A week later…
After they won the war and the dust had settled, Nick and Mae went on their first date. Mae chose the restaurant. It was a cosy Japanese place in East Finchley, with lacquered wooden menus and clusters of tiny flower-shaped candles scattered across every surface.
Nick prowled in ahead of her, his black eyes watchful. He glared at the other diners until they stopped staring at him and Mae with a mixture of alarm and admiration and started just staring at them with alarm. When they were seated in a corner booth, he took the side with its back to the wall, his eyes still scanning the room. His shoulders were tight.
Mae wondered if they should have started with coffee after all.
“We can go somewhere else,” she offered. “If you want?”
Nick stopped glaring at the other diners and looked at her. She couldn’t read his expression at all.
He shrugged. “This is fine. It’s defensible.”
“Ah yes,” Mae said. “That was obviously top of my list of qualities for a first date.”
The corner of Nick’s mouth drew up. “Good choice.”
“Thanks,” Mae said, dry.
When the waiter came, Mae ordered for both of them. Nick watched her steadily, the candlelight flickering in his dark eyes.
Between bites of her chicken katsudon, Mae laid out the plans she’d made since the dust had settled after their victory. They encompassed running the Market, going to university, and the need to take stock of the other Circles in the UK.
“Jamie said not everyone has stayed,” she said. “Some people who signed up initially have already gone. We need to know where they’re going.”
Nick said, “They’re all marked. I can find them.”
He said it like a threat, not an offer of help. But his posture was easy enough, as though talking strategy had relaxed him.
“I know,” Mae said, fighting the urge to touch her own mark, hidden beneath the collar of her t-shirt. It didn’t tug at her, but she felt it still. “And I’m not trying to rain on your fancy powers parade, but we need more than a demonic compass bearing. We need actual data. Who, where, and how many.”
“So I’ll track them down,” Nick drawled, “and then I’ll fill out a spreadsheet. Or anything else you want me to do.”
“Anything?” Mae dimpled at him.
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Mavis,” he said slowly. “I think I might feel a little objectified.”
Mae looked at him. His dark hair was brushed across his forehead and he wore a dark shirt, open at the collar. The candlelight limned the pale line of his bare throat with gold and lit his eyes with flame. He was still watching her, utterly intent.
Even with the pearl, cool and smooth between her collarbones, he was still the most beautiful boy she had ever laid eyes on.
She put her chin on her hand and beamed at him. “Just a little?”
Afterwards, Nick drove her home. Mae fiddled with the radio until she found music that she liked, something soft and a little wild, then she sang along quietly until they drew up outside her aunt’s flat in Muswell Hill.
The windows were all dark. No one else was home, then.
“Was it what you wanted?” Nick demanded abruptly.
Mae looked away from her aunt’s empty flat and raised her eyebrows at him. “You mean dinner?”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Dinner.”
Mae studied him for a long moment. He was staring blankly out at the night, which the rain turned into a smear of light and darkness against the windshield. When he wasn’t angry or flirting, his face was empty. It was empty now. But she looked at his hands, still resting on the steering wheel, and the faint tightness of his knuckles, and thought that maybe Nick was nervous.
I’ve never really gone out with anyone, he’d told her once, a million years ago, before she had known he was a demon.
Then again, she thought, it was possible that he was just waiting for her to confirm what he was feeling. Feelings and the identification of them weren’t Nick’s strong suit. She had known that even before he had asked her to help him to act human, and long before he had done what he had promised her he wouldn’t ever do, and asked her out. She had known it when she’d said yes.
“Yeah,” she said now, keeping her voice low, almost gentle. “It was.”
Nick looked at her. His eyes were as fathomless as the night outside. “Good.”
Mae tilted her head. “What about you,” she asked. “What did you want?”
She smiled at him, and Nick grinned back, mouth curving lazily. “Oh,” he said, low and pleased, leaning towards her. “I can think of a few things.”
Later, but not much later, Mae took him upstairs. Muswell Hill was not, after all, the kind of area where you could do more than make out with your boyfriend in the car. For starters, it was too well lit.
“Paisley,” Nick said slowly, looking around her room and raising an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Aunt Edith is a woman of singular tastes,” Mae replied, grinning up at him. His hair was mussed from having her fingers knotted in it (her skin remembered his mouth on her throat, his teeth grazing her pulse), and she pushed down the urge to reach up and smooth it.
