The Stone’s Throw was an odd little tavern.
Its walls were dingy and its floors were stained, and Kell knew for a fact that its owner, Barron, watered down the drinks, but despite it all, he kept coming back.
It fascinated him, this place, because despite its grungy appearance and grungier customers, the fact was that, by luck or design, the Stone’s Throw was always there. The name changed, of course, and so did the drinks it served, but at this very spot in Grey, Red, and White London alike, stood a tavern. It wasn’t a source, per se, not like the Thames, or Stonehenge, or the dozens of lesser-known beacons of magic in the world, but it was something. A phenomenon. A fixed point.
And since Kell conducted his affairs in the tavern (whether the sign read the Stone’s Throw, or the Setting Sun, or the Scorched Bone), it made Kell himself a kind of fixed point, too.
Few people would appreciate the poetry. Holland might. If Holland appreciated anything.
But poetry aside, the tavern was a perfect place to do business. Grey London’s rare believers—those whimsical few who clung to the idea of magic, who caught hold of a whisper or a whiff—gravitated here, drawn by the sense of something else, something more. Kell was drawn to it, too. The difference was that he knew what was tugging at them.
Of course, the magically inclined patrons of the Stone’s Throw weren’t drawn only by the subtle, bone-deep pull of power, or the promise of something different, something more. They were also drawn by him. Or at least, the rumor of him. Word of mouth was its own kind of magic, and here, in the Stone’s Throw, word of the magician passed men’s lips as often as the diluted ale.
He studied the amber liquid in his own cup.
“Evening, Kell,” said Barron, pausing to top off his drink. “Evening, Barron,” said Kell.
It was as much as they ever said to each other.
The owner of the Stone’s Throw was built like a brick wall—if a brick wall decided to grow a beard—tall and wide and impressively steady. No doubt Barron had seen his share of strange, but it never seemed to faze him.
Or if it did, he knew how to keep it to himself.
A clock on the wall behind the counter struck seven, and Kell pulled a trinket from his now-worn brown coat. It was a wooden box, roughly the size of his palm and fastened with a simple metal clasp. When he undid the clasp and slid the lid off with his thumb, the box unfolded into a game board with five grooves, each of which held an element.
In the first groove, a lump of earth.
In the second, a spoon’s worth of water.
In the third, in place of air, sat a thimble of loose sand. In the fourth, a drop of oil, highly flammable.
And in the fifth, final groove, a bit of bone.
Back in Kell’s world, the box and its contents served not only as a toy, but as a test, a way for children to discover which elements they were drawn to, and which were drawn to them. Most quickly outgrew the game, moving on to either spellwork or larger, more complicated versions as they honed their skills. Because of both its prevalence and its limitations, the element set could be found in almost every household in Red London, and most likely in the villages beyond, (though Kell could not be certain). But here, in a city without magic, it was truly rare, and Kell was certain his client would approve. After all, the man was a Collector.
In Grey London, only two kinds of people came to find Kell. Collectors and Enthusiasts.
Collectors were wealthy and bored and usually had no interest in magic itself—they wouldn’t know the difference between a healing rune and a binding spell—and Kell enjoyed their patronage immensely.
Enthusiasts were more troublesome. They fancied themselves true magicians, and wanted to purchase trinkets, not for the sake of owning them or for the luxury of putting them on display, but for use. Kell did not like Enthusiasts—in part because he found their aspirations wasted, and in part because serving them felt so much closer to treason—which is why, when a young man came to sit beside him, and Kell looked up, expecting his Collector client and finding instead an unknown Enthusiast, his mood soured considerably.
“Seat taken?” asked the Enthusiast, even though he was already sitting. “Go away,” said Kell evenly.
But the Enthusiast did not leave.
Kell knew the man was an Enthusiast—he was gangly and awkward, his jacket a fraction too short for his build, and when he brought his long arms to rest on the counter and the fabric inched up, Kell could make out the end of a tattoo. A poorly drawn power rune meant to bind magic to one’s body.
“Is it true?” the Enthusiast persisted. “What they say?”
“Depends on who’s talking,” said Kell, closing the box, sliding the lid and clasp back into place, “and what’s being said.” He had done this dance a hundred times. Out of the corner of his blue eye he watched the man’s lips choreograph his next move. If he’d been a Collector, Kell might have cut him some slack, but men who waded into waters claiming they could swim should not need a raft.
“That you bring things,” said the Enthusiast, eyes darting around the tavern. “Things from other places.”
