“You know who I am, then.”
“Lady Livia,” Gerald breathed.
Mum kept smiling. “That’s what he used to call me. You were after my time, I think.”
“Yes. I had nothing to do with what was done to you,” Gerald said, bloody but maintaining his calm.
Nick felt his lip curl. “He claims to be innocent of most things.”
Mum glanced over at Nick fleetingly. Her odd smile did not leave her lips, though her eyes were suddenly fixed and cold. She made an abrupt gesture of dismissal, as if she still called demons and had one in her power, and then she looked away from Nick immediately.
It was best to humor her. Nick flipped his bloody knife closed and swung lightly off Gerald, moving to the point farthest away from her in the room. Mum approached Gerald, walking lightly, and came to kneel at his feet.
“Innocent?” she repeated, her smile looking more fixed and strange than ever.
She pulled her shirt down, revealing an expanse of dead-white skin and, over her heart, black against the smooth whiteness, the sigil of the Obsidian Circle. It reminded Nick of the sign above one of the Salisbury pubs, showing a woman in a giant hand. Drawn over Mum’s heart was a hand, cupping not a woman but the world. There was a suggestion of tension about the fingers of the hand, as if they were just about to clench over the world and crush it.
Mum reached up and drew down Gerald’s shirt, stretching the cotton out of shape. There over his heart was the same hand, holding the same world.
“Nobody who wears this mark is innocent,” Mum whispered.
Gerald, blood still running down his face, sagged a little in his chair. “You’re not going to help me, are you?”
“No,” said Mum. “I don’t owe you anything. How is Arthur?”
“I don’t think he’s changed,” Gerald said. “He talks about you, often. He never wanted to hurt you. He chose you—”
Mum laughed and leaped to her feet lightly, as if she were young. “I chose him. That’s the problem with wanting someone who will change the world for you. Choose a man with that much power over the world, and all he really wants is more power.” She turned away and went over to Mae, standing so close to her that she could have slipped an arm around her waist.
“It’s probably best to change the world yourself,” she added. “Nobody should risk being a sacrifice.”
It was strange seeing Mum lean close to Mae, as if she was a normal woman with someone she liked, but Nick didn’t have time to think about that. Alan would be back soon. He flipped open his knife again and gave Gerald a meaningful look.
“What else do you want to know?” Gerald asked wearily.
“When does the Circle plan to move to London?” Nick demanded.
Nick moved forward, relentless as the tide. He leaned down to Gerald and closed his free hand around the magician’s throat.
“I’ve been talking a lot about my feelings recently,” he informed Gerald in a conversational tone. “I don’t really get scared. Want to know what else I don’t feel?”
Gerald’s voice was a whisper through the vise grip on his throat. “What?”
Nick trailed his knife down the cotton of Gerald’s T-shirt until the blade rested against Gerald’s stomach. The magician trembled and closed his eyes. Cut someone in the belly, and they could live for hours afterward. They just wouldn’t like life much.
Nick leaned closer to Gerald, laughed in his ear, and murmured, “Pity.”
“Nick!” said Alan from the doorway. “What are you doing?”
“Saving you some trouble,” Nick answered, and then looked over his shoulder.
Alan had one hand clenched on the door frame, knuckles white, as if only his grip on the door was keeping him on his feet. He looked as if someone had punched him in the stomach.
“Get away from him!”
Nick released Gerald’s throat and pocketed his switchblade in one move, abandoning the magician and walking toward his brother. Alan flinched, and Nick stopped.
“What’s the big deal?” Nick asked roughly, not sure what words would help and what words would upset Alan more. “I don’t — I don’t know what I did wrong. It bothers you, it doesn’t bother me, I thought I could do it and you’d be — I thought you’d be happy.”
Alan closed his eyes and swallowed, and something about his face reminded Nick of the way Gerald had looked as he waited for the knife to come down.
“It should bother you,” Alan said in a low voice.
Nick was suddenly furious. He was sick of this whole business. He wanted to kill this man, not chat with him. He wanted Alan to stop telling him what he should do and start telling him the truth; it seemed like his whole life was slipping through his hands and all he had left were lies and rules he did not understand.
He didn’t want to look at his brother. He didn’t need to be here.
“Fine. You deal with this,” he said between his teeth. “You guys have fun. I’m going to go wash all this blood off.”
He watched for Alan’s flinch this time, and then shoved past him out of the door. He climbed the stairs wearily, pulling off a T-shirt that had been grubby from the roofs of Salisbury before he’d spilled someone else’s blood on it. He was so sick of Alan having this mark, so sick of Mae being always around and always on the verge of becoming a problem between him and his brother. Nick wanted all of this over, and the magician dead.
The shower hissed at him like a chorus of snakes when he twisted the knob and set the water running. He got in and bowed his head under the spray.
He was under the water for about a minute when he heard the gunshot.
Nick grabbed for his jeans and realized as he was pulling them on that his knives must have fallen out when he was getting undressed. There was no time to go back for them; he ran down the stairs empty-handed with the shower hissing behind him.
There was a wolf in the sitting room.
