Everyone in the Goblin Market had a specialty. Phyllis sold her chimes, the Davies family told fortunes, the Morrises did metalwork, and the silent twins sold words in every form, all the books and tablets and scrolls you could dream of. Merris’s stall was loaded with what looked like specimens from every stall. She specialized in being the best.
“She’s joking,” Alan explained to Mae. “Merris, this is Mae and Jamie.”
Merris unbent slightly. “Alan’s young lady, I presume?”
Mae actually blushed. “Er — no.”
“Young Nicholas’s, then,” Merris said wearily. “What they all see in you, I cannot imagine.”
Nick leaned against the stall and smirked at her. “You’ll never know until you try.”
Merris gave him a quelling look, and Alan nobly distracted her. “They’re people we’re trying to help. Merris, Nick is going to dance tonight. We need a speaking charm.”
She thought for a moment, and then leaned over to produce a clay tablet from the heaps of her stall. “I want the translation by next month,” she said. “Don’t let Nicholas touch it; it happens to be five thousand years old.”
Alan glanced at it and nodded, and only then did she press a gleaming white shell on a chain into Alan’s palm and close his fingers over it. Merris Cromwell was the only seller at the Goblin Market who never accepted money. She traded in favors. She had enough money, though nobody knew where she got it. Her currency was power.
“Alan, what language is that?” Mae asked, peering at the tablet and looking excited. No wonder Alan’s little crush was so persistent. Nick hadn’t realized she was a big nerd.
“Sumerian,” Alan said.
“The oldest written language in the world, from the world’s first civilization,” Merris explained condescendingly. “It was the written language for Babylon as well. Half of what we know about magic comes from Sumerian records. I do not know what they teach you children in school these days.”
Mae looked impressed. “You can read Sumerian?”
Nick believed that Merris Cromwell was as fond of Alan as she could be fond of something that was not a magical artifact, but she was a businesswoman. She looked extremely bored by the exchange of Sumerian sweet nothings and turned her attention to Nick.
“Which of your demons do you mean to call?”
“Anzu,” Nick said.
People used to laugh at him because he had only ever been able to call two demons, but he was able to call them faster than anyone else, and he never made a mistake.
“Er, excuse me, but how do you call a demon with dancing?” said Jamie, glancing from Merris back to her stall. He looked a lot less caught up in the glamour of it all than Mae did, and he was smiling the nervous smile that Nick was coming to recognize. “Do demons have disco fever?”
He was so weird. Nick didn’t understand him at all.
Merris Cromwell looked as if nobody had ever uttered the words “disco fever” in her presence before. She did not deign to respond to Jamie. Instead she nodded at the shadows and a man Nick did not recognize took her place at the stall. Merris walked through the Goblin Market, sweeping the rest of them in her wake, until they reached the place of the dancers.
There was a spot where the stalls ended and the Market did not, a clearing full of light and music. There were dozens of little lights in the trees above, bright as stars that had somehow become tangled in the branches, and under the lights the grass looked silver and the night behind the dancers’ heads looked like a black velvet backdrop.
There were about six couples already. The women wore bright colors, slashed skirts spinning out like vivid petals as if they were pansies who had come alive after dark. The men were their gliding shadows, all in black, and Nick was aware of Mae’s glance toward him.
Nick gave her a sidelong smile and concentrated on the dancers, on the dark-haired girl wearing poppy red. When the men lifted the girls, she looked like she was flying, her partner’s hands trying to pull her back down to earth and him. She was fast the way a swordsman had to be fast and beautiful with it, a twist of crimson in the air like a trace of blood in water, and the tourists gathering began to resemble sharks.
All the girls wore crowns of fever blossoms. The orange and red petals looked like tiny flames set in the swift dancer’s dark hair.
If a dancer threw someone a fever blossom, it was a token of special favor.
The crowd surrounding the dancers rustled and murmured as the dark-haired dancer drew a blossom from her crown. A slow smile curved her cherry-ripe, gleaming lips. The dancers all spun in perfect synchronized circles, shadow and light, and as she spun the girl in red blew on the blossom cupped in her palm.
The petals burst into the air like a flurry of multicolored butterflies, flying to the winds. The crowd sighed with disappointment and the release of tension. The dancing ceased.
The girl in red broke away from her partner and came toward them.
Before anyone else could speak, Mae said eagerly, “That was amazing.”
Nick laughed a soft, surprised laugh. Girls did not usually react to Sin like that. Mae turned to him with her face bright, her eyes dazzled, and he let her see him smile.
“That was just for the tourists,” he said. “Wait until you see the real thing.”
Dancing Up a Demon
NICK DID NOT SMILE AT MAE FOR LONG, BECAUSE HE WAS busy being kissed by another girl.
Sin Davies, the best dancer in the Market, reached him and leaned up, resting her palms against his shoulders, to give him a kiss. It landed light as a butterfly, as a petal, in the area between Nick’s mouth and cheek. “You’re dressed for dancing,” she said in her throaty stage voice.
“Being undressed for dancing occurred to me, but I didn’t think Merris would like it.”
