“Why?” Nick snapped, opening cupboards just so he could bang them closed and express his fury at people who did not know when to shut up. “You didn’t know him. Why should you care?”
“Um. Empathy?” Jamie suggested.
Nick stared at him silently. The silence stretched on, Nick watching Jamie become ever more uncomfortable, and then a moment before Jamie’s nerve broke Mae and Alan came into the kitchen and rescued him.
Alan looked from Nick to Jamie’s alarmed face and seemed a little sad, just like he had when they were young and teachers had told him that Nick didn’t play well with others. Nick failed to see how it could keep coming as a surprise.
“This is excellent,” said Mae, coming and sitting on the draining board. “Carry on. I have always dreamed of having handsome men lovingly prepare all my meals.”
“Nick rescued the omelets,” Jamie confessed. “They were going wrong for me somehow.”
Mae laughed and tugged him toward her, putting her arms around him from behind and giving him a kiss on the side of his head. “Funny how they always do.”
Neither of them was too bad. Mae was good at smoothing over awkward situations, good at dealing with people, and Nick appreciated that, but he didn’t need to find himself appreciating anything about her.
Nick made omelets and Jamie made jokes and Mae and Alan made conversation, but Alan was still marked. All Nick had learned was that Mae and Jamie’s parents would not be arriving to remove at least one problem from his life.
On the morning of the fourth day, Jamie tipped a switchblade out of his box of cornflakes.
“I think these promotional campaigns have really got out of hand,” he said, freezing with his hand on the milk carton. “One shiny free knife with every packet of cereal bought is not a good message to send out to the kiddies.”
He picked up his bowl, tilting it and trying to drop the switchblade back into the box without actually touching it. Nick rolled his eyes, reached over, and took the knife, tucking it into the waistband of his jeans. He saw Jamie’s eyes wander to the flash of skin and didn’t make an issue out of it; a lot of people liked to look at Nick.
“So — do you have a system?” Jamie asked.
“Well, if knives go in the cornflakes, do guns go in the raisin bran? I just wanted to know if there’s some kind of system I should look out for.”
Even though a system was actually not a bad idea, that kind of thing was a problem. The way Jamie kept making uneasy jokes about their life and Mae kept revealing a disturbing fascination with it made Nick feel as if he was a freak show suddenly on display for these people.
Mae walked in the door at that point. She pushed Jamie’s hair out of his eyes as she went by, then took a proper look at his pale face. She stooped and kissed his forehead before she went to get her muesli.
They were always doing weird stuff like that, as if they thought it was normal. It made Nick uncomfortable. He was just glad Alan hadn’t seen the latest bit of weirdness. Alan’s face went strange every time they did something like this, as if someone had hurt him.
Nick frowned at Mae as she tried to spoon up her muesli while bent over Alan’s copy of the Hexenhammer, an old German book about witches. Nick was used to having girls over now and then, but it was strange for him to have a girl constantly, comfortably around the house, sitting rumpled and sleep-flushed over a book, white curving flesh showing as her pajama top shifted with her movement.
That kind of thing was another problem.
Mae’s voice was accusing. “Are you looking down my top?”
“Well,” Nick said, “it’s a new experience for me.”
“Generally girls take their tops off so fast around me,” Nick explained. “It’s hard to get a good down-the-shirt view. Not that I really complain, under the circumstances. Very nice, by the way.”
Mae looked annoyed for a minute, and then a smile tugged at her mouth, drawing her away into amusement. “Well,” she said, shrugging. “I grew them myself.”
Nick liked the easy, casual way she flirted, comfortable with her body and confident about its appeal. He liked her smile.
He looked away from both of them, scowled, and ate his cereal. A few minutes later Alan came down with damp hair, smiling as if they were a group of friends who had chosen to be here together. He ruffled Jamie’s spiky blond locks before he sat beside Mae, and Nick narrowed his eyes.
He hoped that Jamie wasn’t getting any ideas about being a little brother to Alan.
They all started talking about their favorite music, Mae talking about rock music and Alan talking about classical, while Jamie put in a few words for country music.
Nick didn’t speak. His favorite music was the music of the Goblin Market, the drums that made the air thrum with danger and tried to pierce the silence of the demon world, and he didn’t need Dad’s voice in his head to remind him that wasn’t normal.
Another thing Nick couldn’t get used to was that Mae and Jamie knew about Mum. Nobody knew about Mum. Everyone at the Goblin Market, even Merris Cromwell, only knew about Dad. They knew that he had shown up at the Market wanting help for a wife bound with enchantments, and protection for his young family. Dad had taken Mum in when she came running out of the night chased by monsters, and then taken her as his own.
It was like one of the stories Alan used to read to Nick at bedtime, about the perfect knight shielding his lady. Only the lady was a murderer. She’d chosen Black Arthur, chosen to be a magician, and chosen to kill.
Nick thought Dad must have not known what she was until it was too late.
Now two strangers knew that their mother had called the demons and made sacrifices for them. They sat at their dinner table and looked at Nick and saw his mother’s cold face. Mae had even started going upstairs to talk to Mum.