Kell took a sip of his drink, and the Enthusiast took his silence for assent. “I suppose I should introduce myself,” the man went on. “Edward
Archibald Tuttle, the third. But I go by Ned.” Kell raised a brow. The young Enthusiast was obviously waiting for him to respond with an introduction of his own, but as the man clearly already had a notion of who he was, Kell bypassed the formalities and said, “What do you want?”
Edward Archibald—Ned—twisted in his seat, and leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m looking for a bit of earth.”
Kell tipped his glass toward the door. “Check the park.”
The young man managed a low, uncomfortable laugh. Kell finished his drink. A bit of earth. It seemed like a small request. It wasn’t. Most Enthusiasts knew that their own world held little power, but many believed that possessing a piece of another world would allow them to tap into its magic.
And there was a time when they would have been right. A time when the doors stood open at the sources, and power flowed between the worlds, and anyone with a bit of magic in their veins and a token from another world could not only tap into that power, but could also move with it, step from one London to another.
But that time was gone.
The doors were gone. Destroyed centuries ago, after Black London fell and took the rest of its world with it, leaving nothing but stories in its wake. Now only the Antari possessed enough power to make new doors, and even then only they could pass through them. Antari had always been rare, but none knew how rare until the doors were closed, and their numbers began to wane. The source of Antari power had always been a mystery (it followed no
bloodline) but one thing was certain: the longer the worlds were kept apart, the fewer Antari emerged.
Now, Kell and Holland seemed to be the last of a rapidly dying breed. “Well?” pressed Ned. “Will you bring me the earth or not?”
Kell’s eyes went to the tattoo on the Enthusiast’s wrist. What so many Grey-worlders didn’t seem to grasp was that a spell was only as strong as the person casting it. How strong was this one?
A smiled tugged at the corner of Kell’s lips as he nudged the game box in the man’s direction. “Know what that is?”
Ned lifted the child’s game gingerly, as if it might burst into flames at any moment (Kell briefly considered igniting it, but restrained himself). He fiddled with the box until his fingers found the clasp and the board fell open on the counter. The elements glittered in the flickering pub light.
“Tell you what,” said Kell. “Choose one element. Move it from its notch— without touching it, of course—and I’ll bring you your dirt.”
Ned’s brow furrowed. He considered the options, then jabbed a finger at the water. “That one.”
At least he wasn’t fool enough to try for the bone, thought Kell. Air, earth, and water were the easiest to will—even Rhy, who showed no affinity whatsoever, could manage to rouse those. Fire was a bit trickier, but by far, the hardest piece to move was the bit of bone. And for good reason. Those who could move bones could move bodies. It was strong magic, even in Red London.
Kell watched as Ned’s hand hovered over the game board. He began to whisper to the water under his breath in a language that might have been Latin, or gibberish, but surely wasn’t the King’s English. Kell’s mouth quirked. Elements had no tongue, or rather, they could be spoken to in any. The words themselves were less important than the focus they brought to the speaker’s mind, the connection they helped to form, the power they tapped into. In short, the language did not matter, only the intention did. The Enthusiast could have spoken to the water in plain English (for all the good it would do him) and yet he muttered on in his invented language. And as he did, he moved his hand clockwise over the small board.
Kell sighed, and propped his elbow on the counter and rested his head on his hand while Ned struggled, face turning red from the effort.
After several long moments, the water gave a single ripple (it could have been caused by Kell yawning or the man gripping the counter) and then went still.
Ned stared down at the board, veins bulging. His hand closed into a fist, and for a moment Kell worried he’d smash the little game, but his knuckles
came down beside it, hard. “Oh well,” said Kell.
“It’s rigged,” growled Ned.
Kell lifted his head from his hand. “Is it?” he asked. He flexed his fingers a fraction, and the clod of earth rose from its groove and drifted casually into his palm. “Are you certain?” he added as a small gust caught up the sand and swirled it into the air, circling his wrist. “Maybe it is”—the water drew itself up into a drop and then turned to ice in his palm—“or maybe it’s not. …” he added as the oil caught fire in its groove.
“Maybe …” said Kell as the piece of bone rose into the air, “… you simply lack any semblance of power.”
Ned gaped at him as the five elements each performed their own small dance around Kell’s fingers. He could hear Rhy’s chiding: Show-off. And then, as casually as he’d willed the pieces up, he let them fall. The earth and ice hit their grooves with a thud and a clink while the sand settled soundlessly in its bowl and the flame dancing on the oil died. Only the bone was left, hovering in the air between them. Kell considered it, all the while feeling the weight of the Enthusiast’s hungry gaze.
