It had been no ordinary fire.
Ordinary fires didn’t consume metal as well as wood. And ordinary fires spread. This one hadn’t. It had traced the edges of the building and burned in a near-perfect inn-shaped blaze, only a few tendrils scorching the street stones that circled the building.
No, this was spellwork.
And it was fresh. Warmth still wafted off the ruins as Kell and Lila waded through them, searching for something—anything—that might have survived. But nothing had.
Kell felt sick.
This kind of fire burned hot and fast, and the edges suggested a binding circle. It wouldn’t simply have contained the flames. It would have contained everything. Everyone. How many people had been trapped inside? How many corpses now in the wreckage, reduced to bone, or merely ash?
And then Kell thought, selfishly, of his room.
Years of collecting—music boxes and lockets, instruments and ornaments, the precious and the simple and the strange—all gone.
Rhy’s warning—give up this foolishness before you’re caught—echoed in his head, and for an instant, Kell was glad that he’d been robbed of the bounty before it could be discovered. And then the weight of it sank in. Whoever did this, they hadn’t robbed him—at least, that hadn’t been the point. But they’d stripped him of his loot to cut him off. An Antari could not travel without tokens. They were trying to corner him, to make sure that if he managed to flee back into Red London, he would have nothing at his disposal.
It was a measure of thoroughness that reeked of Holland’s own hand. The same hand that had ripped the London coins from Kell’s throat and cast them away into the dark.
Lila toed the melted remains of a kettle. “What now?”
“There’s nothing here,” said Kell, letting a handful of ash slide through his fingers. “We’ll have to find another token.” He brushed the soot from his hands, thinking. He wasn’t the only person in Red London with a trinket, but
the list was short, as he’d been far more willing to trade in artifacts from the novel, harmless Grey than the warped and violent White. The king himself had a token, passed down over the years. Fauna had one, a trinket as part of their deal (though Fauna, he feared, was now buried somewhere in the rubble).
And Fletcher had one. Kell cringed inwardly.
“I know a man,” he said, which wasn’t the half of it, but was certainly simpler than explaining that Fletcher was a petty criminal who’d lost a bounty to him in a game of Sanct when Kell was several years younger and several shades more arrogant, and Kell had gifted him the White London trinket as either a peace offering (if he felt like lying to himself) or a jab (if he was being honest). “Fletcher. He keeps a shop by the docks. He’ll have a token.”
“Yes, well, let’s hope they haven’t burned his shop down as well.”
“I’d like to see them tr—” The words died in Kell’s throat. Someone was coming. Someone who smelled of dried blood and burning metal. Kell lunged for Lila, and she got out half a word of protest before he clamped one hand over her mouth and shoved the other into her pocket. His fingers found the stone and folded over it, and power surged through his body, coursed through his blood. Kell caught his breath as a shudder ran through him, but there was no time to dwell on the sensation—at once thrilling and terrifying—and no time to hesitate. Conviction, Holland had said, conviction is key, so Kell did not waffle, did not waver.
“Conceal us,” he ordered the talisman.
And the stone obliged. It sang to life, its power ringing through him as— between one heartbeat and the next—black smoke enveloped Kell and Lila both. It settled over them like a shadow, a veil; when he brought his fingers to it, they met something that was more than air and less than cloth. When Kell looked down at Lila, he could see her, and when she looked up, she could clearly see him, and the world around them was still perfectly visible, albeit tinted by the spell. Kell held his breath and hoped the stone had done its task. He didn’t have a choice. There was no time to run.
Just then Holland appeared at the mouth of the side street.
Kell and Lila both tensed at the sight of him. He looked slightly crumpled from his time on the alley floor. His wrists were red and raw beneath his wrinkled half-cloak. His silver clasp was tarnished, his collar flecked with mud, and his expression as close to anger as Kell had ever seen it. A small crease between his brows. A tightness in his jaw.
Kell could feel the stone shudder in his hand, and he wondered if Holland was drawn to it, or if it was drawn to Holland.
The other Antari was holding something—a flattened crystal, the size and shape of a playing card—up to his lips, and speaking into it in his low even way.
“Öva sö taro,” he said in his native tongue. He is in the city.
Kell couldn’t hear the other person’s answer, but after a pause, Holland answered, “Kösa”—I’m sure—and slipped the crystal back into his pocket. The Antari tipped his shoulder against the wall and studied the charred ruins of the inn. He stood there, as if lost in thought.
