
"You're making a grave mistake," I said. "The man you're holding is a member of the London Metropolitan Police."
"He has no identification to prove that claim," said Pynchon stiffly.
I had Peter's warrant card in my pocket but didn't dare show it to them. Peter himself was frowning and minutely shaking his head, which confirmed my suspicion that he didn't want to talk about the future.
"In any case, Thomas, you might have picked up a telephone before believing every story told by a stranger," David put in. "I called the Met and they've never heard of any Detective Sergeant Grant. They have no negroes with that rank at all, only a few coloured PCs."
"Regardless, he's done nothing to deserve this sort of treatment," I said. "He saved a family of three only this morning, at some risk to himself."
"Yes, and at the risk of any Tom, Dick or Harry seeing magic being used," Kettering objected sourly. "There's a reason we send men out in organised teams, not running willy-nilly to every bomb site. Would you have the Folly overrun with people demanding magical solutions to all their problems?"
"Grant was under my supervision at the time," I gritted out. "Any mistakes should be set to my account."
"Very noble of you, Thomas, but we do have larger concerns," David drawled. "Have you considered where this man comes from?"
"He's from London," I said. "It's in his voice."
"Any competent mimic could achieve as much," said Pynchon. "And in any case, it's not quite right, you can hear it in his vowels."
I suspected the faint unfamiliar cadence in Peter's accent came either from his foreign-born mother or from some future shift in pronunciation. Neither of those points was likely to hold water with these men.
"He could be a spy, Thomas," David explained. "He very likely is."
I clenched my fists. "You may not have noticed, David, but he's not precisely Hitler's Aryan ideal."
Peter huffed quietly at the other end of the room.
Pynchon jabbed a finger at me. "The Germans aren't the only ones in this fight. He could be from Libya. Or from Italian East Africa, or Spanish Morocco, or half a dozen other places that have sympathies in Europe."
"He's from the -"
"I'm from Kentish Town," Peter interrupted firmly. "Born and raised." He met my eyes narrowly, and I knew his reluctance to say anything about his travels in time had become a firm determination. Perhaps he feared an even harsher interrogation if they believed that he truly knew the future and the outcome of this war. Or he feared that the more people who knew, the more likely it was to result in that paradox he had spoken of.
I had also said lightly that Peter shouldn't tell me too much, but it seemed a distant and airy concern in the face of this very real danger. I didn't want to see a good man ground to dust in the Folly's ancient and venerable gears. I had come to the point of accepting Peter's evidence of time travel, as astonishing as that might be, yet I was still not certain I believed in paradox - not to the extent that I would sacrifice Peter to prevent it. But he seemed to think it was that vitally important that he would sacrifice himself.
"Who are your people then?" Kettering demanded. "Tell us, and we'll look them up."
Peter closed his mouth firmly.
"Who taught you magic?" Kettering continued. "How did you learn to conceal your signare?"
David made an impatient noise and flung a fireball down the room. It was large and red, not particularly hot nor moving very fast. It was intended to cause more alarm than damage, I could tell at once.
Peter was certainly alarmed. He yelped and jerked back violently in the chair and I could see he'd been bound, but not with magic-suppressing handcuffs. He would have toppled right over if he hadn't knocked his head against the wall. His hand twitched, but instead of the shield I expected to see, the oncoming fireball was met with a wave of ice that sizzled quickly into steam. The signare was not what I'd felt from Peter before, but instead something with a sharp tang of alcohol and dog fur, and only a hint of sparks.
Everybody stiffened. "That was not a Folly-approved spell," said Pynchon coldly.
"And throwing fireballs against prisoners is Folly approved?" I objected.
"Quite right, Mellenby, you go too far," Kettering said.
"Oh, any third-former could have stopped that one," David scoffed.
"And it's given us a clue," Pynchon said. "I recognise that ice spell. Part of a Russian discipline. They train their practitioners as spies from childhood."
Peter laughed. "Seriously? Do I look Russian?" He didn't seem to appreciate how much trouble he was in.
"His signare changes," I said, somewhat uncertainly since it seemed likely to increase suspicion. "His other spells had a bit of the Folly in them. I agreed with Stackmire on that point, except that I wasn't the one who taught him."
"You said you'd only met the man yesterday?" David asked thoughtfully.
"That's correct," I said slowly.
"And yet he was able to pick up your signature so quickly and imitate it?"
I recalled that Peter had cast his first werelight before he'd seen me do any spells at all, and I sensed his relationship to the Folly at once. Of course, if he knew me from the future he must have seen me cast many times, and perhaps I truly was - would be - his teacher. But I wasn't planning to mention that.
"What spells did he see you cast?" Kettering asked me sharply.
Reluctantly, I listed them: "Lux, state, aer, impello, terra, and aqua. Some of those were higher-order forms, some quite simple."
They all looked at each other. "It would surely take years of practice to be able to copy another wizard's signare," David mused.
"I'm not sure it could be done at all," said Kettering. "Many would burn out, attempting such a trick."
"So he is a spy, then," Pynchon concluded. He turned to Peter. "Whom do you work for?"
Peter's mouth quirked. "The London Metropolitan Police."
"We've had that already. Tell the truth!"
David turned to me. "Can you compel him to be truthful, Thomas?"
I hesitated. Years of working with spirits, fae and practitioners at home and abroad had given me an almost instinctual feel for how hard I could press an obligation, even in cases where I didn't truly understand the nature of the obligation. I sensed now that I could command Peter quite far, much further than could be accounted for by a sandwich and a tumble between the sheets. Perhaps it was something from Peter's acquaintance with me in the future. I could order him to tell the truth, and he might manage to remain silent but he wouldn't be able to lie outright. And perhaps David would extract the time-travel story, and then... if they believed him, they would press Peter for details about the future. If they didn't believe him, they would punish him for lying.
Slowly, I shook my head. "It was only tea and shortbread. The obligation won't stretch that far."
Peter's eyes flicked up at me briefly, but his expression was so guarded that I couldn't read him. I thought he might be relieved, but it wouldn't extend as far as gratitude. I'd wronged him before helping him, after all.
"Well," said Pynchon. "We shall have to use other methods, then."
Peter's eyes narrowed. "You know, beating a suspect works if you just want a confession, but it doesn't actually get you the truth."
I caught my breath. So Peter did suspect the danger he was in. Why wouldn't he tell them the truth, then? Should I speak up regardless of his wishes?
"This is far more effective than a mere beating." Pynchon flicked his fingers in a spell that I knew but had never cared to learn for myself.
Peter screamed, brief and shocking, then slumped back in the chair with his eyes wide.
I lunged forward, but David was already turning to catch and restrain me. "Come on, Thomas, no need for you to see this."
"You're making a mistake!" I bellowed, and my hand clutched tight about my staff. But they had staves as well, and I had sworn oaths never to raise magic against them. David and Pynchon together bundled me out the door, and locked it.
On the other side of the door, I felt magic rising. Pynchon's, then David's. I heard cries of pain. I felt Peter trying to do something in response, but it wasn't effective.
"Just tell them, Peter," I whispered at the door. But I couldn't make myself break Peter's own resolve of silence. If he thought it was important enough to endure such treatment, could I defy his choice?
It seemed the only way that I could help was by not doing what was in my power. I hadn't used Peter's obligation, not after that first time. I hadn't revealed his secret about the future, although I wasn't certain that was actually helpful. Was there no positive action I could take to help him? The only possibilities that occurred to me would be violations of my own oaths and obligations, or ignoring Peter's own wish for secrecy.
There was another scream of pain.
Shamefully, I fled.
I remembered vaguely that, some time ago, I had sat down for a breather on a fallen tree. At some point since then I had ended up on the ground, and it was far more comfortable than I would have expected, even with the snow all about. It seemed very sensible that I should just lie here and rest for a bit, until someone shook my shoulder painfully.
"Oi. You all right, mate?"
There was something wrong with the fellow's speech. His German made no sense at all. In fact, it sounded more like English spoken by a London dockworker. I turned my head and opened my eyes.
"Oh, crap, it's you," he said. "You don't look so good."
Had I crossed the lines without realizing? No, I could hardly have failed to notice if I had stumbled into a broad river. Though, it was just possible the front had moved to this side of the river. It seemed I'd been wandering through the woods for weeks, so a great deal might have changed. How long had it been since I saw anyone else from my regiment? Not that our remaining numbers amounted to more than a company or two, mixed together from disparate pieces of the brigade group, all order having been scrambled in our panicked retreat.
"Come on then," said the man hovering over me. "Let's get you up."
He pulled on my left arm and I made a sound. He stopped and felt around my shoulder, where the bandages bulked under my blood-stained uniform and greatcoat.
"Shit! Is that a... bullet wound? You were shot? How long ago?"
"Few days," I managed, my voice coming out as a whisper.
"I'll assume that means you're not bleeding to death, then. Freezing to death, maybe."
I squinted at him. "You're very inappropriately dressed." He was wearing light trousers, a button-down shirt that gleamed in the wan light, and a charcoal grey suit jacket in a style that was unfashionable but vaguely familiar.
He chuckled. "Well, at least the fashion section of your brain's still working. Don't worry about me, sir, I'm not really here." He went on to disprove that statement by wrapping his arms around my chest and heaving me up, first to a sitting position in the snow and then onto the same log where I had sat earlier.
"Oh," I said at last. "You're... Sergeant... Peter." I pondered this for a minute while he brushed snow from my hair and shoulders and chafed at my hands. "But you look different than when I last saw you." In fact, he looked more as he had when I first saw him. They were the same clothes, I was nearly certain. I gazed around: we were on a snowy German hillside, like most of the landscape I'd seen lately. "Am I dreaming?"
"No, I am." He settled on the log beside me and rubbed at my gloved hands. "Fingers and toes all still there?"
I looked down. "I've no idea." They were quite numb, as was the rest of my body, and my face. "Perhaps... we're both dreaming?"
"That's right, you're a butterfly dreaming you're a man. All right, let's see if I can warm you up a bit." Before I could stop him, he rubbed his hands together and cast a surprisingly strong aer variant that enveloped me in warmth.
I sighed, tempted for a moment to relax into that heat, into the arm still encircling my shoulders. Then I remembered why I hadn't done as much for myself. "No," I breathed. "Werewolves on my trail. They have special training and they are - altered to smell magic."
He lifted his head and looked around in the gathering gloom. "Well, it's not going to do you any good to get away from them if you die of hypothermia. We'll deal with them when and if they find us. For now maybe we should get moving, find someplace to take shelter?"
I nodded weakly. "West." The colour of the sunset had nearly faded from the sky, but I found the last of the orange glow and waved in that direction.
Peter pulled my good arm over his shoulders and heaved me up, then we started together through the woods like contestants in a three-legged race. Peter's shoes were more practical than fashionable, but they weren't designed for snow. He was slipping almost as often as I was. The warm air followed and clung to us. After struggling a few dozen steps I paused and turned, looking back at the depression I'd left in the snow. "Where is my..." No, my pack was lost days ago. What was I forgetting?
"Got your staff right here, sir. It's nearly drained, you know." He passed it to me nonetheless, and I wrapped my numb fingers around it, feeling the weak hum.
"I know," I gasped. "It's the last one I brought."
"So this is Germany, is it? Forty-five?"
"Yes," I breathed, staggering through a deeper patch of snow. Peter steadied me.
"And, er, operation's all done now? Spatchcock, was it?"
I said nothing.
"You don't have to tell me about it, but I mean, you are headed away from the battle, right, not towards it?"
"Retreating," I managed. "Got to get across the Rhine. I was aiming to cross between Cologne and Dusseldorf, but..." I struggled for breath. "Those damn werewolves. Had to draw them away. Only a few dozen left from my regiment anyway, and all of them in bad shape. So I cast a few spells and headed into the hills, left the others to stick to the lowlands." They would likely find trouble in any case, but with luck it would be the non-magical sort. The few practitioners left with the group were in worse shape than those with physical wounds.
"I hope that was before you were shot?"
"I've been on my own for..." I had to think about it. "Not sure how long. Two weeks? More? Not sure how much further to go. I've been trying to avoid using magic, so I can get clear of them." My head was also pounding, which had made me wary of further casting, especially with the magic so strange and hard to draw upon. But the headache had been getting worse even without doing any magic, so it might be from some other cause. I didn't feel entirely well.
We struggled a few steps further. It was strange to have him pressed against me once more, his arm around my back and mine over his shoulders. A fragment of music haunted me, the song that had been in my head the last time I embraced him: J'attendrai / car l'oiseau / qui s'enfuit / vient chercher l'oubli / dans son nid... Flying home to find what had been forsaken sounded very appealing to this bird, just at the moment.
Peter's foot slipped and we nearly both went down, but he held on and got us untangled and moving again. "Maybe they lost your trail already?"
My breath came out in a shaky laugh. "Ever the optimist."
"Well, speaking as an optimist," he panted, "I'm going to suggest that when you get back to England, you should find whoever it was suggested coming to Germany in the winter, and tell him where to shove his head."
It had been David, who might or might not have made it back with the files. And Pynchon, who had not even made it to German soil. I remembered the two of them questioning Peter, and sending me away when I objected. I stumbled again. "Peter, I'm so sorry."
"Hey, take it easy there, just keep moving," he urged, pulling me along.
"I treated you... abominably." I had probably got him killed by handing him over to the Folly. But I wasn't even certain of that; I had just walked away and left him there, allowing them to pretend that nothing had happened. "So sorry."
"Stop that. Come on, focus on something else. How about, er... tell me about flowers."
Peter paused, holding me up while he renewed the aer spell. Warmth flowed over me again. As we resumed our staggering steps, my fingers and toes were beginning to prickle. That probably meant they wouldn't fall off, but it was an unpleasant sensation. My temples throbbed.
"You're always on me to learn more about plants, right? So tell me. When you get back to England, what are you going to plant?"
In fact, I had never cared for gardening overmuch. I appreciated the gardens of others, and I liked wildflowers best. But I contemplated the question: what if I did have a garden of my own? "Poppies," I said at last.
"Right. However could I have guessed. But those bloom in the summer, right? How about some nice spring flowers? Something that'll be coming up in a month or so when it starts to get warmer?"
"Crocuses," I mumbled. "They're optimists too, poking up to see if the snow is gone yet. Though, for springtime I've always rather preferred hyacinths. Bluebells, if you like."
"You know, I've always wondered about those - are they litmus flowers?"
I shook my head in bewilderment. "What?"
"You know, the kind of flowers that change their colour depending on the soil acidity? Like litmus paper. You know litmus paper, right? 'Course you do, it's been around for centuries."
"Litmus... flowers? Are you talking about hydrangeas?"
"Those the ones that are white, or pink if the soil's acidic or blue if it's alkaline?"
"Other way around," I gasped.
"Nah, can't be. Litmus goes red if it's acid, right?"
"They are not litmus flowers," I insisted.
"'Course they are. I read about how litmus paper was made, and it comes from plant bits, doesn't it?"
"Not from hydrangeas, though. Nor hyacinths, which do not change colour in any case... why on earth are we talking about this?"
"Because it's kept you distracted for nearly a kilometre."
I raised my head. It was true; I had hardly been thinking about weather or pain or interrogations for several minutes. We had descended a hill and were coming to the edge of the trees. There was deeper snow at the bottom, and we were silent while we slogged through it. "Need to... rest," I gasped.
"Right up ahead, just a bit more, I see a rock you can lean on." He hauled me a bit farther and propped me against the stone, which was in fact a pillar marking the start of a low wall that ran off through the darkness. This open field must be part of a farm, when it wasn't covered in snow.
"Got any water, then?" he prodded.
I unshipped my canteen and passed it to him; it was empty. He opened it, shook it, sniffed at it and made a face. Then he conjured a ball of water and dribbled it into the canteen.
"You're not going to stop using magic, are you?" I grumbled.
"Not while you need it to stay alive. Nor me - I'm the one who's underdressed, remember?" He took a swallow of water and passed the canteen to me. "Feels weird, though, doesn't it? Like... pulling on a rope that doesn't have much give?"
I nodded. "Something changed. Something the Nazi wizards did, I think." There had been the terrible wrongness of the bunker, and the creatures pouring out of it, and the enormous magical explosions that seemed to wipe out all sensation and thought. I'd been on the periphery; the practitioners closer in had mostly died, and those who survived were scarcely able to call up a werelight.
I sipped at the cold water and grimaced, then fumbled through my pockets until I found a small paper sachet and unfolded it.
"What - is that tobacco? You're worried about werewolves smelling magic, so you're just going to roll yourself a fag out here in the middle of nowhere?"
I glowered at him. "No, the tobacco's long gone. This is tea." With a word and a thought I boiled the water in the canteen and sifted in the last of my Darjeeling. As strange as the forma felt in my thoughts, I didn't drop dead from spell casting, nor did my headache get appreciably worse. Apparently I hadn't burnt my brains out yet after all. No doubt it should be more appalling to think the Germans had somehow changed the fundamental nature of magic, but even so I felt a little better knowing the problem was not in my own head.
After a couple of minutes I sipped cautiously; the tea was weak and the leaves tried to catch in my teeth, but the hot liquid burned a trail down my throat and into my gut. I offered it to Peter, who gulped and gasped.
"Probably just as well you boiled it anyway, who knows what's been growing in that canteen of yours -" He stiffened and peered at me from a few inches away in the darkness. "Wait. Are you running a fever?"
I sighed. "A few minutes ago you were scolding me for getting chilled."
"Yeah, but -" He pressed a cool hand to my face. "Shit. You're burning up. That bullet wound's infected, isn't it?"
I shrugged my right shoulder. He was likely correct, but there was nothing to be done about it so I didn't say anything.
He began to rummage through his own pockets, pulling out his billfold and two small notebooks and a ring of jingling keys and the miniature wireless telephone he had showed me in my flat, what seemed a lifetime ago.
"You haven't been there yet," I realised. I should have figured it out long before but I was still half-dazed from cold and illness.
"What's that?" He replaced his pocket contents and began the search again, methodically.
"You're travelling backwards in time, aren't you? That's why you're not -" Burnt to a husk, I didn't say. It all made sense now. The events I recalled from five years ago were still to come, for him. That was why he was wearing the clothes I had first seen him in, instead of the set I had given him.
Suddenly I knew how Peter must have felt when I asked him about the war, when he realised he couldn't tell me anything about my future. He must have known about what was to happen at Ettersberg. Spatchcock, he had said, a code name that no one outside the Folly was meant to know. But five years ago, he hadn't warned us.
So David had been right: Peter did know a great deal more than he ought. And Peter had been right: he didn't dare tell what he knew, and what he had already told me was very dangerous.
And I, in my turn, could not tell him what I knew. I could not warn him what was to come, or it would change what had already happened. Despite the warm air curling about me, I felt chilled to the bone.
His head was still down as he patted his pockets. The snow was soft and fresh, whispering underfoot instead of crunching. The slightest of sounds warned me and I had scarcely turned my head toward the dark shapes in the corner of my vision when shots rang out, loud and bright in the night air.
Peter threw his arm up, and I felt his signare wash over me, a blast of denim and tropical oil and ozone all combining into an aegis over the both of us. I raised my hand in turn - not with my revolver, which had no bullets anyway, but with three quick fireballs which began a yard beyond Peter's arm and flew swifter than thought across the snowy field.
Two figures crumpled to the ground; the third had nearly dodged, but the fireball caught his arm and he cried out. I watched in horror as flames ran up his sleeve, and he screamed, trying to beat them out and run away at the same time.
Peter's impello broke the fleeing werewolf's neck. When he collapsed into the snow, the flames guttered and died.
I stood and stared across the snow. Peter was pressed close to me, breathing in gulps. A fine trembling began to spread through his body, and it occurred to me to wonder if he had ever killed anyone before, in that happy future of his.
He ran his hands swiftly over my shoulders and back. "All right?" he gasped. "They didn't hit you?"
"Not a single bullet got through," I assured him. "Thank you, Peter, I wouldn't have seen them coming in time."
"They wouldn't have been coming if I hadn't magicked up the place," he said angrily.
"Yes, but as you pointed out they wouldn't have needed to come at all if I froze to death. Take whatever victory you can get, Peter." I steeled myself and shuffled through the snow toward the bodies.
"Inspector - er, Thomas, wait!" Peter hissed, following me. "We have to get out of here, those shots could have been heard for miles."
"We have to make sure they're dead first," I insisted. And there was another, more venal motivation. I pointed to the one that had fallen first. "That one has a pack; take it. There might be rations, maps, a compass." I checked on the third one, the one who had burned; he was dead, and the fire was out. The middle one had a small, neat hole in his forehead. I set my teeth and began to shuck off his coat.
"What are you doing?" Peter demanded.
"Here." I thrust the snowy but unbloodied coat at him. "Now you won't be so underdressed. Let's get out of here." With difficulty I called a wind to blow snow over the bodies, to wipe our footprints from the snow at least for some distance around. Then I sagged against Peter and let him lead me away.
We headed for the road, where the rutted tracks of many tyres would obscure our footprints. After that we managed perhaps four or five miles, dodging patrols twice, before my strength gave out. Peter was half carrying me, and I was shivering despite his spells when he hauled me into a half-burned farmhouse.
"Wait," I mumbled. "No, we have to -"
"Finish your tea," he ordered curtly, thrusting the rewarmed canteen at me.
"Where are we?"
"No idea, but it's shelter, and there's nobody here, and it's further west from where I found you. Take these, too." From his shirt pocket he pulled out a tiny white box that snapped open to reveal two small pills. He tipped them onto my palm and I blinked at them in bewilderment.
"What is this?"
"Antibiotics. For your infection."
"Do you mean penicillin?" I had heard of the wonder drug, but didn't know anyone who'd been treated with it.
"Like that, but more advanced. It's not a full dose, just what was left over from me getting some stitches a couple weeks ago." He brushed at his eyebrow. "But I figure even a partial dose will knock any puny 1945 bug on its arse."
I stared at him.
"Sir... Thomas. Put them in your mouth and have a sip of tea."
I did as he said.
"Now come over here and sit down." Here was a bedframe with leather lashings but no mattress. Peter threw a scorched blanket over the bare mesh and guided me to perch on the edge. He began to pull at my coat.
