Chapter no 2

A Darker Shade of Magic

Between one stride and the next, dreary Windsor became elegant St. James. The stuffy cell of a room gave way to bright tapestries and polished silver, and the mad king’s mumblings were replaced by a heavy quiet and a man sitting at the head of an ornate table, gripping a goblet of wine and looking thoroughly put out.

“You’re late,” observed the Prince Regent.

“Apologies,” said Kell with a too-short bow. “I had an errand.”

The Prince Regent set down his cup. “I thought was your errand, Master Kell.”

Kell straightened. “My orders, Your Highness, are to see to the king first.” “I wish you wouldn’t indulge him,” said the Prince Regent, whose name

was also George (Kell found the Grey London habit of sons taking father’s names both redundant and confusing) with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It gets his spirits up.”

“Is that a bad thing?” asked Kell.

“For him, yes. He’ll be in a frenzy later. Dancing on the tables talking of magic and other Londons. What trick did you do for him this time? Convince him he could fly?”

Kell had only made that mistake once. He learned on his next visit that the King of England had nearly walked out a window. On the third floor. “I assure you I gave no demonstrations.”

Prince George pinched the bridge of his nose. “He cannot hold his tongue the way he used to. It’s why he is confined to quarters.”

“Imprisoned, then?”

Prince George ran his hand along the table’s gilded edge. “Windsor is a perfectly respectable place to be kept.”

A respectable prison is still a prison, thought Kell, withdrawing a second letter from his coat pocket. “Your correspondence.”

The prince forced him to stand there as he read the note (he never commented on the way it smelled of flowers), and then as he withdrew a half-finished reply from the inside pocket of his coat and completed it. He was

clearly taking his time in an effort to spite Kell, but Kell didn’t mind. He occupied himself by drumming his fingers on the edge of the gilded table. Each time he made it from pinky to forefinger, one of the room’s many candles went out.

“Must be a draft,” he said absently while the Prince Regent’s grip tightened on his quill. By the time he finished the note, he’d broken two and was in a bad mood, while Kell found his own disposition greatly improved.

He held out his hand for the letter, but the Prince Regent did not give it to him. Instead, he pushed up from his table. “I’m stiff from sitting. Walk with me.”

Kell wasn’t a fan of the idea, but since he couldn’t very well leave empty-handed, he was forced to oblige. But not before pocketing the prince’s latest unbroken quill from the table.

“Will you go straight back?” asked the prince as he led Kell down a hall to a discreet door half concealed by a curtain.

“Soon,” said Kell, trailing by a stride. Two members of the royal guard had joined them in the hall and now slunk behind like shadows. Kell could feel their eyes on him, and he wondered how much they’d been told about their guest. The royals were always expected to know, but the understanding of those in their service was left to their discretion.

“I thought your only business was with me,” said the prince.

“I’m a fan of your city,” responded Kell lightly. “And what I do is draining.

I’ll go for a walk and get some air, then make my way back.”

The prince’s mouth was a thin grim line. “I fear the air is not as replenishing here in the city as in the countryside. What is it you call us … Grey London? These days that is far too apt a name. Stay for dinner.” The prince ended nearly every sentence with a period. Even the questions. Rhy was the same way, and Kell thought it must simply be a by-product of never being told no.

“You’ll fare better here,” pressed the prince. “Let me revive you with wine and company.”

It seemed a kind enough offer, but the Prince Regent didn’t do things out of kindness.

“I cannot stay,” said Kell. “I insist. The table is set.”

And who is coming? wondered Kell. What did the prince want? To put him on display? Kell often suspected that he would like to do as much, if for no other reason than that the younger George found secrets cumbersome, preferring spectacle. But for all his faults, the prince wasn’t a fool, and only a

fool would give someone like Kell a chance to stand out. Grey London had forgotten magic long ago. Kell wouldn’t be the one to remind them of it.

“A lavish kindness, your highness, but I am better left a specter than made a show.” Kell tipped his head so that his copper hair tumbled out of his eyes, revealing not only the crisp blue of the left one but the solid black of the right. A black that ran edge to edge, filling white and iris both. There was nothing human about that eye. It was pure magic. The mark of a blood magician. Of an Antari.

