“Hey,” he said easily.
There was a brief pause, and then a sharp inhale, and a woman’s voice. “Hello,” she said. “Is this the person who put Marie’s picture in the paper?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
Nick spoke automatically, so she wouldn’t go away before he had a chance to think.
“My name is Natasha Walsh,” the woman said. “Marie was my sister.”
“She’s dead?” Nick rapped out.
He felt nothing but satisfaction at the thought. She was dead then, that smiling blond girl, and if she was dead she could not lay claim to his brother. He had what he wanted. He almost hung up on her then.
The woman spoke an instant before he did. “Look,” she said, and then her words tumbled out, so fast they all rolled together. “Is this about Alan? Is he all right? I haven’t seen him since last Christmas.”
The way she talked about Alan sounded personal. Nobody whom Nick had never heard of before in his life should be able to talk about his brother like that.
“Last Christmas,” Nick repeated.
So Nick’s half suspicion had been true: Alan had gone away and left them for that dead girl. He’d lied about having to do a translation; he’d left Nick in a cold, dark house that felt abandoned, with Mum rocking upstairs. Nick wanted to know why he’d done it. He wanted to know exactly what this girl had been to Alan.
He put a hand to the back of his neck, his own grip stronger and rougher than Alan’s, and thought about trusting his brother.
“Look,” he said abruptly. “This isn’t a good time. Can I—I’ll call you back.”
He turned the phone off before she could speak again. Then he weighed it, small and stupid-looking in his big hand. He didn’t know why he even had a phone, he thought; he never wanted to call anybody.
He did know why, of course. Alan had given him the phone, and he’d kept it because he knew it made Alan feel better to know that he could get in touch with Nick whenever he wanted and check that he was safe.
Nick slid the phone into his pocket and came to a decision. He’d go to Alan and tell him everything. Nick had been hiding things too, but he’d tell Alan that he knew about Marie and what he’d done to find out more. Alan would understand that the secrets and lies had to stop.
He wasn’t in the bathroom where Nick had left him. Nick frowned and began to retrace their steps, going slowly back toward where they’d left Mae and Jamie. He was only halfway down the corridor when he was caught and held by the sound of his brother’s voice behind a door.
“I knew he’d be sick,” Alan said. “That didn’t matter.”
Nick had been about to open the door, and now he found himself staring at it instead.
“It seems a lot of things haven’t mattered to you,” said the voice of Merris Cromwell.
There was a small pause, and Alan replied, “I don’t regret anything I’ve done.”
Alan had been set on coming here, and Nick had been set on following him. He would have done it no matter what, but the thought that Alan had cold-bloodedly accepted that Nick would be ill made him feel an uneasy shift in his stomach, as if he was still sick. He couldn’t connect the image of his brother Alan — who’d raised him, packed his school lunches, and used to sit on the edge of Nick’s bed like a small, ferociously patient owl, waiting for him to fall asleep — with the dispassionate voice behind the door.
“You may not regret it, but the Market will resent it,” Merris Cromwell said, her voice low and cold. “If we had known, we would never have let you come among us. You’ll never be welcome there again.”
Alan had told Merris about Mum. Nick should have felt something about that, but he didn’t. He felt nothing. He stood in the cold, echoing corridor unable to make sense of anything.
“Do you think I care?” Alan demanded. “Can you help me or not?”
“I can’t help you, and I’m glad I can’t,” Merris said icily. “Don’t look to the Market for help from now on. Everyone’s hand will be turned against you. You’re on your own.”
Nick heard Alan make a sound he recognized, a soft, shaky breath; hurt but pulling himself together. “I thought I would be. I know what I have to do, then. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” Merris said. “Don’t do this.” There was a real note of pain in her voice suddenly, as if she’d thought she knew Alan, as if she’d believed in Alan like Nick had. “Take my advice, Alan. Nobody ever needs to know about this. Hand it over to the magicians. Walk away.”
It was good advice, Market advice. Nobody from the Market would have shielded a magician, or been suicidal enough to openly defy a Circle. Nick wished Alan would take it. If he’d just give up on Mum and give away the charm, Mum would die — but she’d been a magician, and she deserved to die. With the threat of a whole Circle after them lifted, he could protect Alan. They could get that mark off.
But apparently he didn’t know Alan any more than Merris did.
“Take my advice, Merris,” Alan said in a voice twice as cold as hers. “Don’t ever suggest anything like that to me again.”
Merris’ voice was a low hiss. “Get out of my house.”
“No,” said Alan. “First I want you to arrange somewhere else for us to live.”
“And why should I do that?”
“Because I still have contacts in the Market,” Alan told her. “You may spread your stories about me, and some will believe you, but I’m the sweet, studious boy that everybody likes. You’re the mystery. Nobody knows where you get your money from, and I don’t think many people will approve of you leeching money from the helpless victims of magicians and using it to gain power in our Market. Because that’s the way I’ll spin it, Merris. And people will believe me. I can make people trust me; you should know that. Even you did.”
