Once, long ago, I was second to none. I could whirl through the air on a wisp of cloud and churn up dust storms with my passing. I could slice through mountains, raise castles on pillars of glass, fell forests with a single breath. I carved temples from the sinews of the earth and led armies against the legions of the dead, so that the harpers of a dozen lands played music in my memory and the chroniclers of a dozen centuries scribbled down my exploits. Yes! I was Bartimaeus-cheetah quick, strong as a bull elephant, deadly as a striking krait!
But that was then.
And now ... well, right now I was lying in the middle of a midnight road, flat on my back and getting flatter. Why? Because on top of me was an upturned building. Its weight bore down. Muscles strained, tendons popped; try as I might, I could not push free.
In principle there's nothing shameful about struggling when a building falls upon you. I've had such problems before; it's part of the job description. But it does help if the edifice in question is glamorous and large. And in this case, the fearsome construction that had been ripped from its foundations and hurled upon me from a great height was neither big nor sumptuous. It wasn't a temple wall or a granite obelisk. It wasn't the marbled roof of an emperor's palace.
No. The object that was pinning me haplessly to the ground, like a butterfly on a collector's tray, was of twentieth-century origin and of very specific function.
Oh, all right, it was a public lavatory. Quite sizable, mind, but even so. I was glad no harpers or chroniclers happened to be passing.
In mitigation, I must report that the lavatory in question had concrete walls and a very thick iron roof, the cruel aura of which helped weaken my already feeble limbs. And there were doubtless various pipes and cisterns and desperately heavy taps inside, all adding to the total mass. But it was still a pretty poor show for a djinni of my stature to be squashed by it. In fact, the abject humiliation bothered me more than the crushing weight.
All around me the water from the snapped and broken pipework trickled away mournfully into the gutters. Only my head projected free of one of the concrete walls; my body was entirely trapped.
So much for the negatives. The good side was that I was unable to rejoin the battle that was taking place up and down the suburban street.
It was a fairly low-key sort of battle, especially on the first plane. Nothing much could be seen. The house lights were all out, the electric street lamps had been tied in knots; the road was dark as an inkstone, a solid slab of black. A few stars shone coldly overhead. Once or twice indistinct blue-green lights appeared and faded, like explosions far off underwater.
Things hotted up on the second plane, where two rival flocks of birds could be seen wheeling and swooping at each other, buffeting savagely with wings, beaks, claws, and tails. Such loutish behavior would have been reprehensible among seagulls or other down-market fowl; the fact that these were eagles made it all the more shocking.
On the higher planes the bird guises were discarded altogether, and the true shapes of the fighting djinn came into focus. Seen from this perspective, the night sky was veritably awash with rushing forms, contorted shapes, and sinister activity.
Fair play was entirely disregarded. I saw one spiked knee go crunching into an opponent's belly, sending him spinning away behind a chimney to recover. Disgraceful! If I'd been up there I'd have had no truck with that.
But I wasn't up there. I'd been put out of action.
Now, if it had been an afrit or marid who'd done the damage, I could have lived with it. But it wasn't. In fact my conqueror was none but a third-level djinni, the kind I could normally roll up in my pocket and smoke after dinner. I could still see her now from where I lay, her nimble feminine grace rather undermined by her pig's head and the long rake she clutched in her trotters. There she was, standing on a postbox, laying left and right with such brio that the government forces, of which I was nominally a part, backed off and left her well alone. She was a formidable customer, with experience in Japan if her kimono was anything to go by. In truth, I'd been misled by her rustic appearance and had ambled close without upping my Shields. Before I knew it, there was a piercing oink, a blur of movement, and-whump!-she'd left me pinned in the road, too weary to break free.
Little by little, however, my side was gaining the upper hand. See! Here strode Cormocodran, snapping off a lamppost and swinging it like a twig; there raced Hodge, loosing off a volley of poison darts. The enemy dwindled and began to adopt ever more fatalistic guises. I saw several large insects buzzing and dodging, one or two wisps twisting frantically, a couple of rats heading for the hills. Only the she-pig stubbornly maintained her original appearance. My colleagues surged forward. One beetle went down in a corkscrew cloud of smoke; a wisp was blown apart by a double Detonation. The enemy fled; even the pig realized the game was up. She leaped gracefully onto a porch, somersaulted up onto a roof, and vanished. The victorious djinn set off in hot pursuit.
It was quiet in the street. Water trickled past my ears. From topknot to toes, my essence was one long ache. I gave a heart-felt sigh.
"Dear me," a voice chuckled. "A damsel in distress."
I should have mentioned that in contrast to all the centaurs and ogres at my side, I'd been wearing a human guise that night. It happened to be that of a girl: slender, long dark hair, feisty expression. Not based on anybody in particular, of course.