They were doing so well. It wouldn’t be fair to him to push things.
She reached out and caught a handful of his shirt instead. The corner of Nick’s mouth curled upwards and he didn’t resist when she used that fistful of cotton to tow him closer. Instead, he stooped down to meet her, to catch her mouth with his own.
When Nick slid his hands lazily under the hem of her t-shirt, Mae grinned against his mouth. “Hey,” she said, low and sweet, and shoved him backwards onto her bed.
Nick went willingly, leaning up to pull her into him, strong hands curving round her hips. Mae ran her hands over the sharp, savage line of his shoulders, taking a moment to appreciate just how ridiculously beautiful he was. Nick clearly didn’t mind being admired - he leaned back a little, easy, his hands still on her hips, and raised his eyebrows at her.
“Just admiring your shirt,” Mae told him sweetly.
“Thanks,” Nick said. “Normally people admire what’s underneath it but hey, whatever floats your boat.”
He didn’t make a sound when Mae popped the first two buttons and pressed her mouth to his collarbone, but she felt the muscles in his back tighten when she scraped her teeth against the thin skin, felt the slight jerk of his body beneath hers. He didn’t react the way other boys she had been with did, so she had to pay attention to these small tells. She remembered that Nick liked it when she used her teeth on him.
It struck her as Nick slid his hands under her t-shirt and up the length of her spine that she was still waiting for something to interrupt them, as it always had before. There was some part of her constantly primed for a fight, as it had been ever since she’d slid a knife up under a magician’s ribs to save her baby brother’s life. It was that part of her that associated the warmth of Nick’s bare skin under her hands with danger.
Maybe that was a sensible part.
But she looked at him as he shrugged out of his dark shirt and sprawled back on her bed, lazy and laid out for her, and she wanted him so much it felt almost like physical pain. It was nothing to do with her mark, and everything to do with what they had become to each other.
Nick made a low, pleased sound when she pulled her t-shirt over her head, his eyes intent on her.
Mae suppressed a small shiver at the look in his eyes. He watched her like a predator and his hands on her skin were hungry and warm as he drew her down to him.
Mae woke to find the demon watching her with blank, black eyes. In that first moment of opening her eyes, her heart gave a single sudden sickening surge at the animal terror lighting up every nerve with danger danger danger.
Nick blinked slowly at her, lizard-like. He had one bare arm crooked under his head. There was a wide strip of empty bed between them.
Mae let out a sharp breath and turned her face a little into her pillow, feeling the blood flood hot and embarrassed into her cheeks. There was no way to pretend she had been anything other than terrified in that first moment. She had no idea what to do now, whether Nick had noticed her fear, whether he minded it. Whether he liked it.
She squeezed her eyes shut and wished it were possible to sink right through her mattress. It was memory foam and deliciously marshmallowy. Maybe if she tried hard enough, she could sink through it.
Strangely, Nick was the one who spoke first.
“Alan said I shouldn’t leave,” he said, toneless. “Was that wrong?”
“What?” Mae said.
Nick closed his eyes for a moment. “Alan.” He repeated, sounding irritable now. “He said I should stay. If you invited me in. If… if I wanted to.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “Was that wrong?”
“Nnnoooo,” Mae said, very slowly, trying to process the fact that Alan had very clearly given his little brother dating advice which included good post-sex etiquette.
Then she realised that Nick had just told her that he’d wanted to stay over.
“No,” she said again, more firmly. “It wasn’t wrong. I’m glad you stayed.” She meant it, and the sincerity was a relief. “I just wasn’t expecting you to be awake. It was… surprising.”
“You were scared,” Nick said flatly. Something flickered across his blank face. “Girls are always scared when they wake up next to me.”
“Well,” Mae said, after a long moment, “Another lesson in acting human: contrary to what some vampire romances suggest, it’s actually not that romantic to lie there staring at someone when they’re sleeping. It’s a bit creepy. Regardless of whether you’re a sparkly vampire or not, which you, my friend, are not.”
Nick snorted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, but the tension had bled out of his shoulders in a way that made Mae realise that he had been tense before. “I could be sparkly if I wanted.”
“Sure,” Mae said, stifling a yawn. “You can be anything you want, pumpkin.”
