Chapter no 26

A Darker Shade of Magic

Kell woke up in Lila’s bed for the second time that night.

Though at least this time, he discovered, there were no ropes. His hands rested at his sides, bound by nothing but the rough blanket that had been cast over him. It took him a moment to remember that it was Lila’s room, Lila’s bed, to piece together the memory of Holland and the alley and the blood, and afterward, Lila’s grip and her voice, as steady as the rain. The rain had stopped falling now, and low morning light was creeping into the sky, and for a moment all Kell wanted was to be home. Not in the shoddy room in the Ruby Fields, but at the palace. He closed his eyes and could almost hear Rhy pounding on his door, telling him to get dressed because the carriages were waiting, and so were the people.

“Get ready or be left behind,” Rhy would say, bursting into the room. “Then leave me,” Kell would groan.

“Not a chance,” Rhy would answer, wearing his best prince’s grin. “Not today.”

A cart clattered past outside, and Kell blinked, Rhy fading back into nothing.

Were they worried about him yet, the royal family? Did they have any idea what was happening? How could they? Even Kell did not know. He knew only that he had the stone, and that he needed to be rid of it.

He tried to sit up, but his body cried out, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from voicing it. His skin, his muscle, his very bones … everything ached in a steady, horrible way, as if he were nothing but a bruise. Even the beat of his heart in his chest and the pulse of his blood through his veins felt sore, strained. He felt like death. It was as close as he had ever come, and closer than he ever wished to be. When the pain—or at least the novelty of it— lessened, he forced himself upright, bracing a hand against the headboard.

He fought to focus his vision, and when he managed, he found himself looking squarely into Lila’s eyes. She was sitting in that same chair at the foot of the bed, her pistol in her lap.

“Why did you do it?” she asked, the question primed on her tongue, as if she’d been waiting.

Kell squinted. “Do what?”

“Come back,” she said, the words low. “Why did you come back?” Two words hung in the air, unsaid but understood. For me.

Kell fought to drag his thoughts together, but even they were as stiff and sore as the rest of him. “I don’t know.”

Lila seemed unimpressed by the answer, but she only sighed and returned her weapon to the holster at her waist. “How are you feeling?”

Like hell, thought Kell. But then he looked down at himself and realized that, despite his aching body, the wound at his arm, where the nail had driven through, as well as the one across his stomach from the cutthroat’s stolen sword, were nearly healed. “How long was I asleep?”

“A few hours,” said Lila.

Kell ran a hand gingerly over his ribs. That didn’t make sense. Cuts this deep took days to mend, not hours. Not unless he had a—

“I used this,” said Lila, tossing a circular tin his way. Kell plucked it out of the air, wincing a little as he did. The container was unmarked, but he recognized it at once. The small metal tin contained a healing salve. Not just any healing salve, but one of his own, the royal emblem of the chalice and rising sun embossed on its lid. He’d misplaced it weeks ago.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“In a pocket in your coat,” said Lila, stretching. “By the way, did you know that your coat is more than one coat? I’m pretty sure I went through five or six to find that.”

Kell stared at her, slack-jawed. “What?” she asked.

“How did you know what it was for?” Lila shrugged. “I didn’t.”

“What if it had been poison?” he snapped.

“There’s really no winning with you,” she snapped back. “It smelled fine. It seemed fine.” Kell groaned. “And obviously I tested it on myself first.”

“You did what?”

Lila crossed her arms. “I’m not repeating myself just so you can gape and glare.” Kell shook his head, cursing under his breath as she nodded at a pile of clothes at the foot of the bed. “Barron brought those for you.”

Kell frowned (saints, even his brow hurt when it furrowed). He and Barron had a business agreement. He was pretty sure it didn’t cover shelter and personal necessities. He would owe him for the trouble—and it was trouble. Both of them knew it.

Kell could feel Lila’s eyes hanging on him as he reached for the clean tunic and shrugged it gingerly over his shoulders. “What is it?” he asked.

“You said no one would follow you.”

