Kell should have stopped at one drink.
He thought he’d stopped at three, but he couldn’t be entirely sure. He hadn’t felt the full effects of the drink until he’d gotten to his feet, and the white stone floor had tilted dangerously beneath him. Kell knew that it was foolish, drinking as much as he had, but the sight of Holland’s blood had rattled him. He couldn’t get the Antari’s expression out of his mind, the look that crossed his face just before the knife bit down. Holland’s visage was a perpetual mask of menacing calm, but just for an instant it had cracked. And Kell had done nothing. Had not pleaded—or even pressed—for Athos to yield. It wouldn’t have done any good, but still. They were both Antari. Luck alone cast Holland here in ruthless White and Kell in vibrant Red. What if their fortunes had been reversed?
Kell took a shaky breath, the air fogging before his lips. The cold was doing little to clear his head, but he knew he couldn’t go home, not yet, not like this, so he made his wandering way through the streets of White London.
This, too, was foolish. Reckless. He was always being reckless.
Why? he thought, suddenly angry at himself. Why did he always do this? Step out of safety and into shadow, into risk, into danger? Why? he heard Rhy begging on the roof that night.
He didn’t know. He wished he did, but he didn’t. All he knew was that he wanted to stop. The anger bled away, leaving something warm and steady. Or maybe that was the drink.
It had been a good drink, whatever it was. A strong drink. But not the kind of strong that made you weak. No, no, the kind of strong that made you strong. That made your blood sing. That made … Kell tipped his chin to look at the sky, and nearly lost his balance.
He needed to focus.
He was fairly sure he was heading in the general direction of the river. The air was biting against his lips, and it was getting dark—when had the sun
gone down?—and in the dregs of light, the city was starting to stir around him. Silence cracking into noise.
“Pretty thing,” whispered an old woman from a doorway in Maktahn. “Pretty skin. Pretty bones.”
“This way, Master,” called another. “Come inside.”
“Rest your feet.” “Rest your bones.” “Pretty bones.” “Pretty blood.” “Drink your magic.” “Eat your life.” “Come inside.”
Kell tried to focus, but he couldn’t seem to hold his thoughts together. As soon as he managed to gather a few, a breeze would blow through his head and scatter them, leaving him dazed and a little dizzy. Danger prickled at the edge of his senses. He closed his eyes, but every time he did, he saw Holland’s blood running into the glass, so he forced them open and looked up. He hadn’t meant to head for the tavern. His feet had set out on their own.
His body had made its way. Now he found himself staring at the sign over the door of the Scorched Bone.
Despite being a fixed point, the tavern in White London didn’t feel like the others. It still pulled at him, but the air smelled like blood as well as ash, and the street stones were cold beneath his boots. They tugged at his warmth. His power. His feet tried to carry him forward, but he willed them to stay.
Go home, thought Kell.
Rhy was right. Nothing good could come of these deals. Nothing good enough. It wasn’t worth it. The baubles he traded for, they brought him no peace. It was just a silly game. And it was time to stop.
He held on to that thought as he drew the knife from its holster and brought it to his forearm.
“It’s you,” came a voice behind him.
Kell turned, the blade sliding back to his side.
A woman stood there at the mouth of the alley, her face hidden by the hood of a threadbare blue cloak. If they’d been in any other London, the blue might have been the color of sapphires or the sea. Here it was the faintest shade, like the sky through layers and layers of clouds.
“Do I know you?” he asked, squinting into the dark. She shook her head. “But I know you, Antari.”
“No, you don’t,” he said with a fair amount of certainty.
“I know what you do. When you’re not at the castle.” Kell shook his head. “I am not making deals tonight.”
“Please,” she said, and he realized that she was clutching an envelope. “I don’t want you to bring me anything.” She held out the letter. “I only want you take it.”
Kell’s brow crinkled. A letter? The worlds had been sealed off from one another for centuries. Who could she be writing to?
“My family,” said the woman, reading the question in his eyes. “Ages ago, when Black London fell, and the doors were sealed, we were divided. Over the centuries our families have tried to keep the thread … but I’m the only one left. Everyone here is dead but myself, and everyone there is dead but one. Olivar. He’s the only family I have and he’s on that side of the door and he’s dying and I just want …” She brought the letter to her chest. “We are all that’s left.”
Kell’s head was still swimming. “How did you even hear,” he asked, “that Olivar was ill?”
“The other Antari,” she explained, glancing around as if she feared someone would hear. “Holland. He brought me a letter.”
Kell couldn’t picture Holland deigning to smuggle anything between Londons, let alone correspondences between commoners.
“He didn’t want to,” added the woman. “Olivar gave him everything he had to buy the letter’s passage and even then”—she brought her hand to her collar as if reaching for a necklace, and finding only skin—“I paid the rest.”
Kell frowned. That seemed even less in Holland’s nature. Not that he was selfless, but Kell doubted that he was greedy in this way, doubted that he cared about that kind of payment. Then again, everyone had secrets, and Holland wore his so close that Kell was forced to wonder how much he truly knew of the Antari’s character.
The woman thrust out the letter again. “Nijk shöst,” she said. “Please, Master Kell.”
He tried to focus, to think. He’d promised Rhy … but it was only a letter. And technically, under the laws set out by the crowns of all three Londons, letters were a necessary exemption from the rule of no transference. Sure, they only meant letters between the crowns themselves, but still …
“I can pay you in advance,” she pressed. “You needn’t come back to close the deal. This is the last and only letter. Please.” She dug in her pocket and retrieved a small parcel wrapped in cloth, and before Kell could say yes or no, she pushed the note and payment both into his hands. A strange feeling shot through him as the fabric of the parcel met his skin. And then the woman was pulling away.
Kell looked down at the letter, an address penned onto the envelope, and then to the parcel. He went to unwrap it, and the woman shot forward and caught his hand.
“Don’t be a fool,” she whispered, glancing around the alley. “They’ll cut you for a coin in these parts.” She folded his fingers over the package. “Not here,” she warned. “But it’s enough, I swear. It must be.” Her hands slipped away. “It’s all I can give.”
Kell frowned down at the object. The mystery of it was tempting, but there were too many questions, too many pieces that didn’t make sense, and he looked up and started to refuse. …
But there was no one to refuse. The woman was gone.
Kell stood there, at the mouth of the Scorched Bone, feeling dazed. What had just happened? He’d finally mustered the resolve to make no deals, and the deal had come to him. He stared down at the letter and the payment, whatever it was. And then, in the distance, someone screamed, and the sound jarred Kell back to the darkness and the danger. He shoved the letter and parcel both into the pocket of his coat, and drew his knife across his arm, trying to ignore the dread that welled with his blood as he summoned the door home.