Innate Magic (The Marrowbone Spells, 1)
Thomas and I arrived at Kensington an hour late. A maid let us in, our shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor as we stepped inside. Down the hall I heard laughter coming from Andrew’s party.
“Do you think Andrew’s mother will be here?” I asked, scanning the wide foyer as if she might leap out.
“Well, Paul, it is her house,” Thomas replied.
“She’s never liked me, you know,” I said. “I don’t understand it. From the moment we met I could tell she didn’t like me.”
“Maybe she thinks you’re a bad influence on her son,” Thomas suggested.
“And yet she tolerates you,” I said. “I just wish I knew what she had against me.”
Thomas shook his head and a drop of blood hit the ground. I put a steadying hand on his shoulder. Thomas was just a little shorter than me with wild black hair and light-brown skin. He looked away, hands covering his nose.
“Your honker’s bleeding,” I said, then lowered my voice, aware of the young maid hovering right behind me. “Did they break it?”
“Nah, they just hit it real hard.” He would have sounded a lot tougher if he didn’t talk like a stuffed duck.
I was wearing a magic green-and-white herringbone suit that caused the air to swirl around me in glittering eddies. I waved my hand, the motion making the air shimmer even more fervently, then produced a grey lace cloth from my right sleeve. It was just a bit of sleight of hand, but the hazy magic sheen of my suit made it seem like I had pulled the handkerchief from the air.
Thomas, recognizing his own handkerchief, grabbed it from my hand and held it to his nose. He didn’t seem too impressed by my impromptu magic trick so I turned to the maid in a bid for validation. She smiled politely.
“May I take your coats, gents?” She was a new hire: I would have remembered her dark eyes if we had met before. She had a pale-brown complexion that spoke of far-off ancestors, maybe Eastern European, maybe as far off as Africa or India. But her accent made it clear she was as much a cockney as I was a Scouser.
“Well, as long as you give them back,” I said, still hoping for perhaps a genuine smile or even a laugh. I let my Liverpool accent come on strong, to show her that I was a down-to-earth lad, nothing like her posh employers.
The maid’s smile was as thin as spring ice.
Thom’s coat created the illusion of ravens flocking around him. Once he shrugged it off one shoulder the circuit between magic cloth and human soul was cut and the ravens disappeared like a fine mist. As Thomas struggled to get his other arm free I reached out and held the handkerchief to his nose, allowing him use of both his hands. He grunted his thanks. Once the coat was off he tilted his head forwards and I pulled the now-bloody handkerchief away.
“Looks dry,” I said.
“Good.” Thomas’s handkerchief felt heavy in my hand. I wanted to apologize even though I wasn’t the one who had bloodied his nose. On our way to the party we had run into the thugs who worked for McCormick, our “benefactor.” We had managed to give them the slip but not before Thomas had gotten bopped in the face. Poor mite. Our debts and fortunes were tied up together and yet Thom seemed to be the one who always got the bad end of things.
The maid stepped forwards to take my suit jacket but I waved her off. I folded Thomas’s handkerchief into a three-point pyramid. There was a large mirror hanging by the stairs and I watched my reflection carefully as I tucked the handkerchief into my breast pocket, making sure that I had hidden all the blood. Through the fabric of my coat I could feel the familiar shape of my Book, tucked into the inner breast pocket of my jacket. The herringbone suit made everything look pleasingly hazy and indistinct, adding a red shine to my brown hair while obscuring things like the light dusting of freckles across my nose. It was a somewhat silly power, the magical haze. It couldn’t stop a bullet or let a man speak in tongues or any other number of actually useful things that magic clothes could do. But I always felt good when I wore it.
I smiled at my reflection, then took a step back to get an even better view. As I moved back I bumped into the maid standing behind me, causing said maid to bump into a pedestal by the door, causing a small clay horse statue on said pedestal to topple over. The statue hit the floor and broke into a dozen pieces.
The three of us looked at the broken horse in horror, our eyes locked on the shards as if we were performing some divination rite.