“I said no one could,” corrected Kell. “Because no one can, except for Holland.” Kell looked at his hands and frowned. “I just never thought—”

“One is not the same thing as none, Kell,” said Lila. And then she let out a breath and ran a hand through her cropped dark hair. “But I suppose you didn’t exactly have all your wits about you.” Kell looked up in surprise. Was she actually excusing him? “And I did hit you with a book.”


“Nothing,” said Lila, waving her hand. “So this Holland. He’s like you?”

Kell swallowed, remembering Holland’s words in the alley—We may share an ability, you and I, but that does not make us equals—and the dark, almost disdainful look that crossed his face when he said it. He thought of the brand burned into the other Antari’s skin, and the patchwork of scars on his arms, and the White king’s smug smile as Holland pressed the knife into his skin. No, Holland was nothing like Kell, and Kell was nothing like Holland.

“He can also move between worlds,” explained Kell. “In that way, we are alike.”

“And the eye?” questioned Lila.

“A mark of our magic,” said Kell. “Antari. That is what we are called.

Blood magicians.”

Lila chewed her lip. “Are there any others I should know about?” she asked, and Kell thought he saw a sliver of something—fear?—cross her features, buried almost instantly behind the stubborn set of her jaw.

Kell shook his head slowly. “No,” he said, “We are the only two.”

He expected her to look relieved, but her expression only grew graver. “Is that why he didn’t kill you?”

“What do you mean?”

Lila sat forward in her chair. “Well, if he’d wanted to kill you, he could have. Why bleed you dry? For the fun of it? He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.”

She was right. Holland could have slit his throat. But he hadn’t.

It’s really quite hard to kill Antari. Holland’s words echoed in Kell’s head.

But I can’t have—

Can’t have whatwondered Kell. Ending an Antari’s life might be hard, but it wasn’t impossible. Had Holland been fighting against his orders, or following them?

“Kell?” pressed Lila.

“Holland never enjoys himself,” he said under his breath. And then he looked up sharply. “Where is the stone now?”

Lila gave him a long weighing look and then said, “I have it.”

“Then give it back,” demanded Kell, surprising himself with his own urgency. He told himself it would be safest on his person, but in truth, he wanted to hold it, couldn’t shake the sense that if he did, his aching muscles would be soothed and his weak blood strengthened.

She rolled her eyes. “Not this again.” “Lila, listen to me. You’ve no idea what—”

“Actually,” she cut in, getting to her feet, “I’m starting to get a decent idea of what it can do. If you want it back, tell me the rest.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” said Kell automatically. “Try me,” she challenged.

Kell squinted at her, this strange girl. Lila Bard did seem to have a way of figuring things out. She was still alive. That said something. And she’d come back for him. He didn’t know why—cutthroats and thieves weren’t usually known for their moral compasses—but he did know that without her, he would be in a far worse state.

“Very well,” said Kell, swinging his legs off the bed. “The stone is from a place known as Black London.”

“You mentioned other Londons,” she said, as if the concept were curious, but not entirely impossible. She didn’t faze easily. “How many are there?”

Kell ran a hand through his auburn hair. It stuck up at odd angles from rain and sleep. “There are four worlds,” he said. “Think of them as different houses built on the same foundation. They have little in common, save for their geography, and the fact that each has a version of this city straddling this river on this island country, and in each, that city is called London.”

“That must be confusing.”

“It isn’t, really, when you live in only one of them and never need think of the others. But as someone who moves between, I use color to keep them straight. Grey London, which is yours. Red London, which is mine. White London, which is Holland’s. And Black London, which is no one’s.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because it fell,” said Kell, rubbing the back of his neck where the pendant cords had snapped. “Lost to darkness. The first thing about magic that you have to understand, Lila, is that it is not inanimate. It is alive. Alive in a different way than you or I, but still very much alive.”

“Is that why it got angry?” she asked. “When I tried to get rid of it?” Kell frowned. He’d never seen magic that alive.

“Nearly three centuries ago,” he said slowly, working out the math (it seemed further away, the effect of being so long referred to as simply “the past”), “the four worlds were twined together; magic and those who wielded it able to move between them with relative ease through any one of the many sources.”


