It was probably cruel to encourage Nick to teach Jamie the fine art of balancing scimitars, Alan thought as he shuffled down the abandoned tramway, though cruelest to whom, it was hard to say. If he was very lucky, he'd come home to one audaciously sullen boy decorated with plasters, and one brother whose black eyes betrayed exactly nothing about how badly this exercise had gone awry.
If he wasn't lucky... well, Alan had been to the morgue before.
Still, he hoped for plasters and recriminations, because on that, he could enjoy his prize without too much guilt. He glanced at the note scribbled in the palm of his hand, then looked to the distance.
Thick pillars of basalt thrust up from the coast, almost geometric in their precision. They cut the darkening sky with mythic steps, stepping stones that stretched out over a whitening sea. Ordinary tourists with torches climbed to watch the stars dance on the tide, but Alan followed a hazy, rubbled path away from them.
The cut he took through the Causeway seemed unmemorable. This path of hexagonal stones had been worn smooth, dull compared to their fine, craggy counterparts along the cliff face. The foundation of the old caretaker's house seemed to encourage exploration elsewhere. Nothing worth seeing here, it seemed to say- do try Runkberry House, it's just over that bluff, in the other direction.
Which told Alan he was on exactly the right path.
Carefully stepping through the ruins of the old turnstile, Alan stuffed the softened bit of paper into his pocket. Ghostly music threaded the air, spectral notes that seemed to whisper across water. Listening closely, Alan pursed his soft lips, lighting when he recognized the old lament. Catching the melody when it started again, Alan kept his voice low and longing.
"But a hush and a sigh, was his own Molly Ban" he sang.
The ballad was a key; its notes drew a silver line along the path. A streak no brighter than moonlight on a spider's web, it wove along the old trail until it opened up to Ireland's Goblin Market.
Lamps swung from pikes, marking out the chaotic edge of the market. Without trees, the night sky seemed to ceiling the stalls. Turning slowly, Alan took in otherworldly goods not much different from the Market he'd been banned from in England. Weapons of every sort, scrolls and charms, though Ireland boasted an entire booth full of selkie-skin trinkets. On closer inspection, Alan decided they were most likely made of lambskin, stained dark and rubbed smooth.
"Glamour in a mask," called a stall keeper. "Wear a face that brings you fame and fortune!"
A smith, sooty and red-faced, sang to Alan as he passed, "Turn a dagger toward your hand?"
"Hallo, you," another said, low enough to sound familiar, and Alan stopped.
Beneath a bright pink canopy, she smiled fondly, her dark eyes glittering like the rings spread out before her. Bound in delicate pink silk from head to toe, she beckoned Alan over with a waved hand. Her skin was fine, unlined, and her face disturbingly round. She looked like a little girl, all milk-pale and innocent. Fond of children, Alan had a faint desire to cuddle her.
Fortunately, it was quite faint, and it dissipated entirely when she ducked beneath the table. She reappeared on the other side, dropping a wooden plum crate in front of him. Stepping onto it, she met Alan closer to his own height - if by closer, one meant still no higher than his shoulder, but at least fairly well above his waist. She smelled sweetly of pipe smoke, and beneath her silk headwrap peeked the thick, ropey edge of a scar.
Flattening her hands against his shoulder, she rose on her toes against him. Her voice rasped, two stones grinding together, as she whispered to him. "Be careful, Mr. Alan Ryves, late of Exeter, on holiday in Coleraine, born of Daniel and Marie. You're not so very far from home as you might think."
"Who are you?" Alan asked, rubbing his thumb against the hilt of his knife.
"No need for that, ducky. I'm friendly enough."
"Right then," Alan said. "Tell Merris I said hello."
Pleased, the stall keeper chucked him under the chin, then hopped off her plum crate. "Agate stone for your forefinger?" she offered. She was, after all, a businesswoman.
Alan shook his head and limped away. This, even more than the prospect of coming home to Jamie in halves and Mae in hysterics, troubled him. He may have been cast out of the crimson light surrounding Merris Cromwell; this was a reminder she hadn't cast him out of her reach.
That thought rattled in his head, bones full of marrow to be cracked by sharp teeth. He almost turned back- he might have made it to the leased cottage before Jamie lost so much as a fingertip. But a black and rust awning fluttered, the pennant tips curling like a dancer's wrists. Bells sung softly, catching lamplight and scattering it like diamonds on the books below.
