In Mal's world, magic is everything. But Mal is a "blank," the anti-magic. Blanks can't be hexed or cursed or saved or killed by magic. And everyone is afraid of them--even Mal himself. So Mal hides what he is--except from Essie Roe, a witch and his best friend. On the day Essie reveals his secret and casts him out from the only home he's ever known, Mal experiences the true shock of betrayal. Now Mal travels the world in search of rare, illegal magical relics. When his partner in crime, Boone, hears rumors of a legendary dagger that can steal a witch's power, Mal knows he's finally found his means of revenge. But as the chase for the fabled knife takes them from Boston to Paris to Constantinople, Mal realizes there are secrets afoot that he's only beginning to understand--and all the while the blank monster inside him threatens to escape.
Release date: September 8, 2015
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 364
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Drift & Dagger
Most days I’d leave behind the town and she’d leave behind the cottage and we’d meet in the grass, standing up on tiptoes to look over the tall stalks that blocked our path and tickled our cheeks and ears and foreheads. But that day, the day we found out what I am, she met me at the border of the fields, the place where the grass just started to poke out, strangled and scraggly, from the sandy soil. She had something she wanted to show me, she’d said, and she held out her hand for mine.
We were little back then, Essie just eight and me barely older, nine, maybe, although I didn’t really know and no one knew for certain. We took the little trails I’d shown her before, made by birds and rabbits and foxes and all kinds of small animals, and we walked carefully, our fingers twisted together, because the grasses were the place for those small animals to keep their homes and nests and eggs and secrets and we didn’t want to disturb anyone. This was our home, too, and we understood.
She led me through the grass all the way to the center of the island, so far from the ring of ocean surrounding us that it was nothing but a line of blue in the distance, and when she’d looked around to make sure there was no one watching, she nodded at me and I grinned at her and we stomped down on the grass, pressed it down and cleared it out of our way and made it soft for sitting. Essie lifted her hands above her face and spun around, twirling so fast her braids streamed out behind her, her eyes closed and her face tipped to the sun. It looked like fun, so I spun right along with her with my arms tucked close to my chest and my eyes open so that everything tilted and whirled and blended all together—sea and sky and grass and clouds and sun—and when I finally stopped and collapsed on the ground, breathing hard, laughing, the world kept turning like a pot of stirred water.
“Sit down,” I said to Essie, but she didn’t stop, her skirt puffed out like a bell around her, her face screwed up, determined, like this wasn’t a game at all. Her little feet danced quick and nimble on the grass and then she stumbled, lost her balance and almost crashed into me but just managed to catch herself, heaving for air, on the ground.
“There!” She let out a big breath. “Fifty spins and we’re safe.”
“That’s a spell?” I asked, and Essie plucked a stray bit of grass from out of her braid and nodded.
“’Course it is,” she said, and she would know. For a few minutes, we just sat together, catching our breath, the stalks of grass bowed over our heads, the sky a circle of blue above us. It was quiet here—or, no, it wasn’t quiet, really, with the little scurries of insects and animals and the scratch-crackle of the grass, but it was quiet the way our island rarely was: no wind. No ocean. Like we’d wrapped woolen mufflers around our heads and blocked out the noise.
“You could almost pretend we’re someplace else,” Essie whispered to me once. “Like this grass goes on forever. Like there’s no water at all.”
Essie propped herself up on her palms and tilted her head at me.
“What did you bring, Mal?” she asked, and Mal—that’s me.
I pulled something out of my pocket: the fragile skull of some small creature. I’d found it by the shore of the slough, sticking out of the mud like a pale lump of wood, and I brought it to Essie because that’s what we did when we met in the grass: We brought something to share with each other, a secret or a story or a song, a bit of cheese nicked from the dairy or a broken toy plucked out of the trash bins behind the grand houses at the northern end of the island.
Essie held out her hand and I tipped the little skull onto her palm.
“It’s so delicate,” she said, running the tip of her finger over the skull, and she handed it back to me.
