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Alan held him in that moment of silence with a look.

“Nick,” he said quietly. “I’m going. You can’t stop me. If you raise a hand to me I’ll shoot you in the leg. I’m going to Merris’s because I need her help and nothing you can say will change my mind. You don’t have to come with me.”

“Yes, I do,” Nick snapped.

What a stupid thing for Alan to say. They had never been separated for longer than those few days last Christmas; Nick always knew where Alan was and usually knew that he was close. That was how things were and how they were going to stay. Alan was his brother, and if he was set on carrying out his little plan, risking himself to save Mum, then Nick had to be with him to make sure he was safe.

Alan looked almost too worn out to smile but he did anyway, a faint, sweet smile that lingered in his eyes. “All right.”

He nodded slightly, as if they were businessmen who had come to an understanding. Then he turned and went back into the hall, limping a little more than usual, as if he was carrying something heavy. Nick followed him. It was clear that Alan needed to be watched. He’d meant what he’d told Alan: He would sacrifice Mum if he had to.

It didn’t matter what Alan wanted. It only mattered that Alan lived.


The House of Mezentius

THEY WERE ALL IN THE CAR FIVE MINUTES LATER, abandoning everything that would not fit into the couple of old schoolbags they had in the boot. Nick had secured his new favorite sword at his belt, and Alan had slipped his family pictures, and the book with the hidden picture inside, into one of the bags.

“What’s that?” Nick had said, perversely wanting to see Alan lie to him.

“Just something I’m reading,” Alan answered with a wry, plausible smile. Nick was suddenly reminded of Gerald the magician and had to turn away.

Now Camden was passing them by so fast that streets and lights had turned into a multicolored river, flashing yellow and orange over a smooth stream of gray.

Nick turned the car south toward the M3, hearing a clank as he moved into fourth. He’d have to see to the car sometime, though it was unlikely they would have time for mechanics in the near future.

It would take about two hours to get to Southampton if they were lucky with traffic, and then they could take the ferry to the Isle of Wight.

Nick was still thinking about the traffic when Alan said in a soft voice, “Nick, you get horribly seasick.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nick said.

He didn’t remember ever being vuo; on a boat. Running from magicians did not leave a lot of time for sailing the high seas, but the idea sounded implausible. Nick was never sick, and even if he had been, they were hardly going to change their plans because of a tiny thing like seasickness. He wasn’t letting Alan go off on his own.

“We took you on a boat once when you were little, and it was—” Alan bit his lip. “You coughed up blood. I thought you were going to die.”

“I didn’t,” Nick pointed out. “And if I was little, I imagine I’ve grown out of it by now.” He glanced over at Alan, whose profile was tense and unhappy. If Alan was so concerned about him, he thought, he might try telling him the truth once in a while instead of wasting time protecting him from boats.

Mae, Jamie, and Mum were silent in the backseat. After about an hour along the M3 and into the gathering night, Nick glanced in the mirror and saw Mum looking at him, her gaze steady and cold.

Alan seemed so ready to die to save her. Nick couldn’t understand it, and he wasn’t about to let it happen.

The ferry at Southampton’s second terminal was a huge white and red edifice, more like a tin house floating on the water than a boat. There seemed to be a jolly cloud painted on one side, as if they were all off on a day trip to the beach.

There were very few other passengers at this time of night. They waited until everyone else was aboard; nobody was in the mood to deal with strangers, Nick least of all. He strode onboard last, lagging behind even Alan’s limping step, and walked toward the railing at the side of the ferry as the whistle blew. He lifted his face to the cold wind and hoped everyone would understand that he wanted to be left alone.

The boat lurched as it set off. Nick felt his stomach tilt with it, and a moment of dizziness passed over him, a disoriented feeling similar to that of standing up too fast and having all the blood rush to your head. He deliberately did not look at the gray expanse of water, leaning heavily against the railing and clenching his hand hard around it. He squeezed the metal so tightly his knuckles went white and his fingers ached, and he concentrated on the pain. Having a focus cleared his head.

He felt the plunge of the hull against the waves in the pit of his stomach. He tried to count the waves but they kept coming, a succession of waves battering the boat, the whole sea nothing but currents under relentless currents.

Mae left Mum’s side to come and stand in front of Nick. Her face wavered in front of his eyes, bobbing as if she was underwater.

“Are you all right?” she asked. “We’ve only been moving for a minute and the sea’s calm, but you’ve gone all green. Do you want to go below deck, or…maybe you’d like a basin?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Nick said roughly, and tried to let go of the railing. His hands felt oddly numb, as if they did not belong to him, and then the boat creaked over another wave and he staggered, almost going down on his knees. Consciousness seemed to be sliding across the deck and away from him.

Alan turned, as if that was a cue he’d been waiting for, and moved toward Nick. The way he limped did not synchronize with the way the boat rocked, and for a moment Alan seemed like the only still point in a world full of endless sickening motion. Nick tried to hold on. Soon Alan could get to him and tell him what was happening.