“Pools of immense natural power,” explained Kell. “Some small, discreet

—a copse of trees in the Far East, a ravine on the Continent—others vast, like your Thames.”

“The Thames?” said Lila with a derisive snort. “A source of magic?” “Perhaps the greatest source in the world,” said Kell. “Not that you’d know

it here, but if you could see it as it is in my London …” Kell trailed off. “As I was saying, the doors between the worlds were open, and the four cities of London intermingled. But even with constant transference, they were not entirely equal in their power. If true magic were a fire, then Black London sat closest to the heat.” By this logic, White London stood second in strength, and Kell knew it must have, though he could not imagine it now. “It was believed that the power there not only ran strong in the blood, but pulsed like a second soul through everything. And at some point, it grew too strong and overthrew its host.

“The world sits in balance,” said Kell, “humanity in one hand, magic in the other. The two exist in every living thing, and in a perfect world, they maintain a kind of harmony, neither exceeding the other. But most worlds are not perfect. In Grey London—your London—humanity grew strong and magic weak. But in Black London, it was the other way around. The people there not only held magic in their bodies, they let magic into their minds, and it took them as its own, burning up their lives to fuel its power. They became vessels, conduits, for its will, and through them, it twisted whim into reality, blurring the lines, breaking them down, creating and destroying and corrupting everything.”

Lila said nothing, only listened and paced.

“It spread like a plague,” continued Kell, “and the other three remaining worlds retreated into themselves and locked their doors to prevent the spread of sickness.” He did not say that it had been Red London’s retreat, its sealing off of itself, that forced the other cities to follow, and left White London pinned between their closed doors and Black London’s seething magic. He did not say that the world caught between was forced to fight the darkness back alone. “With the sources restricted, and the doors locked, the remaining three cities were isolated and began to diverge, each becoming as they are now. But what became of Black London and the rest of its world, we can only

guess. Magic requires a living host—it can thrive only where life does, too— so most assume that the plague burned through its hosts and eventually ran out of kindling, leaving only charred remains. None know for sure. Over time, Black London became a ghost story. A fairy tale. Told so many times that some don’t even think it real.”

“But the stone … ?” said Lila, still pacing.

“The stone shouldn’t exist,” said Kell. “Once the doors were sealed, every relic from Black London was tracked down and destroyed as a precaution.”

“Obviously not every relic,” observed Lila.

Kell shook his head. “White London supposedly undertook the task with even more fervor than we did. You must understand, they feared the doors would not hold, feared the magic would break through and consume them. In their cleanse, they did not stop at objects and artifacts. They slit the throats of everyone they even suspected of possessing—of having come in contact with

—Black London’s corrupted magic.” Kell brought his fingers to his blackened eye. “It is said that some mistook Antari’s marks for such corruption and dragged them from their houses in the night. An entire generation slaughtered before they realized that, without the doors, such magicians would be their only way of reaching out.” Kell’s hand fell away. “But no, obviously not every relic was destroyed.” He wondered if that was how it had been broken, if they’d tried, and failed and buried it, wondered if someone new had dug it up. “The stone shouldn’t exist and it can’t be allowed to exist. It’s—”

Lila stopped pacing. “Evil?”

Kell shook his head. “No,” he said. “It is Vitari. In a way, I suppose it is pure. But it is pure potential, pure power, pure magic.”

“And no humanity,” said Lila. “No harmony.”

Kell nodded. “Purity without balance is its own corruption. The damage this talisman could manage in the wrong hands …” In anyone’s hands, he thought. “The stone’s magic is the magic of a ruined world. It cannot stay here.”

“Well,” said Lila, “what do you intend to do?”

Kell closed his eyes. He didn’t know who had come across the stone, or how, but he understood their fear. The memory of it in Holland’s hands—and the thought of it in Athos’s or Astrid’s—turned his stomach. His own skin sang for the talisman, thirsted for it, and that scared him more than anything. Black London fell because of magic like this. What horror would it bring to the Londons that remained? To the starving White, or the ripened Red, or the defenseless Grey?

