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The Book Master
I freakin loved this book. It is super cute and sweet and full of action. It’s just what I expected from the wonderful author, Rainbow Rowell.
09 May 2020 (04:55)
I have not read this but got to know about it from her book fangirl it's awesome when I read some parts of it and now I will read the book
17 October 2020 (08:10)
How do you download and open the book, i'm literally getting all code when i open it
05 June 2021 (00:22)
This is my comfort book ans SnowBaz are my comfort characters. What can I say about it?
27 June 2021 (16:22)
Umm, not gonna lie, I was seriously disappointed with this book. It is either extremely over-hyped and my expectations were detrimentally high, or our standards as the reading masses have been lowered too far. We shouldn't ignore bad writing, loose plot, and half-assed characters just because a book has gay representation. While I appreciate a good enemies-to-lovers (particularly between two beautiful boys), it doesn't excuse what a knock-off this book is.
06 July 2021 (12:00)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Map Copyright Page Thank you for buying this St. Martin’s Press ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. For Laddie and Rosey— May you fight your own battles and forge your own wings BOOK ONE 1 SIMON I walk to the bus station by myself. There’s always a fuss over my paperwork when I leave. All summer long, we’re not even allowed to walk to Tescos without a chaperone and permission from the Queen—then, in the autumn, I just sign myself out of the children’s home and go. “He goes to a special school,” one of the office ladies explains to the other when I leave. They’re sitting in a Plexiglas box, and I slide my papers back to her through a slot in the wall. “It’s a school for dire offenders,” she whispers. The other woman doesn’t even look up. It’s like this every September, even though I’m never in the same care home twice. The Mage fetched me for school himself the first time, when I was 11. But the next year, he told me I could make it to Watford on my own. “You’ve slain a dragon, Simon. Surely you can manage a long walk and a few buses.” I hadn’t meant to slay that dragon. It wouldn’t have hurt me, I don’t think. (I still dream about it sometimes. The way the fire consumed it from the inside out, like a cigarette burn eating a piece of paper.) I get to the bus station, then eat a mint Aero while I wait for my first bus. There’s another bus after that. Then a train. Once I’m settl; ed on the train, I try to sleep with my bag in my lap and my feet propped up on the seat across from me—but a man a few rows back won’t stop watching me. I feel his eyes crawling up my neck. Could just be a pervert. Or police. Or it could be a bonety hunter who knows about one of the prices on my head.… (“It’s bounty hunter,” I said to Penelope the first time we fought one. “No—bonety hunter,” she replied. “Short for ‘bone-teeth’; that’s what they get to keep if they catch you.”) I change carriages and don’t bother trying to sleep again. The closer I get to Watford, the more restless I feel. Every year, I think about jumping from the train and spelling myself the rest of the way to school, even if it puts me in a coma. I could cast a Hurry up on the train, but that’s a chancy spell at the best of times, and my first few spells of the school year are always especially dicey. I’m supposed to practise during the summer—small, predictable spells when no one’s looking. Like turning on night-lights. Or changing apples to oranges. “Spell your buttons and laces closed,” Miss Possibelf suggested. “That sort of thing.” “I only ever wear one button,” I told her, then blushed when she looked down at my jeans. “Then use your magic for household chores,” she said. “Wash the dishes. Polish the silver.” I didn’t bother telling Miss Possibelf that my summer meals are served on disposable plates and that I eat with plastic cutlery (forks and spoons, never knives). I also didn’t bother to practise my magic this summer. It’s boring. And pointless. And it’s not like it helps. Practising doesn’t make me a better magician; it just sets me off.… Nobody knows why my magic is the way it is. Why it goes off like a bomb instead of flowing through me like a fucking stream or however it works for everybody else. “I don’t know,” Penelope said when I asked her how magic feels for her. “I suppose it feels like a well inside me. So deep that I can’t see or even imagine the bottom. But instead of sending down buckets, I just think about drawing it up. And then it’s there for me—as much as I need, as long as I stay focused.” Penelope always stays focused. Plus, she’s powerful. Agatha isn’t. Not as, anyway. And Agatha doesn’t like to talk about her magic. But once, at Christmas, I kept Agatha up until she was tired and stupid, and she told me that casting a spell felt like flexing a muscle and keeping it flexed. “Like croisé devant,” she said. “You know?” I shook my head. She was lying on a wolfskin rug in front of the fire, all curled up like a pretty kitten. “It’s ballet,” she said. “It’s like I just hold position as long as I can.” Baz told me that for him, it’s like lighting a match. Or pulling a trigger. He hadn’t meant to tell me that. It was when we were fighting the chimera in the woods during our fifth year. It had us cornered, and Baz wasn’t powerful enough to fight it alone. (The Mage isn’t powerful enough to fight a chimera alone.) “Do it, Snow!” Baz shouted at me. “Do it. Fucking unleash. Now.” “I can’t,” I tried to tell him. “It doesn’t work like that.” “It bloody well does.” “I can’t just turn it on,” I said. “Try.” “I can’t, damn it.” I was waving my sword around—I was pretty good with a sword already at 15—but the chimera wasn’t corporeal. (Which is my rough luck, pretty much always. As soon as you start carrying a sword, all your enemies turn out mist and gossamer.) “Close your eyes and light a match,” Baz told me. We were both trying to hide behind a rock. Baz was casting spells one after another; he was practically singing them. “What?” “That’s what my mother used to say,” he said. “Light a match inside your heart, then blow on the tinder.” It’s always fire with Baz. I can’t believe he hasn’t incinerated me yet. Or burned me at the stake. He used to like to threaten me with a Viking’s funeral, back when we were third years. “Do you know what that is, Snow? A flaming pyre, set adrift on the sea. We could do yours in Blackpool, so all your chavvy Normal friends can come.” “Sod off,” I’d say, and try to ignore him. I’ve never even had any Normal friends, chavvy or otherwise. Everyone in the Normal world steers clear of me if they can. Penelope says they sense my power and instinctively shy away. Like dogs who won’t make eye contact with their masters. (Not that I’m anyone’s master—that’s not what I mean.) Anyway, it works the opposite with magicians. They love the smell of magic; I have to try hard to make them hate me. Unless they’re Baz. He’s immune. Maybe he’s built up a tolerance to my magic, having shared a room with me every term for seven years. That night that we were fighting the chimera, Baz kept yelling at me until I went off. We both woke up a few hours later in a blackened pit. The boulder we’d been hiding behind was dust, and the chimera was vapour. Or maybe it was just gone. Baz was sure I’d singed off his eyebrows, but he looked fine to me—not a hair out of place. Typical. 2 SIMON I don’t let myself think about Watford over the summers. After my first year there, when I was 11—I spent the whole summer thinking about it. Thinking about everyone I’d met at school—Penelope, Agatha, the Mage. About the towers and the grounds. The teas. The puddings. The magic. The fact that I was magic. I made myself sick thinking about the Watford School of Magicks—daydreaming about it—until it started to feel like nothing more than a daydream. Just another fantasy to make the time pass. Like when I used to dream about becoming a footballer someday—or that my parents, my real parents, were going to come back for me.… My dad would be a footballer. And my mum would be some posh model type. And they’d explain how they’d had to give me up because they were too young for a baby, and because his career was on the line. “But we always missed you, Simon,” they’d say. “We’ve been looking for you.” And then they’d take me away to live in their mansion. Footballer mansion … Magickal boarding school … They both seem like crap in the light of day. (Especially when you wake up in a room with seven other discards.) That first summer, I’d beaten the memory of Watford to a bloody pulp by the time my bus fare and papers showed up in the autumn, along with a note from the Mage himself.… Real. It was all real. So, the next summer, after my second year at Watford, I didn’t let myself think about magic at all. For months. I just shut myself off from it. I didn’t miss it, I didn’t wish for it. I decided to let the World of Mages come back to me like a big surprise present come September, if it was going to. (And it did come back. It always has, so far.) The Mage used to say that maybe someday he’d let me spend summers at Watford—or maybe even spend them with him, wherever he goes all summer. But then he decided I was better off spending part of every year with the Normals. To stay close to the language and to keep my wits about me: “Let hardship sharpen your blade, Simon.” I thought he meant my actual blade, the Sword of Mages. Eventually I figured out that he meant me. I’m the blade. The Mage’s sword. And I’m not sure if these summers in children’s homes make me any sharper.… But they do make me hungrier. They make me crave Watford like, I don’t know, like life itself. Baz and his side—all the old, rich families—they don’t believe that anyone can understand magic the way that they do. They think they’re the only ones who can be trusted with it. But no one loves magic like I do. None of the other magicians—none of my classmates, none of their parents—know what it’s like to live without magic. Only I know. And I’ll do anything to make sure it’s always here for me to come home to. * * * I try not to think about Watford when I’m away—but it was almost impossible this summer. After everything that happened last year, I couldn’t believe the Mage would even pay attention to something like the end of term. Who interrupts a war to send the kids home for summer holidays? Besides, I’m not a kid anymore. Legally, I could have left care at 16. I could’ve got my own flat somewhere. Maybe in London. (I could afford it. I have an entire bag of leprechaun’s gold—a big, duffel-sized bag, and it only disappears if you try to give it to other magicians.) But the Mage sent me off to a new children’s home, just like he always does. Still moving me around like a pea under shells after all these years. Like I’d be safe there. Like the Humdrum couldn’t just summon me, or whatever it was he did to me and Penelope at the end of last term. “He can summon you?” Penny demanded as soon as we got away from him. “Across a body of water? That isn’t possible, Simon. There’s no precedent for that.” “Next time he summons me like a half-arsed squirrel demon,” I said, “I’ll tell him so!” Penelope had been unlucky enough to be holding my arm when I was snatched, so she’d been snatched right along with me. Her quick thinking is the only reason either of us escaped. “Simon,” she said that day, when we were finally on a train back to Watford. “This is serious.” “Siegfried and fucking Roy, Penny, I know that it’s serious. He’s got my number. I don’t even have my number, but the Humdrum’s got it down.” “How can we still know so little about him,” she fumed. “He’s so…” “Insidious,” I said. “‘The Insidious Humdrum’ and all that.” “Stop teasing, Simon. This is serious.” “I know, Penny.” When we got back to Watford, the Mage heard us out and made sure we weren’t hurt, but then he sent us on our way. Just … sent us home. It didn’t make any sense. So, of course, I spent this whole summer thinking about Watford. About everything that happened and everything that could happen and everything that’s at stake … I stewed on it. But I still didn’t let myself dwell on any of the good things, you know? It’s the good things that’ll drive you mad with missing them. I keep a list—of all the things I miss most—and I’m not allowed to touch it in my head until I’m about an hour from Watford. Then I run through the list one by one. It’s sort of like easing yourself into cold water. But the opposite of that, I suppose—easing yourself into something really good, so the shock of it doesn’t overwhelm you. I started