The world was moving so much it was blurring into a meaningless mess of color and sound. There was a moment of small centralized pain, someone’s fingernails digging into Nick’s skin, and someone’s voice, high, saying: “Alan, Jamie! Quick—”

The world fell away as if the boat had tipped over and left them in the crashing darkness of the sea. There was nothing but darkness and confusion for a long moment, until Nick realized he was lying on the deck and retching, as if he had really been underwater and he had to cough up water to live. He did not taste water in his mouth, only the sharp bitterness of bile.

Bitterness only lasted an instant, though. Nick was used to being in complete command of his body, being strong and able to use all his strength. It was odd now, he thought in a drifting sort of way, to feel so helpless, to be so disconnected from his body. He was only sure that he had a body because of a strange pain that seemed part of the disconnection and because he was so cold.

“Nick,” said Alan’s voice, compelling and comforting at once.

Slowly, through the chill, Nick felt his hand held tight in Alan’s, his cheek pressed against the rough denim covering Alan’s knee. He became aware of his head as his own, a distinct shape, because of his brother’s hand stroking his hair.

“Nick,” Alan said again. “It’s all right, Nick.”

It was all right. Nick thought about this and decided that what Alan said was true. He’d never been helpless before, not since he could remember, but now he was and everything was all right. He didn’t normally let people touch him, but he could not stop it now. He did not have to speak, he was not able to move, all he could do was lie there and have his brother hold him, hunched over and shielding him from the world. His brother’s hand was light in his hair, his arm circling Nick’s shoulders as well as he could, and his voice in Nick’s ear was a warm soothing lifeline in the midst of the cold hissing of all the currents in the sea.

“Hold on, Nick. It’s only twenty minutes until we get there. Just hold on.”

Nick tried to do what Alan wanted and hold on to his brother’s hand, but he couldn’t feel his fingers properly. He looked, though, and Alan was still holding Nick’s hand, so perhaps that would be enough to make Alan happy. Nick vomited again, too cold and far away to care. He pressed his forehead against the inside of his brother’s wrist and let the drowning darkness pull him down again.

When he was next aware of anything, it was of being in a car that was jolting to a stop. His vision was hazy and he looked around desperately, as if by jerking his head hard enough he could make himself see, but then he realized that Alan was still holding his hand.

“Alan,” he mumbled, and the orange light of a streetlamp caught Alan’s glasses. The flash dimmed and Nick saw Alan’s face bending over him in the flickering shadows. “Where are we?”

“We’re in a taxi going from West Cowes to Carisbrooke village,” Alan answered softly, as if he was talking nonsense words to a child he was very fond of. “We’re going to Merris’s house. How are you feeling?”

“As if my body doesn’t belong to me,” Nick said.

“I’m sorry for bringing you onto that boat.”

Nick levered himself up on one elbow. “Not your fault. You warned me, I just didn’t think I was pathetic enough to collapse because of a little queasiness.”

“You’re an idiot,” said Alan, relaxing enough to smile at him. “But you’re not pathetic.”

There was a flicker of movement in the corner of Nick’s eye. He looked around sharply, dropping Alan’s hand, and saw Jamie and Mae sitting on the flip-down leather seats opposite them. He realized properly for the first time that they really were in a cab. He looked beyond the clouded glass to see the tired profile of the cab driver and the black fall of Mum’s hair in the passenger seat.

“How are you feeling, Nick?” Jamie inquired, shifting uneasily on his seat. He and Mae looked rather alike just now, both staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. He recognized with a shock the fact that they both looked worried.

“Can you walk?” asked Mae, being more practical. “We’re here.”

He nodded, and Mae opened the car door. Nick got out, straightened, and did not know what was keeping him up. When he looked down, it was his legs and feet as usual.

There was a high stone wall in front of them and an ornate gate. The stones in the wall glittered with mica. The iron of the gate was shaped into trees and snakes and women. The whole purpose of the walls and gate seemed to be decoration, but this was simply a distraction from the fact that the walls were very high and there were wicked-looking spikes on the gate. There was jagged glass gleaming on top of the walls, almost hidden by the leaves of trees behind them. It reminded Nick of Liannan, with her curtain of hair and sharp teeth.

He had to lean against the cab. He should not have stood up so soon; he tried to move and Alan was beside him. Nick must have been sagging, because he was eye level with the first button on Alan’s shirt.

“Mae, help me,” Alan ordered, and Mae was suddenly at Nick’s side.

Nick dimly approved of Alan’s choice. Mae was certainly better able to bear his weight than Jamie, and as for Mum, who was taller and stronger than either of them, she would not have touched Nick no matter who asked. Then his head lolled forward, his neck feeling like a thick tube of spaghetti. He was not going to be sick again; he just wanted to lie down until he remembered how to work his own body.

“Jamie,” Alan said, his voice soothing for Nick’s benefit, even though he was speaking to someone else. “Go and press the intercom button. Say ‘My name is one.’”

“One?” Jamie asked, blinking. “One what?”

“Jamie! Nick is going to fall over!”

“Right. I’m sorry,” said Jamie, shaking his head and stepping backward, almost walking into the tree and turning to scurry toward the gate. Nick heard his voice, seeming much farther away than it should have, saying that his name was one.< { wary div height="0 %">

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