Nora Jane was no good. Everybody in town knew it. They all said that she had grown up too fast, that she was no better than she had to be. But Cassie was Nora Jane's best friend, so she didn't listen to what everybody said.
Until Nora Jane got arrested for murder.
"I swear I didn't do it, Cassie," said Nora Jane for the twentieth time. "You've got to believe me."
"Of course I believe you," said Cassie.
"I was just walking along minding my own business, and I stopped to rest in a doorway a minute, and there he was, and, and he fell on me, and I had to struggle, and --"
"I know, Nora Jane, I know. We'll figure out some way to get you out of this."
"The judge says I'll hang in the morning. The judge says the evidence is overwhelming and my word is not credible."
"They'll find some new evidence by then," said Cassie. "I'll look for it. We can't give up hope."
Nora Jane sighed. "I wish my mama was still alive. She'd know what to do."
"But never mind. You'll have to fetch Granny Bedlam in for me yourself."
"Granny Bedlam?" gasped Cassie. "But -- but she's a witch! She's got a pact with the devil. Everybody knows it."
"Everybody knows I killed Master George, too. I don't think I have a choice." Nora Jane looked at Cassie kindly. "I'll take care of the rest of it myself. You just have to bring her in to me."
"A-all right," stammered Cassie.
Even through the bars, Nora Jane's smile was like a perfect blossom in the spring. "I knew I could count on you."
Granny Bedlam lived outside the village in a little cottage by herself. Grass didn't grow within ten paces of the cottage, and it always looked as though it had just gotten a fresh thatched roof, even in the worst of winter.
"Granny Bedlam?" called Cassie. "Granny Bedlam! Are you there?"
The old woman hobbled out. "Don't kick up a fuss, I'll be along directly. Oh, it's you, Cassandra Marie. I thought I might be seeing you."
"Nora Jane needs you to come to see her."
Granny Bedlam cocked her head. "Nora Jane, is it? Well, all right. Has she got money?"
Cassie hadn't asked, since she knew the answer. "No, but I do. A silver piece to start"
"Well, all right, then. I'll get my wrap and my basket. Come in."
Cassie followed the old woman into her cottage, which looked remarkably normal. It cottage was bare, just a table and some chairs, a cot, and a black cauldron on the fire. The only thing that might have been sinister was a cabinet in the corner. The room smelled of chicken and rosemary. Cassie looked thoughtfully at Granny Bedlam. She had been expecting fire and brimstone instead.
Granny Bedlam opened the cabinet and stuffed herbs into a basket. "Never done this before, have you?"
"No," said Cassie.
"Not much of a talker, are you?"
Granny Bedlam chuckled. "All right, then," she said, grabbing two candles off the hearth, "let's go."
Nora Jane was standing exactly where she'd been when Cassie left. "I hear you have a favor to ask," said Granny Bedlam.
"I want to get my name cleared," said Nora Jane steadily. "I don't want to die."
"That's rather obvious, my dear. But what are you going to do about it, hmm?"
Nora Jane faltered for just a moment. "I thought you'd know what could be done."
Granny Bedlam chuckled. "I know what can be done. I don't know what you will do."
"I'll do anything. It's my life."
"Almost anything," Cassie put in.
Granny Bedlam looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. "Well. The cautious one. Almost anything, hmm?"
"She can't give up her soul," said Cassie.
"No, not my soul," said Nora Jane. "That does seem -- excessive."
"No soul! Well, then. You'll have to find some other way to pay," said Granny. "The minor devils, now; they'll sometimes make a deal. Or a bet. They like betting."
"I could make a bet," said Nora Jane.
Cassie bit her lip. "Nora Jane...."
"It's the best we can do, Cass. I'm going to do it," she said to Granny Bedlam.
"All right, then, I'll call you a devil," said Granny. She rummaged in her basket and pulled out salt and a flask of red fluid -- "Goat's blood," she told the girls -- and a knife with a funny handle.
"I don't think we should be doing this, Nora Jane," whispered Cassie.
"Did you have another suggestion?" Nora Jane hissed back. Cassie bit her lip. She sat back and watched while Granny Bedlam drew patterns on the floor with the point of the knife, in the salt and the blood. She didn't want to be there.
The devil appeared. He had silky brown hair and soulful blue eyes. He looked just like a human except for the little blue horns poking up through his hair.
"That's the devil?" whispered Cassie.
Granny Bedlam heard her. "It's a devil. Go on, girl, offer it a deal."
Nora Jane took a deep breath. "I'll bet you that I'm a better dancer than you. If you win, I will be your servant for seven years; if I win, you make sure that I'm proven innocent and can go free before they execute me." Nora Jane was the best dancer in the whole village. Her feet moved so fast they almost blurred; her kicks were high, and she never lost the rhythm. She could make the clumsiest of the young men look like a graceful partner. Cassie thought if Nora Jane could beat a devil at anything, it would be dancing.
But the devil just grinned and said, "All right, it's a deal. Seven years of service, if you lose."
"Who will judge the dancing?" asked Cassie.
They all looked at her as though she was an intruder again. "I will," said Granny Bedlam. "I have nothing for or against the girl."
The devil transported them into a glade the forest in a blink of the eye, and Nora Jane began humming a little tune for herself. She did a heel-toe-kick, and she was off. Her little song was nothing much, but it led her feet, her arms, her whole body around the grassless glen, dancing and leaping her heart out.
