So... this has been in the works for quite some time (last August, to be precise). I finished the first chapter, then took a break and began rewriting it after reading Ptolemy's Gate. It's an odd fic in many ways, and was at times difficult to write, but also seemed to write itself at certain stretches. I'm not completely sure how I feel about it, but I've looked over it and couldn't find any major problems, so here it is.
Note: to avoid confusion, most of this is set about a week before Book 3. It's not AU - it a bit AU-ish, but it also follows canon. There's one part set during the aftermath of Book 3, but the setting will be more clear at that point. This will be three chapters long and about 10,000 words (in case you were wondering), and I'll be updating probably once a week. It just depends how quickly I edit the other two chapters.
Disclaimer: Don't own the trilogy. And one line is adapted from Batman Begins (one of my favorite movies).
"Yes, I understand. Yes, that would be tragic. Yes, that would hurt a bit." The magician known as John Mandrake tapped his desk impatiently, pen in one hand, phone in the other. "Noted, Mr. Vyne. This never happened. No, we're not being bugged. Thank you for your assistance in the matter."
Mandrake set down the phone and smiled. After two months of fruitless searching, he had finally gotten results. The words scrawled onto the slip of paper in front of him looked to be just another address in the vast confines of London: No. 7 Helsing Circle. But now…
It had been almost three years since the incident with the golem and Gladstone's staff. Bartimaeus was off on a mission for Mandrake with a few other slaves, to the demon's disgust. Truth be told, it wasn't a necessary mission. Mandrake just really needed the annoying djinni off of his back for a few minutes. He was an important person now: the Information Minister! He had far too many servants to deal with Bartimaeus's whims.
Luckily, or unluckily, Mandrake was not much involved in the war overseas. He had become quite popular, with his close-cropped haircut and tie-less suits, and was admired by men and women alike – for quite separate reasons, he was always quick to note.
But every now and then, a mysterious crime with unknown perpetrators would occur, and although they were never settled, they brought back memories Mandrake had fought to repress. He wasn't sure why – there was a feeling of unsettling familiarity at the crime scenes, but he knew it was just his mind playing tricks on him. She was dead. His arrogance had made sure of that.
And so when two months before he had heard of the myth of the Gazer, he who could answer any question, he had been intrigued. For three long years, it had nagged at the back of his mind, and although he was usually above such foolish tales, this one was different. People hushed up whenever he asked them about it. The crime lords of the city had a brutal mentality: if they could not learn of it (for whenever they tried even more mystifying accidents occurred, discouraging the notion), then no one could.
Until finally, a breakthrough had occurred. A long chain of confidants had led to a small mouse of a man in a pub who had refused to talk of the Gazer so far out in the open, or at all, except one glance at the foliot in Mandrake's employ had changed his mind. He had instead decided on imploring the secret over the phone, for at the very least he could be in the middle of Asia and have a decent head start when he talked to Mandrake.
Mandrake glanced back at the slip of paper once more before pressing the intercom button on his desk. "Piper?"
A voice crackled through the receiver. "Yes, Mr. Mandrake?"
"I have urgent business to attend to outside of the office," he said with an air of authority. "If any visitors come calling, tell them I shall attend to their matters at a more suitable time."
A sigh on the other end. "Of course, Mr. Mandrake."
But Mandrake was already gone.
Helsing Circle was tucked away into the grimy underworld of London. It was ironic, actually, that the very place the crime lords were looking for was right under their noses. Mandrake supposed the Gazer found it comical. That or he was just exceptionally ignorant.
Mandrake found it disturbing. Granted, as the Information Minister, he was supposed to capture and detain criminals, but it was very difficult to capture the feared mobsters that inhabited the city. They were less numerous than they had been in years, but it was very hard to attack the beast in the heart when it was wearing such a thick layer of armor: intimidation.
The circle wasn't impressive in any fashion. The houses were old and decrepit, and homeless commoners lined the streets. Poverty was at its worst here, the place which so many of his colleagues whose jobs dealt with things far more comfortable than his ignored. It fit that it was poor.
