When he spoke, he did not have Nick’s voice. He had the warm, easy voice of a leader, someone comfortable using words and through words, using people.
“Well done, Gerald!” he said, giving due credit to his lieutenant, but he did not glance Gerald’s way.
His big, black-maned head was thrown back to survey his prize, and his wintry wolf’s eyes were fastened on Nick. They were shining with possessive pride.
Nick folded his arms across his chest and glared as Black Arthur prowled around the circle of imprisonment, eyes running over every detail of Nick’s face and body as if he was an art dealer examining a picture.
“Say something,” Arthur commanded at last. “Anything.”
“Let me and my brother go,” said Nick. “Or I’ll cut your heart out.”
He did not know how Arthur would react to that — whether he would be angry or laugh at the empty threat — but he did not expect Arthur to look delighted. He had the air of a man whose dog had just done a wonderful trick.
Arthur opened his mouth, but Nick never found out what he was going to say, because the moment before he spoke there was a rap at the door.
“Come in,” Arthur said irritably.
“Sir, I’m not sure—” said a voice near the door, but the door swung open amid the sound of protests.
Mum stood in the doorway.
There was a magician behind her, but it was hard to notice anything but Mum. She had her eyes fixed on Black Arthur and her face was white, white as a flame that was burning hot as a star.
Nick cursed softly. Alan looked wild with panic.
Arthur said, “Livia!” and held out his hands, and without a moment’s hesitation Mum walked toward him and took both his hands in hers.
He stood with his head bowed down to hers, their black hair mingling, and they looked like brother and sister in each other’s arms, like twins. Nick saw in that moment how they must have been together, before he was born: two magicians who did not care about anything but themselves and each other, beautiful and brilliant and cruel. Mum’s face looked older than Arthur’s now, marked by lines of care and pain, but there was nothing on her face that looked anything like fear.
“Arthur,” she said, running her fingers through his hair. Nick had never seen Mum show affection like that to anyone.
Arthur smiled down at her. “I knew you would come back to me one day,” he said. “I knew it.” He paused, and when Mum kept her silence, Arthur said, “You have come back to me, Livia, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” Mum said slowly. “Yes, I have.”
“You’ve forgiven me,” Arthur prompted her, as a stage director to an actress who seemed to have forgotten her lines.
Mum looked at him for a long time. “No,” she said. “No, I haven’t forgiven you.”
Arthur caught her hands in his again, pressing them as if Mum’s were cold. “But you will,” he said confidently. “Everything’s all right now. It’s all turned out exactly as I told you it would. You should never have run, Livia. You should have known you couldn’t change anything.”
“I always knew this would happen,” Mum said. “I used to sit alone in a hundred different rooms and think of how it would be, standing face-to-face with you again. And then I heard the children talking about going to find magicians — and I knew the day had finally come.”
Arthur laughed. “You never loved him?”
“Who?” Mum asked. “Daniel? No, but he was very kind to me. I owe him something. He tried. No man ever tried as hard as he did.”
Her gaze moved for the first time away from Arthur’s face, traveling in an unconcerned way from the paneled wall to the demon in his flames, until she found Alan. Alan stood there with magicians around him and his hands tied, his face a na**d plea. Mum’s expression did not change.
Nick was not surprised that Mum never looked at him.
“He tried to interfere,” said Arthur. “He failed, and you were always mine. Forgive me, Livia. You’ll see that it was worth it. I will give you anything in the world.”
“Give me just one thing,” Mum said, smiling into his eyes. “And I’ll forgive you.”
“Anything,” Arthur told her, and kissed the top of her head, tucking her against him. They looked as if they were posing for a picture of the perfect couple.
Nick said loudly, “I have a question.”
Mum did not look at him even then. She was doing her trick of pretending not to know Nick was in the room, even though her whole body was tense with awareness of him. She had her eyes turned away, and he could see her schooling her face into blankness in case he spoke to her.
Arthur’s gaze fell on Nick and absorbed him to the exclusion of all the world.
“Of course,” he said. “You only have to ask.”
“Are you—” Nick said, and did not look at Alan. “Aren’t you going to take her charm?”
Arthur reached to touch Mum’s neck, and metal links slipped like sand through his fingers, one chain followed by another, as if he was telling rosary beads. Magic symbols gleamed against his large, capable hands, hands Nick had inherited from him, hands with the strength to kill. At last there was only one charm left, lying cupped in his palm. It was a simple silver disc with a black symbol carved onto it.
“This one?” Arthur inquired. The chain was taut in his hand. If he closed his fingers around it and pulled, it would snap in an instant.
“I guess so,” said Nick, not daring to look at Alan. “That one. Don’t you want it?”
Arthur lifted the chain and dropped a kiss on the symbol, then let the charm fall back to Mum’s breast. “I want her to have it,” he said mildly. “It is keeping her alive.”
Nick strode forward in a fury and then found himself pulled up short by the confines of the imprisonment circle. It was like being a savage dog kept on a chain so he would not fly at throats. He felt like flying at throats. He made a sound that was almost a snarl.