No, the stone had to be destroyed.

But how? It wasn’t like other relics. It wasn’t a thing to be tossed in a fire or crushed beneath an ax. It looked as though someone had tried, but the broken edge did not seem to diminish its function, which meant that even if he did succeed in shattering it, it might only make more pieces, rendering every shard its own weapon. It was no mere token; the stone had a life—and a will—of its own, and had shown so more than once. Only strong magic would be able to unmake such a thing, but as the talisman was magic itself, he doubted that magic could ever be made to destroy it.

Kell’s head ached with the realization that it could not be ruined—it had to be disposed of. Sent away, somewhere it could do no damage. And there was only one place it would be safe, and everyone safe from it.

Kell knew what he had to do. Some part of him had known since the moment the stone had passed into his hands.

“It belongs in Black London,” he said. “I have to take it back.”

Lila cocked her head. “But how can you? You don’t know what’s left of it, and even if you did, you said the world was sealed off.”

“I don’t know what’s left of it, no, but Antari magic was originally used to make the doors between the worlds. And Antari magic would have been used to seal them shut. And so it stands to reason that Antari magic could open them again. Or at least create a crack.”

“Then why haven’t you?” challenged Lila, a glint in her eye. “Why hasn’t anyone? I know you’re a rare breed, but you cannot tell me that in the centuries since you locked yourselves out, no Antari has been curious enough to try and get back in.”

Kell considered her defiant smile, and was grateful, for humanity’s sake, that she lacked the magic to try. As for Kell, of course he’d been curious. Growing up, a small part of him never believed Black London was real, or that it had ever been—the doors had been sealed for so long. What child didn’t wish to know if his bedtime stories were the stuff of fiction or of truth? But even if he’d wanted to break the seal—and he didn’t, not enough to risk the darkness on the other side—he’d never had a way.

“Maybe some were curious enough,” said Kell. “But an Antari needs two things to make a door: the first is blood, the second is a token from the place they want to go. And as I told you, the tokens were all destroyed.”

Lila’s eyes widened. “But the stone is a token.” “The stone is a token,” echoed Kell.

Lila gestured to the wall where Kell had first come in. “So you open a door to Black London, and what? Throw the stone in? What on earth have you been waiting for?”

Kell shook his head. “I can’t make a door from here to there.”

Lila let out an exasperated noise. “But you just said—”

“The other Londons sit between,” he explained. A small book rested on the table by the bed. He brushed his thumb over the pages. “The worlds are like pieces of paper,” he said, “stacked one on top of the other.” That’s how he’d always thought of it. “You have to move in order.” He pinched a few pages between his fingers. “Grey London,” he said, letting one fall back to the stack. “Red London.” He let go of a second. “White London.” The third page fluttered as it fell. “And Black.” He let the rest of the pages fall back to the book.

“So you’ll have to go through,” said Lila.

It sounded so simple when she put it like that. But it wouldn’t be. No doubt the crown was searching for him in Red London, and saints only knew who else (had Holland compelled others there? Were they searching, too?), and without his pendants, he’d have to hunt down a new trinket to get from there to White London. And once he made it that far—if he made it that far—and assuming the Danes weren’t on him in an instant, and assuming he was able to overcome the seal and open a door to Black London, the stone couldn’t simply be thrown in. Doors didn’t work that way. Kell would have to go with it. He tried not to think about that.

“So,” said Lila, eyes glittering. “When do we go?” Kell looked up. “We don’t.”

Lila was leaning back against the wall, just beside the place he’d cuffed her to the wood—the board was ripped and ruined where she’d hacked herself free—as if reminding him, both of his actions, and of hers.

“I want to come,” she insisted. “I won’t tell you where the stone is. Not until you agree to let me.”

Kell’s hands curled into fist. “Those binds you summoned up for Holland won’t hold. Antari magic is strong enough to dispel them, and once he wakes, it won’t take him long to realize that and free himself and start hunting us down again. Which means I don’t have time for games.”

