The city sprawled for several miles on either side of the Thames, a smoke-bound crust of housing, dotted with palaces, towers, churches, and bazaars. At all times and in all places, it thrummed with activity. The streets were clogged and crowded with tourists, workers, and other human traffic, while the air buzzed invisibly with the passage of imps busy about their masters' errands.
On the crowded quays extending into the gray waters of the Thames, battalions of soldiers and bureaucrats waited to set sail on journeys across the globe. In the shadows of their iron-clad sailing ships, colorful merchant vessels of every size and shape negotiated the cluttered river. Bustling carracks from Europe; sharp-sailed Arab dhows, laden with spices; snub-nosed junks from China; elegant, slim-masted clippers from America-all were surrounded and impeded by the tiny river-boats of the Thames watermen, who competed loudly for the custom of guiding them into dock.
Two hearts powered the metropolis. To the east was the City district, where traders from distant lands gathered to exchange their wares; to the west, hugging a sharp bend in the river, lay the political mile of Westminster, where the magicians worked ceaselessly to extend and protect their territories abroad.
The boy had been in central London on business; now he was returning to Westminster on foot. He walked at an easy pace, for though it was still early morning, it was already warm, and he could feel the sweat beading beneath his collar. A slight breeze caught the edges of his long black coat and whipped it up behind him as he went. He was aware of the effect, which pleased him. Darkly impressive, it was; he could sense heads turning as he passed. On really windy days, with his coat flapping out horizontally, he had the feeling he didn't look quite so stylish.
He cut across Regent Street and down between the whitewashed Regency buildings to Haymarket, where the street sweepers were busy with broom and brush outside the theater fronts and young fruit sellers were already beginning to parade their wares. One woman supported a tray piled high with fine, ripe, colonial oranges, which had been scarce in London since the southern European wars began. The boy approached; as he passed, he flipped a coin dexterously into the small pewter bowl hanging from her neck and, with an extension of the same movement, plucked an orange from the top of the tray. Ignoring her thanks, he went his way. He did not break stride. His coat trailed impressively behind him.
At Trafalgar Square, a series of tall poles, each striped with a dozen spiraling colors, had recently been erected; gangs of workmen were at that moment winching ropes into place between them. Each rope was heavily laden with jaunty red, white, and blue flags. The boy stopped to peel his orange and consider the work.
A laborer passed, sweating under the weight of a mass of bunting.
The boy hailed him. "You, fellow. What's all this in aid of?"
The man glanced sideways, noticed the boy's long black coat, and immediately attempted a clumsy salute. Half the bunting slipped out of his hands onto the pavement. "It's for tomorrow, sir," he said. "Founder's Day. National holiday, sir."
"Ah yes. Of course. Gladstone's birthday. I forgot." The boy tossed a coil of peel into the gutter and departed, leaving the workman grappling with the bunting and swearing under his breath.
And so down to Whitehall, a region of massive gray-clad buildings, heavy with the odor of long-established power. Here, the architecture alone was enough to browbeat any casual observer into submission: great marble pillars; vast bronze doors; hundreds upon hundreds of windows with lights burning at every hour; granite statues of Gladstone and other notables, their grim, lined faces promising the rigors of justice for all enemies of State. But the boy tripped with light steps past it all, peeling his orange with the unconcern of one born to it. He nodded to a policeman, flashed his pass to a guard, and stepped through a side gate into the courtyard of the Department of Internal Affairs, under the shade of a spreading walnut tree. Only now did he pause, gulp down the remainder of his orange, wipe his hands on his handkerchief, and adjust his collar, cuffs, and tie. He smoothed back his hair a final time. Good. He was ready now. It was time to go to work.
More than two years had passed since the time of Lovelace's rebellion, and the sudden emergence of Nathaniel into the elite. By now, he was fourteen years old, taller by a head than when he had returned the Amulet of Samarkand to the protective custody of a grateful government; bulkier, too, but still lean-framed, with his dark hair hanging long and shaggy around his face after the fashion of the day. His face was thin and pale with long hours of study, but his eyes burned hot and bright; all his movements were characterized by a barely suppressed energy.
