The morning of the Market, Sin wakes with the sun but stays in bed, eyes closed and unmoving, letting herself think. It’s rare for her to have the time to just stay still and relish the sound of her own mind at work.
Her contemplation is eventually interrupted by the feeling of Alan’s arm tightening around her, and she lets her mouth curve into a faint smile as he presses his lips to the back of her neck.
“Good morning,” she murmurs, tilting her head back to kiss him properly, enjoying the safety of her position in his arms too much to relinquish it, even for the benefit of facing him.
Alan kisses her back, then smiles at her a little blurrily, leaning his forehead against the curve of her shoulder as she shifts back into position. A moment of silence passes as Sin waits for the inevitable question—then, there comes Alan’s voice, low and gentle. “Are you nervous about today?”
She smiles, snuggling further into his embrace. “Yes,” she says, because it’s true, then adds, “and no,” because that’s true too. “I’ve had a year to get used to it, but—there are days I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s happening. Isn’t that how everyone’s meant to feel?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Alan says, very dry, and Sin laughs as she finally turns around in the circle of his arms, looping both of her own around his neck, leaning up to kiss him again, lingering this time as she presses her body fully against his.
After several lovely and very distracting minutes, she pulls away to rest her forehead against Alan’s, closing her eyes for a brief moment. “Are you sure you’re all right with this?”
She hasn’t asked him that question before, mostly because she hasn’t wanted to rely on his opinions to influence her decision; she wanted to make it on her own, for her own reasons. And also because she thinks she would have known how he felt, if he had really had a problem with it. Alan may wear a liar’s face, but even his talents for deception have their limits; she thinks he couldn’t have truly hidden it, if he’s been having trouble accepting this.
When she opens her eyes to his face, it’s contemplative, but not unpleasantly so. “If you’re asking whether I believe that this is what’s best for you and what you truly want and need—then yes, absolutely and unequivocally. If you’re asking if I’m nervous, or jealous—” A small, wry twist of his mouth. “Yes—and no. But more the latter than the former, and not nearly enough of the former to count. Think of it as a residual emotion; a phantom limb of a feeling. The amputation is done, and the sensation will fade on its own, given time. If you’re asking if I would ever so much as consider trying to talk you out from doing this…” He shifts, taking her face in his hands, keeping in place so that their foreheads still rest against one another. “No. Never. Not for a minute.”
Sin smiles, feeling a little shaky. “You could have just said yes,” she says, determinedly ignoring the brief, sharp burning building at the back of her eyes. She really, really loves this man.
Alan looks startled, and Sin finds she can’t tell if it’s a lie. “No, I couldn’t have,” he says, and she’s not sure if he’s being facetious or truly bewildered. Possibly a bit of both.
Either way, it means she has to kiss him again, and even with the early hour of the morning, it’s time she shouldn’t be spending lingering in bed rather than preparing. So even though it’s tempting, under the circumstances of the day, to linger with him more and more, she forces herself to give him only one more quick kiss, then to pull back and stretch, long and thorough, before vaulting herself out of bed. “All right—scoot. There’s still plenty to be done, and it’s probably bad luck for you to be seeing me before the Market.”
Alan laughs, though he obediently moves to get out of bed and put on some clothing. “I’m not sure that applies here,” he murmurs wryly, though he stays turned away as he pulls on a shirt.
Sin shoots him a mischievous grin over her shoulder—one she knows he can’t see, but will surely hear in her voice. “Let’s not risk it either way, mm?”
“Bloody,” Mae says viciously, stabbing at the page in front of her until her pen is practically poking holes in the sheet, “bloody, bloody, bloody necromancers!”
“Seems a little paradoxical, wouldn’t you say?” Nick drawls from where he’s sprawled across Mae’s bed, polishing a knife. He’s been in the process of doing so for a time that Mae would deem far longer than necessary, but she’s more than willing to concede expertise on this particular issue to Nick.
Mae shoots him an evil glare, still angrily drumming her pen against the stack of papers on her desk. “It’s impossible,” she mutters darkly, slumping forward until her forehead is leaning against the desk, her shoulders bowed. “It’s literally impossible to fix. Everything is terrible. The Market is going to collapse into a flaming pile of ruin and they shall chant curses upon my name as the one responsible for this doom.”
“Well, that’s the spirit,” says a cheerful voice from the door of the caravan, and Mae turns, startled, to see Sin, dressed in dancing clothes, leaning against the door and grinning much too broadly for Mae’s current peace of mind.
“Sin,” she says as she sits up, feeling relief and embarrassment in near-equal measure. She gestures grandly, attempting to regain some semblance of sangfroid. “Come in. Serve as additional audience to my current and thorough demise. Marvel at the downfall of all I hold dear.”
“Not an attitude I’d ever expect from you,” Sin murmurs as she comes in, standing at Mae’s shoulder as she peers down at the documents in front of her. “What’s all this?”
Mae feels a little awkward about telling her. She knows she was given leadership of the Market fair and square, and Sin has never tried to make her feel badly about it, or done anything to indicate that Mae has anything less than her full support. Still—she doesn’t want to flaunt it in her former rival’s face. But Sin did ask, so Mae spreads the top few sheets.
“I’ve been making spreadsheets for future Market locations,” she explains, gesturing to each sheet—she’s printed them out with pictures, GPS coordinates, and a thorough list of pros and cons of each. She has it all electronically, of course, but sometimes it helps to stare at them all at once, right in front of her face, in hard-copy form. “We have the rotating few where we know it’s safe to go, but every time I want to add a new one, it’s almost impossible to get everyone to agree. The magicians can’t get too close to other circles’ territories—some of the Market people still don’t like being too close to populated areas—and now the bloody necromancers are stirring up trouble because they suddenly have to be near a cemetery at least twice a year, but not during a full moon—”
“Slow down,” Sin says, sounding irritatingly amused as she rests a hand on Mae’s shoulder. Mae realizes she’s raised her voice, and lets out a huff of annoyed air, slumping back in the chair. “You can’t run the Market if you run out of air.”
