“Thank you, Jamie,” Nick said savagely. “At least somebody is showing some sense—”
“Shh,” Mae ordered, speaking for the first time. She was leaning against the wall, studying their prisoner, and now her eyes narrowed. “I think he’s waking up.”
Everyone fell silent and stared at the magician, who was chained to a chair in the middle of their sitting room and was now stirring.
He was very young, as magicians went. Nick usually only saw magicians in their true forms after he or Alan had managed to kill one, but he did not think any of the corpses had been as young as this. He looked about twenty, but Mum could not have been much older when she joined the Obsidian Circle. Youth did not make him any less dangerous.
It did make him look less dangerous, and he was not a very threatening specimen in any case. The magician had a shock of sandy hair, standing up on his head and then falling into his eyes like the petals on a rather floppy daffodil, and beneath the sandy mop he had a narrow, inquisitive face. There was something about his features, perhaps his long, pointed chin, that vaguely recalled a fox. Apart from that he had a friendly, freckled face, the face of a young man whom old ladies would instantly trust.
He opened wide gray eyes, blinked, and looked dismayed.
“Oh Lord,” said the magician. “Now I am in the soup.”
Nick was not in the least worried about himself or Alan. They knew what magicians were. He was worried about Mae and Jamie, and what their reaction was going to be once they got over the revelation that magicians looked and acted entirely harmless, entirely human. Until they didn’t.
“We’re going to kill you,” he said deliberately. “There will be no negotiation. I want to kill you now, but others of the group think you might have information we need. So we’re going to have to torture you first.”
He added the last sentence so Mae and Jamie could know the worst at once and deal with it however they had to. He didn’t want to have to cope with hysterics later.
“I think I could be persuaded to offer you some information without being tortured, if it’s all the same to you,” the magician said. He had a rueful way of talking, as if inviting sympathy, and a soft Irish accent.
Nick did not often have much use for his switchblade, since the moment it took to flick the weapon open could be a moment that made the difference between life or death. Now he felt he could take his time, and he appreciated the cold, quiet snick the knife made opening, and the way the magician’s face paled as he heard it.
“My name’s Gerald,” the magician said promptly. Again his rueful voice asked them all to laugh a little at the name and see him as a little more human.
His shrewd, friendly eyes traveled over them all, making eye contact and assessing weaknesses. He didn’t even look at Nick, which confirmed Nick’s opinion of him as intelligent. He looked at Alan for a long moment and did nothing, looked at Mae and smiled bravely, and then let his eyes settle on Jamie.
“We don’t care about your name, magician,” said Alan. “Any more than you cared about the names of the people you’ve killed.”
Gerald looked genuinely indignant. “Killers? Is that all you think magicians are?”
“Not really,” Nick said, playing with his switchblade. “If I did, I’d think I was a magician.”
He knew he should shut up. Mae and Jamie were looking from Nick with his knife to Gerald chained in his chair. He knew they were making comparisons.
“I was born a magician,” Gerald said. “It isn’t about anything you do. It’s in the blood. You’re born with the call toward magic, toward power, and one day, no matter what you do, the magic will find you.”
He looked from Jamie to Mae as he spoke, Mae who loved knowledge as much as Alan did, and obviously he found enough encouragement in her face to go on.
“People think we can’t do much magic without demons, but that’s not true. The power that makes calling them easier shows itself in other ways. When I was a child, strange things happened around me all the time. The Obsidian Circle came to recruit me. Nobody had ever understood me before, but I’d always been a magician. One of my ancestors ruled half his country with his power. Magicians see the world differently. Everything is gray and flat and cold, nothing means anything, until you have the demon in your summoning circle and you have some control of the world at last.”
“It’s nice that you feel fulfilled by feeding people to demons,” Alan said mildly. He took a knife from his boot and turned it over in his hand, watching his blade catch the light. “Have you got anything useful to say, or do you need encouragement?”
Nick saw Jamie glance, startled, at Alan’s hard eyes. Soft-spoken Gerald must have been looking better by the minute. If they silenced Gerald now, though, they would look even more brutal.
“It’s not like your Market is as pure as the wings of a dove,” Gerald said sharply. “Do your friends know what it takes to prop up the Market? You’re funded by blood money!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nick said, bored. “But I know it’s not useful.”
“It’s not always a question of feeding people to the demons, either,” Gerald said, still looking at Mae. “Some people want it. Some people ask for it.”
Jamie’s voice was small but fierce, and it made Mae’s intent concentration on the magician waver for the first time. “I didn’t.”
“Then I’m sorry,” Gerald said, and he sounded sorry. “I didn’t send a demon after you. I wouldn’t do something like that. Surely you know that there are people in this world who hate their lives, who don’t seem able to live them, who seem able to do nothing but drag themselves through a succession of endless unpleasant tasks until they die? You’ve seen people like that. You know them. Don’t tell me that you don’t.”
