Jonathon Stroud owns the Bartimaeus trilogy. I do not.
The Only Good
Once upon a time, I would have responded to a summons with a bit of panache. You know- something classy, memorable, and preferably terrifying (1). I had worked on my reputation for knowing just how to get to magicians.
For what must have been years of humans' time, I had been left alone. As misguided (2) as it seems- I'd been waiting for one last summons.
Inside the pentacle, a boy stood quietly.
I know, I know- no smells, mysterious drifts of fog, whirling columns of sand, echoing voices trumpeting (3) a small fraction of my many glorious deeds, smells, or even insults. This was the debut of a new guise. Once I saw just who had summoned me from the Other Place, I knew it had been a good choice.
I decided to not comment on the wavering quality of the voice, or the rude lack of my usual titles (4). "How long?" (5)
That felt about right. The boy in the pentacle had nothing more to say. He brushed his too-long hair from his face, knocking his forehead with a ridiculously large cuff. It seemed that I would have to keep this moving. "I suppose you want to know what happened." (6)
"Would he have lived?"
I could have debated pronouns- but I was a ringer for the male in question, through and through. For Ptolemy, I had details such as scars and moles right. After that day six years ago, I could replicate the kid's spleen. (7)
"Do you mean before or after Nouda hit him with a Detonation, the blasted idiot decided to be noble and save London, and brought a glass building down on himself?"
That brought on a guilty look and a change of topic. "I wasn't sure if I could still summon you."
"Nathaniel dismissed me. Before he died, he said that I 'generally managed to cock things up' in my 5,000-year career. He made it sound like I'd mess the deal up. In his last moments, the kid was actually tolerable."
"The idiot." But it was fond, almost- Nathaniel draws that kind of reaction.
"I know his last words not spoken to me or Nouda were 'see you later,' and that he never did. Typical. But- if he hadn't done that, London would be gone. And, at the end- I didn't feel a hint of John Mandrake. That was Nathaniel, poor slob- did he get any credit?"
"Almost all of it. The junior ministers- especially his secretary, Piper- took a little credit, and Kitty was a sudden heroine instead of terrorist, but Nathaniel has a statue up in the new Parliament. I've never seen it- it was up long after I left London. I've heard descriptions, though- it's marble, because silver wouldn't do. You didn't get much credit, since people are still getting used to the idea of djinn and such, but a few people insisted that it had to be a neutral material. The statue is standing in a broken circle, breaking a staff over its knee."
"Gladstone's Staff broke when he released the bindings keeping the internal entities internal- but I suppose that was easier to sculpt." Okay, this was getting a little off-topic. Nathaniel was dead, I looked just like him- of course, I had taken Kitty's semblance for three years after convincing Nathaniel she was dead (8).
"What happened, at the end?"
"You want the short version, I hope, because the long version says the same amount of detail in five minutes. Nathaniel dismissed me, so we both wouldn't fry in all the energy. I left. The Staff went to bits and probably caused a lovely explosion." That reminded me of one small detail. "I assume we destroyed Nouda, if there's a statue up in Parliament?"
"Good. He was one of those special buggers that just has to transcend the imp/foliot/djinni/afrit/marid shtick." I stretched, leisurely. "But, as nice as the little stroll down memory lane has been, you didn't summon me to talk about that, did you?"
Got it in one- there went the blush. I decided to make this a little easier. "This is about what Nathaniel thought about a certain young lady."
"I haven't seen her in years."
"Where did she go, from London?" I asked. "Kitty was really someone else, you know that? She saved his life almost as many times as I have- and she never had to."
"She still doesn't know why she went back, after that golem- because, as she'll insist, the only reason she was there was to save me," Jakob Hyrnek said. "Kitty was in Bruges, but not for long. It was no person that made her leave, because of how she looked." I didn't ask if he knew that he was tracing the vertical bars of black on his face.
"What did make her leave, then?"
"A memory. She said she wanted to see the world. I've kept all her postcards- she has been to the American colonies, where she met some crazy man or other who liked to play with lightning. She stayed there for a time, helping some man or other with a formal declaration. It really wasn't necessary, after the troops were withdrawn from the colonies, but the man believed a formal Declaration of Independence would be nice to submit to Parliament. From there, she visited Prague for a few days, then she went to Egypt- then she stopped sending word."
"She taught you how to do a summoning, I assume." Kitty was a commoner, and had done a wonder at setting John Mandrake's neat little magician-learned world on its head.
"Could he have lived?"
"I don't know much about human anatomy. Usually, I either protect or destroy injured people. When that Detonation hit- I think that was deadly, right there. Then, he used the Staff to tap into his energy. That made it pretty sure that he was a goner. In those last few minutes, he could barely whisper. When he dismissed me- he was too weak to do more than stand. Not even those seven-league boots would have helped. Kitty's Amulet, as generously as it was offered, wouldn't have saved him. The glass falling was pure gravity, even if the Amulet had been stronger than the Staff and Nouda."
"That's it, then? Just when Kitty and whoever else drew Nathaniel out of that slimy politician- he's gone?"
"Life isn't fair, is it? There just might be some hope for you yet. The Czechs won't always be mistrusted- even after Prague." (9)
"A commoner ran for election- and won a seat in the House of Commons."
