Asanti lowered the shades on the window of the studio apartment, then walked across the room and locked the door.
“Are we ready?” she said.
Frances and Perry nodded. They stood on either side of a small folding table, the only furniture in the apartment. On the table was a book, a leather cover cracking around the wrinkles, the binding on the spine beginning to divorce itself from the stitching holding the pages.
“So,” Asanti said, “the important aspect of this particular spell is that it’s intrinsically harmless. The servants we conjure will do our bidding. It is, in fact, the only thing they’ll be here to do.”
She eyed Frances and Perry, one after the other.
“Right?” she said.
“That’s what my research suggests,” Frances said.
“It’s what I understand as well,” Perry said.
“And we don’t have to act like every question is a trick question?” Asanti said. “We don’t have to assume that the servants we summon actually have some sort of ulterior motive, and they’re looking to exploit loopholes in whatever we say?”
“That sort of thing shows up more in human stories about magic,” Perry said, “than in the actual use of magic.”
“Though it happens,” Frances said.
“Not as often as you might think,” Perry said.
“You don’t have to be defensive about it,” Frances said.
“I’m not,” Perry said. “I’m just trying to clarify—”
“Okay,” Asanti said. “All you’re trying to say is that we should be able to conjure the servants up out of the book, have them perform a simple task, and then order them back into the book again.”
“Yes,” Perry said.
“And we’ve agreed that we’re just going to ask the servants to paint the walls.” She motioned to the paint cans in the corner, a drop cloth folded on top of them, a paintbrush resting on top of that.
“Yes,” Frances said.
Asanti put a hand on the cover of the book and smiled.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just excited.”
It had taken Asanti and Frances weeks to identify the right book from the Archives with which to conduct their test, first by deciphering the books themselves, then by cross-referencing them with other books and the Society’s official records. There were a few candidates—a spell to walk through walls, a spell to transport people and things from one place to another—but they were ruled out as being too dangerous. It was all a question of containment, of control. Asanti and Frances needed to be able to let some magic into the world and have some say about containing it again. That was all. As Asanti had told Frances and Perry from the beginning, their little side project was never going to be about stopping magic altogether, or fighting against it; it was about learning how to accept it and live with it. Asanti didn’t have to push the point, either. Frances, her body transformed with no real chance of reversal, was already living it.
Frances smiled back at Asanti. “Let’s do it,” she said, and Asanti cherished her all over again. How many people would go through what she’d been through and still go on?
Asanti opened the book, felt the pages beneath her fingers get a little warmer. The characters on the page were a Rosetta stone of languages, a couple of which she’d had to learn to read on the job. She turned the pages until she found the French directions, the language in the book in which she was most fluent. The book was ancient enough that the French was Old French, tilting into Middle French. It would be problematic for a modern reader to use the book, but not for Asanti. From a linguistic perspective, she noted, it was an interesting historical artifact that made the book tough to date and had her wondering about who the author had been, how it had come to be written. Neither the book itself nor the records about the book had any information about that; only what it could do.
Frances and Perry stayed silent. Once the book was open, Asanti knew, every word uttered in the room mattered. There was a bump from the ceiling, someone moving something around in the apartment above them, and Asanti had a moment to wish they’d rented a studio in a better-constructed building. She’d thought at first that its shabbiness—the dim stairwell, the creaking stairs, the cracked windows—was an asset. Maybe it was the kind of place where nobody asked what you were doing in your apartment as long as you didn’t make too much noise. She now wished that the walls weren’t so thin. But it was too late for that.
She began to read a series of incantations aloud. They were notes of welcome, of benediction, a little bit of flattery. The wrinkles on the book’s pages flattened out. A sheen grew on the paper until it looked almost like glass. Then seams appeared in the glittering surface, and the book opened outward from the spine, as though it were a gate and the edges of the pages had been made into hinges. A slender, angular being rose from the gate. Asanti stepped back, and the being moved forward, hovering in the air. Then it extended its legs downward...