Jamie’s body snapped back as if he had been punched. “Possessed.” He jerked his head toward all the other metal doors, glinting along the corridor until the light was not sufficient enough for them to see and the doors went on in darkness. “Are you saying that behind every door there’s someone—”
“Unless one of them has died since yesterday.” Merris’s wide gray eyes moved past Jamie and looked over them all. She obviously saw something in one of their faces that irritated her, because her lip curled and she demanded in her turn, “Have none of you ever given a moment’s thought to what happens to the possessed?”
None of them had an answer for her. Merris waited for a moment so they could all be fully aware of that and went on.
“A mute, magically powerful creature replaces an ordinary person overnight. You can’t imagine that passes unnoticed. If the possessed has a family, they soon notice the change. They’re horrified, and they have nobody to help them. Except us.”
She smiled. “We have these new magical circles specifically designed to confine a demon who has acquired a human body. We have containment facilities. If people come to us with tales of possessed friends and relatives, we do not talk about mental illness and we do not disbelieve in the demon’s power. Mezentius House is the only place these desperate people can turn, and of course, we obey the businesslike laws of supply and demand. They pay well for our help.”
“They’re people in trouble!” Jamie cried, wiping his mouth as if he’d eaten something bad and could not rub away the taste.
Nick thought suddenly of what that magician Gerald had said, that the Market was funded with blood money. This was why everyone obeyed Merris Cromwell. This money was what helped the Market people — helped them — find houses and transfer to new schools and jobs quickly.
The money was paid by the families of people who’d been possessed, like Jamie might be. Like Alan might be. He wondered what Sin would think of this.
Merris raised her eyebrows. “So are the people who go to hospitals, and they have to pay. There are a lot of hospitals. There is only one Mezentius House.”
Thoughts of Alan aside, it did not sound unreasonable to Nick. Those who dealt in magic had their own private economy, and Merris had worked out how to manipulate it in her favor. There was just one thing he didn’t understand.
He cleared his throat. “Why don’t you kill them all?”
“The relatives seem curiously reluctant to have the possessed killed. Particularly once I explain to them that their loved one is inside somewhere, unable to regain control of their body. Their friends and family want them controlled but not harmed. They pray for miracles. Sometimes they insist on staying with them, hoping to ease their pain.” Merris shrugged. “That costs extra.”
“The magical circles you keep the possessed in,” Alan said with what appeared to be scientific interest. “How different are they from normal magicians’ circles? Can you command a demon in them? Could you summon one?”
“I cannot imagine why we would want to. We have quite enough to do with the demons we have. I consider keeping them confined the most important part,” said Merris dryly. “Since you came all this way to insist on answers, I have a few diagrams I can show you that detail how our circles work.”
“I’d appreciate that,” said Alan.
“They’re very basic,” Merris said. “You can’t summon a demon into them. We haven’t even worked out a way to make communication lines work for them. Almost the only thing we can do is keep them trapped.”
“What if a dancer was involved?” Alan asked, frowning. “Speaking purely academically, of course.”
Nick wondered if Alan had some sort of plan for trapping the demons the magicians sent after them. It didn’t sound like it would work.
Mae and Jamie were still staring into the cell with horrified fascination, and after a moment, Mae spoke.
“Does a miracle ever happen? I mean, if you have them trapped — does the demon ever leave?”
“No demon ever leaves,” Merris said. “No matter what happens to them, they prefer our world to theirs. But people keep hoping, right until the end.”
She nodded casually to the window in the metal door. They all watched, as if the window was a television and the scene had been designed for them to see, while chestnut-haired Ruth climbed stiffly to her feet. She put her hand to Thomas’s face, and Thomas — did not blink, exactly. His eyes flickered as if he had multiple eyelids, like a cat, and when his eyes were open they were normal eyes again. He watched the woman with his flat gaze and under his eyes a cut opened on her cheek. She moaned and held her hand to her face, and he looked at her arm. Another gash opened there, as if his traveling eyes were knives.
“Don’t worry,” Merris told them. “The demon’s using all the magic he can think of to make her let him out, but he won’t damage her permanently. He knows she’s the only one who will feed him.”
Moving like an old woman, Ruth replaced her hand against the possessed Thomas’s face. She stroked his cheek briefly, and Nick saw her lips move, though he could not make out what she was saying. It had never occurred to Nick before that communication lines could not be drawn for a demon possessing a human. He’d known that possessed people did not speak. Now, watching the possessed body watch the woman with reptilian blankness, he realized that the demon really could not understand.
The woman kept talking, even though it was pointless. Nick thought he made out the word ‘love’ when she spoke, but he could have been wrong.
Mae said, trying and failing to repress a tremor in her voice, “Is she his daughter?”
“Oh no, my dear,” Merris said absently. “The man’s young. His body’s tearing itself apart trying to fight the demon; he didn’t look like this a week ago. She’s his wife.”