Mae hesitated, and with hesitation was lost. “I do, but—”
“Don’t you think people like that might trade the lives they don’t know how to use for what they want? Demons don’t come as invaders. They offer people something they want, whether it is money or oblivion or a night that makes these people feel alive as nothing else ever has. And when those people choose to give in, the world gets something in exchange. Demons have lived for centuries; they are wise and powerful, they can give so much back to the world—”
“They can give you such power,” Alan said. “Your Circle marked Jamie and me. Neither of us were willing. I don’t think any of your victims would be willing if they understood what they were agreeing to.”
Mae cleared her throat. “So sometimes they do agree?”
“Sometimes they do,” Alan had to confess.
“I don’t unleash demons on unwilling victims,” Gerald went on, clearly trying to throw enough conviction into his voice to carry both Mae and Jamie with him. “I’m sorry you were marked.” His voice trembled. “Are you really going to torture me?”
He looked directly at Jamie, who looked as panicked as if someone had handed him a thumbscrew and was waiting with an expectant air. “No,” he said, almost wildly. “No, I can’t. I couldn’t possibly.”
He turned his face away from Gerald and fixed Alan with a look of appeal. Alan stood, limped over to him, and placed a hand on Jamie’s thin shoulder. The gesture might have been more reassuring if Alan hadn’t had a knife in his other hand.
“Don’t worry,” Alan said. “You don’t have to. I can do it.”
He looked strained as he said it, but he did not hesitate. Nick was sure Alan didn’t like it, as sure as he was that Alan would do it if he had to.
When Mae spoke, it caught everyone off guard. “If it will help my brother. If it’s for Jamie and — and you,” she said, and faltered for a moment on seeing Alan’s look of startled happiness. “Then I can help. I can do it too.”
It surprised Nick enough to make him smile at her. She looked ill, but she kept her chin up and her shoulders back and met Nick’s eyes with an unflinching gaze. The girl might have an unsettling crying habit, but she was pure steel.
“You don’t have to do it either,” Alan said. “I can handle this on my own. I’ll get my things.”
As the door shut behind him, Nick knew how things would go: Alan would collect his box of instruments and have a few moments to himself so he could try to deal with what he had to do, and he wouldn’t be able to deal with it, and then he’d do it anyway. He would look white and strained and later he’d be sick, but he would never hesitate.
“I can do it,” Mae said, as the door shut behind Alan. She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself.
Nick had to work fast.
“I know that both of you can do it,” he said. Then he strolled over to Gerald, leaned in as if he was going to whisper a secret, and spoke in a perfectly audible voice. “But I want to do it.”
Gerald flinched at how close Nick was, and avoided his eyes. He was almost squirming in his chains to get away from Nick, and for the first time it occurred to Nick that he might be as badly frightened as he seemed.
If he was frightened, it was all to the good. He could be scared into telling them what he knew. It would please Alan if he could be spared unnecessary pain.
Nick slid into the man’s lap, getting as close as he could so he could scare him worse, listening to the scared hitch of Gerald’s breathing. He tossed his switchblade into the air and caught it, near the corner of Gerald’s eye, and saw the magician’s eyes swivel in an attempt to keep the knife in sight.
All Nick had was a knife. He had to do this quick, and rough, before Alan returned.
“Do you think I won’t do it?” he asked, his voice low in the man’s ear.
No matter where Gerald looked, he kept his eyes resolutely away from Nick’s face. Nick stroked the blade idly down Gerald’s cheek and the man shuddered. Nick had been right. He was terrified.
“I’m sure you will,” Gerald said, his voice shaking.
“How many of you are there?”
That was a good size for a magicians’ Circle. There were often fallings-out among magicians, power plays that left a Circle decimated. Black Arthur must be a strong leader to keep eleven others in check.
“The Circle’s moving to London. Where are you moving?”
Gerald swallowed, hesitating. Nick slashed a line across his cheekbone and the magician made a sharp, pained sound. Nick intended to show him he meant business, and the cut was deep. Blood welled in the gash and streamed down Gerald’s cheek. Nick recognized the gasp behind him as Jamie’s, and when he heard the sound of someone rushing to the bathroom and retching he wasn’t particularly surprised. Alan hated to see people hurt too. If they had grown up differently, Alan might have been as squeamish as Jamie.
“Central London,” Gerald gasped out. “I don’t know where exactly, I swear. I think our master bought a house near one of the big parks.”
The door opened again. Nick was somewhat surprised that Jamie had been able to come back this soon.
“And Black Arthur’s still your leader.”
“If Arthur’s alive, he’s the leader,” said a voice behind Nick. “That’s Arthur’s way.”
Nick looked over his shoulder and saw his mother. She seldom came downstairs unless Alan coaxed her, but she was here now, as if she had sensed that something momentous was happening. She was wearing a black shirt and trousers, and she had pushed her hair back from her face. It made her look almost normal.
Gerald was able to look at her. He stared at her with his mouth open, and she smiled snd "0%at him. The confident, amused smile looked like someone had pasted the mouth of another woman onto her wan face.