Chapter no 31

A Darker Shade of Magic

Kell could feel the stone in Lila’s pocket as they walked.

There had been a moment when his fingers closed over hers and his skin had brushed the talisman, when all he wanted was to take it from her. It felt like everything would be all right if he could simply hold it. Which was an absurd notion. Nothing would be all right so long as the stone existed. Still, it pulled at his senses, and he shivered and tried not to think about it as he led Lila through Red London, away from the noise and toward the Ruby Fields.

Rhy’s celebrations would last all day, drawing the majority of the city—its people and its guard—to the banks of the river and the red palace.

Guilt rolled through him. He should have been a part of the procession, should have ridden in the open carriage with the royal family, should have been there to tease and chide his brother for the way he relished the attention.

Kell was sure that Rhy would sulk for weeks about his absence. And then he remembered that he’d never have the chance to apologize. The thought cut like a knife, even though he told himself it had to be this way, that when the time came, Lila would explain. And Rhy? Rhy would forgive him.

Kell kept his collar up and his head down, but he still felt eyes on him as they moved through the streets. He kept looking over his shoulder, unable to shake the feeling of being followed. Which he was, of course, by Lila, who looked at him with increasing scrutiny as they wove through the streets.

Something was clearly bothering her, but she held her tongue, and for a while Kell wondered if she was biding his order or simply biding her time. And then, when the appearance of a pair of royal guards, helmets tucked casually under their arms, sent Kell—and by necessity Lila—retreating hastily into a recessed doorway, she finally broke her silence.

“Tell me something, Kell,” she said as they stepped back onto the curb when the men were gone. “The commoners treat you like a noble yet you hide from the guards like a thief. Which is it?”

“Neither,” he answered, silently willing her to let the matter go.

But Lila wouldn’t. “Are you some kind of valiant criminal?” she pressed. “A Robin Hood, all hero to the people and outlaw to the crown?”


“Are you wanted for something?” “Not exactly.”

“In my experience,” observed Lila, “a person is either wanted or they’re not. Why would you hide from the guards if you’re not?”

“Because I thought they might be looking for me.” “And why would they be doing that?”

“Because I’m missing.”

He heard Lila’s steps slow. “Why would they care?” she asked, coming to a stop. “Who are you?”

Kell turned to face her. “I told you—”

“No,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Who are you here? Who are you to


Kell hesitated. All he wanted was to cross through his city as quickly as possible, retrieve a White London token from his rooms, and get the wretched black stone out of this world. But Lila didn’t look like she planned on moving until he answered her. “I belong to the royal family,” he said.

In the matter of hours he’d known Lila, he’d learned that she didn’t surprise easily, but at this claim, her eyes finally went wide with disbelief. “You’re a prince?”

“No,” he said firmly.

“Like the pretty fellow in the carriage? Is he your brother?”

“His name is Rhy, and no.” Kell cringed when he said it. “Well … not exactly.”

“So you’re the black-eyed prince. I have to admit, I never took you for a—” “I’m not a prince, Lila.”

“I suppose I can see it, you are rather arrogant and—” “I’m not a—”

“But what’s a member of the royal family doing—”

Kell pushed her back against the brick wall of the alley. “I’m not a member

of the royal family,” he snapped. “I belong to them.” Lila’s forehead crinkled. “What do you mean?”

“They own me,” he said, cringing at the words. “I’m a possession. A trinket. So you see, I grew up in the palace, but it is not my home. I was raised by the royals, but they are not my family, not by blood. I have worth to them and so they keep me, but that is not the same as belonging.”

The words burned when he spoke them. He knew he wasn’t being fair to the king and queen, who treated him with warmth if not love, or to Rhy, who had always looked on him as a brother. But it was true, wasn’t it? As much as

it pained him. For all his caring, and for theirs, the fact remained he was a weapon, a shield, a tool to be used. He was not a prince. He was not a son.

“You poor thing,” said Lila coldly, pushing him away. “What do you want?

Pity? You won’t find it from me.” Kell clenched his jaw. “I didn’t—”

“You have a house if not a home,” she spat. “You have people who care for you if not about you. You may not have everything you want, but I’d wager you have everything you could ever need, and you have the audacity to claim it all forfeit because it is not love.”


“Love doesn’t keep us from freezing to death, Kell,” she continued, “or starving, or being knifed for the coins in our pocket. Love doesn’t buy us anything, so be glad for what you have and who you have because you may want for things but you need for nothing.”

She was breathless by the time she finished, her eyes bright and her cheeks flushed.

And for the first time, Kell saw Lila. Not as she wanted to be, but as she was. A frightened, albeit clever, girl trying desperately to stay alive. One who had likely frozen and starved and fought—and almost certainly killed—to hold on to some semblance of a life, guarding it like a candle in a harsh wind.

“Say something,” she challenged.

Kell swallowed, clenched his hands into fists at his sides, and looked at her hard. “You’re right,” he said.

The admission left him strangely gutted, and in that moment, he just wanted to go home (and it was a home, far more of one than Lila probably had). To let the queen touch his cheek, and the king his shoulder. To swing his arm around Rhy’s neck and toast to his birthday and listen to him ramble and laugh.

It ached, how badly he wanted it. But he couldn’t.

He had made a mistake. He had put them all in danger, and he had to make it right.

Because it was his duty to protect them. And because he loved them.

Lila was still staring, waiting for the catch in his words, but there was none. “You’re right,” he said again. “I’m sorry. Compared to your life, mine must

seem a jewel—”

“Don’t you dare pity me, magic boy,” growled Lila, a knife in her hand. And just like that, the scared street rat was gone, and the cutthroat was back. Kell smiled thinly. There was no winning these battles with Lila, but he was

relieved to see her back in threatening form. He broke her gaze and looked up at the sky, the red of the Isle reflecting off the low clouds. A storm was coming. Rhy would sulk at that, too, spiteful of anything that might dampen the splendor of his day.

“Come on,” said Kell, “we’re almost there.”

Lila sheathed her blade and followed, this time with fewer daggers in her eyes.

“This place we’re headed,” she said. “Does it have a name?”

“Is Kir Ayes,” said Kell. “The Ruby Fields.” He had not told Lila yet that her journey would end here. That it had to. For his peace of mind and for her safety.

“What are you hoping to find there?”

“A token,” said Kell. “Something that will grant us passage to White London.” He parsed through the shelves and drawers in his mind, the various trinkets from the various cities glittering behind his eyes. “The inn itself,” he went on, “is run by a woman named Fauna. You two should get along splendidly.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’re both—”

He was about to say hard as tacks, but then he rounded the corner and came to a sharp stop, the words dying on his tongue.

“Is that the Ruby Fields?” asked Lila at his shoulder. “It is,” said Kell quietly. “Or, it was.”

There was nothing left but ash and smoke.

The inn, and everything in it, had been burned to the ground.

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