Veiled: An Alex Verus Novel

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9780356504377: Veiled: An Alex Verus Novel
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chapter 1

It was midwinter.

A cold wind blew down the street outside, beating at the houses and rattling the windows. The night was overcast, the air a few degrees above freezing. It was the early hours of the morning, and the noise of the clubs and bars had faded to a distant murmur until the loudest sound from the city around us was the whine of the wind.

Inside, the warmth of the living room held back the cold. Variam was sitting on the sofa with Anne tending to him. Luna was pacing back and forth beside the table, while I was leaning against the wall next to the mantelpiece, my arms folded and my head down. There was a tension in the air.

“You should have got out earlier,” Luna said, still pacing. Invisible to normal sight, the silver-grey mist of her curse swirled and snapped around her. Luna’s curse is tied to her emotions; being around her when she was angry used to be dangerous. She’s better now, but the movements of her curse still broadcast her emotional state to anyone with the skill to see it.

“Didn’t have time,” Variam said.

“We said to evac when the alarm was raised.”

“We needed a couple more minutes.”

“You do this every time. I told you the militia were coming in—”

“Well, they weren’t the problem, were they?” Variam twisted around to face Luna. “If we’d—”

“Vari,” Anne said.

“Fine, okay.” Variam turned back to where he’d been before. Anne placed one hand on Variam’s left shoulder and the other on his wrist, and went back to studying the limb, eyes slightly narrowed.

My eyes rested on Variam’s arm. The sleeve of his coat was brittle and shredded from where the ice blast had hit, and the skin beneath was swollen and tinged an unnatural bluish-white. I wanted badly to ask Anne whether he’d be okay but knew it’d only distract her. I’d never yet seen Anne run up against an injury she couldn’t heal, but there’s always a first time . . .

“What the hell was Talisid thinking?” Luna asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“There wasn’t supposed to be any magical security. He said—”

“I know,” I interrupted. “We’ll get into it when he picks up.”

Luna is my apprentice, half-English and half-Italian with wavy light brown hair. Although she’s an adept and only twenty-four, she’s got more battle experience than most mages ten years her senior. She’d been on backup duty for the mission this evening, and she’d done her job well, but from the look in her eyes I knew she wanted to take her frustrations out on someone. Still, she kept quiet.

Anne straightened slightly from where she was sitting. It was only a small movement, but both Luna and I turned towards her. “So?” Luna asked before I could open my mouth.

“He’ll be fine,” Anne said in her soft voice.

I felt some of the tension go out of Luna, and to my eyes, the tendrils of mist around her slowed. “How bad is it?” I asked Anne.

Anne and Variam make an odd pair. Anne is tall and slender while Variam is small; where Anne is soft-spoken and shy, Variam is confident and quick. When the two of them are together, it’s Variam who usually stands out in the conversation, while Anne’s content to stay in the background. Despite that, it’s Anne who might be the more powerful of the two. She’s a life mage, and due to various events that she doesn’t like to talk about, she was forced from a young age to become very good with her magic. It’s given her more than her share of issues, but it’s also made her the best healer I know.

“The skin, nerves, and blood vessels are frozen along the left side,” Anne said. “But there’s no serious tendon damage and the muscles are okay. It’ll take me ten minutes or so.”

“You’re getting slow,” Variam said.

“Regrowing nerves is slow. Unless you don’t want to be able to feel anything along your forearm—”

“He’s just being a dick,” Luna said. “Vari, shut up and let her work.”

Variam rolled his eyes. Green light began to glow around Anne’s hands, spreading into Variam’s arm as Anne’s healing magic took hold. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Anne heal Variam, or the fifth for that matter, and the two of them made it look very everyday and ordinary. All the same, I couldn’t help but think of how close it had been. I’d shouted a warning, but if Variam had been just a little slower to get that shield up . . .

There was a chime from the mantelpiece. Luna’s head snapped up instantly, but I was already reaching for the item that had made the sound: a small blue-purple disc with serrated edges. I picked it up and channelled a thread of magic through its centre.

The edges of the disc lit up and a small figure materialised at the centre, twelve inches tall and sculpted from blue light. The shape was that of a man, middle-aged and straight-backed, with thinning hair. “Verus,” the figure said. His voice was as clear as if he’d been standing in front of me. “How did it go?”

My name’s Alexander Verus. The “Verus” part is my mage name, the “Alex” part comes from my parents, and I go by either or both depending on which society I’m interacting with and how much I like the person I’m talking to. I’m a diviner, which means that I can perceive the sensory data of my short- to medium-term potential futures in the form of if-then conditionals.