“It’s not a game,” she said simply. “Then what is it?”

“A chance.” She pushed off the wall. “A way out.” Her calm shifted, and for a moment Kell glimpsed the things beneath. The want, the fear, the desperation.

“You want out,” he said, “but you have no idea what you’re getting into.” “I don’t care,” she said. “I want to come.”

“You can’t,” he said, pushing to his feet. A shallow wave of dizziness hit him, and he braced himself against the bed, waiting for it to pass.

She gave a mocking laugh. “You’re in no shape to go alone.”

“You can’t come, Lila,” he said again. “Only Antari can move between the worlds.”

“That rock of mine—” “It’s not yours.”

“It is right now. And you said yourself, it’s pure magic. It makes magic. It will let me through.” She said it as if she were certain.

“What if it won’t?” he challenged. “What if it isn’t all-powerful? What if it’s only a trinket to conjure up small spells?” But she didn’t seem to believe him. He wasn’t sure he believed himself. He had held the stone. He had felt its power, and it felt limitless. But he did not wish for Lila to test it. “You cannot know for sure.”

“That’s my risk to take, not yours.” Kell stared at her. “Why?” he asked. Lila shrugged. “I’m a wanted man.” “You’re not a man.”

Lila flashed a hollow smile. “The authorities don’t know that yet. Probably why I’m still wanted instead of hanged.”

Kell refused to let it go. “Why do you really want to do this?” “Because I’m a fool.”


“Because I can’t stay here,” she snapped, the smile gone from her face. “Because I want to see the world, even if it’s not mine. And because I will save your life.”

Madness, thought Kell. Absolute madness. She wouldn’t make it through the door. And even if the stone worked, even if she somehow did, what then? Transference was treason, and Kell was fairly certain that law extended to people, particularly fugitives. Smuggling a music box was one thing, but smuggling a thief was quite another. And smuggling a relic of Black London? chided a voice in Kell’s head. He rubbed his eyes. He could feel hers fixed on him. Treason aside, the fact remained that she was a Grey-worlder; she didn’t belong in his London. It was too dangerous. It was mad, and he’d be mad to let her try … but Lila was right about one thing. Kell did not feel strong enough to do this alone. And worse, he did not want to. He was afraid—more afraid than he wanted to admit—about the task ahead of him, and the fate that waited at its end. And someone would need to tell the Red throne—tell his mother and father and Rhy—what had happened. He could not bring this danger to their doorstep, but he could leave Lila there to tell them of it.

“You don’t know anything about these worlds,” he said, but the fight was

bleeding out of his voice.

“Sure I do,” countered Lila cheerfully. “There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London,” she recited, ticking them off on her fingers. “See? I’m a fast learner.”

You’re also human, thought Kell. A strange, stubborn, cutthroat human, but human all the same. Light, thin and watered down by rain, was beginning to creep into the sky. He couldn’t afford to stand here, waiting her out.

“Give me the stone,” he said, “and I’ll let you come.”

Lila bit back a sharp laugh. “I think I’ll hold on to it until we’re through.” “And if you don’t survive?” challenged Kell.

“Then you can raid my corpse,” she said drily. “I doubt I’ll care.”

Kell stared at her, at a loss. Was her bravado a front, or did she truly have so little to lose? But she had a life, and a life was a thing that could always be lost. How could she fear nothing, even death?

Are you afraid of dying? Holland had asked him in the alley. And Kell was. Had always been, ever since he could remember. He feared not living, feared ceasing to exist. Lila’s world may believe in Heaven and Hell, but his believed in dust. He was taught early that magic reclaimed magic, and earth reclaimed earth, the two dividing when the body died, the person they had combined to be simply forfeit, lost. Nothing lasted. Nothing remained.

Growing up, he had nightmares in which he suddenly broke apart, one minute running through the courtyard or standing on the palace steps, the next scattered into air and ash. He’d wake sweat-soaked and gasping, Rhy shaking his shoulder.

“Aren’t you afraid of dying?” he asked Lila now.

