“I have a reason to dress this way.”
Mae glanced up at him, instantly curious. “And what is that?”
“Oh,” Nick said, teasing a little, “you’ll see.”
He smiled properly at her, looking down into her upturned face, her mouth curved and eyes dark in the moonlight. Then he remembered that this girl was off-limits. He shook his head impatiently and lengthened his stride so she would have to scurry to keep up.
The tree branches overhead were curled around each other like cats leering down at them from the shadows, and the leaves were thick enough to hide the moon. Alan’s red hair looked as black as Nick’s as Nick drew level with them.
Alan broke off a conversation about the beautiful poetry of Christina Risotto or whoever, of all things, to give Nick a reproachful look. “You left Mae?”
That much was obvious, so Nick didn’t bother to answer him. Alan turned and limped back to Mae. When she drew level with him, he offered her his arm.
Nick, left alone with Jamie, felt it his duty to make things clear.
“I realize the fact that my brother talks about poetry is misleading,” he said. “But he’s not that way, all right?”
Jamie gave him a look, then redirected the look. Nick followed his gaze to Alan stooping over Mae and apparently doing an impression of a lame stork attempting a mating dance.
“Really,” Jamie said dryly. “I would never have guessed.”
They walked on until there was no path, only grass stretching out on all sides until it was blotted out by the dark fringe of the woods. Alan took the lead from the point where the path failed, but it was obvious to them all where to go. Someone had arranged to have cars parked at strategic points along the fields. The car roofs caught moonbeams, and every metallic place where the light fell formed a bright stepping-stone for them to follow.
On the far side of the mound of earth that people still called Cranmore Castle were enough trees to be counted as wood. Streaming from the heart of the wood, glowing among the leaves and warm against the tree trunks, they saw light from the lamps of the Goblin Market.
Nick fell into step with Alan, leaving the other two to follow them as they chose. He heard a sharp exclamation behind him as they walked into the wood, but he did not know which of them had made it, or why. People were usually taken like that by the Market at first.
It was impossible to see all of the Goblin Market at once. The stalls were placed in a zigzagging circle around the trees, glinting at intervals like secret treasure. There was one stall, and then another, and before they had taken more than a few steps, there were stalls on all sides. The bright drapes over the stall fronts were like flags being flown to declare war. The lamps, hung in twisting pathways up in the boughs, swung in the wind and cast their light on first one stall and then another.
For a moment the spotlight fell on a stall hung with dream catchers, the real kind, bones and feathers and thread formed in the patterns to silence the voices in your head and keep the demons from your bed. Then it swung to a table laden with words, clay tablets tumbled with calfskin-bound volumes, cheap paperbacks lying with scrolls. One stall made its own illumination, since it was hung about with what the Market people called fairy lamps. There were the glowworm lamps to attract your true love, and the beacon lamps you set in a window to call a wanderer home.
Nick took a moment to scan the swaying lights and the shadows creeping around them, the bright stalls and the dark cleared spaces where the dancers were practicing, and then relaxed. There were no gaps in the lines of the stalls and no familiar faces missing. The Market was just as it had been last month, and with luck it would be just the same next month too.
They all had to keep quiet for fear of discovery, so the drums were muffled and the stall owners’ voices were like the clear, low sound of chimes ringing from all sides.
“Come buy!” sang out clearly from every stall. “Come buy!”
“We can buy things like this with ordinary money?” Mae asked, her voice half-awed and half-dubious. “We’re supposed to buy help?”
“We may be the only defense against magicians and demons that there is,” Nick said. “No reason not to turn a profit.”
Phyllis from the chimes stall noticed them first. The Market was in full swing and people were mostly concentrating on business, haggling and comparison shopping. Light glanced on faces without illuminating them.
“Chimes?” Phyllis asked. “Chimes to call a lover? Chimes with the voice of a bird trapped in them? Chimes that play you whatever song you most desire to hear?”
“No thanks,” said Nick. “We’ve got MTV.”
She peered among the glinting metal and crystal of her wares, and her face cleared. “Oh, Nick, it’s you! Alan, my sweet, come here and kiss an old woman. You get taller every year.”
“You get younger every year,” Alan said, stooping in among the chimes to kiss her.
The stall owners of the Goblin Market had the same indulgent attitude to Alan as all the teachers, landladies, and shopkeepers. Human nature didn’t change, whether you sold love charms or toilet rolls.
“Soothing charms for your poor mother?” asked Phyllis, who had never seen Mum. “Guaranteed to calm an uneasy mind. Special price for you.”
“Not tonight, Phyllis,” Alan answered. “Nick’s dancing, and we need to buy a speaking charm. Have you seen Merris?”
“No,” Phyllis said, her eyes suddenly gleaming brighter than her chimes. “Nick’s dancing?”
Nick took Alan by the scruff of his neck and dragged him away bodily. Alan made the usual protesting sounds about that, but Nick noticed he didn’t try to go back. Nick had forgotten, but he remembered now. He remembered when he was seven and Dad had first asked him to dance, and the way everyone had stared, because he was so young, because the dance came so easily to him. Because the demons came so easily to him.
