“What did he do to you?” Nick asked suddenly.
Her eyes went from ice to fire. “I don’t talk about that!” she spat, and he watched the saliva fly from her lips, gathering in tiny bubbles at the corners of her mouth. “I don’t think about it. I don’t want to remember anything that happened before.”
She was trembling, her hands grasping the air as if she had to get a handhold on it or fall. Nick moved toward her instinctively.
Her voice cracked like ice breaking underfoot. “Don’t touch me.”
Nick looked at her grasping hands and thought of Alan’s hands, and the way Alan’s mother had hands just like his. Mum’s hands were small, very thin at the wrists, and Nick stared at them and thought about his own hands, large hands with long, brutal-looking fingers made to curve around a sword hilt or a neck.
He knew who he’d inherited them from. He felt for an instant like the assembled pieces of some weapon Black Arthur had built.
He turned away from his mother and toward the door. He should not have come.
“I’m not him, you know,” he said over his shoulder.
“I know,” said Mum. “I loved him.”
That night, when he was practicing the sword in the garden, Mae came to speak to him.
Alan had been pleased by the garden that first morning in the house, when they were still brothers. It was small but the wooden fence was high, hiding them from all the world, and in this hidden place was a weeping willow.
Nick did not care about trees or gardens or anything but the clean cut and thrust of his sword and the ache in his muscles that sang through his body as a relief from thought. He pivoted, sliced darkness across the throat, and came within an inch of beheading Mae.
He caught the downward swing of his sword and stepped back. He did not speak.
Mae ducked under a branch of the will‹nche dow, its green fingers trailing through her hair. The May air was warm, but it had a bite to it, and she leaned against the tree and hugged herself.
Nick curled his lip and turned his back on her, executing the next movement in his exercises. His sword went glancing through the points of an invisible opponent, throat, chest, thigh, and then he turned and caught one behind him, putting the power of his wrist behind a solid thrust. He let the easy physicality of it take hold of him, that flashing point of steel in the night becoming his single focus in the world, the sustained effort a slow burn through the muscles of his back and arms.
Mae’s voice was an unwelcome intrusion in his thoughtless world. It cut through the tactile sensations of effort and exhaustion and pulled him up short.
“When are you going to start talking to your brother again?”
Nick turned the sword hilt between his hands, making the blade jump like a fish. He watched Mae jump as well, and wondered if Black Arthur liked to see people squirm before he sacrificed them.
“You must’ve mistaken me for someone else,” he told her. “I don’t have a brother.”
“You do have a brother,” Mae said. “And I’m worried about him.”
“Oh?” said Nick, and lunged forward to slash the air above her head, to her left, to her right. He cut a door in the air for her to walk through and, panting slightly, demanded, “If you’re so worried about him, why don’t you go comfort him?”
A trickle of sweat was running between his shoulder blades, the cool current in the air washing down his back and making him shiver. He saw Mae notice, and let her see him smile.
“Or maybe you’d rather comfort me?”
Mae looked up at him silently, eyes dark in the pale upturned oval of her face. The willow was casting long shadows on her skin, like the stripes of darkness cast by a shutter. Her eyes were not like pools, but there was something trembling under their surface.
Nick sheathed his sword and leaned in.
He reached out with lazy intent to touch her hair, and she grabbed his wrist an instant before he touched her.
“Think a lot of yourself, don’t you?”
Nick blinked. “I thought—”
“You think you can use me as a way to punish Alan,” said Mae. “I noticed.”
“That wouldn’t be the only reason,” Nick told her, leaning against the willow by her side. The bark was rough against his bare skin.
“Oh, no?” asked Mae. “What’s the other reason?”
Nick smiled a small smile that someone watching them would not have been able to see. It touched his lips and lingered for a moment, private and promising. “Might be fun.”
“I don’t think so,” said Mae.
She stepped away from him. Her eyes were narrowed.
“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I’m attracted to you, I could be attracted to Alan, but what does it matter? I’ve been attracted to people before. I’m not looking to settle down, and I’m not territory to be fought over in your little war. I won’t let myself be used, and I won’t let whatever crisis you’re having hurt my brother’s chance to live.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Your brother’s chance? Who says he has one?”
“I say he does!”
“I’m not interested in charity work,” Nick informed her. “If you want to save your brother, you’ll have to rely on Alan.”
“I trust Alan,” said Mae, “but I don’t rely on anyone. If I have to, I can kill a magician myself.”
“Really?” Nick drawled. “Didn’t you let one go just the other day?”
“That was stupid,” Mae said. “I should have killed him before he could escape. I won’t be that stupid again.” He saw her hands clench into fists. “And I’m not afraid.”
Nick’s eyes traveled over her face. “I believe you,” he said, and watched her relax. “You’re brave,” he added honestly.
When she almost smiled, he leaned in again, and she hesitated, her breath coming fast against his lips. She didn’t move.
“You’re brave,” Nick whispered into her mouth, “but that’s not enough.”
It had been too easy to palm a knife and hold it to her throat when he went in for a kiss. When she swallowed, the edge brushed her skin.
