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dancing with devils

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Mae woke up slowly on the mossy grass, dappled light making red patterns behind her eyelids. She felt hot and sleepy, stiff. That stretched-taut sunburn feeling across the skin of her face.

Despite the heat the sun was lower, slanting golden through the rich green leaves of the trees above. Mae blinked slowly, thoughts heavy and slow. It was getting late. Time to go home.

Time to go home. The car was… Memory flooded in. Mae squeezed her eyes closed tight.

She was in a green field again and it was empty, empty, while her brother walked away from her. Her eyes still burned with the afterimage of his stiff straight little back, walking into light reflected off the water. She’d killed for him. She knew she’d kill again. And now he’d left her and she was alone.

And their mother was dead.

And she was alone.

***

She met Nick and Alan by the river. Sin and the others had left hours ago, ruts and wheelmarks in the grass to show where the Market had passed. It was very quiet here now. Mae could hear birds, and the sound of water.

Alan had his back to her, sorting something out in the back of the car. Tactful of him. Considerate. How like Alan. Nick was leaning against the bonnet beside him, looking down at the knife in his hands.

Mae breathed in deep. “I can’t go home. My dad will have questions, everyone will want to know where Jamie and… they’ll want to know. I don’t think I can lie.”

Nick was very still. Light caught off the metal blade in his hands, blinding.

“I’ve got money in my bank account. Quite a lot actually. I’m gonna ring my dad, tell him I’m going somewhere with Jamie and some friends. I’ll say I don’t know anything about where, where Mum is.” Mae heard her voice crack, ignored it. “We’re all trying to find out how to kill Gerald and Celeste and defeat the Aventurine Circle. You should let me come with you.”

Alan turned to face her, nodded. “I thought you might have gone with Sin and the Market,” he said slowly.

Mae tried to meet his eyes and speak mildly, found it easier than she could have expected. Like her anger had evaporated in the hot sunlight. Not gone forever, but temporarily unnecessary. There were bigger things on her mind.

“I thought about it. I think I’d be better off with you.”

Alan nodded again, so carefully, hair bright in the sunlight. He wasn’t smiling. And then Nick pushed himself off the car to stand beside him, the long lean line of his body uncurling, tense and beautiful. Mae swallowed helplessly, amazed at herself that she could notice those things even now, that there was a space in her left that could recognise beauty, and longing, and grace.

And then her eyes flicked to Alan beside him and for a moment there was a part of her that wanted to leave, to find Sin and the Market people and travel with them. For all that she’d known the Ryves brothers longer, they were even less comprehensible, even less safe. Watching the push-pull of love and resentment between them would be gut-wrenching even if Mae was entirely disinterested, if they were strangers to one another and she had no personal reasons to care. As it was… Mae could see a hundred different paths to disaster.

But she had decided on this for a reason. If Mae was going to lead the Goblin Market she would need allies. She would need people and skills Sin didn’t have. Nick and Alan were exactly that.

And despite everything Mae trusted them both. She trusted herself.

She closed her eyes for just a second, feeling the sun warm on her face. The car in front of her was familiar, almost a comfort. Like the people beside it.

Nick looked at her once before he opened the driver’s seat door. Mae had learned to recognise the tension in his eyes, the way his body was turned protectively towards Alan, rigid with anger and something like fear. She knew exactly how he felt.

Mae met his eyes and nodded, and then she climbed inside.

Together they were going to save their brothers.

Together they were going to win.

***

Mae woke up cold and shivering, aching down to her hollow bones. She was curled up in the backseat of Nick’s car, head pillowed on a wadded jacket, wrapped in a heavy winter coat. It fit her badly, had that old-woman smell of mothballs and years-old perfume. She’d picked it up at an Oxfam shop a week ago. Sleeping like this the autumn nights could be colder than she’d ever imagined.