She looked at him as if it were a strange question. And then she shook her head. “Death comes for everyone,” she said simply. “I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

Kell considered her for a long moment. And then he said, “Very well.” Lila’s brow crinkled distrustfully. “What do you mean, ‘very well’?” “You can come,” clarified Kell.

Lila broke into a grin. It lit up her face in a whole new way, made her look young. Her eyes went to the window. “The sun is almost up,” she said. “And Holland’s likely looking for us by now. Are you well enough to go?” she asked.

It’s really quite hard to kill Antari.

Kell nodded as Lila pulled the cloak around her shoulders and holstered her weapons, moving with brisk, efficient motions, as if afraid that if she took too long, he would revoke the offer. He only stood there, marveling.

“Don’t you want to say good-bye?” he asked, gesturing at the floorboards and somewhere beneath them, Barron.

Lila hesitated, considering her boots and the world below them. “No,” she said softly, her voice uncertain for the first time since they’d met.

He didn’t know how Lila’s and Barron’s threads were tangled, but he let the issue lie. He did not blame her. After all, he had no plans to detour to the palace, to see his brother one last time. He told himself that it was too dangerous, or that Rhy would not let him go, but it was as much the truth that Kell could not bring himself to say good-bye.

Kell’s coat was hanging on the chair, and he crossed to it and turned it inside out from left to right, exchanging the worn black for ruby red.

Interest flickered like a light behind Lila’s eyes but never truly showed, and he supposed she’d seen the trick herself when she went searching through his pockets in the night.

“How many coats do you suppose there are inside that one?” she asked casually, as if inquiring about the weather, and not a complex enchantment.

“I’m not exactly sure,” said Kell, digging in a gold-embroidered pocket and sighing inwardly with relief as his fingers skimmed a spare coin. “Every now and then I think I’ve found them all, and then I stumble on a new one. And sometimes, old ones get lost. A couple of years ago I came across a short coat, an ugly green thing with patched elbows. But I haven’t seen it since.” He drew the Red London lin from the coat and kissed it. Coins made perfect door keys. In theory, anything from a world would do—most of what Kell wore came from Red London—but coins were simple, solid, specific, and guaranteed to work. He couldn’t afford to muddy this up, not when a second life was on his hands (and it was, no matter what she claimed).

While he’d been searching for the token, Lila had emptied the money from her own pockets—a rather eclectic assortment of shillings, pennies, and farthings—and piled them on the dresser by her bed. Kell reached out and plucked a halfpenny off its stack to replace the Grey token he’d lost, while Lila chewed her lip and stared down at the coins a moment, hands thrust into the inner pockets of her cloak. She was fiddling with something there, and a few moments later she pulled out an elegant silver watch and set it beside the pile of coins.

“I’m ready,” she said, tearing her eyes from the timepiece.

I’m not, thought Kell, shrugging on his coat and crossing to the door. Another, smaller wave of dizziness hit, but it passed sooner than the last as he opened the door.

“Wait,” said Lila. “I thought we’d go the way you came. By the wall.”

“Walls aren’t always where they ought to be,” answered Kell. In truth, the Stone’s Throw was one of the only places where the walls didn’t change, but that made it no safer. The Setting Sun might have sat on the same foundation in Red London, but it was also the place where Kell did business, and one of the first places someone might come looking for him.

“Besides, we don’t know what—or who—” he amended, remembering the attackers under their compulsion, “is waiting on the other side. Better get closer to where we’re going before we go there. Understand?”

Lila looked as though she didn’t, but nodded all the same.

The two crept down the stairs, past a small landing that branched off down a narrow hall studded with rooms. Lila paused beside the nearest door and listened. A low rumbling snore came through the wood. Barron. She touched the door briefly, then pushed past Kell and down the remaining stairs without looking back. She slid the bolt on the back entrance and hurried into the alley. Kell followed her out, stopping long enough to raise his hand and will the metal lock back into place behind them. He listened to the shhk of metal sliding home, then turned to find Lila waiting, her back purposely to the tavern, as if her present were already her past.

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