Kell relished what he saw in the Prince Regent’s eyes when they tried to hold Kell’s gaze. Caution, discomfort … and fear.

“Do you know why our worlds are kept separate, Your Highness?” He didn’t wait for the prince to answer. “It is to keep yours safe. You see, there was a time, ages ago, when they were not so separate. When doors ran between your world and mine, and others, and anyone with a bit of power could pass through. Magic itself could pass through. But the thing about magic,” added Kell, “is that it preys on the strong-minded and the weak-willed, and one of the worlds couldn’t stop itself. The people fed on the magic and the magic fed on them until it ate their bodies and their minds and then their souls.”

“Black London,” whispered the Prince Regent.

Kell nodded. He hadn’t given that city its color mark. Everyone—at least everyone in Red London and White, and those few in Grey who knew anything at all—knew the legend of Black London. It was a bedtime story. A fairy tale. A warning. Of the city—and the world—that wasn’t, anymore.

“Do you know what Black London and yours have in common, Your Highness?” The Prince Regent’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t interrupt. “Both lack temperance,” said Kell. “Both hunger for power. The only reason your London still exists is because it was cut off. It learned to forget. You do not want it to remember.” What Kell didn’t say was that Black London had a wealth of magic in its veins, and Grey London hardly any; he wanted to make a point. And by the looks of it, he had. This time, when he held out his hand for the letter, the prince didn’t refuse, or even resist. Kell tucked the parchment into his pocket along with the stolen quill.

“Thank you, as ever, for your hospitality,” he said, offering an exaggerated bow.

The Prince Regent summoned a guard with a single snap of his fingers. “See that Master Kell gets where he is going.” And then, without another word, he turned and strode away.

The royal guards left Kell at the edge of the park. St. James Palace loomed behind him. Grey London lay ahead. He took a deep breath and tasted smoke

on the air. As eager as he was to get back home, he had some business to attend to, and after dealing with the king’s ailments and the prince’s attitude, Kell could use a drink. He brushed off his sleeves, straightened his collar, and set out toward the heart of the city.

His feet carried him through St. James Park, down an ambling dirt path that ran beside the river. The sun was setting, and the air was crisp if not clean, a fall breeze fluttering the edges of his black coat. He came upon a wooden footbridge that spanned the stream, and his boots sounded softly as he crossed it. Kell paused at the arc of the bridge, Buckingham House lantern-lit behind him and the Thames ahead. Water sloshed gently under the wooden slats, and he rested his elbows on the rail and stared down at it. When he flexed his fingers absently, the current stopped, the water stilling, smooth as glass, beneath him.

He considered his reflection.

“You’re not that handsome,” Rhy would say whenever he caught Kell gazing into a mirror.

“I can’t get enough of myself,” Kell would answer, even though he was never looking at himself—not all of himself anyway—only his eye. His right one. Even in Red London, where magic flourished, the eye set him apart. Marked him always as other.

A tinkling laugh sounded off to Kell’s right, followed by a grunt, and a few other, less distinct noises, and the tension went out of his hand, the stream surging back into motion beneath him. He continued on until the park gave way to the streets of London, and then the looming form of Westminster. Kell had a fondness for the abbey, and he nodded to it, as if to an old friend. Despite the city’s soot and dirt, its clutter and its poor, it had something Red London lacked: a resistance to change. An appreciation for the enduring, and the effort it took to make something so.

How many years had it taken to construct the abbey? How many more would it stand? In Red London, tastes turned as often as seasons, and with them, buildings went up and came down and went up again in different forms. Magic made things simple. Sometimes, thought Kell, it made things too simple.

There had been nights back home when he felt like he went to bed in one place and woke up in another.

But here, Westminster Abbey always stood, waiting to greet him.

He made his way past the towering stone structure, through the streets, crowded with carriages, and down a narrow road that hugged the dean’s yard, walled by mossy stone. The narrow road grew narrower still before it finally stopped in front of a tavern.

And here Kell stopped, too, and shrugged out of his coat. He turned it once more from right to left, exchanging the black affair with silver buttons for a more modest, street-worn look: a brown high-collared jacket with fraying hems and scuffed elbows. He patted the pockets and, satisfied that he was ready, went inside.

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