“They’ll surprise you,” Nick continued, looking down into her outraged face. “They’ll use magic; they’ll use demons. You don’t know what you’re doing, and they will get to you before you can get to them.”
Mae tipped her head back because of the pressure of the knife against her throat. He’d been telling the truth. She was brave. She didn’t look scared at all. She looked furious.
“Carry a knife from now on if you plan to kill,” Nick continued in a thoughtful, detached voice. He grinned at her and added, “Make sure to catch them by surprise.”
She glared silently up at him.
He drew the knife across her throat, lightly, not cutting her, but making sure she could feel the edge slide against her skin. “Slash across the throat or”—he trailed the point down her body, the blade skimming from the vulnerable hollow at her throat over the fragile material of her shirt—“under the ribs. Don’t even try for between the ribs. Amateurs always hit a rib, and if they try for the heart, they always hit the breastbone. Across the throat or under the ribs for a killing blow. Do you understand that?”
Mae drove her fist into his stomach, at a point under his ribs. “You’re an ass,” she said, between her teeth. “Do you understand that?”
He ignored the pain and smiled. “You’d better pray Alan will protect you and Jamie,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re on your own.”
He touched his knife, and the blade withdrew into its hilt with a soft snick. He slipped it into Mae’s pocket, then turned away and stooped to pick up his sword, unsheathing it and beginning to execute a few more passes.
If anything, his return to routine made Mae angrier. When he turned to face her, bringing the sword up and around in an overarm pass, she was trembling with fury.
“You’re the one on your own,” she said.
Nick swung and ducked an imaginary enemy’s swing in return, legs bent and thighs braced. “I can take care of myself.”
“You’re going to be miserable,” Mae told him, and stormed back to the house.
He watched her go, squaring her shoulders. Before she opened the door, he saw her touch her face and wondered if she was crying.
Nick stepped backward, spun, and parried another imaginary blow. He silently congratulated himself on the way he’d made her angry enough to forget all about discussing Nick’s so-called brother.
He swung again. These exercises with the sword were nothing like real fights; they were just a way of keeping ready for real fights, making sure his reflexes were still fast and the weight of the sword did not tire him.
Eventually he did get tired. He felt as if the heaviness of steel had been shot through his bones and had settled cold in the pit of his stomach. He was exhausted and chilled and he had to force himself not to think.
Across the dark, ragged patch of garden the window of their kitchen shone, a square of orange light. The curtains were open, and through the glass Nick could hear faint music playing. Jamie was dancing around like an idiot, and Mae was leaning against the door looking at Jamie, her face smoothing out into calm. Alan was cooking something, and when Jamie pushed the wooden spoon he’d been singing into like a microphone over Alan’s shoulder, Alan turned to Jamie, and Nick glimpsed Alan’s smile. Over the strains of the radio came the sudden deep, sweet sound of Alan singing. Mae looked startled and impressed, and she started to smile too.
Nick could have gone in, but he couldn’t go in and be one of them.
He turned away from the ordinary people laughing in the warmth, and wondered if magicians felt this empty and cold all the time. He raised his sword, on guard, and launched himself into the murder of shadows.
The morning sky was paling after the sunrise into an indeterminate white that would be followed by blue, and when Nick opened the door, the inside of the house looked gray. He went into the little kitchen with the usual worn-thin cork tiles and stopped dead at the sight of Alan.
Alan was sitting at the kitchen table. He looked as worn as the cork tiles, the circles under his eyes looking more like bruises than ever, deep purple and spreading like stains. They matched the real bruise at the side of his mouth.
“I wondered when you were going to come in,” he said, his voice weary.
Nick said nothing. He went over to the kettle and flipped it on, then rifled through the cupboards to find instant coffee. The door of one of the cupboards was hanging lopsided, he noticed, and the cork tiling was curling up in one of the corners of the room. They had lived in grimly poor places like this since Dad had died, and Nick had not thought about it much beyond being relieved that they were not hungry or cold.
He remembered Natasha Walsh’s house. Alan had been born into a different kind of life.
“I want to talk to you,” Alan said, and Nick turned round and fixed Alan with a cold stare at the precise moment that Jamie walked into the kitchen.
He was still in his pajamas, one cheek marked with the lines from his pillow, and for a second all he did was look bewildered. Then he seemed to take in the situation, and backed up a step. His eyes swiveled in all directions, looking for escape, and they lit on the jar of coffee and the boiling kettle.
“Oh look, coffee,” he said weakly. “Excellent.”
“You don’t like coffee, Jamie,” Alan said.
“It was just a random burst of enthusiasm for — the general concept of coffee,” Jamie told him, and he gave Alan what was clearly meant to be a reassuring smile. “Is everything all right?”
Jamie and Alan were both white and terribly wasted, as if the demons were going to wear them away to pallid ghosts who wandered the house with their eyes huge and imploring in their thin faces. Alan seemed worse hit than Jamie, battered and strained by the demonic assault, but Nick had no doubt as to who would give in first. Jamie looked frail as a single flame in a blast of wind, a trembling thread of light that was about to go out.