“I offered to use persuasion and reason to help convince the necromancers of Mavis’s point of view,” Nick says from the bed, and Sin snorts as she looks over at him.
“Please tell me those aren’t actually the names of your knives,” she says, and Nick bares his teeth at her, an expression that’s almost a smile.
“Maybe planning ahead isn’t the way to go,” Mae sighs, resting her forehead in her hand. “I just thought—there’s so much to arrange every month, and so many groups of people still trickling in. I figured the less done on the fly, the better, and then I can focus on organization and profit margins and making sure no one kills the magicians.”
“No promises on that one,” Nick says, and Sin snorts again, looking far more amused than Mae would like.
“What are you so cheerful about?” she grumbles, lowering her head to the desk, relishing the feeling of the cool wood. At least, she thinks morosely, she has something that she can enjoy right now. Her sweet, beautiful, pleasant-feeling desk. Thank goodness for it. “My impending failure as a leader and a human is not in the least bit amusing.”
“Mae,” Sin says, shifting her hand to rest between her shoulder blades. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll figure it out. You’re great at things like this.”
Mae shoots her an incredulous look. “What? Mediating disputes? Resolving things to everyone’s satisfaction? Flipping off powerful magic users in the face of their threats? Are you kidding?”
Sin laughs so hard she throws her head back, looking delighted as she grins at Mae; annoyingly, she can’t help but smile back. “Well, maybe that last one,” she murmurs. “But I meant—convincing others to see things your way. Figuring out a solution for things and doing it regardless of what others think, and making it work out in the end. That’s your specialty.”
Mae blinks at her, her mouth slightly open. From the bed, Nick lets out a brief, sharp howl of laughter. “She’s got you pegged,” he says, sounding far too pleased. Sin turns and winks at him.
To her bewilderment, Mae feels a little prickle in her chest when she looks at Sin’s smiling face, like the leaves of a plant are being brushed along her arm—startling but not unpleasant. She has no idea what it means, but she’s grateful to Sin for the reassurance. And she’s right, Mae realizes. That’s part of why Merris picked her to run the Market: she gets things done. And this will be no exception.
“Hey,” she says brightly, sitting up, feeling a little steelier, a little more determined, “it was great to see you. But I’ve got some stuff to do, so—”
Sin nods, shooting Mae a wink as well—there’s the prickly feeling again, Mae thinks in confusion—before getting to her feet. “Noted. Knock ‘em dead, Mae.”
And she beams with pride and determination as she turns back to the papers.
After packing her bag and ensuring everything she needs at the moment is in place, Sin’s first stop of the day is her father’s house.
For multiple reasons, Grandma Tess won’t be there, but Sin’s father greets her at the gate with a bright, beaming smile. Having magic back in his life more regularly has put him a little off-balance, and the current situation has certainly confused him more than a little, especially considering how surprisingly fond he is of Alan, but he can’t deny how happy Sin is in this life and how much she wants it. His support over the past year and his help with the planning have been invaluable.
Lydie’s waiting for her at the door, exclaiming in delight as she flings her arms around Sin, beaming brilliantly as she pulls back. Toby’s standing at the door, a large, gap-toothed smile on his face as he watches his sisters.
“Are you excited?” Lydie exclaims without preamble, grinning so broadly Sin is pretty sure she couldn’t be any happier if it were her day. “I can’t believe this is happening. Are you so, so excited?”
“Not as much as you, apparently,” she says, wry, grinning down at her happy sister, who’s practically vibrating. “Are you sure something isn’t going on with you?”
Lydie sticks her tongue out, in all her teenage glory. “Are you sure you still want my help? I can take my magic elsewhere. I’m very much in demand, you know.”
Sin knows. Lydie’s been training with Jamie and Seb and several of his other magicians for years now, and she still has two more to go before choosing a circle. It’s likely she’ll stay with the Aventurine, but she’s powerful—she’s been made offers by other circles, even those who aren’t in the good graces of the Market. She would never consider those, of course, but she’s been keeping her options open. For all that she’s a ridiculous girl and growing into a true terrible teenager, she takes her studies of magic very seriously.
Toby, happily, has shown no inclination of magical ability whatsoever, and is pretty equal-opportunity regarding his delight for the magical and non-magical world alike. So he just beams at Sin as she ruffles his hair, pleased that she’s pleased and happy to be involved.
“You have everything ready for them?” she asks her dad as he juggles their bags. They’ll be spending the night in Sin’s old caravan, the three of them; she rarely uses it anymore, practically living with Alan as she is, but Mae had insisted she keep it exactly as is, just in case, and Sin’s happy to know it’s still there when she needs it. Like now, when she wants the entire family with her, in the Market, on the most important day of her life.
“Sure do.” He pauses for a moment to set them down and open his arms, and Sin walks into them, hugging him tightly. It’s strange being taller than her father, seeing him get older; it’s still strange facing him as an actual adult. She wonders if she’ll ever get used to it.
“I’m so proud of you, Thea,” he murmurs, and her heart swells. She knows that he barely understands the intricacies of the new Market; she knows that he doesn’t fully follow what she’s doing. But he has been there for her every step of the way as she plans, and knowing that she’s been able to count on him has been invaluable.
She thinks about how she felt eight years ago—overwhelmed by trying to care for Lydie and Toby on her own, unsure of what Mae’s presence in her life and in the Market might mean, juggling her relationship with Nick and Alan alike, keeping secrets from her father, not relying on anyone but herself. She wonders if it’s possible for someone to have everything—work they love, an entire close-knit family, someone to fully rely on, meaning to their life, magic. She wonders if she’ll ever be able to relax in the knowledge that it’s hers or if she’ll always feel at least a little concerned that one day, it might all be taken away.