making my list, my good things list, when I was 11, and I should probably cross a few things off, but that’s harder than you’d think. Anyway, I’m about an hour from school now, so I mentally take out my list and press my forehead against the train window. Things I miss most about Watford: No. 1—Sour cherry scones I’d never had cherry scones before Watford. Just raisin ones—and more often plain, and always something that came from the shop, then got left in an oven too long. At Watford, there are fresh-baked cherry scones for breakfast every day if you want them. And again in the afternoon with tea. We have tea in the dining hall after our lessons, before clubs and football and homework. I always have tea with Penelope and Agatha, and I’m the only one of us who ever eats the scones. “Dinner is in two hours, Simon,” Agatha will tsk at me, even after all these years. Once Penelope tried to calculate how many scones I’ve eaten since we started at Watford, but she got bored before she got to the answer. I just can’t pass the scones up if they’re there. They’re soft and light and a little bit salty. Sometimes I dream about them. No. 2—Penelope This spot on the list used to belong to “roast beef.” But a few years back, I decided to limit myself to one food item. Otherwise the list turns into the food song from Oliver!, and I get so hungry, my stomach cramps. I should maybe rank Agatha higher than Penelope; Agatha is my girlfriend. But Penelope made the list first. She befriended me in my first week at school, during our Magic Words lesson. I didn’t know what to make of her when we met—a chubby little girl with light brown skin and bright red hair. She was wearing pointy spectacles, the kind you’d wear if you were going as a witch to a fancy dress party, and there was a giant purple ring weighing down her right hand. She was trying to help me with an assignment, and I think I was just staring at her. “I know you’re Simon Snow,” she said. “My mum told me you’d be here. She says you’re really powerful, probably more powerful than me. I’m Penelope Bunce.” “I didn’t know someone like you could be named Penelope,” I said. Stupidly. (Everything I said that year was stupid.) She wrinkled her nose. “What should ‘someone like me’ be named?” “I don’t know.” I didn’t know. Other girls I’d met who looked like her were named Saanvi or Aditi—and they definitely weren’t ginger. “Saanvi?” “Someone like me can be named anything,” Penelope said. “Oh,” I said. “Right, sorry.” “And we can do whatever we want with our hair.” She turned back to the assignment, flipping her red ponytail. “It’s impolite to stare, you know, even at your friends.” “Are we friends?” I asked her. More surprised than anything else. “I’m helping you with your lesson, aren’t I?” She was. She’d just helped me shrink a football to the size of a marble. “I thought you were helping me because I’m thick,” I said. “Everyone’s thick,” she replied. “I’m helping you because I like you.” It turned out she’d accidentally turned her hair that colour, trying out a new spell—but she wore it red all of first year. The next year, she tried blue. Penelope’s mum is Indian, and her dad is English—actually, they’re both English; the Indian side of her family has been in London for ages. She told me later that her parents had told her to steer clear of me at school. “My mum said that nobody really knew where you came from. And that you might be dangerous.” “Why didn’t you listen to her?” I asked. “Because nobody knew where you came from, Simon! And you might be dangerous!” “You have the worst survival instincts.” “Also, I felt sorry for you,” she said. “You were holding your wand backwards.” I miss Penny every summer, even when I tell myself not to. The Mage says no one can write to me or call me over the holidays, but Penny still finds ways to send messages: Once she possessed the old man down at the shop, the one who forgets to put in his teeth—she talked right through him. It was nice to hear from her and everything, but it was so disturbing that I asked her not to do it again, unless there was an emergency. No. 3—The football pitch I don’t get to play football as much as I used to. I’m not good enough to play on the school team, plus I’m always caught up in some scheme or drama, or out on a mission for the Mage. (You can’t reliably tend a goal when the bloody Humdrum could summon you anytime it strikes his fancy.) But I do get to play. And it’s a perfect pitch: Lovely grass. The only flat part of the grounds. Nice, shady trees nearby that you can sit under and watch the matches … Baz plays for our school. Of course. The tosser. He’s the same on the field as he is everywhere else. Strong. Graceful. Fucking ruthless. No. 4—My school uniform I put this on the list when I was 11. You have to understand, when I got my first uniform, it was the first time I’d ever had clothes that fit me properly, the first time I’d ever worn a blazer and tie. I felt tall all of a sudden, and posh. Until Baz walked into our room, much taller than me—and posher than everyone. There are eight years at Watford. First and second years wear striped blazers—two shades of purple and two shades of green—with dark grey trousers, green jumpers, and red ties. You have to wear a boater on the grounds up until your sixth year—which is really just a test to see if your Stay put is strong enough to keep a hat on. (Penny always spelled mine on for me. If I did it myself, I’d end up sleeping in the damn thing.) There’s a brand-new uniform waiting for me every autumn when I get to our room. It’ll be laid out on my bed, clean and pressed and perfectly fitted, no matter how I’ve changed or grown. The upper years—that’s me now—wear green blazers with white piping. Plus red jumpers if we want them. Capes are optional, too; I’ve never worn one, they make me feel like a tit, but Penny likes them. Says she feels like Stevie Nicks. I like the uniform. I like knowing what I’m going to wear every day. I don’t know what I’ll wear next year, when I’m done with Watford.… I thought I might join the Mage’s Men. They’ve got their own uniforms—sort of Robin Hood meets MI6. But the Mage says that’s not my path. That’s how he talks to me. “It’s not your path, Simon. Your destiny lies elsewhere.” He wants me to stand apart from everyone else. Separate training. Special lessons. I don’t think he’d even let me go to school at Watford if he weren’t the headmaster there—and if he didn’t think it was the safest place for me. If I asked the Mage what I should wear after Watford, he’d probably kit me out like a superhero.… I’m not asking anybody what I should wear when I leave. I’m 18. I’ll dress myself. Or Penny will help. No. 5—My room I should say “our room,” but I don’t miss the sharing-with-Baz part of it. You get your room and your roommate assignment at Watford as a first year, and then you never move. You never have to pack up your things or take down your posters. Sharing a room with someone who wants to kill me, who’s wanted to kill me since we were 11, has been … Well, it’s been rubbish, hasn’t it? But maybe the Crucible felt bad about casting Baz and me together (not literally; I don’t think the Crucible’s sentient) because we’ve got the best room at Watford. We live in Mummers House, on the edge of school grounds. It’s a four-and-a-half-storey building, stone, and our room is at the very top, in a sort of turret that looks out over the moat. The turret’s too small for more than one room, but it’s bigger than the other student rooms. And it used to be staff accommodation, so we have our own en suite. Baz is actually a fairly decent person to share a bathroom with. He’s in there all morning, but he’s clean; and he doesn’t like me to touch his stuff, so he keeps it all out of the way. Penelope says our bathroom smells like cedar and bergamot, and that’s got to be Baz because it definitely isn’t me. I’d tell you how Penny manages to get into our room—girls are banned from the boys’ houses and vice versa—but I still don’t know. I think it might be her ring. I saw her use it once to unseal a cave, so anything’s possible. No. 6—The Mage I put the Mage on this list when I was 11, too. And there’ve been plenty of times when I thought I should take him off. Like in our sixth year, when he practically ignored me. Every time I tried to talk to him, he told me he was in the middle of something important. He still tells me that sometimes. I get it. He’s the headmaster. And he’s more than that—he’s the head of the Coven, so technically, he’s in charge of the whole World of Mages. And it’s not like he’s my dad. He’s not my anything.… But he’s the closest thing I’ve got to anything. The Mage is the one who first came to me in the Normal world and explained to me (or tried to explain to me) who I am. He still looks out for me, sometimes when I don’t even realize it. And when he does have time for me, to really talk to me, that’s when I feel the most grounded. I fight better when he’s around. I think better. It’s like, when he’s there, I almost buy into what he’s always told me—that I’m the most powerful magician the World of Mages has ever known. And that all that power is a good thing, or at least that it will be someday. That I’ll get my shit together eventually and solve more problems than I cause. The Mage is also the only one who’s allowed to contact me over the summer. And he always remembers my birthday in June. No. 7—Magic Not my magic, necessarily. That’s always with me and, honestly, not something I can take much comfort in. What I miss, when I’m away from Watford, is just being around magic. Casual, ambient magic. People casting spells in the hallway and during lessons. Somebody sending a plate of sausages down the dinner table like it’s bouncing on wires. The World of Mages isn’t actually a world. We don’t have cities. Or even neighbourhoods. Magicians have always lived among mundanity. It’s safer that way, according to Penelope’s mum; it keeps us from drifting too far from the rest of the world. The fairies did that, she says. Got tired of dealing with everybody else, wandered into the woods for a few centuries, then couldn’t find their way back. The only place magicians live together, unless they’re related, is at Watford. There are a few magickal social clubs and parties, annual gatherings—that sort of thing. But Watford is the only place where we’re together all the time. Which is why everyone’s been pairing off like crazy in the last couple years. If you don’t meet your spouse at Watford, Penny says, you could end up alone—or going on singles tours of Magickal Britain when you’re 32. I don’t know what Penny’s even worried about; she’s had a boyfriend in America since our fourth year. (He was an exchange student at Watford.) Micah plays baseball, and he has a face so symmetrical, you could summon a demon on it. They video-chat when she’s home, and when she’s at school, he writes to her almost every day. “Yes,” she tells me, “but he’s American. They don’t think about marriage the way we do. He might dump me for some pretty Normal he meets at Yale. Mum says that’s where our magic is going—bleeding out through ill-considered American marriages.” Penny quotes her mum as much as I quote Penny. They’re both being paranoid. Micah’s a solid bloke. He’ll marry Penelope—and then he’ll want to take her home with him. That’s what we should all be worried about. Anyway … Magic. I miss magic when I’m away. When I’m by myself, magic is something personal. My burden, my secret. But at Watford, magic is just the air that we breathe. It’s what makes me a part of something bigger, not the thing that sets me apart. No. 8—Ebb and the goats I started helping out Ebb the goatherd during my second year at Watford. And for a while, hanging out with the goats was pretty much my favourite thing. (Which Baz had a field day with.) Ebb’s the nicest person at Watford. Younger than the teachers. And surprisingly powerful for somebody who decided to spend her life taking care of goats. “What does being powerful have to do with anything?” Ebb’ll say. “People who’re tall aren’t forced to pay thrashcanball.” “You mean basketball?” (Living at Watford means Ebb’s a bit out of touch.) “Same difference. I’m no soldier. Don’t see why I should have to fight for a living just because I can throw a punch.” The Mage says we’re all soldiers, every one of us with an ounce of magic. That’s what’s dangerous about the old ways, he says—magicians just went about their merry way, doing whatever they felt like doing, treating magic like a toy or an entitlement, not something they had to protect. Ebb doesn’t use a dog with the goats. Just her staff. I’ve seen her turn the whole herd with a wave of her hand. She’d started teaching me—how to pull the goats back one by one; how to make them all feel at once like they’d gone too far. She even let me help with the birthing one spring.