Chapter no 36

A Darker Shade of Magic

Fletcher’s shop was built like a maze, arranged in a way that only the snake himself would understand. Kell had spent the last ten minutes turning through drawers and had uncovered a variety of weapons and charms, and a fairly innocuous parasol, but no white rook. He groaned and tossed the parasol aside.

“Can’t you just find the damned thing using magic?” asked Lila.

“The whole place is warded,” answered Kell. “Against locator spells. And against thieving, so put that back.”

Lila dropped the trinket she was about to palm back on the counter. “So,” she said, considering the contents of a glass case, “you and Fletcher are friends?”

Kell pictured Fletcher’s face the night he’d lost the pot. “Not exactly.” Lila raised a brow. “Good,” she said. “More fun to steal from enemies.”

Enemies was a fair word. The strange thing was, they could have been partners.

“A smuggler and a fence,” he’d said. “We’d make a perfect team.”

“I’ll pass,” said Kell. But when the game of Sanct had been in its last hand, and he’d known that he had won, he’d baited Fletcher with the one thing he wouldn’t refuse. “Anesh,” he’d conceded. “If you win, I’ll work for you.”

Fletcher had smiled his greedy smile and drawn his last card.

And Kell had smiled back and played his hand and won everything, leaving Fletcher with nothing more than a bruised ego and a small white rook.

No hard feelings.

Now Kell turned over half the store, searching for the token and glancing every few moments at the door while his own face watched them from the scrying board on the wall.


Meanwhile, Lila had stopped searching and was staring at a framed map.

She squinted and tilted her head, frowning as if something were amiss. “What is it?” asked Kell.

“Where’s Paris?” she asked, pointing to the place on the continent where it should be.

“There is no Paris,” said Kell, rummaging through a cupboard. “No France.

No England, either.”

“But how can there be a London without an England?”

“I told you, the city’s a linguistic oddity. Here London is the capital of Arnes.”

“So Arnes is simply your name for England.”

Kell laughed. “No,” he said, shaking his head as he crossed to her side. “Arnes covers more than half of your Europe. The island—your England—is called the raska. The crown. But it’s only the tip of the empire.” He traced the territory lines with his fingertip. “Beyond our country lies Vesk, to the north, and Faro, to the south.”

“And beyond them?”

Kell shrugged. “More countries. Some grand, some small. It’s a whole world, after all.”

Her gaze trailed over the map, eyes bright. A small private smile crossed her lips. “Yes, it is.”

She pulled away and wandered into another room. And then moments later, she called, “Aha!”

Kell started. “Did you find it?” he called back.

She reappeared, holding up her prize, but it wasn’t the rook. It was a knife.

Kell’s spirits sank.

“No,” she said, “but isn’t this clever?” She held it up for Kell to see. The hilt of the dagger wasn’t simply a grip; the metal curved around over the knuckles in a wavering loop before rejoining the stock.

“For hitting,” explained Lila, as if Kell couldn’t grasp the meaning of the metal knuckles. “You can stab them, or you can knock their teeth out. Or you can do both.” She touched the tip of the blade with her finger. “Not at the same time, of course.”

“Of course,” echoed Kell, shutting a cabinet. “You’re very fond of weapons.”

Lila stared at him blankly. “Who isn’t?”

“And you already have a knife,” he pointed out.

“So?” asked Lila, admiring the grip. “No such thing as too many knives.” “You’re a violent sort.”

She wagged the blade. “We can’t all turn blood and whispers into weapons.”

Kell bristled. “I don’t whisper. And we’re not here to loot.” “I thought that’s exactly why we’re here.”

Kell sighed and continued to look around the shop. He’d turned over the whole thing, including Fletcher’s cramped little room at the back, and come up empty. Fletcher wouldn’t have sold it … or would he? Kell closed his eyes, letting his senses wander, as if maybe he could feel the foreign magic. But the space was practically humming with power, overlapping tones that made it impossible to parse the foreign and forbidden from the merely forbidden.

“I’ve got a question,” said Lila, her pockets jingling suspiciously.

“Of course you do.” Kell sighed, opening his eyes. “And I thought I said no thieving.”

She chewed her lip and dug a few stones and a metal contraption even Kell didn’t recognize the use of out of her pocket, setting them on a chest. “You said the worlds were cut off. So how does this man—Fletcher—have a piece of White London?”

Kell sifted through a desk he swore he’d searched, then felt under the lip for hidden drawers. “Because I gave it to him.”

“Well, what were you doing with it?” Her eyes narrowed. “Did you steal it?”

Kell frowned. He had. “No.” “Liar.”