The speaker appeared around the edge of the public convenience and paused to sharpen a nail against a snaggy bit of pipe. No delicate guise for him; as usual he was decked out as a one-eyed giant, with lumpy muscles and long blond hair braided in a complex and faintly girly way. He wore a shapeless blue-gray smock that would have been considered hideous in a medieval fishing village.
"A poor sweet damsel, too frail to pry herself free." The cyclops considered one of his nails carefully; finding it a little long, he bit at it savagely with his small sharp teeth and rounded it off against the pebbledash wall of the lavatory.
"Mind helping me up?" I inquired.
The cyclops looked up and down the empty road. "Better watch out, love," he said, leaning casually on the building so that its downward pressure increased. "There's dangerous characters abroad tonight. Djinn and foliots ... and naughty imps, who might do you a mischief."
"Can it, Ascobol," I snarled. "You know full well it's me."
The cyclops's single eye batted becomingly under its layer of mascara. "Bartimaeus?" he said in wonder. "Can it possibly be ...? Surely the great Bartimaeus would not be so easily snared! You must be some imp or mouler cheekily adopting his voice and ... But, no-I am wrong! It is you." He raised his eyebrow in an affectation of shock. "Incredible! To think the noble Bartimaeus has come to this! The master will be sorely disappointed."
I summoned my last reserves of dignity. "All masters are temporary," I replied. "All humiliations likewise. I bide my time."
"Of course, of course." Ascobol swung his apelike arms and did a little pirouette. "Well spoken, Bartimaeus! You do not let your decline depress you. No matter that your great days are over, that you are now as redundant as a will-o'-the-wisp! No matter that your task tomorrow is as likely to be damp-dusting our master's bedroom as roaming free upon the air. You are an example to us all."
I smiled, showing my white teeth. "Ascobol," I said, "it is not I who have declined, but my adversaries. I have fought with Faquarl of Sparta, with Tlaloc of Tollan, with clever Tchue of the Kalahari-our conflicts split the earth, gouged rivers. I survived. Who is my enemy now? A knock-kneed cyclops in a skirt. When I get out from here, I don't see this new conflict lasting long."
The cyclops started back, as if stung. "Such cruel threats! You should be ashamed. We are on the same side, are we not? Doubtless you have good reasons for skulking out the fight under this restroom. Being polite, I will not trouble to inquire, though I may say that you lack your normal courtesy."
"Two years' continual service has worn it all away," I said. "I am left irritable and jaded, with a perpetual itch in my essence that I cannot scratch. And that makes me dangerous, as you will shortly learn. Now, for the last time, Ascobol, get this off."
Well, there were a few more tuts and pouts, but my posturing had its effect. With a single shrug of his hairy shoulders, the cyclops levered the lavatory up and off me, sending it clattering away onto the opposite pavement. A somewhat corrugated girl got unsteadily to her feet.
"At last," I said. "You took your own sweet time about it."
The cyclops plucked a bit of debris from his smock. "Sorry," he said, "but I was too busy winning the battle to help you out before. Still, all's well. Our master will be pleased-by my efforts, anyhow." He glanced at me sidelong.
Now that I was vertical I had no intention of squabbling further. I considered the damage to the houses all around. Not too bad. A few broken roofs, smashed windows ... The skirmish had been successfully contained. "A French lot?" I asked.
The cyclops shrugged, which was some feat given that he lacked a neck. "Maybe. Possibly the Czechs or Spanish. Who can tell? They're all nibbling at us nowadays. Well, time presses, and I must check on the pursuit. I leave you to nurse your aches and pains, Bartimaeus. Why not try peppermint tea or a camomile footbath, like other geriatrics? Adieu!"
The cyclops hitched up his skirts and, with a ponderous spring, launched himself into the air. Wings appeared on his back; with great plowing strokes he drew away. He had all the grace of a filing cabinet, but at least he'd got the energy to fly. I hadn't. Not until I'd had a breather, anyhow.
The dark-haired girl crept across to a broken square of chimney in a nearby garden. Slowly, with the gasps and gingerly movements of an invalid, she slumped down into a sitting position and cupped her head in her hands. She closed her eyes.
Just a brief rest. Five minutes would do.
Time passed, dawn came. The cold stars faded in the sky.
The small circular table before him was carved from Lebanese cedar. When warmed by sunlight, it gave off a pleasant fragrance, but on this particular morning the wood was dark and cold. Mandrake poured coffee into his glass, removed the silver cover from his plate, and set upon his curried eggs and bacon. In a rack behind the toast and the gooseberry conserve sat a crisply folded newspaper and an envelope with a blood-red seal. Mandrake took a swig of coffee with his left hand; with his right he flicked the newspaper open on the table. He glanced at the front page, grunted dismissively, and reached for the envelope. An ivory paperknife hung from a peg upon the rack; flinging down his fork, Mandrake slit the envelope with one easy motion and drew out a folded parchment. He read this with care, brows puckering into a frown. Then he refolded it, stuffed it back into the envelope, and with a sigh returned to his meal.