… I don’t have much time to spend with Ebb anymore. But I leave her and the goats on my list of things to miss. Just so that I can stop for a minute to think about them. No. 9—The Wavering Wood I should take this one off the list. Fuck the Wavering Wood. No. 10—Agatha Maybe I should take Agatha off my list, too. I’m getting close to Watford now. I’ll be at the station in a few minutes. Someone will have come down from the school to fetch me.… I used to save Agatha for last. I’d go all summer without thinking about her, then wait until I was almost to Watford before I’d let her back into my head. That way I wouldn’t spend the whole summer convincing myself that she was too good to be true. But now … I don’t know, maybe Agatha is too good to be true, at least for me. Last term, just before Penny and I got snatched by the Humdrum, I saw Agatha with Baz in the Wavering Wood. I suppose I’d sensed before that there might be something between them, but I never believed she’d betray me like that—that she’d cross that line. There was no time to talk to Agatha after I saw her with Baz—I was too busy getting kidnapped, then escaping. And then I couldn’t talk to her over the summer, because I can’t talk to anybody. And now, I don’t know … I don’t know what Agatha is to me. I’m not even sure whether I’ve missed her. 3 SIMON When I get to the station, there’s no one to meet me. No one I know, anyway—there’s a bored-looking taxi driver who’s written Snow on a piece of cardboard. “That’s me,” I say. He looks dubious. I don’t look much like a public school toff, especially when I’m not in uniform. My hair’s too short—I shave it every year at the end of term—and my trainers are cheap, and I don’t look bored enough; I can’t keep my eyes still. “That’s me,” I say again. A bit thuggishly. “Do you want to see my ID?” He sighs and drops the sign. “If you want to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, mate, I’m not going to argue with you.” I get in the back of the taxi and sling my bag down on the seat next to me. The driver starts the engine and turns on the radio. I close my eyes; I get sick in the back of cars on good days, and today isn’t a good day—I’m nervous, and all I’ve had to eat is a chocolate bar and a bag of cheese-and-onion crisps. Almost there now. This is the last time I’ll be doing this. Coming back to Watford in autumn. I’ll still come back, but not like this, not like I’m coming home. “Candle in the Wind” comes on the radio, and the driver sings along. Candle in the wind is a dangerous spell. The boys at school say you can use it to give yourself more, you know, stamina. But if you emphasize the wrong syllable, you’ll end up starting a fire you can’t put out. An actual fire. I’d never try it, even if I had call for it; I’ve never been good with double entendres. The car hits a pothole, and I lurch forward, catching myself on the seat in front of me. “Belt up,” the driver snaps. I do, taking a look around. We’re already out of the city and into the countryside. I swallow and stretch my shoulders back. The taxi driver goes back to singing, louder now—“never knowing who to turn to”—like he’s really getting into the song. I think about telling him to belt up. We hit another pothole, and my head nearly bangs against the ceiling. We’re on a dirt road. This isn’t the usual way to Watford. I glance up at the driver, in the mirror. There’s something wrong—his skin is a deep green, and his lips are red as fresh meat. Then I look at him, as he is, sitting in front of me. He’s just a cabbie. Gnarled teeth, smashed nose. Singing Elton John. Then back at the mirror: Green skin. Red lips. Handsome as a pop star. Goblin. I don’t wait to see what he’s up to. I hold my hand over my hip and start murmuring the incantation for the Sword of Mages. It’s an invisible weapon—more than invisible, really; it’s not even there until you say the magic words. The goblin hears me casting, and our eyes meet in the mirror. He grins and reaches into his jacket. If Baz were here, I’m sure he’d make a list of all the spells I could use in this moment. There’s probably something in French that would do nicely. But as soon as my sword appears in my hand, I grit my teeth and slash it across the front seat, taking off the goblin’s turning head—and the headrest, too. Voilà. He keeps driving for a second; then the steering wheel goes wild. Thank magic there’s no barrier between us—I unbuckle my seat belt and dive over the seat (and the place where the goblin’s head used to be) to grab the wheel. His foot must still be on the gas: We’re already off the road and accelerating. I try to steer us back, but I don’t actually know how to drive. I jerk the wheel to the left, and the side of the taxi slams into a wooden fence. The airbag goes off in my face, and I go flying backwards, the car still smashing into something, probably more fence. I never thought I’d die like this.… The taxi comes to a stop before I come up with a way to save myself. I’m half on the floor, and I’ve hit my head on the window, then the seat. When I eventually tell Penny about all this, I’m skipping the part where I took off my safety belt. I stretch my arm up over my head and pull the door handle. The door opens, and I fall out of the taxi onto my back in the grass. It looks like we’ve gone though the fence and spun out into a field. The engine is still running. I climb to my feet, groaning, then reach into the driver’s window and turn it off. It’s a spectacle in there. Blood all over the airbag. And the body. And me. I go through the goblin’s jacket, but don’t find anything besides a packet of gum and a carpet knife. This doesn’t feel like the Humdrum’s work—there’s no itchy sign of him in the air. I take a deep breath to make sure. Probably just another revenge run, then. The goblins have been after me ever since I helped the Coven drive them out of Essex. (They were gobbling up drunk people in club bathrooms, and the Mage was worried about losing regional slang.) I think the goblin who successfully offs me gets to be king. This one won’t be getting a crown. My blade’s stuck in the seat next to him, so I yank it out and let it disappear back into my hip. Then I remember my bag and grab that, too, wiping blood on my grey trackie bottoms before I open the bag to fish out my wand. I can’t just leave this mess here, and I don’t think it’s worth saving anything for evidence. I hold my wand over the taxi and feel my magic scramble up to my skin. “Work with me here,” I whisper. “Out, out, damned spot!” I’ve seen Penelope use that spell to get rid of unspeakable things. But all it does for me is clean some blood off my trousers. I guess that’s something. The magic is building up in my arm—so thick, my fingers are shaking. “Come on,” I say, pointing. “Take it away!” Sparks fly out of my wand and fingertips. “Fuck me, come on…” I shake out my wrist and point again. I notice the goblin’s head lying in the grass near my feet, back to its true green again. Goblins are handsome devils. (But most devils are fairly fit.) “I suppose you ate the cabbie,” I say, kicking the head back towards the car. My arm feels like it’s burning. “Into thin air!” I shout. I feel a hot rush from the ground to my fingertips, and the taxi disappears. And the head disappears. And the fence disappears. And the road … * * * An hour later, sweaty and still covered in dried goblin blood and that dust that comes out of airbags, I finally see the school buildings up ahead of me. (It was only a patch of that dirt road that disappeared, and it wasn’t much of a road to start with. I just had to make my way back to the main road, then follow it here.) All the Normals think Watford is an ultraexclusive boarding school. Which I guess it is. The grounds are coated in glamours. Ebb told me once that we keep casting new spells on the school as we develop them. So there’s layer upon layer of protection. If you’re a Normal, all the magic burns your eyes. I walk up to the tall iron gate—THE WATFORD SCHOOL is spelled out on the top—and rest my hand on the bars to let them feel my magic. That used to be all it took. The gates would swing open for anyone who was a magician. There’s even an inscription about it on the crossbar—MAGIC SEPARATES US FROM THE WORLD; LET NOTHING SEPARATE US FROM EACH OTHER. “It’s a nice thought,” the Mage said when he appealed to the Coven for stiffer defences, “but let’s not take security orders from a six-hundred-year-old gate. I don’t expect people who come to my house to obey whatever’s cross-stitched on the throw pillows.” I was at that Coven meeting, with Penelope and Agatha. (The Mage had wanted us there to show what was at stake. “The children! The future of our world!”) I didn’t listen to the whole debate. My mind wandered off, thinking about where the Mage really lived and whether I’d ever be invited there. It was hard to picture him with a house, let alone throw pillows. He has rooms at Watford, but he’s gone for weeks at a time. When I was younger, I thought the Mage lived in the woods when he was away, eating nuts and berries and sleeping in badger dens. Security at the Watford gate and along the outer wall has got stiffer every year. One of the Mage’s Men—Penelope’s brother, Premal—is stationed just inside today. He’s probably pissed off about the assignment. The rest of the Mage’s team’ll be up in his office, planning the next offensive, and Premal’s down here, checking in first years. He steps in front of me. “All right, Prem?” “Looks like I should be asking you that question.…” I look down at my bloody T-shirt. “Goblin,” I say. Premal nods and points his wand at me, murmuring a cleaning spell. He’s just as powerful as Penny. He can practically cast spells under his breath. I hate it when people cast cleaning spells on me; it makes me feel like a child. “Thanks,” I say anyway, and start to walk past him. Premal stops me with his arm. “Just a minute there,” he says, raising his wand up to my forehead. “Special measures today. The Mage says the Humdrum’s walking around with your face.” I flinch, but try not to pull away from his wand. “I thought that was supposed to be a secret.” “Right,” he said. “A secret that people like me need to know if we’re going to protect you.” “If I were the Humdrum,” I say, “I could’ve already eaten you by now.” “Maybe that’s what the Mage has in mind,” Premal says. “At least then we’d know for sure it was him.” He drops his wand. “You’re clear. Go ahead.” “Is Penelope here?” He shrugs. “I’m not my sister’s keeper.” For a second, I think he’s saying it with emphasis, with magic, casting a spell—but he turns away from me and leans against the gate. * * * There’s no one out on the Great Lawn. I must be one of the first students back. I start to run, just because I can, upsetting a huddle of swallows hidden in the grass. They blow up around me, twittering, and I keep running. Over the Lawn, over the drawbridge, past another wall, through the second and third set of gates. Watford has been here since the 1500s. It’s set up like a walled city—fields and woods outside the walls, buildings and courtyards inside. At night, the drawbridge comes up, and nothing gets past the moat and the inner gates. I don’t stop running till I’m up at the top of Mummers House, falling against my door. I pull out the Sword of Mages and use it to nick the pad of my thumb, pressing it into the stone. There’s a spell for this, to reintroduce myself to the room after so many months away—but blood is quicker and surer, and Baz isn’t around to smell it. I stick my thumb in my mouth and push the door open, grinning. My room. It’ll be our room again in a few days, but for now it’s mine. I walk over to the windows and crank one open. The fresh air smells even sweeter now that I’m inside. I open the other window, still sucking on my thumb, and watch the dust motes swirl in the breeze and the sunlight, then fall back on my bed. The mattress is old—stuffed with feathers and preserved with spells—and I sink in. Merlin. Merlin and Morgan and Methuselah, it’s good to be back. It’s always so good to be back. The first time I came back to Watford, my second year, I climbed right into my bed and cried like a baby. I was still crying when Baz came in. “Why are you already weeping?” he snarled. “You’re ruining my plans to push you to tears.” I close my eyes now and take in as much air as I can: Feathers. Dust. Lavender. Water, from the moat. Plus that slightly acrid smell that Baz says is the merwolves. (Don’t get Baz started on the merwolves; sometimes he leans out our window and spits into the moat, just to spite them.) If he were here already, I’d hardly smell anything over his posh soap.