Mae cleared her throat, pulling absently at one of her necklaces. The movement almost drew Nick’s eyes to the tangle of talismans and chains around his mother’s neck, but he stopped his instinctive glance. These two knew enough about his family already. They didn’t need to see him looking at Mum’s charms.
He looked at Alan instead, expecting to find steadiness there, expecting sanity and familiarity.
He saw fear.
He saw Alan draw his gun out in the open, out in their front garden where anyone could see. Nick didn’t hesitate. He drew his sword and held that sharp, glittering barrier between his brother and the rest of the world, and then he looked around to see what was threatening them.
She was coming down the road toward them, her high heels clicking on the cement. She looked to be in her forties, with a sleek brown bob and large earrings that caught the sun, shining perfect circles with a knife in the center of each one.
The knives danced jauntily in their circles as she turned and smiled at them.
“Hello, boys. How are you today?”
Nick strode toward her, Alan a pace behind him. He wheeled behind the woman, and after a moment Alan came to stand in front of her. She swung around, briefly teetering on her heels, unable to keep them both in her range of vision and unsure who to focus on.
Nick claimed her full attention by stepping in to her as if they were about to dance. She stopped, facing him, then looked down to see that he was holding each end of his sword and pressing the length of the blade lightly against her stomach. He gazed down at her and smiled a little.
“All the better for seeing you.”
There were as many types of magic user in this world as there were colors in white light. On one end of the spectrum were the magicians, and on the other end was the Goblin Market.
There were a lot of people who wanted more power than the Market offered, and who didn’t quite have the stomach for feeding their own kind to demons. There were the necromancers and the messengers, the pied pipers and the soul tasters, and a dozen others, and Market people trusted none of them.
They trusted the messengers least of all. Every messenger wore the sign of a knife through a circle. It was a sign from the magicians. It meant that the messenger was attached to a Circle of magicians, and if you crossed the messenger, you crossed the Circle.
The knife more or less indicated how things would go from there.
Messengers were closely associated with magicians. They carried information back and forth between Circles, and between magicians and the outside world, and in return they were paid with demons’ magic. Magic bought in blood.
As far as Nick was concerned, they were magicians without the guts.
Over the messenger’s shoulder he saw Mae and Jamie, looking alarmed by the sudden appearance of weapons and a stranger. He saw Mum standing by the car, her face a complete blank.
The messenger smiled, a small, wary smile like a concerned parent watching her child. She looked far more like a mother than Mum. Possibly Nick should hire her for his next parent-teacher meeting.
“You’re looking very grown-up, Nick.”
“It’s true, I’m entering on manhood,” Nick said. “You’re a stylish, sophisticated, ever so slightly evil woman of the world. Do you think we could make it work?”
She looked much less like a mother when her smile went sharp like that. “Probably not.”
Nick adjusted his grip on the sword, held it at the precise point where her ribs ended. “Pity.”
Alan interrupted, his face grave and his gun at the small of her back. “What’s your message?”
“Oh yes,” said the messenger. “That.”
She twisted lightly around, ending up with Nick’s sword against her spine and Alan’s gun against her stomach. Nick met Alan’s eyes over her shoulder and watched for any signal.
The messenger’s voice was calm. “Black Arthur says that now’s the time. He wants it back.”
In the silence there was a small, sharp sound. Alan had released the safety catch.
Nick could only see the back of her head, but the messenger sounded like she was smiling. “You can give it to me now, or Black Arthur can come and take it.”
There was very little in Nick’s life that stayed around long enough to be familiar. There had been a statue in one place, a building in another, but taking his whole life into account, Alan’s face was the only reliable landmark he had.
He had never seen Alan look like this before.
“Let me ask you this,” Alan said, his voice dangerous and shaky at once, like a knife held in a trembling hand. “What d’you think would be the best message to send Black Arthur? Maybe I should let you go back and tell him that he can come and try? He’s been chasing us for years. What makes him think he can catch us now?”
The woman tilted her face toward Alan’s, as if they were going to kiss.
“He’s serious now,” she murmured, sounding as if she was about to laugh. “Hadn’t you noticed, Alan? We did send you a sign.”
Alan went perfectly, terribly white.
The demon’s mark. Nick heard his own voice saying, They can track you once that first mark is made.
“Sweet Alan, so devoted, so much trouble. We won’t be chasing after you blind now, will we? Wherever your little family goes, you’ll lead us right to them.”
Nick could see the gun shaking in Alan’s hand now, in tight, terrified spasms. “Last night we put a magician in the river,” Alan said, his voice low and intense as if he was making a promise. “Maybe we should send you to join him.”
“You know the rules,” the woman whispered. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
Nick interrupted, leaning down to speak in her ear. “Do they say, ‘Don’t cut the messenger in half with your great big sword’?”
Alan’s eyes narrowed. He stepped back and said, “Let her go, Nick.”