"What are you doing?"
"Going to check that wound. Clean it, if I can."
"There's nothing to use -"
"Got a bit of soap out of that pack I nicked. And water isn't a problem. Just hold still while I check."
He unbuttoned my shirt (previously my spare) to reveal the bandage I'd made from the shreds of the shirt I was wearing when I was shot. Not long afterward I had lost my own pack, with my ammunition and spare socks and two remaining days of rations - everything except my staff, in fact. I had tried not to think of the wound much since then, as there was nothing I could do about it.
It took several delicate dribbles of aqua before he could peel the fabric away, and he hissed at the mess underneath.
"The bullet barely grazed me," I mumbled disparagingly. It had gone through the skin and muscle just under my left arm, scraping the outside of the ribs. It was painful to breathe deeply or move that arm, but the wound was essentially harmless considering how near it was to the heart.
"Bit worse than that, but I suppose you'd be fine if it hadn't got infected. At least it hasn't gone septic yet, so hopefully the antibiotics will knock it down."
My thoughts drifted away as he poked and prodded, stinging me with soap and hot conjured water. "I hope there are no more werewolves following us," I fretted.
"I'll keep watch, don't worry." When he was done, he folded the last unstained pieces of the shirt for a pad, but bound them with an actual bandage from the German's pack before dressing me up again. He found more in the pack as well, insisting I should wear the German's clean, thick socks and pulling a knit woollen cap like a fisherman's right down over my ears. It was surprisingly warm, and I didn't have the energy to be disturbed at wearing a dead man's clothes. "You can lie down right here and have a kip." I felt his warming spell wash over me again, and then I faded into blackness.
I woke to the pulse of magic nearby. Peter was crouched upon a tiny stool, staring at an upturned metal washtub. Upon it was the core of my staff which he had cracked open, and he was lashing it with spells. The metal was hot, just enough to glow a sullen dark red, and I could feel its warmth from a few yards away. Peter was alternately heating it and shocking it with cold. Though the technique was not as effective as a proper forging where the metal would be much hotter and shocked by a hammer instead, it seemed the core was absorbing power nonetheless. Peter was recharging my staff.
I waited until he paused for a moment to assess the progress. "How did you learn to do that?" I breathed.
He glanced over at me. "I had a good teacher."
That was odd, since I had got the impression from his habitual signare that I, or a future version of myself, had been his teacher. Yet I had never encountered such a technique before; it certainly wasn't taught by the Sons of Weyland.
He looked weary, with a line of stress between his eyebrows. I reached out and pressed a finger there, gaining a startled look in return. "You have a headache," I said.
"Yeah. The magic is hard to pull." He looked down at the staff. "Guess I should probably stop for a while, let this thing cool down." He straightened on the stool, stretching his back and shoulders.
"Put out that werelight and come lie down with me," I whispered.
He looked surprised again. Had he never shared a bed with me before? But he had come to my bed so easily the last time - which was, for him, the next time. Or perhaps later than that; perhaps the path he followed was more baroque than I had guessed.
"It's the best way to stay warm," was all I said.
So he stood and shrugged off the stolen greatcoat and spread it over me, then crawled onto the narrow creaking bed and wrapped his arms around me beneath the warm wool. I felt his lips on the back of my neck and I twisted to press my own kiss to his jaw. But the stretch made me gasp in pain, and he soothed me to lie still until I slipped again into sleep.
When I woke in the morning, he was gone as if he'd never been, except that I had a half-charged staff core, a pack with extra rations, and a loaded pistol to supplement my empty Webley. I was warm under the two piled greatcoats, but not feverish, and my headache was gone. As I swallowed the last of the tea, I could hear gunfire in the distance; the Allied front must be no more than a few miles away. Possibly, with the help of the staff, I could reach the other side without getting shot. It seemed somehow a less impossible task than it had just twelve hours earlier.
Chapter 7: November 2017 / September 1940 / Interlude
I sat by Peter's bed with my head bowed and my hand clasped upon my cane. I could feel the magic waiting within the staff I had forged, all quite useless now. When Peter had truly needed me, when I might have been able to do something, instead I had been incapacitated, and all the power of my staff had done no good.
Silenced and immobilised, I had watched powerlessly as the Phoenix sent a spinning glob of fire at me. Peter had blocked it, intent upon protecting me as he had been ever since Berkeley Square. I saw his consternation and then fear as the spell clung to his shield, then spread across it, burning all the while like naphthalene. And then a piece of the fire broke through to burn Peter instead, and the rest of the shield collapsed into a flaming ball around him.
Varvara had charged in with her inimitable wolfish intensity, and the combination of ice and fire spells had filled the entire warehouse with fog. By the time the trap released me, both of them were gone. I was not terribly concerned about Varvara being on the loose after the layered oaths she had taken to cause no harm within this kingdom. The Phoenix was rather more worrying, but at the moment I was too preoccupied with Peter's injuries to make pursuit.
I wondered how long it would be before I was able to sleep without hearing his agonised screams, which had brought back too clearly the memories from years ago. Since I was currently hearing them while awake, I estimated it would be quite a long time. This time at least I had not abandoned him, but I had been very little help even so.
Peter was in the critical care unit rather than the private room a less direly injured Folly patient would get. The small room was temporarily empty of nurses and attendants, but they would not be gone for long. The sighing and clicking and beeping of machines was all that kept me company, until a hand descended upon my shoulder.
I turned my head to look up sideways at Abdul.
"Have you contacted his parents yet?"
I shook my head.
"I can take care of that for you," he offered gently.
"No," I murmured.
"Thomas. They'll want to see him. They might have a chance to speak to him, before..."
"He's not going to die," I said firmly, sitting upright in the chair.
Abdul hesitated. "You have a plan? Something you can do?"
"I know of nothing that can help with such injuries, not for a human. But I do know that Peter is not going to die, not from this. He won't even be significantly scarred."
Another long pause. "Are you saying Peter isn't human?"
"Of course he's human. You've examined him quite thoroughly."
"Then, how can you be certain... You've always told me it's not possible to see the future."
"It's not, in general. But I know how Peter Grant will die, and it's not here. Not now." But soon nevertheless, too soon. I gripped my cane harder.
Abdul looked towards the mound of bandages and tubes upon the bed. "This sounds like something I should have known sooner."
I shook my head. "No one should know this. If I could forget it, I would." And I should not have mentioned it to Abdul, or to anyone. I had kept the secret close for so long, but somehow the tension of this hospital room had broken my resolve. It was the sight of Peter lying there so still and near death, I supposed - but not the stillness and death that I knew must await him. The combined similarity and contrast were staggering. "No one should know, but I have known, since long before I took him as my apprentice."
"In that case, it sounds like a burden you shouldn't be bearing alone."
I stood up. "There isn't anyone else."
"You need to talk about this -" He glanced around at the doorless entry, the glass windows upon the cubicle where Peter was monitored every moment.
"Another time, if you must. When we have more privacy. But right now, I have some reading to do. There is an answer, and I will find it."
I spent the night in the Folly's magical library. It was after dawn when the phone call came, Abdul sounding weary but jubilant. "He's awake. He's asking for you. And, Thomas - he's healing."
By the time I arrived at the hospital, the bandages had already been removed and Peter was sitting up in bed, wearing a thin cotton gown in a shade of mint that did not flatter his complexion. He beamed at me blurrily, looking as if he'd suffered no worse than a bad haircut and an overhot shower. Without thinking, I strode to the side of the bed and pulled him into my arms, breathing in his signare and natural scent underneath all the sharper medical smells.
He gave me a slow startled look and I pulled back, remembering myself. "Sorry, are you - did I hurt -"
"No, no, I'm fine, pretty much. Just, erm..." He waved a hand vaguely and leaned against my chest. His arms, emerging from the cotton sleeves, looked raw and pinkish - but still smooth and unscarred, healthy skin if very new.
"He's likely to be a bit tender for a while," said Abdul, who had followed me into the room and stopped halfway to the bed. He was eyeing me as if he thought something else might be wearing my body. "He's also still rather groggy from the drugs. We only turned off the drip when we found his burns had started to heal."
I cleared my throat and took Peter carefully by the shoulders, lifting him away from me. But I couldn't quite make myself let go of him, and my thumb brushed the back of his neck invisibly above the cotton fabric. "Peter, do you know why you're getting better?" I asked him cautiously.
Peter huffed. "Well, er... I think you said something a few years ago about gift horses?"
I frowned, trying to place the memory. I had been the one in the hospital bed then. Yes, it was after I was shot, and Peter had just learnt how old I was.
Peter yawned and continued airily. "But I s'pose it has to do with the vision I had. Or, like, astral projection or something."
Abdul came to the other side of the bed and looked at him sharply. "What's this?"
"S'appened a couple times, when I was in bad trouble. Close to dying? The first time was when Molly tried to eat me."
"That vision was deliberately induced, by haemomancy." I tried to recall what he had told me about the incident, and one thing did rather leap out at me. "I expected the sensory clarity she lent you to help you search an area for the revenant. But instead the vision took you back in time." I hadn't caught the significance then, since such hallucinatory experiences are by nature highly individual. Also, I was heavily drugged when Peter told me about it.
He nodded a little too emphatically, as if his head might wobble from his neck. "Happened again, when I was buried under Oxford Circus."
"You did not tell me that," I said sharply, remembering the terror of that night - Peter missing, then reports of gunshots, then Peter buried and all the officials insisting on waiting for machines to do the digging when I might have ripped the platform apart myself. Afterward, Peter had been unfit to talk right up until events became exciting again. Why could he never tell me things when I had time enough to analyse them properly?
He considered. "I guess things got a little crazy right after. But anyway, I hallooni- hallu- I dreamt about going back to the founding of London. Talked to Tyburn."
I frowned. "Lady Ty was not present at the founding of London."
"This was Sir Tyburn. I thought maybe Lady Ty was trying to put me under an obligation, but it went sideways and I ended up with the wrong Ty?"
"I... see," I said, though I didn't.
Abdul prompted, "And is this a recurring phenomenon, your visions?"
"I dunno. I mean, those two were, like, outside agency? I thought? Molly and Lady Ty, or Sir Ty, or whoever. Hasn't really happened since then, 'cept sometimes I have these really vivid dreams but they're usually just, you know, dreams. Replaying memories or shuffling them about."
"But this time you believe your vision was something more?" I asked. "It was connected to the healing?"
He told a strange story about travelling not only in time but in space, first arriving at the door of a hut that was opened by a fairytale witch. "Like something out of Macbeth or Grimm or one of those: old woman, stringy hair, rotten teeth, squalid hut. And I wasn't me - I was a white girl in a heavy stiff dress and a cloak with a hood over my head. And the old witch woman was cackling about herbs to cause miscarriage."
"Real hedge witches were never like that," I objected.
Abdul gave me a sideways glance. "As I understand it, historical accounts vary but there may have been a grain of truth in the stories."
"But what Peter is describing sounds more like a caricature, an exaggeration," I said.
"Yeah, right, exactly!" Peter flung out an arm to point at me, a little too enthusiastically, so that his finger dug into my shoulder.
I shifted and caught his hand, placing it back on the bed and carefully letting go.
"A caricature," Peter repeated. "It almost reminded me of old Punch. But then the witch turns around and looks at me and says, 'You need a death' and 'We don't do that sort of thing.' And then she goes, 'Look farther afield' and taps me on the head with a leafy branch - no, I don't know what sort of tree it was from, sir - and then I'm flying away to somewhere else."
That somewhere else, apparently, was a ceremony in his mother's homeland long ago. "Pre-colonial, I think, because it was all native clothes and the animals were native too, not European imports. And there was a bonfire, bokor chanting, drums and coloured candles and all that jazz. Just like every stupid story you've heard about voudoun. I was in the crowd, dancing and singing, waiting for the sacrifice."
"Human sacrifice?" I said uneasily, because that is very powerful and very dangerous magic, and also vanishingly rare in any society despite the lurid legends of explorers from my childhood.
Peter shrugged, his shoulders moving without a sign of pain. "Don't think so. There was a goat waiting - I think it was a goat. But then the bokor looked at me, picked me right out of the crowd, and suddenly I understood what he was saying. He said I was possessed by a loa. Or, I guess he meant I was the loa, possessing the guy I was in."
"Possession by a disembodied spirit?"
"I don't know, sir. I thought loas had power, like fae or genii locorum or whatever. And I'm not, but just like the first vision I looked down and realised I wasn't in my own body. So instead, the bokor had me - or the guy I was in - hauled up in front of him, and I thought I would be sacrificed instead. But he just says, like the old witch, 'We don't have what you need. Look closer to home,' and he picks up a tray with stuff burning in it and blows the smoke in my face."
"And then you went to yet another place?" It occurred to me that this story combined the themes of Peter's visions through time, including sudden jumps of location, together with a form of spirit possession. That had also come up more than once in the people around him, but so far Peter only knew about the case involving Lesley.
Peter frowned. "Not so much like a fairy tale this time, unless you count Mary Shelley, I guess. This was a sort of old-fashioned medical lab except half the instruments looked more like torture devices. And the vestigium was so strong it was almost like a soundtrack from a movie about Torquemada. I was being pushed in a wheelchair - I was an old sick white guy, I guess, from the hands. Pushed up to a lab table." He glanced at Abdul. "Or maybe an autopsy table, since it had drains. And a dead guy on it - well, I thought he was dead. Two guys standing there in lab coats with blood smeared all over, one of them lecturing about how the energy of death could be captured, transferred, used for other purposes."
My hand clenched on a corner of the bedding and I fought to keep my breaths steady, my expression blank. Where the other visions had sounded like distorted legends, this was starting to match too closely the descriptions of some of the experiments in the file cabinets that I had locked away in the basement of the Folly.
"So the one lab guy is talking while the other one hooks electrodes up to the dead body. First I thought they were trying to bring him back to life, but from what they said it was more like they wanted to heal me - or, I mean, the old man I was in, the one in the wheelchair. They flip a switch, and the body on the table starts to thrash and scream..." His face twisted. "It was really ugly. The guy who had been lecturing starts to cast a spell, and energy flows into me, from, uh, from the guy on the table. Who I guess wasn't dead after all, except by this time he's actually dying, and the energy feeds back and gets stronger until it makes me fly away all over again. Only this time the dream ends, and that's when I started waking up here."
I considered. "Would you say it all had a dreamlike quality?" I hardly listened to the answer, remembering Sergeant Grant saying that his dream-journeys were supposed to carry some sort of lesson. Only, when I had met him it was no mere dream even though he first thought it might be. Was there some sort of connection between these visions and those more verifiable travels? Did Peter have a propensity for seeing through time which would later turn into a habit of travelling in time? I never had learnt quite how his backwards journey began.
I refocused on the conversation to find Abdul talking to Peter. "And yet it apparently had real consequences here and now. Quite remarkable consequences, at that. Thomas said he didn't know of anything that could accomplish this, and yet, here you are." He gestured up and down Peter's raw but intact body.
Peter looked slightly queasy at the thought. "But if it was real, that's sort of worse, isn't it? I mean, did somebody really die like that, a long time ago in some fake lab, just so I could live today?"
Peter's concerns about morality always tended to focus on the immediate personal implications; he worried about the humane treatment of prisoners under the Human Rights Act even when the beings we dealt with weren't actually human. For myself, I shuddered more at the broader implications of Nazi experiments affecting us in the present day. Unless, of course, the dream had been a series of allegories and the energy that healed Peter came from an entirely different source. I tried to reassure myself with the observation that there was no vestigium of torture surrounding Peter - only his own magic and a faint echo of the Phoenix from days ago. He didn't smell like Nazi magic, but then again he didn't smell like anything else that would explain his sudden recovery.
"Quite aside from the question of how this really happened," said Abdul mildly, "I must admit I have no idea what to tell the NHS about all this. I'm afraid you'll have a bit of a wait before we can get you out of here, Peter - lots of paperwork to do, and I haven't the foggiest what to put down for some of it." He smiled at me. "On the bright side, he might be able to walk in a straight line by the time you get him home."
I fled to the Folly's magical library, trying to find anything that might be there concerning time travel. There were legends and apocrypha and the old chestnut about Merlin living his life backwards, but nothing reliable. Nothing to tell me how to stop it or how to send Peter home, and certainly nothing detailed enough to tell me if avoiding paradox was as necessary as Peter seemed to think it was.
Each time I turned a page or set one book aside to catch up another, I noticed that my hands were trembling. Then I would focus on the text and forget, for a short while.
It was not possible to hear any sounds rising from the basement cells to the library level. I told myself that, and I nearly believed it.
There were others in the room, but they ignored me, although I did notice Winthorpe marking my distress and considering whether to do anything about it. In the end he took the book he was reading and left the room. As luncheon neared, the library emptied out.
Shortly after the dinner gong rang, I glanced up to find Kettering standing in the doorway, frowning gravely. "This was a bad business, Nightingale," he said, and I realised to my shock that his hands were also shaking. "It may not be worth much now, but I'll make sure it doesn't happen again."
I closed the book of legends I had been leafing through and set it on the table as I stood. "Make sure what doesn't happen?"
David appeared next to the old man and touched his shoulder. "It's all right, sir, I'll see to this."
Kettering, still muttering under his breath, moved off down the hall.
I was halfway to the door now, my fists clenched. "What happened, David?"
"I'm sorry, Thomas. He burned himself out rather than speak to us."
Cold washed down my spine. "What?"
"I swear it wasn't our doing - we didn't push that hard. But he did something and it turned back on him. It was his own choice, Thomas. He took that avenue rather than tell us the truth. And, you know, only a spy would have made that choice."
I shook my head, the tremor spreading from my hands to my entire body. "He's not a spy!" I protested, my voice ringing in the room.
"Then why wouldn't he tell us the truth?" David said in tones that sounded so reasonable.
Because he thought the truth might unravel time, I wanted to say. But it was just as accurate to say, Because he trusted me, and I betrayed him. I might have revealed Peter's secret myself, but I had kept it because I felt I'd wronged him once already. I had let him make the decision of whether to tell it, and instead he resisted. But after all, why should Peter expect anyone in the Folly to deal with him fairly, if I had not? "He's a good man," I whispered. "David, what have you done?"
"He was lying to us, Thomas. Lying to you. He was never a policeman, nor even an Englishman in all likelihood. I know you've always had a soft spot for the native lads, but -"
I made a disgusted sound, feeling that I might be sick. Pushing past David, I barrelled out the door and down the stairs.
I was heading for the cell to see exactly what they had done to confident, righteous Peter Grant. But something made me pause and turn the other way, toward the kitchens.
Molly helped with meal preparations but she didn't serve, because her appearance unsettled so many of the men. So she was standing at a table ticking off ration tables, not as busy as the other kitchen staff, when she noticed me hovering unhappily in the doorway and came to see what was distressing me.
"Molly," I whispered, "I think they've killed my friend. I handed him over and they... they..."
She caught my hands in her long cool fingers and held them tightly.
"I have to go see him," I said. "I have to know what they did. Will you come with me? Help me?"
She nodded, and the two of us headed along the hall past the firing range.
The cell where they had interrogated Peter was locked. There was no sound from beyond the door, no trace of magic being cast, but the brick walls held vestigia of pain and screaming. I had heard horrible rumours of what the Nazis did to prisoners, how they drew the energy of painful deaths into their magical devices. Had the Folly stooped so low, to do the same to a man only for the crime of being different and unexplainable? Would Pynchon really do such a thing, would Kettering tolerate it, would David - my David, my fast friend since our first day in Ambrose House - really condone it? And even participate?
My staff had enough power to blast the door open, but that would draw attention. Instead, I waved to Molly, who found the right key on the great iron ring she carried. I pulled it open with dread and we stepped inside.
The chairs had been pulled into corners. Peter Grant lay prone on the cold stone floor. There was no blood, no sign of any kind of struggle save the one motionless body.
I knelt beside him and touched his shoulder, found it still warm. His chest lifted with breath. When I squeezed his arm he stirred and his eye turned toward me, but didn't focus. A line of spittle hung from his slack mouth to pool upon the floor.
"Peter," I breathed and pulled him up to rest against me. Half his face was drawn downward like melted wax. He twitched and flopped in my arms, then his left hand rose to catch mine, but his grasp was weak and clumsy. His wristwatch had stopped and I hoped it was only wound down, not broken - then I told myself the watch was not the important thing.
"You..." he got out. "You... mm... mmm... mmbird." He blinked up at Molly. "Teeth."
"Easy, Peter, just relax," I told him. "We'll - we'll get you some water. Take you to hospital. You can... you'll get better."
"Nah," he slurred. "Too late. 'M gone." After this too-accurate statement, he slumped back against my chest. "Tell," he rasped. "Tell him... tell you, later, 'm sorry. Sorry."
My eyes stung. "No, Peter, I'm the one who should be sorry. I led you to this. I never thought they would do such a thing."
"Mmmine," he got out. "My... bad. Tried, bu'got... wrong. Sorry."
"Shh," I murmured in his ear. "Quiet, now. We'll get you somewhere safe." I tried to lift him, but my legs shook and wouldn't hold me.
Molly stepped forward and plucked him from my arms, standing with him cradled to her chest like a child. Her brow was deeply furrowed, asking me what to do.
"Out," I told her, choking around the lump in my throat. "Get him out of here."
She carried him through the door and along the hall, walking sideways to get him down the narrow corridor.
The firing range was empty. The atrium was empty. Molly carried Peter into the lobby and he began to gasp and choke, limbs twitching feebly. She stopped, holding him but looking at me.
"Lay him down, here, right here," I said, reaching out to him helplessly.
Peter's left heel and hand juddered against the floor when she set him down, while his right side remained just as horribly motionless. Half his face was drawn into a grimace and the other half hung dead. I held him and stroked his head and said things that probably made no sense, that he didn't hear anyway, until the seizure was over. Then I remained there, kneeling over him, my cheeks wet and my throat aching.
Molly touched my arm.
"It's no good," I choked out. "Hospital won't help him. They're full of bomb victims anyway. What he needs isn't a doctor - he needs to go home."