… I take a deep breath now, trying to catch a hint of cedar. There’s a rattle at the door, and I jump to my feet, holding my hand over my hip and calling again for the Sword of Mages. That’s three times already today; maybe I should just leave it out. The incantation is the only spell I always get right, perhaps because it’s not like other spells. It’s more of a pledge: “In justice. In courage. In defence of the weak. In the face of the mighty. Through magic and wisdom and good.” It doesn’t have to appear. The Sword of Mages is mine, but it belongs to no one. It doesn’t come unless it trusts you. The hilt materializes in my grip, and I swing the sword up to my shoulder just as Penelope pushes the door open. I let the sword drop. “You shouldn’t be able to do that,” I say. She shrugs and falls onto Baz’s bed. I can feel myself smiling. “You shouldn’t even be able to get past the front door.” Penelope shrugs again and pushes Baz’s pillow up under her head. “If Baz finds out you touched his bed,” I say. “He’s going to kill you.” “Let him try.” I twist my wrist just so, and the sword disappears. “You look a fright,” she says. “Ran into a goblin on the way in.” “Can’t they just vote on their next king?” Her voice is light, but I can tell she’s sizing me up. The last time she saw me, I was a bundle of spells and rags. The last time I saw Penny, everything was falling apart.… We’d just escaped the Humdrum, fled back to Watford, and burst into the White Chapel in the middle of the end-of-year ceremony—poor Elspeth was accepting an award for eight years of perfect attendance. I was still bleeding (from my pores, no one knew why). Penny was crying. Her family was there—because everybody’s families were there—and her mum started screaming at the Mage. “Look at them—this is your fault!” And then Premal got between them and started screaming back. People thought the Humdrum must be right behind Penny and me, and were running from the Chapel with their wands out. It was my typical end-of-year chaos times a hundred, and it felt worse than just chaotic. It felt like the end. Then Penelope’s mum spelled their whole family away, even Premal. (Probably just to their car, but it was still really dramatic.) I haven’t talked to Penny since. Part of me wants to grab her right now and pat her down head to toe, just to make sure she’s whole—but Penny hates scenes as much as her mum loves them. “Don’t say hello, Simon,” she’s told me. “Because then we’ll have to say good-bye, and I can’t stand good-byes.” My uniform is laid out at the end of my bed, and I start putting it away, piece by piece. New grey trousers. New green-and-purple striped tie … Penelope sighs loudly behind me. I walk back to my bed and flop down, facing her, trying not to smile from ear to ear. Her face is twisted into a pout. “What can possibly have got under your skin already?” I ask. “Trixie,” she huffs. Trixie’s her roommate. Penny says she’d trade Trixie for a dozen evil, plotting vampires. In a heartbeat. “What’s she done?” “Come back.” “You were expecting otherwise?” Penny adjusts Baz’s pillow. “Every year, she comes back more manic than she was the year before. First she turned her hair into a dandelion puff, then she cried when the wind blew it away.” I giggle. “In Trixie’s defence,” I say, “she is half pixie. And most pixies are a little manic.” “Oh, and doesn’t she know it. I swear she uses it as an excuse. I can’t survive another year with her. I can’t be trusted not to spell her head into a dandelion and blow.” I swallow another laugh and try hard not to beam at her. Great snakes, it’s good to see her. “It’s your last year,” I say. “You’ll make it.” Penny’s eyes get serious. “It’s our last year,” she says. “Guess what you’ll be doing next summer.…” “What?” “Hanging out with me.” I let my grin free. “Hunting the Humdrum?” “Fuck the Humdrum,” she says. We both laugh, and I kind of grimace, because the Humdrum looks just like me—an 11-year-old version of me. (If Penny hadn’t seen him, too, I’d think I’d hallucinated the whole thing.) I shudder. Penny sees it. “You’re too thin,” she says. “It’s the tracksuit.” “Change, then.” She already has. She’s wearing her grey pleated uniform skirt and a red jumper. “Go on,” she says, “it’s almost teatime.” I smile again and jump up off the bed, grabbing a pair of jeans and a purple sweatshirt that says WATFORD LACROSSE. (Agatha plays.) Penny grabs my arm when I walk past Baz’s bed on the way to the bathroom. “It’s good to see you,” she whispers. I smile. Again. Penny makes my cheeks hurt. “Don’t make a scene,” I whisper back. 4 PENELOPE Too thin. He looks too thin. And something worse … scraped. Simon always looks better after a few months of Watford’s roast beef. (And Yorkshire pudding and tea with too much milk. And fatty sausages. And butter-scone sandwiches.) He’s broad-shouldered and broad-nosed, and when he gets too thin, his skin just hangs off his cheekbones. I’m used to seeing him thin like this, every autumn. But this time, today, it’s worse. His face looks chapped. His eyes are lined with red, and the skin around them looks rough and patchy. His hands are red, too, and when he clenches his fists, the knuckles go white. Even his smile is awful. Too big and red for his face. I can’t look him in the eye. I grab his sleeve when he comes close, and I’m relieved when he keeps walking. If he didn’t, I might not let go. I might grab him and hold him and spell us both as far away from Watford as possible. We could come back after it’s all over. Let the Mage and the Pitches and the Humdrum and everyone else fight the wars they seem to have their hearts set on. Simon and I could get a flat in Anchorage. Or Casablanca. Or Prague. I’d read and write. He’d sleep and eat. And we’d both live to see the far end of 19. Maybe even 20. I’d do it. I’d take him away—if I didn’t believe he was the only one who could make a difference here. If I stole Simon and kept him safe … I’m not sure there’d be a World of Mages to come back to. 5 SIMON We practically have the dining hall to ourselves. Penelope sits on the table with her feet on a chair. (Because she likes to pretend she doesn’t care.) There are a few younger kids, first and second years, at the other side of the hall, having tea with their parents. I notice them, children and adults, all trying to get a look at me. The kids’ll get used to me after a few weeks, but this’ll be their parents’ only chance to get an eyeful. Most magicians know who I am. Most of them knew I was coming before I knew myself; there’s a prophecy about me—a few prophecies, actually—about a superpowerful magician who’ll come along and fix everything. And one will come to end us. And one will bring his fall. Let the greatest power of powers reign, May it save us all. The Greatest Mage. The Chosen One. The Power of Powers. It still feels strange believing that that bloke’s supposed to be me. But I can’t deny it, either. I mean, nobody else has power like mine. I can’t always control it or direct it, but it’s there. I think when I showed up at Watford, people had sort of given up on the old prophecies. Or wondered if the Greatest Mage had come and gone without anybody ever noticing. I don’t think anybody expected the Chosen One to come from the Normal world—from mundanity. A mage has never been born to Normals. But I must have been, because magicians don’t give up their kids. There’s no such thing as magickal orphans, Penny says. Magic is too precious. The Mage didn’t tell me all that, when he first came to get me. I didn’t know that I was the first Normal to get magic, or the most powerful magician anyone had heard of. Or that plenty of magicians—especially the Mage’s enemies—thought he was making me up, some sort of political sleight of hand. A Trojan 11-year-old with baggy jeans and a shaved head. When I first got to Watford, some of the Old Families wanted me to make the rounds, to meet everyone who mattered, so they could check me out in person. Kick my tyres. But the Mage wasn’t having any of it. He says most magicians are so caught up in their own petty plots and power struggles that they lose sight of the big picture. “I won’t see you become anyone’s pawn, Simon.” I’m glad now that he was so protective. It’d be nice to know more magicians and to feel more a part of a community, but I’ve made my own friends—and I made them when we were young, when none of them were overly fussed about my Great Destiny. If anything, my celebrity status has been a liability for making friends at Watford. Everybody knows that things tend to explode around me. (Though no people have exploded yet—that’s something.) I ignore the staring from the other tables and help Penelope get our tea. Even though we go to an exclusive boarding school—with its own cathedral and moat—nobody’s spoiled at Watford. We do our own cleaning and, after our fourth year, our own laundry. We’re allowed to use magic for chores, but I usually don’t. Cook Pritchard does the cooking, with a few helpers, and we all take turns serving at mealtimes. On weekends, it’s help yourself. Penelope gets us a plate of cheese sandwiches and a mountain of warm scones, and I tear through half a block of butter. (I eat my scones with big slabs of it, so the butter melts on the outside but keeps a cold bite in the middle.) Penny’s watching me like I’m mildly disgusting, but also like she’s missed me. “Tell me about your summer,” I say between swallows. “It was good,” she says. “Really good.” “Yeah?” Crumbs fly out of my mouth. “My dad and I went to Chicago. He did some research at a lab there, and Micah and I helped.” She loosens up as soon as she mentions her boyfriend’s name. “Micah’s Spanish is amazing. He taught me so many new spells—I think if I study the language more, I’ll be able to cast them like a native.” “How is he?” Penelope blushes and takes a bite of sandwich so she doesn’t have to answer right away. It’s only been a few months since I saw her last, but she looks different. More grown up. Girls don’t have to wear skirts at Watford, but both Penelope and Agatha like to. Penny wears short pleated ones, usually with knee-high argyle socks in the school colours. Her shoes are the black sort with buckles, like Alice wears in Wonderland. Penny’s always looked younger than she is—everything about her is round and girlish, she has chubby cheeks and thick legs and dimples in her knees—and the uniform makes her seem even younger. But still … she’s changed this summer. She’s starting to look like a woman in little girl’s clothes. “Micah’s good,” she says finally, pushing her dark hair behind her ears. “It’s the most time we’ve spent together since he was here.” “So the thrill isn’t gone?” She laughs. “No. If anything, it felt … real. For the first time.” I don’t know what to say, so I try to smile at her. “Ugh,” she says, “close your mouth.” I do. “But what about you?” Penny asks. I can tell she’s been waiting to interrogate me and can’t wait any longer. She glances around us and leans forward. “Can you tell me what happened?” “What happened when?” “This summer.” I shrug. “Nothing happened.” She sits back, sighing. “Simon, it’s not my fault that I went to America. I tried to stay.” “No,” I say. “I mean there’s nothing to tell. You left. Everyone left. I went back in care. Liverpool, this time.” “You mean, the Mage just … sent you away? After everything?” Penelope looks confused. I don’t blame her. I’d just escaped a kidnapping, and the first thing the Mage did was send me packing. I thought, when Penny and I told the Mage what had happened, that he’d want to go after the Humdrum immediately. We knew where the monster was; we finally knew what he looked like! The Humdrum has been attacking Watford as long as I’ve been here. He sends dark creatures. He hides from us. He leaves a trail of dead spots in the magickal atmosphere. And finally, we had a lead. I wanted to find him. I wanted to punish him. I wanted to end this, once and for all, fighting at the Mage’s side. Penelope clears her throat. I must look as lost as I feel. “Have you talked to Agatha?” she asks. “Agatha?” I butter another scone. They’ve cooled off, and the butter doesn’t melt. Penny holds up her right hand, and the large purple stone on her finger glints in the sunlight—“Some like it hot!” It’s a waste of magic. She’s constantly wasting magic on me. The butter melts into the now-steaming scone, and I bounce it from hand to hand. “You know Agatha’s not allowed to talk to me over the summer.” “I thought maybe she’d find a way this time,” Penelope says. “Special measures, to try to explain herself.” I give up on the too-hot scone and drop it on my plate. “She wouldn’t disobey the Mage. Or her parents.” Penny just watches me. Agatha is her friend, too, but Penelope’s much more judgemental of her than I am. It’s not my job to judge Agatha; it’s my job to be her boyfriend. Penny sighs and looks away, kicking at the chair. “So that’s it? Nothing? No progress? Just another summer? What are we supposed to do now?” Normally I’m the one kicking things, but I’ve been kicking walls—and anyone who looked at me wrong—all summer. I shrug. “Go back to school, I guess.” * * * Penelope’s avoiding her room. She says Trixie’s girlfriend came back early, too, and they don’t have any personal boundaries. “Did I tell you Trixie got her ears pierced this summer? She wears big noisy bells right in the pointy parts.” Sometimes I think Penny’s Trixie diatribes are borderline speciesist. I tell her so. “Easy for you to say,” she says, all stretched out on Baz’s bed again. “You don’t live with a pixie.” “I live with a vampire!” I argue. “Unconfirmed.” “Are you saying you don’t think Baz is a vampire?” “I know he’s a vampire,” she says. “But it’s still unconfirmed. We’ve never actually seen him drink blood.” I’m sitting on the window ledge and leaning out a bit over the moat, holding on to the latch of the swung-open pane. I scoff: “We’ve seen him covered in blood. We’ve found piles of shrivelled-up rats with fang marks down in the Catacombs.