Being a keen observer, Nathaniel had soon perceived that among working magicians, appearance was an important factor in maintaining status. Shabby attire was frowned upon; indeed it was a sure-fire mark of mediocre talent. He did not intend to give this impression. With the stipend that he received from his department, he had bought a tight-fitting black drainpipe suit and a long Italian coat, both of which he considered dangerously fashionable. He wore slim, slightly pointed shoes and a succession of garish handkerchiefs, which provided an explosion of color across his breast. With this outfit carefully in place, he would walk around the Whitehall cloisters with a lanky, purposeful stride, reminiscent of some wading bird, clutching sheaves of paper in his arms.
His birth name he kept well hidden. To his colleagues and associates, he was known by his adult name, John Mandrake.
Two other magicians had borne this name, neither of great renown. The first, an alchemist in the days of Queen Elizabeth, had turned lead to gold in a celebrated experiment before the court. It was afterward discovered that he had managed this by coating gold pellets with thin films of lead, which vanished when gently heated. His ingenuity was applauded, but he was beheaded nonetheless. The second John Mandrake was a furniture-maker's son who had spent his life researching the many variants of demonic mite. He had amassed a list of 1,703 increasingly irrelevant subtypes before one of them, a Lesser Frilled Green Hornetwing, stung him in an unguarded area; he swelled to the size of a chaise lounge and so died.
The inglorious careers of his predecessors did not concern Nathaniel. In fact, they gave him quiet satisfaction. He intended to make the name famous for himself alone.
Nathaniel's master was Ms. Jessica Whitwell, a magician of indeterminate age, with cropped white hair and a frame that was slender, tending to the skeletal. She was reckoned one of the four most potent magicians in the government, and her influence was long. She recognized her apprentice's talent and set about developing it fully.
Living in a spacious apartment in his master's riverside townhouse, Nathaniel led an ordered, well-directed existence. The house was modern and sparsely furnished, its carpets lynx-gray and the walls stark white. The furniture was made of glass and silvered metal, and of pale wood felled in Nordic forests. The whole place had a cool, businesslike, almost antiseptic feel, which Nathaniel came to admire strongly: it signaled control, clarity, and efficiency, all hallmarks of the contemporary magician.
Ms. Whitwell's style even extended to her library. In most magical households, libraries were dark, brooding places-their books bound in exotic animal skins, with embroidered pentacles or curse runes on the spines. But this look, Nathaniel now learned, was very last century. Ms. Whitwell had requested Jaroslav's, the printers and bookbinders, to provide uniform bindings of white leather for all her tomes, which were then indexed and stamped with identifying numbers in black ink.
In the center of this white-walled room of neat white books was a rectangular glass table, and here Nathaniel would sit two days every week, working on the higher mysteries.
In the early months of his tenure with Ms. Whitwell, he had embarked on a period of intensive study and, to her surprise and approval, mastered successive grades of summoning in record time. He had progressed from the lowest level of demon (mites, moulers, and goblin-imps), to medium (the full range of foliots), to advanced (djinn of various castes) in a matter of days.
After watching him dismiss a brawny djinni with an improvisation that administered a slap on its blue rump, his master expressed her admiration. "You're a natural, John," she said. "A natural. You displayed bravery and good memory at Heddleham Hall in dismissing the demon there, but I little realized how adept you'd be at general summonings. Work hard and you'll go far."
Nathaniel thanked her demurely. He did not tell her that most of this was nothing new to him, that he had already raised a middle-ranking djinni by the age of twelve. He kept his association with Bartimaeus strictly to himself.
Ms. Whitwell had rewarded his precocity with new secrets and tuition, which was exactly what Nathaniel had long desired. Under her guidance, he learned the arts of constraining demons to multiple or semipermanent tasks, without recourse to cumbersome tools such as Adelbrand's Pentacle. He discovered how to protect himself from enemy spies by weaving sensor webs around himself; how to dispel surprise attacks by invoking rapid Fluxes that engulfed the aggressive magic and carried it away. In a very short space of time, Nathaniel had absorbed as much new knowledge as many of his fellow magicians who were five or six years older. He was now ready for his first job.
It was the custom for all promising magicians to be given work in lowly departmental positions as a way of instructing them in the practical use of power. The age at which this occurred depended on the talent of the apprentice and the influence of the master. In Nathaniel's case, there was another factor, too, for it was well known about the coffee bars of Whitehall that the Prime Minister himself was following his career with a keen and benevolent eye. This ensured that, from the outset, he was the object of much attention.