The things I brought tended to be stolen or picked up out of the gutter or won in fights with other children, because how else was an orphan on an island in the middle of the ocean supposed to get his hands on anything? Not even my clothing belonged to me, not really, because it came first from other boys, boys with mothers who wanted to do a good deed and stopped by the priory with clothing tattered and patched and musty from sitting too long in cabinets and chests. “It’s for the poor orphan,” those women would say. “Surely he must be needing something.”
And then I’d walk out in pants too short for my long limbs and shirts meant for the chubby bodies of the island boys, and I’d hear their taunts.
“Look who’s wearing my shirt,” they’d say. “Look who’s stolen my cap.”
Maybe they’d stop there or maybe they’d try to take their things back, but it didn’t matter either way. Nothing on this island belonged to me.
“What’ve you got?” I asked her, that day in the grass, but I didn’t expect much. She didn’t live in town, like I did, but instead in the cottage way out on a tail of rocks at the very end of the island with her mother. And she was always only Essie’s mother to me, even though to the rest of the island and the rest of the world, she was the Roe witch, the famous witch, the storm-raiser, the water-tamer, the wind-binder.
Essie usually brought stories, which she made up herself or heard from the sailors who came to the cottage every night, without fail, to visit her mother and buy from her the charms and spells and potions and powders meant to keep them safe at sea. So I was surprised when, instead, she reached into the tiny pocket sewn into her dress and pulled out a bit of rope, a cord no thicker than her pinkie.
“Here,” Essie said, and she threw her braids back over her shoulders and put out her hand.
“Give me your hand.”
“What for?” I asked, but I held my palm out all the same. Even back then, my fingers were long, and I can remember my nails were broken where they weren’t black with dirt. Essie, who liked things clean and neat and proper, frowned at them a little.
“What are you doing?” I asked. Essie had taken the cord and held it between her hands and whispered something under her breath and it looked like magic. That was what her mother, the Roe witch, was famous for: her magic. Even though Essie wasn’t anywhere near as good as her mother—“ Yet,” she’d say, determined—she’d sometimes play with magic. All the children on the island did, from time to time, singing spell songs at each other and carrying around good-luck trinkets. It was a game to us but to the sailors and the whale men, the magic was the only thing they could count on to keep them safe at sea. Every ship had spells burned into her masts. Every sailor had charms knotted around his wrists and neck. If Prince Island had a reputation for relying too much on magic, it also had a reputation for never losing its ships, for holds stuffed full of whale oil and a graveyard with real graves—not tiny stones set in rows and inscribed with the words LOST AT SEA.
“I’m practicing,” Essie said, running the rope in between her fingers, and then she looked up at me. “But don’t tell anyone—it’s a secret.”
“Don’t tell anyone—it’s a secret.” That was Essie’s favorite thing to say and I heard it from her dozens of times, hundreds, maybe. It’s a secret, it’s a secret, and Essie was full of secrets, made up of them, breathed them and held them close. It didn’t matter if her secret was that she sneaked an extra roll at breakfast or that she hated her mother—they mattered to her and she tended them, kept them locked up like a cage full of birds. They made her feel full, I think. They made her feel rich.
She looked back down at the rope in her hands without waiting to see if I’d agree to keep her secret, because, of course, we both knew that I would. I kept her secrets and in return, she didn’t look at me funny, the way all the other islanders did.
“Where did you get those bright green eyes?” old women would ask me, and I can still remember how they’d grip my chin in their hands and twist my face this way and that, and if they had a friend with them, maybe they’d call over to her, “Have you ever seen such a pair before?” And maybe the friend would say back, tittering behind a handkerchief, “Perhaps back in the winter of thirty-two, but not in a long while since.” Then they’d both laugh, and I knew they meant I was an outsider, even if I’d been born here same as them.
The first time I ever blinked at Essie she tilted her head at me and called my eyes different, and I got all ready to puff up at her, point out to her that it was rare to see a pair like hers, blue like summer sky on this island of grays. But then she laughed in a way that I understood “different” was a good thing. Different was what she was, too, and when we were together, alone, like we were that day, we were the same.