She rolled over onto her stomach and closed her eyes, burying her face back into her pillow. As she was drifting back to sleep, she thought she felt Nick ease a tiny bit closer.
But it was also possible she had just imagined it.
A few months later…
The day that Mae moved into the Goblin Market was a luxuriously hot summer’s day. Moving would have been a rather arduous endeavour if she hadn’t had Nick’s car and a veritable horde of willing minions. Well, moderately amenable minions.
Mae stretched contentedly in the grass next to Sin and enjoyed not having to help.
“I could just use magic for this,” Seb muttered under his breath as he ferried the umpteenth box from the back of Nick’s car. The collar of his green t-shirt was dark with sweat.
Actually, one rather reluctant minion.
“I don’t know,” Jamie drawled, on Mae’s other side. “I think I’m enjoying your physical labour.”
The tips of Seb’s ears went red. He didn’t complain again.
“I thought I was very restrained,” Mae told her brother, laughing quietly.
“Seb is an innocent,” Jamie said cheerfully. “He doesn’t know how bad it could have been.”
Mae grinned, gazing at her new home. It was bright under the setting summer sun, a wagon of her very own, with its high wheels and royal blue trim. Every time she looked at it, she felt a small bright thrill of happiness surge through her. There were chimes at the door, gleaming silver but voiceless even in the gentle breeze that stirred the grass around them. They were Sin’s gift to her, a welcome to her new home, and they would ring out when danger was coming.
Their silence now was a gift.
However, even if the chimes were silent, the wagon itself was not. There was a banging sound from inside. Mae heard the low murmur of Alan’s voice as he made his unsteady way to the door, the deeper crackle of Nick’s voice in answer.
“Good news,” Alan said, as he limped down the steps. He grinned at Mae. “Your bed is starting to look like a bed.”
When he sat down in the camping chair by them, Sin pushed herself up enough to sit leaning against his good leg, reaching up to hold his hand with unselfconscious ease. Mae saw Alan’s smile, bright and sweet, his fingers tightening against Sin’s, his thumb sliding over her knuckles in a quick caress.
She looked away and got to her feet, briefly annoyed with herself. “I’m just going to make sure Nick hasn’t nailed himself to the floor,” she said, casual. Sin gave her a sharp look, but said nothing.
Inside, Nick was crouched on the floor in front of the wooden bed frame now occupying the centre of the bedroom. He had one hand spread against the schematic for it, the other tugging impatiently at his dark hair.
“This plan,” he said, without looking up, “is stupid.”
“IKEA,” Mae told him sagely. “It makes sense eventually.”
She didn’t touch Nick’s hair as she eased past him. She didn’t touch the strong line of his back, or the intent curve of his neck. She put her hands on her hips instead, so she wouldn’t even be tempted to, and gave the bed frame a firm nudge with her toe.
“It looks good,” she said, and gave it another push.
“Hey,” Nick said mildly. “Don’t kick my hard work.”
“It seems pretty solid,” Mae said, with approval.
Nick raised his eyebrows at her, smirking.
Mae opened her mouth to say something - and Sin interrupted from behind her. “Are you done in here?” she asked, leaning round the door, dark hair tumbling over her bare shoulders. “Because we have just over an hour to get ready, Mae. You really don’t do things by halves, moving on the same day as the Market opens.”
Nick stood up and stretched lazily, cracking his neck. Mae eyed the flash of bare skin as his t-shirt rode up and then turned to Sin. “We’re good,” she said. “Are you dressing me up again?”
“I’m dressing you up again,” Sin confirmed, lips curving, her eyes bright and warm. “You said you wanted to put on a show tonight.”
“I did,” Mae nodded. She stuck her arms out dramatically. “Fine. Undress me, dress me, do what you want with me.”
“Mm,” Nick murmured. Mae was conscious of his eyes on her, intent. “That sounds like an interesting plan.”
“One that doesn’t involve you,” Mae said, serene. “Unless you suddenly became a style wizard.”
Nick blinked at her, lazy. “I could be. Am I part of your show?”
“Get out,” Sin told him, motioning at the door. “Mae needs to get changed.”
“Mae can get changed,” Nick drawled. “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve seen it before.”
“Out,” Mae said firmly, putting a hand on his shoulder to propel him towards the door, which Sin held open. For a moment, he didn’t move, muscle solid under her palm. “And yes, you are. So go and get changed.”