“Bloody hell,” Thomas swore. Now his Scouser accent was coming on strong, along with a hint of worry. “That looked old. Do you think it was Greek or Mesopotamian?”
“Whatever it was, it’s baroque now,” I replied.
The maid looked at me as if wishing to shatter me into a dozen pieces.
“Sorry, that was rotten, I know,” I said. “In bad situations I make bad jokes.”
“I’m going to get fired for this,” the maid whispered.
“No, no, it’s not that bad,” I said quickly. I scanned the space for some opulent rug we could sweep the pieces under, but the floor was bare—it seemed that even grand houses like the McDougals’ suffered from postwar austerity. “You won’t lose your job. It was an accident.”
She gave me a sober look, her fear giving way to hard-eyed scepticism.
Before I could reassure her further a voice called from down the hall.
“Mr Gallagher, Mr Dawes, whatever is keeping you two out here?”
Andrea McDougal, Lady Fife, widow of the previous duke of Fife and supposedly the most powerful woman in all of the United Kingdom, appeared in the hall.
She stepped into the foyer, her deep-blue skirt swirling around her. Lady Fife was wearing a pale-blue jacket done in the style of a riding outfit but obviously tailored for social events. A normal person might not notice that it was magic but as a cloth mage I could feel the vibrations that it was giving off (or, to be more particular, the vibrations Lady Fife gave off while wearing it). A yellow lacy shirt peeked out artfully from under her jacket and I recognized Andrew’s work. How sweet. He had made his mother a shirt that magically concealed the wrinkles of middle age. Andrew had once shown us pictures of his mother as a young woman: young Andrea McDougal at the 1921 Ashes, a toothy smile framed by blonde curls, white skin bright even in the sepia photograph. Thomas had said that she had been, in her time, “a tall drink of water.” I wouldn’t admit this to Thom or anybody else but personally I thought Lady Fife was actually more striking now. She seemed more serious, no more toothy grins, her curls pinned back in a no-nonsense style, but she had a knowing quality that I couldn’t help but be drawn to.
Lady Fife came to us, smiling. Her smile dropped when she saw the shattered statue.
Whispers stated that Andrea McDougal was a scryer, a foreseer, a practitioner of the illegal art of divination. I was grimly pleased that she seemed surprised by this turn of events.
Next to me the maid sucked in her breath through clenched teeth. I certainly didn’t envy her having Lady Fife as a mistress. I might have had to deal with her frosty acquaintance, but we were merely that—acquaintances. The laws of decorum demanded that we be polite and civil to each other regardless of our personal feelings. As a dear friend of her beloved only child, I got cut a lot of slack.
That line of thinking gave me an idea, my favourite kind of idea: the kind that helped and irritated all the right people.
I gave what I hoped was a comforting pat to the girl’s shoulder. She looked at me, her dark-brown eyes questioning. I stepped forwards and scooped up one of the clay shards.
“So sorry, Lady Fife,” I said, continuing to step closer to her. “We just had a little accident here in your foyer. I’m afraid I was a bit of a clod and knocked over your little clay horse. Dead sorry.”
If I sounded flippant, it was because I was trying my best to be. The more of an ass I made of myself, the less likely Lady Fife was to cast her suspicions on the shaking serving girl.
The moment between us stretched out. I started tossing the clay piece up in the air and catching it, deftly avoiding the sharp edges. If someone didn’t say something soon I was going to pick up the other pieces and start juggling.
Lady Fife gave me her usual pleasant, tight-lipped smile. She believed I had broken the statue. She just didn’t believe I was sorry about it.
“How unfortunate,” Lady Fife finally said. “But no matter. Tonya, clean up this mess. Mr Gallagher, Mr Dawes, you must join the rest of the party. I know Andrew is ever so eager to see you.” She started to walk away from us, heading for the staircase. “I have some business I must attend to but I’ll join you all shortly.”
With that she disappeared upstairs in a swirl of blue-and-yellow lace. Thom and I both let out sighs of relief. We knelt down and started picking up the pieces.
“Oh, no, don’t trouble yourselves,” the maid, Tonya, said. We stood, moving so quickly that Thom let one of the clay shards in his hand drop. We all winced at the sound of it hitting the floor.