Molly's eyebrows rose, asking.
"His home, his home isn't a place," I told her. In fact, from what he had said I gathered that the Folly was a home to him, or had been at some point. "He belongs in the future. I don't know how to get him there -"
It came to me in a flash. All you have to do is wait, I had said, and Peter had glared at me. But I knew how to make him wait - wait for his family, for his friends, for advances in medical technology to match the marvel sitting in my pocket now. That was it! I could make Peter wait, on the edge of death, until he could get proper help. He would need to wait in secret, but I knew how to do that, too.
I fumbled frantically through my pockets, pulling out everything that belonged to him and stuffing it all into his trousers, David's trousers that had travelled around the world with me.
Then I stood, clutching the cane that somehow I had kept with me all this time, and crossed to the statue of Isaac Newton upon his pillared plinth. With a quick scindere I severed him from his support, then floated him down to lie next to Peter on the floor.
Molly had backed to the wall, watching me in a mixture of delight and consternation. She adored any kind of magic, but she was wondering if perhaps I had gone a little mad? I gave her a firm, reassuring nod, then I started building a much more delicate and complex spell.
First, after some judicious repositioning of limbs, I cast state on Peter. It was simple but enormously strong, drawing upon the power stored in my cane, spread over his entire body and meant to last. With this spell upon him, he would most assuredly wait. He would wait for years, for decades, until it was time for him to find his fate.
Then imaginem transfero, a crossed pair of illusions. Under Molly's admiring gaze, Peter turned into the semblance and rigidity of stone, while Isaac next to him grew and filled with colour, becoming a perfectly convincing, yet completely inert human body.
The spells I had cast were strong enough to draw attention; everyone might be at lunch, but the building wasn't empty. Swiftly I lifted stone-Peter to stand upon Isaac's plinth, and stabilised him there with adstringo. Then I turned back to the apparent human corpse that I had made, and threw at it every spell I could think of that I might attempt upon a dying man. One of the spells, belatedly, was to warm the body from stone temperature to slightly cooler than flesh. My magic rang and echoed through the small lobby, each new spell overlapping the older ones until no one would be able to disentangle the traces unless they looked very closely.
I was still trying to think what last measures to attempt when David's hand came to rest on my shoulder. I shuddered.
"Hospital," I blurted. "He needs a doctor." The act wasn't difficult; it was what I wanted for the real Peter, after all.
"He's gone, Thomas."
"No. No, he can't... why would you do such a thing, David? I would never have thought it of you."
"It was an accident, my dear. But it's too late now. There's nothing more you can do for him. Leave him to us, now, we'll see to the body." David drew me up and away, and I found that a crowd had gathered, watching solemnly. Out of all of them, not one thought that Peter Grant was a real person who mattered, who should not have been tortured and killed on the Folly's grounds. To them the corpse in the lobby was merely a criminal, a spy, a coloured not-quite-human who should have kept to his own place. Did we truly think we were any better than our enemy in this war?
I let David lead me, shaking with exhaustion and horror, up to his lab. He made me drink something bitter mixed in water, and tucked me into the cot that crossed the corner of his small office. I lay and thought about whether I had done the right thing. I was only delaying the inevitable, wasn't I? But even if it was no more than delay, it might be worth it to give Peter the chance to die surrounded by family and friends who cared for him, instead of uncomprehending bigots staring down mutely. What was that worth?
And again, the fact that Peter's 'corpse' was a manufactured illusion meant that I couldn't bring his torturers to account under the law, or my deception would be discovered - and my silence would make it seem that I condoned what they had done. Was it worth it, sacrificing justice only for a hopeless hope?
I was still shaking when I drifted into a haunted sleep.
For all the years that I have been Master of the Folly, I made sure to have instructions ready in the event of my death: a pile of letters in the drawer of the telephone table in the atrium that would only become visible if the spell I placed upon them were broken. There were letters for Hugh Oswald and young Harold Postmartin and a few others about their responsibilities to English magic. For Abdul, regarding the disposition of my remains. For a string of Commissioners and a few select others in the Met, who might not be able to stop the chaos my death would usher in but who should at least be warned about it. For Mama and Father Thames, releasing them from obligation but nevertheless asking them to help the many in and out of the demi-monde who were going to need it.
It was terribly hard to know what to say to Molly; where should I tell her to go, and whom could I ask to take her in? But harder still was the request - the recipient changing nearly every time I re-wrote the letters - to keep an eye on the statue of Isaac Newton. Someday, the spells I had placed upon it would wear off, and I didn't know precisely what would happen next, but I suspected it would be tragic. And sometimes, as difficult as it was to write the letters, I preferred the thought that I would not be present to see those events.
After Peter became my apprentice, I knew I would have to re-write the letters yet again. But somehow I hadn't got around to it before I was shot in the back. I lay upon the pavement of Berkeley Square regretting everything that I hadn't said, and everything that I needed to say, and amazingly enough I survived once more. I never shirked my duty after that, though it seemed the letters grew more difficult and tangled and complicated with every year that went by. I always burned the old letters after rewriting them; the smoke of the last letter I wrote to Lesley May was harsher in my throat than any of the letters to colleagues who had passed on.
The only decision that was easy to make was that Peter was never to know the truth about the statue.
Chapter 8: December 2017 / October 1982
After Peter was discharged from hospital, there was a rather exciting period of several days while we closed in on the Phoenix. We managed to dismantle most of his network, but the man himself fled the country. That put him out of our remit, if not completely out of our concerns. Varvara was gone as well, but she had left just enough hints about her intentions that we needn't waste time searching. After that it was a long slog of cleaning up messes and investigating leads both forward and backward.
I thought that Abdul must have forgotten my promise to talk, but he showed up a week later just as I was finishing dinner. I waved him to one of the empty place settings.
"I've already eaten," he said.
"That's all right. Molly will be happy to provide you with more. Have some coffee, at least."
Abdul glanced at the pushed-back seat and napkin thrown down across the table from me. "So, that was Peter I saw leaving as I came in?"
"Yes. At least he had time to eat his meal, if not dessert. Inspector Guleed called; she finally tracked down the owner of the warehouse where we encountered the Phoenix. He appears to be a dupe, but they wanted Peter to help them ask the right questions."
"And you're not afraid he'll get himself into some further trouble?"
I sighed. "Undoubtedly, he will. It seems to be a particular gift of his."
"But you're not afraid he'll be killed, because -" Abdul cut himself off as Molly swept in with a tray bearing two lemon-cream tarts and two coffees.
I patted my lips with the napkin and moved my dinner plate to the side. "Molly already knows this," I said, nodding to her.
Abdul looked shocked. "You told her?"
"She witnessed some of the events herself. She has always been very discreet." I smiled at her as I added some cream to my coffee.
Abdul fussed with his own cup until Molly had gone, then said, "Perhaps you should tell me about these events."
"I am almost certain I should not, but I suspect you would only keep asking." After I had slipped up so badly at the hospital, I had considered how to approach this conversation. "It's fairly quick to tell, in any case. I first met Peter in 1940."
Abdul blinked at me.
"He was under the impression that he was dreaming, or having one of those visions where he is displaced in time. But from what I could see, it had the hallmarks of actual time travel." I had decided it would be simplest if I did not waste time describing the other occasions when I had seen Peter. Those were apparently all part of the same event, at least from Peter's point of view, so they didn't provide any further insight.
"Time travel is really possible?"
I lifted a segment of tart on my fork. "Not so far as I have been able to discern from the literature, yet it seems to have occurred in this case."
"So you're confident that Peter is going to stay alive because this event is still somewhere in his future?"
"How old was he, when you met him?"
I sipped my coffee carefully. "I estimated at the time that he was perhaps a decade younger than I."
"In 1940, so that would make him... thirtyish? He's nearly that now."
"There are some other indications that I am waiting for. But it will likely be within the next one to three years, by my estimate."
Abdul considered this for a while. "You said you know how he's going to die."
"That was not precisely true." My tart was gone, my coffee cup empty. I looked to the far end of the room. "When I last saw him, perhaps a day after I met him, he was in a very bad state, but not - quite - dead."
"What sort of bad state?"
I had to pause for a moment. "His speech was slurred. He had difficulty finding words, particularly nouns. He appeared to recognise me but could not say my name. He was unable to stand, or to lift his right arm, and one side of his face was slack. He had a seizure and then lapsed into unconsciousness."
All of these symptoms, Abdul knew even better than I, were signs of stroke. Or, more likely, of hyper-thaumaturgical degradation. As I understood it, the majority of non-magical strokes were caused by clots in the brain, and if the clotting problem could be addressed swiftly, many of the symptoms would resolve.
This was not true for magically-induced brain lesions. For all the advances of Abdul's research, he had only been able to conclude that magical brain damage was irreversible.
Abdul said slowly, "Was it a result of magic he did, or magic cast upon him?"
I clenched my fist upon my thigh, under the tablecloth. "I cannot be certain, as I was not present. There were multiple... hostile practitioners with him for several hours, who might have cast more strongly than they realised. On the other hand, he was exhausted and could easily have overextended himself." I had put it together over the intervening years, how hard Peter had pushed himself at the bombed building, and before that saving me from a German winter, and before that, and before, and before... all on little food and no rest except for the short interlude in my flat.
"You said this was the last you saw of him - what happened then? He returned to the future?"
"I put him into stasis."
Abdul stared at me.
"You see, it's quite easy to travel forward in time. Just a matter of waiting, really."
"Are you telling me that Peter Grant has been in some kind of suspended animation for nearly eighty years?"
"Here? In the Folly?"
"You mean he's somewhere downstairs right now, just waiting? In the process of a brain haemorrhage?"
"Yes. But I have no intention of releasing him until after his younger self goes back in time. It could be extremely dangerous."
Abdul huffed out a breath. "Right, then. How effective is this stasis?"
"It's meant to be a perfect suspension of life. On humans it can be used to induce temporary paralysis, as a means of holding them harmless. But in my youth the same spell was quite popular for food preservation, so I assume it works on a cellular, bacterial level, or even smaller. I used a powerful, long-lasting application on Peter; I've checked it regularly and renewed it every decade or so."
"And how quickly after the onset of symptoms did you get him into stasis?"
"I wasn't there for the onset of the symptoms. Sometime between half an hour and four hours. A few minutes after the seizure that I witnessed." I hesitated. "I realise there is very likely nothing that can be done."
"Medically, perhaps not. But you're talking about time travel, right? So it's already happened, but in another sense it hasn't happened yet. There's a chance to change it."
I shook my head. "I don't see how. As you say, it hasn't happened to Peter yet, but it already happened to me, so how can I make a change? I've been trying to figure this out for the better part of a century. So far as I can tell, those events are fixed. Trying to alter them might be dangerous - even catastrophic. It was only by luck that Peter didn't create some dreadful paradox while he was back there. Until the moment when Peter goes back, we must still be wary of causing paradox ourselves."
Abdul frowned. "What exactly is paradox?"
This was an area of thought whose circular paths I had rounded many times. "Either it is impossible in the sense that we truly cannot change anything. Or, theoretically, changing something in the past causes a kind of fork in the timeline. Whichever branch of that fork we are upon, we will likely not perceive a change, and therefore change is no use to us. In the worst case, there is no fork and a time travel paradox causes the universe to explode or unravel or degenerate into chaos." I rubbed at my forehead. "I tell you, Abdul, I've been able to find nothing written about this save the rankest speculation - and I've spent decades speculating myself."
He nodded slowly. "So you think paradox - trying to make a change in history - either accomplishes nothing, or it's very dangerous."
"Those are my best guesses. I suspect it's the former, because Peter did do a number of things -" Saving children. Killing German werewolves. Helping a doomed idiot stagger on a few more miles, a few more steps, a few more years. "Things which ought to have made a difference, but - a difference to whom? Perhaps the history we know is already the altered one, and always has been. Don't you see - the time traveller makes an alteration and finds himself in a different world. But to us, who are left behind, there is no difference. It doesn't matter what we do, Abdul. Probably," I amended. "Or perhaps the existence of time depends on us. Either way, we cannot - we dare not - change anything."
Another consideration that had weighed on me over time was that Peter had clearly believed in the existence of paradox, enough so that he sacrificed himself to avoid it. Was it my duty as his friend to honor that decision? Or my duty as his master to protect him from it? I had tried to study the matter and I still didn't know the truth; was it possible that Peter had some better source of knowledge, or was his sacrifice based on mere guess?
Abdul went away looking as grim as I had ever seen him, as discouraged as I had felt for so many years. But the next morning he was back, pacing back and forth before the breakfast table after declining everything except for tea, with a dark glance at the sausages. I set aside my paper and turned away from the table to listen to him.
"You can't just give up, Thomas," he insisted. "What if you could do something, what if Peter could do something, that would make everything occur just as you saw it, but without any permanent damage to Peter's brain?"
"Such as?" I asked sceptically, for this was another path I had trod. It was similar to Peter's 'time turner' theorem: don't try to change the events, but the context. Or, as Lesley had described it, stage a play - but how to do that, at eight decades' remove? "What do you suggest?"
"A drug, perhaps, that could temporarily mimic the effects of stroke?"
"He had nothing on him. His pockets were emptied." I remembered the tiny pill box, but there had been nothing in it - he had already given the antibiotics to me four years further in my future and one day in his past.
"Well, what if - what if we tell Peter about this, tell him to imitate the effects deliberately?"
"No," I said firmly.
"Don't you think he should know?"
"Absolutely not. In the first case, he didn't know. At first he thought it was a dream, and then he was afraid of creating paradox, and then..." I couldn't describe the look in Peter's eyes, the moment when he acknowledged that I had betrayed him, yet he would die rather than reveal any further detail about the future. About my future. "Peter is not capable of that level of deception."
Abdul raked a hand through his hair. "What if it wasn't Peter?"
"What?" This thought had not occurred to me.
"What if someone else went back in time - what if you went back in time, only you looked like Peter? You can do illusions like that, can't you?"
"I can, but..." The idea was so new that it took a minute to find the holes in it. "The illusion would be detected, and identified as mine, and broken."
"Someone else, then, disguised as Peter?"
"No." I shook my head. "It's been nearly eighty years and I don't recall every detail, but given what I do remember..." Peter's easy smile, his warm kiss, his determination to help the trapped children and his dull anger at the treatment he received. "That was really Peter Grant. I don't think anyone else could fake that. In any case, I would hardly find it acceptable to send someone else to meet the same dreadful fate."
"I wasn't suggesting that! I meant to say that the other person could -" Abdul broke off as we heard a distant door close and rapid footsteps descending the stairs. Peter was up, and ready for his breakfast. "Later, Thomas. We'll discuss this later. We haven't run out of options yet."
I nodded and turned to the door to hear what Peter had to say about last night's witness interview. But in my heart I was nearly certain that we had, in fact, run out of options.
I didn't tell Abdul about his own encounter with Peter in the past. After all, he'd been in no state to remember it at the time.
For once, I was looking right at him when Peter appeared, but the shadows were so thick in the cave that it was impossible to see any detail. There was a flash of light, a blast of heat, and with my eyes thus dazzled I saw little more than the white of his shirt and heard his grunt of surprise and the scrabbling of his feet as he staggered backwards.
The werelight that had been floating above my head zipped toward him even as I prepared a more powerful offensive spell, but I recognised him before casting. "Peter!"
"Inspector?" He held up a hand to shield his eyes from the light while he turned in an unsteady circle. Something dropped from his other hand to clatter dully on the ground. "What's happening? Where are we? It's dark." He rubbed at his eyes, and then at his ears as if they were ringing. He swallowed several times with his mouth open.
For the first time, I discovered that I recognised the type of suit he was wearing. Not that it was at all close to the fashions of today - the lapels were far too narrow, the shirt collar seeming nearly Chinese in its stiff uprightness. But I realised that the fine grey fabric that had caught my attention in the past was in fact a blend of wool and polyester, resistant to wrinkling. That explained why he was not considerably more rumpled when I had first met him. It was a good-quality blend, but perhaps not as expensive as I had once thought.
He was still squinting and blinking, so I dimmed my werelight and limped forward to catch him by the elbow and steady him. "What happened to you?" I asked in turn.
"I'm not sure." He bent, nearly tipping over, to pick up the object he had dropped. It looked like a police baton, but it had a metal shoe that had half-melted and run over the scorched wood.
A staff? I laid a hand upon it and felt the echoes of power, but they were hollow. "That's completely burnt out," I said, impressed.
"I was trying to disable the trap, but I think I set it off instead. I thought I'd be blown to bits, along with everyone near me, but instead I ended up..."
Instead, he had travelled through time. That was where the staff's considerable power must have gone, not only into protecting him but also diverted into this tangle of violated causality.
He squinted at me, getting his first good look. "Shit!" he exclaimed, pulling back from me. "What happened to you?"
I released my grip on him, shifting my cane to keep balance. "You're travelling through time, Peter. One of your dreams, or visions as you call them." It occurred to me that his appearance, here and now, might very well mean that I was in worse trouble than I had assumed. Every other time I had seen him (except the first time), I had been in great danger. But there had also been a number of other cases when my life was threatened, but no Peter Grant had appeared to help me. I wasn't quite certain what determined the difference, or what was controlling his travels. Each appearance did seem further apart than the last, or perhaps in the direction Peter was travelling they were getting closer together.
"So... this isn't real?" He looked me up and down. "If it's just a dream, why are you bleeding?"
"The fact that it's a dream doesn't mean it's not also real. You've found useful insight in these visions before, have you not?" I assumed so, from what he'd let drop.
"You're... how old... what year is this?"
"Nineteen eighty-two," I told him. I was looking distinctly younger than my actual age these days, and my expectation was confirmed when he showed no surprise about that discrepancy but only nodded. Did that mean I would continue to get younger? He was quite startled by my appearance - would he even have recognised me this time if he'd seen my face before hearing my voice?
"The glasses are very fetching," he said drily. "The blood, not so much." He called up a werelight of his own, the signare filling me with nostalgia as he bent to look at my scarf-bound thigh. It was, unfortunately, the leg with the arthritic knee, which had suffered a bit of a wrench when I got the injury.
I pulled off my glasses impatiently and tucked them in my shirt pocket. They were of limited help now, and soon I wouldn't need them at all if the trend continued. "The leg's all right, I've already had it seen to," I told him. There was also a considerable amount of dirt all along my front and some scrapes on my cheek and forehead, which seemed to disturb Peter as he brushed at my lapels and the grey hair that still had not thickened much from its wispy nadir.
"Seen to by who, a three year old with her first Doctor Barbie play kit?"
"By a group of rather intoxicated medical students with limited supplies on hand," I said shortly. "In fact, I should be getting back to -"
"Ey, P'fessor?" a voice wafted from the other side of the cave.
Peter looked up. "Is that Abdul?" he asked in surprise.
"No, none of them were named Abdul." I began to limp back to where I had left the others.
"Professor, we need a bit of help here!" the Scottish boy called again. A moment later, the girl screamed shrilly.
"Oi!" With a shout, Peter burst into a sprint, his werelight bobbing after him.
I cursed and tried to move more quickly. I drew closer to see the ginger-headed Scottish boy waving a torch wildly, beating upon the snout of the creature that had Cynthia by the ankle while she shrieked repeatedly. Peter was landing more effective blows with the scorched staff but was hampered by the young man in his way.
At last Peter pulled the Scot free and held onto him while sending a fireball at the enormous black lizard, making Cynthia scream again as it passed quite close to her. The lizard released Cynthia and snapped its head up, catching the fireball in its mouth.
"Bloody hell!" Peter gasped, and threw up his hand to cast impello palma instead. The force of his spell shoved the creature back several yards. Peter pushed the Scot forward. "Get her, get her, pull her clear!"
Awkwardly, the Scottish boy got his hands under Cynthia's arms and pulled her free, helped as she sensibly scuttled backwards like a crab.
I was still some distance away, but with Peter holding the lizard apart from the others I was now able to send a few swift fireballs of my own at it, considerably smaller and stronger than Peter's. The creature hissed and swatted with its tail, and the fireballs struck the floor of the cave with a dull boom that made dust sift down from the ceiling. The lizard turned its glare back to Peter, whose werelight suddenly began to dim and turn orange.
"Turn it off, Peter, you're just feeding it!" I shouted. Both our werelights popped out, leaving the dropped torch rolling across the ground as the only illumination. Dimly we could see the creature's dark bulk moving away. Cynthia was weeping now, the Scottish boy trying to soothe her with slurred words.
"What the fuck was that?" Peter demanded, and I winced at the words.
"It seems to be under the impression that it is a dragon," I said, my progress toward them slowing now that the danger was past. The cave floor was uneven, and I didn't wish to fall as I could already feel blood trickling down my leg from the exertion.
Peter retrieved the torch and shone it in the direction the creature had gone, but we could see nothing now. "It thinks it's a dragon, but it isn't really?"
"In shape it appears to be a common viviparous lizard," I supplied. "Though of very uncommon size."
"It looked like a fucking crocodile! That eats magic!"
"Is that sort of language really necessary, Peter?"
"Sorry, sir," he returned sulkily.
"There are no crocodiles in Great Britain, outside of zoos. Nor, so far as I'm aware, any dragons, in or out of zoos."
"So what made this common little lizard grow enormous and think it's a dragon and can eat fireballs?"
"That would be the question." With the creature gone I risked a new werelight, and the colour seemed robust enough so I strengthened it and moved it higher to illuminate the scene. I bent over Cynthia, who was still half-sprawled across the Scottish boy. "Are you all right?"
"My ankle," she sobbed. It was messy, but not bleeding so much as to form a pool.
"Can either of you help her?" I asked the young men, only to realise that one of them had passed out and the other was looking distinctly greenish. I sighed. "Peter, allow me to introduce Cynthia, Radjiv," (the unconscious boy) "and, er..." I'd got his real name confused with Peter's erroneous suggestion.
"Angus," said the Scot faintly.
"Yes, quite. Can you help Cynthia, Angus?"
"I don't think I, urgh..."
I moved back a few steps as Angus turned his head and vomited. Fortunately not on Cynthia, but she looked rather alarmed and tried to move away.