Nick looked down at her, eyes fathomless, and smiled faintly.
“Okay,” he said, and left.
The drums pulsed like the vast living heartbeat of the Market and beneath them rose the eerie wail of violins and pipes, wild and whispering on the night air to summon the tourists to them.
Mae stood barefoot in the grass, dressed in gleaming silver from throat to thigh, her shoulders and back bare. There was silver too in her hair, slender ribbons that stirred with the breeze. The heat of the day had faded to balmy coolness and she shivered a little with eagerness and anticipation, her eyes on Sin and her dancers as they whirled and leapt around her in bursts of bright colour, faster and faster, higher and higher, closer and closer.
Mae closed her eyes against them, just for a moment, her pulse thundering in her ears.
This was not a dance to summon demons.
When she opened her eyes again, they had drawn back from her.
This was a dance for one demon in particular.
Through their brightly-clad midst he came dressed in darkness.
Nick stalked towards her.
When he stopped in front of her, she stepped around him and turned. He turned too, to face her again. In her peripheral vision, Mae could see the colourful blooms of the dancers beginning to move again, but here, in the eye of their dance, she and Nick were still.
The demon and the leader of the Goblin Market.
Mae lifted her chin and gave him a calm, certain smile.
Nick’s eyes narrowed slightly.
When she moved again, it was to move with the beat of the drums, letting their rhythm guide her steps, the arch of her back, the sway of her hips. She moved, and Nick moved with her, a crow-clad shadow.
Mae knew that she couldn’t dance like Sin. She couldn’t dance like any of the Market dancers, like she was elemental, ephemeral, like she had been trained to it for most of her life.
She hadn’t been.
When she had summoned Liannan for Alan, so many months ago, she had thought of her dance as being an act of negotiation. She danced like that now, moving through the sequence of a strategy which presented the illusion of give-and-take when, in the end, she held the winning cards and the outcome would be as she chose.
And Nick moved with her as though he were happy for that to be the case.
When they stopped, Mae’s skin was slick with sweat. She could see the rapid rise and fall of Nick’s chest beneath the thin cotton of his black t-shirt. He stared down at her, hair falling across his eyes.
Mae reached up on impulse to push it back.
Nick let her.
Then, slowly, so slowly, he went to one knee before her.
Mae stared at him, her fingers caught against the side of his jaw. She could feel his pulse thudding against her fingertips. His eyes were lowered, lashes dark against his pale skin. If he’d been human, Mae would have been terrified that she was about to receive some dreadfully misguided proposal.
As it was, she didn’t have to worry.
Nick knelt there before her, as still as if he were carved from stone. He didn’t move, not even to flinch back when Mae laid her palm fully against his cheek, her fingers just under his jaw. He just lifted his chin, baring his throat a little.
Mae looked up, and saw their audience watching them. Tourists, their eyes wide, their lips parted, and she thought that she might have looked the same way on her first visit to the Market. Market people, too, watching with a mixture of apprehension, pride and assessment, and mixed in with them were some of the Aventurine Circle. They all looked a little stunned. One of them met her eyes for a moment, then dropped his gaze, easing away into the crowd as though she were something frightening.
And there was Sin, her scarlet lips curling with approval, Jamie and Alan beside her.
Everyone was watching the leader of the Goblin Market, her demon kneeling before her. His power pledged to her.
Nick swallowed, his throat working against her palm.
It was the show she and Sin had put together. It was the message they wanted to send.
“-fight.” Nick said, his voice muffled. There was the muffled bang of another firework going off outside. The Market was long finished, but some of the Market people were celebrating a successful night. No magicians had attacked them, no dancers had fallen to demons, and they had turned a good profit. It had been a very good night.
And it had gotten better when Nick had followed her into her new wagon.
“What?” Mae demanded, fighting not to let her voice waver. She did well. It only cracked a little. Her whole body felt sweetly strung out, her legs trembling slightly. Nick’s broad shoulders brushed her thighs as he lifted his head to repeat himself.
“I want to teach you how to fight,” he said. There was a shine of wetness on his mouth and chin. “Properly.”
“Oh god,” Mae groaned, pressing her palms to her eyes. “That’s what I thought you were saying. Why are you saying anything?!”