… I’ve told you that his cheeks get really full when he has a nightmare? Like his mouth is filling up with extra teeth?” “Circumstantial evidence,” Penny says. “And I still don’t know why you’d creep up on a vampire who has night terrors.” “I live with him! I have to keep my wits about me.” She rolls her eyes. “Baz’ll never hurt you in your room.” She’s right. He can’t. Our rooms are spelled against betrayal—the Roommate’s Anathema. If Baz does anything to physically hurt me inside our room, he’ll be cast out of the school. Agatha’s dad, Dr. Wellbelove, says it happened once when he was in school. Some kid punched his roommate, then got sucked out through a window and landed outside the school gate. It wouldn’t open for him again ever. You get warnings when you’re young: For the first two years, if you try to hit or hurt your roommate, your hands go stiff and cold. I threw a book at Baz once in our first year, and it took three days for my hand to thaw out. Baz has never violated the Anathema. Not even when we were kids. “Who knows what he’s capable of in his sleep,” I say. “You do,” Penny says, “as much as you watch him.” “I live with a dark creature—I’m right to be paranoid!” “I’d trade my pixie for your vampire any day of the week. There’s no anathema to keep someone from being lethally irritating.” Penny and I go back to the dining hall to get dinner—baked sweet potatoes and sausages and hard white rolls—then bring it all back to my room. We never get to hang out like this when Baz is around. He’d turn Penny in. It feels like a party. Just the two of us, nothing to do. No one to hide from or fight. Penelope says it’ll be like this someday when we get a flat together.… But that’s not going to happen. She’s going to go to America as soon as the war is over. Maybe even before that. And I’ll get a place with Agatha. Agatha and I will work through whatever this is; we always do. We make sense together. We’ll probably get married after school—that’s when Agatha’s parents got married. I know she wants a place in the country.… I can’t afford anything like that, but she has money, and she’ll find a job that makes her happy. And her dad’ll help me find work if I ask him. It’s nice to think about that: living long enough to have to figure out what to do with myself. As soon as Penelope’s done with her dinner, she brushes off her hands. “Right,” she says. I groan. “Not yet.” “What do you mean, ‘not yet’?” “I mean, not yet with the strategizing. We just got here. I’m still settling in.” She looks around the room. “What’s to settle, Simon? You already unpacked your two pairs of trackie bottoms.” “I’m enjoying the peace and quiet.” I reach for her plate and start to finish off her sausages. “There’s no peace,” she says. “Just quiet. It makes me nervous. We need a plan.” “There is peace. Baz isn’t here yet, and look”—I wave her fork around—“there’s nothing attacking us.” “Says the man who just thrashed a goblin. Simon,” she says, “just because we’ve been checked out for two months doesn’t mean the war took a break.” I groan again. “You sound like the Mage,” I say with my mouth full. “I still can’t believe he ignored you all summer.” “He’s probably too busy with ‘the war.’” Penny sighs and folds her hands. She’s waiting for me to be reasonable. I’m going to make her wait. The war. There’s no point talking about the war. It’ll get here soon enough. It isn’t even one war: It’s two or three of them—the civil war that’s brewing, the hostilities with the dark creatures that have always been there, the whatever it is with the Humdrum—and it will all find its way to my door eventually.… “Right,” Penny repeats. And I must look miserable, because next she says, “I guess the war will still be there tomorrow.” I clean her plate, and Penny makes herself comfortable on Baz’s bed, and I don’t even nag her about it. I lie back on my own bed, listening to her talk about aeroplanes and American supermarkets and Micah’s big family. She falls asleep in the middle of telling me about a song she’s heard, a song she thinks will be a spell someday, though I can’t think of any use for “Call me maybe.” “Penelope?” She doesn’t answer. I lean off my bed and swing my pillow at her legs—that’s how close the beds are; Baz wouldn’t even have to get out of his to kill me. Or vice versa, I guess. “Penny.” “What?” she says into Baz’s pillow. “You have to go back to your room.” “Don’t want to.” “You have to. The Mage’ll suspend you if you get caught in here.” “Let him. I could use the free time.” I get out of bed and stand over her. Her dark hair is spread out over the pillowcase, and her glasses are smashed into her cheek. Her skirt has hiked up, and her bare thigh looks plump and smooth. I pinch her. She jumps up. “Come on,” I say, “I’ll walk you.” Penny straightens her glasses and untwists her shirt. “No. I don’t want you to see how I get past the wards.” “Because that’s not something you’d want to share with your best friend?” “Because it’s fun watching you try to figure it out.” I open my door and peek down the staircase. I don’t see or hear anyone. “Fine,” I say, holding the door open. “Good-night.” Penny walks past me. “Good-night, Simon. See you tomorrow.” I grin. I can’t help it—it’s so good to be back. “See you tomorrow.” As soon as I’m alone, I change into my school pyjamas—Baz brings his from home, but I like the school ones. I don’t sleep in pyjamas when I’m at the juvenile centres, I never have. It makes me feel, I don’t know—vulnerable. I change and crawl into bed, sighing. These nights at Watford, before Baz gets here, are the only nights in my life when I actually sleep. * * * I don’t know what time it is when I wake up. The room is dark, and there’s a shaft of moonlight slicing across my bed. I think I see a woman standing by the window, and at first I think it’s Penny. Then the figure shifts, and I think it’s Baz. Then I decide I’m dreaming and fall back into sleep. 6 LUCY I have so much I want to tell you. But time is short. And my voice doesn’t carry. 7 SIMON The sun is just rising when I hear my door creak open. I pull the blankets up over my head. “Go away,” I say, expecting Penny to start talking at me anyway. She’s good at immediately making me forget how much I missed her over the summer. Someone clears his throat. I open my eyes and see the Mage standing just inside the door, looking amused—at least on the surface. There’s something darker underneath. “Sir.” I sit up. “Sorry.” “Don’t apologize, Simon. You must not have heard me knock.” “No … Let me just, I’ll just, um … get dressed.” “Don’t trouble yourself,” he says, walking to the window, giving Baz’s bed a wide berth—even the Mage is afraid of vampires. Though he wouldn’t use the word “afraid.” He’d say something like “cautious” or “prudent.” “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to welcome you back yesterday,” he says. “How was your journey?” I push the covers off and sit at the edge of my bed. I’m still in my pyjamas, but at least I’m sitting up. “Fine,” I say. “I mean, I suppose … not exactly fine. My taxi driver was a goblin.” “Another goblin?” He turns from the window to me, hands clasped behind his back. “Persistent, aren’t they. Was it alone?” “Yes, sir. Tried to scarper off with me.” He shakes his head. “They never think to come in pairs. What spell did you use?” “Used my blade, sir.” I bite at my lip. “Fine,” he says. “And Into thin air to clean it up.” The Mage raises his eyebrow. “Excellent, Simon.” He looks down at my pyjamas and bare feet, then seems to study my face. “What about this summer? Anything to report? Anything unusual?” “I would have contacted you, sir.” (I can contact him, if I need to. I have his mobile number. Also, I could send a bird.) The Mage nods. “Good.” He looks at me for a few more seconds, then turns back to the window, like he’s observed everything about me that he needs to. The sunlight catches in his thick brown hair, and for a minute, he looks even more like a swashbuckler than usual. He’s in uniform: dark green canvas leggings, tall leather boots, a green tunic with straps and small pockets—with a sword hanging in a woven scabbard from his tooled belt. Unlike mine, his blade is fully visible. Penny’s mum, Professor Bunce, says that previous mages wore a ceremonial cowl and cape. And that other headmasters wore robes and mortarboards. The Mage, she says, has created his own uniform. She calls it a costume. I think Professor Bunce must hate the Mage more than anyone who isn’t actually his enemy. The only time I ever hear Penny’s dad talk out loud is when her mum gets going on the Mage; he’ll put his hand on her arm and say, “Now, Mitali…” And then she’ll say, “I apologize, Simon, I know the Mage is your foster father.…” But he isn’t, not really. The Mage has never presented himself to me that way. As family. He’s always treated me as an ally—even when I was a little kid. The very first time he brought me to Watford, he sat me down in his office and told me everything. About the Insidious Humdrum. About the missing magic. About the holes in the atmosphere like dead spots. I was still trying to get it through my head that magic was real, and there he was telling me that something was killing it—eating it, ending it—and that only I could help: “You’re too young to hear this, Simon. Eleven is too young. But it isn’t fair to keep any of this from you any longer. The Insidious Humdrum is the greatest threat the World of Mages has ever faced. He’s powerful, he’s pervasive. Fighting him is like fighting off sleep when you’re long past the edge of exhaustion. “But fight him we must. We want to protect you; I vow to do so with my life. But you must learn, Simon, as soon as possible, how best to protect yourself. “He is our greatest threat. And you are our greatest hope.” I was too stunned to respond or to ask any questions. Too young. I just wanted to see the Mage do that trick again, the one where he made a map roll out all by itself. I spent that first year at Watford telling myself that I was dreaming. And the next year telling myself that I wasn’t … I’d already been attacked by ogres, shattered a circle of standing stones, and grown five inches before I thought to ask the real question: Why me? Why did I have to fight the Humdrum? The Mage has answered that question a dozen different ways over the years: Because I was chosen. Because I was prophesied. Because the Humdrum won’t leave me alone. But none of those are real answers. Penelope has given me the only answer that I know what to do with.