Essie held the cord between her hands and wrapped it around my wrist, once, twice, not tight enough to dig into my skin but enough to feel it. Gently, she bent over to tuck a knot into the end of the rope, and as she leaned in, strands of her hair fell forward, tickling me.
The string wound around my fingers until my hand looked like a cleat covered in rope tethering a ship to the dock, and where the ship would be, Essie held on to the end of the cord, working slowly, gently. She wrapped the string over, under, around, through, weaving a kind of glove, careful not to pull it too tight. I tried to flex, testing the cord, and she let out a little breath of exasperation.
“Are you trying to do a spell?” I asked.
“I’m con-cen-trat-ing,” she said, her face bent so low to my hand that her nose nearly brushed my fingers, and I didn’t say anything else.
“There.” Essie sat back on her heels and watched me. “How do you feel?”
“I feel the same. My hand feels funny.”
“Funny covered in rope. What did you do?”
But Essie just tilted her head at me, studied me like a question, and then rose to her feet. “Can you stand up?”
It was a little awkward, getting my balance with one hand, but I could. Essie frowned.
“Take a few steps.”
So I did, leaving our little nest to wade through the grass, the tops of my ears level with the stalks. I could hear the wind again, loud and white and constant.
When I came back to Essie, she had her hand in her mouth and chewed on her finger, her face scrunched in thought.
“Is the rope supposed to be a spell?” I asked, holding out my hand. I didn’t feel anything, but that didn’t surprise me. “Is it Roe magic?”
“I can’t do Roe magic,” she said, which was true. The Roe witches tethered the wind. They controlled the waves. It was powerful, rare, and Essie would have to grow into it when she was older.
She looked down at my hand and then took it gently between her fingers, turning it this way and that. “It’s rope magic. A common charm. I thought of it last night.”
“You thought of it?”
“I showed it to two sailors and it worked perfectly on them. I did it just the same now.”
“What’s it supposed to do?” I asked, examining my hand, and she let out a sharp sigh.
“Don’t you feel anything at all?” she asked, and when I shook my head, she stared at me hard, sucking at one of her fingernails. “I did it right.” She said it with certainty, her eyes narrowed at me like it was my fault the spell wasn’t working.
“Here.” She reached into her pocket again and pulled out an iron disk about the size of a coin, with a hole punched out of the center. This one I recognized as a Roe charm, the kind that dangled from belts and necks and mantelpieces all across the island.
“Hold this,” she said, but I’d been raised around enough magic to know not to take a charm if I didn’t understand what it did—magic could be dangerous, although most everyone agreed it was worth the risk. When Essie saw me hesitate, she picked up my hand—not the one covered in rope—and pressed the disk into my palm.
“It’s just a simple charm. It won’t hurt you,” she said, and I opened my palm and studied it. This was the first time I’d ever held a charm. I’d heard witch’s magic made the skin tingle, but it felt like nothing more than a coin to me.
I looked up just in time to see Essie take a little knife from her pocket.
“What are you doing?” I asked, but I wasn’t scared, because this was Essie, my friend, and even with a pocketknife bright between her and me, I trusted her.
“I want to see something.” She held my rope-covered hand and looked up at me with a question and Oh, I thought, she wants to cut the rope. After I nodded, she took the point of the knife and dug it right into my palm, so quick and so hard that when I jumped back, red splashed against the white cord and left a cluster of crimson freckles.
“What was that?” I asked, and I dropped the disk and dug into my pocket and pulled out my handkerchief and wrapped it around my bleeding hand. “You didn’t say you meant to cut me!”
But Essie looked as though she hadn’t heard. She bent down and picked up the charm and stared at it. Stared at me. Back at the charm. And then the knife, the blade edged wet with my blood.