“I was thinking about it,” Nick said. His breath was hot against her skin. Every time he spoke, Mae shivered. She couldn’t help it. She had known for a long time that Nick’s aversion to touch didn’t extend to this context, but even so he seemed to luxuriate in slowly taking her apart with his hands and mouth.
“You were thinking about it now?” she demanded, lifting her head a little to stare at him incredulously. Nick grinned lazily at her, another firework streaking his face with dim red and green light.
“Among other things,” he said.
“Well,” Mae snapped, pressing her heels pointedly against his bare back, “other things were pretty good, so could we go back to those and discuss my warrior training afterward?”
Nick moved his hand, enough that his thumb brushed against her lightly. Mae gasped.
“Our little show together got me thinking.” He said. “People were going to come after you anyway. But they’ll think you’re dangerous now.” His teeth flashed in the darkness, a grin so savage it was almost a weapon in itself. “Might as well make sure you are.”
“Okay,” Mae said. “Okay, fine. It’s not like I’m opposed to learning how to fight. I want to learn. Do you want to start right now?!”
“No,” Nick said, low and amused. “I don’t.”
Mae was pretty sure he had only decided to start this conversation at this particular moment in order to be contrary. Nick liked to tease. And whatever he said about their dance, she knew he had liked that too. Maybe it was because he was a demon, and people had been dancing to seduce him out of the cold for centuries. Maybe it was just that Nick had liked dancing with her.
“Fine,” Mae said. “Then do finish what you started.”
Nick grinned at her. “Ask me nicely.”
“Oh my god,” Mae said, and pulled his hair. She filed the pleased sound he made away somewhere for future reference, as he lowered his mouth back to her, hot and insistent.
After she came, Mae lay limply across the bed, panting quietly. Nick had moved back a bit, one hand braced against the mattress. He wiped the back of the other across his mouth, his eyes still on her.
Mae closed her eyes and tried to gather her thoughts.
One popped up, unbidden.
“Josiah Fairbanks,” she said abruptly.
“Uh,” Nick said. “No. Although if that’s what you want to call m—“
“No,” Mae said, sitting up. The warm glow of her orgasm had gone, washed away in a sudden sickening chill. Her tone made Nick stiffen, the line of his bare torso no longer an invitation. “Josiah Fairbanks. One of the Aventurine magicians. But didn’t he leave?”
“Might’ve done,” Nick said, guarded. “I don’t know their names.”
“I saw him at the Market earlier,” Mae said, and outside there was a gunshot and someone screamed.
Outside it was chaos. The air was full of smoke and screaming. Nick had bolted for the door the moment the gunshot rang out, not even bothering with a shirt. Mae followed moments later, pausing only long enough to grab her knife and wiggle into jeans and what she now suspected was Nick’s t-shirt. Even those moments were enough that when she jumped down the steps of her wagon, she couldn’t see Nick anywhere.
Incredibly, there were still fireworks exploding into brilliance against the night sky.
Someone cried out.
Mae ran in the direction of that cry. She had had enough dreams where someone sobbed outside her window in her brother’s voice that she didn’t run without thinking. She kept to the darkness under the trees and kept her knife in her hand.
Magicians had come to the Market after all.
One of the wagons was on fire. Mae thought it belonged to one of the new potion-makers, and hoped that they had gotten out.
She saw Sin, dark hair flying, long knives shining in her hands, spring for one of the magicians and take him down to the ground. Nick, teeth bared in a snarl, blood on his bare chest, span his sword and buried it in the heart of a woman with hands full of cold blue flame.
She didn’t see Alan, but she heard the echo of his gun as he fired from the shadows, again and again.
And it wasn’t just them and the Market fighting back. There were magicians fighting magicians. Jamie stood with his hands full of silver light, shielding the pipers as they whistled up a sudden volley of pebbles and sent them flashing into the enemy magicians.
Mae started for her brother, then saw one of the potion-makers on the ground. She was twisting in pain as a magician stood over her, the flex of his fingers in the air contorting her body into awful shapes.
“The sooner you all stop fighting us,” he said, “the sooner this ends.”
There were a hundred things Mae could have said in response to that. But she said none of them as she slid up behind him and cut his throat. She would not be the kind of person who quipped while they killed.
She turned from him as he fell, her hands trembling, and found another magician standing right there.
“You,” said the woman, her eyes filled with awful light. She raised her hands.
Mae raised her knife, knowing it was too little, knowing it was too late. Distantly, she heard Nick shout her name.
