Lila was soaked to the bone.
Halfway across the bridge, the sky had finally opened up—not a drizzle, as London often seemed to favor, but a downpour. Within moments, they had been soaked through. It certainly didn’t make dragging the half-conscious Kell any easier. Lila’s arms ached from holding him up—she nearly fumbled him twice—and by the time she reached the back door of the Stone’s Throw, Kell was barely conscious and Lila was shivering and all she could think was that she should have kept running.
She hadn’t lived this long and stayed this free by stopping to help every fool who got himself into trouble. It was all she could do to keep herself out of trouble, and whatever else Holland was, he was clearly trouble.
But Kell had come back.
He didn’t have to—didn’t have any reason to—but he had, all the same, and the weight of it clung to her when she fled, slowing her down before finally dragging her boots to a stop. Even as she turned around, raced back, a small part of her had hoped that she’d be too late. Hoped they’d already be gone. But the rest of her wanted get there in time, if only to know why.
Why had he come back?
Lila asked him that very question as she was dragging him to his feet. But Kell didn’t answer. His head lolled against her collar. What the hell had happened? What had Holland done to him?
Lila couldn’t even tell if Kell was still bleeding—she didn’t see an obvious wound—but he was covered in blood and it made her wish she’d struck Holland a second time for good measure. Kell made a soft sound, between a gasp and a groan, and Lila started talking, worried that he might die on her and it would somehow be her fault, even though she’d come back.
“Stay with me,” she’d said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. With his body so close to hers, all she could think of was the smell. Not of blood— that didn’t bother her—but of the other scents, the ones that clung to Kell, and to Holland. Flowers and earth and metal and ash.
I can smell his magic on you.
Is that what it was? The scent of magic? She had noticed Kell’s in a passing way, when she first dragged his body across her bedroom floor. Now, with his arm draped around her, the scent was overpowering. The trace of Holland’s burning steel lingered in the air. And even though the stone was safely in her pocket, she could smell it, too, its scent washing over the alley. Like sea and wood smoke. Salt and darkness. She felt a moment of pride for the strength of her senses until she remembered that she hadn’t smelled Kell’s flowers or the stone’s smoke on herself as she made her way to the Barren Tide, or as she sat at the counter, and Holland had tracked her there by both.
But the rain fell heavy and steady, and soon she could smell nothing but water on stones. Maybe her nose wasn’t strong enough. Maybe the scent of magic was still there, beneath the rain—she didn’t know if it could be expunged, or at least dampened—but she hoped the storm would help cover their trail.
She was halfway up the stairs, Kell’s boots leaving red-tinged water in their wake, when a voice stopped her.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
Lila twisted around to see Barron, and Kell nearly slipped from her grasp. She caught him round the middle at the last instant, narrowly saving him from a tumble down the steps. “Long story. Heavy body.”
Barron cast a backward glance at the tavern, shouted something to the barmaid, and charged up the steps, a rag thrown over his shoulder. Together they hoisted Kell’s soaking body up the remaining stairs and into the little room at the top.
Barron held his tongue as they stripped away Kell’s wet coat and stained shirt, and laid him down on Lila’s bed. He didn’t ask her where she’d found this stranger, or why there was no wound to explain the bloody trail he’d left on the tavern’s stairs (though the gash across his ribs was still quite angry). When Lila scoured the room for something to burn (in case the rain had not been enough to hide their scent, in case it still lingered here from earlier that night) and came up empty, Barron didn’t ask, only went to fetch some herbs from the kitchen below.
He watched silently as she held a bowl of them over a candle and let the room fill with an earthy smell that had nothing to do with Kell or Holland or magic. He stayed as she dug through the pockets of Kell’s coat (which turned out to be several coats somehow folded into one) in search of something— anything—that might help mend him (he was a magician, after all, and it stood to reason that magicians carried around magic). And Barron said nothing when at last she dug the black stone from her pocket and dropped it in
a small wooden box, setting a handful of warm herbs inside before shoving the lot into the bottom drawer of her chest.
