“Never been all that good with words,” Nick said. “Alan always does it.”
“So the dancer in the circle is the one who asks for favors,” Mae said in a strange, speculative voice.
“Well, there are always two dancers in two circles,” Alan said, and went a little red. “Usually a girl and a guy dancing side by side. It’s often couples, because, um — the demons are attracted to strong feelings, and the fever fruit lowers inhibitions, and, er—”
“It’s all very Magical Circle Dancers Gone Wild,” Nick interrupted, and tucked his knife away. “You’ll see.”
“We can ask about Jamie,” Alan continued, looking relieved to be on a safer subject.
“I’m getting that damn mark off Alan,” Nick corrected, so that everyone was clear. “I might get around to Jamie later.”
Mae’s eyes had a bright, strange look about them. They were fixed on Alan. “So it matters if you care about what the demon has to offer,” she said slowly. “That’s why Nick is doing it for you.”
Nick looked away into the darkness of night and tangled trees. He did not hear Alan reply. It was possible that Alan nodded. It was possible that Mae simply swept on without waiting for an answer.
“And you don’t have to be able to do magic?” Nick could look at Alan then, and he saw him nod this time. At Alan’s nod Mae went on, her voice gathering determination. “If it’s just steps along those lines, I can do it. I want to do it. I want to dance. I can ask the demons to help my brother myself.”
Of course it was all about helping her brother, and nothing to do with being a dazzled tourist.
“You can’t dance,” Nick said flatly.
“I can,” said Mae, the light of battle in her eyes. “I’m a good dancer.”
“I don’t care,” Nick snapped. “If you get one step wrong, then calling the demons won’t work, and calling the demons is going to work. This isn’t clubbing, sweetheart. This is my dance. And I say you can’t do it.”
A moment afterward Nick knew he had made a mistake. Merris Cromwell did not like anyone besides herself to assume authority. Her face changed as she looked down at the small and defiant shape of Mae.
“If you want to help your brother,” she said, in her cool voice, “that might make a great difference. How much do you want to help him? Are you desperate?”
“Mae, don’t,” said Jamie.
Mae met Merris’s eyes. “Yes.”
“That’s good,” said Merris. “The demons will like that.”
“I’ll do anything—”
Merris made a hoarse, abrupt sound that was almost a squawk. She sounded like a kicked crow. “You must understand, you have to be very careful about what you say. None of that ‘I’ll do anything.’ The demon will be trying to twist any word into a promise so it can possess you.”
“I promise I’ll be careful,” Mae said breathlessly.
“Well,” Merris said, with a certain amount of approval. “If you dance with an experienced partner like Nick, it might do.”
“She’s not dancing with me,” Nick snarled.
“Be sensible, Nick,” Merris told him. “You always do best with an emotional partner.”
“That’s true,” added Sin over her shoulder. She was looking at Mae with some sympathy.
It was true. Everyone always said it was because Nick didn’t have much feeling to share with the demons. It didn’t bother Nick. He thought they were right, and it made sense. Why should he care about the strangers dancers were usually called on to help? Their problems had nothing to do with him. When he’d danced before, he’d been doing it for money or favors.
He opened his mouth to say it was different this time because it was Alan, but they were all looking at him, and he couldn’t think of a way to say it. He shut his mouth.
“Come, child,” Merris said briskly. “We will test your speed and reflexes. We’ll see if you would make a dancer.”
Sin reached out and grasped Mae’s hand. The other girl dancers moved to form a fluttering crowd about Merris, like bees attending the queen, and they moved away from the lights in a group. They all looked coldly at Nick as they went past.
Apparently Sin did not appreciate being glared at. Well, what did it matter? He’d made his decision about her already. Dad wouldn’t have approved of him getting mixed up with a Goblin Market girl, someone who might have guessed the truth about Mum, and Sin shouldn’t look at Alan like that.
Maybe dancing with Mae wouldn’t be so bad, he thought suddenly. At least she was decent to his brother.
His gaze fell on Jamie, who was looking decidedly nervous about Mae’s sudden departure.
“Don’t mind Merris, she always acts like that around me,” he said. He figured jokes were the only language this boy understood, and added, “She tries so hard to hide her attraction. Her mouth says, ‘I cannot imagine what they all see in you’ but her eyes say, ‘Take me, wild stallion.’ She’ll be back. She can’t keep away.”
Jamie smiled, looking a little startled.
“You’re not allowed to be a wild stallion until you’re older,” said Alan, but he caught Nick’s eye and smiled crookedly at him, looking very pleased.
Alan cared so much about kindness.
The dancers returned, bearing the platters of red and golden fruit to lay around the circles. The fruit formed bright circles around the dancing circles, rings laid within rings. The lights of the Market danced over the fruit and made it gleam.
Fever fruit was grown from small trees carefully nurtured in the caravans of the Market folk. For a long time they looked like nothing but dry sticks in little pots, shriveled and dead, but every tree had a day of blooming like a butterfly. Then the tree was garlanded with blossoms, their colors bright as ribbons on a maypole, and under the rich colors the fever fruit grew. They were gold and scarlet, like apples to bite into but with a single poisonous stone at the core, and they had the heavy exotic smell of expensive perfumes.