She was alone in the car, of course. Alan had tried to sleep on the backseat a month ago, after Nick had killed a magician in their London flat. He’d tried sleeping here once. Now on those kind of nights Nick and Alan slept in homeless shelters, where at least Alan could lie down on a bed and keep his leg stretched out, and Nick could be there with him, glowering and protective, full of rage.

Mae preferred the car. With Alan’s wards to keep her safe, the whole back seat for a bed. She was short enough. And she was alone, and safe.

The others would come out to meet her, early. They’d eat greasy café breakfasts, McDonalds sometimes, and if they were lucky find a shower at a council pool. Market people helped them find places to stay, cheap temporary flats, attic rooms in squalid houses. Nick worked for mechanics when he could, Alan and Mae picked up soulless temporary jobs wherever they could find them. Fast food was the worst, coming back from shifts limp and greasy with oil and sweat. In their free time they’d read and research, learning spells, searching for every scrap of information about marks, and demons.

Alan was still teaching her Sumerian. He still smiled at her sometimes, with his wonderful eyes. They never talked about anything that counted.

Mae would still trust him with her life. And nothing else.

It was like Nick’s silences had spread to cover all three of them. That first day, months ago, Mae hadn’t managed anything much beside crying. Actually talking about anything important, clearing up with Nick what exactly it was they were doing together… she couldn’t manage it, no matter how hard she tried. She’d never struggled for words before, but then she’d never ever felt like this.

And so she hadn’t spoken, and hadn’t spoken, and now silence wrapped all three of them like a net. And nothing changing, the fear, and the magicians always coming for them no matter where they hid.

Sin called sometimes. Usually with bad news. Freak accidents, hideous coincidences, and they always hit the Market folk. People were frightened. People made mistakes.

Last month two dancers had fallen in the Market near Ely, in the fens. Mae had been there. She’d seen Sin’s face both times, as each stumbled and hit the ground. And then the blackness, rising swift and oily behind their eyes...

Mae was shivering despite the warmth of the wool coat around her. Deliberately she closed her eyes, counted to ten in Aramaic, and then in every other language she knew. It only took that long, to get the courage to open her eyes and pull her clothes straight and open the door to the world outside.

Outside the car the air was cool and moist, a little warmer than she’d been expecting. By tomorrow they’d be in Kent, tracking down an old necromancer Merris had known when she was a girl. Merris said the woman had known more about marks than most magicians, that she was a better hope than any book they’d found. If she was still alive.

Mae closed her eyes again for a moment, just a moment. She could hear birds singing, the dawn chorus sounding shrill in the grey early light. The breeze was almost warm.

It was her birthday in two weeks, but that was no comfort.

Soon Nick would be coming. She wouldn’t be alone.

***

“What?” Mae shouted for the third time, grinning. Strobe lights pulsed across her skin, painting Nick’s face in primary colours. Even in this light she could see his boredom and contempt.

To be honest, she kind of shared it. Mae didn’t have much time for places like this, five-pound cover charge and rich guys in suits, women in absurdly impractical heels that cost as much as the ones her mother used to wear. Cocktails poured out of teapots or served in jam jars, women with tunnels and sleeve tattoos, just enough alternative to make the young professionals feel better about their income, to tell themselves they weren’t turning into their parents or the Man.

Then Mae shook her head, laughing at herself. This was the life she’d been born to. If she’d never met the Ryves brothers, if Jamie had never had dreams of wings and darkness in the night – this would have been her in five years, or ten. Who was she to judge?

Nick was shaking his head at her, eyes rolling. “Happy fucking birthday,” Mae heard him say, deadpan coming clear through one of the pauses in the music they’d been hearing all night. The DJ wasn’t good enough for a place like this.

She shrugged at him and laughed some more, took another sip of her drink. It was her birthday, and Mae was damn well going to be happy. Alan was mysteriously absent, had bowed out of this evening’s plans with one of those inscrutable looks Mae still hadn’t learned to tolerate. Tonight Mae was going to grin and roll with it anyway.