"And that's not what you want to talk about," I said, quite shrewdly. The kid was beating about the bush about just as aptly as Nathaniel would have. (10) All he could manage was a strong pentacle. (11)
Okay, we've moved onto direct answers, but I still needed to do a bit of prodding. There are good reasons I don't show up to chat all too often. "What is it, then?"
"When you took Kitty into your world, wherever you come from normally- was that what changed her? She's older, now, but not by six years. She's burning out fast."
"She had to use a lot of her energy to keep existing in a way she could understand." I spared him the full explanation (12). "There's no way to take it back, Jakob. It's a finished transaction. She came into my world, she loses some time she just might have spent in your world. If you want a few recommendations, I'll have to talk to her. Write her a postcard, tell her to contact an old friend. If you write my name on any form of correspondence, I will have to have a not-so-pleasant talk with you."
"That's it? Send a postcard and have her call you when she gets it?" he demanded.
"What do you want? You want the Fountain of Youth, I can have imps and foliots and even a few lesser djinni scour the world. You want a pyramid? I have experience. A wall that's better than great? I still remember the plans. If you want Kitty to come back to London and stop losing herself in other cultures- there's nothing you can do. She liked the git known as Nathaniel, and she watched him go from a snot-nosed victim of a petty theft to a corrupt politician to a decent human being. Don't know if she liked you, don't know if she'll like someone again, don't know if she went and offed herself since she talked to you last." What did you want, a sentiment you can stick in one of those washed-out watercolor portraits that you send when someone's grandma kicked the bucket?
"So, that's it? There's nothing to do? I thought magicians were supposed to be able to do anything, when they had demons to do their bidding. Why can't you help one person?"
"First, magicians don't ask for selfless things like that. Second, that 'one person' is somewhere on the planet. Third, I bet you don't even know the stipples (13). Fourth, and most important- you're dealing with a broken heart that's had six years to set wrong. Bones don't break in the same place twice, and neither will she. Too late, too bad, too sorry- nothing's going to happen. Was that all you wanted?" I knew just what Nathaniel would have done, and it was unnerving to think that I still had far too much personal information about the kid floating around in my cranium.
"Yes." The defeated voice was nothing. He thought that would change my mind? After Ptolemy and Nathaniel- okay, so I haven't been completely diligent in maintaining my rightful reputation. "That's it."
I only rolled my eyes to maintain my appearance as Nathaniel. Sure, the hard-nosed politician wouldn't have done it- but he had recovered just a little, in the end. "So, did Kitty ever teach you what came next?" There wasn't a reason for the summoning, but it hadn't been a complete waste. I knew just what had become of Kitty- the girl was going to work herself into an early grave, unless she learned to slow down and pace herself. It didn't matter if it would take another few years in his time. She would wear herself down, all the way, and then Jakob would be crying at her funeral.
He said the dismissal perfectly, leaving no opportunities for me to be creative (14).
It was as simple as that, just like last time. He dismissed me. I left.
I guess an old saying I heard once is true. The only good magician's a dead magician- and when Kitty's just a few years away from being another dead legend, I might as well just save time. Even in dead magicians- I've liked three. Maybe I could have learned to like Jakob. Maybe I could have fished for something mutually benefiting, so I could go find Kitty and ask her just what she thought about my world- but it wouldn't have turned out any differently. Good magicians, dead magicians- and there should be at least one mediocre magician around.
The squirt better not call me again. Attached to the thought of a magician- there's something wrong with me, but nothing a few centuries of being without form won't fix. A picture of the base of the statue had been on a side table. Jakob had probably kept it because it mentioned Kitty. The lettering on it had Kitty all over- I knew who had provided details for that monument. She might have told Jakob, for old times' sake, but the lettering on that plaque about just which djinni had assisted Nathaniel was clear as day.
It was almost enough to make me think about responding to a summons from Jakob with anything less than marid-level towers of flame (15).
(1) Terrifying entrances mean scared and stuttering magicians. Scared and stuttering magicians mean lunch.
(2) Okay, stupid.
(3) Not literally trumpeting, of course- that would be silly. Do I have to explain every aspect of narration to you? If I do, this could take awhile.
(4) Most magicians skipped that bit, actually.
(5) So I wanted to know- this wasn't as much a summons as it was a personal call. I just happened to be in a pentacle, the magician of the day safely in a circle.
(6) Let me reiterate- social call, special occasion, not going to happen again.
(7) I could show you, if you'd like- disembodied organs are back in style.
(8) Long story- and haven't I told you what happened already?
(9) And if you're confused on Kitty/Nathaniel/Jakob (the young man I'm talking to- must I explain everything?), we sadly will not elaborate upon my glorious role in the battle for Prague.
(10) He wasn't at all good at it. The abrupt change in topic was matched with nervous fidgeting. I'm used to professionals- I am one, after all.
(11) So I checked- did you expect anything else?
(12) He probably wouldn't have understood it anyway. He can draw nice pictures with chalk, but that world takes someone special to understand.
(13) A few calculated risks are smart, not reckless- and the kid probably thought that being friendly and not an advocate of stipples would convince me otherwise. Even with that- I know his real name. Kids these days aren't very bright.
(14) Of course I would have- a sloppy dismissal is nothing to shrug off. He called me for no reason, and maintaining any form is an irritating fact of life when around magicians and ambitious non-magicians.
(15) I said almost- and if only to make sure the kid doesn't blab about me. He might be on the decent side of mediocre, but kids need surveillance.