An uncertain gratitude clouded Tonya’s face. Her gaze flitted upstairs. I got the message: she couldn’t talk freely, not when her witchy employer might still be lingering on the landing or perhaps spying on us through her crystal ball or however else she did such things. “Thank you, really.”
I shrugged, the motion of my suit causing the air to ripple and blur. But when I smiled at the maid it did what magic seemingly couldn’t: it made her smile in return.
As we entered the room a cheer went up. Before I could take a head count of who was there Andrew bustled over. Andrew, the current duke of Fife and the day’s birthday boy, had his mother’s pale skin and blond hair, though his curls were far unrulier. He had blue eyes like a white Persian cat, which was fitting as he often had a kitten’s mystified expression. He was wearing a light-blue shirt with filigree details. When he shook my hand it gave the illusion that little sparks were shooting off.
“Gally! Thom-Daw! The others were starting to say that you weren’t going to come.” Andrew’s face took on a haunted visage, like a soldier recalling the theatre of war. It was gone a second later as he clapped the two of us on the backs. “But here you are! Obie, you owe me a pound.”
Oberon was sitting on one of the settees, wearing a dark double-breasted suit and horn-rimmed glasses. I was always jealous that he had the broad shoulders and face to pull off that kind of masculine look. His dark hair, golden-brown skin, and smug air made it seem like he was lounging next to the Mediterranean rather than on a mate’s couch.
Nonchalantly he took out his Book.
“Well, hand yours over then,” Oberon said dryly, not even glancing our way. Andrew took his Book from a pocket and passed it with a wide smile to Oberon. Without a word, Oberon opened his Book, muttering under his breath as his finger first traced along a page, withdrawing the money, and then drew a line in Andrew’s Book as he transferred the pound to Andrew’s coffers.
“Oberon, when are you going to learn not to bet against us?” I said, leaning down over the back of the settee.
Oberon smiled laconically as he handed Andrew’s Book back to him. “It’s paid out in the past.”
“Now, now, don’t snipe, you two,” Andrew said. “No birthday fighting. Let’s only talk of happy things!”
On the other side of the room Gabriella Wilkes and Ralph Gunnerson were sitting by the window seat, chatting away. When they looked over I blew them a kiss. Gabs made a show of plucking it out of the air and tucking it away in her purse.
“Just how old are you, anyway?” Thomas asked Andrew.
Andrew puffed out his chest. “Well, I was born on May first, 1931, at nine forty-one a.m., which means that as of this morning I am twenty-three years of age.”
“So grown up,” Oberon said dryly, still idling on the couch.
“Growing older ain’t the same as growing up,” Ralph said. He had come over to join us while Gabs had taken a seat next to Oberon.
“Spoken like a true old man.” Thomas playfully punched Ralph in the shoulder. They were the youngest and the oldest in our cloth magic class but close in a way that, frankly, made me feel like the odd man out. Even though we’d graduated last month it seemed like some dynamics within our group were here to stay. “Just how old are you anyway, Ralph? Thirty-seven?”
Ralph was tall and might have been handsome if life hadn’t happened to him: he had a slight cauliflower ear on his left side, a broken nose ridge, and acne scarring across his cheeks. A childhood illness had left him with pinched red cheeks and a waxy complexion. But somehow through it all his eyes had remained kind and bright. Not even his stint on the front lines of the war had managed to dim them.
“I’m only twenty-seven! Twenty-seven,” Ralph said with the mock agitation of an actor playing out a well-worn routine.
“And where would we be without you?” I said, deciding to get in on the ribbing. “Our own wise old man guiding us along—”
“Oh, I thought that was my job.”
I’d know that smooth Welsh voice anywhere. With great care to act casual I turned around and confirmed that yes, the voice did indeed belong to Professor Lamb.
I tried to think of something witty to say, but in the end the best I could do was point to him and say, “You’re here.”