“I didn’t take it for myself,” said Kell. “Few people in your world know about mine. Those that do—Collectors and Enthusiasts—are willing to pay a precious sum for a piece of it. A trinket. A token. In my world, most know about yours—a few people are as intrigued by your mundaneness as you are by our magic—but everyone knows about the other London. White London. And for a piece of that world, some would pay dearly.”

A wry smile cut across Lila’s mouth. “You’re a smuggler.” “Says the pickpocket,” snapped Kell defensively.

“I know I’m a thief,” said Lila, lifting a red lin from the top of the chest and rolling it over her knuckles. “I’ve accepted that. It’s not my fault that you haven’t.” The coin vanished. Kell opened his mouth to protest, but the lin reappeared an instant later in her other palm. “I don’t understand, though. If you’re a royal—”

“I’m not—”

Lila gave him a withering look. “If you live with royals and you dine with them and you belong to them, surely you don’t want for money. Why risk it?” Kell clenched his jaw, thinking of Rhy’s plea to stop his foolish games.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

Lila quirked a brow. “Crime isn’t that complicated,” she said. “People steal because taking something gives them something. If they’re not in it for the money, they’re in it for control. The act of taking, of breaking the rules,

makes them feel powerful. They’re in it for the sheer defiance.” She turned away. “Some people steal to stay alive, and some steal to feel alive. Simple as that.”

“And which are you?” asked Kell.

“I steal for freedom,” said Lila. “I suppose that’s a bit of both.” She wandered into a short hallway between two rooms. “So that’s how you came across the black rock?” she called back. “You made a deal for it?”

“No,” said Kell. “I made a mistake. One I intend to fix, if I can find the damned thing.” He slammed a drawer shut in frustration.

“Careful,” said a gruff voice in Arnesian. “You might break something.”

Kell spun to find the shop’s owner standing there, shoulder tipped against a wardrobe, looking vaguely bemused.

“Fletcher,” said Kell.

“How did you get in?” asked Fletcher.

Kell forced himself to shrug as he shot a glance toward Lila, who’d had the good sense to stay in the hallway and out of sight. “I guess your wards are wearing thin.”

Fletcher crossed his arms. “I doubt that.”

Kell stole a second glance toward Lila, but she was no longer in the hall. A spike of panic ran through him, one that worsened a moment later when she reappeared behind Fletcher. She moved with silent steps, a knife glittering in one hand.

“Tac,” said Fletcher, lifting his hand beside his head. “Your friend is very rude.” As he said it, Lila froze mid-stride. The strain showed in her face as she tried to fight the invisible force holding her in place, but it was no use. Fletcher had the rare and dangerous ability to control bones, and therefore bodies. It was an ability that had earned him the binding scars he was so proud of breaking.

Lila, for one, seemed unimpressed. She muttered some very violent things, and Fletcher splayed his fingers. Kell heard a sound like cracking ice, and Lila let out a stifled cry, the knife tumbling from her fingers.

“I thought you preferred to work alone,” said Fletcher conversationally. “Let her go,” ordered Kell.

“Are you going to make me, Antari?”

Kell’s fingers curled into fists—the shop was warded a dozen ways, against intruders and thieves and, with Kell’s luck, anyone who meant Fletcher harm

—but the shop owner himself gave a low chuckle and dropped his hand, and Lila went stumbling to her hands and knees, clutching her wrist and swearing vehemently.

“Anesh,” he said casually. “What brings you back to my humble shop?”

“I gave you something once,” said Kell. “I’d like to borrow it.” Fletcher gave a derisive snort. “I am not in the business of borrowers.” “I’ll buy it then.”

“And if it’s not for sale?”

Kell forced himself to smile. “You of all people know,” he said, “that

everything is for sale.”

Fletcher parroted the smile, cold and dry. “I won’t sell it to you, but I might sell it to her”—his gaze glanced to Lila, who had gotten to her feet and retreated to the nearest wall to lurk and curse—“for the right price.”

“She doesn’t speak Arnesian,” said Kell. “She hasn’t the faintest idea what you’re saying.”

“Oh?” Fletcher grabbed his crotch. “I bet I can make her understand,” he said, shaking himself in her direction.

Lila’s eyes narrowed. “Burn in hell, you fu—”

“I wouldn’t bother with her,” cut in Kell. “She bites.”

Fletcher sighed and shook his head. “What kind of trouble are you in,

Master Kell?” “None.”

“You must be in some, to come here. And besides,” said Fletcher, smile sharpening. “They don’t put your face up on the boards for nothing.”

Kell’s eyes flicked to the scrying board on the wall, the one that had been painted with his face for the last hour. And then he paled. The circle at the bottom, the one that said If seen touch here was pulsing bright green.

“What have you done?” growled Kell. Fletcher only smiled.

“No hard feelings,” he said darkly, right before the shop doors burst open, and the royal guard poured in.

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