There were any number of things Alan kept to himself- diaries, aunts, the key to the biscuit jar- which was entirely symbolic because Nick would think nothing of smashing it if he really, really wanted a crunchy ginger or six. Chief, however, among the non-lethal secrets Alan kept, was the fast-catching rush of heat that swept over him when confronted by loads of gorgeous books all in one place. Especially books he had yet to read. Or touch. Or...
A woman with dark, unbound hair stepped from the stall and fixed Alan in her gaze. Curiously plain, her hazel eyes were deep-set and heavy-lidded, her mouth small and full as a hollyhock bud. There was something distinctly Pre-Raphaelite about her, perhaps the way her hair descended in straight strokes until it suddenly bloomed in thick curls around her shoulders. Or it could have been the gown, flowing over her curves in peacock hues. Its silken hem spilled across her bare feet, over toes banded with silver rings, a bell on the smallest toe each.
What was not straight from a Waterhouse oil was the cloak that seemed made of feathers, nor the slate that hung from her wrist. She stroked a bit of chalk across its surface, then held it up. It read, "Come inside, Alan."
"After you," he said, automatically, ducking beneath the awning.
Somehow, the inside of the stall was larger than its outsides. Not outlandishly so- two small tented rooms, one where he was invited to sit with a silent gesture, and the other barred with a flap of canvas. A thick rug covered the floor, alternating with patterns in orange and black, ships and waves, then bird-winged women.
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Gia," Alan said. He carefully lowered himself to the puff of silken pillows on the ground.
A twitching expression crossed her features, almost a smile, as she swept her slate clean to write, "Likewise. Wine?"
"No, thank you."
"So brave," she wrote. Sweeping her fingers against the tent walls, she parted the flap between the rooms and disappeared into the other room. When she returned, she held a polished blackwood case on her outstretched hands. It was ordinary. Bound with silver hinges and clasp, and not one thing more, it balanced perfectly when she slid it into Alan's hands.
Alan rolled the electric taste of anticipation across his tongue. "May I?"
Chalk kissed the slate. "Please do."
Though he felt the tremor beneath his skin, Alan didn't notice it in his hands. They were steady, sure, rough fingertips practiced on guitar strings twisting the clasp and lifting the lid. From the corner of his eye, he saw Gia pull closed the front awning, but then he saw nothing but glory. Inside the box lay an aged folio. One edge was tattered and dark with soot, the other edge stained with water. Bound by a ribbon, the irregular pages felt alive when Alan lifted them slightly from the case.
"Love's Labour's Wonne," he said. No, he prayed, with the kind of reverent breath most men reserved for their Helen. Shakespeare's lost play, four hundred years lost, and Alan held it in his lap. Drawing his touch along the page, he drank in the details. Ink brown, handwriting crabbed, notes crammed every which way over a messy block of iambic pentameter. "O there, Navarre, that thing, that precious beast, do we find fair in spite our marriage feast..."
Gia smiled. "It's his first draft."
Dragging his gaze from the lines to woman, Alan smiled, dazed. "I recognize the handwriting. I've only seen it this close once, but it's distinctive. That hook on the k, there, and the sidewards slant on the dot of the I..."
Perhaps realizing she didn't care, Alan shut himself up, then started over. "What are you asking for it?"
"Hardly anything," she scribbled, then let the slate fall. It hung from her wrist, waving lazily as she opened an apothecary box. The scent of violets escaped, and Gia produced a single feather. Dark and smooth, its unmarred edge fluttered as she handed it to Alan.
"I won't sign anything in blood."
Wrinkling her nose, Gia swept her slate clean and started again. "I need you to sing for me."
Alan hesitated. "I didn't bring my guitar; I didn't realize..."
"Unnecessary," she wrote. "Too controlled. I have another way."
Possessive arms around the folio case, Alan had to hesitate again. It was rarely a good idea to willingly give up pieces of one's self, especially to strangers of unknown providence.
"An enchantment." Smoothing her cloak, she turned her pale cheek against the dark feathers. They glimmered, not with a light, but with whispers. When she drew her fingers against them, a spectral hush rose up, a hundred, a thousand exquisite voices sighing at once. Turning back, she picked up her slate again. "One perfect, unrestrained note."