“Thanks, Dad,” she manages to say, and she keeps her voice steady. If she’s already having this much trouble, she thinks, she is probably doomed once the Market is actually underway.
“Are you ready?” her father asks her, holding her out at arm’s length with a fond smile on his face. Behind him, she sees Toby with an arm around Lydie’s waist, Lydie beaming so brightly she won’t need magic to glow.
“Yes,” Sin says, soft but sure, looking at her family preparing to take her home. “I’m ready.”
Mae doesn’t know what’s wrong with her.
She’s a young woman approaching the prime of her life, having changed the very structure of England’s premier gathering for all things and beings magical, then taking it over before she could legally drink, in a committed relationship with an incredibly powerful, magical, and (if she does say so herself) smoking hot creature fully unique in the world, living on her own, with multiple fulfilling friendships, including the one with her terribly magical brother and his terribly magical boyfriend (and yes, she thinks of her brother as her friend, too, practically her best friend). Once a month she supervises aforementioned premier gathering of magic in England, and she spends the four weeks in between planning it, like running the greatest, most exciting business in the world. She should be happy. She should be thrilled. She should be on cloud nine at all bloody times.
And really, for the most part, she is. She really, really is. For all the frustrations leading the Goblin Market brings, after all the magic her life has held in the past three years, she could never be happy with a real job, a boring normal human job. She loves Nick, and though he’s never said it—doesn’t think he can say it—she knows how he feels about her. Jamie’s both powerful and happy, two things she never could have dreamed four years ago, and having Seb around has been so good for him—for her, too, given how highly she values his friendship. She even loves how often Alan’s in her life, how they can pour over the latest translations on the market and wonder which language will be most popular this year (Nick despairs of them both completely).
But for some reason, recently, one of the things that should have made her happiest is now making her feel—strange. Uncertain. Sick, almost.
“You know,” Sin tells her, materializing suddenly and gracefully with a hand on her cocked hip, eyebrow raised, playful pout on her lips, “it’s not beneath the dignity of the Market leader to dance every once in a while.”
She has her dancer’s costume on, provocative clothing and too-gorgeous-to-be-real face. For some reason, this flusters Mae, though she sees it every month. It’s Sin, for heaven’s sake. Just Sin. Exactly the person she always is: one of Mae’s best friends, her staunchest ally.
“I seem to remember you showed some real talent at the beginning there,” Sin continues, her tone overtly, obviously teasing. “Are you afraid it’s all left you? Is that why you haven’t tried to dance again?”
Mae manages a smile. It’s back, that obnoxious twisting in her gut, the feeling of blood rushing to her head, almost but not quite nausea. She’s been feeling it lately every time she sees Sin, and it bewilders and frustrates her. She can’t avoid Sin forever; she’s too clever to allow it without reason, and “seeing you makes me sick” is an absolutely terrible reason.
“I’ve got a lot to do,” she says, and it sounds a little weak. The truth is, she’s been trying to figure out when she could dance again, because she wants to, and she’s happy to dance with Sin—and at the same time, the thought makes her skin crawl in a weird way. Not revulsion, not really, just a sort of feeling that it might be disastrous, that she shouldn’t even if she’d enjoy it. She doesn’t know why this is happening. She wishes she understood herself.
Sin tsks mockingly, hand still on her hip, grin still on her face. Mae hopes she’s coming off as normal enough that nothing about the interaction is making her suspicious. “Well, will you at least find time to come watch me? Pick up pointers for next month?”
Mae finds herself smiling more genuinely. She feels strange, loose-limbed and feverish. She wonders, a little hysterically, if it’s possible to drug someone with fever fruit, slip it into their food without them knowing. She remembers the taste making her feel something like this. “Sure,” she finds herself saying. “Yeah. That’d be great.”
Sin smiles at her, radiant, and Mae smiles back, helplessly. She winks at her and strides off, and Mae watches her go as if rooted in place.
She doesn’t know what’s wrong with her.
The Market is more beautiful than Sin has ever seen it before, except maybe when her mother was still alive.
She’s sure it’s her own bias talking, the joy and fulfillment in her heart making the world gorgeous. But she also knows that those who know of the occasion—which is most of them—have been working to make it a true event, the Market of Markets.
They’re near a river, but not close enough to see it from the Market entrance; the magicians, though, have enhanced the sound of burbling, rushing water, so it seems as if it’s right beneath their feet. The lights on the trees are twinkling in and out at random times, illuminating the night, leading paths down between the stalls in every direction, and in the distance, Sin can see them converging on the area where the dancing usually takes place, where, once it’s over, she’ll be standing.
She won’t be dancing tonight. She doesn’t dance at every Market anymore, but she knows that her absence will be unusual enough that those who aren’t aware of the plans for tonight will find it unusual.
Sin smiles at the thought. She loves for people to find her unusual.
Toby’s already tugging at Jonathan’s hand, trying to catch his attention to one of the stalls, and Lydie’s spotting a magician she knows and running over to chat, so Sin smiles at them indulgently. “I’ll still have some work to do,” she tells Jonathan. “Go ahead.”
So her family scatters, and she’s left alone staring at the lights and the stalls, listening to the river rush and the calls of “Come buy! Come buy!”, enjoying a moment of solitude before the most important Market of her life.
It’s going to be, she thinks, in pure peace, a perfect night.
Mae danced that night, as she has several other times in the last year.
She has tried not to do it too often, given that she still feels as if she has to establish herself fully as the leader of the Market; she doesn’t want to engage in too much frivolity just yet, but she sees the utility of entertaining, of being part of the Market in this one small, immediate way.