"Angus?" Peter said in tones of amused disbelief, and then, "Hold on, are you drunk?"
Angus's shoulders heaved again. Cynthia was crawling dazedly in the same direction the lizard had gone. I caught her and encouraged her to sit back, at a safe distance from the flying fluids. "We don't drink," Cynthia cried.
"I hate whisky," Angus agreed. "Just makes me spew." He bent to it again.
I lowered myself with difficulty to sit next to Cynthia and examine her bloody ankle. Her nylon was quite ruined; I pulled the scraps away, slipped off her stylish but impractical platform shoe, and conjured warm water to clean the blood. The lizard's teeth had scraped along the bone but had not gone in too deeply.
"Angus? Seriously?" Peter said from behind me, but by his tone he was speaking to himself.
I filled him in while I tended to Cynthia. "All three of our young victims here were at a Hallowe'en party, but they claim they never touched a drop of alcohol. Radjiv for religious reasons, Cynthia and Angus due to a personal distaste."
"My Dad says I'm a disgrace to Scotland," Angus moaned softly. He mustered up the energy to move away from the splattered mess, then collapsed into a heap.
"They left the party together but as they were headed for the nearest Underground station, all three began to feel rather unsteady and disoriented. They heard a noise, though apparently it was something different for each of them -"
"Such a pretty song," Cynthia murmured.
"They followed the noise, and stumbled in... here." I waved at the cave with its sloping floor and irregular ceiling. "Peter, would you mind checking on Radjiv? Make sure he's breathing properly. This looks like alcohol intoxication, but since they all say it isn't, I'm not certain how it will progress." I padded Cynthia's cuts with my handkerchief and wrapped the longest intact section of nylon about her ankle as a compression bandage. She looked like she was about to fall asleep herself.
Peter bent over Radjiv, patting his face gently and turning him to his side. "You think they were roofied? Or is it a spell?"
Angus chuckled vaguely. "Spell? You mean magic?"
I shrugged, easing Cynthia down to curl on the ground and then shifting back to stretch out my own leg. Angus had clumsily wrapped his own scarf about it earlier, but the knot had loosened. "They apparently all had different soft drinks at the party, although they might have consumed some of the same food. But I suspect a spell rather than drugs, because I was in the area waiting for something of the sort to happen. I've found a pattern of disappearances in this location at the same time every year, occurring over a long period. I didn't quite expect to find something this extreme, however."
Peter looked around. "So where are we, underneath Cheddar Gorge or something? No, wait, you said there was a Tube station..."
"This is Greenwich."
"It... doesn't look like Greenwich?"
I sighed. "Clearly, we are belowground. Not far from the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, I believe. Unfortunately, I became disoriented myself while I was following these children and I'm not precisely certain how we got here. Eventually I shook it off - some sort of glamour, I believe, but subtle enough that I didn't realise it until I saw the cave."
Peter looked around. "Yeah, I wouldn't have thought there'd be anything like this underneath Greenwich, that's for sure. Are you sure this isn't Fairyland?"
"It doesn't feel like Fairyland. Does it to you?" About a decade earlier I had spent nearly six months in a magical parallel world, which I presumed was what Peter was referring to. I thought that might be when I had begun to grow younger. That experience had reinforced my suspicion that magic had begun to return to the world.
"No, you're right." He hadn't commented on the colour of my eyes, but he seemed to accept it as a given that I knew how that strange place felt. And he, apparently, knew it as well.
We needed to figure out what was happening here, and stop it from happening again. We needed to find a way out for myself and the young students. It was also very tempting to make it a priority to figure out what was drawing Peter through time and why, but I knew that was a mystery for another day. Right now I could only give him what knowledge and strength he would need to face the challenges of the past.
Chapter 9: October 1982 / March 2019
"So, priority one is to get you and the students out of here, right?" Peter echoed my own thoughts. "Priority two, stop whatever it is from stealing more people in the future."
"Take your werelight and walk down that way," I told him. "About a hundred yards."
He looked at me in bafflement.
I waved at the young people slumped on the floor around us. "Best not to leave them alone again," I said. "And I should rest my leg in any case. But I'd like your opinion on what's over there. It's not dangerous, unless the, er, dragon comes back."
While he was gone I applied myself to unwrapping and re-wrapping the scarf about my leg. The putative dragon had done the damage when I first broke free of the glamour and refused to be herded along with the young people. That altercation had also roused the rest of them from following imaginary enticing sounds, but it hadn't lifted the intoxication effect from them. All three were unconscious by now, and I was beginning to be concerned.
Peter returned after a few minutes, his expression tense in the wan werelight. He crouched next to me and spoke in a low voice. "What is that, like an army of terra cotta warriors?"
"Not terra cotta," I said grimly. "Did you notice the variety of clothing styles? And the one statue that was broken open?"
He nodded. "Did you do that?"
"No, she was smashed before I arrived."
He rubbed his chin. "So, something has been glamouring people and kidnapping them, a few every year - did you say this is Hallowe'en?"
"Yes. Parties and mischief everywhere. Not unusual for people to go missing. I only noticed because the reports were from the same area, year after year." Even then the scale of the problem had been obscured, since many of the people were reported missing from their own home location if no one knew precisely where they had last been seen.
"It lures people down here and, what, turns them into stone? For what?"
"I don't know."
"And is the L.O.U.S. responsible for this, or is it just a guard dog?"
"I don't know," I repeated more sharply, ignoring the acronym since it was apparent what he meant.
"It doesn't seem very clever," he offered after a minute's thought.
"But remarkably fast, for its size."
"Right, the size. So whoever, or whatever did this, altered a common lizard to grow huge and eat magic?"
"That seems the most likely conclusion," I said. "Did you see how many statues there are?"
"I jogged down the line. Looked like hundreds?"
"By my count, over a thousand," I said grimly. "If it was only a few people per year, this must have been going on for quite a long time."
"I did notice the clothes," said Peter grimly. "The ones in the front row looked sort of like Cavalier style, maybe late Elizabethan at the earliest. And those first statues also had a lot more moss and water stains on them. But it didn't look like they were dissolving or anything. Just marked up."
"That must have been when it began," I mused, my mind spinning. "Three hundred years ago."
"Closer to three-fifty, I think."
"Before Newton's day, in any case."
"So... probably not a human wizard?"
I frowned. "Newton was not the first wizard by any means. It was just that his systematising the practice made it far easier for others to learn after him, so the numbers began to increase. But there were others before him, using methods handed down in secrecy through centuries of teaching."
"Can you turn them back?" Peter asked suddenly. "I mean, are they still alive in there?"
I stared at him, appalled by the notion. "It depends how they were made into statues," I said slowly. "I do know a spell, a sort of anchored illusion, to make flesh appear to be stone without truly transforming. That spell can be undone. But if this was some other method, a genuine transformation, it might not be reversible." If it was reversible, what would we do with a thousand kidnap victims from different periods stretching back several centuries? I doubted the Commissioner would be happy about that. It would be nearly impossible to keep out of the papers.
"The smashed one looked like real stone all the way through," Peter reflected. "Crumbly, not... squishy."
"In that case, probably not."
Suddenly he snapped his fingers. "You know what this reminds me of?"
"Terra cotta armies?"
"Wasn't there a bit of Arthurian legend something like this? I mean, not just the once and future king, but an army of knights waiting to be brought back and fight with him?"
"I do seem to recall a few stories and songs along that line. But, Peter, these are not mediaeval knights. The creature has lured away party-goers, dog-walkers, shoppers and tourists, people who are merely going about their business. Medical students," I pointed out.
"Yeah, but put that stone army together with a lizard that thinks it's a dragon on guard... could something be trying to, I dunno, re-create the legend somehow? Like a revenant locked into following a script?" He looked rather disturbed.
"It's not a revenant," I objected. "A revenant would have more power. This thing consumes magic rather like a ghost. It casts a glamour like a fae or genius loci."
"Or a vampire."
"It's not a vampire, Peter," I said impatiently. "There's no tactus disvitae."
"Not all vampires have - well, never mind that. You're mixing different bits together. It's the dragon that eats magic, right? But we think the dragon isn't doing this, it's just another, er, victim."
"I wouldn't go that far, but likely it was just a small lizard until its alteration," I conceded.
"So the one that's really behind all this can do the glamour, the luring thing, turns a little lizard into a sort-of-dragon, and turns people into stone. Like an Earthbender," he said with a frown, "living underground. Hmm."
"And it only becomes active around Hallowe'en." I brushed past yet another reference I didn't understand.
"Right. The seasonal bit, that almost is like a fae. Or a nature spirit? But they mostly go in for springtime."
"I think," I concluded, "We don't need to know what it is. We need only wait until it comes to pick up its three latest victims." I looked down at Cynthia, who was nearest, to make sure she was still breathing.
"They're not, like, turning into stone already, are they?" Peter gave Angus a cautious prod.
"No. Nor are they standing in the next rank of the army waiting to be transformed. I suspect something - or someone - is going to come retrieve them and put them in place."
"And we're going to do what about that, exactly?"
I frowned. "Assume the dragon has reported back to its master. It, he, whatever, must know that there is a wizard here."
"The dragon saw two wizards."
"The dragon may not be the most articulate of witnesses. We can hope, at any rate. Since you are more mobile than I, I suggest you take concealment nearby, while I wait here with our... bait."
Peter frowned. "I should be the one out front, and you're the backup."
"If you want to bait a trap, you make it look like just token resistance. That's me. You're the heavy artillery, for when the trap closes."
From what I'd seen of Peter's abilities he didn't seem like a token anything. He was a bit unseasoned perhaps, his magic relying more on simple force than subtle skill. But he was considerably more mature than my contemporaries at a similar stage of training.
I pulled out my glasses once more and perched them on my nose. "Consider appearances, Peter. I'm the injured old man while you're young and vigorous and undrugged. Which of us appears to be the greater threat?"
He blinked. "If you say so." Apparently it was difficult for him to admit that I was anything other than fearsome. It was flattering, but I couldn't help wondering how he'd got such an impression.
I glanced at the scorched staff still dangling from his left hand. "Here, take this." I extended my own cane.
He stared. "Really, sir?"
"It won't burn you. Your magic is quite similar to mine. With this, you will be the heavy artillery."
He reached out and laid a hand carefully on my cane, then shook his head and drew it away. "It doesn't feel right. You'll need it just for standing, anyway. Tell you what, though, speaking of artillery, I wish we had Caffrey and his lot here. That thing might eat fireballs but I bet it wouldn't like a grenade so much. Oh, no, wait... 1982. Is he just a kid? Or is he off to Argentina, or what?"
"Are you talking about Jim Caffrey's son?" I shook my head quickly. "No, don't tell me any more about the future."
"If you say so. It still would be nice to have some backup." With a strange, amused, expression, he turned to check on Angus once more. He pulled out his phone, which I realised looked a bit like a pocket calculator. Then he shook his head with a wordless grumble and put it away again, looked at his watch and tapped the face of it, which made me twitch. "Right, then. Downhill, that way - is that north?"
"As I mentioned, I was disoriented at the time of entering this cave. I am still not entirely certain how to get out."
"Well, is there water down there?" he nodded down the slope.
"I did not have time to explore the entire chamber," I told him, "but I did hear some trickling."
"Deptford or Thames? Freshwater or salt?"
I looked at him in puzzlement. "I did not ask the trickle for a name."
He threw up his hands. "Fine, just thought maybe they could help us. The rivers, you know."
He'd said something similar the day I first met him and I hadn't really understood it at the time. "There used to be a river deity here, but he left London over a century ago."
"He's not the only genius in the loci, you know."
I took breath to correct his Latin, but there was a scraping sound not far away. Peter patted me on the shoulder and faded silently into the shadows.
I waited innocuously for a minute or so, then looked up from checking the children's breathing to find a man standing in front of me. He was dressed in dirt-coloured tatters, with lank grey hair and beard hanging down his chest. He held a staff as long as he was tall, but it did not thrum with power as I would expect from a standard wizard's staff.
"Are you the one who drew these people here?" I asked, pitching my voice to carry. I gripped my own cane tightly but did not attempt to rise from the ground.
The filthy man nodded slowly. "I am Merlin's heir, and they will serve Merlin's ends."
"You are a deluded charlatan. Release them," I commanded. "Release everyone you have imprisoned here, and perhaps I will let you live."
His lips stretched into a grin of crooked, rotten teeth, and he lifted his staff from the ground.
I dropped a stalactite on him, and summoned shards of the smashed stone woman to pelt him in the back. While he was distracted by these, I slipped a stasis binding around him.
Behind me Peter shouted. I heard the lizard screech, and a rumble of stone. By the time I got myself turned around and rose to my knees so that I could see, it was silent again. A section of the floor was disturbed, covered in upturned dirt and rubble.
"Was that the dragon?" I asked.
Peter emerged from the shadows, fists clenched at his sides. He nodded.
"Why didn't it simply eat what you threw at it?" I wondered.
"Because I didn't cast anything at it directly. I opened up the ground under it, and then closed it over." He frowned doubtfully at the jumbled earth and walked in a cautious circle around it. "Not sure that will hold it for long, though."
"We've captured the wizard," I said. "That's what really -"
"Er -" Peter gestured in the direction of the captured wizard.
I twisted around to see fog rising from the base of the old man's staff. Soon he would be obscured from our sight. Quickly, I called a wind to blow the fog away.
Peter, more direct, cast an impello to wrench the staff away from the wizard. It clattered away across the stony ground, and it screamed.
Peter's hand dropped. "That staff... it's not made of wood, is it?"
I stared. The staff was writhing on the ground, parts of it pulling away from the rest. It was a dirty grey colour and I had at first taken it for gnarled wood. But now I saw that it was a jumble of bones all wound together. Leg and arm bones formed most of the shaft, with ribs twisting about them, and the knob on top was a compressed but unmistakable skull.
With quick jerks I unknotted the scarf from around my leg and threw it toward the pile of bones just as they were starting to reassemble themselves. My blood upon the scarf made it especially responsive to my magic, and it wrapped around the bones, drawing tight, confining them. The bones screamed again.
"I'll hold the bones," I told Peter. "You pull the spirit free."
He looked startled. "How?"
"With scindere. Haven't you -? Fine, then, I'll pull the spirit out and you grind up the bones."
When a spirit was loosely anchored, as in a corpse, it could be pulled free with a simple variant of scindere. I took care to form the narrow cutting spell slowly so that Peter could see it. It had never occurred to me that he wouldn't know this already. The shrieking of the bones rose in pitch and volume, shaking dirt loose from the ceiling until it passed beyond the register of human hearing.
"Now!" I ordered Peter, as the spirit's scream faded away.
He quickly called up the vibrating spell that I remembered from years before, a pulsed variant of impello that was remarkably destructive. He concentrated it on the confined pile of bones. They writhed and struggled against the hold I exerted through the scarf, but Peter's pulsations focused and strengthened and the bones rattled against each other until I began to hear them cracking - first large breaks and then smaller segments, falling into pieces and then shards.
And then it was over. Peter panted with the exertion, staring wild-eyed. "What the hell was that?"
Laboriously I got to my feet and walked over to the dusty bundle on the floor. I stirred the scarf carefully with my cane and looked at the powder within. "I think these were fae bones."
Peter looked toward the old man, still held in stasis. "A wizard with a staff made of fae bones?"
"Or a fae who duped a wizard into serving it past the point of death through a form of spirit possession," I said. I turned to study the old man and then, carefully, released the stasis. He tumbled to the ground, grey-faced and still.
"They were tied to each other somehow?" Peter guessed.
"If both were dead, it could explain why they were only active for a short period each year. The rest of the time they were dormant, absorbing energy from the world above."
"And all that rubbish about being Merlin?"
I sighed and rubbed my face. "It's possible the wizard was part of a tradition of teaching going back centuries. Though, it is perhaps more likely that someone along the line made up a creative story about where that tradition began." I turned back to the three medical students to check on them; they were still breathing and still not moving, although I imagined that the colour was returning to Angus's face.
"So the delusion about Merlin lasted past the wizard's death?"
"Strengthened, perhaps, by the bond between wizard and fae. Your guesses were closer than you thought, Peter - it was part nature spirit and part revenant."
"And all crazy," he decided.
"His spells - their spells - should weaken, now that they are gone. But to be sure, these bones should be mixed with salt and taken to the sea."
"I can do that," said an imperious voice. Striding up the stony slope into the range of our werelights was a woman with smooth dark skin, elaborately braided hair, and high sharp cheekbones. She was draped in a loose, low-cut dress in cloth-of-gold with fine lace accents. Her slanted eyes shifted from me to Peter, paused there for a long moment, and then returned to me.
"Thank you, Mama," said Peter, dipping his head briefly. Something about the way he addressed her made it sound like a title, rather than an endearment. This woman was not his mother, but he knew her.
Power wafted around her dizzyingly. I recognised a genius loci when I saw one, and this one was very prominent. I wondered how I had shared the same city with her and had not known of her presence.
"You know me," she said slowly to Peter. She drew a long, slow breath. "You stink of time and magic."
He nodded. "I'm from the future."
"How far in the future?" she asked, assessing him with a narrow gaze.
I cleared my throat. "Too much information might be dangerous. To me, if not to you," I added, seeing her rising annoyance.
"Huh," she said sceptically. "But you. You from now?"
"Yes, madam," I said carefully. "I am the Master of the Folly."
"Isaacs," she snorted. "You come see me. Soon. We need to talk."
"Yes, madam." I nodded to her.
"Right now I take these bones, and I give them to the sea. That will solve one problem for you, and then you owe me a favour."
"A small favour," I said. "I could take the bones to the sea myself without much trouble."
"But not so quickly, huh? You want those spells to end soon, or not?"
I glanced over at the three unconscious students. "Yes, madam. When I come to see you, we can discuss repayment of this small favour."
She snorted and bent smoothly to pick up Angus's bundled scarf from the ground. As careless as the gesture appeared, not a single grain of bone dust filtered downward. Then she turned and walked away down the hill, out of the light.
"Well," said Peter carefully. "That's one thing taken care of."
"That leaves the students, the statues, and the dragon," I said carefully, resisting the temptation to ask Peter about the genius loci we had just met. I hoped it wasn't a mistake to let her walk away with a quantity of my blood.
"I'm pretty sure the dragon's dead," said Peter. "Probably about the same time as the wizard." He headed for the area of disturbed ground and stirred it with his toe.
"And also the question of how we get out of this cave."
"Oh, that won't be a problem." Peter backtracked toward the body of the ancient wizard and tipped his head back. There was a chunk missing from the cave's ceiling where I had loosened a stalactite to drop on the wizard's head, or at least to distract him while he prevented it from hitting his head. Looking up through the space where the stalactite had fallen, I saw clouds lit from below and heard the sound of traffic. The hole looked large enough for a person to fit through without squeezing.
"You go up first," Peter decided. "I can lift the others up to you."
I frowned at him. "Why shouldn't you be the one to go up?" I remembered that he disliked confined spaces, but apparently this cave was spacious enough not to trigger his distress.
He raised an eyebrow. "Because you're an injured old man and I'm young, vigorous and undrugged?"
I glowered and held out my cane to him. "You'll use this, then, no more arguing. I can't lift myself with magic, and impello on four bodies is no light work."
He squinted at me, but accepted the cane. When he lifted me he nearly bounced my head on the roof of the cave, but I had prudently cast a shield spell as a precaution. Peter got the hang of the extra power and manoeuvred me more smoothly after that. I found myself on the grassy grounds outside of the Royal Observatory. Widening the hole, I helped Peter lift the three medical students out one at a time. Angus was beginning to stir and groan as I laid him on the grass and turned back to the hole.
Peter didn't answer when I called down to him. I was tempted to return to the cave, but I had three awakening students to deal with, and soon after that an influx of police and ambulance. When we finally explored the cave, we found a battalion of decaying statues, a swiftly-decomposing corpse clad in rags, a tiny lizard buried in a large hole, my cane, and Peter's burnt baton. Peter, of course, was gone.
I blinked awake and found myself reclining in a hospital bed. It was the same private room I stayed in whenever I was admitted to UCH. The light through the window looked like late afternoon. I had only the vaguest memories of how I had come to be here this time: worried faces hovering over me, questions that I could not answer, hands that I could not grasp in return.
I checked under the blanket and grimaced at the violation of my personal integrity, then began to search for the button to summon a sister. Before I found it, my door swung open without a knock. Peter stepped inside, his face drawn in grim lines.
He saw me looking at him and came up short.
"Hello," I said. "How long have I been here?"
"Inspector?" He gaped. "Are you... how are you feeling?"
"I seem to be fine," I said, spreading my hands in demonstration. "Only I've no recollection of how I came to be here."
"You're not - wait, does anyone know you're awake yet?"
I shook my head. "You're the first person I've seen. But, Peter -"
"Hold on a bit." He backed up to the door as if I were royalty and ducked out. I heard him in the hallway telling someone to page Dr. Walid. Then he was back, approaching my bed hesitantly. "You sure you're all right?" he asked, extending a tentative hand as if to check whether I was corporeal.
"I'm perfectly fine." I grabbed his hand and used it to pull myself around sideways. Then I remembered that I couldn't get up because of the attached tubes, and I hesitated there with my bare feet hanging in the air and both hands clasped on Peter's forearm. "Will you please tell me what has been going on?"
"Er. Everything's all right, except... I don't think I should tell you any details until you've been examined. It'll just be a few minutes, I'm sure."
It was less. I had scarcely been glaring at Peter more than ten seconds when hurried footsteps sounded and the door swung open. Abdul's gaze pierced us both, and Peter pulled away hastily as if he feared to be accused of molesting me. Then he lurched forward as if he thought that I would fall without support. His hand caught my elbow and stayed there a moment.
"Thomas. How are you feeling?" Abdul asked cautiously, coming around in front of me and nudging Peter aside.
"I'm perfectly well," I snapped. "What has been going on?"
"We thought you might be able to tell us that." Abdul touched my shoulders, then ran his hands down both arms to take my fingers in his. "Squeeze."
I squeezed hard enough to make him wince, and pushed down and then up when he told me to.
"Can you remember any tongue-twisters?"