“If you didn’t want the charm, why were we hunted all over the country?” he demanded. “What did you want? Was it her? You killed Dad because you couldn’t find yourself a different girlfriend?”
There was a stir around the room. There was Anzu laughing quietly at the spectacle of Nick, unable to escape the circle. Some of the magicians had actually drawn back when Nick moved, and now Alan was standing at the front of their little group.
Alan had not moved. The gray, worn look of dread on his face had not changed.
“I love Livia,” Arthur said calmly. “But you wouldn’t be able to understand that, now would you?”
He let go of Mum, left her standing by herself and staring almost thoughtfully out the window. She made no move to stop him leaving, just lifted her hand to her charms and began to thread them through her fingers, telling them as he had moments before, as if she were praying.
Black Arthur walked toward Nick, coming so close that his shoes almost touched the outside of Nick’s circular chalked prison. They stood face-to-face, Nick only a shade smaller than Arthur, their eyes almost on a level. Nick knew they were father and son, but he felt as if Arthur was a spectator at the zoo, and he was a tiger in a cage. Arthur looked at him with gentle interest, and Nick only just stopped himself from snarling again.
“We weren’t hunting Livia,” Arthur said softly. “This was never about Livia. This was never about a charm. Who’s been telling you lies?”
Nick looked at Alan and kept his mouth shut.
Arthur went on, his voice soft and smooth, as if with words alone he could reach through cage bars and stroke a tiger into tameness. “You wouldn’t understand lies, obviously.”
“You assume a lot about me for someone who just met me today,” Nick observed coldly.
Arthur smiled at him, a private and particular smile, as if he was about to let Nick and only Nick in on a joke.
“Hunted all over the country,” he said, repeating Nick’s words with an echo of Nick’s flat inflection. “Not just the Obsidian Circle, but every magicians’ Circle in England went hunting. Do you know what they wanted?”
His father was close but not close enough to kill, and they were all in danger. The sense of being trapped was worse than anything. No matter what came, Nick could not fight. He could not even run.
“Do you want to tell me?” Nick asked in a rough voice. “While I’m young?”
Arthur smiled again, almost fondly. “They wanted you,” he murmured. “Just you.”
Nick’s mind raced. He didn’t know how much other magicians might have wanted Arthur’s son as leverage. He didn’t know what he meant to Black Arthur.
The intensity of Black Arthur’s gaze made Nick think that he must mean something.
“You don’t know how often my magicians have watched you,” Black Arthur said. “I know so much about you, so much you don’t know. So much you need to know. After all, you thought the Obsidian Circle were causing all the little incidents in your house, didn’t you?”
Nick nodded guardedly, waiting for Arthur to drop a hint.
“There was the car that dropped in your garage,” Arthur reminded him. “There were all those strange things happening in your house, glasses breaking and lights going out. Why would we do any of that? Didn’t it ever occur to you that your house was flooded with magic for the week when you were not wearing your talisman?”
Nick remembered the lights going out so he could be left in the dark with Mae. He distanced himself from the memory so he could view it at a remove, so he could think about what he had done and what he’d meant to do.
He had been angry before those glasses broke. He had been angry before the car fell. He had been angry, and the world had started falling apart around him.
After all, what did it matter? He had suspected he was a magician already. Now he knew why Arthur had wanted to find him, and perhaps why the other Circles had wanted to get him first.
“No,” Nick said, “it never occurred to me — but it makes sense.”
“All the other Circles wanted you,” Arthur murmured to him, “but you’re mine. My greatest achievement. Do you want to know why?”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “I’d like you to explain your entire evil plot in detail. Don’t forget the bit where you tell me your one weakness.”
Black Arthur laughed. “We’re not enemies. I’m going to explain all of this to you, and then you’ll understand. We’re going to be partners, and I, unlike some people—” He spared Alan a dismissive glance and then leaned forward, all his attention on Nick. “I will never lie to you.”
His eyes looked as pale as the demon Liannan’s and almost as hypnotic. Nick could feel Arthur’s breath on his face.
“Nicholas,” said Black Arthur. “I’m going to tell you everything.”
“Don’t bother,” Nick said. “I already know everything. Thanks.”
Arthur’s words, Arthur’s caressing and commanding voice, seemed to indicate that Nick, or at least the prospect of a magical heir, was worth a lot to him. There was something a shade off about him, though, something a little too detached about his perfect act, that made Nick doubt everything his eyes and ears told him.
Maybe it was the fact he was still trapped in a magical circle that made him doubt Daddy’s affection.
“Do you?” Arthur asked, and his glacier-colored eyes went to Alan. “Who told you? Did you tell it, Alan?”
Nick spoke loudly, to wrench Black Arthur’s attention away from Alan. “It doesn’t matter who told me! Tell me what you want.”
Black Arthur smiled. “Oh, I want everything,” he said. “Don’t you realize how much power you have?” he continued softly. “Don’t you realize what you are — what you could be?”