His voice broke, but it did not mean he was inhuman. It meant he was crying. The sky outside was such a dark gray that Nick knew there was a storm coming with the night, and no light could filter through the clouds. The lamplight caught the tears clinging to Alan’s eyelashes and painted the tears running down his face yellow.
Nick reached out, but the circle stopped him. He let his hand fall; he didn’t know what he could have done, anyway.
Arthur reached up a careless hand, bearing a large, elaborately carved silver ring, and wiped a thumb over Alan’s cheek, chasing away a tear. That was another thing Nick had never been good at, another way Nick had never been human. He was not good at touching.
Alan turned his face away.
“Don’t touch me,” he said in a muted voice.
“You were very young when it came. Can you tell me what happened?” Arthur asked, as if he had a right to ask, as if he was a grown-up who had come to save Alan from all this. “Can you tell me how it learned to talk?”
Alan glanced over at Nick. “Do you want me to say?”
Nick nodded, and Black Arthur laughed.
“Of course it does,” he said. “What does it know about mercy? It will take from you until you have nothing left. That’s what demons are. That’s what they do.”
Alan turned his face away from Arthur again, toward Nick, but he didn’t seem able to look at Nick. He looked at the floor.
“Olivia came to us hoping that somehow we would be able to do something for the baby. Only we couldn’t, of course. And when she realized there was nothing we could do, when she—” Alan shook his head, unable to wipe away the tears with his tied hands. “Dad and I went to our first Goblin Market. I thought it was exciting, I came home laughing, and—”
“And what, Alan?”
Alan’s voice was very low. “Olivia was in the bathroom, with — with the baby. She was trying to drown him. Only the baby wasn’t drowning. The water was boiling, and Olivia was screaming, her hands were getting burned, and my father had to fight her to get the baby. They were both screaming, and when Dad got the baby out, he wasn’t burned at all, and he’d never made a sound. Olivia wouldn’t stop screaming. Dad had to stay with her, he had to calm her down. He had to get the baby out of her sight. So he — he gave me the baby. He said that I had to be the one to take care of him now.”
“And what did you do then?”
“I did my best,” said Alan, his voice raw.
Nick had always known that Alan had practically raised him because Dad needed to look after Mum. He had not pictured it like this. Not Alan, small and trapped in a mad world, as a man and a woman wrestled in boiling water and a demon baby was put into his arms.
Nick had a memory dim enough to be imagination of himself in a little bed, with Alan leaning solemnly out of the darkness, singing something: gibberish. Human words. In the memory Alan’s small face looked worried and fond; Nick had seen that expression on his face a thousand times and had never wondered what Alan saw when he looked at Nick.
Turning away from Alan’s tears, Nick finally located the clock. It was standing in the shadows behind Anzu’s balefire. He saw his own pale face flash for an instant in the fire-lit glass of the clock face, reflection curved in the shape of a scythe.
Even the firelight could not warm those black eyes. The face was made like a man’s, but it showed no more feeling than a mask, looked no more human than a doll.
They had given that to a child. To Alan.
“So it was you who taught it to speak?” Arthur asked, with what seemed to be genuine curiosity. “How did you do that?”
Alan’s face was still averted from Black Arthur, but he did answer him. “I’m not sure. I just — He was my responsibility. I talked to him. I read to him. I took him for walks and pointed things out to him, I told him their names. He started to speak when he was four, and I was so happy. I tried — I tried to raise him right.”
“No,” said Arthur, in the patient tones of a teacher. “You tried to raise it human.”
Alan did not answer Arthur this time. He just kept talking, his voice serious. It reminded Nick of the way he used to tell bedtime stories. “Once he started to speak, Dad started to think — Dad thought there was hope. He tried to teach Nick things, tried to tell him how to behave. The last thing he said before you killed him was that I should look after Nick, and I’ve done my best.”
Arthur sounded truly puzzled. “Why did you even try? Do you think you actually mean something to it?”
“I don’t know,” Alan snapped. “How could I know? That’s not the point. He means something to me. I never wanted him—” He made an effort to lift his eyes to Nick’s face. The effort did not succeed, but Alan’s next words were directed at him. “I never wanted you to know any of this.”
“Why not?” asked Black Arthur, and he looked amused again. “Did you think it would be upset?” He shoved Alan backward a little, turned his head, and grinned at Nick. “Are you upset? What do you feel?”
Nick stared at his wintry eyes, at his handsome, smiling face. This wasn’t Nick’s father. He’d never had a father. Demons didn’t have fathers. Demons didn’t have families. They existed forever, unchanging, in a bleak gray landscape like the endless distance between Nick and all feeling over these past few days.
“Not much,” said Nick.
Arthur smiled the smile of a man who had guessed right.
“You never did feel much, did you?” he inquired softly. “You always thought half the things the humans did were mystifying and stupid. You didn’t want to save people like Alan did. You didn’t want to get close to people. You don’t even understand what love is. Do you? Human love. Do you know what it is?”
“No,” Nick said quietly.
“Do you know anything about it?”
“I don’t,” Nick said, and swallowed. “I don’t know.”