I blinked. "The Leith police dismisseth us?"
"That'll do." He pressed my feet down and then up, then he said, "That's a lovely frown, Thomas, but I'd really like to see a smile."
I looked at Peter, who was watching closely. At my exasperated look, Peter's mouth twitched from concern to amusement, and then it was easy enough for me to produce a smile.
"Look straight ahead and tell me when you can't see my finger anymore." Abdul held a finger up in front of my nose and then drew it to one side until I nodded, then the same on the other side.
"Why are you examining me for stroke?" I said, although I had a pretty good idea by that point.
"I'm asking the questions for now, you'll get your answers later. What's the last thing you remember?"
"I was at the firing range, trying -" I glanced at Peter. "Trying something new. The forma twisted, and then... it's all very confused after that."
"Shit," Peter swore. "Is this how you feel every time one of my experiments blows up?" He rubbed at his face. "I promise I'll never do that again, if you won't."
I blinked at him. "That sounds extraordinarily unlikely."
"Peter, I need some privacy to continue my examination," Abdul said. "Why don't you go get yourself some coffee? Come back in ten minutes - no, make that fifteen."
Peter frowned, glanced at the wad of sheets still bunched in my lap and the tubes emerging from underneath, and beat a hasty retreat.
"It worked, didn't it?" I said, as soon as the door had closed.
"What the bloody hell did you think you were doing?" Abdul demanded in the same moment. He was as angry and as Scottish as I had ever seen him.
"A spell to mimic the effects of stroke. Did it work?"
He stared at me, his jaw actually dropping. "That's what you were trying to do?"
"Of course. We discussed this, it's the only way to -"
"Your spell," he interrupted, "mimicked the effect of brain death. We thought you were gone, you idiot! For three days you've been a vegetable. There's a specialist coming this afternoon to evaluate you for transfer to long-term care!"
"Oh," I said. "Three days, really?" Perhaps I had overpowered it a little. "But there's no actual damage? You took an MRI?"
"Of course I took a bloody MRI!" Abdul turned away for a moment to get hold of his temper.
"And?" I asked softly. "What were the results? You know why this is so important, Abdul."
He swallowed hard and took a calming breath. "The MRI showed no structural damage, but the EEG detected very little activity, barely enough to keep your vital systems going. Your brain was intact but almost entirely inert, which should not be possible. We thought you'd found some way to do yourself in without leaving a mark inside or out. Do you understand me, Thomas? You are not to do any further experimentation of this kind except in the company of a qualified -" He broke off.
"Who's qualified, Abdul?"
He actually growled. "If you're trying to keep knowledge of this from Peter, you're going to have a problem. He's bound to notice you turning yourself into a near-corpse for three days every time you conduct an experiment."
"Yes, I'll have to reduce the power considerably," I mused. "You see, it's a limited version of the stasis spell - intended to inactivate parts of the brain temporarily without damaging them, while the rest of the body is unaffected."
"Parts of your brain are essential to the continuation of life, Thomas! I can't believe you undertook such a thing without consulting with me first! You could have stopped your heart or your lungs - that's hardly temporary!"
"I took care to target only the frontal -"
"No. Experimenting. Alone. Is that understood? You'll promise, or I'll leave you to take that catheter out yourself."
In fact, I considered the physical discomfort of doing it myself preferable to the humiliation of assistance, but I gave him my word.
After that debasing ritual, I was nearly finished dressing when Peter reappeared, bearing a polystyrene cup of oversteeped Earl Grey and a slightly squashed pastry on a plastic plate. I thanked him but immediately set the items down to put in my cufflinks.
Peter caught my right hand and began to work on the cuff, which likely took longer than doing it myself. Despite Abdul's concerns about damage to my brain, I seemed to have lost no dexterity. But it made Peter happy to have something to do, so I let him fuss.
"Quite the scare you gave us," he said, too mildly.
"I'm sorry about that," I told him. "I won't repeat the mistake. It is important research, however - I'll explain it to you, if I ever figure it out myself."
He was working on my left cuff now. "Who are you and what have you done with my governor?" He still balked at the word 'master.'
"You sound like me, talking about important research even though it's dangerous. Have I infected you that much?" He lowered my hand but didn't release it. We were inches apart.
"You - I mean, I..." I had no idea what I had been about to say.
He pulled me those last few inches, and his arms went around me, and our lips were together as if the last eight decades had been a dream. I was transported back to the sitting room of that flat on Drury Lane, and Peter Grant was wrapping me in the certainty that this was right, and nothing else mattered.
The door opened. We sprang apart. My left cufflink pinged away into the corner.
Peter looked awed, and a little smug. I could scarcely guess how I looked - dizzy, perhaps. The young resident, whose name I had forgotten, looked appalled.
"Oh! Er, Dr. Walid says you're to sign these." She put the sheaf of papers down on the nearest flat surface, which was the foot of the bed. Then she fled the room.
"I knew it," said Peter.
I cleared my throat. "Knew what?" I started looking for the cufflink, reminding myself sternly that there was no need to fear imprisonment.
"Knew it was rubbish, what you said."
I stiffened, feeling a chill creep down my neck. "What I said when?" I snatched up the cup of horrid tea he'd brought and gulped at it.
"Five, six years ago. When I got drunk and you helped me up to my room."
Of course Peter had no way of knowing all the lies that I'd been telling, or for how long. The kiss had sent me travelling through memory to the first time, but for Peter... for Peter, this was our first kiss. I shook my head. "I thought you didn't remember that."
He rubbed at his nose. "Pretended I didn't. It was too embarrassing. But everything you said, about being my boss and my teacher -"
"And ninety years older and more powerful than you, yes?" I tried to look forbidding, but it probably came across as dyspeptic.
"It's all rubbish, innit?"
"No. It's not."
"When we get back to the Folly -"
"When we get back, all will be just as it was. Nothing has changed. Whatever you feel -"
"You felt it too!"
"Whatever either of us feels, we cannot act on it. Not while you're my apprentice. The imbalance of power is too great."
He held himself back on the cusp of another objection, eyes narrowing. "What about when my apprenticeship is over?"
Then you'll be dead, I thought. But the reason I was in this hospital room was that I was trying to keep Peter alive. And if I succeeded, he would likely want nothing more to do with me. "If you survive your apprenticeship, we can discuss it then."
"Does it really make that much difference? You'll still be older, and stronger, and a superior officer."
"When you're no longer an apprentice, I won't be able to do this," I told him.
I took a breath and, for the first time since he had become my apprentice, pulled hard on the obligations between us. "Peter. Bring me my cufflink." I pointed to the corner where it had rolled under an IV stand.
He was on his knees at once, fetching it out. When he stood and brushed it off and handed it to me, I saw the same white-rimmed shock in his eyes as when he had walked out the door with David Mellenby.
"Have you always been able to do that?" he demanded, watching me fasten the cuff without trying to interfere. He brushed at his trousers.
"Whenever I want to," I lied, in the most sinister tone I could manage. A century ago my own master at Oxford had explained the limitations of the apprentice obligation to me. A part of me was surprised I had not already exceeded those limitations with Peter by drawing on his oath of obedience to me long before I had sworn the corresponding oath of protection to him. Perhaps the only reason the obligation hadn't broken was because those events were still in Peter's future.
"Okay... that's a bit creepy," Peter said slowly. That was rather the point - it would dissuade him from making any further advances, and perhaps keep him out of my way while I continued my experiments.
Peter found an excuse to leave before my discharge was complete, but that just left room for Abdul to come in and eye me disapprovingly.
"You and Peter, Thomas? Really?" At least he was back to his normal analytical calm.
"No," I said, flipping to the next page of the paperwork to scribble at the bottom. "Not really. I put him off."
"That's not what my resident reported."
"She was mistaken. There is nothing - there will be nothing..."
"But there was something?"
I sighed and set down the papers. "I've known him for eighty years, Abdul. I didn't even realise he was my apprentice back then."
"One meeting hardly constitutes knowing him."
"It was more than one meeting. I encountered him on five separate occasions. Each time he knew less, and I knew more."
Abdul blinked at me. "You didn't mention this."
"It didn't seem pertinent. For Peter, it was all one event, or one series of events taking place over a few days, culminating in what happened in 1940. For me, it lasted decades, beginning in 1940. You met him also, but you don't remember it."
"I met him - in the past? Before he became your apprentice?"
"You met him before he was born."
"When was this?"
"The first time you met me. I know your memories of that incident were rather jumbled."
He frowned. "Yes, Cynthia was so traumatised she dropped out of medical school and moved to America. Radjiv remembered almost nothing of it."
"But you were so curious you tracked me down and hounded me to tell you more," I recalled fondly. If he hadn't already committed to becoming a doctor, Abdul might have wanted to learn magic. And I might have accepted him as an apprentice, although at that time magic was still weak enough that it was challenging for an experienced practitioner and would have been very difficult for a new student to learn. Even without pursuing it as a primary study, I thought his discovery of magic also played some role in his decision to convert, though I had never pressed for details and he kept such thoughts largely private.
Abdul was searching his memories. "That tall fellow who was with you for part of it - that was Peter?"
"I had no idea. I didn't recognise him at all, eight years ago."
"That might be just as well. Hugh Oswald and Harold Postmartin also encountered Peter in the past, and they had rather more difficulty on the second meeting." Hugh, at least, had been forewarned, but Harold had boggled to see someone he had met sixty years earlier looking much the same age. Peter had been rather stiff, perhaps taking his bafflement for something more insulting. But Harold soon brought him around by the same expedient that Hugh later used: telling tales about me.
Abdul shook his head to clear it. "Old stories out of med school aside, what are you going to do about Peter?"
"About the kiss your resident interrupted? Nothing. I told you, I've put him off for now. About the eighty-year-old threat to his life, I'm already doing all I can. Since you have ruled out solo experimentation, I'll expect to see you at the Folly at least once a week for - shall we say, checkups? - until I get this thing worked out."
Chapter 10: June 1953 / April 2019
The third time that I met Peter Grant, I had only brief interaction with him. Yet it was perhaps our most significant meeting in terms of the effect on others around us, and the fate he saved me from. This meant it was also the strongest evidence that Peter could make significant changes without destroying the fabric of time, and so the incident became an impetus for me to attempt further research on the nature of paradox.
The trouble had started weeks earlier. I was living at the Folly once more, but it was very different from the bustling house I had known as a young man. Of all the servants, only two were left - the elderly Hornby who had no family, and Molly who never grew older, and who could never leave lest her appearance frighten people. They had arrived at an arrangement where Hornby cooked the meals and answered the door if there were visitors, and Molly did all the serving, cleaning, and mending.
It worked because there were only three residents: myself, Simon Postmartin, and his younger brother. Once there had been as many as a hundred residents and dozens of servants. Once there had been thousands living in Britain who might have claimed a space at the Folly when they were in town. Now there were only a handful scattered across the country, and most avoided the old building like the plague.
So many had died in the war, on scattered battlefields. Kettering had been right, with the deal that he made for what we had naively called the 'Great' War. Pynchon, excited by the grander and more terrible sequel, had sent us to our doom, and died in '44 without ever realising just what he had wrought. Fully a quarter of the practitioners' deaths in combat had been at Ettersberg or during the retreat. But even the survivors of the war, and particularly the survivors of Ettersberg, had not fared well. More than half of them were also now dead, only eight years later. Some, like David, had died by their own hand or conscience. Others, like Winthorpe, had suffered fatal aneurysms.
Some were cripples - a few due to physical injury, but most, like Simon, due to overuse of magic. Those who were still capable of casting spells had mostly lost their taste for magic and retired to the country like Hugh Oswald, or broke their staves like Geoffrey Wheatcroft. For myself, I couldn't be considered well precisely, with the melancholia that made my hands tremble or the nightmares that woke me screaming in a bed as far from Simon's ground-floor room as I could manage. But I could still walk and I could cast a few spells, and I had no interest in forsaking magic even as it dwindled from its zenith. This left me standing bewildered like the sole tree remaining from a forest that had been cut down.
Harold Postmartin, Simon's brother, had been a promising third-former at Ambrose House before the school was closed but, thank God, too young to fight in the war. When their family died in the Blitz, Harold had come to the Folly to run errands for the old men, and in the process developed a taste for research and organisation. After the war, he came from college to visit me and Simon and some of the others in the convalescent home. I eventually walked out; others were carried out; Simon, with his brother burbling cheering promises in his ear, was wheeled out.
In '48 when he was near to finishing at Oxford (and when I could carry on whole conversations without weeping or drifting into reverie), Harold asked if I would take him as an apprentice, since there was no one else who could teach him. I sat him down in the atrium and told over the ranks of wizards who'd died of aneurysm after the war was over, including a number who had seemed perfectly hale and had been nowhere near the appalling explosions of Ettersberg that had done for Simon.
"Magic has changed," I told Harold. "It's both weaker and far more dangerous - at least for practitioners."
"You're not giving it up," he pointed out.
"No," I said slowly, "No, I don't think I can. I do try to keep to simple spells, and only when needed. But I expect it will likely burn me out as well, sooner or later." I did not look toward the lobby and its secret icon of the dangers of magic.
But I was not burnt out yet, and on occasion I taught Harold a few of the easiest spells, with stern warnings against practising too long. I also still held a rank in the Met which could be reactivated, and when the Commissioner encountered magical problems during investigations, I was the one he came to. It didn't happen often, but it was enough to give me some official standing. Thus, when an engraved gilt-edged invitation came for the Master of the Folly to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, it was addressed to Thomas Nightingale, Esq.
I pondered the invitation for a while without telling Simon or Harold of it. I had been in India when George VI was crowned. I remembered King Edward's funeral when I was a child, and a year after that the Festival of Empire, but I couldn't recall anything specific about George V's coronation. During that intervening year an Act of Parliament had stripped away the monarch's last real political power. Since then, the royal family had become nothing more than symbols - useful motivational symbols during the war, but no more than that.
Still, the thought of celebrating our new Queen did have its appeal. I had been born in the last days of Victoria's reign and had grown up with everyone telling me how much greater England had been in her day. Now the newspapers were gushing about the idea that another Queen might usher in a similar era of prosperity. Other articles declaimed the absurdity of indulging in such extravagance when the rest of us still needed ration books to buy sugar and meat, and yet the idea had an undeniable pull.
Finally I brought up the subject at the dinner table. Harold was all for it; he'd been planning to attend the new Queen's procession in any case. Simon smiled crookedly and mumbled something like approval. Then Harold got the idea to invite some of the old crowd back again, but almost everyone he contacted made their excuses, claiming they weren't attending or they had already made plans to stay with someone in town. The only taker was Hugh Oswald, who gladly accepted so long as he could bring his new bride along. Apparently this worthy young lady not only wanted to see the procession of dignitaries and the Queen's coronation gown, but she also wanted to meet me.
So I asked Molly if she knew where the Master's regalia were kept, and she led me to a wardrobe in the main attic. There, under spells to protect against moths and rot, the Master's robes were arrayed upon a mannequin. There was a coat of emerald green brocade, embroidered in gold and collared in lace, then over that hung a long midnight-blue cloak trimmed with grey fur - from a silver fox, I thought. The costume was the very height of appalling extravagance.
And yet... there were layers of vestigia upon those clothes from a century and a half of powerful wizards using them for ceremonial purposes. And quite suddenly I realised that these very robes were the source of a certain part of my own signare and that of every wizard who studied here. All the Folly wizards gave an impression of heavy cloth in their casting - velvet, canvas, moleskin, or in the one case denim. This was where that effect originated, in these heavy robes. It seemed that symbols could have great meaning after all.
There was also a staff, which was not much more than a tall walking stick gleaming with brass embellishments. It held some magic but not very much, as evidently no one had wanted to disassemble the thing in order to recharge the core. More than actual power, the staff seemed to confer on its holder a sense of dignity.
I had stumbled into the Master's position without planning it or even entirely realising it until it was a fait accompli. Perhaps by wearing these robes, carrying this staff, and attending a grand official function, I could make my own status a reality in some way.
Molly got an eager light in her eye while contemplating the regalia, so I let her array them upon me and get to work with pins. It did appear that I was rather more slender than the last official person to wear the green coat.
And while I waited for Molly to get to work with her needle, I was lost.
I felt it at first as a presence nearby. I kept turning my head, and then my shoulders, until Molly hissed at me in annoyance. Then it felt as if there were a hand resting upon my right shoulder, and someone breathing next to my ear.
I thought I recognised the vestigium after a moment. "Kettering?" I breathed in astonishment. Had he been the last to wear these clothes?
Molly popped her head forward by my elbow and looked up at me in puzzlement. I shook my head at her to go back to her work.
Nightingale, came an insubstantial voice, not to my ear. A glance downward showed that Molly had heard nothing.
I cleared my throat and shifted slightly, and Molly poked me in the ribs with a pin. I tried to focus my thoughts as if I were speaking, without actually moving tongue and lips. Kettering?
Why, it is you! Are you the new Master? I'd never have thought it. My mind's ear remembered the rasp of the Old Man's voice, tuning in and out like a radio, sometimes distorted but gradually growing clearer.
There aren't many of us left, I thought.
No, no, quite true. Bad business, that.
Are you anchored in the robes? I asked.
There was a pause, then Kettering's imagined voice came weakly, You haven't had a proper investiture, have you?
No, I admitted. There was no one to conduct one.
Ah, that would be why I am still tied to these scraps of cloth, he said faintly. Are you planning a ceremony now?
Molly caught me by the shoulders and turned me to another angle so that she could see what she was doing.
I am invited to attend the coronation, I admitted.
Princess Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth the Second, for nearly a year and a half now.
Ah, coronations! Three of them I've been to. George Six was a small affair, of course, with his brother's scandal and the threat of war. But George Five, now that was grand! And old Edward, of course, delayed by illness and sent all the planners into a tizzy, foreign heads of state wandering off disappointed after coming all that way. Kettering's voice strengthened with these reminiscences.
And here I made my fatal mistake. Instead of promptly dispelling the spirit from the robes, as I knew very well that I should, I invited Kettering's spirit to come to the coronation with me.
There has been much speculation over the centuries upon the nature of ghosts, but at Ambrose House we were firmly catechised that ghosts are not human souls. They might at most be fragments of souls, but the true essence of the dead departs at the moment of death. Some limited echoes may persist, and these echoes, depending on strength and complexity, may be variously described as shades, spectres, spirits or ghosts. Most such echoes only last for a short period after the death of the originator, and they have no agency or motivation of their own unless two conditions are met: an anchoring object, and a source of energy.
Some ghosts or spirits can feed upon human emotions, thus the many accounts of hauntings in theatres or churches, places where many people might gather with strong emotions. Other ghosts tend to accumulate in places where they might absorb magical energy, and therefore it is a seasonal task at the Folly, just as it was at old Ambrose House, to dispel spirits from the building every New Year. The first year that I felt well enough to carry out that task after the war, there had been so many fresh spirits I was nearly overwhelmed by their sadness, their guilt, their loneliness.
The echo of Kettering attached to the robes had no such dreary feelings about it, but instead a hint of the emotions he might have felt when he wore the robes: a sense of ceremony and duty, surety and righteousness. Dim as they were, the sensations appealed and somehow I thought they might help me to feel as if I belonged in those robes. And so I didn't dispel the spirit at once.
When Molly had marked down the adjustments to be made, she helped me out of the robes and set to work mending them. She normally had a keen sensitivity to magic and its traces, yet she hadn't seemed to notice the presence of Kettering's shade. I counted that as fortunate chance and didn't pursue it any further. Instead I wandered downstairs to see what Hornby had managed to put together for dinner.
A few days later, Hugh arrived with a sweet-faced girl on his arm, both of them excited at the prospect of the upcoming ceremony. We all sat in the lounge and Hugh told his Moira some of the less harrowing tales from the war. I was moved to tell a few stories from easier times, and even Simon added in some quips with interpretation from Harold or me.
While we chatted, Harold played his way through a stack of gramophone records. Somewhere near the bottom was a recording of "J'attendrai," and I stiffened in my seat. The singer was Tino Rossi, his tenor giving the song a lighter interpretation than Rina Ketty's, but still quite wistful. I found myself whispering the last line along with Tino: "Et pourtant, j'attendrai ton retour." I remembered Peter singing nonsense words from his bath, and I wondered if I would see him again. From the evidence that he already knew me before I first laid eyes on him, apparently I would. But it had been eight years since our last meeting; how much longer until the next?
Simon's good hand clasped my forearm and I realised I had drifted away from the conversation, with everyone pretending nothing was wrong. My cheeks were wet. I excused myself and retired for the night.
The next day I rose early in the morning, ate a hasty breakfast, donned the ceremonial robes, then immobilised Simon, Harold, Hornby, and Hugh and locked them all in the basement. Or, more accurately, Pynchon's ghost did that last part. For Pynchon had been invested as Master after Kettering's death and therefore it was his ghost, not Kettering's weak shade, that was anchored to the robes. And now, thanks to my forbearance, the ghost was controlling me. I had learnt, in theory, a variety of ways for resisting such control, but to my dismay those methods were affected by the general weakness of magic in the world, and the ghost, so far as I could tell, was not.
After all that, Pynchon carried my body off to Westminster Abbey to attend a large gathering of people feeling strong emotions. There would be enough energy there to keep him going - and keep him in control of my body - for quite a long while. He might even gather enough to turn him from a hungry ghost into a self-sustaining revenant, which would be dire for anyone who was nearby.
The streets were blocked to cars and the underground was teeming, but the walk to Westminster was an easy mile and a half, rather warm in the heavy robes but not excessively so because of the early hour and a cool mist. The route was thronged with pedestrians trying to find a spot along the procession route, but they generally got out of the way and then pointed and speculated over the gentleman with the robes and the tall brass-bound walking stick. I could feel Pynchon's amusement as he strolled along smugly.
"Wow," came Peter Grant's voice when we were halfway down St. Martin's Lane. "Going somewhere fancy?"
Pynchon turned to glance at him dismissively and then froze. "You!" he gasped.
Peter looked amused. "Yeah, me. What about it?"
Pynchon grasped the staff firmly. "Who are you spying for?" he spat, and tried to immolate Peter with a fifth-order cast.