Cassie thought there was no way the little devil man could dance more beautifully than her best friend. But he clapped his hands twice and then started to dance, and her heart sank. He hummed no tune for himself, but he didn't need one. Every move, every tiny gesture, became infinitely meaningful.
Cassie wanted to look away. Every move of his body made her shudder -- his message was evil. But he was very good at doing it.
Granny Bedlam shook her head when he was done. "I'm sorry, child," she said. "I'm afraid there's not much of a contest."
Tears welled up in Nora Jane's eyes, but she knew better than to plead. Devils always kept their bargains. "Good bye, Cassie," she said. "Thanks for sticking by me. I'll try to come back here, when my seven years is up."
Cassie started to cry, too. Nora Jane gave her a hug and walked towards the devil. "Wait!" said Cassie. "Can you -- would you accept another bet? Double or nothing?"
"Cassie, no!" said Nora Jane.
"I really don't think that's wise, child," said Granny Bedlam.
"If you win, you get both of us as servants for seven years," said Cassie. "If you lose, Nora Jane gets her original deal, and we both go free."
"What's the contest?" said the devil.
"Cassie, this is crazy!" said Nora Jane.
"At least we'll be together," said Cassie. "Best friends have to stick together, no matter what."
"What contest?" repeated the devil.
Cassie's mind raced. What was she good at? Nora Jane was the bright one, the quick one, the pretty one, the one everybody noticed. Then she had it. "We'll go into a crowd of people. Whoever is the most inconspicuous wins. Granny Bedlam judges again."
"It's a deal," said the devil.
"All right," said Granny Bedlam, "but I don't like this."
"The other girl has to go back in her jail cell," said the devil. "She might try to help you -- she could be distracting. There's a difference between people not paying attention to you and people paying attention to her."
Cassie had never seen the difference before and wasn't sure she could see it now, but she said, "All right."
"Be careful, Cassie," said Nora Jane.
They hugged again. "I'll get us out of this," Cassie promised.
With a wave of his hand, the devil transported Nora Jane back to the jail. Then he waved again, and they were in a market town a few miles away. Cassie's eyes went wide at all the shops and stalls, all the people in the road -- there might be more than a thousand of them, even without the king's men in town to judge a murder. She backed up against the wall of the nearest building.
"All right, be inconspicuous for half an hour," said Granny Bedlam. "Go!" And the devil winked out of sight.
"Foul!" cried Cassie. "Invisible isn't the same thing as inconspicuous. If he stays that way, I win."
"That's true," said Granny Bedlam. "They're not the same."
The devil appeared again. "You make the silliest rules. But I can still win."
"Let's try this again," said Granny Bedlam. "Go!"
Cassie tried to look at the devil to see if he was going to go invisible when Granny Bedlam wasn't looking. She found she couldn't make herself see where he was, unless she concentrated really hard.
"Not fair!" Cassie said. "It's not the same thing to be under a spell. You have to be inconspicuous. Otherwise anyone could be bespelled."
"That's true," said Granny Bedlam. "Spells have nothing to do with how you are, just with what others see."
It was suddenly easier for Cassie to see the devil again. "All right," he grumped. "Inconspicuous. You little wretch."
Cassie slipped into the crowd as quietly as she could, taking care not to tread on anyone's feet. She wandered through the shops and stalls, looking longingly at the warm shalls and the song broadsheets, but she had given Granny Bedlam most of her money. She kept glancing back at Granny Bedlam. Nobody seemed to see she was there.
The devil was another matter. He had struck up a conversation with one of the shop clerks, and more and more people gathered around to hear him. He tried to slip away, but his little horns made everyone curious. One woman reached out to touch them. He snapped at her fingers. She let out a little shriek, and the crowd started to rumble amongst themselves.
Suddenly, the devil flung himself through the crowd, heading for Cassie at a dead run. "He's going to try to take me down with him," Cassie thought. "If he can't be inconspicuous, he wants to make sure I won't be, either."
Cassie ducked behind the chestnut roaster's cart, and the devil ran into it, scattering hot chestnuts all over the road. The chestnut roaster roared with anger. In the commotion, Cassie slipped away to Granny Bedlam's side. "I win," she said softly.
Granny Bedlam grinned down at her. "I know you do, girl. Come on. It'll be a good long walk home, and I don't know if we'll make it there by dark."
"But what about the --"
"Devil? Oh, he'll have no urge to help either of us now, you can be sure."
"But he made a deal with us."
"He made a deal with you, and don't you forget that," said Granny Bedlam. "Nora Jane gets off free because of you. You were the one who won this."
"I suppose," said Cassie doubtfully.
"Don't suppose. Know."
By the time they reached home, Nora Jane had already been released. "The murderer confessed!" she said jubilantly, doing a little jig in front of them. She flung herself at Cassie for a hug. "He said he was tormented by visions of hell if he let an innocent girl hang. They let me loose, and here I am. Oh, thank you, Cassie!"
Cassie looked over Nora Jane's shoulder at Granny Bedlam, who was watching her carefully. "I don't think I'm the one who needs thanking."
Granny Bedlam chuckled appreciatively. "Not the only one, at least." THE END
(This work originally appeared in Paradox 12.)