When he didn't answer immediately, she wrote, "Your voice is lovely."
And it spoke for Nick when he danced, though really, Nick shouldn't be dancing any more, but on the other hand...
Leaning close, Gia brushed the case closed, curling her long fingers around it to reclaim her treasure. Hundreds of pages in the Bard's own hand. Unread for centuries. Belonging to him alone. With a last breath of hesitation, Alan flattened his hand over hers. "One note."
"Irrevocably," she wrote, then smiled suddenly, brilliantly. An amber kind of light went on behind her eyes when he nodded, and she slipped the slate from her wrist. It fell among the pillows, lost with its chalk, and Alan forgot it entirely when Gia spoke.
"Pain or pleasure?" she asked, and her voice warmed the air. It had a hue, soft gold like summer dusk; it rushed across his skin like a lover's hair.
Alan's thoughts spun, but he managed to clear them enough to say, "You can speak. But why..."
From her cache, Gia turned to him. In one hand, she held a bottle, swirling with a gilt-scarlet liquid. In the other, a little knife, no longer than her forefinger, and elegantly curved. She brushed it against his cheek, down the fine line of his jaw. "I could whisper in your ear, oh, Odysseus, dash yourself on those rocks for me, and you would. That's hardly a fair way to make a contract."
"Gia," he said. "Ligeia."
"So pleasure or pain, Alan?"
She uncorked the bottle; rubbed its mouth against hers before taking a sip. Her words slipped into him, skimming past the part of his lips, dipping into his thoughts- but more exquisitely unbearable than her voice was her silence. An ache of bittersweet longing coursed through him when she said nothing, the bereft weight of unrequited need settling on his skin.
That physical, trembling want kept his wits from abandoning him completely. Now that she had the bottle open, he smelled fever wine, sticky-sweet- and he watched the glinting edge of her blade. She offered both again. Bells sang with the motion, joined by the whisper of gold against glass.
One note, unrestrained, coaxed or carved out of him- by a plain-beautiful-plain woman who dealt not just in books, but books lost to history. The blackwood case felt warm and alive; it fit so perfectly between his hands- it belonged to him.
Gia stroked his brow with a whispered, "Yes?"
"Pleasure," he sighed.
The dark weight of her cloak whispered when she stood, sweeping around him like a great storm cloud. Silk brushed his cheek, then the smooth trace of feathers. Sinking to sit at Alan's elbow, Gia slipped an arm around his shoulder and leaned in close, her brow against his.
"Give in," she said. "Surrender."
The twilight glow of her voice made him part his lips; she dipped her smallest finger into the wine, then painted his mouth with it. The heady lure of it loosened Alan's thoughts. He turned toward the heat of her breath. She was a dazzling haze of midnight curls over the rims of his glasses, and she didn't seem to mind that he reflexively put a hand on his knife.
Plucking up the feather she gave him, she teased just the tip of it down his cheek. "What's your pleasure, darling? Who is... he?" she guessed.
"She," Alan corrected. It felt like sin to disagree with her, like throwing a stone through a clerestory window. He banished the flickered thought of Nick's black eyes- his awful, wonderful brother was his greatest love, but hardly his passion. Sinking into the curve of Gia's arm, Alan turned his dozy gaze on her. "Mae, her name's Mae."
Gia brushed her nose against his temple. "Surrender yourself."
Like gentle fingers on his wrists, Mae rose up- all of her, as if she had only been waiting in the shadows. Animated by a rich, golden glimmer, she smiled beneath her shock of pink hair, shy, but never coy. Sinking to her knees, she tugged the hem of her shorts, the full rise of her breasts framed between her arms. A gilt-clad ghost, even the prisms and charms she wore around her neck cast summery light instead of rainbows.
She bit her lower lip, pearly teeth cutting into flesh ripe as a peach. Pressing a hand on either side of him, she slipped her knee between his and stretched out. Her conjured body blanketed him; he heard Gia murmuring the details- the delicate weight of her, Alan, certainly you feel it; isn't it delicious the way her lashes flutter when you frame her waist with your hands?
