Nothing. The courtyard was empty. The wall below was sheer and smooth, its stones picked out by moonlight. The boy listened to the quietness. He tapped his fingers on the sill, shrugged, and turned inside.
Then the fourth assassin, clinging like a thin black spider to the stones above the window, dropped down behind him.
His feet made the noise of feathers falling into snow. The boy heard; he twisted, turned. A knife flashed, swiped, was deflected by a desperate hand-its edge clinked against stone. Iron fingers grappled at the boy's neck; his legs were knocked from under him. He fell, landing hard upon the floor. The assassin's weight was on him. His hands were pinioned. He could not move.
The knife descended. This time it met its mark.
So it had finished as it must. Crouching above the body of the boy, the assassin allowed himself a breath-his first since his colleagues had met their ends. He sat back on his sinewy haunches, loosed his grip upon the knife, and let the boy's wrist drop free. He inclined his head in the traditional mark of respect to the fallen victim.
At which point the boy reached up and plucked the knife from the center of his chest. The assassin blinked in consternation.
"Not silver, you see," the boy said. "Mistake." He raised his hand.
An explosion in the room. Green sparks cascaded from the window.
The boy rose to his feet and tossed the knife upon the pallet. He adjusted his kilt and blew some flakes of ash from off his arms. Then he coughed loudly.
The faintest of scrapings. Across the room the golden chair shifted. The cloak draped over it was nudged aside. Out from between its legs scrambled another boy, identical to the first, though flushed and tousled from many hours of hiding.
He stood over the bodies of the assassins, breathing hard. Then he stared up at the ceiling. On it was the blackened outline of a man. It had a kind of startled look.
The boy lowered his gaze to the impassive doppelganger watching him across the moonlit room. I gave a mock salute.
Ptolemy brushed the dark hair from his eyes and bowed.
"Thank you, Rekhyt," he said.
Once, long ago, I was second to none. I could whirl through the air on a wisp of cloud and churn up dust storms with my passing. I could bore through mountains, raise castles on pillars of glass, fell forests with a single breath. I carved temples from the sinews of the earth and led armies against the legions of the dead, so that the harpers of a dozen lands played music in my memory and the chroniclers of a dozen centuries scribbled down my exploits. Yes! I was Bartimaeus -- cheetah-quick, strong as a bull elephant, deadly as a striking krait!
But that was then.
And now . . . Well, right now I was lying in the middle of a midnight road, flat on my back and getting flatter. Why? Because on top of me was an upturned building. Its weight bore down. Muscles strained, tendons popped; try as I might, I could not push free.
In principle there's nothing shameful about struggling when a building falls upon you. I've had such problems before; it's part of the job description.
But it does help if the edifice in question is glamorous and large. And in this case, the fearsome construction that had been ripped from its foundations and hurled upon me from a great height was neither big nor sumptuous. It wasn't a temple wall or a granite obelisk. It wasn't the marbled roof of an emperor's palace.
No. The object that was pinning me haplessly to the ground, like a butterfly on a collector's tray, was of twentieth-century origin and of very specific function.
Oh, all right, it was a public lavatory. Quite sizable, mind, but even so. I was glad no harpers or chroniclers happened to be passing.
Excerpted from Ptolemy's Gate, copyright (c) 2005/6, Jonathan Stroud. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Hyperion Books.
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