It didn't work. The spell was too complex for the wan, broken magic that drifted about the world today. Also, I think, the staff resisted Pynchon's power a little bit. It wasn't in his thrall as the robes (and I) were.
The blast of heat was still enough to stagger Peter, his face twisting with shock and anger. The failed spell sent a spike of pain stabbing through my head and my hand spasmed, dropping the staff. And in that instant of Pynchon's consternation, I managed to wrest back a bit of control.
"His name is Joseph Pynchon," I gasped, and then drew on every shred of obligation that tied Peter to whoever I was meant to be in some unlikely future. "Peter, run!" I bellowed, even as I tore at the fastenings of the embroidered coat.
Peter turned at once and pelted back up the street, dodging around clumps of bewildered onlookers until he was out of sight.
Pynchon regained control and smoothed down the frogs of the ceremonial coat. He picked up the staff he'd dropped, regarding it with some suspicion, then resumed his path along the street. He can't do anything about it, you know, he thought at me, no longer trying to sound at all like Kettering. Not in the limited time left.
So, I thought, that meant Pynchon was planning to try something at the coronation ceremony itself. I had hoped he would just be taking in energy then and would save any other plans for later.
Right now, my best hope was for the young Queen to be delayed in traffic. Or perhaps by weather, since many of the vehicles in the procession were to be open-topped. I prayed for a downpour, and struggled harder against Pynchon's control.
It did rain, but only lightly. I did not gain back control. Pynchon, wearing my body, reached Westminster Abbey shortly before 6 am. But there was a great crowd of respectable guests assembled outside, and the mass trickled through the doors very slowly as the guards checked invitations against their lists. Ladies who murmured in dismay over the rain were frequently given a chance to move up the queue closer to the doors, and I could feel Pynchon seething as more than an hour passed.
Harried attendants moved up and down the line offering umbrellas to the people in fancy dress who had failed to bring their own. Pynchon declined the offer and instead put up a subtle magical shield against the rain. It made me worry that he would burn my magic out, but it occurred to me that an aneurysm before we got through the doors might be the simplest way to avoid a far worse catastrophe.
We had almost reached the small side door at last when Pynchon's eye was drawn to an altercation in the other queue leading to the opposite door. There were two young ladies, pleasantly dressed but not up to the standard of the rest of the guests. One was tall and heavily veiled, and the other was in a noisy argument with her neighbours in the queue about the distribution of umbrellas. I could not catch my breath since I didn't control my body, but I felt a shock on realising that the argumentative lady was Hugh's wife Moira, and the veiled one - impossibly - was Molly. Pynchon had left the two of them unconfined, since he believed they couldn't undo his spells and release the three wizards (whom he considered the only real threat) from confinement. But now they were here.
Pynchon couldn't read my thoughts if I did not project them, but he did notice the intensity of my attention and looked more closely at the women. Molly was unmistakable, and Pynchon cursed under his breath. He stepped out of the queue toward the open space between the two doors.
Peter's impello palma and Hugh's state came almost simultaneously, as soon as Pynchon had me in the open area. Pynchon got the staff up quickly and diverted both spells into the cobbles as he whirled to look for the threat.
He saw Hugh first, holding one of my own silver-topped canes and preparing to cast again. Peter was also stepping carefully toward us from a different angle. I despaired at the thought that my magic would be used to destroy Hugh, though I knew that Peter would escape to continue his travels.
Pynchon focused on Hugh, raised the staff and formulated a spell. Once again it was too complicated for the modern day, but his grip on my magic was firmer now and he wouldn't let the spell twist away, however much my head was pounding.
That was when Molly struck. She flowed in bare moments across the space Pynchon had just turned my back upon, and without preliminaries she sank her teeth into my neck, following me to the ground as I toppled. I heard shocked gasps and murmurs from the ranked guests, and then Hugh put up the standard crowd-shielding spell to divert attention as we had all learned during the Blitz.
Molly's veil was tickling across my face, and her teeth were astonishingly painful. As she sucked at me, I felt something similar to the sense of someone looking over my shoulder that I had noticed when I first donned the regalia.
Then, abruptly, I had control of my own body, and Molly was pulling away with a pleased curve to her bloody lips.
I began to rip at the frogs of the heavy coat and the clasp for the robe, which didn't accomplish much since I was lying on my back and couldn't properly shrug them free. "Get them off, get them off!" I chanted.
"Hold still, sir," Peter said calmly, kneeling next to me. He cast a narrow, sharp scindere that at first I thought was meant to cut the clothes from my back. Then I realised he was in fact severing Pynchon's ghost from the robes. There was a high, thin shriek that was more felt than heard, and I sensed the ghost rising up above the crowd, floating back in the direction of Russell Square.
"He'll just return to his bones," I gasped. "We must dispel him properly -"
"Relax," said Hugh. "Simon knows where he's buried and what to do; he and Harold have gone to take care of the bones, with Hornby to help them. Now, if you could stand up and move out of the crowd, I'd like to let this shield down." Even with my staff in his hand, the strain of maintaining the complex privacy spell was audible in his voice.
Molly and Peter lifted me from either side, and we all hurried away from the cathedral. There was no real privacy to be had anywhere in the area, but we found a spot where all the people were facing away from us to see the arrivals of the more noble guests. Moira stole one of Hugh's handkerchiefs to press against my bloody throat, and Peter was attempting to pass me the Master's staff at the same moment that Hugh tried to hand back my own cane. Molly ducked her head and wiped her chin with another handkerchief.
"I'm all right," I muttered. "I'm all right. How the devil did you get here so quickly?"
"Stole a bicycle," Peter said shamefacedly. "A bit contrary to public order, but I figured it was an emergency."
"Two bicycles." Hugh was more smug about it. "And you should have heard Moira shriek about trying to perch on the back in her good dress!"
I looked to Molly, wondering if she had been clinging to Peter's shoulders or had rushed through the streets under her own power. It was amazing enough that she was here at all. "You left the Folly," I murmured to her. "For me?"
She straightened her shoulders, and I saw a faint smile before she tugged the veil downward again.
"We'd all do as much for you, Nightingale," said Hugh heartily, "but in fact we did suspect there was a bit more at stake."
I turned to Peter in wonder. "How did you figure it all out so quickly?"
He shrugged, hands buried shyly in his pockets. "You told me his name. And I could tell right off it wasn't your signare casting that spell at me. So I legged it back to Russell Square thinking Molly could help."
"Molly and I were in a dither trying to figure out how to free our boys, of course," Moira put in. "But the keys didn't work and we couldn't understand what Harold and Hugh were shouting through the door about wards. Then Mr. Grant came in to help us. Molly seemed to know him..."
"Grant didn't waste any time, he went and got your staff and blasted the door right off its hinges, cut straight through the wards," Hugh added. Then he leaned a bit closer. "Is he really your apprentice? I thought you refused -"
"It's... a bit more complicated than that," I temporised. "So after you were freed, then what?" I had rather expected, even if Peter joined up with the others, that there would be at least an hour of explanation and argument before they could begin to take action.
"Oh, that was all Simon taking charge," Hugh said cheerily. "He knew just what to do - he was lecturing me and Harold about the basic principles the whole time we were locked up. I haven't heard him talk so much since... well, since before. It was his strategy we used at the cathedral: distract you with a couple of spells, then send Molly in to do the heavy lifting, then when you were in the clear cut the spirit free of its anchor."
"He said he knew how to get to the bones quickly, with simple spells Harold could manage," Peter added. "Hornby should be driving them to the coast by now with a bag of bone dust and salt."
I pulled the handkerchief carefully away from my neck; the bleeding had nearly stopped, although I'd still made a terrible mess of the Master's robes. I folded the cotton over and dabbed cautiously at the trickle from my nose. My head was still throbbing and my hands trembled, but I didn't seem to be suffering any dire symptoms. I would need to be cautious about using magic for quite some time, though. "Well. I suppose I won't be attending the ceremony after all. But I can't thank you all enough. You realise you may have saved the entire city... perhaps the British Monarchy?"
Somewhat belatedly, I realised that this must represent a major change in the course of events, and it was very unlikely that it would have turned out so well without Peter's intervention. He had changed history, or what would have been history without his travels, and nothing seemed to be falling apart or turning into chaos. Did that mean that I, too, could effect change safely? Peter was still travelling backwards; 1940 was still in his future. I could warn him of the danger he faced, tell him to do something differently...
"I didn't even get to see the British Monarchy!" Moira was complaining. "But I have to say this was much more exciting. Hugh told me what you Folly lads used to get up to, and I didn't half believe him!"
"We might still be able to catch the procession," Hugh told her, checking his watch.
I nodded and encouraged the two of them on their way, hoping for a chance to speak with Peter alone. Then Molly tugged at my arm.
"Of course, my dear, we'll escort you home. I need a bit of a clean-up in any case. Peter, will you come with us and -"
But when I turned around, Peter had vanished as if he'd never been there. As Molly and I walked back to the Folly, I began to realise the implications. The next time I saw Peter, if there was a next time, it would be before the coronation for him. Any warning I gave him might carry the risk of changing the events of 1953, in addition to the events of 1940. The longer I waited to warn him, the greater were the risks.
I had always been a doer, not a deep thinker like David, but now, having failed to take action swiftly enough, I would instead have to undertake some serious research.
"You didn't tell me you'd passed your exam for Sergeant."
Peter looked up as I entered the firing range, a startled smile spreading across his bruised face. "I passed?"
I hid my flinch at the error. "No official word yet, but I've had some indications."
"Brilliant! I'm due to get a new warrant card, anyway."
"Now, about that trap you encountered yesterday..."
He sighed. "Call you next time I see anything of the sort, yes sir."
"That wasn't what I meant, although you certainly should call me. But I'm quite bothered by Lesley's use of a demon trap."
"Yeah, I was thinking about that. It was sort of... under-powered? I mean, you didn't feel anything when I defused it, did you?"
"No, but it was nearly ten kilometres away on the other side of town."
"Me and -" He caught himself, frowning. "I felt it pretty clearly when you defused Varvara's trap six kilometres away. And you're more sensitive than I am. So I think this one really was low power."
"You sound like you have other evidence for that as well," I said.
"Yeah, but distance is quantifiable. This isn't. It's just, the thing didn't feel as horrible as the other ones we've seen? There was still the whole screaming thing, but it didn't make me feel sick. And no dogs, I'm sure about that. I think... I think Lesley might have found a way to harness an actual ghost. A pre-existing ghost, I mean."
"Instead of creating a new ghost through torture-murder, you mean?"
I took a breath. "Well, that would fit rather better with what we know of her character."
"Exactly, right? She's always had it in for ghosts, ever since... well."
It had not been a mere ghost that had destroyed Lesley's face, but the powerful revenant spirit that had done it had initially pretended to be a simple ghost. That pretense was what had drawn Peter and Lesley into the case and also into my orbit. And I, who had direct experience of spirit possession, had failed to see the signs. We hadn't dealt with many ordinary ghosts while Lesley was at the Folly, but whenever the topic was discussed she had revealed a distaste for them.
"I can't believe it would yield very consistent results, using an existing ghost," I mused.
"So maybe that's why the trap was low-powered."
"And thus, she paired it with a more conventional booby-trap? Lure you in with a problem you think you understand, and then hit you with a different one?"
"Er, yes." He looked uncomfortable.
"You do realise you might have been killed, Peter."
"But I wasn't, so... move on and do smarter another day, right?"
I sighed. 'Doing smarter' would require Peter to admit that Lesley was truly not on his side, and he was still having trouble with that despite all the years we had spent trying to track her down. But this was a discussion we had had before, and another iteration was unlikely to yield fresh results. I decided to change the subject. "How's your head today?"
"Fine, sir. No sign of concussion, they said."
"Hmm." I studied his blackened eye critically. The colours were even more extravagant than yesterday, but the eye was open, the skin around it less swollen.
He brushed at the stitches in his brow. "It's really all right, sir, I can see out of it clearly."
"That's fortunate. I have always found binocular vision to be quite useful."
"Especially for shooting targets?"
"No shooting today. We are only working down here because I don't wish to disrupt any of your... experiments, in the lab."
"All right. So what are we doing?"
"A new forma."
He took a step back. "Wait, this isn't the thing that put you in hospital last month, is it?"
"No." It was, but I had made significant alterations since then, including a number of tests with Abdul standing a short distance away. "It's a type of shield, useful for very specific situations. Effectively it's a ninth-order spell."
His eyebrows went up, then he winced a little. "Complicated."
"Thus why you have not learnt it before. In addition, it is a silent cast, so you will need to observe closely." I built the forma in front of him, carefully, then let it go.
He whistled. "That's going to take a while."
I had taught Peter the use of state in due course, but explained it as a way to induce paralysis, rather than a preserving stasis. I was nearly certain that he would not be able to unravel the complexities of this new spell, the way the shielding effect was designed to fall apart under pressure and allow small pockets of stasis effect to fly back at the user, inactivating (but not damaging) segments of the brain, primarily at the front. At least, this was how I hoped the spell would work. I had not had enough time to test it properly, given Abdul's restrictions since my first overpowered attempt. And it was entirely possible that Peter's learning process would carry a risk of real damage to his brain. I didn't want to teach him this spell - I didn't want to have invented it in the first place - but the spell and the accompanying deception were the only hope I had been able to scrape together in all this time. And now time was running very short indeed.
"I want you to address yourself to this seriously, Peter. You're on medical leave for a few days; make this your priority."
Perhaps I had spoken too sharply, for he frowned. "How come? I mean... what's this spell good for? It doesn't look like any of the other shields you taught me."
"No, those are all related to each other, while this one is different. It's meant to protect against magical attacks, not physical ones."
"Like that crawling fire the Phoenix used? I really want to figure a better way to block that."
I hesitated. "I'm not certain. I believe that fire spell has a physical component, in which case this shield would not work against it." In fact, I was certain this spell would not work, but I could hardly tell Peter that it was dangerous rather than useful.
"What if it was layered with a standard shield?"
"You will not be ready to attempt anything of the sort, until you have mastered this first." I showed him the nine steps of the spell again.
"So what is it used for?"
"As I said, magical attacks. Direct from one wizard to another. It would be effective against glamour, but you already know how to resist that."
"So, I could use this to protect someone else from the influence of glamour?"
"Yes - no, I - why can you never do anything just as I tell you to?" I snapped.
"But you haven't told me. I still don't know what this is meant to defend against."
My spell stung his hand and he jumped back sharply. "Pain," I said shortly.
He shook his hand, traced a finger over the skin, then stared at me in shock. "What the hell was that, some kind of Cruciatus curse?"
"Call it what you like. It's very unpleasant and I haven't taught it to you because there's nothing useful that builds upon it, but I want you to know how to block against it."
"Who's going to use it on me? Why're you so worried about this all of a sudden?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Peter, do you trust me?"
"Well... yeah, 'course I do."
"I mean really trust me. To guard your safety and your honour, to guide you without abusing my authority, even if you don't understand why or how?"
He stared at me for a long moment. "Yeah. Yes. I trust you."
He shouldn't, but I didn't say that. "Then follow my lead on this, please. Make this spell your priority. You'll find out why soon enough." I built the forma for him again.
He squinted at me. "All right. So what's the first layer? It's not aer or impello like all the other shield spells, is it?"
Chapter 11: May 2019 / February 2006 / May 2019
I left Stephanopoulos to clean up the mess at Victoria Embankment. I gave the keys for the Ford to Beverley and asked her to drive it back for me, while I reclaimed the Jaguar. When I got home, with Molly eyeing me sadly, I called Abdul's non-emergency number and left a message asking him to meet me at the Folly when he was able. It was past dinnertime before he returned my call.
"It's time," I told him.
"Time for what?"
"Time to release Peter from stasis."
There was a pause. "You mean he's -"
"Earlier today, he triggered a booby trap and disappeared. His clothes and pocket contents and the recent injury to his face all match the state he was in when I met him in the past. He's gone, Abdul. Therefore it's time to let him out of -" imprisonment "- stasis."
"What do you need?"
"It's more a matter of what you need. I told you the state I left him in. I would assume a full medical kit, possibly an ambulance at the ready."
"Right. There's time to get everything ready? Then I'll be there in half an hour."
Stephanopoulos called for an update and to let me know that no other 'explosive' devices had been found. I told her I had a lead on Peter's location, and she asked if I needed a backup team. I said that wouldn't be necessary and promised to let her know when I had him back.
Then Abdul arrived, with an ambulance team who were not happy to be left waiting outside. Molly followed along silently with Toby at her heels as I led Abdul back down the stairs. He paused in the atrium, evidently expecting me to go somewhere else, but I gestured him into the lobby.
"You kept Peter in here?" he asked in puzzlement.
"Right here." I gestured to the statue of Isaac Newton. "Behold Peter Grant, in the guise he has worn for seventy-nine years."
Abdul stared. "I've been walking right past him, all this time?"
"And so has everyone else who entered the Folly, including Peter himself. It was the safest hiding place I could think of, when I had few choices and less time."
Molly's mouth was curved into a little secretive smile. It seemed fitting that she would be here to witness Peter's return to life. I only hoped that life would last longer than a few minutes.
Perhaps I should have asked others to come. Over the years I had vaguely imagined that everyone who cared for Peter might be present to bid him farewell, to hold his hand and talk to him if he was still capable of sense and understanding for a few minutes before the end. At the very least I might have called his parents, his cousin Abigail, Beverley who still loved him even though they hadn't been together for several years. All of them surely had a stake in this.
Yet now, there was the tiny spark of hope that perhaps Peter wouldn't die, that he might be showing the symptoms of the flawed spell that I had taught him rather than actual imminent brain collapse. That hope seemed so small and fragile that I didn't want to share it with anyone else. I wanted to discover the outcome with only the necessary parties present, and then later I might share the news with the rest of the world.
It also fit in with the other lie I had spread, the fiction that Peter's departure was in any way a surprise to me, or that I didn't know exactly where to look or what to expect. Not knowing, why would I feel the need to notify everyone in advance? It made sense that only a doctor would need to be present.
"So, how do you want to do this?" Abdul asked.
I lifted my cane and began to undo the spells I had layered upon the not-statue over the years. First I released the binding that held it upon the plinth, then lifted it down to lie on the floor. Then, carefully since the other half of the crossed illusion had long ago gone to an unmarked grave, I removed the illusion of stone. The form upon the floor shifted and filled in with colour and became Peter Grant, wearing khaki pants and an embroidered cream-coloured shirt, his arms crooked as if to hold a nonexistent book and sextant. Even trapped in position, his face showed that dreadful asymmetry that hurt to look at.
Abdul caught his breath and knelt next to Peter, touching him with concern. "He's cold," he reported grimly. "Stiff. He doesn't feel like -"
"I'm not done yet," I said. "Move back, please. This is the difficult part." I walked around Peter's form, feeling the shape of the magic I had placed over him. "He's still under the stasis that I used to preserve him. It's large and strong and it will last for years, unless I remove it - which I intend to. But, if we're right in what we hope... if he used that spell that I taught him, and it fell apart the way I intended it to, then there must be other small pockets of stasis scattered across the front of his body. Especially his face and his head."
Abdul nodded; he had attended my later experiments with the spell and knew its effects. Once I got the fragmentation to work properly, he said it looked as if I had been blasted with shards of dry ice. I had left those sessions with small white spots scattered across my face and chest and upper arms, and when I put more power into the spell those spots would turn into small red bruises later. Since my first overpowered attempt, I hadn't had a successful experiment where the stasis fragments affected my brain, but I thought that might be because I wasn't testing against another practitioner's magic. At least, I hoped that was why it hadn't worked.
"So, when you release the larger stasis spell, what will happen to the smaller ones?" Abdul asked.
"I'm not certain. Although they have the same base, the smaller pockets of stasis originated with a different spell, cast by another person. That's assuming there are such pockets to begin with. I'm worried that my interference might destabilise them without actually ending them."
It was even possible that they were already destabilised. Perhaps Peter had used my shield spell and it had worked exactly as I designed it, fooling Mellenby and Pynchon and Kettering into stopping their interrogation although no real damage had occurred to Peter's brain. And then I, the young fool, had blundered in and wrapped a much heavier stasis binding over it all, changing the fragments of the fake shield into something else and causing the very damage that my older self had tried - would try - desperately to prevent.
That was the fear that weighed upon me most heavily. And I might never know if it had happened that way; I would only be able to tell that at some point, the whole complicated scheme had failed and Peter's fine, ever-curious brain had been destroyed. There would be no knowing if the mistake was mine or Peter's. But then, I had known for all this time that Peter's treatment and its consequences must be laid to my account.
"And if you don't release him?" Abdul asked.
I sighed. "Then the stasis spell will wear off gradually, perhaps another four or five years from now. At some point, Peter will begin to breathe and his heart will beat. If we are not monitoring him every minute, we might miss the event, and he could die unattended." And perhaps no one would even notice, until he began to stink.
Or, a little devil on my shoulder whispered, I could renew the stasis. Keep Peter waiting until medical technology really did catch up, until his brain could be repaired regardless of what kind of damage he had taken. I could expect to live that long, perhaps; I could keep an eye on him, until the time was right. But would it ever be right? Would he forgive me for letting all his friends and family fade away never knowing his fate?
I doubted he would. There had been sound justification for me to keep Peter waiting this long, but no longer. It was time now to take our chances, turn over the playing card, open the box and find out if the cat was alive or dead.
"Then you'll have to release the stasis now."
"Yes." I stared down at Peter's frozen form.
"Whenever you're ready, Thomas."
"Yes." For three more long breaths, I waited. Then I squeezed my cane and carefully, delicately, undid the stasis.
The best possible outcome was that all the pieces of stasis would come undone at once, and Peter's brain would instantly resume its normal function, whole and undamaged. He would awaken and ask us why we were standing about and staring at him.
That did not happen. Peter's chest rose and fell twice, then jerked suddenly as he choked.
Abdul moved into action at once, checking Peter's airway, listening to his heart, lifting his eyelids. As Peter's breathing steadied to a repeating rasp, Abdul pressed a single button on his phone and told the ambulance attendants to bring a gurney inside, along with a rapid-fire list of other equipment.