Oh, it was- and when he raised his knee between Mae's thighs, her dark eyes went wide. Sunset shadows deepened, the sharp edges of the stall fading to obscurity. Because the reverie demanded it, trees sprung up around them, a hazy, storm-ridden sky stretching out above. Streaks of lightning cut the ambered clouds, a pale web of fire holding the heavens back.
A deep breath painted Mae's curves against him; she looked so sweetly stunned when she ran bejeweled fingers into his ginger hair. Skimming past his mouth, she brushed her cheek against his, whispering in his ear, "Do you know what I've just realized about you?"
Whatever it was, it paled to all the things Alan suddenly knew about her. Turning his face toward hers, he caught the back of her neck with a gentle hand, and the part of her lips with his mouth. She was sweet as August apples, the taste of her deep when he slipped past her lips.
And he could hear it- distant running thunder. It was a warning drummed out on his skin in rain, to remember that this kiss was not Mae's kiss, nor this body, or her hands, with her nails trailing down his face. Not her voice, wavering in a keening, needy whisper, trying to climb closer to him, to spill out on his skin- as full as his hands felt with her in them, some sure, certain part of his mind recognized a potion made of siren's tears.
"Surrender," Gia whispered.
"Alan," Mae said, smearing her swollen lips against the line of his jaw.
He wanted to succumb; he would have dashed himself on the rocks just over the way. He wanted; his body twisted with need, raw and base to press against Mae, but his thoughts unfurled, ribbons in the wind. He did want, to lay her down in his bed, to murmur sonnets and play her body with his fingers, but this- this tempest forest, built of magic and song, and selfish, grasping want- it wasn't real; he couldn't surrender all the things he hoped and wanted and wished with Mae to a midsummer fantasy.
Gia demanded, "Surrender."
Spectral caresses spread across his chest; each one perfectly made- silken lips, a whispered kiss. Alan tried to sit, to struggle free, but suddenly she rose up and seared his mouth. Nothing sweet or shy; she commanded him, framing his face with her hands, each fingernail cutting a half moon against his cheeks. Drugged by a kiss made of fire and fury, Alan tangled his hands in her hair, maybe twisted, maybe pulled, god, he was ashamed, and when he finally broke away he opened his eyes and gasped, "Sin!"
"Who else?" Sin said. Her cherry mouth curved, dark eyes dancing. "You can't surrender until you know you're bested, can you?"
In a flicker, she turned up her palm and blew a handful of flame bright blossoms at him. As the petals fell, she faded- nothing more than fairy fire. The trees melted back to shadows that danced on canvas walls.
When Alan's midnight eyes cleared, he blinked and refocused. His skin stung with a flush- his naked rawness had been all in his mind. His clothes were barely wrinkled. Even the glimmering heat of sweat on his skin was an illusion. Mae's sweet mouth, Sin's fiery kiss- all imaginary; all his.
Gia spun the black feather between her fingers, the quill edge of it catching the light- the edge of it shone faintly silver. Lifting the blackwood case, she offered it to Alan with a gentle smile.
Alan couldn't scramble, really, but he could sit up very quickly, and brush himself off, which was very nearly the same. Ordering his hands to steady, he took the box and nodded toward the feather. "That's everything, then?"
Nodding, Gia tucked the feather behind her ear. Picking her slate up from the pillows, she fastened it to the clasp around her wrist again, and then wrote, "A pleasure to do business with you."
Ears tinged pink, Alan mumbled something reasonably polite as he staggered out of the stall. The whole sky opened up, black and bright with stars, the air clean, cool, his skin washed with it. Arms wrapped around the folio, he squared himself and hurried as best he could toward the car park in the distance.
"Bones of Coral, Eyes of Pearl, good luck charms here!" the tiny, pink stall keeper called.
And Alan was so unsettled, he didn't look over. And he didn't notice when Sin pulled off the headwrap and little girl mask. Merris' heiress apparent snuffed out the lights in the stall and stepped into the shadows- but even that, Alan never noticed.
If he'd had all his wits about him, he would have felt Sin's dark, sharp eyes following him. Each breath would have lured him with the scent of fever blossoms as she rose to her full height.
But after the gilt, golden swirl of his desires had played out on his skin, all he knew was the quiet, the emptiness of his hands- the dry rasp of his lips without the siren's whisper on them. She'd said surrender, and he'd brought forth Sin.
Maybe once Alan's library would have been kingdom enough- but now he drowned in revelation.