“Dance with me?” she asked Nick for the second time this night, laughing, and this time he smiled at her and followed her out onto the floor. Nick moved easily with her, the perfect partner, the mysterious dark stranger she knew down to her bones. And she did know him. Knew him angry, and quiet, and lying back in the grass with tousled hair and sunlight on his face. Knew him frowning sheepishly after a joke fallen flat, knew him sleepy-eyed and grumpy in the mornings, knew grief and love and contentment and how they showed on his face. Mae closed her eyes and breathed it in, her love for him and the dance.

The music changed again, and Mae looked past Nick for the first time and realised they’d cleared a little space in the crowded dancefloor, that despite her cheap sundress and Nick’s torn jeans they were catching eyes from all around. No-one else danced like Mae, like Nick.

With a cold shock like ice water, Mae realised she’d fallen into the steps of the dance she knew best in all the world.

She’d been calling a demon.

Nick had answered.

Mae couldn’t leave the dance unfinished, couldn’t take that risk and leave the doors wide open. She’d been thinking only of Nick, moving only with Nick, and so he was the only one who could answer her call, but even so. She wondered if he’d realised what they were doing, and then with a different, warmer shock looked at his face and realised that he had.

Her body was still moving automatically with his. There was space between them but their movements mirrored each other, they bent towards each other and away to the same rhythm, beating in their blood. Mae swayed towards him all seduction while he leaned in to her, moved away again, lightly, a tease. Nick’s movements were coiled grace and hunger. He moved like a demon. Every motion shaped by his desire.

Her mark was flaring, burning. She couldn’t believe that no-one else could taste the magic thickening, that no-one else could feel it coiling through the air, raising the hairs on their arms and the back of their necks.

She and Nick were moving together so perfectly, closer, closer still. Nick was smiling.

The dance reached its climax, and Mae threw her arms up, head back, eyes closed. No need to fear falling, no threat, no safety. This demon had marked her long ago.

The dance stopped, and she kissed him.

The rest of the world disappeared in heat like a flame.

Dizzy and drunk on him Mae pulled Nick tighter against her. Thought, this is love, this hunger, this burning, this magic running through my veins. And this was Nick. She knew him. She knew him, and she loved him, and with everything in her she trusted that he loved her back.

She kissed him harder, biting, hungry, wrapped in his arms and his magic. She kissed him, and whispered love against his mouth.

Much, much later they stumbled out of the club, locked together still, pressed tight along arms and sides and thighs. Their fingers twined together, gripping tight. Mae couldn’t stop smiling.

It was late still, but she wasn’t tired. Even in London she knew people to visit, places to go. Some of the parties weren’t her usual scene but there was always music, and dancing, and the rhythm bleeding into her bones.

The magicians found them at dawn. Just two women, a warning, a threat. She and Nick fought them easily enough, headed home silent and suddenly sober. Time to leave, again.

They got home to find the flat empty. Alan was gone.

I’m slowing you down, the note said, even his handwriting apologetic. I’ll do better on my own, and so will you.

Nick, I love you.

I’m sorry.

It would be a month before Nick would even look at her again.

***

In December the Market was held in Liverpool, spread out through three decaying Victorian warehouses, the lights strung high between rafters and casting pools of shadow on the floors. People spoke in whispers. Every face Mae saw was tense with fear and resolution, and there were fewer tourists than she’d ever seen before.

For once Alan was there, ignoring all stares and whispers. He arrived with Liannan, speaking intensely with her throughout the night, and he left early. Avoiding Mae, avoiding Nick. Mae knew he was planning something, knew it would be brilliant, perhaps their only hope. Wearily, she wondered if he’d ever learn to trust her. To trust anyone, beside himself.

She did speak to Sin. There was no new information, no news, but they were planning a raid against the magicians soon anyway. Some of Gerald’s old circle spent too much time on their own. They had a chance, and the Market needed it. Needed a victory. Needed hope. There was no time for their rivalry when the future of the Market itself was at stake.