Nick stepped back too, but he did not sheathe his sword. He held it ready, just in case, and the sun danced along the steel and turned it into a dazzling line of light. He could barely see the messenger’ Cssee, s small, polite smile.
“What shall I tell Black Arthur?” she asked.
Even Alan’s lips were white. “Tell Black Arthur that no matter what I have to do, I’ll make him regret sending that message,” he said. “Now go.”
The messenger looked from Alan’s white face to Nick’s dark smile, and went. She turned sharply on her heels, balance perfect again, and walked away. Her step was measured and unhurried, her head held high, as if she were walking away from a successful board meeting.
Alan looked as if he was going to collapse or kill somebody.
The two strangers in their world were staring at his pale face and the gun still in his hand. Nick looked at Alan’s eyes, sheathed his sword, and strode toward the intruders. Jamie flinched as he came.
“If you’ll excuse us,” he said, his voice on the edge of a snarl. “We’ve just had some bad news.”
Mae did not back down a step. Under other circumstances that might have impressed him, but just now all he wanted to do was get his brother away from the curious stares of strangers and take that look off his face, and her stubbornness simply infuriated him.
“Who’s Black Arthur?” she asked.
“None of your business,” Nick barked.
“It is my business,” Mae snapped. “It sounds like he’s the person you’re running from, and once you’re gone, who will be left to help Jamie?”
Her voice trembled on Jamie’s name, and of course that made Alan look up, soft touch that he was. His face was still a nasty gray-white color, but he looked a little more like himself.
“Mae,” he said, and his voice was kind again, “I told you. There’s nothing any of us can do to help Jamie. I’m sorry.”
Mae surprised Nick again. Instead of bursting into loud fury, her mouth worked for a trembling terrible moment, and he thought she was going to cry. “I’d take his place,” she said, her voice rough. “Can I do that? Is there a way?”
The second surprise was Jamie, speaking in a tone of command. “I wouldn’t let you!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Nick told them. “There’s no way.”
He wanted fiercely to be on the road, to leave Exeter and everyone in it behind them.
“If I could help you, I would,” Alan said helplessly, as he had last night. “I swear I would.”
Mae’s eyes narrowed, reminding Nick of a woman at a stall, trying to make a shrewd bargain. “You’re going to the Goblin Market to get help. Can’t we go there too?”
“No,” said Nick.
Alan hesitated. “I don’t think anyone there can help you.”
Mae pushed her advantage. “There might be someone, though. There might be some way you don’t know about. It’s a chance, isn’t it? Please, Alan. Please let us come.”
There was a long moment where Mae stared at Alan, and Nick stared at his clenched fists.
“All right,” Alan agreed at last. “If”—and a note of bashfulness crept into his businesslike voice—“if you’ll give me your number, I can — I’ll call you. Once I find out where the Market is being held next month.”
Compared to the demon mark and the early move, compared to the magician’s message, seeing Alan embarrassing himself over yet another girl should not have mattered.
It did, though. It was so pointless, they were leaving, but Alan could still stand with their crazy mother in the yard and their crazy life packed up in their car, all of it in plain sight, and hope.
“So you’re getting your way,” Nick said, hearing his voice slice through the silence, like the sword he’d wanted to use on that woman. He was furious and he wanted someone to pay, he wanted to hurt someone, and Mae was there. It wasn’t fair, but what was? “I’d hate to disappoint you,” he went on. “What else did you want to know? Oh yes, Black Arthur.”
He threw the name like a missile at his mother, standing in the middle of the garden with her black hair blowing around her face. She had not moved since the messenger appeared, and her expression had not changed. She had simply watched the whole thing, watched Alan, like a ghost watching something that could not possibly concern her.
As he bore down on her, her expression did change. Her lip curled.
“It’s a romantic story, really,” he said harshly, staring down at her. “He was the man our mother loved. She was one of his magicians, and she fed people to the demons on his orders. He drove her mad, and drove her into Dad’s arms. She ran from Black Arthur bearing a powerful charm, and since then every magician in England has been hunting us for it.”
He grabbed a fistful of the chains around her neck, and she turned her face away. They had been like this for as long as Nick could remember. He could not forgive her for the lives they had led, for Dad’s death. He could not forget the look on Alan’s face, and that was her fault as well.
He leaned toward his mother and whispered, “And now it seems that he wants it back.”
Which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that if someone took away the charm, Mum would die.
Nick’d had his moments of thinking even that wouldn’t be so terrible. She had been a magician, after all. If she was gone, he and Alan could have normal lives. If anyone at the Goblin Market had known the truth about her, they would have said she deserved death.
This was not one of those moments. If the thought of her dying made Alan look like that, she had to live.
Nick stood with his mother’s chains, heavy and cold, in his hands. They were both breathing hard.
When Alan spoke, he sounded tired. “The Goblin Market will be held on the first of May. Will I give you two a call?”