Her first time, she danced with several dancers she hadn’t met before; it allowed her to focus on the steps themselves, to get back into practice. Her second and third time, she danced with Nick, who was also dancing for the first time in years; they had had some of their best attendance those nights, crowds gathering to watch the leader of the Market dance with her demon lover, and people were still talking about it.
Tonight, she danced with Sin.
It was a mistake. She doesn’t know why she agreed to it, except that she had truly had no reason not to, other than the weird physical symptoms she still gets around Sin. She knows that it’s also good for business, the leader of the Market dancing with its best dancer. And neither of them are above playing on the appeal of watching two women dance together, especially two women who have a close relationship.
But every part of it was excruciating. It’s only through the extreme focus that’s led her to run the Market for three years that she was able to keep her attention on the dance and allowing her emotions to be used to summon the demons and summon the demons alone, rather than running rampant. The fever fruit didn’t help, either—suddenly the feverish feelings around Sin were so much worse, her stomach roiling even more, her face flushed even deeper, sweat beading at her forehead, breath coming faster. She could barely bring herself to look at Sin.
As quickly as she could once the dance was over, Mae made her bows and escaped to her caravan, where she is now, door barred, collapsed against the wall, trying to master her breathing. The fever fruit is still in her system, and Mae wonders if she can force it out. She wonders if she’ll ever be over this strange feeling. She wonders if things between her and Sin will ever go back to normal.
Although the truth is that things have never been normal between her and Sin. From the start, Mae was in awe of her, her beauty and her grace and her skill and her charisma. Even when she saw the real Sin, the person behind the dancer, Mae found her irresistibly engaging, fun and witty and compassionate and strong. And the competition between them only emphasized Sin’s good qualities, her tenacity and dedication, making Mae even more grateful that they were friends, that they would have one another as allies no matter what.
It has always seemed surreal to be friends with someone like Sin. She’s always seemed like someone to look up to, to admire, to aspire to be, even when she’s taken off her personas and just been herself. She’s still seemed like someone from another world—not because she dances or because she’s grown up in the Market or because she’s so gorgeous it sometimes hurts to look at her. But just because she is who she is.
Mae feels as if this is an important realization, a key piece in the puzzle of her feelings, but just at that moment, there’s a knock on her door.
It’s Sin, because of course it is. She’s still wearing her dancer’s clothing, if not her dancer’s face; she looks a little irritated and a little more concerned. “Mae,” she says without preamble, “what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Mae says, feeling stupidly raw, because there’s no point in pretending anymore. Sin’s smarter than she thinks she is, and it’s not as if her opinion of herself is particularly low; there was no chance in hell that after their dance, with the openness between them neither could hide, that she wasn’t going to figure it out.
Sin’s expression softens a little, and she steps inside the caravan, closing the door behind her, a gesture that both fills Mae with gratitude and terror. Having Sin here is making everything worse, but she loves that Sin cares, that she is putting in this much effort. It’s almost unbearable.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick? Is someone giving you trouble?” Mae’s obvious distress has clearly made up for the fact that she’s been avoiding Sin and nearly made several mistakes while dancing; if there’s a real reason for what’s been going on, Sin is clearly willing to forgive it all. Mae almost wishes she wouldn’t be so kind and so concerned. She doesn’t need the reminder that there’s something about Sin affecting her this way.
“I don’t know,” Mae moans, closing her eyes. She suddenly can’t even stand seeing Sin. The caravan feels too small, too hot. She feels as if she’s on the cusp of figuring out something important, and she doesn’t know if Sin being here is helping or hindering that. “I don’t know. I’ve never felt—”
And she breaks off, horrified, her eyes shooting wide open, because she was about to say she’s never felt this way before, and it’s taken her until now to realize that she’s wrong, that she has felt this way before—when she knew that Alan had feelings for her, and she was spending time with Nick instead, feeling guilty and uncertain and thrilled, as if she was doing something transgressive, something wrong, but not something she could ever bring herself to stop.
Oh, no. Oh no, no, no, no.
“Mae?” Sin asks, clearly bewildered by the sudden shift in Mae’s expression, the way she’s staggering back half a step and staring at Sin with enormous, appalled eyes. Because this cannot be happening. It absolutely, absolutely cannot. Her life is going so well. This will genuinely ruin everything.
“Mae,” Sin says again, taking a step forward, and Mae squeaks in alarm, “You—you have to go. Please, please go.”
Sin’s own eyes widen at that. Mae’s tone is certainly far from convincing, she thinks miserably, and under the circumstances, she doesn’t blame Sin for a great deal of confusion as to what’s happening and how Mae is feeling. So it’s hardly shocking that instead of leaving, she steps forward again instead, speaking slowly, “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s wrong.”
“I can’t,” Mae says urgently, desperate by now to say anything she can to make Sin leave so that she can lie down and die. “You have to believe me, Sin, please, I—I can’t.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” Sin persists, not leaving but thankfully not moving any closer anymore. “I want to help, Mae. Your problems don’t affect just you anymore. Whatever threatens you threatens the Market, and I won’t let that happen.”
“I can’t tell you,” Mae blurts, clenching her hands into loose fists. “I just can’t. I need you to leave.”
Sin’s expression changes, a brief flash of her face falling in dismay before her mask returns, cool and remote. “Okay,” she says, her voice level, unaffected. “That’s fine. I’ll leave you alone.”
No, no, Mae thinks in a blind panic, she can’t let this happen. She can’t let herself hurt Sin like this, let Sin leave feeling like Mae doesn’t care about her, like she’s pushing her away for no reason. She should let her go, she should never think about this again. But the thought of driving a wedge between herself and Sin, smart though it would be, is unbearable.