… “Because you can, Simon. And someone has to.” The Mage is watching something out my window. I think about inviting him to sit down. Then I try to remember whether I’ve ever seen him sit down. I shift my weight, and the bed creaks. He turns to me, looking troubled. “Sir?” “Simon.” “The Humdrum—did you find him? What have I missed?” The Mage rubs his chin in the notch between his thumb and forefinger, then jerks his head quickly from side to side. “Nothing. We’re no closer to finding him, and other matters have needed my immediate attention.” “How could anything be more important than the Humdrum?” I blurt out. “Not more important,” he says. “Just more pressing. It’s the Old Families—they’re testing me.” He balls his right hand into a fist. “Half of Wales has stopped tithing. The Pitches are paying three members of the Coven to stay away from meetings, so we don’t have quorum. And there have been skirmishes up and down the road to London all summer long.” “Skirmishes?” “Traps, tussles. Tests—they’re all tests, Simon. You know the Old Families would seize the reins if they thought for a moment I was distracted. They’d roll back everything we’ve accomplished.” “Do they think they can fight the Humdrum without us?” “I think they’re so shortsighted,” he says, looking over at me, “that they don’t care. They just want power, and they want it now.” “Well, I don’t care about them,” I say. “If the Humdrum takes our magic, we won’t have anything to scrap over. We should be fighting the Humdrum.” “And we will,” he says, “when the time is right. When we know how to beat him. But until then, my first priority is keeping you safe. Simon…” He folds his arms. “I’ve been consulting with the other members of the Coven, with those I can trust. We think maybe our efforts to protect you have backfired. Despite the spells and surveillance, the Humdrum seems to have the best luck getting to you when you’re here, at Watford. He spirited you away in June without triggering any of our defences.” It’s embarrassing to hear him say this. It feels like I’m the one failing, not the Mage or the protection spells. I’m supposed to be the only one who can fight the Humdrum. But I finally got a chance to face him, and the most I could do was run away. I don’t think I’d have managed even that without Penelope. The Mage clenches his jaw. He has one of those chins that flattens out in the middle—with a sharp dimple, like he was nicked by a knife. I’m dead jealous of it. “We’ve decided,” he says slowly, “that you would be safer somewhere other than Watford.” I’m not sure what he’s getting at. “Sir?” “The Coven has secured a place for you. And a private tutor. I can’t talk about the details now—but I’ll take you there myself. We’ll leave soon; I need to be back by nightfall.” “You want me to leave Watford?” He narrows his eyes. The Mage hates to repeat himself. “Yes. You won’t need to pack much. Your boots and your cloak, any artefacts you want to keep—” “Sir, I can’t leave Watford. Our lessons start this week.” He cocks his head. “Simon. You’re not a child. There’s nothing more for you to learn at Watford.” Maybe he’s right. I’m a hopeless student; it’s not like this year is going to make or break me, but still … “I can’t leave Watford. It’s my last year.” The Mage rubs his beard. His eyes narrow to slits. “I just can’t,” I say again. I try to think of why not, but all that comes to me is no. I can’t leave Watford. I’ve been waiting all summer to get here. I’ve been waiting my whole life. I’m always either at Watford or wishing I was at Watford, and next year that will change—it has to—but not yet. “No,” I say. “I can’t.” “Simon”—his voice is stern—“this isn’t a suggestion. Your life is at stake. And the entire World of Mages is depending on you.” I feel like arguing that point: Baz isn’t depending on me. None of the magicians who stand with the House of Pitch believe I’m their saviour.… I grind my teeth so tight, I can practically feel the shape of them. I shake my head. The Mage frowns down at me like I’m a child who’s refusing to listen. “Hasn’t it ever occurred to you, Simon, that the Humdrum attacks you only when you’re here?” “Has it just now occurred to you?” I swallow. “Sir,” I add too late. “I don’t understand this!” he says, raising his voice. “You’ve never questioned my decisions before.” “You’ve never asked me to leave Watford before!” His face is hard. “Simon, we’re at war. Do I need to remind you of that?” “No, sir.” “And we all make sacrifices at wartime.” “But we’ve always been at war,” I say. “As long as I’ve been here. We can’t just stop living because we’re at war.” “Can’t we?” He’s finally lost his temper. He jerks his hand back down to the hilt of his sword. “Look at me, Simon. Have you ever known me to indulge myself with a normal life? Where is my wife? My children? Where’s my house in the country with my cosy chair and a fat cocker spaniel to bring me my slippers? When do I go on holiday? When do I take a break? When do I do anything other than prepare for the battle ahead? We don’t get to ignore our responsibilities because we’re bored with them.” My head drops down like he’s shoved it. “I’m not bored,” I mutter. “Speak up.” I lift my head. “I’m not bored, sir.” Our eyes meet. “Get dressed. Gather your things.…” I feel every muscle in my body grab. Every joint lock. “No.” I can’t. I just got here. And this summer was the worst summer yet. I held on because I was coming to Watford at the end of it, but I can’t hold on any longer. I don’t have it in me. My reserves are empty, and the Mage won’t even tell me where he wants me to go—and what about Penny? And Agatha? I’m shaking my head. I hear the Mage take in a sharp breath, and when I look up, there’s a haze of red between us. Fuck. No. He steps away from me. “Simon,” he says. His wand is out. “Stay cool!” I fumble for my own wand and start running through spells. “Keep it together! Suck it up! Steady on! Hold fast!” But spells take magic, and drawing on my magic right now just draws it to the surface—the red between us thickens. I close my eyes and try to disappear. To think of nothing at all. I fall back on the bed, and my wand bounces onto the floor. When I can focus again, the Mage is leaning over me, his hand on my forehead. Something is smoking—I think it’s my sheets. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I didn’t mean—” “I know,” he says, but he still looks scared. He pushes my hair up off my forehead with one hand, then brushes his knuckles down my cheek. “Please don’t make me leave,” I beg. The Mage looks in my eyes, and through them. I can see him deliberating—then relenting. “I’ll talk to the Coven,” he says. “Perhaps we still have time.…” He purses his lips together. He has a pencil-thin moustache, just above his lips; Baz and Agatha both like to make fun of it. “But it isn’t just your safety we’re concerned with, Simon.…” He’s still leaning over me. I feel like there’s nothing to breathe between us but smoke. “I’ll talk to the Coven,” he says. He squeezes my shoulder and stands. “Do you need the nurse?” “No, sir.” “You’ll call for me if something changes. Or if you see anything strange—any signs of the Humdrum, or anything … out of the ordinary.” I nod. The Mage strides out of the room, his palm resting on the hilt of his sword—that means he’s thinking—and closes the door firmly behind him. I roll around and make sure that my bed isn’t actually burning, then collapse back into sleep. 8 LUCY And the fog is so thick. 9 SIMON Penny’s sitting at my desk when I wake up again. She’s reading a book as thick as her arm. “It’s past noon,” she says. “You’ve become an absolute sluggard in foster care; I’m writing a letter to The Telegraph.” “You can’t just let yourself into my room without knocking,” I say, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. “Even if you do have a magickal key.” “It’s not a key, and I did knock. You sleep like a corpse.” I walk past her to the bathroom, and she sniffs, then closes her book. “Simon. Did you go off?” “Sort of. It’s a long story.” “Were you attacked?” “No,” I shut the door to the bathroom and raise my voice: “I’ll tell you later.” Penny’s going to flip her shit when I tell her the Mage wants to send me away. I look in the mirror and try to decide whether to shower. My hair’s matted to my head on one side and standing up on top—I always break into a sweat when I lose control like that. I feel grimy all over. I examine my chin in the mirror, hoping I need a shave, but I don’t; I never really do. I’d grow a moustache just like the Mage’s if I could, and I wouldn’t care at all if Baz took the piss. I strip off my shirt and give the gold cross around my neck a rub. I’m not religious—it’s a talisman. Been passed down in Agatha’s family for years, a ward against vampires. It was black and tarnished when Dr. Wellbelove gave it to me, but I’ve rubbed it gold. Sometimes I chew on it. (Which is probably a bad thing to do to a mediaeval relic.) I don’t really need to wear it all summer, but once you get used to wearing an anti-vampire necklace, it seems stupid to take it off. All the other kids in care always think I’m religious. (And they think I smoke a pack a day, because I always sort of smell like smoke.) I look at the mirror again. Penny’s right. I’m too thin. My ribs stick out. You can see the muscles in my stomach, and not because I’m ripped—because I haven’t really eaten for three months. Also I’ve got moles all over my body, which make me look poxed even when I’m not suffering from malnutrition. “I’m taking a shower!” I shout. “Hurry—we’ll miss lunch!” I hear Penny moving around the room while I climb into the shower; then she’s talking to me again from just outside the door: “Agatha’s back.” I turn on the water. “Simon, did you hear me? Agatha’s back!” I heard her. * * * What’s the etiquette for talking to your girlfriend after three months, when the last time you saw her, she was holding hands with your nemesis? (Both hands. Facing each other. Like they were about to break into song.) Things had got dodgy with Agatha last year even before I saw her with Baz in the Wood. She’d been distant and quiet, and when I was injured in March (someone tampered with my wand), she just rolled her eyes. Like I’d brought it on myself. Agatha’s the only girl I’ve ever dated. We’ve been together for three years now, since we were 15. But I wanted her long before that. I’ve wanted her since the first time I saw her—walking across the Great Lawn, her long pale hair rippling in the wind. I remember seeing her and thinking that I’d never seen anything so beautiful. And that if you were that beautiful, that graceful, nothing could ever really touch you. It would be like being a lion or a unicorn. Nobody could really touch you, because you wouldn’t even be on the same plane as everyone else. Even sitting next to Agatha makes you feel sort of untouchable. Exalted. It’s like sitting in the sun. So imagine how it feels to date her—like you’re carrying that light around with you all the time. There’s a picture of us together from the last winter solstice. She’s in a long white dress, and her mother plaited mistletoe into her milky gold hair. I’m wearing white, too. I felt naff, but in the photo—well, I look fine. Standing next to Agatha, wearing a suit her father lent me … I actually look like I’m who I’m supposed to be. * * * The dining hall is half full today. The term starts tomorrow. People are sitting on tables and standing in loose circles, catching up. Lunch is ham and cheese rolls. Penelope grabs a plate of butter for me, and I smile. I’d eat butter with a spoon if it were acceptable. (I did it anyway, my first year, whenever I was the first one down to breakfast.) I scan the room for Agatha but don’t see her. She must not be at lunch. I can’t believe she’d be in the dining hall and not sit at our table, even considering everything. Rhys and Gareth, the boys who live in the room under mine, are sitting at our table already, at the far end. “All right, Simon?” Rhys says. Gareth is shouting at someone across the hall. “All right, fellas?” I answer. Rhys nods at Penny. Penelope has never had time for most of our classmates, so they don’t really have time for her. It would bother me if everyone ignored me like that, but she seems to appreciate the lack of distractions. Sometimes when I’m walking through the dining hall, just saying hello to people, she’ll drag me by my sleeve to hurry me up. “You have too many friends,” she’ll say. “I’m pretty sure that’s not possible. And, anyway, I wouldn’t call them all ‘friends.’” “There are only so many hours in the day, Simon. Two, three people—that’s all any of us have time for.” “There are more people than that in your immediate family, Penny.” “I know. It’s a struggle.” Once, I started listing off all the people that I truly cared about. When I got to number seven, Penelope told me I either needed to whittle down my list or stop making friends immediately. “My mother says you should never have more people in your life than you could defend from a hungry rakshasa.” “I don’t know what that is,” I told her, “but I’m not worried; I’m good in a fight.” I like having people. Close ones like Penny and Agatha and the Mage and Ebb the goatherd and Miss Possibelf and Dr. Wellbelove. And just friendly ones like Rhys and Gareth. If I followed Penny’s rules, I’d never find enough people for a football match. She waves halfheartedly at the boys, then sits between me and them, turning towards me to close off our conversation. “I saw Agatha with her parents,” she says, “earlier, in the Cloisters.” The Cloisters is the oldest and largest girls’ house, a long low building at the other side of the grounds. It only has one door, and all the windows are made up of tiny panes of glass. (The school must have been mega-paranoid when it started letting girls in back in the 1600s.) “You saw who?” I ask. “Agatha.” “Oh.” “I can go get her if you want,” she offers. “Since when do you pass notes for me?” “I thought you might not want to talk to her for the first time in front of everyone,” she says. “After what happened.” I shrug. “It’ll be fine. Agatha and I are fine.” Penny looks surprised, then dubious; then she shakes her head, giving up. “Anyway,” she says, tearing off a piece of her sandwich, “we should track down the Mage after lunch.” “Why?” “‘Why?’ Are you playing dumb today because you think I’ll find it cute?” “Yes?” She rolls her eyes. “We need to track down the Mage and make him tell us what’s been going on all summer. What he’s found out about the Humdrum.” “He hasn’t found out anything. I already talked to him.” She stops mid-bite. “When?” “He came to my room this morning.” “And when were you going to tell me this?” I shrug again, licking butter off my thumb. “When you gave me a chance.” Penny rolls her eyes again. (Penny rolls her eyes a lot.) “He didn’t have anything to say?” “Not about the Humdrum. He—” I look down at my plate, then quickly around us. “—he says the Old Families are causing trouble.” She nods. “My mum says they’re trying to organize a vote of no confidence against him.” “Can they do that?” “They’re trying. And there’ve been duels all summer. Premal’s friend Sam got into it with one of the Grimm cousins after a wedding, and now he’s on trial.” “Who is?” “The Grimm.” “For what?” “Forbidden spells,” she says. “Banned words.” “The Mage thinks I should go,” I say. “What? Go where?” “He thinks I should leave Watford.” Penny’s eyes are big. “To fight the Humdrum?” “No.” I shake my head. “To just … go. He thinks I’d be safer somewhere else. He thinks everyone here would be safer if I left.” Her eyes keep getting bigger. “Where would you go, Simon?” “He didn’t say. Some secret place.” “Like a hideout?” she asks. “I guess.” “But what about school?” “He doesn’t think that’s important right now.” Penny snorts. She thinks the Mage undervalues education at the best of times. Especially the classics. When he dropped the linguistics programme, she wrote a stern letter to the faculty board. “So he wants you to do what?” “Go away. Stay safe. Train.” She folds her arms. “On a mountain. With ninjas. Like Batman.” I laugh, but she doesn’t laugh with me. She leans forward. “You can’t just leave, Simon. He can’t stash you in a hole your whole life.” “I’m not going,” I say. “I told him no.” She pulls her chin back. “You told him no?” “I … well, I can’t just leave Watford. It’s our last year, isn’t it.” “I agree—you told him no?” “I told him I didn’t want to! I don’t want to hide and wait for the Humdrum to find me. That doesn’t feel like a plan.” “And what did the Mage say?” “Not much. I got upset and started to—” “I knew it. Your room smelled like a campfire. Oh my word! You went off on the Mage?” “No. I pulled back.” “Really?” She looks impressed. “Well done, Simon.” “I think I scared him, though.” “It’d scare me, too.” “Penny, I…” “What?” “Do you think he’s right?” “I just said I didn’t.” “No. About … me being a danger to Watford. A danger to—” I look over at the first year tables. They’ve all skipped sandwiches and are eating big bowls of jam roly-poly. “—everyone.” Penny starts tearing at her sandwich again. “Of course not.” “Penelope.” She sighs. “You pulled back, didn’t you? This morning? When have you ever hurt anyone but yourself?” “Smoke and mirrors, Penny—should I make a list? I’ll start with the decapitations. I’ll start with yesterday.” “Those were battles, and they don’t count.” “I think they count.” She folds her arms again. “They count differently.” “It’s not even just that,” I say. “It’s … I’m a target, aren’t I? The Humdrum only attacks me when I’m at Watford, and he only attacks Watford when I’m here.” “That’s not your fault.” “So?” “Well, you can’t help that.” “I can,” I say. “I could go away.” “No.” “Compelling argument, Pen.” I spread butter on my third ham and cheese roll. My hands are shaking. “No. Simon. You can’t just go away. You shouldn’t. Look, if you’re a target, then I’m the most at risk. I spend the most time with you.” “I know.” “No, I mean, look at me—I’m fine.” I look at her. “I’m fine, Simon. Even Baz is fine, and he’s constantly stuck with you.” “I feel like you’re glossing over all the times you’ve nearly died just because you were with me. The Humdrum kidnapped me a few months ago, and you got dragged along.” “Thank Morgana I did.” She’s looking in my eyes, so I try not look away. Sometimes I’m glad Penny wears glasses; her eye contact is so fierce, it’s good to have a buffer. “I told the Mage no,” I repeat. “Good.” she says. “Keep telling him.” “Nan!” A little girl’s shout tears through our conversation, and I’m already whispering the incantation to summon my blade. Across the hall, the girl—a second or third year—is running towards a shimmery figure at the door. “Oh…,” Penelope says, awed. The figure fades in and out, like Princess Leia’s hologram. When the girl reaches it—it looks like an older woman in a white trouser suit—it kneels down and catches her. They huddle together in the archway. Then the figure fades out completely. The girl stands, shaking, and a few of her friends run to her, jumping up and down. “So cool,” Penelope says. She turns to me and sees my blade. “Great snakes, Simon, put that away.” I keep it up. “What was that?” “You don’t know?” “Penelope.” “She got a Visiting. Lucky kid.” “What?” I sheathe the blade. “What kind of visiting?” “Simon, the Veil is lifting. I know you know about this. We studied it in Magickal History.” I make a face and sit down again, trying to decide whether I’m done with my lunch. “‘And on the Twentieth Turn,’” Penny says, “‘when the year wanes, and night and day sit in peace across the table—the Veil will lift. And any who have light to cast may cross it, though they may not tarry. Greet them with joy and with trust, for their mouths, though dead, speak truth.’” She’s using her quoting voice, so I know it’s from some ancient text or another. “You’re not helping,” I say. “The Veil is lifting,” she says again. “Every twenty years, dead people can talk to the living if they have something that really needs to be said.” “Oh…,” I say, “I guess maybe I have heard of that—I thought it was a myth.” “One would think, after seven years, you’d stop saying that out loud.” “Well, how am I supposed to know? There isn’t a book, is there? All the Magickal Things that Are Actually True and All the Ones that Are Bollocks, Just Like You Thought.” “You’re the only magician who wasn’t raised with magic. You’re the only one who would read a book like that.” “Father Christmas isn’t real,” I say, “but the Tooth Fairy is. There’s no rhyme or reason to this stuff.” “Well, the Veil is totally real,” Penny says. “It’s what keeps souls from walking.” “But it’s lifting now?” I feel like getting my sword out again. “The autumnal equinox is coming,” she says, “when day and night are the same length. The Veil thins, then lifts—sort of like fog. And people come back to tell us things.” “All of us?” “I wish. People only come back if they have something important to say. Something true. It’s like they come back to testify.” “That sounds … dramatic.” “My mother says her aunt came back twenty years ago to tell them about a hidden treasure. Mum’s kind of hoping she’ll come back again this time to tell us more.” “What kind of treasure?” “Books.” “Of course.” I decide to finish my sandwich. And Penny’s boiled egg. “But sometimes,” she says, “it’s scandalous. People come back to reveal affairs. Murders. The theory is, you have a better shot of crossing over if your message serves justice.” “How can anyone know that?” “It’s just a theory,” Penny says. “But if Aunt Beryl comes to me, I’m going to ask her as much as I can before she fades out again.” I look back across the hall. “I wonder what that girl’s granny told her.” Penny laughs and stacks her dishes. “Probably her secret toffee recipe.” “So these Visitors … they’re not zombies?” It doesn’t hurt to be sure about these things. “No, Simon. They’re harmless. Unless you’re afraid of the truth.” 10 THE MAGE I should make him go. I could. He’s not a child anymore, but he would still take an order. I promised to take care of him. How do you keep a promise like that? To take care of a child, when the child is the greatest power you know … And what does it mean to take care of power? Do you use it? Conserve it? Keep it out of the wrong hands? I’d thought I could be of more help to Simon, especially by now. Help him come into his power. Help him take hold of it. There must be a spell for him.… Magic words that would fortify him. A ritual that would make the power itself manageable. I haven’t found it yet, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t out there. That it doesn’t exist! And if I do find it … Is it enough to stabilize his power, if I can’t stabilize the boy? This isn’t in the prophecies; there’s nothing about headstrong children. I could hide Simon from the Humdrum itself. I could hide him from everything he isn’t ready to face. I could—I should! I should order him to go away—he’d still do it. He’d still listen to me. But what if he didn’t.… Simon Snow, would I lose you completely? 11 LUCY Hear me. * * * He was the first of his family at Watford, the first with enough power to get past the trials. He came all by himself, all the way from Wales, on the train. David. We called him Davy. (Well, some of us just called him daft.) And he didn’t have any friends—I don’t think he ever had any friends. I don’t even think I was his friend, not at first. I was just the only one listening. “World of Mages,” he’d say. “What world, I ask you—what world? This isn’t a school; schools educate people—schools lift people up—do you understand me?” “I’m getting an education,” I said. “You are, aren’t you?” His blue eyes glinted. There was always a fire in his eyes. “You get power. You get the secret password. Because your father had it, and your grandfather. You’re in the club.” “So are you, Davy.” “Only because I was too powerful for them to deny me.” “Right,” I said. “So now you’re in the club.” “Lucky me.” “I can’t tell if you mean that.…” “Lucky me,” he said. “Unlucky everyone else. This place isn’t about sharing knowledge. It’s about keeping knowledge in the hands of the rich.” “You mean, the most powerful.” “Same difference,” he spat. He always spat. His eyes were always glinting, and his mouth was always spitting. “So you don’t want to be here?” I asked. “Did you know that the Church used to give services in Latin, because they didn’t trust the congregation with God’s word?” “Are you talking about Christianity? I don’t know anything about Christianity.” “Why are we here, Lucy? When so many others are refused?” “Because we’re the most powerful. It’s important for us to learn how to manage and use our magic.” “Is it that important? Wouldn’t it be more important to teach the least powerful? To help them make the most of what they do have? Should we teach only poets to read?” “I don’t understand what you want. You’re here, Davy. At Watford.” “I’m here. And maybe if I meet the right people—if I bow and scrape before every Pitch and Grimm, they’ll teach me the trickiest spells. They’ll give me a seat at the table. And then I can spend my life as they do, making sure that no one else takes it from me.” “That’s not what I’m going to do with my magic.” He stopped spitting for a second to squint at me: “What are you going to do, Lucy?” “See the world.” “The World of Mages?” “No, the world.” * * * I have so much to tell you. But time is short. And the Veil is thick. And it takes magic to speak, a soul full of it. 12 SIMON As it happens, I am alone when I see Agatha. I’m lying out on the Lawn, thinking about the first time I got here—the grass was so nice that I didn’t think we were allowed to walk on it. Agatha’s wearing jeans and a gauzy white shirt, and she comes up the hill towards me slowly blocking the sun, so there’s a halo for just a second around her blond hair. She smiles, but I can tell she’s nervous. I wonder if she’s been looking for me. I sit up, and she sits down on the ground next to me. “Hey,” I say. “Hello, Simon.” “How was your summer?” She gives me a look like she can’t believe how lame that question is, but also like she’s kind of relieved to make small talk. “Good,” she says, “quiet.” “Did you travel?” I ask. “Only for events.” Agatha’s a show jumper. Competitively. I think she wants to jump for Great Britain someday. Or maybe ride? I know jack-all about horses. She tried to get me on a horse once, and I chickened out. “Simon, you can’t be scared of this horse. You’ve slain dragons.” “Well, I’m not afraid to slay it, am I? You want me to ride it.” “Any luck?” I ask now. “Some,” she says. “Mostly skill.” “Ah.” I nod my head. “Right. Sorry.” I sort of hate to talk to Agatha about horse stuff—and not because I’m afraid of them. It’s just one more thing I’ll never get right. All that posh crap. Regattas and galas and, I don’t know, polo matches. Agatha’s mum has hats that look like wedding cakes. It’s too much. I’ve got enough to deal with, trying to figure out what it means to be a magician—I’ll never pass as to the manner born. Maybe Agatha would be better off with Baz after all.