Lamb smiled, causing a memory to unlock in my head: a random morning from over a year ago, spent in bed together. “How is it you’re so handsome?” I had asked him. He had replied that it was his “dark Welsh genes.” They had given him dusky black hair, tanned skin, and his clear green eyes.
He wore a purple, heavily brocaded jacket. Lamb’s one claim to fame was fixing the Purple Impurity and he never missed a chance to wear some shade of it. When he smiled wrinkles appeared on his face, but they managed to make him look dashing rather than aged, the bastard.
“Yes, Andrew invited me,” Lamb said, meeting my obvious statement with one of his own.
I turned back around to face Andrew.
“Well, isn’t that nice. I suppose you just decided to have a class reunion at the same time as your birthday party? Kill two birds with one stone?” There was nothing cruel in my words and yet I still managed to sound petty and bitter. I had been prepared to run into Lady Fife, but I hadn’t been prepared to run into Lamb. Even worse I could feel my own agitation putting a damper on the party, but the more I tried to relax the more anxious I felt. “Jesus, Andrew, you must have other friends besides us.”
A few of my classmates traded knowing, weary looks.
“Paul, don’t be such an ass,” Oberon said.
“What? What did I do?” It was no fun having other people voice your internal guilt.
“Please, don’t snipe at each other!” Andrew pleaded. He looked around at us. “I suppose it is pretty funny that it’s the whole cloth magic class here, but I really wasn’t going for a theme, I promise. I just, I only wanted to invite my dearest friends, and, well, that’s all of you.”
He laughed but no one else joined in. I felt my heart tighten as Andrew gazed down at his feet. I stepped forwards and put a hand on Andrew’s shoulder.
“Thanks for inviting us, mate. Sorry again that we kept you all waiting.”
Andrew looked up, face bright again. “Oh, it’s no bother! You’re here now. Righto!” Andrew clapped his hands together. “Now that you’re here we can eat the birthday cake!”
“Right,” I said. “First I’m just going to help myself to a birthday drink.”
I went over to the sideboard near the window, opened a bottle of whiskey, and poured myself two fingers. Behind me I could hear the others in various conversations: Ralph and Thomas playfully taking the piss out of each other, Gabs and Oberon debating some current event. Andrew had presumably gone to retrieve the cake. That just left . . .
Lamb came up to the sideboard and leaned against it. I could feel him staring at me but I only had eyes for the amber liquid in my hand. I didn’t even like whiskey but it gave me something to look at.
“Are you and little Thom-Daw in some kind of trouble?” Lamb asked.
“What makes you say that?” Now I looked at him, giving him a far-too-wide smile.
“You were an hour late for Andrew’s party and there’s blood on Thomas’s collar,” Lamb said. “What happened?”
“I don’t really think it’s any of your concern.” I sipped lightly from the glass, barely wetting my lips.
“Of course it is. You’re my students.”
“We graduated in April.” It was just last month but I was eager to put the distance between us.
“Still, I worry,” Lamb said smoothly. “I could help, you know. With whatever it is.”
“We do not want nor need your help,” I said with an almost royal crispness. Down went the whiskey—I tried not to make a sour-milk expression at the taste when I set the glass down. I was pretty pleased with how effectively I had frozen Lamb out. I moved a step to the left, away from Lamb and towards a small luncheon buffet that had been spread out. I took a plate and studied my edible options. There was not enough fruit for my liking.
Lamb slid down along the table too, standing even closer than he had been before. Back when we had been dating he had always been so careful to put space between us while in public, to make sure we never got accused of anything that might land us in prison. And yet now that we weren’t even together anymore he was leaning in far too close.
“Really, Paul, don’t be so stubborn,” Lamb said. “Pride can be a very dangerous sin.”
My plate made a slight clash as I set it down, the tablecloth muffling the sound. I looked at Lamb, not bothering to smile.
“I’m not your student anymore,” I said. “And this isn’t a lecture hall. So fuck off.”
With that I turned my attention back to the food. I wielded the salad tongs with the precision of a brain surgeon, deftly picking out individual pieces of green. Flick! A piece of romaine went up into the air and landed on my plate. Flick! A bit of rocket followed suit. Even as I pointedly picked up leaf after leaf Lamb continued to stare at me. Eventually he spoke.
