Chapter no 13

A Darker Shade of Magic

Astrid beckoned.

Kell wished he could set the letter on the narrow table that sat between the thrones and go, keep his distance, but the queen sat there holding out her hand for it, for him.

He drew King Maxim’s letter from his pocket and offered it to her, but when she reached to take it, her hand slid past the paper and closed around his wrist. He pulled back on instinct, but her grip only tightened. The rings on her fingers glowed, and the air crackled as she mouthed a word and lightning danced up Kell’s arm, followed almost instantly by pain. The letter tumbled from his hand as the magic in his blood surged forward, willing him to act, to react, but he fought the urge. It was a game. Astrid’s game. She wanted him to fight back, so he willed himself not to, even when her power—the closest thing to an element she could summon, something sharp, electric, and unnatural—forced a leg to buckle beneath him.

“I like it when you kneel,” she said softly, letting go of his wrist. Kell pressed his hands flat against the cool stone floor and took a shaky breath. Astrid swiped the letter from the ground and set it on the table before sinking back into her throne.

“I should keep you,” she added, tapping a finger thoughtfully against the pendant that hung from her throat.

Kell rose slowly to his feet. An aching pain rolled up his arm in the energy’s wake. “Why’s that?” he asked.

Her hand fell from the charm. “Because I do not like things that don’t belong to me,” she said. “I do not trust them.”

“Do you trust anything?” he countered, rubbing his wrist. “Or anyone, for that matter?”

The queen considered him, her pale lips curling at the edges. “The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”

Kell’s gaze drifted down to the granite beneath his feet. There were rumors, of course, about the bits of duller white that studded the stone.

Just then the door swung open behind him, and Kell turned to see King Athos striding in, Holland trailing several steps behind. Athos was a reflection of his sister, only faintly distorted by his broader shoulders and shorter hair. But everything else about him, from complexion to wiry muscle to the wanton cruelty they shared, was an exact replica.

“I heard we had company,” he said cheerfully.

“Your Highness,” said Kell with a nod. “I was just leaving.” “Already?” said the king. “Stay and have a drink.”

Kell hesitated. Turning down the Prince Regent’s invitation was one thing; turning down Athos Dane’s was quite another.

Athos smiled at his indecision. “Look at how he worries, sister.”

Kell did not realize she had risen from her seat until he felt her there beside him, running a finger down the silver buttons of his coat. Antari or not, the Danes made him feel like a mouse in the company of snakes. He willed himself not to pull away from the queen’s touch a second time, lest it provoke her.

“I want to keep him, brother,” said Astrid.

“I fear our neighboring crown would not be pleased,” said Athos. “But he’ll stay for a drink. Won’t you, Master Kell?” Kell felt himself nodding slowly, and Athos’s smile spread, teeth glinting like knifepoints. “Splendid.” He snapped his fingers and a servant appeared, turning his dead eyes up to his master. “A chair,” ordered Athos, and the servant fetched one and set it behind Kell’s knees before retreating, quiet as a ghost.

“Sit,” commanded Athos.

Kell did not. He watched the king ascend the dais and approach the table between the thrones. On it sat a decanter of golden liquid and two empty glass goblets. Athos lifted one of the glasses, but did not pour from the decanter. Instead, he turned toward Holland.

“Come here.”

The other Antari had retreated to the far wall, fading into it despite the near black of his hair and the true black of his eye. Now he came forward with his slow and silent steps. When he reached Athos, the king held out the empty goblet and said, “Cut yourself.”

Kell’s stomach turned. Holland’s fingers drifted for an instant toward the clasp at his shoulder before making their way to his exposed side of his half-cloak. He rolled up his sleeve, revealing the tracery of his veins, but also a mess of scars. Antari healed faster than most. The cuts must have been deep.

He drew a knife from his belt and raised arm and blade both over the goblet.

“Your Majesty,” said Kell hastily. “I have no taste for blood. Could I trouble you for something else?”

“Of course,” said Athos lightly. “It’s no trouble at all.”

Kell was halfway through a shaky sigh of relief when Athos turned back to Holland, who’d begun to lower his arm. The king frowned. “I thought I said cut.”

Kell cringed as Holland raised his arm over the goblet and drew the knife across his skin. The cut was shallow, a graze, just deep enough to draw blood. It welled and spilled in a thin ribbon into the glass.

Athos smiled and held Holland’s gaze. “We haven’t got all night,” he said. “Press down harder.”

Holland’s jaw clenched, but he did as he was told. The knife bit into his arm, deep, and the blood flowed, a rich dark red, into the glass. When the goblet was full, Athos passed it to his sister and ran a finger along Holland’s cheek.

“Go clean up,” he said softly, gently, the way a parent would to a child. Holland withdrew, and Kell realized that he’d not only taken his seat, but was now gripping the arms of his chair with whitening knuckles. He forced his fingers free as Athos plucked the second glass from the table and poured the pale gold liquid into it.

He held it up for Kell to see, then drank to show the glass and contents alike were safe before pouring a new measure and offering it to Kell. The gesture of a man used to sabotage.

Kell took the glass and drank too fast and too deep in an effort to calm his nerves. As soon as the goblet was empty, Athos filled it again. The drink itself was light and sweet and strong, and went down easily. Meanwhile, the Danes shared their cup, Holland’s blood turning their lips a vibrant red as they drank. Power lies in the blood, thought Kell as his own began to warm.

“It’s amazing,” he said, forcing himself to drink his second portion slower than his first.

“What is?” asked Athos, sinking into his throne.

Kell nodded at the goblet of Holland’s blood. “That you manage to keep your clothes so white.” He finished his second glass, and Astrid laughed and poured him a third.

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