His master had warned him of this. "Keep your secrets to yourself," she said, "especially your birth name, if you know it. Keep your mouth shut like a clam. They'll pry it all out of you otherwise."
"Who will?" he asked her.
"Enemies you haven't yet made. They like to plan ahead."
A magician's birth name was certainly a source of great weakness if uncovered by another, and Nathaniel guarded his with great care. At first, however, he was considered something of a soft touch. Pretty female magicians approached him at parties, lulling him with compliments before inquiring closely into his background. Nathaniel fended off these crude enticements fairly easily, but more dangerous methods followed. An imp once visited him while he slept, cooing gentle words into his ear and asking for his name. Perhaps only the loud toiling of Big Ben across the river prevented an unguarded revelation. As the hour struck, Nathaniel stirred, woke, and observed the imp squatting on the bedpost; in an instant, he summoned a tame foliot, which seized the imp and compressed it to a stone.
In its new condition, the imp was sadly unable to reveal anything about the magician who had sent it on its errand. After this episode, Nathaniel employed the foliot to guard his bedroom conscientiously throughout each night.
It soon became clear that John Mandrake's identity was not going to be compromised easily, and no further attempts occurred. Soon afterward, when he was still scarcely fourteen, the expected appointment was made and the young magician joined the Department of Internal Affairs.
The secretary, a trim, well-kempt young man with oiled ginger hair, paused in the act of leaving the room. "You're late, Mandrake," he said, pushing his glasses higher with a swift, nervous gesture. "What's the excuse this time? You've got responsibilities, too, you know, just the same as us full-timers." He hovered by the door and frowned fiercely down his little nose.
The magician threw himself back into his chair. He was tempted to put his feet up on the desk, but rejected this as being too showy. He restricted himself to a lazy smile. "I've been at an incident scene with Mr. Tallow," he said. "Been working there since six. Ask him if you like, when he gets in; he might tell you a few details-if they're not too secret, that is. What have you been up to, Jenkins? Photocopying hard, I hope."
The secretary made a sharp noise between his teeth and pushed his glasses higher up his nose. "Keep it up, Mandrake," he said. "Just keep it up. You may be the Prime Minister's blue-eyed boy now, but how long's that going to last if you don't deliver? Another incident? The second this week? You'll soon be back scrubbing teacups again, and then-we'll see." With something between a scuttle and a flounce, he departed.
The boy made a face at the closing door and for a few seconds sat staring at nothing. He rubbed his eyes wearily and glanced at his watch. Only nine forty-five. Already it had been a long day.
A teetering pile of papers on his desk awaited his attention. He took a deep breath, adjusted his cuffs and reached out for the topmost file.
For reasons of his own, Nathaniel had long been interested in Internal Affairs, a subdepartment of the sprawling Security apparatus headed by Jessica Whitwell. Internal Affairs conducted investigations into various kinds of criminal activity, notably foreign insurgency and domestic terrorism directed against the State. When he first joined the department, Nathaniel had merely undertaken humble activities such as filing, photocopying, and tea-making. But he did not carry out these tasks for long.
His rapid promotion was not (as his enemies whispered) simply the product of raw nepotism. It was true that he benefited from the goodwill of the Prime Minister and from the long reach of his master, Ms. Whitwell, whom none of the magicians in Internal Affairs wanted to displease. Yet this would have availed him nothing if he had been incompetent or merely average in his craft. But Nathaniel was gifted, and more than that, he worked hard. His elevation was swift. Within months he had maneuvered his way through a succession of humdrum clerical jobs, until-not yet fifteen-he had become assistant to the Internal Affairs Minister himself, Mr. Julius Tallow.
A short, burly man of bullish build and temperament, Mr. Tallow was abrupt and abrasive at the best of times, and inclined to sudden outbursts of incandescent rage, which sent his minions scurrying for cover. Aside from his temper, he was additionally distinguished by an unusual yellowish complexion, bright as daffodils at noonday. It was not known among his staff what had caused this affliction; some claimed it was hereditary, that he was the offspring of a union between magician and succubus. Others rejected this on biological grounds, and suspected he was the victim of malignant magic. Nathaniel subscribed to the latter view. Whatever the cause, Mr. Tallow concealed his problem as best he could. His collars were high, his hair hung long. He wore a broad-brimmed hat at all times and kept a keen ear open for levity on the subject among his staff.
Excerpted from Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Stroud. Excerpted by permission.
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