… If he weren’t evil. I must look like I’m fuming, because she clears her throat uncomfortably. “Do you want me to go?” “No,” I say. “No. I’m glad to see you.” “You haven’t actually looked at me,” she says. So I look at her. She’s beautiful. And I want her. I want everything to be fine. “Look, Simon. I know you saw—” I cut her off. “I didn’t see anything.” “Well, I saw you,” she says. Her voice sharpens: “And Penelope, and—” I cut her off again. “No, I mean…” I’m not doing this right. “I did see you. In the Wood. And I saw … him. But it’s all right. I know you wouldn’t—well, I know you wouldn’t, Agatha. And it doesn’t matter, anyway. It was months ago.” Her eyes are wide and confused. Agatha has lovely brown eyes. Almost golden. And lovely long eyelashes. And the skin around her eyes sparkles like she’s a fairy. (She’s not a fairy. Fairies who can speak with magic are welcome at Watford, if they can find it, but none have ever chosen to attend.) “But, Simon, we have to … I mean, shouldn’t we talk about this?” “I’d rather just move on,” I say. “It’s not important. And it’s just—Agatha, it’s so good to see you.” I reach for her hand. She lets me take it. “It’s good to see you, too, Simon.” I smile. She almost smiles back. 13 AGATHA It is good to see him, it’s always good to see him. It’s always such a relief. I think about it sometimes, what it will be like the time that he doesn’t come back. Someday Simon isn’t going to come back. Everyone knows it—I think even the Mage knows it. (Penelope knows, but she doesn’t believe.) It’s just … It’s impossible for him to live through this. Too many people want him dead. Too many things worse than people. Dark things. Creatures. Whatever the Insidious Humdrum is. They all want him gone, and he can’t keep surviving; there’ve been too many close calls. Nobody’s that strong. Nobody’s that lucky. Someday he won’t come back, and I’ll be one of the first people they tell. I’ve thought it out because I know that however I react, it won’t be enough. Simon’s the Chosen One. And he chose me. And even though I love him—we grew up together, he spends every Christmas at my house, I do love him—it isn’t enough. Whatever I feel isn’t enough; it won’t be enough, when I lose him. What if it’s like that time our collie got hit by a car? I cried, but only because I knew I was supposed to, not because I couldn’t help it.… I used to think that maybe I was holding back my feelings for Simon as some sort of self-defence. Like, to protect myself from the pain of losing him, the pain of maybe losing everything—because, if Simon goes, what hope do any of us have? (What hope do we have? Simon isn’t the solution to our problems; he’s just a stay of execution.) But it isn’t that—it isn’t self-defence. I just don’t love Simon enough. I don’t love him the right way. Maybe I don’t have that sort of love in me—maybe I’m defective. And if that’s the case, I may as well stand by Simon, shouldn’t I? If that’s where he wants me? If that’s where everyone expects me to be? If it’s the only place I can make any difference? 14 SIMON I spend an hour or so with Agatha, but we don’t say much. I don’t tell her about the Mage. (What if Agatha agreed with the Mage? What if she wanted me to go, too? I’d want her to go, if she were in danger at Watford. Hell, she is in danger here. Because of me.) When I get back to my room, Penny’s there already, sprawled out with a book on Baz’s bed. “So you and Agatha talked?” she asks. “We talked.” “Did she explain? About Baz?” “I told her not to.” Penny sets down her book. “You don’t want to know why your girlfriend was snogging your sworn enemy?” “I don’t know about ‘sworn,’” I say. “I’ve never taken an oath.” “I’m pretty sure Baz has.” “Anyway, they weren’t snogging.” Penny shakes her head. “If I caught Micah holding hands with Baz, I’d want an explanation.” “So would I.” “Simon.” “Penny. Of course you’d want an explanation. That’s you. You like to demand explanations and then tell everyone why their explanations are crap.” “I do not.” “You do. But I—look, I just don’t care. It’s behind us. Agatha and I are fine.” “I wonder if it’s behind Baz.” “Fuck Baz, he’ll do whatever he can to get to me.” And he’ll start just as soon as he shows up. Which could be anytime … Almost everyone else is here already. Nobody wants to miss the welcome-back picnic on the Great Lawn tonight. It’s always a big to-do. Games. Fireworks. Spectacle magic. Maybe Baz will miss the picnic; he’s never missed it before, but it’s a nice thought. * * * Penny and I meet Agatha out on the Lawn. I don’t see Baz, but there are so many people, it’d be easy for him to avoid me if he wanted. (Baz normally makes sure that I see him.) The littluns are already playing games and eating cake, some of them wearing their Watford uniforms for the first time. Hats sliding off, ties crooked. There are races and singing. I get a bit choked up during the school song; there’s this line about “those golden years at Watford / those glowing, magickal years”—and it makes me think again about how this is it. Every day I have this year will be the last day like it. Last back-to-school picnic. Last first day back. I make a pig of myself, but Penny and Agatha don’t mind, and the egg and cress sandwiches are to die for. Plus roast chicken. Pork pie. Spice cakes with sour lemon frosting. And jugs of cold milk and raspberry cordial. I keep bracing for Baz to show up and ruin everything. I keep looking over my shoulder. (Maybe this is part of his plan—to ruin my night by making me wonder how he’s going to ruin it.) I think Agatha is worried about seeing him, too. One thing I’m not worried about is the Humdrum attacking. He sent flying monkeys to attack the picnic at the start of our fourth year, and the Humdrum never tries the same thing twice. (I guess he could send something other than flying monkeys.…) After the sun sets, the littluns all head back to their rooms, and the seventh and eighth years stay out on the Lawn. The three of us find a spot, and Penny spells her jacket into a green blanket for us to lie on. Which Agatha says is a waste of magic when there are perfectly good blankets just inside. “Your jacket is going to get grass stains,” she says. “It’s already green,” Penelope dismisses her. It’s a warm night, and Penelope and Agatha are both good at astronomy. We lie on our backs, and they point out the stars. “I should get my crystal ball and tell your fortunes,” Penelope says, and Agatha and I both groan. “I’ll save you the trouble,” I say. “You’re going to see me bathed in blood, but you won’t be able to tell whose it is. And you’ll see Agatha looking beautiful and swathed in light.” Penelope pouts, but not for long. The night is too good for pouting. I find Agatha’s hand in the blanket, and when I squeeze, she squeezes back. This day, this night, it all feels so right. Magickally right. Like a portent. (I didn’t used to believe in portents—I’m not superstitious. But then we did a unit on them in Magickal Science, and Penny said not believing in portents was like not believing in beans on toast.) After an hour or so, someone crosses the Veil, right out onto the Lawn. It’s somebody’s dead sister; she’s come back to tell him that it wasn’t his fault— I put my blade away on my own this time, without Penny telling me to. “It’s amazing,” she says. “Two Visitings in one day, and the Veil is just beginning to open.…” When the ghost leaves, everybody starts hugging each other. (I think the seventh years have been passing around dandelion wine and Bacardi Breezers. But the three of us aren’t class monitors, so it’s not our problem.) Somebody starts singing the school song again, and we join in. Agatha sings, even though she’s self-conscious about her voice. I’m happy. I’m really happy. I’m home. * * * I wake up a few hours later, and I think Baz must be back. I can’t see him—I can’t see anything—but there’s someone in the room with me. “Penny?” Maybe it’s the Mage again. Or the Humdrum! Or that thing I dreamt I saw by the window last night, which I’m only now remembering … I’ve never been attacked in my room before—this would be a first. I sit up and turn on the lights without trying. That happens sometimes, with small spells, when I’m stressed. It’s not supposed to. Penny thinks it might be like telepathy, skipping the words to get straight to the goal. I still don’t see anything, though I think I hear a rustling sound and a sort of moaning. The windows are both open. I get up and look outside, then close them. I check under the beds. I risk an “Olly olly oxen free!”—then a “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” that sends all my clothes flying out of the wardrobe. I’ll put them away tomorrow. I go back to bed, shivering. It’s cold. And I still don’t feel alone. 15 SIMON Baz isn’t in our room when I wake up. * * * I look for him in the dining hall at breakfast, but he’s not there either. His name is called during my first lesson—Greek with the Minotaur. (Our teacher’s name is Professor Minos; we call him the Minotaur because he’s half-man, half-bull.) He calls out Baz’s name four times. “Tyrannus Pitch? Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch?” Agatha and I look around the room, then at each other. Baz is supposed to be in Political Science with me, too. Penny makes me take Political Science; she thinks I might end up a leader someday after I beat the Humdrum. I’d be happy to spend my days helping Ebb herd goats if I live through the Humdrum, but Political Science is interesting enough, so I take it every year. Baz always takes it, too. Probably because he expects to reclaim the throne someday … Baz’s family used to run everything before the Mage came to power. Magicians don’t have kings and queens, but the Pitches are the nearest thing we have to a royal family—they probably would have crowned themselves at some point if they’d ever expected anyone to challenge their authority. Baz’s mum was the headmistress at Watford before the Mage, which made her the most important person in magic. (There’s a hall near the Mage’s office with portraits of previous headmasters; it’s like a Pitch family tree.) It was actually her death that changed everything—that brought the Mage to power. When the Humdrum killed Headmistress Pitch by sending vampires into Watford, everyone saw that the World of Mages had to change. We couldn’t just keep on as we were, letting the Humdrum and the dark creatures pick us off one by one. We had to get organized. We had to think about defence. The Mage was elected Mage, head of the Coven, in an emergency session, and he was also made Watford’s interim headmaster. (That’s technically still his title.) He immediately started his reforms. Whether he’s been successful or not depends on who you ask.… The Humdrum’s still out there. But nobody’s died on school grounds since the Mage took over. And I’m still alive, so I guess I’m inclined to say he’s doing a good job. A few years ago, we had to write essays for Poli Sci about the Mage’s ascendancy. Baz’s practically called for revolt. (Which took bottle, I thought. Demanding that your headmaster step down in the text of a school assignment.) Baz has always played a strange game: publicly expressing his family’s politics—which are basically “Down with the Mage! Peacefully and legally!”—like he has nothing to hide, while his family leads an actual covert, dangerous war against us. If you ask the Pitches why they hate the Mage, they start talking about “the old ways” and “our magickal heritage” and “intellectual freedom.” But everyone knows they just want to be i