“No, Sin,” she says, desperate, striding forward to grab Sin’s arm, pulling them closer together—and that’s a mistake, she knows it immediately, because Sin is still dressed in a dress so sheer it’s practically completely transparent, with slits nearly up to her hip, and cut so low that Mae’s eyes are level with far too much of her breasts, and she’s still feeling the residual effects of the fever fruit and both of them are still warm and breathing a little heavier from the dancing, and—and it’s too much, Mae can’t stand it.
It’s clear Sin is feeling something similar, if not quite the same, because she’s looking a little alarmed, but her expression is clearer, more focused and less distraught. “Mae,” she says, voice low and level, “please tell me what’s going on.”
So Mae grasps Sin by the forearms, pulls herself onto her toes, and kisses her.
It doesn’t last long—it’s quick, heated, a deliberate press of their mouths together, their bodies warm against one another. It feels surreal and unbelievable, but it also feels right.
Mae doesn’t wait to see what Sin’s reaction will be. Despite the fact that they’re in Mae’s own caravan, when she pulls back, she practically runs away, out into the woods around the Market without looking back.
Sin sees Alan at the silent sisters’ stall, looking at some of what she assumes are the newest translations. He smiles at her when she wraps her arms around his waist, leaning in for a quick kiss.
“I’m looking for a present,” he says, and Sin tells him solemnly, “If you ever gift me with one of these translations and expect me to keep it, I’m never going to touch you again.”
Alan pulls an extremely convincing face of deep offense and hurt. “You’re not the only person involved here, you know,” he says, playfully chiding. “I happen to know someone who’s going to love getting a brand new—well, relatively speaking—Aramaic scroll.” He pays the sisters with his soft scholar’s smile, and they regard him with more than a little suspicion as they wrap the scroll for him.
Sin rolls her eyes, but rests her chin on Alan’s shoulder as he cradles the scroll in his arms. “I hope you did have something in mind for me, too?”
“Several things,” Alan says, so blandly that it’s clearly meant to be an innuendo, and Sin laughs as he grins at her. “Don’t be greedy. There’ll be plenty of time for you to get your presents once you’re home.”
“Is that presents, plural, as in more than one?” Sin asks, intrigued.
“Did I not just say something about the absence of greed being a virtue, Cynthia?” Alan murmurs, gently chiding, and kisses her again.
“Is everything in place?” Sin asks after a moment, arms around Alan’s waist, head still tucked into his shoulder.
“Everything is as organized and prepared as we can possibly make it.” Alan turns, taking Sin’s face in his hands, looking down at her with a gentle smile, no hint of jealousy or uncertainty in his features. Sin is, once again, profoundly grateful for him. “All you have to do is be there.”
“I’ll head over in a minute,” she says, resting her forehead against his. “Just to make sure everything’s in order—”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Alan says, scolding again as he smiles down at her. “This is your day. And yes,” he cuts off her inevitable protest, knowing her far too well, “I know it’s about more than that. It’s about the whole Market. But you know everyone is coming together to make this as amazing as possible for the two of you—and no one wants either of you lifting a finger to intervene with the final preparations. All you have to do is relax, enjoy yourself, and say the words when the time comes.”
“The most important performance of my career,” Sin murmurs, and Alan smiles again, indulgent, the smile that clearly states that he isn’t fooled in the slightest.
“You won’t be performing for a minute, Cynthia,” he says, and her smile is a little more reluctant this time, because he really, really knows her too well.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you avoid something for so long before,” Nick says from the doorway.
“I contain multitudes,” Mae snaps back without looking up from her computer and the papers flooding her desk.
She gets in another few minutes of pretending to work before she hears Nick ambling over, his step deliberately slow, until he’s standing over her, silent as only he can be, practically a black hole of any emotion or understanding. She refuses to break. It only ever makes her feel worse if she’s the one to crack and say something first—usually something frustratingly emotional that gives far too much of her inner thoughts away, while Nick can almost always stay cool and detached unless he’s angry, too. These are the things she’s learned, dating a demon made flesh.
So she waits, forcing her gaze to at least move up and down along the rows of figures even if she’s not even remotely taking them in, until Nick speaks, voice low. “You know you will have to address it sooner or later.”
The words irritate Mae; any of them would, under the circumstances, but this feels especially rich. “Seriously? You, of all people, are going to lecture me about needing to talk about my feelings?”
“As the official bearer of all responsibility for the consequences during times said feelings get all fucked up,” Nick responds, implacable, “yes. Yes, I am.”
He’s fucking impossible, Mae thinks, flinging her pen down on the desk with a clatter that she wanted to be much more impressive than it actually ends up being. “You have no idea,” she says, her voice low, hating the little tremble to it. “You have no idea what this is like.”
“Wanting something so much it scares you—wanting it enough to risk losing what you have, and fearing that that’s exactly what’s happened?” Nick tips his head to one side, a false gesture of contemplation, and at length just shrugs. “I really don’t. I know what the wanting is like,” he says, and for a moment his gaze is so intense it steals Mae’s breath, as if he really needed to remind her what it was he’d wanted so much, “but I’ve never been that scared.”
Somehow, that deflates Mae, the knowledge that Nick knows her so well, that he can put her feelings into words even when they’re completely foreign to his experience. Trust him, always blunt, still barely conscious of how his words might be received or how they might make others feel, to cut to the chase so effectively. It’s the fear that’s paralyzed her, yes, but also the wanting—almost as hard, almost as bad.
She slumps back into her seat, and Nick touches the back of her neck, hand spanning the fine bones at the top of her spine. Mae lets herself relax into it, closing her eyes, hating herself a little for taking the comfort from Nick.