How can they be saved if the good people do nothing? It was a fair question, but he soon realized the answer. The bad people do nothing. It's the good people that do something.
It wasn't that the good people were ignorant; it was that there was a lack of good people. This may have been more disturbing to Mandrake than his actual surroundings.
He had chosen to walk the short distance from the café where his chauffeur had dropped him off to this small little circle. It was less suspicious that way, and also having a limousine drive into the darkest parts of London was not generally an intelligent idea. Mandrake had also left his usual attire – a dark, comfortable suit unbuttoned at the top – in the restroom of the café, and instead had dressed up more as a commoner. He had even ripped a few holes in his windbreaker, and his trousers were slightly faded thanks to a spell he had found in a fashion book. Worn trainers made soft pit-patting noises on the dank cement as he walked, and a cap and glasses hid his face. All in all, he thought he looked the part of just another poor commoner.
"Can you spare a pound?"
Mandrake looked to his right, startled. A vagrant wrapped in a ratty blanket stared at him helplessly, wrinkles creasing his face.
In spite of himself, the young magician managed a wry smile and changed his voice. "If I could, I sure as hell wouldn't be here, would I?"
To his surprise, the vagrant grinned toothlessly back. "You ain't homeless. Watch your step."
Mandrake nearly tripped over a hubcap that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, but caught himself just in time. "How did you –" he began as he looked over to his right once more.
But it was no use. The old man had disappeared.
What in Gladstone's name was that? He blinked curiously as he continued up the pathway. I even disguised my speaking pattern, but still he –
The result of this brief reverie was that Mandrake did trip, this time over a large chunk of concrete that had been loosened from the sidewalk. He landed facedown in the overgrown grass, and silently cursed to himself as he got himself up.
I guess I look more the part now, he thought dryly as he noted the dirt and grass stains on his clothes. A stubby object to his right caught his eye as he looked up.
A sign. It read: Number 7 Helsing Circle. Although the 'h' was close to falling off, it was still legible, if not weathered and battered.
All that stood between him and the revered Gazer was a plain wooden door that was missing a hinge. How fitting, he thought with a smirk.
He strode up to the door confidently, wrapped his hand around the knob, and pulled.
It did not open.
He tried once more, before a voice emanated from the interior of the house. "John Mandrake, I presume?"
Mandrake nodded, irritated that he was not able to open such a useless door. It had to be some sort of defensive magic. "Yes."
The voice chuckled. "But that's not the correct answer, is it? Legally, I presume, but truly, the answer is something quite different."
"Forgive me. Speaking in riddles is a hobby," said the voice. "But if I were to be picky, I could decide not to let you in, for you did not answer me truthfully."
"Ah, I'm messing with you." The door swung open, revealing a tall, old man who looked like he'd seen his fair share of life. "You and I both know that you would never say your true name in such an open place. It is a sign of weakness, is it not?"
"You!" gasped Mandrake, recognizing the man. "The vagrant out there!"
"But it is often true that our greatest weaknesses are also our greatest strengths; it is a double-edged sword." He frowned. "And I usually do not like to be referred to as 'the vagrant out there'."
Mandrake blinked. "Uh, sorry. But are you –" his voice lowered "– the Gazer?"
"I suppose you could call me that, but that is another name I do not prefer to be addressed by," said the Gazer as he beckoned for Mandrake to come inside. "Would you like me to address you as 'the seventeen-year-old magician with a poor disguise and worse acting skills to boot'?"
"The answer is no," he replied as he pulled Mandrake inside and slammed the door shut. "And here I was, thinking you were bright and talented."
"You're not very polite, are you?" burst Mandrake unexpectedly.
To his surprise, his counterpart chuckled. "I'm polite enough. I just value honesty over courtesy. And I like to have a laugh every now and then."
Mandrake's eyes shifted around nervously. The inside of the house was just as rundown as the rest of the circle. "If you do not wish to be called the Gazer –"
"I said you could call me that. I just don't like being addressed by it. It's awkward, see."
"Right. Well, what name should I address you by?"