“It’s meant to protect against knives,” she said, and she held up the charm and the knife and I took a step backward, but instead she raked the blade across the top of her hand. It glided over her skin as sweet as a ribbon and left not a cut or a mark. She blinked at me, and I stared back at her, and it didn’t make sense, any of it, any of what she had done or what had happened, and my hand ached and my head ached and she leaned in and whispered to me, “Magic doesn’t affect you.”
“Yes it does,” I said, the words coming out of me rote, automatic, because of course it did. “Magic affects everyone.”
“Not everyone,” Essie said. She gave me a strange look. It took several long moments before I realized what she was thinking, the word that was dead bad luck even to say aloud.
That was what you called a person immune to magic, except they weren’t really people at all—they were monsters, inhuman devils who terrorized good, innocent folk and ate babies and destroyed families and spread their affliction like a disease, like all they wanted was to turn the entire world as dead and empty and lifeless as they were.
She stared at me and I could see what she was thinking—You are a blank—but I couldn’t be one of them, I couldn’t. I was just a boy and I lived on this island, this island that near floated on magic. Someday I’d become a rope-maker or a canvas-sewer or a blacksmith, and every one of them relied on magic in their work. None of them would ever apprentice a boy immune to magic, and why would they? Black luck, associating with one of those monsters, one of those things.
I couldn’t be one of them. I stared at Essie and tried to tell her this but I had no breath in my lungs and my head was swimmy and anyway, she was looking at me like she already knew. She was looking at me like I was a freak, an animal, a sickness that could spread, and I’d never seen a look like that on her face before.
And somehow I was on my knees, and somehow the nest of grass felt like a cage, a black place, because Essie was a little girl made of magic and I was a monster and we weren’t the same after all. We were the worst kind of different. A hole opened up inside me, the edges jagged and raw, and within the hole was an emptiness so heavy I actually put my hand to my chest and tried to touch it.
I looked up at Essie and she was still staring at me, and surely she was wondering what would happen if she touched a blank. Surely she was remembering all those days and afternoons we’d spent together and wondering if I’d infected her already, if I’d destroyed her magic somehow, just by being her friend. I wanted to apologize and I wanted to say I didn’t mean it and I couldn’t help it, and I wanted to tell her, Don’t go, please, please don’t go, but before I even opened my mouth, she was on her knees beside me, her arm around my shoulders, her mouth close to my ear, and she whispered to me, “Mal, it’s all right. It’s our secret.”
She held me in her arms and whispered to me and sang to me and told me she didn’t care about what I was. I was Mal. That’s what she said. She said she wouldn’t tell anyone about it, and she did it with a smile, like she was happy to do it, happy to know something about me only we knew. We still belonged to each other. We kept each other’s secrets.
“I’ll keep your secret,” she said, and she did. She kept my secret for four years exactly, and then, without warning or remorse, she turned on me, exposed me, and drove me from the only home I’d ever known.
She did that with a smile, too.
I REACH INTO MY POCKET AND PULL OUT my watch to check the time, even though I know it can’t have been more than a minute or two since I last looked. Eight minutes to nine, and another jolt of nerves ripples through me. I squeeze the little brass watch until my fingers tingle and go white, and then I slide it back into my pocket.
Check the knife sheathed at my hip. Check the rope looped over my shoulder. Bounce a bit on my toes, shake out my hands, take a deep breath. Wait.
It’s the waiting that always gets me, makes me feel like I have bees swarming through my veins, and I know I’m not good at it—keeping still, waiting—haven’t been able to do it, really, for ages now, for five years, ever since I was thirteen and I lost my only home and my only friend in the space of a few seconds. Ever since then, running, moving, going somewhere or leaving someplace behind has been the only thing that makes sense to me. It’s the only thing that calms me, keeps me stable and feeling sane. That’s why standing still—even for only a few minutes, even here on this street corner in Boston at night, the stink of mud and grass and animals from the Common drifting toward me like fog—has me nervous enough to want to bolt straight for the docks. I picture it: money in my hand and a smile on my face and my feet anxious for the feeling of rocking, swaying, motion.
But Boone said to wait.
So I wait.
