Chapter no 12

A Darker Shade of Magic

The whip cracked through the air, the forked end splitting open the skin of the boy’s back. He did not scream—Athos wished he would—but a gasp of pain whistled through his clenched teeth.

The boy was pinned against a square metal frame like a moth, his arms spread wide, wrists bound to each of the two vertical bars that formed the square’s sides. His head hung forward, sweat and blood trickling down the lines of his face, dripping from his chin.

The boy was sixteen, and he had not bowed.

Athos and Astrid had ridden through the streets of White London on their pale steeds, surrounded by their empty-eyed soldiers, relishing the fear in their people’s eyes, and with it, their obedience. Knees hit stone. Heads bowed low.

But one boy—Athos later learned his name was Beloc, the word coughed through bloody lips—stood there, his head barely tipped forward. The eyes of the crowd had gone to him, a visceral ripple rolling through them—shock, yes, but underneath it, amazement bordering on approval. Athos had pulled his horse to a stop and gazed down at the boy, considering his moment of stubborn youthful defiance.

Athos had been a boy once, of course. He had done foolish, headstrong things. But he had learned many lessons in the struggle for the White crown, and many more since taking it as his own, and he knew above all that defiance was like a weed, something to be ripped out at the roots.

On her steed, his sister watched, amused, as Athos tossed a coin to the boy’s mother, who stood beside him.

“Öt vosa rijke,” he said. “For your loss.”

That night, the empty-eyed soldiers came, broke down the doors of Beloc’s small house, and dragged the boy kicking and screaming and hooded into the street, his mother held back by a spell scrawled across the stone walls, unable to do anything but wail.

The soldiers dragged the boy all the way to the palace and delivered him, bloody and beaten, to the glittering white floor in front of Athos’s throne.

“Look at this,” Athos chided his men. “You’ve hurt him.” The king stood and looked down at the boy. “That’s my job.”

Now the whip split air and flesh again, and this time, at last, Beloc screamed.

The whip cascaded from Athos’s palm like liquid silver, pooling on the ground beside his boot. He began to coil it around his hand.

“Do you know what I see in you?” He wound the silver rope and slid it into a holster at his waist. “A fire.”

Beloc spit blood on the floor between them. Athos’s lips twisted. He strode across the chamber, caught hold of the boy’s face by his jaw, and slammed his head back against the wood of the frame. Beloc groaned in pain, the sound muffled by Athos’s hand over his mouth. The king brought his lips to the boy’s ear.

“It burns through you,” he whispered against the boy’s cheek. “I cannot wait to carve it out.”

“Nö kijn avost,” growled Beloc when the king’s hand fell away. I don’t fear death.

“I believe you,” said Athos smoothly. “But I’m not going to kill you.

Though, I’m sure,” he added, turning away, “you’ll wish I had.”

A stone table stood nearby. On it sat a metal chalice filled with ink, and beside it, a very sharp blade. Athos took up both and brought them to Beloc’s pinned body. The boy’s eyes widened as he realized what was about to happen, and he tried to fight against his binds, but they did not give.

Athos smiled. “You have heard then, about the marks I make.”

The whole city knew of Athos’s penchant—and his prowess—for binding spells. Marks that stripped away a person’s freedom, their identity, their soul. Athos took his time readying the knife, letting the boy’s fear fill the room as he swirled the metal through the ink, coating it. The length of the blade was grooved, the ink filling the notch as if it were a pen. When it was ready, the king drew the stained knife out, the gesture seductively slow, cruel. He smiled, and brought the tip to the boy’s heaving chest.

“I’m going to let you keep your mind,” said Athos. “Do you know why?” The blade’s tip bit in, and Beloc gasped. “So I can watch the war play in your eyes every time your body obeys my will instead of yours.”

Athos pressed down, and Beloc bit back a scream as the knife carved its way across his flesh, down his collar, over his heart. Athos whispered something low and constant as he drew the lines of the binding spell. Skin broke, and blood welled and spilled into the blade’s path, but Athos seemed unbothered, his eyes half closed as he guided the knife.

When it was over, he set the blade aside and stepped back to admire his work.

Beloc was slumped against his binds, chest heaving. Blood and ink ran down his skin.

“Stand up straight,” commanded Athos, satisfaction washing over him as he watched Beloc try to resist, his muscles shuddering against the instruction before giving in and dragging his wounded body up into a semblance of posture. Hatred burned through the boy’s eyes, bright as ever, but his body now belonged to Athos.

“What is it?” asked the king.

The question wasn’t directed at the boy, but at Holland, who had appeared in the doorway. The Antari’s eyes slid over the scene—the blood, the ink, the tortured commoner—his expression lodged between distant surprise and disinterest. As if the sight meant nothing to him.

Which was a lie.

Holland liked to play at being hollow, but Athos knew it was a ruse. He might have feigned numbness, but he was hardly immune to sensation. To pain.

“Ös-vo tach?” asked Holland, nodding at Beloc. Are you busy?

“No,” answered Athos, wiping his hands on a dark cloth. “I think we’re done for now. What is it?”

“He is here.”

“I see,” said Athos, setting aside the towel. His white cloak hung on a chair, and he took it up and slung it around his shoulders in one fluid motion, fastening the clasp at his throat. “Where is he now?”

“I delivered him to your sister.”

“Well then,” said Athos, “let’s hope we’re not too late.”

Athos turned toward the door, but as he did, he caught Holland’s gaze wandering back to the boy strapped against the metal frame.

“What should I do with him?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Athos. “He’ll still be here when I get back.”

Holland nodded, but before he could turn to go, Athos brought a hand to his cheek. Holland did not pull away, did not even stiffen under the king’s touch. “Jealous?” he asked. Holland’s two-toned eyes held Athos’s, the green and the black both steady, unblinking. “He suffered,” added Athos softly. “But not like you.” He brought his mouth closer. “No one suffers as beautifully as you.”

There it was, in the corner of Holland’s mouth, the crease of his eye. Anger.

Pain. Defiance. Athos smiled, victorious.

“We better go,” he said, hand falling away. “Before Astrid swallows our young guest whole.”

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