“Why are you being so understanding about this?” she finds herself asking. “Not that I’m—I don’t mind. I’m glad you are. I couldn’t do this without you. I just—I don’t understand. This should be impossible for you. You shouldn’t be able to just—get it. It should be a dealbreaker.”
Nick looks a little bemused as she looks up at him. He looks as if she’s speaking in tongues, the way he sometimes does when she hits on some kind of weird nuance of human behavior that she can’t quite explain to him in a way that he can understand. “I want you to have everything you want,” he says, as if it should be obvious. “I want you. And I’d want you even if you weren’t happy about it. But if I can have you, and you can have everything you want, too—that’s ideal, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t I want that?”
It seems stupidly simple when he puts it that way—ridiculous demon logic. Mae can’t help but feel like it ought to be more complicated than that, though it’s not like she wants to talk him out of being supportive. Still, she makes one last shot. “I’d think you would be more—I don’t know. Possessive. That’s kind of your thing.”
Nick looks amused despite himself, lightly squeezing the back of Mae’s neck. “I am possessive. But maybe I’ve been spending too much time with you humans, because I think I’d rather have you as happy as possible than have all of you.”
Mae sort of wants to cry now. She doesn’t deserve him being this understanding, she thinks, and she hates herself for thinking it, because she can’t remember the last time she hasn’t felt like she’s deserved everything she wants.
“Damn it, Nick,” she mutters, trying for a light tone and knowing she’s failing miserably. “Aren’t I supposed to be the emotional human? How can you be doing this to me?”
“Believe me,” he mutters wryly, “I’m as disappointed as you are.” It elicits a watery, slightly choked chuckle from Mae.
She looks up at him finally, tipping her head all the way back. His expression is grave, and it makes Mae smile faintly. He’s so serious, so unmoving. She loves him so much. She can’t believe he’s still here, with her. She can’t believe she’s so lucky. (She’s aware, in a deeply, darkly amused way, how twisted this makes her.)
“I love you,” she says, firmly. Nick’s mouth quirks upward just a little, in the strangely soft way it always does whenever she says it. He never says it back, but even after four years, that look on his face is enough for her.
“I think I’m probably always going to love you,” she says meditatively. “I don’t see it changing anytime soon. No matter what happens. You and Jamie and the Market. Those are my top priorities, always. And if anything I do isn’t okay with you—relationship-wise, I mean—”
“Oh, God, Mavis,” Nick says, sounding aggrieved as only he can. “I didn’t realize I was setting a talking-about-your-feelings precedent. You know that wasn’t intentional, right?”
Mae laughs again, more genuinely, and tugs on Nick’s shirt until he crouches down for a long, lingering kiss. He’s smiling a little when he pulls away, tugging lightly on her ponytail.
“You know she isn’t avoiding you, right?” he says, again with that weird level of insight into humanity that she would never have dreamed he’d possess. “She’s trying to talk to you. If she wanted to tell you to fuck off, she’d find a way to do it. If she didn’t want to talk it through, she’d be avoiding you, too. Things can only get better if you talk.”
And it finally clicks for Mae. “You’ve been talking to Alan, haven’t you?” She can’t tell if she’s amused or horrified; she can’t even imagine how Alan feels about her right now. She has, of course, been avoiding him as well as Sin.
Nick, of course, looks totally unapologetic. “I needed to find out how to talk to you about this. You need to figure this out. And no, he doesn’t hate you. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Mae studies him dubiously. “Do you really believe that?”
Nick shrugs. “If it isn’t, I’ll make it.”
Mae snorts. That’s more like what she expects from him. “I don’t think that’s within your purview, Nick.”
“I’m a demon,” he tells her loftily. “Nothing isn’t within my purview.”
Mae laughs again, this time turning her chair around so that she’s facing him, tugging on his shirt again until he leans down to straddle her lap. “I’ll talk to Sin,” she says, taking a deep breath, feeling both terrified and excited at the prospect.
Nick’s expression is fierce. “Good,” he says, and he kisses her, so hard that she forgets for a moment that she has any problems at all.
But when they pull apart, Mae’s expression is serious again. “Are you sure you’re all right with this?” she says, quiet and a little afraid. “I think you know what I want to say to her, but—but I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
Nick’s expression is a little rueful now, but just as fierce. “I told you,” he says, placing both hands on Mae’s shoulders as if anchoring them there. “I want you to have everything you want. You deserve it.”
And as she leans in to kiss him again, Mae finally beings to believe that that’s possible.
Sin watches the dancers for a little longer than she ought to, but then again, she can’t resist.
She keeps herself well out of sight; they’re close enough to the ceremony that those who know what to expect will be trying to usher her back, to encourage her to hurry up and get ready, and those who don’t will want to talk to her as they always do, and she can’t risk getting distracted, caught up in conversation until she’s completely out of time.
But still, she can’t not watch the dancers.
She watches them every time she chooses not to dance herself. She still dances more often than not; she’s never abstained for so much as two months in a row. But she defines herself by more than the dancing now, and after this Market—well. A lot is going to change.
She thinks she’ll still probably dance as much as she can, but she’ll have other things to worry about, too. A small smile curves her face as she thinks of it.
The smile deepens, tinged with wistfulness and rue, as she watches the dancers, the flush on their faces, the graceful curves of their limbs, the points of their toes and motion of their hands, their coming together and coming apart. She’ll leave before they actually summon a demon, but she wants to watch the process. To be reminded that every beginning also signifies an ending. To be reminded that someday, perhaps even someday soon, she won’t be the best dancer of the Market anymore.
Years ago, the thought would have devastated her. Now, it’s bittersweet. She had grown up more by age sixteen than most people, even most Market people, but she’s grown up even more since then. She knows that there’s more to life, and to her life in particular, than that.
But she’s still going to dance as much as she can. That’s not something she ever intends to lose.