"What do you think?" I asked breathlessly. "Is he...?"
"He definitely used that spell of yours. See the spots, here and here?" Abdul pointed to Peter's cheek and forehead, but I couldn't see much other than a warm brown complexion turned ashy with strain. "Whether it worked, whether there's some combination of real damage and fake damage, I can't say yet. And even fake damage could well become real. Can you undo the rest of the magic on him?"
I grimaced. "I think it would be unwise. That was a very complex casting, and other spells interfering with it as well. Better to let it wear off in its own time. Unless you think his life is in immediate danger?"
Abdul sat back on his heels. "Not immediate, but I don't like the way he's breathing - he'll be needing oxygen now and full respiratory support once he gets to the hospital." He raised his voice as strangers bustled into the lobby and everything became much more crowded and professionally focused. Molly faded back through the atrium door with Toby held tightly in her arms.
I stayed in the lobby until the gurney and all its attendants were rushed off and the sirens faded away. From the floor I picked up Peter's phone, which had slipped out of his pocket as he was lifted to the gurney. It looked unchanged from when I had seen it earlier today. Unchanged from when I had seen it in 1940. I gazed at Newton's empty plinth and didn't know whether a weight had been lifted from my shoulders or a support kicked out from under me.
I was hunting a succubus that had been preying on teenaged boys in the Camden area when I came across the name of Peter Grant among the potential future victims, and my finger froze halfway down the list.
For all these years as I had chewed upon my own guilt and fretted over what I could or should do about it, I had at least resisted the temptation to search for Peter. I knew enough to find him, if he was born already: Kentish Town, father named Grant, mother from Sierra Leone. I did come close to crumbling on occasion, when I was an old man and feared I would not have the energy for teaching an apprentice, or when I realised that mobile phones had been invented and were gradually evolving to look like the one that Peter had showed me.
I had marked the pattern of the time traveller's visits. First there was a little over four years between, then a little over eight, a little less than twelve, and a little more than seventeen. By this pattern I might expect to see Peter again some time in 2003, give or take a year. But when I had last seen him in 1982 it seemed clear that Peter's travels had just begun, so perhaps I should not be anticipating his arrival, unless the order of his visits varied for some reason.
Having steeled myself not to expect him, nor to seek him out, I was shocked to encounter Peter's name by coincidence. Perhaps it was not the same man? Yet I was at a school in Kentish Town, where Sergeant Grant had said he originated.
Then I realised this wasn't a man at all. He was on a list of members of the science team, and he was in Mrs. Marwell's physics class, which meant he must be between 16 and 18 years old. And it was his life, not mine, that was at risk presently.
The case had begun with a teenaged boy beaten and stabbed to death in Camden Market, apparently for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A note in his autopsy report caught the attention of Abdul Walid: the boy's brain showed some unidentified lesions, not enough to kill him but perhaps accountable for some erratic behavior the boy had displayed lately. And there was a second strange symptom - testicular atrophy.
With further searching Abdul found two more boys who had been murdered in the same general neighbourhood within the last few months, also showing abnormalities in the brain and groin. Naturally, he brought this cluster of cases to my attention. Ever since the incident with the dragon, the Scot had become something of a co-investigator with me. He didn't study magic directly, but its effects on people and creatures that were not quite people.
"Why did you let me specialise in gastroenterology?" he had demanded when I finally made clear to him the prevalence of brain aneurysms among magical practitioners. I had thought it was self-evident, a fact known even back in Newton's day, but apparently I should have spelled it out more plainly for him.
"Let you? As I recall..." I tried to remember some of the one-sided conversations I had sat through. "'The gut, even more than the skin or the senses, is the truest interface between the individual and the surrounding world, the place where other becomes self'. Also, you said it would combine well with pathology on the side, and it would mostly be scheduled appointments rather than emergency call-outs so you would be available if I needed help. That all seems to be true enough."
"But I should have learned more neurobiology!" he lamented. "Not that the state of the art in the '80s was anything like what it is now. Most of what they're discovering these days is new to everyone, regardless of speciality." Gradually, he began to console himself and even ginned up some enthusiasm over the need to develop a third area of expertise.
So he worked with me, and watched over my health, and brought a number of cases to my attention. With the three murdered boys, he didn't know what to make of the combination of symptoms, but I thought I might. The police and coroners had apparently concluded that both the brain and testicular symptoms could be traced to steroid drug abuse, which activity had brought the boys into contact with an unsavoury element and had also degraded their judgment to the point that the boys sought out dangerous situations. They were therefore practically responsible for their own deaths, the reports implied not so subtly. Naturally they ignored the absence of detectable drugs in the boys' blood, along with the fact that two of the three were slight and weedy. One of them was bulky, and the others must have wished to be bulky, so they all abused steroids.
I contacted DCI Seawoll, who assigned a WPC to work with me who had apparently got on his bad side, and told her to help me navigate the mysterious world of information stored on computers. Constable Jones tackled the assignment as if it were her only hope of redemption, and soon found another strange pattern: for the first two murders, a couple of friends of each victim had committed suicide within a week or two of the victim's death. There was no evidence of collaboration or pacts, but the suicides also had abnormalities in brains and testicles. Jones took these for signs of drug abuse spreading in groups, accounting for the boys' obvious emotional instability. I sent Jones back to Seawoll with my thanks, but I didn't want him to think I was corrupting her.
The third murder victim's body had not yet been released for burial, and closer study by Abdul revealed signs that I was certain must have been caused by a succubus. It was well noted in the literature, although no one seemed to know just why, that succubi and incubi have an almost compulsive attraction to the number three, and to hierarchies of three. So, there were three murder victims. Two of those had been in a cluster of three deaths among a group of friends. The third victim's friends, as yet, were still alive. So that was how I came to be in Mrs. Marwell's school room, reviewing a list of other members of the science team that had been so important in the murdered boy's life.
"Although, lately they were slacking off a bit. Amir didn't come to the last few meetings even though the competition is only six weeks away. And a couple of his friends failed to show up as well."
"Which ones?" I asked, holding out the list.
"Peter Grant," she said, as inevitable as a train. "And Saffir Palmer. He's Amir's cousin, I believe."
"I would like to speak to the cousin," I said. "Do you know where he might be found at this time?"
Mrs. Marwell frowned. "Is he in trouble?"
"Not legal trouble," I said slowly. "He might be in danger. It's fairly common for close friends of murder victims to get into trouble themselves."
"Are you talking about revenge? These boys are too smart for that. All the science team are bound for university. Saffir is interested in chemistry, and Peter wants to be an architect."
I swallowed. My determination to avoid contact with Peter Grant redoubled. It might be inevitable - in fact, I thought it probably was - that Peter Grant was destined to join the police and become a practitioner of magic. But he was too young yet for either fate, and if I did anything that pushed him to such a career path, I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again.
I also had to remind myself sternly that I was here to save two boys' lives, not their virtues. If this succubus was the reason that Peter was sexually experienced with females but not with males, I had no business being jealous or even thinking about the details. He was a child and I was here to save him, not prey upon him in turn.
Yes, it would be better all around if I didn't lay eyes upon young Peter Grant.
"It's not revenge that worries us," I told the teacher. "Recently there have been some clusters of suicides. You said all three boys were withdrawing even before the murder - do you think the others might be in danger?"
Once I had planted the idea, Mrs. Marwell quickly built upon it, suggesting that 'social media' might contribute to such trends, and that teenagers were particularly susceptible. Her concern was genuine and I was certain she would follow through on the suggestion, assuming she had the resources.
"Can you arrange counseling for them?" I asked. Even if I could deal with the succubus promptly, it was possible that some damage had already been done and the boys might need help.
"Yes... at least, the school has contracts with some very good counselors. But budgeting is quite tight this year, so I'm not certain if we can get extra time for these boys."
"I know a charity that may have funds available." I pulled out a card for the Folly's business manager. "Contact this gentleman and let him know that you were referred by me."
With the teacher set upon a track, I went looking for Saffir to interview him. It turned out he was at home, having been given some time to grieve for his cousin and friend.
Saffir's mother reacted to my presence with great suspicion, but I managed to persuade her that her son was not a suspect. I had to be very circumspect in my questioning, but eventually Saffir revealed that Amir had been meeting with an older woman, very lovely, in the weeks before his death. Without admitting to anything, Saffir did say that he himself had seen the woman "around, a couple of times."
"A couple of times meaning how many?" I pressed gently. Succubi like hierarchies of three. Three groups of three boys - perhaps she slept with each one three times before luring or persuading them to their ends? How many times had she slept with Saffir?
How many times with Peter?
Saffir shrugged. "A couple like twice, or maybe three times. Or just once. I don't exactly remember."
I would be willing to bet it had been twice, and he was starting to feel the urge for visit number three. So I placed a few calls and made some negotiations. That night I waited within sight of the entrance to Saffir's block of flats, and when he emerged I followed him. He was halfway through the back window of an out-of-business chip shop when Olympia's glamour caught him and redirected his amorous cravings.
I had thought of using seducere myself, but glamour came more naturally to a genius loci. Olympia had a better chance of separating him from the influence of the succubus without causing unintended harm. She might want to have some fun of her own before letting him go, which troubled my conscience more than a little, but she had promised not to leave the boy in a vulnerable state. She would get him to safety, and that was the most important thing for now.
I gently popped the lock on the chip shop's back door and eased inside. Near the front of the shop, where the light of a streetlamp slanted in through the blinds, a mattress lay upon the floor. Lounging on the mattress was a creature pretending to be a beautiful woman. She smiled, and her glamour battered my senses even as she tried to latch onto my magic to control it or drain it away.
I burned down the chip shop, but I did prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.
The next day I contacted the Folly's man of business and told him I would need him to set up a charity for a specific purpose. This charity would require regular updates on the progress of its beneficiaries, but I added that there was no need for photos with the reports.
This was how I knew that Peter Grant, like Saffir Palmer, recovered in time from the unexpected death of his friend. But he did not attend the competition with the rest of the science team, nor did his scores on the A-levels match his earlier promise. He went off to Hendon afterward, perhaps determined to prevent more children like Amir from dying, or at least to catch the ones responsible. I received no reports after that, and did not seek out further information, but instead I pondered uneasily on the nature of fate.
Abigail Kamara came to Peter's hospital room and eyed the machines keeping him alive: respirator, pacemaker, feeding tube.
"You haven't asked me about apprenticeship," I realised. She was to have graduated from Hendon this spring, but I had heard nothing. Before Hendon she had, as promised, obtained her A-level in Latin. But she hadn't spoken to me, nor had Peter.
"Thought maybe I should wait and apprentice with him," she said, not looking at me.
She turned to face me where I sat against the wall. "His mum said I shouldn't trust you."
I frowned. "Because he filed papers giving me the right to make medical decisions for him?" There had been a terrible row when that was revealed, although I didn't think either of the Grants truly wished to make the difficult decision in Peter's case. Perhaps they feared that I would be the one to give up, before they were ready.
"No, before that. Couple years ago, when he was burned real bad and you didn't want them notified?"
"Ah. I had reason to believe he would get better, then."
"And you don't now? That why you called them this time?"
"In fact, I do think he'll get better." Abdul's MRI showed that Peter's brain was intact but inactive, just as intended. The problem was that it was so inactive his heart and lungs were not functioning properly. And the other problem was that the spell hadn't ended after one day as it was meant to, and we didn't know why. I sighed. "I have hope, at least. But as you say, I made a mistake last time. This time I attempted to act more sensibly."
"Surprised you don't have NHS on you to pull the plug. Been a whole week with no change, innit?"
I straightened, gripping my cane more tightly. "They've been, as a matter of fact. We agreed to a compromise. The Folly is picking up the tab." But even with the expenses paid, they likely wouldn't tolerate Peter occupying all this valuable equipment for much longer, when it might be used on patients with better prognoses.
"That because you think he'll get better, or because you feel guilty?"
I caught my breath. "Both, I suppose. This..." I waved my hand at the bed. "This injury resulted from a mistake that I made many years ago. I've spent the intervening time trying to find a way to mend that error, but I couldn't entirely prevent him from coming to harm. I hope I managed to keep it from being lethal, but it's not certain."
She turned to look at him again. Her jaw was tight but her chin quivered a bit. She still seemed frighteningly young to me.
"If... when he wakes up, I will suggest to Peter that we end his apprenticeship. It's quite possible he'll want nothing further to do with me, or with magic. But if he wishes to stay involved and take up the task of teaching you, I will be glad to offer my support."
She shook her head. "You don't really know him at all, do you?"
"I think I do. But he may be somewhat changed, when he wakes. He will certainly have good reason to be angry with me."
She snapped her fingers and held out her hand imperatively. "Mobile."
I blinked, but pulled out my phone, entered the code to unlock it, and handed it to her. Her fingers moved swiftly over the screen without placing a call before she handed it back. "There. My new number is in your contacts. You use it, right? He wakes up, you call."
"I will." I looked down at the phone dazedly.
Abigail marched from the room, and I turned my phone off. There was another visitor I was expecting, but it would likely be a while.
I pulled a second phone from my pocket: Peter's phone, that he had taken to the past with him. It had returned to the present in a functional state, needing only a visit to the charger in Peter's room. I turned it on now and thumbed slowly through the options until I was looking at recent photos - specifically, at the picture he had taken in 1940 of the two of us upon my settee. The clothes, the pattern of the upholstery, even the blackout drapes in the background all took me back to that time. And here was Peter, smiling confidently at the camera to offset my confusion. I wished I had learnt how to send an image to another phone so that I could have a record of it for myself.
I switched to Peter's music and found the list of songs he'd copied from his father's collection, and listened several times to Rina Ketty crooning her combination of despair and determination to the world. J'attendrai toujours / mon amour.
I had been so caught up in the events of the intervening years that it was hard to focus on what it had all been like, that day that I first met Peter. For him, assuming he woke up and could remember anything at all, that day would be sharp and new, my betrayal and abandonment of him a fresh wound still stinging. That day had changed my life, but Peter had not yet had the chance to shape his own reaction to it.
I turned the phone off and bowed my head to wait, as the song recommended.
I woke with a spasm of my hand upon my cane two seconds before the door clicked open and Lesley May stepped in. The Faceless Woman. She never had got the chimeric repairs that were promised her, but she had mastered the vulto occultus spell, which worked quite well on those who were not immune to it. It was sufficient to prevent market till operators from reporting her whereabouts to 999 and also, I imagined, kept small children from screaming and running away.
Other active spells were arrayed about her, carrying traces of what she had learnt from the Phoenix as well as two generations of Faceless. I thought of all the computer chips in this room keeping Peter alive, not to mention the adjacent rooms and above and below. How many people would die if Lesley and I dueled in this hospital room? Peter would surely be the first, and therefore this room was a place of truce.
I stood up while she looked dispassionately down at Peter's still form.
"He was such a fool to trust you," she murmured in a harsher echo of Abigail's uncertainty.
"Initially, that was certainly true," I said, thinking of a sandwich toasted with lux and Peter tamely following David Mellenby out the door. "But more recently I have tried to measure up to his expectation of me."
"You did this," she grated out, and I realised that she was breathing heavily with emotion.
"You really care about him," I marvelled, but she merely hissed out a breath of disbelief and said nothing. "Why then did you create that trap for him?"
"It was only supposed to transport him - or you, I wasn't picky. It was meant to bring you where I could lock you up, or Peter where I could talk to him if he was ready to hear sense, but instead it interacted with something - something you did to him!"
I shook my head. "So far as I can tell, the spell triggered a latent natural ability of Peter's. He's experienced something of the like before, but it was always an ephemeral thing, never so concrete." I looked down at the patient in my turn. "Nor so dangerous."
"You're the one who changed him. I can smell your magic all over him!"
"Of course. I've been trying to save him for a very long time."
"Save him!" She choked on something that might have been a laugh or a sob, and turned on me. "Why him? You were always so set on him. You cared about him from the start. You broke rules to take him as an apprentice after you'd known him for three bloody days! Why? I was right there. I was the better copper. I learned magic faster. If you had ever looked at me the way you looked at him..."
She was right, of course, and I knew it. Even when I had them both as apprentices, I had known that I was losing the battle against favouritism. But in truth that battle was lost when I failed to recognise spirit possession standing in front of me, standing next to Peter. There was no fixing it later, between the strictures of my upbringing, Lesley's facial damage, and Abdul's restrictions on her magic use - and, still, the distraction of Peter.
"I couldn't help you, Lesley," I said miserably. "I did try, but it was already -"
"Already too late before you met me, because I was already blah blah, yeah I know all of that." She turned her featureless face away. "But if it was him, none of that would have mattered, would it? You would have broken the rules and made it work for him, somehow. Because you wanted him. Wanted him in your Folly, in your work, in your bed..."
"You don't know why?" The idea was so surprising to me that it came out quiet and tentative. "You... don't know. Lesley, you did this. All of it. Your spell did this."
"Yeah, right, you want to blame me for him getting hurt -"
"Not that. His injuries were my fault, but you... you've shaped all my interactions with Peter. Don't you see? He wasn't displaced geographically as you intended, but temporally. The combination of your trap with Peter's time-visualising ability sent him travelling backward. I don't know precisely what caused him to focus on me, but Peter has been dropping in on my life, here and there, for decades. You want to know why I was immediately interested in him, why I couldn't stop watching him or worrying about him? Because I've known him for eighty years, Lesley! He saved my life repeatedly, long before I met you or he met me."
I could not see her expression properly through the mask, but her mouth was open and her eyes were huge. I reached cautiously into my pocket.
"And you're quite right - he should never have trusted me. Because long ago, when I'd known him less than a day and he thought I was the same man he'd known for eight years, I failed him. Then I had more than a lifetime to regret that failure, and to look for ways to undo it, to save him. That's why Peter. That's why I was so focused on him from the start - it all arose from the spell trap you set for him. Even before that, when you lived at the Folly, you were the one to suggest that time travel could be managed like staging a play."
She was trembling.
I stepped closer to her, pushing the issue, pushing her emotions. "So you see, Lesley, if you felt unfairly neglected and passed over, if you wondered why you were never good enough, it was all a result of your own work. I simply couldn't see you standing in the shadows behind Peter. You were lost behind the towering paradox that spanned most of my life, which you yourself had created."
Magic swelled around her, shifting from one forma to another as she dithered between possible spells.
I caught her hand. "Not here. You'll kill him."
"He'd be better off dead," she rasped.
"And the others your spell would endanger? I believe there's a cardiac unit below us, and an infant ward just above. Is that truly how you want to be remembered, as a killer of babies?"
I pressed the engraved cuffs around her wrists, and the magic humming about her cut off abruptly. The blurred illusion over her face became a moulded beige mask. Once her hands were secure I drew out the syringe Abdul had given me and pressed it into her upper arm. It wasn't as strong as the elephant tranquiliser Peter had tried to use years ago, but it didn't need to be.
"It's true, you know," she shrilled as I hauled her out of the room. Heads turned along the hallway. "He would be better dead! Just like he'd be better off if he'd never met you!" Then the sedative kicked in and I dropped her into a wheelchair.
I left her in Molly's care under several layers of spells, stronger than I had placed on Varvara. I did resist the temptation to put her in stasis up on Newton's empty plinth, though.
Lesley May was a problem for another day, but it would not be delayed for long. Not for decades. I only hoped to hold off the decision long enough for Peter to play a part.
Chapter 12: January 1965 / May 2019
A cold white light filtered through the library window. If I stood by the sill and looked down, I would be able to see into the court behind the Folly where I had pulled in the battered Austin A40 to the coachhouse. It was the last survivor of what had once been a fleet of vehicles from two and three decades ago. Those had all coughed their last or been sent off to an easy retirement in the countryside, and only the wheezing, sputtering A40 remained. Rather like me.
But I didn't care to look down at the streets with their film of grimy slush, so I sat in the wingchair and looked up through the window instead at the ragged bellies of the clouds. I set my brandy glass upon the table beside me, next to the decanter and an unthumbed Homer. My hands ached with the cold, but that was only appropriate. All was perfectly silent, the sky providing a screen for my memories to project upon. En battant, tristement, dans mon coeur si lourd...
Then I heard footsteps in the hall outside, and the rumble of a voice made me turn my head in surprise. If the Commissioner had need of me to consult on a case, which happened no more than once a year, he would normally telephone. At any rate, it didn't sound like the Commissioner. It sounded more like -
"Inspector!" Detective Sergeant Peter Grant strode into the library. He looked rather magnificent, with his fine charcoal-grey suit unspattered and his shirt crisply white, the bruise under his eye like a beauty mark.
"What on earth are you doing here?" I murmured.
He came to a stop midway through the room. "That's what I wanted to ask you."
I stood, but a twinge in my knee and a swimming in my head warned me to be careful about stepping forward. Perhaps I should not have had so much brandy. "Well, do come in and sit down." I waved to the library table.
Molly whisked into the room behind him, coming quickly to my side. Her brow was wrinkled more in confusion than in distress - she was baffled but not alarmed by the unexpected visitor. She cocked her head at me briefly and I glanced toward the clock on the wall. It was scarcely three o'clock, but we had a guest to entertain, after all. "Yes, an early tea would be just the thing," I told her. "And I expect Peter would appreciate something to eat, if you have anything ready?" Since I had hardly touched my luncheon and couldn't remember what food had been there, it was likely some was left.
"Er, yeah, that'd be great, thanks Molly," he said with easy informality as she glided past him out the door. Then he glared at me. "Are you in trouble?"
"Why should I be in trouble?" I asked.
"Well, you were the last time I saw you."
"I have no idea when that might be." I knew it wasn't the same as the last time I'd seen him. Since then I had attempted to research the nature of time and paradox, and had only succeeded in growing more confused than ever. Nearly twelve years had passed and I had begun to believe that I wouldn't have to face the decision of what to tell Peter. I was wrong-footed now, not prepared for this encounter, not knowing what to do or say.
"So... you know that I'm moving about in time?"
"But you don't know how, or why?"
"On other occasions, you informed me that this was a dream or vision," I said carefully. I didn't enumerate my own reasons for doubting that.