“It’s very kind of you,” Alan said one night at dinner.
Mae shrugged. “I like doing it. Olivia tells a lot of wonderful stories. My mother’s never done anything worth talking about in her life.”
She’d taken to calling Mum Olivia, in the same casual way Alan did, as if they were all friends.
“Your mother’s never fed people to demons?” Nick said. “Poor you.”
Mae’s eyes narrowed. “I just said Olivia was interesting. I didn’t say I thought what she did was right.”
Nick leaned across the table toward her. “Tell me,” he said, lowering his voice and watching the way his murmur sliced through her, small and sharp as a hook that a fish might swallow without thinking. “Do you find the demon’s mark on your brother interesting?”
Nick talked right over her. “Just think, if it wasn’t for the mark, you would never have heard Mum’s stories or danced at the Goblin Market. You were thrilled by all that, weren’t you? You think it’s all so exciting, so glamorous. Lucky for you Jamie got marked, isn’t it?” He lowered his voice even more to see her leaning toward him, caught, and then he twisted the hook into her flesh. He smiled at her slowly and whispered, “Bet you’re glad it happened.”
Mae’s face was crumpled and white as a tissue clenched in someone’s fingers.
“How can you say something like that?” she said, her voice taut with outrage. “Your brother’s marked too. How does that make you feel?”
She glared at him, eyes accusing, and Nick saw that Alan and Jamie were looking at him too. He didn’t bother deciphering Jamie’s expression; he looked at his brother, and Alan looked back. He didn’t look angry like Mae. He looked patient, and a little pained; he looked as if he was waiting for Nick’s answer.
Then they all looked away.
Alan glanced from his own glass to Nick’s and then to the water jug. When Nick looked around the table, puzzled by Alan’s sudden preoccupation, he saw that everyone at the table was looking at their glasses.
All the glass on the table wore a shining spiderweb pattern. Fractures crossed and crisscrossed each other, cutting thin lines that caught the light. Nick’s and Alan’s eyes met over the rims of their suddenly beautiful glasses.
The glasses burst quietly, with no more noise than someone blowing on a dandelion clock. Then there was nothing but glittering shards and water pouring over the table.
Jamie’s plate broke in half.
What was Mum playing at?
Nick got up and hit the table with his fist.
“Nick, don’t,” Alan said. “You’ll hurt yourself.” He wrapped his hand around Nick’s fist and lifted it from the table.
Nick stared at him, for a paralyzing frustrated moment unable to understand what he was saying. It registered, and he looked at his hand in Alan’s, the skin unbroken. Alan’s warning had been in time.
“Relax,” Alan said. “You asked Liannan. She said the Circle was coming, the whole Circle. You know how long it takes to move the summoning circles. They can’t possibly be here yet. It’s just Mum.”
He saw the change in Alan’s face, and wondered if his own face had betrayed him, shown some of the rage sweeping through him. Alan never liked seeing it, so Nick tried not to show it more often than he could help.
Then he recognized the light in Alan’s eyes and realized he’d had an idea.
“What?” he said, hope rising. “What is it?”
Alan smiled at him. “Wait a bit. I need to go work something out.”
He left his dinner on the flooded table, and Nick heard his dragging footsteps going, as fast as he could, up the stairs and away from everyone to work out his new plan. Nick was in no humor to think about all Alan’s secrets.
“I can clean up,” Jamie offered.
Nick let him, moodily forking up the rest of his dinner as Jamie cleaned.
He was not used to girls coming to his house so they could glare at him. Over broken glass and water, Mae was staring at him, her eyes gleaming and furious. Jamie was hastily moving anything that could have been used as a missile out of her reach.
After another long moment of glaring, Mae got up. They heard her stamping her way up the stairs as if she wanted to grind every stair to powder under her heels.
Nick rolled his eyes. “How long’s that going to last for, then?”
“Oh, don’t worry. Give her — ten years, and she’ll have forgotten all about it,” Jamie said, snagging Nick’s plate. “Or you could apologize.”
Nick scowled. “What?”
“It’s a fairly simple concept,” said Jamie.
Maybe it was for Jamie, who moved gently and apologetically through life, like a hunted animal trying not to stir the leaves as he passed. Nick wasn’t sorry, and he was ready to rip out the throat of anything hunting him. She’d invaded his house; she could apologize.
On the other hand, Nick couldn’t deal with any more hassle than he was dealing with right now. Maybe it would be simpler to go and smooth her down.
He left Jamie washing up and went upstairs to the room that Mae and Jamie shared, the room that used to be his, and found Mae on the bed that used to be his.
She was crying.
Nick was appalled.
“I’ll get Alan,” he said, taking a smart step back.
He had the door almost shut when Mae said, “No, don’t!”
With great reluctance, he opened the door again. There she was, huddled on the bed with her arms around her knees, face red under her pink hair, rumpled and ridiculous-looking.
“I’ll get Jamie,” he proposed, and what he really meant was, I’ll get out of here.
“No,” Mae repeated. “Don’t.” She was starting to look angry again; all things considered, Nick found that soothing. She wiped at her face with the back of her hand and added, “I don’t want him to see me cry.”