Kell couldn’t stop the blood.
It soaked through his shirtfront, the fabric clinging to him as he ran— stumbled—through the narrow maze of streets that gathered, weblike, in the corners of Red London.
He clutched at his pocket to make sure the stone was safe, and a thrum ran through his fingers as they felt it there. He should have run for the river, should have pitched the talisman into the glittering Isle and let it sink. He should have, but he hadn’t, and that left him with a problem.
And the problem was catching up.
Kell cut a corner too sharp and skidded into the wall, biting back a gasp as his wounded side collided with the bricks. He couldn’t keep running, but he had to get away. Somewhere he wouldn’t be followed.
Somewhere he couldn’t be followed.
Kell dragged himself to a stop and reached for the Grey London pendant at his neck, ripping the cord over his head.
Footsteps echoed, heavy and too close, but Kell held his ground and pressed his hand to his blood-soaked ribs, wincing. He brought his palm and the coin in it against the alley stones and said, “As Travars.”
He felt the word pass his lips and shiver against his hand at the same time. But nothing happened. The wall stayed where it was, and so did Kell.
Pain tore white-hot through his side from the royal blade, the spellwork cutting him off from his power. No, pleaded Kell silently. Blood magic was the strongest kind in the world. It couldn’t be disabled, not by a simple piece of spellwork. It was stronger. It had to be stronger. Kell closed his eyes.
“As Travars,” he said again.
He shouldn’t have to say anything else, shouldn’t have to force it, but he was tired and bleeding and fighting to focus his eyes, let alone his power, and so he added “Please.”
He swallowed and brought his forehead to rest against the stones and heard the steps getting closer and closer and said, again, “Please let me through.”
The stone hummed in his pocket, a whispered promise of power, of aid, and he was about draw it out and call upon its strength, when the wall finally shuddered and gave way beneath his touch.
The world vanished and an instant later reappeared, and Kell collapsed to the cobblestoned street, the subtle, steady light of Red London replaced by the dank, smoke-filled Grey London night. He stayed a moment on his hands and knees, and actually considered losing consciousness right there in the alley, but finally managed to get to his feet. When he did, the city slanted dangerously around him. He took two steps, and promptly collided with a man in a mask and a broad brim hat. Distantly, Kell knew it was strange, to be wearing a disguise, but he was hardly in a position to judge appearances, given his current state.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, pulling his coat close around him to hide the blood. “Where’d you come from?” asked the man, and Kell looked up and
realized that under that disguise it wasn’t a man at all. It was a woman. Not even that. A girl. All stretched out like a shadow, like Kell, but one even later in the day. Too long, too thin. But she was dressed like a man, boots and britches and a cloak (and under that, a few glinting weapons). And, of course, the mask and the hat. She seemed out of breath, as though she’d been running. Strange, thought Kell again.
He swayed a little on his feet.
“You all right there, gent?” asked the girl in disguise.
Footsteps sounded in the street beyond the alley, and Kell tensed, forcing himself to remember that he was safe now, safe here. The girl cast a quick glance back before returning her attention to him. He took a step toward her, and his legs nearly buckled beneath him. She went to catch him, but he caught himself against the wall first.
“I’ll be okay,” he whispered shakily.
The girl tipped her chin up, and there was something strong and defiant in her eyes and the lines of her jaw. A challenge. And then she smiled. Not with her whole mouth, just the edges, and Kell thought—in a far-off, woozy way— that under different circumstances, they might have been friends.
“There’s blood on your face,” she said.
Where wasn’t there blood? Kell brought his hand to his cheek, but his hand was damp with it, too, so it wasn’t much help. The girl came closer. She drew a small, dark kerchief from her pocket and reached out, dabbing his jaw with it before pressing the fabric into his hand.
“Keep it,” she said. And then she turned and strode away.
Kell watched the strange girl go, then slumped back against the alley wall.
He tipped his head back and stared up at the Grey London sky, starless and bleak over the tops of the buildings. And then he reached into his pocket for the Black London stone, and froze.
It wasn’t there.
He dug furiously through his pockets, every one of them, but it was no good. The talisman was gone. Breathless and bleeding and exhausted, Kell looked down at the kerchief clutched in his hand.
He couldn’t believe it. He’d been robbed.