Once anyone tasted fever fruit, it became their favorite food.
Nick gave Alan his new sword to hold, took one of the fever fruit, and bit into it. The skin broke at the first light touch of teeth, and juice burst thick and sweet on his tongue.
“Don’t eat those,” Alan advised Jamie, stopping the boy’s reach. “They’re kept for the dancers. The dances used to be called bacchanals once, and nobody measured the amount of fruit they should eat. After the dance was done, the dancers were let loose on the world. Sometimes they killed people.”
“I think I’ve read about that,” Jamie said. “The dancers, they were called maenads. The wild women.”
The juice of the fever fruit coursed down Nick’s throat in a thick stream as he ate, like the blood in his veins, quickening everything, making him feel better about everything. Maybe he’d dance with Mae and like it, maybe she would fail the tests and he’d dance with Sin. One thing was certain: Either way, he would cure Alan. He laughed and Jamie looked alarmed at the sound. Nick grinned at him and realized he was not grinning so much as baring his teeth.
He pitched his voice low. “Not just women.”
More dancers started to gather around the fruit, taking a piece for themselves. Laughter and a humming sort of energy started to rise from their little group, and a larger group gathered to surround them. Dancing was just another part of the Market, since most of the dancers were dancing for pay, for strangers who needed help or information, but it was also the closest thing to entertainment the Goblin Market had to offer.
Besides, Nick was going to dance again. They all knew it would be a good show.
A lot of the time, dancers would dance through their steps, and no demon would show, but they never failed to come for Nick.
“Who’s Anzu?” Jamie asked. “Nick said he was going to call him.”
“Two demons have given Nick their names so he can call on them,” Alan answered. “Demons can do and show themselves as almost anything, but mostly they have preferred forms and ways of doing things. There are the ones Mae would call succubi and incubi, who try to appeal to people romantically, there are those who show themselves wearing the faces of the dead, there are the ones who favor a particular animal. The demons Nick calls are Anzu, who often takes a bird shape, and a succubus called Liannan who — well.” Alan glanced over at Nick, who smiled at him and waved a hand for him to go on. “Demons don’t have a very good sense of time,” Alan went on. “Liannan thinks Nick is a boyfriend of hers from a while ago.”
They were starting to light torches and chant to prepare the circle for opening. Torchlight caught Alan’s hair and changed it from the color of blood in the dark into bright gold.
Jamie looked stunned. “A boyfriend? I thought demons were evil!”
Alan frowned. “Well, it’s up for debate. Some of us argue they are, and of course Liannan would have been ready to take her boyfriend’s body and his life. You can’t trust them, not for a second, because they are so desperate to get into this world, but — some people think that not all their feelings are simulated to trick us. They are very different from us. It’s hard to tell, but some people think…” Alan’s voice softened, and he admitted, “I think — that they can love.”
Nick thought that if a succubus ever got to Alan, he would probably want to take her out to dinner and talk about her feelings before he’d accept any dark demonic delights.
The torches were burning steadily in brackets set on the trees around them. The circles were done, and the plates of fever fruit were emptying. Nick felt like he was separate from his body and still trying to keep it steady. Light was brimming and refracting in his vision as if he was seeing it underwater. Girls and boys with sticky fingers and sticky mouths crowded around him, laughing and asking him why he was dancing again. Alan, the fixed point in a whirling world, stayed close and answered for Nick. He would be asking questions for Nick soon enough.
The drums started the dancing rhythm, a low, muffled sound that seemed to begin in his bones. They always had to muffle the drums in case someone heard them, but all the sounds of the night were distinct in Nick’s ears suddenly — the sound of a woman spreading her cards on a stall, the sound of small, frightened animals in the wood.
The light step of a girl, behind him. Nick spun and saw Mae.
“Good news,” announced Merris Cromwell. “We have found a most promising new dancer.”
Nick laughed, and Merris regarded him coldly. “She fulfills all the requirements. She has good coordination, she has a strong desire to call the demons, and she has no fear.”
“She’ll be afraid enough in a minute,” Nick murmured.
“Want to bet?”
Mae strode past Nick to the nearest dish of fruit and seized one as if she was picking up a gauntlet someone had thrown. When she bit into it, the juice ran in a golden stream down her chin.
Her eyes met Nick’s, and his hand went to his belt. He unbuckled his old sword and scabbard, and tossed them aside. He wasn’t going to back down from a challenge.
“Let’s dance,” he said.
As Mae cut her circle under Merris’s direction, he turned to Alan, who offered him the shell. It gleamed i S. Iwidn pale seashell colors, blue and violet and apricot in the Goblin Market lights, and then it was white once more. Nick kissed it, put the speaking charm around Alan’s neck, and then stepped into the circle of summoning.
Nick’s talisman flared in a sudden moment of pure pain. Nick tilted his head back and absorbed the shock, let it wash over him like water, and listened through the feeling of pain and rising magic for his brother’s voice.
“I call on the demon they called Anzu in Sumer!” Alan said as the sound of the drums came faster and faster. “I call on the demon they called Djehuty in Egypt! I call on the demon the Romans called the thief at the gates and the watcher by night. As they called him, so I call him: I call on Anzu!”