“How much for it?” he demanded.
“Not for sale,” answered Kell, then corrected himself, “Not for you.”
Ned shoved up from his stool and turned to go, but Kell wasn’t done with him yet.
“If I brought you your dirt,” he said, “what would you give me for it?” He watched the Enthusiast freeze in his steps. “Name your price.”
“My price?” Kell didn’t smuggle trinkets between worlds for the money. Money changed. What would he do with shillings in Red London? And pounds? He’d have better luck burning them than trying to buy anything with them in the White alleys. He supposed he could spend the money here, but what ever would he spend it on? No, Kell was playing a different game. “I don’t want your money,” he said. “I want something that matters. Something you don’t want to lose.”
Ned nodded hastily. “Fine. Stay here and I’ll—” “Not tonight,” said Kell.
Kell shrugged. “Within the month.” “You expect me to sit here and wait?”
“I don’t expect you to do anything,” said Kell with a shrug. It was cruel, he knew, but he wanted to see how far the Enthusiast was willing to go. And if his resolve held firm and he were here next month, decided Kell, he would bring the man his bag of earth. “Run along now.”
Ned’s mouth opened and closed, and then he huffed, and trudged off, nearly knocking into a small, bespectacled man on his way out.
Kell plucked the bit of bone out of the air and returned it to its box as the bespectacled man approached the now-vacant stool.
“What was that about?” he asked, taking the seat. “Nothing of bother,” said Kell.
“Is that for me?” asked the man, nodding at the game box.
Kell nodded and offered it to the Collector, who lifted it gingerly from his hand. He let the gentleman fiddle with it, then proceeded to show him how it worked. The Collector’s eyes widened. “Splendid, splendid.”
And then the man dug into his pocket and withdrew a folded kerchief. It made a thud when he set it on the counter. Kell reached out and unwrapped the parcel to find a glimmering silver box with a miniature crank on the side.
A music box. Kell smiled to himself.
They had music in Red London, and music boxes, too, but most of theirs played by enchantment, not cog, and Kell was rather taken by the effort that went into the little machines. So much of the Grey world was clunky, but now and then its lack of magic led to ingenuity. Take its music boxes. A complex but elegant design. So many parts, so much work, all to create a little tune.
“Do you need me to explain it to you?” asked the Collector. Kell shook his head. “No,” he said softly. “I have several.” The man’s brow knit. “Will it still do?”
Kell nodded and began to fold the kerchief over the trinket to keep it safe. “Don’t you want to hear it?”
Kell did, but not here in the dingy little tavern, where the sound could not be savored. Besides, it was time to go home.
He left the Collector at the counter, tinkering with the child’s game— marveling at the way that neither the melted ice nor the sand spilled out of their grooves, no matter how he shook the box—and stepped out into the night. Kell made his way toward the Thames, listening to the sounds of the city around him, the nearby carriages and faraway cries, some in pleasure, some in pain (though they were still nothing compared to the screams that carried through White London). The river soon came into sight, a streak of black in the night as church bells rang out in the distance, eight of them in all.
Time to go.
He reached the brick wall of a shop that faced the water, and stopped in its shadow, pushing up his sleeve. His arm had started to ache from the first two cuts, but he drew out his knife and carved a third, touching his fingers first to the blood and then to the wall.
One of the cords around his throat held a red lin, like the one King George had returned to him that afternoon, and he took hold of the coin and pressed it to the blood on the bricks.
“Well, then,” he said. “Let’s go home.” He often found himself speaking to the magic. Not commanding, simply conversing. Magic was a living thing— that, everyone knew—but to Kell it felt like more, like a friend, like family. It was, after all, a part of him (much more than it was a part of most) and he couldn’t help feeling like it knew what he was saying, what he was feeling, not only when he summoned it, but always, in every heartbeat and every breath.
He was, after all, Antari.
And Antari could speak to blood. To life. To magic itself. The first and final element, the one that lived in all and was of none.
He could feel the magic stir against his palm, the brick wall warming and cooling at the same time with it, and Kell hesitated, waiting to see if it would answer without being asked. But it held, waiting for him to give voice to his command. Elemental magic may speak any tongue, but Antari magic—true magic, blood magic—spoke one, and only one. Kell flexed his fingers on the wall.
“As Travars,” he said. Travel.
This time, the magic listened, and obeyed. The world rippled, and Kell stepped forward through the door and into darkness, shrugging off Grey London like a coat.