Sin slid a look over to Merris, who did not look any more outraged by Nick than usual, and then laughed. Sin was the hot tip to succeed Merris as the unofficial leader of the Market, and Merris was the one who had looked after the Davies family since magicians had killed Sin’s mother; Sin would do anything for her. Merris had been unimpressed when Sin had thrown Nick a fever blossom on a warm night last summer.
Nick seldom cared much about girls, but for that one night he’d thought maybe he could like this one.
Merris pointedly introduced Mae and Jamie, and Sin flashed a bright, practiced smile at them. It warmed into a real smile as Mae enthused over her dancing, and it became an entirely different smile, something secret and tender, when Sin’s little sister ran up to tell her the baby was in bed.
“Thank you,” Sin said, fingers lingering in the child’s blond hair.
The way she was with her baby brother and younger sister was one of the reasons Nick had noticed her.
“Come here, sweetheart,” said Alan helpfully. He knelt with some difficulty on the grass, and the child ran to his arms as all children did, instinctively seeing him as a refuge. He whispered something to her, low and sweet, and Lydie laughed.
“Thanks,” Sin said without looking at him, her mouth a thin straight slash of red.
“You’re welcome, Cynthia,” Alan replied, his voice distant.
The way all the dancers acted around Alan was one of the reasons Nick had stopped dancing and one of the reasons he had not spent any time alone with Sin since last year. It was almost reasonable, Nick supposed. Dancers relied only on their strength, their sure feet, to save themselves from the demons. Even seeing someone stumble made a dancer wince; seeing someone crippled was like seeing their own death.
Nick understood all that and did not care. Nobody was allowed to look at his brother like they did.
He glared at Sin, who looked badly startled. Then he looked away and met Mae’s eyes. The excited flush in her cheeks was fading, and she was watching them carefully.
She turned to Merris and said, her voice loud in the sudden silence, “Will you tell me how the real dances work?”
It was such a banal tourist question that everyone relaxed. Sin turned to a couple of the other dancers, Alan began Srs,th= murmuring to the child again, and Merris gave Mae an approving look. Merris’s favorites were always the ones who knew how to manage situations to their own advantage.
Merris reached over and plucked a fever blossom from Sin’s shining hair. “These flowers grow on trees that need magic to feed them. The trees bear fever fruit; once dancers eat fever fruit, their perceptions of the world are altered and their inhibitions are lowered. In this state they can share energy with demons. They dance in magical circles and perform exorcisms.”
Merris raised her eyebrows. “Calling demons into this world is usually referred to as an exorcism.”
“I thought that meant getting rid of demons,” said Jamie.
“Exorcism means naming the demon and commanding it,” Merris Cromwell answered. “Often people do try commanding the demon to leave, but once a demon has a human body, it will not leave without destroying the body. Call a demon into the circle and bribe it, though, and it may do what you want. If you offer enough.”
The dancers were already cutting the lines for the weaving. Each had already cut their own circle in the ground, perfect circles set about with charms to keep the demons inside. The demons were always trying to get out, but not even a magician would let a demon go free.
Nick knelt on the ground, motioning away the offer of a ceremonial knife. He preferred to use his own weapons, even if he did have to sharpen them afterward. He took his largest knife from a sheath strapped around his ribs and began to cut his circle. The blade bit deep into the earth and he made a symmetrical circle with the ease of long habit, his hands remembering the symbols and guiding the blade without input from his brain.
First there was the circle itself. Then he cut the lines for walking between the worlds, traveling out from the center like the spokes of a wheel. He cut two circles intersecting to represent worlds colliding. He cut straight lines through those, the lines of communication that would hang between him and the demon like magical telephone wires so that the demon would be able to understand human speech and the silent communication of the demon would be translated into human words for Nick. Later he would have to walk each line perfectly, in a series of measured steps, or the demon would never come and the circle would remain silent and still.
“A dancer calls a demon into the circle — but a dancer does much more than that,” Alan said in his earnest teacher’s voice. His arm was still around the little girl, but he pointed out the intersecting lines with his free hand. “This is the weaving. It opens up a connection between a human and a demon, so the demon can feel some of what the human is feeling. A dancer has to follow the lines of the weaving perfectly, even while he takes fever fruit to lessen his control.”
“Demons always demand a price,” said Merris Cromwell. “That is why magicians are corrupt. A magician is someone who wants something for nothing — they are willing to let someone else pay the price for what they want. A dancer opens himself up to demons. He lets the demon share a few beats of his heart, a few breaths from his lungs, and Alan’s right, the demon can feel what the dancer feels. The dancer shares a part of himself with the demon in the dance, but he has to be careful what he says when the demon comes. If he says the wrong thing or takes a wrong step, then the demon can have all of him.”
Merris Cromwell regarded the circles with a slightly wistful air. The story in the Goblin Market was that she had been a famous dancer when she was a girl.
Jamie looked extremely alarmed. His eyes darted from the dancers — some of them already stretching, most lying on the earth cutting the lines of the weaving — to Nick.
“Alan will be the one doing the talking,” Nick explained.
“That’s what the speaking charm is for,” said Alan. “So I can speak for Nick. Demons trick you, and the fever fruit lowers your defenses, so—”