I’ve also got some serious long-term problems, most of which stem from my history. Mages are split into two factions, and I was originally trained by a particularly notorious Dark mage named Richard Drakh. The mage I was talking to through the communication focus, Talisid, was from the other faction—the Light Council, the dominant power in magical society—and I’d been working for him on and off for several years. It had been a low-key, freelance relationship . . . at least until last April, when Anne was kidnapped and taken away into the shadow realm of her old master, Sagash.

I went after Anne and found her, and together we fought our way out. But despite all the battles and dangers we went through, it wouldn’t have been even a footnote in the records as far as any other mages were concerned, except for one thing. While I’d been in Sagash’s shadow realm, we’d run into my old master, Richard.

There had already been rumours of Richard’s return. When I told my story, it was treated with the same scepticism as the rumours. I’d only seen someone who looked like Richard—it could have been an illusion, or a construct, or some other trick. Richard had been gone for eleven years, and as far as many of the Light mages were concerned, this was probably just someone trying to trade on his old reputation. But I knew that it hadn’t been a trick. It had been Richard, returned after all this time . . . and worst of all, he hadn’t forgotten about me. He’d asked us to join him.

It didn’t matter that we’d said no. I never came to really know Richard back when I was his apprentice—I don’t think anyone did—but there were some things about him of which I was certain. One was that he was very, very patient. And another was that when he wanted something, he took it. In my mind, ever since that April, a clock had been ticking. I didn’t know how much time was left on it, but I knew that sooner or later it would run out.

One mage who hadn’t been sceptical was Talisid. He’d believed the rumours of Richard’s return even before I had, and in the months since then, he’d begun approaching me more often, asking for my help with operations. Surveillance, reconnaissance, even some covert insertions, all with the same ultimate goal: finding out what Richard was doing, and how to stop him.

Things were easy at first. We discovered that Richard had returned to his old base of operations, the mansion in Wales. Once he’d set up again, he started to receive visitors in increasing numbers. All were Dark mages. We couldn’t get close enough to risk actually eavesdropping on one of the meetings, but we were able to discover that Richard was trying to build a coalition, uniting as many Dark mages as he could. At the same time, another Dark mage named Morden was making a push to get Dark mages admitted to the Light Council. From several pieces of information that we’d uncovered, we were sure that the two of them were working together. Morden was the public face, dealing with the mages on the Light side of the fence, while Richard kept the Dark mages in line. A few Dark mages had spoken out against Morden’s proposal; all had disappeared without a trace shortly afterwards.

But since October, our investigations had become harder. We’d taken all the low-hanging fruit, and the closer we drew to Richard’s real secrets, the more we risked revealing ourselves. Talisid started sending us further afield, chasing rumours with no guarantee of safety or success. Some of the leads we pursued turned out to have nothing to do with Richard at all, while others turned out to be dangerous.

The mission we’d just returned from had been the second kind. Talisid had sent us to Idlib, a contested city within Syria. He’d told us that there was a lightly guarded warehouse in the eastern district containing a shipment of goods intended for Richard’s mansion. Talisid had been right about where the goods were headed. He hadn’t been right about much else.

“How did it go?” I repeated. “Badly.”

“Is everyone—?”

“Alive, yes,” I said. “Healthy, no. We need to have a talk about your definition of ‘lightly guarded.’”

“The militia—”

“The militia weren’t the problem,” I said. “Although there were a lot more of them than you said there would be. The problem was the ice elemental.”

“What kind?”

“The kind that’s seven feet tall, made of solid ice, and can freeze things from thirty feet away. I didn’t stick around to classify it.”

“You said there wasn’t going to be any magical security,” Luna cut in.

“Did you get a look at the shipment?” Talisid asked.

“Is that all you care about?” Luna demanded. “What, it’s okay if we get killed, just as long as—”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Well, that’s the way it sounded!”

I held up a hand. Luna’s gaze flicked to me, and she shut up. She still looked pissed off, though, and I didn’t blame her. “Talisid,” I said. “This is the second time in a row.”

“I know. I’m sorry. All of the information we have indicated that this militia group was entirely mundane.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to wonder how a mundane group would be selling—?” I checked myself, took a breath. “Forget it.”

There was a moment’s pause. Over on the sofa, Variam was listening in. Anne was still working on Variam’s arm, the green light of her magic casting a soft glow. “You weren’t able to get close enough, then,” Talisid said.

“Oh, we got close enough,” I said. “To some empty crates. Whatever that shipment was, it’s gone. Your intel was wrong about that too.”

“Empty?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure they—?”