"Why are you standing like that?" he said suspiciously.
"Like what?" I stepped forward, and as expected my knee nearly gave way. Another hasty step brought me to the table where I caught myself.
He had a hand on my elbow a second later. "You're hurt!"
I sighed. "It's winter, Peter, and I'm an old man, and I've been sitting in one place for a few hours. I prefer not to discuss my arthritis."
"Oh. Yeah." He let go my elbow and stared at me assessingly.
I wondered what he saw. I knew I had lost weight, and hadn't bothered with a haircut recently since the grey strands were getting thin, and even Molly was running out of ways to keep my clothes looking new. But, if Peter was travelling backwards, I was presumably less decrepit than the version of me he knew in the future. If that was even possible.
He pursed his lips. "Well, least you look a bit better than the last time I saw you."
I did not say that I would be looking forward to that. Instead I pulled out a chair and sat with what dignity I could muster. Peter remained standing but moved back a bit and propped his hip against the table so that he didn't seem to be looming over me.
"You have blue eyes!" he exclaimed. "When did that happen?"
"I've always had blue eyes," I told him in puzzlement. I did recall that he had commented upon it, once.
"Not grey? Huh." He laughed delightedly. "That explains that painting I found. But when did you visit Fairyland?"
I puzzled over these statements. I remembered the painting, one of several that Harold had made a few years ago before he moved out of the Folly after Simon's death, but I had no idea where it had got to. As for 'Fairyland' - "I have no recollection of events from my future, and I beg you will not tell me about them."
"That's fine, because I don't know the first thing about it. You never told me, did you?"
Molly appeared at the door with a tea tray. I had no wish to try to negotiate the stairs in front of Peter, so I nodded to the polished library table in front of me. Molly narrowed her eyes at this breach of custom, but at my second nod she came forward and thumped the tray down, then sailed away without bothering to pour.
"Thanks, Molly!" Peter called cheerily after her. The tray already straddled the boundaries of tea and - not luncheon, so much as breakfast. There was a plate piled high with bubble and squeak, and some sausages on the side, and a couple of freshly fried eggs. "Lovely," Peter commented. "It's been ages since I had black pudding." I couldn't tell if he was being sincere.
"At least it's hot," I pointed out. "Molly seems to like you."
"She always has - or, so you've told me." He frowned a little uncertainly, then poured precisely the right amount of cream in a second cup, filled it with tea, and passed it to me. "Did you want a plate?"
"No, thank you, I've already eaten. Have all you want, you'll need -" I cut myself off and took a sip of tea to cover. It would be exactly to my taste, if my stomach had not already been unsettled from too much brandy and too little luncheon. Perhaps I should have accepted a plate with a few bites, after all, but I didn't think I could stomach it.
Peter worked on his meal in silence for a few minutes, but evidently did not stop thinking. "So," he said at last around a mouthful of food, then winced and swallowed before I could comment. "Sorry about that. So. Dreams about travelling in time. Any ideas?"
I shook my head uncertainly, though in truth my research had given me too many ideas, and I didn't know which possibilities to believe. Nor was I in any state to make a determination about that now, today. What I had read seemed to indicate that the changes Peter was making in history - history as he knew it, or what-might-have-been as I knew it - must not have been enough to alter his own personal timeline. He'd been changing the course of my life, rather than his own or (I presumed) his parents'. The fact that those changes had not been catastrophic did not mean the next change would also be safe.
"Well, but I've done this astral projection thing before, right? And some of the stuff I see in the past is real - maybe most of it. I told you about all that."
"I believe I just mentioned that I cannot remember something you will have told me in the future." I set down my teacup as a wave of - not dizziness, but disorientation - rippled over me. I wanted to warn him about 1940. I wanted to tell him to warn me about 1945. I wanted to ask him how many people had died at the Queen's coronation in the history he grew up with. But as far as I could tell, there was still a substantial risk that telling him any of these things about the way his future tangled with my past might cause some kind of damage to time, and no one knew how severely such damage might manifest.
"'Will have told,'" Peter mused. "So the future perfect is good for something after all. Huh. Suppose old Pliny knew anything about time travel?"
"If he did, he did not write about it," I said firmly. My mood was souring along with my stomach.
"So we don't know why I'm doing this, and we don't know how, and we don't know how to stop it?"
I knew only too well how to stop it, but I couldn't tell him that. For the other questions, the first point to investigate would be the moment he began to travel backwards instead of forwards, if he could remember that. That incident was in his past but my future - would that be dangerous for me to know? My head throbbed. "It hardly matters, as I don't think I believe you."
His head went back in startlement. "About what?"
"Oh, not about the time travel, you've demonstrated that clearly enough." I snorted, and my paralysis of uncertainty shifted into burning disbelief instead. "But I'm sixty-five years old, Peter. How much future can I possibly have? All those delightful things you told me about decriminalization, and overcoming prejudice - those are all just stories, aren't they? In any case, magic is nearly gone from the world, so it's hardly likely I'll be going to Fairyland or taking apprentices, never mind using a bacterial telephone."
"Bacterial... you mean a cell phone?"
I waved a hand. "You've been feeding me a pack of lies this whole time, haven't you? You're a time-travelling con artist, and I believed everything you said." Perhaps, if his past was not truly tangled with my future, it was safe to exchange information. Could this explain why Peter had not caused some paradox when he told me his stories - because those stories were not truly about me? Perhaps it would be my grey-eyed great-nephew or some other doppelganger who trained him, in that unlikely future where men could marry. That possibility made far more sense than the sum of what Peter had told me.
He was staring at me with his jaw gone slack. Slowly, he said, "Sixty-five? And it's wintertime... it's not January, is it? Oh hell, is this how you celebrate the bloody anniversary?"
"If you know about the bloody anniversary, why haven't you done anything about it?" I snarled.
Peter gave me a baffled look at that, because he didn't know that he would continue to move that far back in time. Then his gaze sharpened. He took two strides to the armchair and hefted the decanter, nearly empty. "Arthritis? That so?"
"The brandy eases it," I muttered.
"I'll just bet it does. Did you drink all of this today? You don't sound that far gone."
I picked up my teacup again, but my stomach roiled and I set it down.
"Right," he said briskly. "Come on, then, up you get, sir."
The tone and phrasing were so familiar that I was transported back to a snowy evening in Germany. I obeyed the pressure of his hand under my arm and rose to my feet. "Where are you taking me?" I asked as he guided me along the length of the library toward the door.
"Bed. Or anywhere you can have a lie down. It will all look better after a bit of a kip, when the liquor's worn off."
My knee twinged again and I stumbled, and he moved his hand to catch me by the ribs. He knocked against what was in my pocket.
I froze as he drew out the pistol.
"Well, this pairs nicely with the brandy," he said in a remarkably cold tone. "Not going to have a future, eh? Planning to make sure of that, were you?"
"I wasn't planning anything," I said wearily. "It's just an option."
"No," he returned sharply, checking the safety before popping out the magazine, which was empty, and checking the chamber, which held a single bullet. "It's not an option. That is never an option. How could you even think of doing that to Molly? What would happen to her, with you gone?"
"Nothing that won't happen in another ten years when I go into care, or finally keel over with an aneurysm as I should have done ages ago," I muttered.
"That's not true." He shook my elbow. "That is not true. You are not David Mellenby."
I flinched. What did Peter know of David, at this point?
"Yeah. Does it hurt to think about him? You want Molly to feel like that? Come on, sir - Thomas. If there's one thing you are, it's a survivor, right? So hold on. You know what they tell kids in my day? It gets better. You just hold on, and I swear it'll get better."
There was nothing I could say to that, so I jerked my chin at the empty gun cradled in his hand. "Don't put that in your pocket," I whispered.
It was the Radom pistol I had brought back from Germany, that Peter had left in the burnt farmhouse next to my own revolver. I assumed that he had got it from one of the fallen werewolves, but I had not seen him do so. I could just imagine what would happen if he took it back in time with him and left it there, only for it to come forward with me again, and back with him, and so on. In the theoretical studies I had looked up, this was referred to as a closed paradox: an object with no true point of origin, forever moving back and forth in time. Just as with an open paradox where the time traveller changed something that should prevent him from either existing or undertaking time travel in the future, a closed paradox was something that might have the power to unravel time.
The theorists were much less clear about the possibility of an idea or piece of information with no origin. For example, there was the alternating hot-and-cold method for charging a staff, or the notion that I should take a certain young man as my apprentice - did that come from me, or from him, or from time itself? I had tried to mitigate the danger by studying up independently on methods for separating ghosts from their anchors, alternative formae for lux and impello and so forth, so that Peter was not my only source of such information, but the possibility of paradox still worried me.
Still, I entertained a growing doubt that I would ever have the opportunity to take Peter as an apprentice, so perhaps it didn't matter. It was all too far-fetched and I simply could not picture myself in the time he had come from, a withered old man in a world of bright young things enjoying their shining future. Surely the easiest way to prevent that closed loop in time was to cut it short, here and now.
He was watching me somberly. "Tell you what," he said at last. "You swear, on your magic, that you won't try anything like this again, for at least... five years. Right? You give me five years. You'll get your decriminalization, and white men walking on the moon, and you'll see magic getting stronger again. And after all that, if you still feel the future's not worth it and Molly can go spit, then you can off yourself."
"And?" I prompted.
"I give you my word for five years, and you give me...?"
"And I'll put this in the gun safe downstairs."
"There is no gun safe downstairs," I murmured in bafflement. There was a gun room, with weapons on racks, but there had never been a need to secure them since the building itself was already protected.
He rolled his eyes. "I will put it somewhere safe. Not in my pocket, if that matters so much to you. Deal?"
It was a very uneven exchange, but I had told the truth; I was not specifically planning anything, merely toying with the possibility. In a sense it would be a relief to have that decision taken from me. "Very well," I sighed. "You have my word."
"On your magic?"
"Does that really matter anymore?" I huffed at him. I couldn't even recall the last time I'd cast a spell.
"Yeah. It matters a lot. So?"
"I swear, on my magic, that I will take no action deliberately to shorten my lifespan in the next five years."
"Good enough. Now let's get you up to bed."
It was a painful and precarious journey that required a great deal of not-quite-recreational grappling.
"So, just hypothetically," Peter said into the small of my back, "if, sometime in the future, you should have an apprentice who's a bit pissed - just a bit, mind you! - and he needs some help up the stairs, and he gets sort of fresh - handsy, you know - you wouldn't hold that against him, would you?"
"That depends," I said, using him as a crutch to take the weight off my sore knee, but trying not to press my hips against him either fore or aft, however tempting. He was still thirty and beautiful, and I was a dirty old man. "How handsy would this drunken apprentice be?"
"Er... a little? Hardly at all. Not really worth mentioning."
"That's a shame," I muttered. "But I suppose it's a sign of good taste. If this is the future, I must be quite the derelict." Always supposing it was truly me that he knew in the future... but that idea was beginning to be painful, so I stopped thinking about it.
"Yeah, right. I could only hope to look so good at that age." Peter fielded me up another two steps which apparently required grabbing my bum and pressing his cheek to my chest.
"Remind me which one of us is drunk?" I half-laughed, catching at his shoulder.
"Do you actually even have arthritis, or is this all just an excuse?"
"The pain is dreadful," I assured him. "Agonizing."
Peter started to turn off one landing too early, and when I directed him up another flight to the correct room he burst into laughter again. "I should have known," he gasped, "I really should. But if your joints are bothering you so much, maybe you should think about taking one of the bigger rooms one floor down. Free this one up for someone else to use, you know?"
Another informational closed-loop paradox. "You really must stop telling me so much about my future," I grumbled as he tipped me onto the bed, fully clothed, on top of the covers.
"I'll stop telling you about it if you stop worrying about it," he told me, with a lingering pat on my shoulder.
"Hmmph," was all I could say, into the pillow, as I fell asleep.
He was gone when I stirred groggily and gulped down the glass of water waiting beside the bed. My head ached but it was clearer now, and I groaned to remember some of the things I had said. I was in a better state to make complex decisions now, but it was too late to give Peter any more information to take into the past with him.
Down the hall I found signs that he had bathed, and a spare razor and toothbrush had been used. Molly looked at me worriedly as she served a late dinner, but seemed to forgive me when I cleaned my plate. I hoped Peter had got enough food and rest to get him through a day of bicycle-riding and a night in Germany.
The next day there was an actual call-out from the Commissioner - a case involving a haunted gramophone whose owner had recently passed away, leaving it to his daughter, whose family experienced a variety of problems as a result. The tangle took nearly a week to puzzle out, and I considered that perhaps magic was not entirely gone from the world.
The next month, the old A40 gave up the ghost and I found myself growing excited about choosing a new car. I got a haircut that made the best of my remaining grey wisps, and restocked my wardrobe with fashionable suits that could flatter even a sagging figure. I moved my bedroom to one of the larger suites one floor down. The month after that, I found Molly using the handle of the Radom to tenderise meat. I did check to be sure it was empty, and then left her to it.
By the time the weather had warmed enough to ease the pain in my knee, I found I had begun to look forward instead of back. I still didn't quite believe all that Peter had told me, but I was quite interested to learn about Fairyland.
Abdul called me four days after Lesley's capture to say that Peter was fighting the respirator. "He's not awake yet," he told me, "but if I'm any judge, it won't be long."
Peter's father was recovering from dental surgery, but his mother and cousin were the first to enter his room. When they emerged, Mrs. Grant scowled at me fiercely but Abigail gave me a broad grin. Beverley also appeared, alerted by some network of river allies. She went inside for nearly half an hour, and gave me a thoughtful look as she left. I stayed in the hallway, staff lying across my lap, until all the visits and examinations were done. It was past dinnertime when Abdul stepped out and nodded to me, and I got to my feet.
"He's doing well. I'll be starting the discharge paperwork. You can go in now."
The expensive machines were silent, pushed to the corners of the room. Peter was sitting up and looking at me, the colour in his face considerably improved over the last time I'd seen him. We were alone.
"You lied to me," he said.
I set my jaw and gripped the staff more tightly. "Yes."
"That was no shield spell."
I blinked. Of all my deceptions, that was the one he worried about? "Not a shield, no, but I did design it specifically to save your life."
"But you didn't tell me that."
"No. Just as you guessed, the ignorance of the time traveller plays a critical role."
He blinked. "What?"
"Don't you see, Peter? I betrayed you in 1940, and then I regretted it. But every time we have met since then, every conversation we had, I was lying to you. At first, while you were travelling back toward that meeting in 1940, I thought I had to lie in order to avoid paradox. More recently, since you came to the Folly, I thought the truth would be too painful for you. Then I developed a plan involving that false shield spell, and I lied in hopes of saving your life. But I have never been truly honest with you."
He stared at me, brow furrowed. He really hadn't thought out all the implications. It was hardly surprising, as he hadn't had much time for thought. "What about... when you said... after I finish my apprenticeship..."
I sighed and stepped up to the side of the bed. I dared to lay a hand over his, and he turned his palm up to grasp my fingers. "That was a lie of omission. Everything I said then was true, but not complete. The power imbalance between us was too great, but so was the imbalance of knowledge. I did not want to start a relationship when I knew that you were always heading for that inevitable betrayal. But also -" I stopped and swallowed hard.
"Also, I wanted your first time with me to be my first time with you. Even if that meant it would be the only time." I still remembered the strange unalloyed joy of that evening at the dawn of war. However Peter's feelings and mine had been trampled since then, that moment remained pure.
I squeezed his hand and released it, standing straight. "Detective Sergeant Peter Grant, having completed your apprenticeship, you are released from all vows and obligation to me as your master. Accept this staff in token of your achievement, and use it well." I laid the baton across his lap.
He picked it up in wonder. "It looks like mine, but it's full of your magic. Because my staff burned up in..."
"It was likely the power of the staff you made which kept you alive, and diverted you from travelling in space to travelling through time. That in itself was an accomplishment worthy of a mastery. I brought the burnt staff home in 1982 - I can look it out for you, if you like - and I made another along the same design."
"In the slender hope that I might be able to hand it to you someday, as a token."
His bewildered smile faded. "A token that my apprenticeship is over."
"That mean you can't order me about anymore?"
I sighed. "Peter, recite me a nursery rhyme, backward." I pulled, but like magic in the years after the war, there was hardly anything there to grasp.
He blinked as my command washed over him and passed on like a wave in the ocean. My order wasn't meaningless, but it had no more power than a command from Ash or Beverley, and Peter was good at resisting glamours. He held firm against it, then gave a small smirk.
"The truth is," I told him, "those obligations were always limited. If I had called on them too often, they would have ceased to work. The point of the apprenticeship oaths is supposed to be that the master will have enough power to protect the apprentice from mistakes, not to give the master unlimited opportunities for abuse." His obligation to me must have been severely weakened by what I did in 1940 (or just a few days ago, for Peter), but it was still preferable to end an apprenticeship properly rather than breaking it.
"Protect, huh? Like in '53 when you ordered me to run?" he asked.
"Yes. Like that." I had seen so little of Peter during that incident that I really didn't know how he'd reacted to my ordering him away, but at least my intention that time had matched the spirit of my oaths - oaths I had not yet taken at the time, but they were implied by the strength of Peter's obligation to me.
"That's a relief." He shook his head. "That whole... domination thing did sort of make me wonder, 'specially about what it was like in the old days."
I eyed him narrowly. "Whatever prurient horrors you've been imagining, your apprenticeship has served its purpose. You've learnt enough. There is more that I can still share with you, but that will come over time. You certainly have the independence of mind to take responsibility for your own fate. And I... wasn't certain you would wish to keep working with me, now that you know what I've done."
"What? Wait - what?"
"If you wish," I said stiffly, "I can see you transferred to any division of the Met that you prefer. Or if you'd rather go elsewhere, a reference from me might help to get you established, wherever you go."
He stared at me. "You're kicking me out?"
"I'm freeing you, Peter."
His eyes narrowed. "I was never your slave, Thomas."
I winced. "That did come out wrong, didn't it? I only mean that you might wish to make some changes in your life now, and I'm trying to give you the opportunity to make those changes freely."
"What if I want to stay with the Folly? And the Falcon Overlords Unit or whatever they're calling us this week?"
"I believe we have progressed from Falcon Oversight to Riparian Liaisons," I said. "No doubt Lady Ty's doing."
"Yeah, so... what if that's what I want?"
I grimaced. "Peter, you can't possibly trust me now that you know..."
"Why'd you pull that obligation crap on me, then, huh? I mean, back in the day. Which was, like, yesterday for me. But what were you trying to do with that?"
"I wanted to avoid bloodshed," I said shortly.
"So you were protecting Mellenby from me?"
"And you from him." It still sent shivers up my spine, thinking of what a full-fledged magical duel might have wrought in the middle of London. It would have been very one-sided, though, with Peter against several of the Folly's strongest - several, because I would have been obliged to join in on David's side. It might well have turned out worse for Peter than the interrogation had, and far beyond my ability to re-stage into something harmless.
"You think I didn't know that? Even back then? I could see you were trying to work out the best thing in a bad situation. It wasn't betrayal, Thomas. I didn't think so then and I don't think so now."
Unexpectedly, my face was burning and there was a lump in my throat. I had to swallow several times before I could say, "Nevertheless -"
"Nevertheless, nothing! You made one mistake that was still maybe the lesser evil, and we don't know that because you never know what might have been, right? Even with time travel? But because it was time travel, you've had all this time to brood over it and convince yourself it was all your fault, so what did you do? You fixed it! You invented a whole new insanely dangerous spell - and you tested it on yourself, didn't you? That was that whole thing when you ended up here a couple months ago, right? And then you lied to me, which, yeah, I don't like that. But you asked me if I trusted you, really trusted you, and I did. And you made it all work out right."
"I didn't know it would work out right," I whispered. "I didn't know it had. Until today."
"Then you think maybe you should be celebrating, instead of trying to push me away?"
"You should take time to think about this, Peter. There's a great deal to put together -"
"Yeah, you've actually been lying to me for years and it's going to take forever to untangle. But that's okay, because it's going to take forever for Abdul to get those discharge papers through, anyway. So we have time to talk. Meanwhile..." He took my hand and held it tightly. "I know this much: I'm not leaving the Folly."
"There isn't much room for promotion," I said weakly.
"What, you don't think I could make DCI? Or Super, even? By the time I'm ready for that, you'll be looking about twenty, probably spotty, and your suits won't fit, and the Commissioner'll want someone who looks more official in front of cameras."
"I doubt I'll continue getting younger to that extreme," I put in, appalled by the thought. "It's already slowed down considerably, so far as we can measure it -"
"But it hasn't stopped, has it? Nah, never mind - we'll worry about that when we get to it. What I'm really saying is, all your reasons why you think I should leave are for shit, and all my reasons for wanting to stay are much better. So there."
"I captured Lesley," I told him. "Abigail wants to be your apprentice instead of mine. And we're going to have to renegotiate the Rivers agreements because Neckinger collaborated with Lesley in laying that trap for you."
He blinked. "All right. So clearly, you want me to stay and help clean up your messes for you, that what you're saying?"
"They're hardly my messes," I began.
Just then Peter tugged on my hand hard enough to pull me against the bed. I toppled over almost into his lap, catching myself on his shoulders, and he leaned forward to kiss me, very briefly. "Oh, look at that, not your apprentice anymore!" he crowed.
I balanced myself enough to lift one hand to the side of his face. "Peter, do you really -?"
"Yes, I really! Been waiting for this, haven't I? But what about you? Still think I'm too young, and too far below you in rank, and all that?"
"Don't be a fool," I snapped, but my voice softened as I breathed in his scent. "If you're not observant enough to realise I've been waiting for this for eighty years to your eight, you should be demoted back to constable. Or perhaps kept here for further testing."
He blinked and then grinned. "You do sarcastic compliments so beautifully." He kissed me again, only to pull back just as I was losing all focus on the present. "Actually, it's only been seventy-nine years. But that's okay, I'm sure we can improve on that."
Peter's long frozen wait was over, and so was my own. I discovered, as we sprawled across an awkward S-humped bed, that I was really looking forward to enjoying the orderly, linear progression of time.