“Believe me, I’m regretting it now.” Merris’s voice snapped into her usual tones, cool and bargaining. “A house is the price of your silence? So be it. You and yours will be out of my home by morning. And you’d better keep your part of the bargain, or I’ll have you killed.”
“Done,” said Alan, in the exact same tone. Then his voice softened. “I’m sorry I have to do this.”
There was no hint of yielding in Merris’s voice. “You don’t have to do this. You should give it up.”
“I’m sorry,” Alan said, his voice kind but firm, “but I’ve already done this and I’ll do a lot worse. I will not give up. And if you can’t help me, Merris, then get the hell out of my way.”
Under any other circumstances, Nick would have found it funny: his brother blackmailing Merris of the Market and not turning a hair. He would’ve approved. Only now it was more proof of what Mum meant to Alan.
Mum and Marie, the girl in the picture. Alan wouldn’t tell him his plans for saving Mum, and he hadn’t even told him that Marie existed. Alan wouldn’t tell him anything, but that didn’t matter. Nick could find out the truth on his own.
He walked away from the door, back toward Mae and Jamie, and as he did so he took out his phone and rang the last listed call.
The same woman’s voice answered, breathless and anxious. “Hello?”
“Can I come and see you?” he asked abruptly. “I know where Alan is. I’ll tell you all about him. Give me your address.”
Alan’s blackmail must have been very successful indeed, since Merris not only found them a new home in London but provided them with her own boat back and gave Nick herbs to make him sleep through the voyage.
“Such concern for me,” Nick said on the dock. His voice was meant to be bitter, but it simply sounded cold. “I’m touched.”
The others were standing in a little knot, trying to keep warm by staying close. It was not yet dawn, and the sea air hit Nick’s face like a series of slaps with icy hands.
Alan was holding Mum’s hand. She still looked groggy from whatever Merris had given her, and she stood leaning against Alan, the billowing black veil of her hair caught by the wind, flying and settling over them both. Alan was watching Nick, his face to all appearances honestly puzzled and hurt.
Nick was standing as far away from the others as he could without actually standing in the sea.
“There’s a bedroom you can sleep in,” Alan offered, his voice tentative. “I’ll sit with you in case you need help.”
“I don’t need your help,” said Nick curtly. He looked away from Alan and Mum, and his eyes settled on another face.
The sight and smell of the sea was already making him feel a little ill, that and the dread of being completely and humiliatingly helpless again curdling in his stomach. The sound of the wind was like the freezing shout of a hundred angry ghosts. Looking at his family only made him feel worse.
Looking at Mae made him feel a little steadier. She had her face tipped up to study his, determined dark eyes and a stubborn mouth. The way she looked was familiar to him by now, and the better he knew her, the better she looked. He smiled at her, a slow, deliberate smile that made an answering smile curve her lips.
“I’d rather have Mae nurse me,” he drawled.
Even if he hadn’t been able to see her, he would have heard the smile in her voice. “Yeah, all right.”
That was when Merris’s skipper, Philip, a man with the close-clipped hair and charcoal-colored suit of a businessman and the worn teeth and yellow tongue of a necromancer, gestured them aboard. The herbs Merris had given Nick were already making him feel a little dizzy, but that was almost a relief; his dread of coming aboard and his fury at Alan both felt distant, wrapped up safe until he could deal with them.
Soon he would be back on land and he would know all Alan’s secrets. For now he could only stagger down the steps to reach the bedroom below deck, his hand fumbling at the doorknob. The room was circular at one end, the bed white and plain with cuffs at each corner.
So this was how they transported the possessed. Nick went and lay back on the bed, thankful that he did not have to keep his feet any longer. He stared up at the wooden ceiling and heard Mae come in and shut the door.
“You don’t need to use the restraints,” Nick told the ceiling. “I’ll be good.”
Mae laughed. “But I was planning to do terrible things to you once I had you at my mercy.”
“Oh,” said Nick. “In that case, go right ahead.”
“No, you’ve spoiled the moment now.”
“Yeah,” Nick muttered. “I do that a lot.”
So many girls had started off looking at him all shiny-eyed and breathless, and then they’d all been disillusioned. Most had ended up scared. Mae had already been around longer than any of those girls, and she didn’t scare easily, but of course it wasn’t like that between them.
“Nick,” Mae said, and hesitated.
It was rare enough for her to hesitate that Nick was intrigued. He levered himself up on his elbows and looked at her. She had her back up against the door, her pink hair mussed by the wind and her cheeks flushed. Which could have been another effect of the wind.
“I was wondering,” Mae continued. “That girl at the Market. Sin. Are you going out with her?”
“No,” said Nick. He didn’t really have much else to say, but Mae was staring at the floor and looking embarrassed, so he went on. “I’ve never really gone out with anyone.”
It had never particularly bothered him either. A night or two with a girl, and then having her go away and the next one come along: it had always seemed like an all-right way to do things.
Nick was surprised that she’d asked; not by the directness of it, because that was her style, but he was surprised that she’d wanted to know.