The dancer on the left raises her voice, stilling as she begins to call on a demon, and that’s Sin’s cue to find her caravan and begin getting ready. She wonders if there’ll still be dancing afterward. She wonders, with a wry little smile, if anyone will let her have enough time away from well-wishers to join the dancers if there is.
She decides then and there that no matter what, she’s going to do it. It’s meant to be the happiest day of her life, after all—joining her past with her future—so shouldn’t she have everything she wants?
And that decision made, there’s a new spring in her step, a subtle but unmistakable sway to her hips, as she heads to her caravan to get dressed.
Mae has spent months planning, weeks gathering information, days pouring over rituals and histories and memorizing words, just in case. She’s rehearsed with Nick, researched with Alan, and consulted with every single person she could think of who might have some amount of information to provide. It’s the biggest project she’s ever undertaken, and she wants to make sure it’s as ready as it can possibly be before she shares it.
“It’s as ready as it’s ever going to be,” Jamie told her last night when she ran it past him. Given that he’s the head of the most powerful magicians’ circle in England, she had needed his approval for practical reasons—but given that he’s her baby brother, who she adores beyond all reason, she would also think twice about any action undertaken without his knowledge or blessing.
“And it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” he added, beaming at her. Years of being in charge of significant power, authority over those older and stronger than he, and missing a hand had really done nothing to dim his irreverence or basic optimism, and though Mae knew neither of them would ever be the innocent kids they once were—and that neither of them would ever choose to go back to life before magic, the Market, and the Ryves brothers—it was still good to be reminded that in some ways, not that much had changed.
“If you don’t go through with it,” Jamie told her, firm in the way only an annoying younger brother could be, “you’ll regret it forever. And it’s not going to get any better than that, and she’s going to love it.”
And Mae had accepted that her little brother would probably always know her better than she knew herself, and she had hugged him fiercely and tried her best to leave it alone, to tamper down her micromanaging instincts, to get every last possible detail down.
And it’s led her to this evening, where she’s right outside of the caravan, holding her stack full of plans and schedules and speeches, and she’s knocking on the door.
After a moment, Sin opens the door, hair tumbling loose, face free of makeup, lighting up when she sees Mae. “Mae,” she says, smile warm, face welcoming, and Mae very nearly lets herself get thoroughly distracted. “What a lovely surprise. What can I do for you?”
Mae smiles back at her, just as brightly, and hefts her folder meaningfully. “Hi, Sin,” she says. “I’ve got an idea.”
Sin takes a deep breath before turning and looking at herself in the mirror.
In theory, she should have others helping her get ready—it’s easier with help, and she can’t be quite as elaborate with her hair or clothing as she might have liked. But in the end, she wanted to do it all herself. She wanted to present herself, today, exactly as herself and nothing else, with no one else’s aid and effort.
She stands before the mirror dressed in a dark red dress with thin straps, clinging to her chest and torso before dropping into a long, flowing skirt, cascading down past her bare feet, the material growing thinner and thinner until it becomes almost transparent at the hem. There’s a gold bangle on either of her wrists, and her hair is down in loose, soft waves, nearly to her waist. Her only makeup is dark red lipstick, the exact shade of her dress; the rest of her face is bare.
White is the traditional color, but red has always suited Sin far better, and she wants to come to this ceremony as her truest self.
She has a couple of slightly wilted fever blossoms on her nightstand, and she picks one up now, breathes in its sweet scent. She crushes one petal and presses it to the inside of her wrist, then does the same with another.
Her face in the mirror is lightly flushed, her eyes wide and bright. She looks excited; she looks new. She looks as if she is anticipating life with incandescent joy, and she looks strong enough to handle whatever will come next.
She tucks another fever blossom behind her ear, and she blows her reflection a kiss as she leaves her caravan.
Sin dances at the Market that night, and as she spins and twirls, a flick of her wrist sends a fever blossom arcing neatly through the air—right into the palm of Mae’s hand.
Lydie is standing next to the caravan when Sin exits, dressed in a black silk blouse and a knee-length black pencil skirt. She hands her a small bouquet of fever blossoms before kissing her cheek and taking her place next to her. The two of them walk slowly towards the large clearing around which the Market people are gathered, and where Mae is waiting.
She stands in the center of the clearing, holding a small bouquet of her own. Her hair is unadorned, a paler shade of pink than it was the first time she stood here, ready to lead the Market; it’s a little shorter, too, hovering around her ears in a pale halo, the fever blossom in it mirroring Sin’s. She wears an ivory sweater, turtlenecked, sleeveless, and cropped short to reveal her pierced bellybutton. On her hips sits a white skirt, a short silk panel reaching halfway down her thighs, two long swathes of transparent gauzy fabric hanging down far past her feet.
Jamie stands next to her, dressed in the same simple black suit that Lydie is wearing, a faint smile on his face, his expression luminous. Or it could be the lights with which Mae is crowned—a little halo around her head, glowing in and out of existence, and a small matching orb glowing at the hollow of her throat. Sin is adorned with the same lights—magical lights, hers drawn into existence by Lydie, Mae’s summoned by Jamie.
Sin walks closer, step by step, watching the silver polish on Mae’s bare feet, the light breeze whipping her long skirt around her legs, the pattern of a dozen silver bracelets around her wrists, the wings of her eyeliner, and the shining glow of her eyes as she beams up at Sin’s approach.
Next to Mae, standing between them as Sin approaches, are Alan, Toby, Nick, and Seb, all dressed in all black, all with expressions of varying degrees of solemnity and celebration. In front of them stands Matthias the piper, holding a globe of light between his outstretched palms.
The crowd of the Market goes silent, a soft hush spreading through the crowd. Mae gives them all a faint, mischievous smile over her shoulder before turning back to Sin, her face radiant. Sin feels the same joy spreading through her, and she smiles at Matthias before he turns to the crowd.