The Gazer smiled for reasons Mandrake did not know and turned to a long corridor that ran the length of the house. "Michael will do."
"I think I know a Michael," said Mandrake as he followed him down the corridor.
"No, you don't. You're just trying to make conversation because you're uncomfortable," replied the Gazer unceremoniously. "Unless you count Michael Benson, that fool from the Security Office, but you've only heard of him because Marmadruke Fry mentioned him in the last meeting at the Prime Minister's Richmond estate."
"What?" Mandrake spluttered. "How could you possibly know about that?"
"Your mind isn't as secure as you'd think." He laughed hoarsely. "But I didn't need to delve into your conscience for that. I've been keeping an eye on you ever since I heard you were seeking me out."
"Wait – what? You've been keeping an eye on me?"
"Well, I am the Gazer. I wouldn't be called that if I never did any gazing."
"Yes, well… how in Gladstone's name did you know I was seeking you out?"
Michael clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth warningly. "You act as if Gladstone was some sort of god."
"Of course not," Mandrake protested as Michael opened a door at the very end of the hall. "He was a hero."
"To some, yes."
"But that's not my point," continued Mandrake as if he hadn't been interrupted. "How did you know I was looking for you?"
Michael beckoned for him to follow him into the room. He did, and had to keep himself from gasping in amazement. It was much larger than he would've thought physically possible from the outside of the house, and in the middle a deep pool of clear liquid rested peacefully. An old mirror stood to the side alongside a table housing a crystal ball.
"Mostly for show," Michael stated, gesturing to the crystal ball. "Every now and then it's useful for predicting how long it will take for my pizza to arrive."
Mandrake poked his finger dangerously close to the liquid. "What's this? Some kind of memory absorbent?"
"No, it's a Magnifying Pool. You can touch it if you'd like, but it may give you a seizure. It happens to some." His hand shot upwards and safely into his pocket. "Good idea. It can give the more complicated ones a spot of trouble."
"You're complicated," said Michael simply. "You're on the borderline between two sides."
"Good and evil?"
"Not quite. Less… broad." He adjusted a dial next to the Pool and the liquid receded slightly. "You know, I snatched up this house as soon as I heard it was for sale. Seven is a powerful number."
"And what does that have to do with me?"
"Nothing whatsoever. Just a random fact," replied the old man. His long, dark fingers stroked his unshaven chin thoughtfully. "I'd seen all about you in my Pool. It helps with seeing the present, or the past. It's a pity we won't be using it today. I decided to let you seek me, although I wanted to see you in person. It's always different in person."
Mandrake gave him an odd look. "You decided to let me seek you?"
"Yes. I gave you my blessing, so to speak. Why do you think the crime lords have never found me when I am right in front of them? I am picky about my clients."
"Some would say I'm not so decent myself."
"Some would be wrong," stated Michael bluntly. "Although they have a point."
"And that would be?"
"That you definitely have made some mistakes." He grinned again, although Mandrake noticed that this time he had a full row of teeth. "But it comes with inexperience, with ignorance."
"Ignorance of what?"
He laughed again. "I thought you already knew that! That is why you came to see me."
"Wha– oh," Mandrake muttered. "My question."
"And you have a question because you have fear," Michael stated plainly. "The fact that you fear who you are becoming is one reason why you are decent. But I think it is time that you state your reason… your question."
Mandrake was silent for a few seconds, but finally, he spoke.
"Who am I?"
"A very good question, but I am not able to answer it," replied Michael. "The most important questions only we ourselves can answer."
His face fell. "So you can't help me?"
"I never said that!" exclaimed the old man, annoyed. His hand twitched as he readjusted the dial. "I can help you, of course! But I'm not sure if you will like my help at first."
"How would I not like it?"
Michael sighed. "Sometimes the best answers are questions. I believe the question here is rather simple: who would you be under… different circumstances?"
There was a whirring sound, but Mandrake ignored it. "How does that help me?"
"Again, only you can answer that question," replied Michael. The whirring continued, and he flashed a smile. "But there is more help on the way. For this, I think we shall need my trusty mirror."