And a sword slid between the woman’s ribs.
Helen of the Swords drew her blade free as the woman fell. Her expression was terrible. She turned from Mae without a word, carving her way towards Jamie.
It did not take them long to crush the attack. When it was over, the enemy magicians who were still alive had retreated.
Mae looked around and saw none of their own among the dead. Then someone touched her sleeve and she whirled.
Nick stood there. There was blood on his sword and on his bare chest and a little on his face. He looked at her, a question on his face. He touched her hair, and Mae realised there was blood there too.
“I’m ok,” she said. She held her bloody hands out to him. “It’s not mine.”
After a moment, Nick nodded. “Okay,” he said. Then the corner of his mouth quirked. “Neither is that shirt.” He touched her hair again, very light, lingering. “…Well done.”
Mae nodded at him.
They cleaned up as best they could. The magicians put out the wagon that was on fire. Mae helped organise a first aid line for the injured. At one point, she glanced around for her brother and saw instead Nick saying something abrupt to Helen, who just nodded curtly and turned away from him.
“What did you say?” Mae asked him later, as they made their way back to her wagon.
Nick didn’t look at her or break stride. “‘Thanks’,” he said shortly.
A year later…
It was late mid-morning and there was the faint distant thunder of crashing waves from way, way down the cliffs. Mae woke slowly, languidly, stretching luxuriously enough to enjoy the full expanse of her bed as she had slept for long enough that she was now alone in it. Nick would sometimes stay and watch her sleep, but more often than not he got restless and went outside to prowl the Market like a bad-mannered guard dog.
It several more long lazy minutes before Mae dragged herself reluctantly out of bed and got dressed. Through her open window, she could hear the quiet buzz of the Market getting ready to leave. Last night had been their final night of a long run in the coastal cliffs of Pembrokeshire and they would be leaving later today and heading back to Exeter.
They had to go back to Exeter.
While she washed her face, Mae thought about her mental check-list of things that needed to be done before they could leave. Then she thought about going back to Exeter and decided that they could all wait.
She was going down to the sea first.
The sea off of the coast near St. Davids was placid, rolling and green. Tiny waves broke and crashed across the pebbly sand, racing up the shore in a flurry of foaming white. The water was icy against her feet.
Mae tied the laces of her shoes together and hung them around her neck long enough to roll her jeans up to just above her knees. Then she held her shoes in one hand and waded slowly out.
The water was so cold that it went straight through feeling cold and into burning. But there was something wonderful about standing in the sea, gazing out across the flat empty horizon, and hearing nothing but the whisper of the waves and the occasional cry of the gulls wheeling overhead. Mae loved living at the Market, loved it in a way that came to her as naturally and as necessary as breathing, but she was never alone there.
It wasn’t that she craved being alone. Mae had always thought of herself as an extrovert. But sometimes, just sometimes, it was nice to have the space of solitude in which to think.
It had been a year since she had taken over the Market. She had survived that year and so had the Market. In fact, it had done more than survive. It was making a consistently healthy profit. Sin, Jamie and Helen had put together a list of defectors from the Aventurine Circle and there hadn’t been an attack from an enemy Circle in months. Mae knew she was good at strategy, at plotting the trajectory of consequence, and she could see a point in their future where the other Circles, rather than seeing them as dangerous enough to need wiping out, would see them as dangerous enough to be best left alone. Maybe even dangerous enough to be surrendered to.
It wasn’t just that they were dangerous. Mae and Jamie had together devised an outreach program for young magicians. Sin’s baby sister Lydie had helped them with it.
Mae wasn’t so naive as to think that the outreach program would prevent other Circles from gaining any new magicians at all in the next six years. But it felt like the right step on a path to that future.
And they were going back to Exeter so Mae could arrange the sale of her mother’s house.
The pain still surprised her sometimes. It was as though grief were a shipwreck, deeply submerged but then, every now and again, stirred by the current so that some part of it would emerge briefly above the surface of the waves.
She missed Annabel. She wished that her mother had had the chance to see Mae of the Market and all the business and diplomatic accomplishments she had wrought in the past year. She hoped her mother would have been proud.
Mae closed her eyes and tipped her face to the sea wind and thought that she would have been.
When she turned around to walk back to shore, she found Nick Ryves standing there, watching her. He stood just back from where the waves were breaking, his hands hooked casually in his pockets.