Alan paused by a stall selling talismans and Nick waited for him, arms crossed over his chest and trying to ignore the rising tide of whispers around him. People who danced in the circle were not magicians. They just had to have enough coordination to keep within the lines of the dance, but their dance called demons. It looked like magic. If people had known Nick’s mother was a magician, if they had known how Nick’s talisman hurt him, they would have called it magic.
Alan put his thin shoulder supportively behind Nick’s and did not say a word, which was how Nick liked things best.
“Fancy a sword forged in lightning? Get your genuine lightning-born blades here! Comes with a free enchanted knife.”
The gleam of sharp steel under colored lights drew Nick like a beacon lamp. Alan moved with him, having Nick’s back, and murmured appreciation at the sight of a beautiful sword Nick had instinctively reached out for. Carl had some gorgeous new stuff in this month.
“You guys have magical arms dealers, too?” Jamie asked faintly.
“We do need weapons,” said Alan. “They cost a lot in the outside world. Here in the Market you can barter and lay up credit.”
Nick slid the sword out of a sleek leather sheath. It made a faint, seductive ringing sound in the air, as if it was begging Nick to take it home.
It looked expensive, though, and a short sword was really more practical for concealment purposes.
Nick weighed the hilt against his palm; it fit his hand, the balance of the blade perfect. When he stepped back and made a few passes with it, the movement felt as natural and sweet as that of his own muscles. He looked up from his absorption in the glittering metal and met Alan’s warm, pleased eyes.
“We can’t afford it,” Nick said. He meant to sound practical, but his voice came out curt.
“Oh, we could—” Mae began.
“No!” Nick snapped.
“No, but thank you,” Alan told her, gentle but firm. “It’s okay, Nick. I did some extra translations this month and saved up the credit. It’s the first Market since your birthday. Did you think I wasn’t going to get you anything?”
“Oh,” Nick said.
That was why the sword felt like it had been made for him. It had been. Alan couldn’t use a sword himself, his balance was completely off, but he knew all about the design of a good blade. Nick looked at the deadly, beautiful thing again, and while he was looking down, he smiled.
“Like it?” Carl asked with a broad grin. He tossed the sheath at Nick, and Nick caught it absently in his free hand.
Nick shrugged. “It’s not so bad.”
“Think it came out rather well, if I do say so myself,” Carl bragged. “Your brother wanted nothing but the best. Wish I had a brother.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “He’s not so bad either.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking we could use an enchanted knife,” Alan said, taking the knife that came free with the purchase and sliding it into his pocket. He reached out to pat Nick’s shoulder or something stupid, and Nick stepped easily away from him, eyes still on the sword.
They walked on through the Market, weaving through tourists, necromancers with their bone toys and worn teeth, and pied pipers playing instruments that sang with human voices. Nick could not quite bring himself to sheath his new sword, and Alan kept by his side, and if that had been all, it would have been a great Market night.
Unfortunately, he and Alan had not come to the Market alone.
Behind them, Mae said, “All this stuff — it’s magic, isn’t it? I thought you said the magicians were the evil ones. What’s the difference?”
“The difference, my dear girl,” said a new but familiar voice to their left, “is that we use magical things, but none of us have magical powers.”
Nick wasn’t so sure of that, but it was a matter of pride in the Goblin Market. Magicians tended to be the ones with the most power, the ones tainted by it. While the Market folk put up with visitors who could do magic, not one would admit to having a drop of natural power themselves.
A long time ago the Market had been set up to provide help for magicians’ victims. All the born Market folk claimed they were descended from those who had stumbled upon the magicians’ secrets and had sworn to help the innocent and defenseless. Nobody wanted to admit that the people most likely to find out magicians’ secrets were magicians’ families, or magicians themselves.
Nick thought it was just as stupid to deny the fact that some of the Market shopkeepers had magic as it was to deny the fact that what had started out as using magical objects had become a buying and selling of magical objects: that the Market was not about a crusade anymore but about earning a living.
Everyone pretended the world was different than it was. Nick supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, most people did not even know magic existed. People were good at being blind.
The voice continued: “Magicians give victims to demons, which means that demons will give them anything they want. The people of the Market can only summon demons in the dance. We would prefer not to summon them at all, but we are desperate. The demons will come because they are desperate too, so hungry for our world that anything is better than nothing, but they will give very little in exchange. So we have to stand against the magicians armed with nothing but the information we can gather from demons and little magic toys. These are not attractive odds, which is why I think we should start giving bodies to the demons for the greater good. We can start with people who ask stupid questions.”
Merris Cromwell emerged from the recesses of her dim and crowded stall, her dress sweeping the ground as she came. She wore her talisman as a brooch, crystals and bones and silk threads forming an intricate pattern under frosted glass, and no other jewelry. She was not the type who depended on anything someone else provided, so she had a scarlet-screened lamp attached to the front of her own stall. Crimson-tinted light fell on her face, on the almost rectangular jaw and the gray-streaked hair, scraped back from a forehead the shape of a cathedral dome.