Kell and Lila made their way to the docks, invisible to passersby. But not only invisible. Intangible. Just as the ash had passed through them at the ruined inn, and Kell’s hand through Lila’s shoulder, so did the people on the street. They could neither feel nor hear them. It was as if, beneath the veil, Kell and Lila were not part of the world around them. As if they existed outside of it. And just as the world could not touch them, they could not touch the world. When Lila absently tried to pocket an apple from a cart, her hand went through the fruit as sure as the fruit went through her hand. They were as ghosts in the bustling city.
This was strong magic, even in a London rich with power. The stone’s energy thrummed through Kell, twining with his own like a second pulse. A voice in the back of his head warned him against the thing coursing through his body, but he pushed the voice away. For the first time since he’d been wounded, Kell didn’t feel dizzy and weak, and he clung to the strength as much as to the stone itself as he led Lila toward the docks.
She’d been quiet since they left the remains of the inn, holding on to Kell with one hand and the timepiece with the other. When she finally spoke, her voice was low and sharp.
“Before you go thinking Barron and I were blood, we weren’t,” she said as they walked side by side. “He wasn’t my family. Not really.” The words rang stiff and hollow, and the way she clenched her jaw and rubbed her eyes (when she thought he wasn’t looking) told another story. But Kell let Lila keep her lie.
“Do you have any?” he asked, remembering her biting remarks about his situation with the crown. “Family, that is?”
Lila shook her head. “Mum’s been dead since I was ten.” “No father?”
Lila gave a small humorless laugh. “My father.” She said it like it was a bad word. “The last time I saw him, he tried to sell my flesh to pay his tab.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kell.
“Don’t be,” said Lila, managing the sharp edge of a smile. “I cut the man’s throat before he could get his belt off.” Kell tensed. “I was fifteen,” she went on casually. “I remember wondering at the amount of blood, the way it kept spilling out of him. …”
“First time you killed someone?” asked Kell.
“Indeed,” she said, her smile turning rueful. “But I suppose the nice thing about killing is that it gets easier.”
Kell’s brow furrowed. “It shouldn’t.”
Lila’s eyes flicked up to his. “Have you ever killed anyone?” she asked. Kell’s frown deepened. “Yes.”
“And what?” he challenged. He expected her to ask who or where or when or how. But she didn’t. She asked why.
“Because I had no choice,” he said. “Did you enjoy it?” she asked.
“Of course not.”
“I did.” There was a streak of bitterness woven through the admission. “I mean, I didn’t enjoy the blood, or the gurgling sound he made as he died, or the way the body looked when it was over. Empty. But the moment I decided to do it, and the moment after that when the knife bit in and I knew that I’d done it, I felt”—Lila searched for the words—“powerful.” She considered Kell then. “Is that what magic feels like?” she asked honestly.
Maybe in White London, thought Kell, where power was held like a knife, a weapon to be used against those in your way.
“No,” he said. “That’s not magic, Lila. That’s just murder. Magic is …” But he trailed off, distracted by the nearest scrying board, which had suddenly gone dark.
Up and down the streets, the black notice boards affixed to lampposts and storefronts went blank. Kell slowed. All morning they had been running notices of Rhy’s celebrations, a cycling itinerary of the day’s—and week’s— parades and public feasts, festivals and private dances. When the boards first went dark, Kell assumed that they were simply changing over stories. But then they all began to flash the same alarming message. A single word:
The letters flashed, bold and white, at the top of every board, and beneath it, a picture of Kell. Red hair and black eye and silver-buttoned coat. The image moved faintly, but didn’t smile, only stared out at the world. A second word wrote itself beneath the portrait:
Kell slammed to a stop, and Lila, who’d been half a step behind, ran into him.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, pushing off his arm. And then she saw it, too. “Oh …”
An old man stopped a few feet away to read the board, oblivious to the fact that the missing man stood just behind his shoulder. Beneath the wavering image of Kell’s face, an empty circle drew itself in chalk. The instructions beside it read:
If seen, touch here.
Kell swore under his breath. Being hunted by Holland was bad enough, but now the whole city would be on alert. And they couldn’t stay invisible forever. He wouldn’t be able to lift a token, let alone use it, as long as they were under the veil.
“Come on.” He picked up his pace, dragging Lila with him until they reached the docks. All around, his face stared back at them, frowning slightly.
When they reached Fletcher’s shop, the door was shut and locked, a small sign hanging on its front that read RENACHE. Away.
“Do we wait?” asked Lila.
