“Don’t try a guilt trip on me. It won’t work! Stop thinking that you can manipulate me the way you manipulate everybody else. It makes me sick. Who says Daniel Ryves died for me? Why should he have done anything for me? It was her he wanted. I was something she brought with her, I was something that belonged to the man who stole her from him. What did Daniel Ryves see when he looked at me? Do you think he liked it?”
Nick was telling the truth. He didn’t feel guilty, and he didn’t feel sad. It wasn’t hard to stop calling another liar Dad and start calling him Daniel. All he felt was black, twisting fury, the desire to hurt someone, and the knowledge that there was nothing to stop him doing it. Not anymore.
He saw the shadow pass through Alan’s kind eyes. He saw, quite clearly, Alan’s decision to lie again.
“I’m sure that when Dad looked at you,” he said, “all he saw was his son.”
Nick drew back his fist and punched Alan in the face.
There was an outraged scream from Mae, whom Nick had entirely forgotten. She exclaimed, “Nick, don’t,” and began charging her way up the stairs when the deed was already done.
She didn’t have a hope, but Alan was no clumsy amateur. He’d rocked back when Nick’s fist connected, and he was falling when Nick glanced at Mae. There was a twist of movement in Nick’s eye, and that was all the warning he got before Alan pulled a gun on him.
The barrel was cold against Nick’s jaw. Alan’s grip on it was steady.
“Don’t do that again,” Alan said, blood blooming from the broken corner of his mouth and trickling down his chin.
Mae hesitated on the stairs and did not come any closer.
Nick turned his face in toward the gun and spoke into the barrel as if it was a microphone.
“If it was adoption,” Nick sneered, letting his mouth brush the steel, “why didn’t you tell me about Durham? Why didn’t you tell your precious Aunt Natasha about your adoptive family? We could have all gone to stay with your real family at Christmas — you, your crazy new mother, and a murderous magician’s son make three.”
“Nick,” Alan said, and made a small sound of frustration. “You’re my real family. It was just that — please try to understand. It was just that I wanted to remember how things were when Mum was alive and everything was all right. I just wanted to have a few days of pretending. I never wanted to drag my aunt into this nightmare with me!”
“Too bad,” Nick said. “She got dragged in.”
Alan’s hand did tremble then. For a moment Nick thought he was going to faint, but he just stood there trembling, with his face the whitish gray color of ashes. Nick let his mouth curve upward so that Alan would see him smiling, see that he didn’t care. Alan’s hand tightened on the gun, and for a moment Nick thought that he might use it. Then he lowered it, slowly, as if he thought that he might use it too.
“Nick,” he said, his voice wavering badly and making him sound very young. “Nick, what have you done?”
“I didn’t do anything,” said Nick. “You think I’d care enough to do something to her? Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Did you hurt her, Nick?” Alan asked.
Nick made himself keep smiling. “Maybe a little.”
There was a door standing ajar down the corridor, a silhouette tracing a slightly different darkness onto the shadows. It was either Jamie or his mother, Nick could not tell and did not care. Whoever it was, they were breathing rapidly, as if they were afraid, and standing halfway up the stairs, Mae was breathing too fast as well.
Nick did not glance over to see if she looked afraid. He would not have seen the shadow at the open door, if the door had not been directly behind Alan’s head.
He kept looking at Alan who was not his brother, standing there with a gun hanging limply at his side. Alan’s face was still that terrible color, his eyes avoiding Nick’s, but his thin chest was rising and falling evenly enough. He didn’t look scared. He looked heartsick.
“Listen to me,” Nick said. “Everything’s going to be all right. You don’t need to stay in this nightmare any longer. Your father took me and my mother in. You saved our lives. I’ll pay you back. I’ll get that mark off you. Then it will be even between us, and once it is, I don’t ever want to see your face again.”
Blood Calls to Blood
EVERYTHING SEEMED UNNATURALLY CLEAR TO NICK IN the days following his discovery, and he seemed to have lost the ability to attach meaning to particular things. He would look at Mae, who was apparently unable to meet his eyes now, and he would look at Alan trying to eat with one side of his mouth bruised and swollen, and he would not feel anything at all.
He’d never been like Alan, never been able to take an interest in people, never had a crush or even a real friend. He’d just thought he was more sensible than Alan. Now he thought that perhaps this easy detachment was what allowed his father to offer people up to the demons. Nick sat on the couch, a lumpy brown affair covered in fluff that seemed to be shedding with age, and thought about sacrifice.
The idea of strangers dying didn’t matter much to him. He could do it, he thought. There was nothing the demons could give him that he wanted, but if there had been, he could have done it.
He realized distantly that this should frighten him, but fear, like pity, was something that never came. He didn’t want to talk to the others. He didn’t even want to look at them.
He’d slept on the shabby brown couch since he found out, not that he was sleeping much. He spent the best part of most nights outside in the garden, practicing the sword until he was exhausted, his skin slick with sweat and his mind mercifully empty, and even after that he didn’t sleep well.
The third night on the sofa he’d almost managed to get to sleep when he heard Alan screaming. Nick rolled automatically off the sofa and was at the top of the stairs before he realized what he was doing.