Arthur’s voice went even softer, though the softness was too smooth and easy to be kind. “It’s all right now. You’re free. You don’t ever have to pretend to be one of us again. You know the truth, and you know your own power. You know how it works: At sixteen, the body can control the demon magic. You turned sixteen, and I sent a messenger to find you. I promised you I would stop at nothing to get you back, and here you are. Where you were always meant to be.”
If Arthur was so concerned about him, it was funny he hadn’t put forth his best efforts until the time came when Nick could be useful.
Nick thought of the messenger telling them, Black Arthur says that now’s the time. He wants it back.
It. Nick. The charm Mum had worn had just been another lie, and the look on Alan’s face when that messenger came had not been fear for Mum. He hadn’t been plotting and lying to shield Mum.
Nick ventured a glance at Alan, but Alan’s face was still turned away.
Black Arthur was still talking. “You have what no other demon has ever had: a body of your own. You can do anything you want.”
Nick wasn’t sure he wanted anything. He just felt cold.
“I gave you the world,” Arthur said. “And now you can give me the world — or enough power to swallow up all the other Circles, to become the most powerful magician in the world. That’s all I want, and I think that’s fair, don’t you?”
Nick cleared his throat. “Why should I?”
“We made a bargain when I gave you this body, and now I’ve explained that I expect you to keep it. You gave me your word.”
Had he given his word? He couldn’t remember that, couldn’t remember any of it, but he did remember Alan’s voice saying that the demons would do anything to escape their world.
He looked at Black Arthur’s face, his hungry wolf’s eyes, and believed him. He had made a bargain.
Blood was pounding in Nick’s temples. He looked again at that icy reflection in the clock face and then down at his big hands. He had been right, he thought, looking at the curve of his fingers by firelight as if they belonged to someone else. Black Arthur had given him these hands, that face, and every drop of blood in his veins. Arthur only wanted what he was owed: what Nick had promised him.
He hadn’t promised him Alan. Black Arthur had no right to touch his brother.
“My word?” Nick said. “I have words of my own now? I thought Alan gave me all of them. You asked me what I felt. I don’t feel like giving you a thing.”
Arthur shrugged. “I suppose it would be too much to expect gratitude from a demon. You force me to remind you that you have stepped into a magic circle. If you ever want to get out, you need to cooperate. Come, now. What does it matter to you? You can give me what I want without even trying. You owe me, and I wish to collect, but I won’t be your master. I told you this was a partnership. I contributed the body of my son, and now you will contribute the power, and together we will be able to do anything. We will be able to have anything.”
Nick did not want to be trapped here for the rest of his life. He wondered exactly how much power Arthur wanted, and how he was supposed to give it to him. He suspected that a lot of people would be cut down in Black Arthur’s progress toward power. He wondered if that should matter to him.
The air of the room seemed heavy with the weight of all these expectations. Black Arthur was watching him. All the magicians were watching him. All but one.
Mum’s voice shattered the tense silence, light and easy, as if she was about to sing.
“What about me?”
Arthur looked vaguely startled. Nick thought he might have forgotten she was there. “Livia,” he said, turning his head. “You’ll be with me. I will give you anything.”
“I told you,” Mum said, smiling suddenly. “I only want one thing.”
She had her hands clasped to her breast, like a little girl hiding a secret from her elders. Nick remembered that she had been playing with her charms before. He knew that small, mad smile. He was not surprised when she opened her cupped palms a little, and they all saw the shimmer rising from her charms. Mum walked towards Arthur with her fingertips wreathed in gold and blue.
“Yes?” Arthur asked.
Mum was still smiling when she reached Arthur, and she let her charms fall blazing against her chest. She reached up and threaded her fire-ringed fingers through Arthur’s hair in the same tender gesture she had used before. Arthur was smiling back at her a little; she cupped his face in her hands.
“Arthur,” she murmured.
“Yes, my darling?”
“Give me back my child,” whispered Mum.
She caught Arthur’s mouth in a kiss. She was holding him close when she burst into flame.
“OLIVIA!” MAE SCREAMED, FAR TOO LATE.
The room was suddenly a space confining a riot. Some magicians were rushing to help their leader, throwing out water charms and damping spells into the air. Some magicians, like Gerald, were moving unobtrusively toward the back of the room.
When Mae moved, Nick thought the knife at her throat would cut it, but Jamie looked at Mae and made a desperate effort.
The knife at Jamie’s throat never moved. The knife at Mae’s throat went flying. Mae slammed an elbow into the man’s stomach and hit his chin with the top of her head. When he let her go, she threw herself at him, and they both went crashing to the ground. The magician holding Jamie moved to help him and Jamie stepped swiftly away. They stood staring warily at each other, eyes locked. The magician twisted under Mae, fingers scrabbling for his knife, but Mae snatched her own knife, the knife Nick had given her, out of her pocket and held the blade to his throat.
Nick heard her pant, “Don’t move.”
From the corner of his eye he saw Alan move, and he turned away from Mae. Alan was taking advantage of the chaos to pop one of his wrists out of alignment, grimacing as he did so, and slip his bonds. He bent his wrist back into place, glanced at Mae, at Mum, and finally at Nick, and then raced for the door. The door slammed shut, and Alan was gone before Nick could blink.