He thought about practicing the sword in darkness, his whole mind narrowed into nothing but the movement of steel in the night. He danced and remembered fighting, training his aching body until he knew only the desire for perfection, the perfect kill, the perfect kiss. He threw back his head, arched his back, and called Liannan to his side.
When he opened his eyes, there was nothing but the tarmac, the worn building, and the chalk outlines of what looked like a child’s game. Nick waited for a heartbeat, despaired for a breath, and then saw pale fire building from one chalked-in line.
It was a very pale fire, almost colorless, as if water had learned how to burn. Liannan rose from a high flame the color of a fountain with her head bowed, like a goddess rising from the sea. The fire settled over the circle, lapping gently as the sea at low tide around them, and she stood before Nick and lifted her face to his.
His talisman sent a pang of sheer agony through his body, and he gave a quick gasp. She smiled.
She was smiling; she who was a legend in lands where men would follow her into ice and shadow for a smile. She was dazzling, and she would have been even more beautiful if she had not been so pale. Pallor lay over her like a veil, making the color of her eyes impossible to distinguish and cooling the fire of her red hair, as if the vivid color was seen under frost.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, her voice ringing like the chimes at the Goblin Market.
Nick crossed his arms and stared at her. The less he spoke, the less chance there was she could trick him.
Liannan tilted her head. “Do you like this?” she asked. “I remember you always had a fancy for red hair.”
Nick actually preferred blondes, but that hardly mattered. She thought he was a different man, centuries dead, and probably dead by her hand. Demons found it hard to tell humans apart.
“It’s all right,” Nick said grudgingly. “I have two questions for you. I know I didn’t dance with a partner or take the fruit. Tell me your price for answering them.”
“My price.” Liannan’s voice changed to a whisper that sounded like a waterfall. “I will answer one question — if you take off your talisman.”
Every dancer always wore a talisman, because a demon could mark you if you were in a circle, as easily as they could take a mark off you, if you did not wear some protection.
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If he refused, though, she would go. She had chosen her shape, and it was a shape to seduce rather than to force. He could stop her if she tried to mark him.
Nick nodded, and for the first time in eight years, he took off his talisman and cast it to one side.
Losing the talisman should have made him feel vulnerable, but he felt nothing but relief. He always carried the talisman and thought of what had happened to Alan without one. He carried it and bore with the endless prickling discomfort, the pain doubled whenever a demon was near or spells were performed in his presence. He was free of pain at last, and he felt wonderful.
This new freedom made him feel more confident rather than less. He didn’t need any warning. He could deal with demons on his own.
He looked at Liannan and smiled. A smile spread over her face in return, a sad, beautiful smile, with just the faintest gleam of sharp teeth.
She reached out for him, her fingers shining like knives. They were icicles.
“I can touch you now,” she said.
If he tried to fight her, Nick might accidentally step out of the circle. He let her touch him. It wasn’t so bad, since she looked like a girl. She might have been any girl, with her slim body pressed against his, her eyes fixed beseechingly on his face. One hand was curled around his neck, her fingers sharp and cold.
“Ask me your question.”
“Where are the Obsidian Circle?”
She didn’t answer him. That would have been too easy.
Nick could see the demon’s breath, as if she were a child puffing out warm clouds into the cold air, but her breath against his cheek was icy.
“The Obsidian Circle,” she repeated thoughtfully. “That was the Circle that hunted you first. That was the Circle that wanted you most.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Nick snapped.
“All right,” Liannan said, and laughed. “Did you know that was the Circle that killed a man called Daniel Ryves?”
Nick thought of being eight years old and watching his father fall to ash.
“This Circle has something to pay for, then,” he said. “I’m glad you told me. I’ll be glad to kill them. Now, where are they?”
“Exeter,” said Liannan. “But you won’t find them there. They’re leaving soon.”
How like a demon to give an answer that was completely true and utterly useless. Liannan must have seen some of Nick’s fury in his face. It made her laugh.
She had two rows of pointed teeth like a shark. They all flashed when she laughed, and she swayed closer to him. Her mouth was the color of frozen cherries.
“What is it like, being human?” she asked. “I cannot imagine what it must be like, to feel the blood warm in your veins and the sun warm on your face. Will you tell me that you love me?”
“I don’t love you,” said Nick. “I don’t even know you, demon.”
“You did know me once.”
“Did I?” Nick asked. “When was that, exactly? A hundred years ago? More?”
“Something like that,” Liannan murmured.
“How do you think humans work?”
She had no eyelashes, like any reptile or underwater thing. She only looked like a human at first glance, before you noticed that small details were wrong.
“I have no idea,” she answered, and lifted her free hand to touch his face.
The cold burned and numbed him to the pain. He did not even feel a sting when the icicles cut him, only blood trickling down his cheek. She put her mouth to his face, her lips cold but very soft. When she leaned back, her mouth looked warmer, and she trailed her hand down Nick’s chest. His shirt tore under her sharp fingers.
