Chapter no 20

A Darker Shade of Magic

Lila hummed as she made her way back to the Stone’s Throw.

As she walked, she began to divest herself of the disguise; the mask came off first, followed by the broad-brim hat. She’d forgotten she was wearing them when she ran into the drunk fellow back in the alley, but he’d been so deep in his cups that he’d hardly seemed to notice. Just as he’d hardly seemed to notice her hand in his coat as she held up the kerchief, or her fingers curling around the contents of his pocket as she pressed the dark cloth into his palm. An easy mark.

Truth be told, she was still cross with herself for running—or rather, for falling into a trap and needing to run—from the trio of street rats. But, she thought, closing her hand around the satisfying weight in her cloak pocket, the outing hadn’t been a total waste.

As the tavern came into sight, she pulled the trinket from her cloak and paused beneath a lamppost to get a closer look at the take. When she did, her heart sank. She’d hoped for metal, something silver, or gold, but the lump was stone. Not a gem or a jewel, either. Not even a bit of crystal. It looked like a river rock—glossy and black—one side smooth and the other jagged, like it had been smashed or chipped off from a larger piece of stone. What kind of gent walked around with rocks in his pocket? And broken ones at that?

And yet, she thought she could feel something, a kind of prickle where her skin met the stone’s surface. Lila held it up to the light, and squinted at it a moment before dismissing the sensation and deeming the rock worthless—a sentimental trifle at best. Her mood soured as she shoved it back in her pocket and climbed the steps of the Stone’s Throw.

Even though the tavern was bustling, Barron looked up when she came in, eyes going from her face to the disguise tucked under her arm. She thought she saw a flicker of concern, and it made her cringe. She wasn’t his family. He wasn’t hers. She didn’t need his worry, and he didn’t need her weight.

“Run into trouble?” he asked as she passed up the counter and went straight for the stairs.

She wasn’t about to own up to being snared in the alley or running away from the fight, and her take had been a total bust, so she simply shrugged. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

The scrawny boy from the steps sat on a corner stool, eating a bowl of stew. Lila realized she was hungry—that is to say, hungrier than usual, Lila hadn’t felt full in years—but she was tired, too, and relieved to find that the call of her bones to bed was louder than that of her stomach to table. Besides, she hadn’t retrieved the coins. She had the silver, of course, but she had to save it if she was ever going to get out of this tavern, out of this city. Lila knew too well how the cycle went, thieves stealing only enough to stay thieves.

She had no intention of contenting herself to such meager victories. And now that she’d been made—she cursed the thought of three street rats discovering what three dozen constables hadn’t, that their wanted man wasn’t a man at all—stealing would only get harder. She needed larger scores, and she needed them soon.

Her stomach growled, and she knew Barron would give her something for nothing if she could bring herself to ask for it, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t.

Lila Bard might have been a thief but she wasn’t a beggar.

And when she left—and she would—she had every intention of leaving behind the coin she owed him, down to the last farthing. She set off up the stairs.

At the top of the narrow steps stood a little landing with a green door. She remembered slamming that same door, shoving past Barron and down the steps, leaving only a tantrum in her wake. She remembered the fight—she’d stolen from a patron, and Barron had put her to task for it. What was worse, he’d wanted rent but barred her from paying him room and board with any “borrowed” coin. He’d wanted only honest money, and she had no way to get it, so he’d offered to pay her to help him run the tavern. She’d shot him down. Saying yes would have meant staying, and staying would have meant settling. In the end it’d been easier to hang the place and run. Not away, Lila had told herself. No, Lila had been running toward something. Something better. And even if she hadn’t reached it yet, she would.

“This isn’t a life!” she’d shouted, the handful of things she owned shoved under her arm. “This isn’t anything. It’s not enough. It’s not fucking enough.”

She hadn’t adopted the disguise yet, hadn’t been bold enough to rob outright.

There has to be more, she’d thought. I have to be more.

She’d grabbed the broad-brim hat from a hook near the door as she’d stormed out. It hadn’t been hers.

Barron hadn’t tried to stop her. He’d only gotten out of her way.

A life worth having is a life worth taking.

It had been almost a year—eleven months, two weeks, and a handful of days—since she’d stormed away from the little room and the Stone’s Throw, swearing she was done with both.

And yet here she was again. She reached the top of the stairs—each protesting her arrival as much as she did—and let herself in.

The sight of the room filled her with a mix of revulsion and relief. Bone-tired, she dug the rock from her pocket and dropped it with a thud onto a wooden table by the door.

Barron had set her top hat on the bed, and Lila sank down beside it to unlace her boots. They were worn to nearly nothing, and she cringed at the thought of how much it would cost to buy a decent pair. It wasn’t an easy thing to steal. Relieving a man of his pocket watch was one thing. Relieving him of his shoes was quite another.

She was halfway through the strings on the first boot when she heard a sound of strain, like an oof, and looked up to find a man standing in her bedroom.

He hadn’t come through the door—it was locked—and yet there he was, one bloody hand braced against the wall. Lila’s kerchief was balled up between his palm and the wooden boards, and she thought she could make out a mark of some sort ghosted into the paneling beneath.

His hair hung down into his eyes, but she recognized him at once. It was the fellow from the alley. The drunk one.

“Give it back,” he said, breathing heavily. He had a faint accent, one she couldn’t place.

“How the bloody hell did you get in?” she asked, rising to her feet.

“You have to give it back.” Here, in the light of the close little room, she could see the shirt matted to his chest, the sheen of sweat across his brow. “You shouldn’t … have taken … it. …”

Lila’s eyes flicked to the stone where it sat on the table, and his gaze followed and stuck. They lunged for it at the same time. Or rather, Lila lunged for it. The stranger pushed off the wall in that general direction, swayed sharply, and then collapsed at her feet. His head bounced a little when it hit the floor.

Great, thought Lila, staring down at his body. She toed his shoulder with her boot, and when he didn’t move, she knelt and rolled him over. He looked like he’d had a hell of a night. His black tunic was stuck to his skin; at first she thought it was sweat, but when she touched it, her fingers came away red. She considered searching his pockets and dumping his body out the window,

but then she noticed the faint rise and fall of his chest through his stained shirt and realized he was not, in fact, dead.


Up close, the stranger wasn’t nearly as old as she’d first thought. Beneath a bit of soot and blood, his skin was smooth, and his face still held some boyish angles. He looked to be a year or two older than Lila herself, but not much more. She brushed the coppery hair from his forehead, and his eyelids fluttered and began to drift open.

Lila pulled back sharply. One of his eyes was a lovely blue. The other was pitch black. Not black-irised like some of the men she’d seen from the Far East, but a pure, unnatural black, running edge to edge, uninterrupted by color or white.

His gaze began to focus, and Lila reached for the nearest thing—a book— and struck him with it. His head lolled and his body went slack, and when he showed no signs of waking, she set the book aside, and took hold of his wrists.

He smells like flowers, she thought absently as she dragged his body across the floor.

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