Mae didn’t say anything else, when she promised to join the raid. But her heart leapt inside her anyway. It had been so long since she’d seen her brother.

They left the city at dawn, into the car, driving south as the sun rose beside the highway. Mae couldn’t dance for the demons anymore, not marked as she was. Without that risk what demon would bother to come to her? But Sin had danced, and a demon had answered, and now she and Nick had the names of a town and an old magician who had fed his sister to the demon in exchange for what the demon knew, in exchange for knowledge of the marks that had been lost for four thousand years.

It might come to nothing, of course. Gerald might never have met him. Or it might be enough to save Jamie, and Alan.

Mae dreamed of Gerald more nights than she didn’t. Not Helen; what she felt for Helen was pure simple hate. But Gerald… over and over she dreamed of a bridge or a doorway or a road and Gerald taking her brother by the hand, leading him away from her. Over and over Mae dreamed Jamie’s death, and even while he died her brother smiled adoringly at the magician and never once looked her way. She ached with fear and missing him, in her teeth and her shoulder blades, the soft place behind her knees.

Some nights she woke Nick up with her thrashing, her helpless cries. He always held her close and said nothing. And on other nights, when he was the one to dream, she kissed his forehead and did the same.

She didn’t know if demons usually dreamed. She didn’t ask.

Through that long day they headed south, south. They took turns to drive, trading back and forth with wordless easy motions. When it was her turn Mae played music, and sometimes Nick listened without complaining. Sometimes he didn’t. Tiredness had leached out from behind Mae’s eyes, colouring the whole world grey. So many days in this car alone with Nick, all the sounds and sights and little arguments worn down into familiarity, repeating themselves over and over. They stopped in little service stations, soft drinks and sandwiches, and then headed back on the road again. Mae’d had all the junk food she could ever eat months ago.

They made it to Portsmouth before the thin winter sun set. Back to the south again. While Nick went outside to call Alan Mae leant her head against the window, eyes fixed on the bare ground outside. She thought of Exeter, so close to them now. She thought of the big empty white house all cold and closed up, surrounded by gardens gone thin and raggedy, unkempt.

Mae was half-asleep when Nick knocked on her window.

“Alan found us somewhere to stay,” Nick said brusquely, staring off to one side, past her face. Mae rubbed her eyes, wrinkled her face at him, pulling herself out of her mood by force of will alone.

“You’re driving,” she said, trying for lofty. “I’m sleeping.”

Nick’s mouth twitched, just for a second.

“Sure, princess,” he said, while she smiled at him and closed her eyes.

Mae slept with him that night on a single mattress in someone’s living room, her body curled tight and warm around the curve of his spine. They breathed together, slow and steady, all night long.

In the morning they went hunting for magicians.

***

Mae opened her eyes again to the fierce hot glare, like sunlight after a dive into deep water, like waking up to morning light across your face. The world was all orange light around her, all fire.

The demon stood near the edge of the circle, a thin dark figure in the middle of all that burning. Its features were shadowy, ambiguous, and its eyes were clear as rain.

It wasn’t smiling. But Nick was.

“Hi,” Mae said casually, caught in a nexus of shivering flame. It didn’t burn, so long as she remembered to believe it wasn’t real.

The speaking charm Nick had given her rippled silver in her throat.

The demon stared at her for a long time, still. Its face was like a mask, and yet Mae could read uncertainty there, and hunger.

“That one’s marked you,” the demon said slowly, and for a moment Mae had to fight to keep from smiling at the triumph rising in her throat. She could see it in Nick’s face, the way he stood. They had it.

“Yes,” Mae said slowly, shifting a little, a deliberate tease. Her mark was blacker than midnight on her skin. She watched the demon watch it.

She smiled at the demon, felt Nick move in close to its other side. “Tell me everything you taught the magician Gerald about the marks, and I’ll tell you about it.”