I hold off checking my watch as long as I can bear, long enough that I begin to worry I’ve missed the moment, but when I rip the watch from out of my pocket and see it’s only four minutes to nine, I let out a sigh so loud and sharp that a pair of gentlemen out strolling the streets glance my way, their faces pinched with suspicion.
“You, boy!” one calls, leaning on his cane. “What do you think you’re—”
“Leeet ev’ry old bachelor fill up his glass!” I sing at the top of my lungs, lurching toward the two men. “Vive la compagnie! And drink to the health of his favorite lass—join in!—Vive la compagnie!” I try to throw an arm around one of the gentlemen, but when I near them, they scuttle away, throwing dark glances over their shoulders and muttering to each other about the state of drunkenness in this city.
I watch them go, singing the song quietly to myself until they disappear down the street, and then I sigh again and head back to the fence.
From far away, the bong of a bell rings through the air, and every inch of me perks up, heats up, tenses like a spring.
Nine o’clock, just like Boone said, and I take a moment to glance around me and make sure the street remains deserted before I turn to the fence, slide my boots into the whorls of wrought iron, reach up, and climb.
I catch sight of something etched into the top of the fence as I vault over: a curling design that looks like it’s there for more than just aesthetics. I’d bet anything it’s a spell to keep out intruders, but it won’t do anything to keep me out, and I’m on the other side of the fence in a matter of seconds.
Now I can’t help the grin sliding onto my face, because if waiting is torture, then this is pure pleasure. This is what my body is made for, the thing I do best, and as I run across the grass to the handsome two-story building lit up like a lantern before me, my muscles and bones and sinews work so smoothly, so effortlessly that I feel like I could fly.
When I reach the building, I pause, tilting my ear up toward the window just above me. Boone said the meeting would likely be held in the library on the southeastern corner of the building—and this is the northwestern. But he also said to be careful, to check every window just in case there’s someone watching, something we hadn’t foreseen, and what Boone tells me to do, I do.
Quiet in this window, so I run to the next, pause just long enough to hear past the pounding in my veins that the room is silent, and then I keep running, my boots as light and quiet as the pads of a dog.
“Little wolf pup,” Boone sometimes calls me, grinning, and I always smile back, because it’s a joke, mostly, the kind of joke only Boone could find funny. I’m a wolf pup because I’m quiet, because I can run fast, because I don’t scare easily, and because someday I’ll grow up and turn into a monster, get claws and teeth and go wild and unpredictable and maybe rip out someone’s throat. That’s what it means to be a blank, and Boone knows it, but he also knows it can be useful, my blankness, and that’s why I’m here tonight.
Another quiet window, and that leaves just one more, bright and shining. I creep up to it, one hand fingering the rope around my shoulder. I can hear the muffled briskness of a man’s voice, and I reach into the small pack at my hip and pull out the long, curling ear trumpet Boone gave me two years ago on a job in Prague. It doesn’t work quite as well as a spying spell, but when I press the bell against the window and fit the end of the funnel into my ear, the indistinct noises on the other side of the glass grow clear.
“… with the right kind of persuasion, it can be possible to achieve the desired results,” a man is saying. “Now, we will see if this mouse will grace us with an example of her singing.”
Frowning, I pull away from the building and slowly look over the edge of the windowsill until I can see into the room. At least two dozen men of various examples of Boston elite—doctors and scientists, modern men and medical miracle workers—sit around a small dais occupied by a short, round man with a sand-colored beard; an ornately carved wooden table; and a tiny silver-wire cage, inside of which rests a small brown mound of quivering fur.
The bearded man pulls a thin, evil-looking wand from his vest pocket and sticks it between the bars of the cage. Although the little mouse uncurls, blinking bright black eyes at the audience, she doesn’t seem to sing, and the man begins talking quickly about past experiments, mouse physiology. I bite back a groan. Either the tiny thing has stage fright, or it’s not really a singing mouse—the kind I see in the hunter markets, the kind that trill out hig. . .
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