It was big and brindled, with thick fur that tufted into white at the places where its hackles rose. Its bared teeth were sharp and yellow. It was circling Gerald’s chair, and from deep within its barrel chest rose a long, continuous snarl. It was too big, its teeth too sharp, and the snarl too menacing. It was probably a magician whom some demon had given enough power to make a very convincing illusion. Convincing enough to kill.
Gerald’s voice was shaking. “Let me loose! The Circle will kill me before they let me talk. Don’t let me die without a fight. I can help you. Let me go!”
Mum was backed into a corner with Mae and Jamie, as if the wolf had herded them there. Alan was standing by the magician’s chair with his gun trained on the wolf. Nick edged forward, scooping up a discarded chain from the pile they’d used to truss up Gerald, and saw the wolf’s head move a fraction. It fixed its yellow eyes on Alan and snarled.
Nick had already heard a gunshot. Alan did not miss: If the wolf was not dead, then it was bulletproof.
The wolf’s snarl became a stuttering, ugly growl that sounded like a dying car engine. Its haunches bunched up for a spring.
Nick wrapped the end of the chain around his fist and lunged forward. He brought the chain down hard against the wolf’s back and heard the animal yelp, then yanked the chain back, over his head, and as the wolf swung to face him he dived for it before it could leap at him. They went down together, the wolf’s growl reverberating through its body and its body crashing down on Nick’s. Its claws scored burning lines down Nick’s chest, and its teeth snapped an inch from his face.
He threw his chain over the creature’s head, caught the other end and twisted the makeshift choke chain hard in both hands. The wolf choked, the cold weight of the chain hurting Nick’s hands. He kept almost grabbing big handfuls of fur and the wolf lunged, trying to find a way to breathe, shoving hard against the single barrier of the chain.
The sound of Alan’s gun rang out again, even though he must know by now it wouldn’t work. Nick turned his face to one side and felt the wolf’s hot breath on his face, felt its teeth graze his cheek. He pulled the chain tight with both his hands and tried to hold the wolf at arm’s length while the creature snarled and tried to throw itself at him. Nick pulled the wolf on top of him, rolling with it in a nightmare of claws and straining muscle, trying to wrestle it and strangle it at once. The wolf twisted its head around and sank its teeth in Nick’s wrist.
Nick did not have time to scream. He pulled the choke chain closed, a band of iron around the wolf’s neck. A howl was choked off in the wolf’s throat and the fierce thrashing of its body started to seem less like an attack and more like desperation. It kept trying to breathe. Pain lanced through Nick’s arms with the effort of keeping the chain tight and ever tighter, the wolf’s eyes were bulging in its head, and suddenly it collapsed forward against Nick’s chest.
Instead of a wolf, a woman fell against Nick, her long hair tumbling into his face. He pushed the body off him and sat up with difficulty, his arms suddenly feeling weak, and let the chain slip out of his hands.
It occurred to him when it was too late that if he’d only had his sword, if he’d been able to make her bleed before he killed her, he could have used her blood to paint over Alan’s mark. Alan would have been safe.
He climbed wearily to his feet, unsurprised to see Jamie and Mae staring at him with shocked faces. They weren’t used to death yet. Mum turned her eyes away when he glanced at her. She looked sick.
Alan grabbed his shoulder and spun him around with one hand. He looked furious.
“Where is it?” he demanded, his eyes blazing. “What have you done with it?”
“What?” said Nick. “What are you talking about?”
“Your talisman!” Alan shouted. He was shaking. “Do you know what could have happened? How long have you had it off? Tell me you just took it off now, Nick. Tell me that much.”
Of course. His talisman. Now that Alan said it, Nick was completely aware that it was gone. In some corner of his mind he’d known for some time that the small, constant burden had been lifted. Its irritating presence had been an absence ever since — ever since—
“I took it off to call Liannan,” he said slowly. “I left it in a building site.”
Color drained from Alan’s face, his veins standing out like blue lines struck across white paper. “You haven’t worn your talisman for a week.”
“You gave your talisman away.”
“I—” Alan lowered his voice. “I didn’t throw it away! I meant it to be for a couple of hours. A week, Nick! Anything could have happened. God.”
Now that Nick had killed something, he felt better. He’d done something at last, something useful, and even though his arms ached and his wounds stung he felt calmer; some of his simmering rage had burned away in the fight. Alan was worried about him, and that wasn’t bad either.
“Sorry,” he offered at length. “I’ll get one later.”
Alan was hanging on to his shoulder as if Nick had almost walked out into traffic and Alan had only just been able to catch him in time. As Nick spoke he breathed out deeply, once, and shut his eyes. He slipped out of Alan’s grasp as gently as he could and stood watching him uncertainly, wondering what he’d done wrong now.
“You’re lucky your big brother learns from his mistakes,” Alan said at length. “Come on upstairs. I got some spares at the Goblin Market.”
He limped toward the door and Nick followed him for a few steps, then stopped. Alan threw a glance over his shoulder that was more silent command than look; Nick took another step forward without even thinking.
“Wait,” he said. “There could be more magicians around. We shouldn’t leave this one alone with two tourists and her.”