The steadiness of his gaze made Lila fidget ever so slightly against Kell, and he tightened his grip over her mouth.
Holland squinted. Perhaps in thought. Perhaps at them. And then he spoke. “They screamed while the building was burning,” he said in English, his
voice too loud to be meant only for himself. “All of them screamed by the end. Even the old woman.”
Kell gritted his teeth.
“I know you’re here, Kell,” continued Holland. “Even the burned remains cannot hide your scent. And even the stone’s magic cannot hide the stone. Not from me. It calls to me the way it does to you. I would find you anywhere, so end this foolishness and face me.”
Kell and Lila stood frozen in front of him, only a few short strides separating them.
“I’m in no mood for games,” warned Holland, his usual calm now flecked by annoyance. When neither Kell nor Lila moved, he sighed and drew a silver pocket watch from his cloak. Kell recognized it as the one Lila had left behind for Barron. He felt her stiffen against him as Holland tossed the timepiece in their direction; it bounced along the blackened street, skidding to a stop at the edge of the inn’s charred remains. From here Kell could see that it was stained with blood.
“He died because of you,” said Holland, addressing Lila. “Because you ran.
You were a coward. Are you still?”
Lila struggled to get free of Kell’s arms, but he held her there with all his strength, pinning her against his chest. He felt tears slide over his hand at her mouth, but he didn’t let go. “No,” he said breathlessly into her ear. “Not here. Not like this.”
Holland sighed. “You will die a coward’s death, Delilah Bard.” He drew a curved blade from beneath his cloak. “When this is over,” he said, “you will both wish you had come out.”
He lifted his empty hand, and a wind caught up the ashes of the ruined inn, whipping them into the air overhead. Kell looked up at the cloud of it above
them and said a prayer under his breath. “Last chance,” said Holland.
When he was met by silence, he lowered his hand, and the ash began to fall. And Kell saw what would happen. It would drift down, and settle on the veil, exposing them, and Holland would be upon them both in an instant. Kell’s mind spun as his grip tightened on the stone, and he was about to summon its power again when the ash met their veil … and passed through.
It sank straight through the impossible cloth, and then through them, as though they were not there. As though they were not real. The crease between Holland’s two-toned eyes deepened as the last of the ash settled back to the ruins, and Kell took a (very small) measure of comfort from the Antari’s frustration. He may be able to sense them, but he could not see them.
Finally, when the wind was gone and the ground lay still, and Kell and Lila remained concealed by the power of the stone, Holland’s certainty faltered. He sheathed the curved blade and took a step back, turned, and strode away, cloak billowing behind him.
The moment he was gone, Kell’s grip on Lila loosened, and she wrenched free of him and the spell and shot forward to the silver watch on the street.
“Lila,” he called.
She didn’t seem to hear him, and he didn’t know if it was because she’d abandoned their protective shroud or because her world had narrowed to the size and shape of a small bloodied watch. He watched her sink to one knee and take up the timepiece with shaking fingers.
He went to Lila’s side and brought his hand to her shoulder, or tried, but it went straight through. So he was right. The veil didn’t simply make them invisible. It made them incorporeal.
“Reveal me,” he ordered the stone. Energy rippled through him, and a moment later, the veil dissolved. Kell marveled a moment at how easy it had been as he knelt beside her—the magic had come effortlessly—but this was the first time it had willingly undone itself. They could not afford to stay there, exposed, so Kell took her arm and silently summoned the magic to conceal them once more. It obeyed, the shadow veil settling again over them both.
Lila shook under his touch, and he wanted to tell her it was all right, that Holland might have taken the timepiece and left Barron’s life, but he did not want to lie. Holland was many things—most of them well hidden—but he was not sentimental. If he had ever been compassionate, or at least merciful, Athos had bled it out of him long ago, carved it out along with his soul.
No, Holland was ruthless. And Barron was dead.
“Lila,” said Kell gently. “I’m sorry.”
Her fingers curled tightly around the timepiece as she rose to her feet. Kell rose with her, and even though she would not look him in the eye, he could see the anger and pain written in the lines of her face.
“When this is over,” she said, tucking the watch into a fold of her cloak. “I want to be the one to slit his throat.” And then she straightened and let out a small, shuddering breath. “Now,” she said, “which way to Fletcher?”