Lila could have simply gone down into the belly of the Stone’s Throw, but she owed Barron enough already—he wouldn’t take her coin, either because he thought she needed it or because it wasn’t hers to begin with—and she needed the fresh air to clear her head.
Men walking through magical doors. Stones that made something out of nothing. It was all the stuff of stories.
All of it at her fingertips. And then gone. And Lila left feeling empty, hungry, and hollow in a new and terrifying way. Or maybe it was the same kind of hunger she’d always felt, and now the missing thing had a name: magic. She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that, holding the stone, she’d felt something. And looking into Kell’s ruined eye, she’d felt something. And when the magic spun the wood of the wall around her wrist, she’d felt something. Again the questions surged, and again she shoved them down, and took in the night air—thick with soot and heavy with impending rain—and trudged through the web of streets, and across Westminster to the Barren Tide.
The Barren Tide sat near just north of the bridge on the southern side, tucked between Belvedere and York in a crevice of a street called Mariner’s Walk, and she’d taken to stopping in on some of her more successful nights before heading back to Powell (the way she’d seen it, it left one less coin for him to skim). She liked the pub because it was full of dark wood and fogging glass, rough edges and rougher fare. Not a smart place to pick pockets, but a fine place to blend in, to disappear. She had little fear of being recognized, either as a girl (the light was always kept low, and her hood kept up) or as a wanted thief (most of the patrons were wanted for something).
Her weapons were in easy reach, but she didn’t think she’d need them. At the Barren Tide, people tended to mind their own business. On the not-so-rare occasion that a fight broke out, the regulars were more concerned for the
safety of their drinks (they’d sooner save a pitcher from a shaking table than step in to help the man whose falling body shook it), and Lila imagined someone could cry for help in the middle of the room and earn little more than a tip of the cup and a raised brow.
Not a place for all nights, to be sure. But a place for tonight.
It wasn’t until Lila was firmly stationed at the bar, fingers curled around a pint, that she let the questions take her mind and run free—the whys and hows and most of all what nows, because she knew she couldn’t simply go back to not knowing and not seeing and not wondering—and she was so wrapped up in them, she didn’t notice that a man had sat down beside her. Not until he spoke.
“Are you frightened?”
His voice was deep and smooth and foreign, and Lila looked up. “Excuse me?” she said, almost forgetting to keep her voice low.
“You’re clutching your drink,” explained the man, pointing at the fingers wrapped knuckles-white around her glass. Lila relaxed, but only a little.
“Long night,” she said, bringing the warm beer to her lips.
“And yet still young,” mused the man, taking a sip from his tumbler. Even in the Barren Tide, whose belly filled each night with a motley crew, the man seemed out of place. In the low light of the pub, he looked strangely … faded. His clothes were dark grey, and he wore a simple short cloak held by a silver clasp. His skin was pale, made paler by the dark wood bar beneath his hands, his hair a strange, colorless shade just shy of black. When he spoke, his voice was steady without being sweet, empty in a way that gave her chills, and his accent had gravel in it.
“Not from around here, are you?” she asked.
The corner of his mouth tugged up at that. “No.” He ran a finger absently around the rim of his glass. Except it didn’t feel absent. None of his motions did. He moved with a slow precision that made Lila nervous.
There was something about him, odd and jarringly familiar at the same time. She couldn’t see it, but she felt it. And then it struck her. That feeling. It was the same one she had looking into Kell’s black eye, holding the stone, bound to the wall. A shiver. A tingle. A whisper.
Lila tensed, and hoped it didn’t show as she lifted the pint to her lips.
“I suppose we should be introduced,” said the stranger, turning in his seat so she could see his face. Lila nearly choked on her drink. There was nothing amiss in the angle of his jaw or the set of his nose or the line of his lips. But his eyes. One was greyish green. The other was pitch-black. “My name is Holland.”
A chill ran through her. He was the same as Kell, and yet entirely different. Looking into Kell’s eye had been like looking through a window into a new world. Strange and confusing, but not frightening. Looking into Holland’s eye made her skin crawl. Dark things swirled just beneath the smooth black depths. One word whispered through her mind. Run.
She didn’t trust herself to lift her glass again, in case her hands shook, so she nudged it away and casually dug a shilling from her pocket.
“Bard,” she said, by way of introduction and farewell.
She was about to push away from the counter when the man caught her wrist, pinning it to the weathered wood between them. A shiver ran up her arm at his touch, and the fingers of her free hand twitched, tempted toward the dagger under her cloak, but she resisted. “And your first name, miss?”
She tried to pull free, but his grip was made of stone. He didn’t even appear to be trying. “Delilah,” she growled. “Lila, if you like. Now let me go unless you want to lose your fingers.”
Again his lips tugged into something that wasn’t quite a smile. “Where is he, Lila?”
Her heart lurched. “Who?”
Holland’s grip tightened in warning. Lila winced. “Do not lie. I can smell his magic on you.”
Lila held his gaze. “Perhaps because he used it to cuff me to a wall after I robbed him blind and tied him to a bed. If you’re looking for your friend, don’t look at me. We met on bad terms and parted on worse.”