“Not out here,” said Kell. The door was bolted three ways, and likely charmed as well, but they didn’t need to be let in. They passed straight through the wood, the way they had half a dozen people on the street.
Only once they were safe within the shop did Kell will the magic to release the veil. Again it listened and obeyed without protest, the magic thinning and then dissolving entirely. Conviction, he mused as the spell slid from his shoulders, the room coming into sharper focus around him. Holland had been right. It was about staying in control. And Kell had.
Lila let go of his hand and turned back to face him. She froze. “Kell,” she said carefully.
“What is it?” he asked. “Put down the stone.”
He frowned, looked down at the talisman in his grip, and caught his breath. The veins on the back of his hand were dark, so dark that they stood out like ink against his flesh, the lines tracing up toward his elbow. The power he’d felt pulsing through him was actually pulsing through him, turning his blood black. He had been so focused on his renewed strength, and on the spell itself,
on staying hidden, that he had not felt—had not wanted to feel—the warmth of the magic spreading up his arm like poison. But he should have noticed, should have known—that was the thing. Kell knew better. He knew how dangerous the stone was, and yet, even now, staring down at his darkened veins, that danger felt strangely faraway. A persistent calm pressed through him stride for stride with the stone’s magic, telling him that everything would be all right, so long as he kept holding—
A knife buried itself in the post beside his head, and the room snapped back into focus.
“Have you gone deaf?” growled Lila, freeing another blade. “I said put it down.”
Before the calm could close over him again, Kell willed himself to release the stone. At first, his fingers stayed clasped around the talisman as warmth— and in its wake, a kind of numbness—seeped through him. He brought his free, untainted hand to his darkening wrist and gripped hard, willing his resisting fingers to uncurl, to release the stone.
And finally, reluctantly, they did.
The stone tumbled from his grip, and Kell’s knee instantly buckled beneath him. He caught himself on a table’s edge, gasping for breath as his vision swam and the room tilted. He hadn’t felt the stone leeching his energy, but now that it was gone, it was like someone had doused his fire. Everything went cold.
The talisman glinted on the wooden floor, a streak of blood against the jagged edge where Kell had gripped too hard. Even in its wake, it took all Kell’s will not to take it up again. Shaking and chilled, he still longed to hold it. There were men who lurked in dens and in the dark corners of London, chasing highs like this, but Kell had never been one of them, never craved the raw power. Never needed to. Magic wasn’t something he lusted for; it was something he simply had. But now his veins felt starved of it, and starving for it.
Before he could lose battle for control, Lila knelt beside the stone. “Clever
little thing,” she said, reaching for it.
“Don’t—” started Kell, but she’d already used her handkerchief to sweep it up.
“Someone’s got to hold on to it,” she said, slipping the talisman into her pocket. “And I’d wager I’m the better choice right now.”
Kell clutched the table as the magic withdrew, the veins in his arm lightening little by little.
“Still with us?” asked Lila.
Kell swallowed and nodded. The stone was a poison, and they had to be rid of it. He steadied himself. “I’m all right.”
Lila raised a brow. “Yes. You are the very image of health.”
Kell sighed and slumped into a chair. On the docks outside, the celebrations were in full swing. Fireworks punctuated the music and cheers, the noise dulled, but not much, by the walls of the shop.
“What’s he like?” asked Lila, looking in a cabinet. “The prince.”
“Rhy?” Kell ran a hand through his hair. “He’s … charming and spoiled, generous and fickle and hedonistic. He would flirt with a nicely upholstered chair, and he never takes anything seriously.”
“Does he get into as much trouble as you do?”
Kell cracked a smile. “Oh, much more. Believe it or not, I’m the responsible one.”
“But you two are close.”
Kell’s smile fell, and he nodded once. “Yes. The king and queen may not be my parents, but Rhy is my brother. I would die for him. I would kill for him. And I have.”
“Oh?” asked Lila, admiring a hat. “Do tell.”
“It’s not a pleasant story,” said Kell, sitting forward. “Now I want to hear it even more,” said Lila.
Kell considered her and sighed, looking down at his hands. “When Rhy was thirteen, he was abducted. We were playing some stupid game in the palace courtyard when he was taken. Though, knowing Rhy, he might have gone willingly at first. Growing up, he was always too trusting.”
Lila set the hat aside. “What happened?”
“Red London is a good place,” insisted Kell. “The royals here are kind, and just, and most of the subjects are happy. But,” he continued, “I have been to all three Londons, and I can say this: there is no version that does not suffer in one way or another.”