Mae waved at him and began to make her way back through the water. One particularly enthusiastic swell soaked the rolled hem of her jeans and nearly knocked her off her feet, but she caught herself. She stopped when the water only foamed around her ankles and grinned up at him. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Nick replied, looking down at her. There was a pleased, feline squint to his gaze. “Finally woke up. I wondered if it would ever happen.”
“Not everyone wants to wake up at the crack of dawn and go running round a field like a lunatic,” Mae told him pleasantly.
Nick looked mildly amused. “And yet Jamie does,” he said dryly.
Mae was just about to point out that Jamie did not get up at the crack of dawn to go running because he wanted to, but because Nick made him, and coercion was not the same as consent, when Nick continued.
“Anyway,” he said. “I didn’t get up to go running. I wanted to finish something.”
“Ah,” Mae said. “‘Something’. How specific. How wonderful to be dating a demon of international mystery.”
Nick grinned briefly. “Glad you appreciate it,” he said, and there was that odd scrape in his voice that Mae knew meant he was feeling awkward. “But no. Uh. It’s… well. It’s a gift.”
He drew his hand out of his pocket. There was something between his fingers. At first, Mae thought it was a weapon, gleaming in the dull sunlight. Then she realised it was a bracelet.
“Oh,” she said, very softly.
It was a shining, dark, jagged thing, all sharp twisted edges. Then Nick held it out to her and she saw it was birds in flight, their wings savage and sharp. It was a hand-made thing, fashioned from scrap metal.
He’d made it, she realised. He’d made it for her.
“It’s not my birthday,” she said, stupidly.
Nick’s face was blank now. He looked away from her, at the waves frothing across the glistening heaps of dark pebbles. “It’s not a birthday present,” he said, sounding a little impatient. “Alan said to mark significant events. It’s a year since you became the leader of the Market.”
“Oh,” Mae said again. She really needed to find something else to say, but for once she had no words. There was a smile tugging at her mouth, trembling and brilliant.
She took the bracelet from him, careful of the sharp edges. The outstretched wings pricked her palm. They felt sharp as carnivore teeth. She was sure that she couldn’t get it on without cutting herself, and what a strange, suitable gift from Nick Ryves, jewellery that was also a weapon made for wounding whoever tried to hold it.
But when Nick helped her to fasten it, she found that inside of the bracelet slipped smoothly against the tender skin of her wrist. Its sharp edges were all turned outwards.
She turned her wrist slowly back and forth, admiring the way the sun gleamed off of the curve of dark metal. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and meant it.
“It’s magicked,” Nick replied. “Look.”
And he drew a knife, long and sharp, and drew it swiftly across her arm. The pain was a moment behind, but then it came bright and hot. Mae cried out with surprise and stumbled back, reaching to press her palm against the cut...
... and the bracelet around her wrist came apart like a dandelion clock in a puff of wind, the metal birds whirling up into the air, their wings thundering in Mae’s ears.
Then they dove at Nick.
He let two of them hit him with their razor-sharp wings and then he raised his hand.
Mae stared at him as the birds swirled back in to encircle her wrist, a bracelet once more.
“You made me a bracelet of magical attack birds,” she said, finally, pressing her hand against the cut on her arm. It wasn’t deep, but Nick’s knife was sharp and it bled freely.
“Yeah,” Nick said. “I wanted you safe.”
“Okay,” Mae said. “Thank you. Next time you make me magical attack jewellery, please don’t attack me with a knife to demonstrate it.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. There was blood on his sleeve and on his cheek, where the birds had dived at him. “Fair enough. Should I interpret that as don’t attack you with anything to demonstrate it?”
“Yes,” Mae told him.
Nick shrugged. “Okay. Can I attack someone else to demonstrate it, then?”
“No,” Mae said, then she thought about it. “Well, it depends on the person. Maybe.”
Nick grinned, “Great.”
Mae looked at her wrist again. He’d made her a bracelet that would attack someone who tried to harm her. And it was beautiful.
“Maybe you should have your own stall at the Market,” she suggested.
Nick rolled his eyes. “No,” he said shortly. Then he held out his hand, palm up. “You should put something over that cut. Come on.”
Mae took his hand and let him draw her out of the sea. His hand was warm and his fingers were tight around her own. He didn’t let go.