Holland’s grip loosened, and Lila let out an inward sigh of relief. But it died an instant later when Holland was suddenly on his feet. He took her roughly by the arm and dragged her toward the door.
“What in bloody hell are you doing?” she snapped, boots scraping against the worn floor as she tried and failed to gain purchase. “I told you, we are not friends.”
“We’ll see,” said Holland, driving her forward.
The patrons of the Barren Tide never even looked up from their drinks.
Bastards, thought Lila as she was shoved roughly out into the street.
The moment the pub door closed behind them, Lila went for the revolver at her belt, but for someone whose movements seemed so slow, Holland was fast—impossibly fast—and by the time she pulled the trigger, she’d fired into nothing but air. Before the shot even finished sounding, Holland reappeared, this time at her back. She felt him there, felt the air shift the barest moment before one of his hands closed around her throat, pinning her shoulders against his chest. The other hand wrapped around the fingers on her pistol and
brought the barrel to rest against her temple. The whole thing had taken less than a breath.
“Divest yourself of weapons,” he instructed. “Or I will do it for you.”
His grip wasn’t crushing; if anything, his hold was casual, confident, and Lila had been around cutthroats long enough to know that the ones you truly had to fear were the ones who gripped their guns loosely, like they’d been born holding them. Lila used her free hand to dig the knife out of her belt and drop it to the ground. She freed a second from her back. A third she usually kept in her boot, but it was sitting on her bed, ruined. Holland’s hand slid from her throat to her shoulder, but he cocked the pistol in warning.
“What, no cannons?” he asked drily.
“You’re mad,” growled Lila. “Your friend Kell, he’s long gone.” “Do you think?” asked Holland. “Let’s find out.”
The air around them began to crackle with energy. With magic. And Holland was right: she could smell it. Not flowers, as with Kell (flowers and something else, something grassy and clean). Instead, Holland’s power smelled metallic, like heated steel. It singed the air.
She wondered if Kell would be able to smell it, too. If that’s what Holland wanted.
There was something else in that magic—not a smell, but a sense all the same—something sharp, like anger, like hate. A fierceness that didn’t show in the lines of Holland’s face. No, his face was startlingly calm. Terrifyingly calm.
“Scream,” he said.
Lila frowned. “What do you—”
The question was cut off by pain. A bolt of energy, like bottled lightning, shot up her arm where he gripped it, dancing over her skin and electrifying her nerves, and she cried out before she could stop herself. And then, almost as quickly as the pain came, it vanished, leaving Lila breathless and shaking.
“You … bastard,” she snarled.
“Call his name,” instructed Holland.
“I can assure you … he’s not … going to come,” she said, stumbling over the words. “Certainly not … for me. We—”
Another wave of pain, this one brighter, sharper, and Lila clenched her jaw against the scream and waited for the pain to pass, but this time it didn’t; it only worsened, and through it she could hear Holland say calmly, “Perhaps I should start breaking bones?”
She tried to say no, but when she opened her mouth to answer, all she heard was a cry, and then, as if encouraged, the pain worsened. She called Kell’s name then, for all the good it would do her. He wouldn’t come. Maybe if she
tried, this madman would realize that and let her go. Find another form of bait. The pain finally petered out, and Lila realized she was on her knees, one hand gripping the cold stone street, the other wrenched up behind her, still in Holland’s grip. She thought she was going to be sick.
“Better,” said Holland.
“Go to hell,” she spat.
He jerked her up to her feet and back against him, and brought the gun beneath her chin. “I’ve never used a revolver,” he said in her ear. “But I know how they work. Six shots, yes? You’ve fired one. That leaves five more, if the gun was full. Do you think I could fire the rest without killing you? Humans die so easily, but I bet, if I’m clever …” He let the gun slide down her body, pausing at her shoulder, her elbow, before trailing down her side to her thigh and coming to rest against her knee. “The sooner he comes, the sooner I will let you go. Call his name.”
“He won’t come,” she whispered bitterly. “Why do you refuse to believe
“Because I know our friend,” said Holland. He lifted his gun-wielding hand
—Lila shuddered with relief as the kiss of metal left her skin—and wrapped his arm casually around her shoulders. “He is near. I can hear his boots on the street stones. Close your eyes. Can you hear him?”
Lila squeezed her eyes shut, but all she could hear was the thud of her heart and the thought racing through her mind. I don’t want to die. Not here. Not now. Not like this.
“Bring him to me,” whispered Holland. The air began to hum again. “Don’t—” Lila’s bones lit up with pain. It shot from her skull to her
weathered boots and back, and she screamed. And then, suddenly, the agony stopped and the sound died on her lips and Holland let go. She crumpled forward to the cobbled street, the stones scraping against her knees and palms as she caught herself.
Through the pounding in her head, she heard Holland’s voice say, “There you are.”
She dragged her head up and saw Kell standing in the road, the strange magical boy in his black coat, looking breathless and angry.
Lila couldn’t believe it. He’d come back.
But why had he come back?
Before she could ask, he looked straight at her—one eye black and one blue and both wide—and said a single word.