He thought of the opulence, the glittering wealth, and what it must look like to those without. Those who had been stripped of power for crimes, and those never blessed with much to begin with. Kell could not help wondering, What would have become of Rhy Maresh if he were not a royal? Where would he be? But of course, Rhy could survive on his charm and his smile. He would always get by.
“My world is a world made of magic,” he said. “The gifted reap the blessings, and the royal family wants to believe that those who are not gifted do as well. That their generosity and their care extend to every citizen.” He found Lila’s eyes. “But I have seen the darker parts of this city. In your world, magic is a rarity. In mine, the lack of it is just as strange. And those without
gifts are often looked down upon as unworthy of them, and treated as less for it. The people here believe that magic chooses its path. That it judges, and so can they. Aven essen, they call it. Divine balance.”
But by that logic, the magic had chosen Kell, and he did not believe that. Someone else could just have easily woken or been born with the Antari mark, and been brought into the lush red folds of the palace in his stead.
“We live brightly,” said Kell. “For better or worse, our city burns with life. With light. And where there’s light … well. Several years ago, a group began to form. They called themselves the Shadows. Half a dozen men and women
—some with power, some without—who believed the city burned its power too brightly and with too little care, squandering it. To them, Rhy was not a boy, but a symbol of everything wrong. And so they took him. I later learned they meant to hang his body from the palace doors. Saints be thanked, they never got the chance.
“I was fourteen when it happened, a year Rhy’s senior and still coming into my power. When the king and queen learned of their son’s abduction, they sent the royal guard across the city. Every scrying board in every public square and private home burned with the urgent message to find the stolen prince. And I knew they would not find him. I knew it in my bones and in my blood.
“I went to Rhy’s rooms—I remember how empty the palace was, with all the guards out searching—and found the first thing I knew was truly his, a small wooden horse he’d carved, no bigger than a palm. I had made doors using tokens before, but never one like this, never to a person instead of a place. But there is an Antari word for find, and so I thought it would work. It had to. And it did. The wall of his room gave way to the bottom of a boat. Rhy was lying on the floor. And he wasn’t breathing.”
Air hissed between Lila’s teeth, but she didn’t interrupt.
“I had learned the blood commands for many things,” said Kell. “As Athera. To grow. As Pyrata. To burn. As Illumae. To light. As Travars. To Travel. As Orense. To open. As Anasae. To dispel. As Hasari. To heal. So I tried to heal him. I cut my hand and pressed it to his chest and said the words. And it didn’t work.” Kell would never shake the image of Rhy lying on the damp deck floor, pale and still. It was one of the only times in his life that he looked small.
“I didn’t know what to do,” continued Kell. “I thought maybe I hadn’t used enough blood. So I cut my wrists.”
He could feel Lila’s unwavering stare as he looked down at his hands now, palms up, considering the ghosted scars.
“I remember kneeling over him, the dull ache spreading up my arms as I pressed my palms against him and said the words over and over and over. As Hasari. As Hasari. As Hasari. What I didn’t realize then was that a healing spell—even a blood command—takes time. It was already working, had been since the first invocation. A few moments later, Rhy woke up.” Kell broke into a sad smile. “He looked up and saw me crouching over him, bleeding, and the first thing he said wasn’t ‘What happened?’ or ‘Where are we?’ He touched the blood on his chest and said, ‘Is it yours? Is it all yours?’ and when I nodded, he burst into tears, and I took him home.”
When he found Lila’s gaze, her dark eyes were wide.
“But what happened to the Shadows?” she asked, when it was clear that he was done. “The ones who took him? Were they in the boat? Did you go back for them? Did you send the guards?”
“Indeed,” said Kell. “The king and queen tracked down every member of the Shadows. And Rhy pardoned them all.”
“What?” gasped Lila. “After they tried to kill him?”
“That’s the thing about my brother. He’s headstrong and thinks with every part of his body but his brain most days, but he’s a good prince. He possesses something many lack: empathy. He forgave his captors. He understood why they did it, and he felt their suffering. And he was convinced that if he showed them mercy, they wouldn’t try to harm him again.” Kell’s eyes went to the floor. “And I made sure they couldn’t.”
Lila’s brow crinkled as she realized what he was saying. “I thought you said—”
“I said Rhy forgave them.” Kell pushed to his feet. “I never said I did.”
Lila stared at him, not with shock or horror, but a measure of respect. Kell rolled his shoulders and smoothed his coat. “I guess we better start looking.”
She blinked once, twice, obviously wanting to say more, but Kell made it as clear as he could that this particular discussion was over. “What are we looking for?” she finally asked.
Kell surveyed the packed shelves, the overflowing cabinets and cupboards. “A white rook.”