A knock at the door; with mouth half full of bacon, Mandrake gave a muffled command. The door opened silently and a young, slim woman stepped diffidently through, a briefcase in her hand.
She halted. "I'm sorry, sir," she began. "Am I too early?"
"Not at all, Piper, not at all." He waved her over, indicated a chair on the other side of his breakfast table. "Have you eaten?"
"Yes, sir." She sat. She wore a dark blue skirt and jacket with a crisp white shirt. Her straight brown hair was scraped away from her forehead and clipped at the back of her head. She settled the briefcase on her lap.
Mandrake speared a forkful of curried egg. "Forgive me if I keep eating," he said. "I was up until three, responding to the latest disturbance. Kent, this time."
Ms. Piper nodded. "I heard, sir. There was a memo at the ministry. Was it contained?"
"Yes; as far as my globe could tell, at any rate. I sent a few demons down. Well, we shall see presently. What have you got for me today?"
She unclipped the briefcase and drew out some papers. "A number of proposals from the junior ministers, sir, regarding the propaganda campaigns in the outlying regions. For your approval. Some new poster ideas ..."
"Let's see." He took a gulp of coffee, held out a hand. "Anything else?"
"The minutes of the last Council meeting-"
"I'll read that later. Posters first." He scanned the topmost page. "'Sign up to serve your country and see the world' ... What's that supposed to mean? More like a holiday brochure than recruitment. Far too soft ... Keep talking, Piper-I'm still listening."
"We've got the latest frontline reports from America, sir. I've ordered them a little. We should be able to make another story out of the Boston siege."
"Stressing the heroic attempt, not the abject failure, I trust...." Balancing the papers on his knee, he smeared some gooseberry conserve upon a piece of toast. "Well, I'll try writing something later.... Now then, this one's okay-'Defend the mother country and make your name' ... Good. They're suggesting a farm-boy type looking manly, which is fine, but how about putting his family group-say, parents and little sister-in the background, looking vulnerable and admiring? Play the domestic card."
Ms. Piper nodded eagerly. "Could show his wife too, sir."
"No. We're after the single ones. It's the wives who are most troublesome when they don't come back." He crunched on his toast. "Any other messages?"
"One from Mr. Makepeace, sir. Came by imp. Wonders if you'll drop by and see him this morning."
"Can't. Too busy. There'll be time later."
"His imp also dropped off this flyer...." With a rueful face, Ms. Piper held up a lilac-colored paper. "It's advertising the premiere of his play later this week. From Wapping to Westminster, it's called. The story of our Prime Minister's rise to glory. An evening we will never forget, apparently."
Mandrake gave a groan. "If only we could. Put it in the bin. We've got better things to do than discuss theater. What else?"
"Mr. Devereaux has sent a memo around too. Owing to the 'troublesome times,' sir, he's placed the nation's most important treasures under special guard in the vaults of Whitehall. They will remain there until he says otherwise."
Mandrake looked up then, frowning. "Treasures? Such as what?"
"He doesn't say. I wonder if it'll be-"
"It'll be the Staff and the Amulet and the other grade-one items." He hissed briefly through his teeth. "That's not what he should be doing, Piper. We need them used."
"Yes, sir. There's also this from Mr. Devereaux." She brought out a slender packet.
The magician eyed it grimly. "Not another toga?"
"A mask, sir. For the party this evening."
With a cry, he indicated the envelope in the rack. "I've already got the invitation. It beggars belief: the war's going badly, the Empire's teetering on the brink, and all our Prime Minister can think about is plays and parties. All right. Keep it with the documents. I'll take it along. The posters seem okay." He handed back the papers. "Maybe not snappy enough...." He thought for a moment, nodded. "Got a pen? Try 'Fight for Freedom and the British Way.' Doesn't mean anything, but it sounds good."
Ms. Piper considered it. "I think it's rather profound, sir."
"Excellent. Then the commoners'll snap it up." He stood, dabbed his mouth with a napkin, and tossed it down upon the tray. "Well, we'd better see how the demons have been getting on. No, no, Piper, please-after you."
If Ms. Piper regarded her employer with more than a little wide-eyed admiration, she was by no means alone among the women of the elite. John Mandrake was an attractive young man, and the scent of power hung about him, sweet and intoxicating, like honeysuckle in the evening air. He was of medium height, slender of body, and swift and confident in action. His pale, slim face presented an intriguing paradox, combining extreme youth-he was still only seventeen years old-with experience and authority. His eyes were dark and quick and serious, his forehead prematurely lined.
Excerpted from Ptolemy's Gate by JONATHAN STROUD Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Stroud. Excerpted by permission.
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