“You know, Paul, if you keep acting like a spurned lover, people are going to get the right idea.”
I turned, accidentally tossing a piece of spinach onto the carpet.
“A spurned lover?” I echoed back. “Ha! Ha ha ha!”
The first peal of laughter came from genuine surprise. The next few chords came from a more panicked place as my brain failed to produce words.
“That’s . . . they’d still have the wrong idea,” I said. “Spurned lovers try to wheedle their way back. I, meanwhile, would be quite happy if I never saw you again.”
“Well, that’s unlikely,” Lamb said easily. “Cloth magic in Britain is a very small community and I’m part of it. A pretty big part of it, in fact. So we really should be civil with each other.”
I didn’t have a reply for that. My mind was still processing Lamb’s words. I had thought that once I graduated I could put this part of my life behind me. But Lamb would still be the one people listened to when they asked for a reference, the one who could send commissions my way, the one who could—
Thomas stepped in between us, a formidable partition despite his short height.
“Hey, Paul,” he said, his voice carefully neutral. “You all right?”
I snapped my head over towards him, suddenly feeling very awake and present. “Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
“C’mon. I think we’ll find better company elsewhere.” Thomas gave Lamb a quick once-over. “Anywhere else.”
“Why, I think I’ve just been insulted,” Lamb said lightly.
Now Thomas gave the man his full attention. “When you know for sure get back to me.”
Lamb seemed mildly impressed but not intimidated. He was staring at Thomas with an expression I knew frighteningly well. It was the expression of a man going through his mental armoury and picking out the best weapon.
“Thomas.” I put a hand on my mate’s shoulder, ready to pull him away. I didn’t want him to hear whatever put-down Lamb had at hand. “Let’s go.”
“Then I guess you’ve just wasted the last four years of your life!” Gabs said, voice rising loud enough to grab the attention of the room. She and Oberon were still sitting on the couch, but Gabs’s posture was that of an angry cat, her body curled as if ready to leap at the settee’s other occupant.
I have never seen another woman, not on the street, stage, or silver screen, as pretty as Gabs. She was also always the best dressed amongst us, quite the feat when your friends were all cloth mages. Today she was wearing a gold gown with rose accents. If I were closer I might have been able to twig onto what kind of magical effect it had, but from where I was standing it just looked like a beautiful dress. I knew it had to be something special, though. Gabs was probably the best cloth mage in our class, after myself. And her magical talent came in addition to her natural charms: she had blonde hair that was always styled in the latest fashion, fair skin without blemish, blue eyes that were always bright. Right now, though, they were bright with anger.
Oberon shrugged loosely at Gabs’s spat words.
“No, no, not a waste. My father wanted me to get a degree, so I did. I’ve just no plans to waste the next forty years of my life on it. And it’s not as though it can even be a stepping-stone to something else—no cloth mage has ever gone on to become Court Magician.”
Oberon’s words were supposed to make cloth magic sound unappealing, but they had the opposite effect on me: How amazing would it be not only to be Court Magician but to be the first one to have come up through cloth magic?
“Oberon’s talking about cloth magic,” she said, appealing to the room. “Says it’s a foolish, dead-end trade.”
“What?” Ralph said. “Jesus, mate, why didn’t you tell us four years ago?”
Everyone laughed but Oberon merely shook his head.
“It’s nothing to me. I just took this program on a lark, something to do. I’m not foolish enough to try to make my living out of it.”
Not that I have to was the unsaid statement trailing his words. Like Andrew, Oberon was the only son of a wealthy family, his future assured by his very existence. He might not be a duke but his grandfather had been some well-to-do cotton baron.
In past years the cloth mage classes would have been full of men like Andrew and Oberon, upper-class lads whose families had all but bought them a place at school. Our year was the first time the dean had sought out so-called lower-class students, people like Ralph and Gabs and Thomas and me.