The demon who looked like Thomas smiled at his wife, and then his tongue darted out and caught the other beetle that had once been his eye. It made a soft, sickening sound between his teeth. The woman gagged, and he kept grinning.
“He’s just trying to scare her,” said Merris, her voice still clinical and uninterested. “A demon will try to manipulate a human any way it can. Don’t worry. She knows better than to be fooled.”
Ruth put a hand to her own mouth and started to cry.
Nick rather expected Jamie to turn and bolt, but it was Alan who did so.
One moment he was by Nick’s side, still and quiet as he was when he was upset and turning in on himself, but in control. The next he was limping as fast as he could down the corridor, back in the direction they had come, away from the metal doors hiding the demons.
Nick should have looked at Alan; he should have made sure he wasn’t upset. Alan could usually handle himself, but this was different. Alan was carrying a second-tier mark. Alan was thinking of his future.
Nick considered waiting for Mae to offer to go after him. That would please Alan, he thought, but Mae did not offer. Nick glanced at her and saw her standing close by Jamie, feet planted apart as if she was going to wrestle someone, looking furiously concerned. She did not want to leave her brother.
That was fine by Nick. He didn’t want to leave his brother either.
“Don’t come after us,” he said curtly, and spun around and after Alan.
Mae would probably be better at comforting Alan than he would. Jamie would probably be better at it. Nick did not have the slightest idea what to do, but Alan was his brother and no one else’s, and he would think of something.
He found Alan in a bathroom, stooped over the sink and looking like he was going to be sick. The water was running, and Alan was splashing his face frantically. He looked up and saw Nick at the mirror. Nick looked at his own stone-faced reflection and Alan’s almost frightened eyes.
“Alan,” he said, his voice rough.
Alan closed his eyes. “What?”
Nick advanced cautiously, wishing this was as simple as creeping up on someone to kill them. “You okay?”
He wondered if other people ever realized how stupid half the things they said were. Alan was shaking and scared and obviously not okay, but Nick had to ask because that was what you asked, and no matter how stupid the usual words sounded, Nick had no words of his own to offer.
“I might be okay,” said Alan, who told lies.
He looked down again, into the basin of the sink and away from their reflections. There were dark circles under Alan’s eyes, Nick saw in the cold, uncompromising picture the mirror gave him, and deep lines around his mouth. He was so much paler than he had been even a week ago. It made Nick think of the demon they’d left behind, in a body that had looked young last week.
“Don’t,” he said, and cleared his throat. “You don’t need to worry.” He had to drag every word out. “It won’t happen to you. I won’t let it.”
“That’s not why,” Alan said, but his shoulders relaxed.
This encouraged Nick to go over to him, but once he was there he could only hang uselessly over his brother. Alan was the one who was good at this stuff, who was always hair ruffling or shoulder patting. Gestures like that did not come naturally to Nick, any more than comforting words did.
“Sure it’s not,” Nick said, trying hard to make his voice gentle. It cracked and came out sounding harsh.
He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, and after a moment Alan gave a sigh that was either tired or resigned. Nick kept his head bowed as Alan’s hand settled on his neck, palm gun-callused, and rested there.
Nick had never seen the point of just touching people, but if this made Alan feel better, he supposed it wasn’t so bad.
“Why did we come here?” he asked.
“I wanted to see the possessed patients,” Alan answered, his voice low. “But I didn’t want you to see them. I didn’t want any of you to see.”
“It’s all right,” Nick said, trying to be comforting. “They didn’t bother me.”
He glanced up at Alan, and Alan did not look comforted. He looked as if he was exhausted and in pain.
Nick felt a sharp pang of frustration, like when he’d been younger and teachers had asked him to read aloud or girls had expected some sort of gesture from him, but a thousand times worse because this was his brother and it mattered.
“I’ll protect you,” he said at last, awkwardly. He felt stupid saying it; Alan already knew that he would.
Alan looked a little steadier, all the same. “I’m counting on it.”
“Good,” said Nick. “You’ll be okay. I’ll protect you. Don’t — don’t be upset anymore.”
Alan made a soft sound, trembling between a breath and a laugh. “I’m not upset.”
“You liar,” Nick mumbled.
Alan stroked his hair just once, and then drew his hand away. “I’m okay now,” he said. “Really.”
It sounded true, sounded like something Nick could believe. He remembered feeling peaceful on the boat, just trusting Alan, and it seemed like something he could do again.
Nick’s phone rang. He cursed and half rose in order to fish it out of his jeans, and then looked blankly at the number that appeared on the screen.
“Who the…?” He shrugged and made to cut them off.
“Probably one of your many admirers,” Alan said. “Go ahead, answer it. I’m all right, I promise. I’ll be out in a minute.”
Nick had been busy lately. He didn’t remember giving his number out to any girls, but if Alan wanted a moment, he should have it. Nick scrambled to his feet, lingered for an instant wondering if he should say anything, and ended up just nodding at his brother. Alan smiled at Nick as he went out the door, and he answered the phone in a good mood. Whoever the girl was, he’d pretend to remember her.