“Dearly beloved,” he says, mischief in his own expression, “we are gathered here today… to witness two ceremonies. One of them unprecedented in the history of the Market, and one a little more traditional. We’ll begin with the latter.”
He turns to Sin, and then he turns to Mae, and he pronounces their full names, and they repeat the words one after another: “You cannot possess me, for I belong to myself, but while we both which it, I give you that which is mine to give. You cannot command me, for I am a free person, but I shall serve you in those ways you require, and the honeycomb will taste sweeter coming from my hand. I pledge to you that yours will be the name I cry aloud in the night, and the eyes into which I smile in the morning. I pledge to you the first bite from my meat, and the first drink from my cup. I pledge to you my living and dying, equally in your care, and tell no strangers our grievances. This is my wedding vow to you; this is a marriage of equals.”
The Market’s hush grows greater with every sentence they speak, and the silence is absolute when their siblings hand them the rings that they exchange, simple gold bands each also crowned with a tiny globe of light, lighting their softly smiling faces. And when they finish, a grin breaks over Matthias’s face as he proclaims, “I now pronounce you wed, and may the marriage be sealed.”
Mae surges forward and Sin gathers her into her arms, bouquets dropping to the ground as their lips meet, firm and tender and passionate, Mae’s arms around Sin’s neck and Sin’s around Mae’s waist, so absorbed she actually lifts Mae right off of her feet, and the roar of celebration from the Market folk is so loud that all Sin hears is white noise in her ears as she kisses Mae—as she kisses her wife.
When they pull apart, Mae is flushed and beaming, the fever blossom crooked in her hair. She hugs Sin once, tightly, and then they break apart, the Market folk still cheering. They’re both enveloped in enthusiastic hugs by their magical siblings, and then Mae goes to Nick and Sin to Alan; Alan embraces Sin warmly and Nick holds Mae too tightly, and they both exchange kisses, an indication that this is a very unusual wedding.
Then Toby throws his arms around Sin’s waist and Seb kisses Mae’s cheek, and Jamie hugs Sin and Lydie Mae, and Alan kisses Mae’s forehead and Nick shakes Sin’s hand, looking solemn but triumphant. Then it’s time for Mae to come back to Sin’s arms, kissing the corner of her mouth and whispering “I love you” into her ear before she turns to the crowd of the Market and raises her voice.
“Seven years ago,” she says, and the Market crowd falls into another hush, “I stood before you and swore to lead the Market. And I said that I would call this meeting to see if the Goblin Market wished to transfer leadership to Cynthia Davies, should I have done a poor job.”
Sin is so proud of her, the way she stands tall, her hand firm and strong in Sin’s own, the showmanship she’s learned, the control and calm on her face and voice. The crowd is mesmerized by her words.
“I’d like to think that I’ve done well, these past seven years,” she says, and though the words are gently self-deprecating, her tone is confident. “I’ve increased Market revenue and attendance, brokered continued peace between magical factions. Though we have not stayed free of conflict, we have resolved it swiftly and effectively. Though we have still willingly given bodies to demons, we have done so only when no other punishment has been deemed severe enough.”
Mae’s expression is haughty, her words stern, though Sin knows how much this decision still affects her. She’s never regretted making it, and neither have any of them who helped make it—they have only regretted its necessity.
“I’ve led the Market well on my own,” Mae says, raising her voice just a little, “and I would ask you if you wish for me to continue leading it.”
Predictably, the crowd responds with a roar of approval. Mae grins, and Sin does too. She’s a successful and beloved leader, just as Sin knew she would be. She sees out of the corner of her eye Jamie’s grin, Alan’s smile, and Nick’s dark, glowing pride.
Mae smiles, confident and easy. “Thank you,” she says, coy, with a wink into the crowd. “But here’s the thing—I’ve decided that while I’ve led the Market very well, I don’t want to do it on my own. Not anymore.”
And now a hush falls over the crowd again as Mae turns to Sin, squeezing her hand, and Sin takes a step closer, right next to Mae. Her arm hooks around Mae’s waist, and Mae takes Sin’s hand with both of her own. “Cynthia Davies has been one of you her whole life,” she says, voice strong, pride of her own ringing clearly through it. “She has been bred to led the Market; she has been bred to love it. She is now my wife, and I would make her my partner in all ways—in my life and in my work. Will you take her as your leader, by my side?”
And now the roar of the crowd is even louder as they see them—the darling of the Market, the girl who grew up among them, still the best dancer they have, and their leader, the woman who has led them to their new age, protected and cared for them, standing hand in hand, arm in arm—and they accept them, this unprecedented gesture forward.
Mae beams, and she turns to take both of Sin’s hands in her own. They are no longer crowned with Lydie and Jamie’s lights; now, only the small orbs burn at their throats, illuminating the gravity of their faces.
“Sin of the Market,” Mae says, and her voice is loud and strong, full of respect and love. “Will you take my people as your own, guard them and care for them, protect them with all your mind and all your body and all your strength? Will you stand at my side, as my partner and equal?”
“I will,” Sin says, loud and clear and steady, and more softly, to Mae alone, she says, “Always.”
And then there is no stopping the surge from the Market folk as they cheer and rush forward, Mae disappearing under the embrace of the silent sisters, the dancers all throwing long, graceful arms around Sin, and the voices become a babble of joy and congratulations and eager excitement, and somewhere one of the magicians looses a firework into the air and they are all covered in the lights from its freewheeling silvery explosions.
And throughout it all, as the Market folk cheer and greet their new leaders, as the magical revels on a night that makes history last long past the rise of the luminous full moon, Mae never lets go of Sin’s hand, and Sin cannot stop marveling over the night that has given both of them everything.