A memory flooded back of the first time Thomas and I had talked to Andrew and Oberon, back on the first day of school. Thom and I were just a couple of northern boys, seventeen and eighteen years old respectively. We’d barely been in London a week and had gotten lost taking the tube in from our crappy bedsit on the outskirts of the city. When we’d finally arrived at the college, harried and flustered, Andrew and Oberon had been sitting in the empty classroom, as calmly as if they’d been born there. When we’d introduced ourselves Andrew had been too shy to say a word, but Oberon had looked us up and down and made a comment about how cloth magic deserved better than to be the refuge of the working class.
“Paul ain’t working class,” Thomas had said indignantly. “His family owns a shop.”
Oberon’s smile had grown wide at that.
“Oh, my mistake! Wow, his family owns a shop. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that we were talking to the upper crust of Liverpool society. Hear that, Andrew, his family—”
At which point Thomas, embarrassed and angry, had kicked Oberon’s chair out from under him.
“Ah, yes, we’ve all seen this from you before, Oberon,” I said, walking over. It felt good to have some spat to spend my energies on rather than trying to fend off Lamb. “You’re no good at something, so it must be rubbish. I beat you at Ping-Pong and it goes from being your favourite pastime to tennis for degenerates. You can’t sew a passable vest so all of cloth magic is condemned. How nice it must be to have such a clear view of things.”
Oberon shook his head. He was not wearing a suit of his own making but rather one of a well-known Savile Row tailor. It had no magical properties; it was just a regular (if expensive) suit. “It’s not that. If I was serious about magic, I would’ve studied Book Binding.”
The room had already been chilly but now it became positively glacial. Book Binding was an old, long-practised form of magic in England, but it had been experiencing a new golden age since the 1930s. That was when British mages brought back techniques they had discovered in India and China and from there it had become something of a national obsession. You needed a Book in order to get around, to redeem your ration coupons, to buy goods, to pay rent, basically to live in the city. Nowadays even small children were mages in miniature, able to do basic spells like transferring a few shillings. It was commonly accepted that Book Binding had won the war, scientists filling Books with numbers and calculations until they created the atomic bomb. Everyone had a Book, but only the rich could afford cloth magic.
God knows the government was only going to continue to push Book Binding. Oberon’s words were a common sentiment, spoken in the House of Lords, agreed upon in shops, passed along in both public and state schools, expressed in the letters pages of the Evening Standard. But it was not a statement that went over well in a room of cloth mages.
Gabs spoke first. “Book Binding might be in vogue, but cloth magic is older and has the power to transform society.” I was close enough now that I could feel the effects of her dress. For a moment I thought it was just her perfume: she smelled like fresh air, sunlight, and wildflowers, a scent that transported me to happy memories of living in the countryside with cousins during the war. It made me want to draw closer to her.
“I know that’s the party line amongst cloth mages, but be realistic, Gabs,” Oberon said with a smug smile. Gabs glared at him. Oh, Oberon, I thought. Unless your deepest desire is to be murdered by a beautiful woman you best stop talking. But he did not. “We can admit it amongst ourselves at the very least. Book Binding has already changed the world. It was Book Binders who helped create the A-bomb. And what can cloth magic claim? It’s merely superficial glamour concerned with humans’ most base, bare interests.”
“Cloth magic has the power to alter the world!” I insisted. “You just can’t see it because of your total lack.”
“Of what?” Oberon said.
“Of skill,” I said. “If you were any good at cloth magic, you’d be singing a different tune.”
Oberon’s face turned red. “Like I said, that’s not it. I’m just as good as anyone in this room.”
It wasn’t very nice of me, but I laughed. I wasn’t alone in it either. Thomas and Gabs guffawed just as loudly, and even Ralph and Lamb hid smiles.
Oberon stood, his face growing vermilion under the thick rims of his glasses. I had quickly remembered how much I disliked Oberon, but only now did I remember how much he scared me. He was one of those large, looming men in whom violence always seemed a blink away. I never liked being around blokes like that. I feared that someday I’d be killed by one. I couldn’t even defend myself.
I checked over my shoulder to make sure that Thomas had my back just in case Oberon did take a swing at me.