Her clasp around his neck, more palm than icicle fingers, was firm. It was as if she thought he might try to get away.
“Do you think I’m afraid of you?” Nick asked.
“I hope not,” she said. “There is something else I think you should know. Anzu is working for the Obsidian Circle.”
“Oh, so I shouldn’t trust him,” Nick said. “In future, I should only summon you.”
Nick laughed. “Demons work for anyone who can call them,” he said. “Do you think I don’t know that? Do you think I don’t know better than to trust any demon? Don’t try to play your tricks on me. I have another question. Name your price.”
Liannan sighed like a tired child and rested her head on his shoulder. He felt her chilly breath running down the back of his neck, making him shiver every time she spoke.
“My dear,” she said. “My darling, my beloved. What do these words mean? I suppose you know now.”
Nick meant his tone to be brutal, meant it to turn the words into an offense, but the demon lifted a face to him that was as radiant as sunlight on miles of snow.
“I want some warmth to take back with me,” she whispered, her voice an icy breeze. “Surely you remember — a time when you were warm.”
“That’s your price?” Nick asked, to seal the bargain.
“That’s my price,” said Liannan. “A moment of your life.”
If he failed to pay the price, she could take anything she wanted.
“Tell me where the Obsidian Circle are going,” Nick said. “And you can take it.”
The demon nodded and stood on tiptoe to press her soft, cold mouth to Nick’s. Nick shut his eyes and tried, as her kiss chilled him and her icicle fingers scrabbled against his skin, to think of a time when he had been warm.
He shivered, struggled against panic, and remembered being cold.
Liannan had mentioned his father. Perhaps it was that which reminded Nick of the time right after they had lost him. They were living in Scotland then, in the smallest, cheapest flat Alan had been able to find. Alan, injured and unable to walk, was not sure how to make Mum go out to work, and their heat had been cut off in the middle of winter.
Through the thin walls, Nick heard Alan crying every night. Nick had not been sure if he was supposed to cry too. He had never cried in his life, and he did not particularly want to do it now. He just lay curled in bed, his mind ticking bleakly over all these new facts. He was eight years old, his father was dead, his brother was crippled, and he was so cold.
He was huddled under the blankets, thinking about it all, when his brother limped in and carefully heaped his own blankets over Nick’s bed. Nick stared silently up at Alan’s face, pale and tired, marked with new lines of pain. His glasses were too big for him and kept tilting off. Alan had smiled at him determinedly and crawled in under the covers, sliding his arm around Nick. Alan had been bigger than Nick back then, big enough so that Nick felt a little shielded from a world that had turned unfriendly, and Alan’s body and the new blankets made him start to feel warm.
Alan had reached out and smoothed Nick’s rumpled hair. “You’re mine,” he said, in a trembling young voice that already had a ring of Dad’s about it. “And I’m going to take care of you.”
It was a memory of warmth, after all.
Liannan leaned back, her lips parted. Her eyes were shining like ice under moonlight. “Thank you,” she said.
Then she put her winter-cold mouth to his ear and whispered, “No need to go looking for them. They’ll be in London in nine days. Didn’t you guess? The whole Circle is coming for you.”
Nick came home afterward feeling like a gutted fish, limp and neatly filleted. His mouth felt bruised from the cold, and he did not want to tell Alan what he had learned.
Alan took one look at him and shut his eyes.
“Missing school again,” he said, putting aside his book. “How am I supposed to bring you up right if you won’t cooperate?”
“Dunno,” Nick said, and stretched himself out on the couch with his head near Alan’s good leg. Alan looked worriedly down at his face and torn clothes.
“So you’ve obviously had a fight — with some of the hyenas that have been menacing the streets of London. And you got roughed up.”
“You should see the hyenas,” Nick said, and shut his eyes.
There were sounds upstairs. Mum must be feeling particularly lively today; Nick hoped this would not be one of the times she started to scream and would not stop.
“Er,” Alan said, and Nick heard the note of unease in his voice. “Before I bring you antiseptic—”
“And a sandwich.”
“There’s something you should know.”
Before Alan could tell him what he should know, Nick knew. There were footsteps coming down the stairs, and the door to the sitting room swung open to reveal Mae, with Jamie peeping nervously over her shoulder.
Nick rose in one movement, barely checking a snarl. He hated to be caught at a disadvantage at any time, let alone at a time when two people, who had caused him enough trouble already, decided to invade his home.
“They arrived about half an hour ago,” Alan explained. “Jamie has to be there for the kill. It does make sense….”
Nick did not think having strangers in his home made sense at all, and he was about to say so when Mae stepped forward, lifting her velvety brown eyes to his face.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“Since you ask,” Nick snapped, “I was gathering some information. The Obsidian Circle is coming for us.”
Alan looked troubled. The Obsidian Circle had been in Exeter, had been hunting them, and had come close enough to send ravens and snakes.