It wasn’t until Lila slumped down into the chair at the foot of the bed and began to clean her pistol that Barron finally spoke.
“What are you doing with this man?” His eyes were dark and narrow. Lila looked up from her gun. “You know him?”
“In a way,” said Barron archly.
“You know what he is then?” she asked. “Do you?” challenged Barron.
“In a way,” she retorted. “First I took him for a mark.”
Barron ran a hand through his hair, and Lila realized for the first time that it was thinning. “Christ, Lila,” he muttered. “What did you take?”
Her gaze flicked to the bottom drawer of the chest, then drifted back to Kell. He looked deathly pale against the dark blanket on her bed, and he wasn’t moving, save for the faint rise and fall of his chest.
She took him in, the magical young man in her bed, first so guarded, now exposed. Vulnerable. Her eyes trailed up the lines of his stomach, over his wounded ribs, across his throat. They wandered down his arms, bare but for the knife strapped to his forearm. She hadn’t touched it this time.
“What happened?” asked Barron.
Lila wasn’t entirely sure how to answer that. It had been a very strange night.
“I stole something, and he came looking for it,” she said quietly, unable to draw her eyes from Kell’s face. He looked younger asleep. “Took it back. I thought that was the end of that. But someone else came looking for him. Found me instead …” She trailed off, then picked up. “He saved my life,” she said, half to herself, brow crinkling. “I don’t know why.”
“So you brought him here.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lila, turning toward Barron. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” The words stung even as she said them. “As soon as he wakes—”
Barron was shaking his head. “I’d rather you here than dead. The person who did this”—he waved a hand at Kell’s body—“are they dead?”
Lila shook her head.
Barron frowned. “Best tell me what they look like, so I know not to let them in.”
Lila described Holland as best she could. His faded appearance. His two-toned eyes. “He feels like Kell,” she added. “If that makes sense. Like—”
“Magic,” said Barron matter-of-factly. Lila’s eyes widened. “How do you … ?”
“Running a tavern, you meet all kinds. Running this tavern, you meet all kinds, and then some.”
Lila realized she was shivering, and Barron went in search of another tunic for Kell while she changed. He came back with an extra towel, a small pile of clothes, and a steaming bowl of soup. Lila felt ill and grateful at the same time. Barron’s kindness was like a curse, because she knew she had done nothing to deserve it. It wasn’t fair. Barron did not owe her anything. Yet she owed him so much. Too much. It drove her mad.
Still, her hunger had finally caught up with her fatigue, and the cold in her skin was quickly becoming the cold in her bones, so she took the soup and mumbled a thank-you and added the cost to the coin she already owed, as if this kind of debt could ever be paid.
Barron left them and went below. Outside, the night wore on. The rain wore on, too.
She didn’t remember sitting down, but she woke up an hour or so later in her wooden chair with a blanket tossed over her shoulders. She was stiff, and Kell was still asleep.
Lila rolled her neck and sat forward.
“Why did you come back?” she asked again, as if Kell might answer in his sleep.
But he didn’t. Didn’t mumble. Didn’t toss or turn. He just lay there, so pale and so still that now and then Lila would hold a piece of glass to his lips to make sure he hadn’t died. His bare chest rose and fell, and she noticed that, present injuries aside, he had so few scars. A faint line at his shoulder. A much fresher one across his palm. A ghosted mark in the crook of his elbow.
Lila had too many scars to count, but she could count Kell’s. And she did.
The tavern below had quieted, and Lila got to her feet and burned a few more herbs. She turned her silver watch and waited for Kell to wake. Sleep dragged at her bones, but every time she thought of rest, she imagined Holland stepping through her wall, the way Kell had. Pain echoed through her arm where he’d gripped her, a small jagged burn the only relic, and her fingers went to the Flintlock at her hip.
If she had another shot, she wouldn’t miss.