The door to Alan’s room was open. Someone had reached him before Nick.
Alan was sitting up in bed. He looked haggard and drained, eyes too dark in a face that was too white, but Mae was sitting with him in the tangle of sheets, and she was holding his hands. Nick couldn’t see her face, but he could see Alan’s. More than that, he could hear Alan’s voice, talking in a low, warm rush that sounded worried and desperate and just a little comforted already.
Mae murmured something, her few words lost in the flood of his, and Alan stopped talking for a moment to smile. It wasn’t one of his calculated smiles; it was something helpless and shy. He ducked his head for a moment and then looked up at her again, eyes shining with hope.
Alan would probably go back to Exeter with Mae and Jamie, Nick realized. He’d been thinking that Alan might return to Durham once he was free, but the way he was looking at Mae, he would want to be wherever she was.
Mae leaned forward, one of the strings on her string top sliding down the curve of her shoulder, and gave Alan a kiss that landed to one side of his smile, lips brushing the bruise there as if to make it better.
Maybe she’d want that too.
Nick slipped back downstairs, footsteps falling as softly as a shadow falls, making sure that nobody saw.
If he’d stopped to think, he would never have gone to Alan in the first place. Alan was nothing to him.
It seemed like either Alan or Jamie woke screaming every night now. Time was running out.
Nick went to school because it seemed like a good way to avoid them and spent a day wandering the halls silently, thinking about how many schools he’d gone to and had to struggle through because Alan wanted it and Daniel Ryves would have wanted it. He’d tried to be normal, tried to follow his father’s advice, but he wasn’t normal and Daniel Ryves wasn’t his father.
It all seemed very pointless now.
“Hey,” said Carr, that annoying little terrier snapping at his heels, the last in a line of people he had put up with, had pretended to be like. “Where’ve you been, man?”
Nick looked right through him for a long, cold moment, waiting to see him flinch. When he did, Nick turned away, and Carr grabbed his elbow again.
“Hey! What’s gotten into you?”
Nick whirled around and punched him. He fell hard, cracking his back against the floor and sliding to hit the wall. Nick stood over him and curled his mouth, watched fear creep over the other boy’s face.
“Nothing,” he whispered. “I’ve always been this way.”
He went home. It had occurred to him that there was a magician to talk to there.
When he came in the door he climbed the stairs, and then climbed another narrow, creaking flight to the attic room where Mum was. It was so rare for him to come to his mother’s room that for a while he simply stared at the worn wood of the door. It wasn’t a barrier. It was nothing but a cheap, flimsy plank of wood. Eventually, since he could come up with no other way to suggest he was on a mission of peace, he knocked on the door.
His mother’s voice, calm and pleased, called, “Come in!”
When Nick came in, she was sitting on a stool, straight-backed, dealing cards for herself on her bed. She turned a smiling face to the door and saw him. The cards slipped out of her hands. Her face shut up like someone securing every door and window so their house would be safe from attack.
Nick realized that he always thought of her at her worst, during the screaming fits or the times she had to be medicated. She was always at her worst when Nick was there.
She’d been able to hold down a job when they really needed it, though. She got on well with Alan, who was not her son any more than he was Nick’s brother, and she seemed to be friendly with Mae. She was not as mad as he had always told himself, and if she were, it was his father’s fault.
“Do you want me to get those?”
Nick meant the words to be polite, but they came out abrupt. Well, it was no use pretending. He and his mother had always been enemies, and now he knew why.
“No,” his mother said. Nick looked at her and remembered staring into the pale eyes of the wolf he’d strangled, knowing that there was human intelligence behind the wolf’s eyes, and also knowing that she would kill him if she could.
He walked toward her, and Mum scrambled up from her stool, her movements awkward as if panic had wiped away control of her own limbs, and Nick discovered something else.
Mum was afraid of him. It had never occurred to him before, since she had no reason to be frightened of him, but he knew her reason now. He wondered what Black Arthur could possibly have done to her to make her so scared that fifteen years later here she was, backed up against a wall and trembling.
Nick held up his hands in surrender and did not move any closer. “I wanted to talk to you.”
She had her face turned away from him, a strand of black hair fanned across her cheek. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Look,” Nick said. “I know about my father. I mean, I know that Black Arthur is my father.” He stopped, but she did not respond to the name, just kept her face turned away and breathed in little gasps, snatching air as if he was about to take it away from her. “Am I like him?” Nick continued. “Do I look like him at all?”
Mum made an obvious effort and looked at him. The one window the attic contained was set in the slanted ceiling, and in the space between them was a square of light where dust motes drifted and sparked. Their eyes met across it.
“Yes,” Mum answered. “You look like him.”
It was strange to think he looked like someone he had never seen. He was not used to looking like anyone but her; he was used to her being the worst part of him.
“I’m leaving Alan,” Nick said. “He has no part in this. I want you to come with me.”
“I’ll die before I go anywhere with you.”
He had not expected understanding Mum to make everything harder. He could not hate her anymore, and he certainly could not feel anything warmer for her, but he’d thought that if he understood her, she could understand him. He’d expected logic, but there was no logic to be had from her. Black Arthur had seen to that.