“Yes, I’m sure they were empty, and no, they weren’t anywhere else in the warehouse. We checked. For as long as we could, anyway, until that elemental pulled its Mr. Freeze act. Whoever gave you those timings, they screwed up.”

“I see. Would it be feasible for your team to go back and do another sweep?”

I stared at Talisid, then took a breath and counted to five in my head. “No,” I said, once I was sure I could keep my voice calm. “It would not.”

“All right,” Talisid said. “I’m going to need to make some calls. I’ll get in touch with you when I know more.”

“Fine.”

“Until then.” Talisid paused. “I know there were setbacks, but well done on returning safely. We’ll talk tomorrow.” Talisid’s image winked out and the lights around the edge of the communicator went dark.

“Arsehole,” Variam muttered.

“There,” Anne said. The green light around her hands faded and she let go of Variam’s arm. She hadn’t even glanced at Talisid throughout the whole conversation. “Try moving.”

Variam worked his arm, flexing his fingers, then nodded. “Feels good.”

“Do we need to keep him warm?” Luna asked.

Anne shook her head. “No, you could get it frozen again and it wouldn’t make any difference. Though I’d rather you didn’t.” She glanced at me. “You didn’t tell him about the papers.”

“No,” I said. I walked to the armchair, then picked up some of the papers lying scattered over the table. There were a dozen or so sheets, grubby with dirt and damp and cracked at the edges from where the ice blast had grazed them. Variam had managed to keep hold of them during the fight.

“Next time, leave the papers and just get out,” Luna said.

“Will you stop whining?” Variam said. “We’re alive, aren’t we?”

Luna scowled. “Can you read them?” Anne asked.

“In Arabic?” I said dryly. “No.” The papers had notes scribbled across them in a right-to-left scrawl. It could be battle plans, shipping manifestos, a history of Richard’s dealings with the group . . . or someone’s laundry list, for all we knew. But there was a reason we’d picked the things up: three of the pages were rubbings, not writings. They were crude and it was hard to figure out where they’d been taken from, but if I’d had to guess, I’d have said that the pictures and text they showed looked old. More like carvings.

“Are they from what was in those crates?” Luna asked.

“Or from something else,” I said. “We’re going to need a translator.” Who not only spoke whichever dialect of Arabic this was written in, but also knew enough about Middle Eastern magical history to be able to identify the content. This wasn’t going to be quick.

“Are you going to go back if Talisid asks?” Anne asked. Despite her spell, she didn’t look tired. Life magic healing tends to drain the caster, but Anne’s very good at what she does.

“No,” I said.

“What’s up with Talisid, anyway?” Luna asked. “When we did jobs for him before, this kind of thing didn’t . . .”

“Well, it’s because of what Morden’s doing, isn’t it?” Variam said. “Talisid wants us to dig up some dirt.”

Luna frowned. “I thought the Council didn’t buy that Morden’s working for Richard.”

“They don’t,” Variam said. “They’ve got him down as ‘potential associate’ and that’s it. If Talisid could prove that Richard’s behind him, though . . .”

“I think you’re right,” I said. “Talisid still won’t tell me exactly who he works for, but I’m pretty sure he’s with the Guardian faction. And Richard’s reputation still carries. If they could link Richard with Morden it’d scare a lot of people off.”

“Yeah, well, he hasn’t done much of a job of it so far, has he?” Variam said. “And doesn’t sound like his faction’s winning.”

“Mm,” I said. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

Politics in the Light Council are complicated. There are seven primary factions: Guardians, Crusaders, Isolationists, Directors, Centrists, Weissians, and the Unity Bloc. They’re closer to social cliques than to the political parties of Westminster or Congress, but the stakes are just as high and the consequences for mistakes are a lot more deadly.

Most of the issues the Council argue over are transient, ...

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Praise for the Alex Verus Novels

“Harry Dresden would like Alex Verus tremendously—and be a little nervous around him. I just added Benedict Jacka to my must-read list…An excellent novel, a gorgeously realized world with a uniquely powerful, vulnerable protagonist. Books this good remind me why I got into the storytelling business in the first place.”—Jim Butcher, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Dresden Files

“Benedict Jacka writes a deft thrill ride of an urban fantasy—a stay-up-all-night read.”—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series

“Jacka puts other urban fantasists to shame…A stellar blend of thoughtful philosophy and explosive action populated by a stereotype-defying diverse cast.”— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Tons of fun and lots of excitement in this fast-paced thriller…[Benedict Jacka] writes well, often with the ability to bring places to life as much as his characters, especially the city of London.”— SF Site

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