Chapter no 38

A Darker Shade of Magic

Parrish and Gen milled around the festival, helmets in one hand and mugs of wine in the other. Parrish had won back his coin—really, between the constant cards and the odd gambles, the two seemed to trade the pocket money back and forth without much gain or loss—and, being the better of the two sports, offered to buy Gen a drink.

It was, after all, a celebration.

Prince Rhy had been kind enough to give the two closest members of his private guard a few hours off, to enjoy the festivities with the masses gathered along the Isle. Parrish, prone to worry, had hesitated, but Gen had reasoned that on this day of all days, Rhy would be suitably well attended without them. At least for a little while. And so the two had wandered into the fray of the festival.

The celebration hugged the river, the market triple its usual size, its banks overflowing with patrons and cheer, music and magic. Every year, the festivities seemed to grow grander, once a simple hour or two of merriment, now a full day of revelry (followed by several more days of recovery, the excitement tapering off slowly until life returned to normal). But on this, the main day, the morning parade gave way to an afternoon of food and drink and good spirits, and finally, an evening ball.

This year it was to be a masquerade.

The great steps of the palace were already being cleared, the flowers gathered up and taken in to line the entry hall. Orbs of crisp light were being hung like low stars both outside the palace and within, and dark blue carpets unrolled, so that for the evening, the royal grounds would seem to float not on the river as a rising sun, but far above, a moon surrounded by the dazzling night sky. All over London, the young and beautiful and elite were climbing into their carriages, practicing their Royal under their breath as they rode to the palace in their masks and dresses and capes. And once there, they would worship the prince as though he were divine, and he would drink in their adoration as he always did, with relish and good cheer.

The masquerade within the palace walls was an invitation-only affair, but out on the riverbanks, the party was open to all and would go on in its own fashion until after midnight before finally dying down, the remnants wandering home with the merry revelers.

Parrish and Gen would soon be recalled to the prince’s side, but for now they were leaning against a tent pole in the market, watching the crowds and enjoying themselves immensely. Now and then, Parrish would knock Gen’s shoulder, a silent nudge to keep a sharp eye on the crowd. Even though they weren’t officially on duty, they (or at least, Parrish) took enough pride in their jobs to wear their royal armor (though it didn’t hurt that ladies seemed to enjoy a man in arms) and watch for signs of trouble. Most of the afternoon, trouble had come in the form of someone celebrating Rhy’s day with a little too much enthusiasm, but now and then a fight broke out, and a weapon or a flash of magic was cause for intervention.

Gen appeared to be having a perfectly pleasant time, but Parrish was getting restless. His partner insisted that it was because Parrish had stopped at one drink, but he didn’t think that was it. There was an energy in the air, and even though he knew the buzz was most likely coming from the festival itself, it still made him nervous. It wasn’t just that there was more power than usual. It felt different. He rolled his empty cup between his hands and tried to set his mind at ease.

A troupe of fire workers was putting on a show nearby, twisting flames into dragons and horses and birds, and as Parrish watched them, the light from their enchanted fire blurred his vision. As it came back into focus, he caught the gaze of a woman just beyond, a lovely one with red lips and golden hair and a voluptuous, only half-concealed bosom. He dragged his gaze from her chest up to her eyes, and then frowned. They weren’t blue or green or brown.

They were black.

Black as a starless sky or a scrying board. Black as Master Kell’s right eye.

He squinted to make sure, then called to Gen. When his compatriot didn’t answer, he turned and saw the guard watching a young man—no, a girl in men’s clothes, and strange dull clothes at that—weaving through the crowd toward the palace.

Gen was frowning at her faintly, as if she looked odd, out of place, and she did, but not as odd as the woman with black eyes. Parrish grabbed Gen’s arm and dragged his attention forcefully away.

“Kers?” growled Gen, nearly spilling his wine. What?

“That woman there in blue,” said Parrish, turning back to the crowd. “Her eyes …” But he trailed off. The black-eyed woman was gone.

“Smitten, are you?”

“It’s not that. I swear her eyes—they were black.” Gen raised a brow and took a sip from his cup.

“Perhaps you’ve done a little too much celebrating after all,” he said, clapping the other guard on the arm. Over his shoulder, Parrish watched the girl in boy’s clothes disappear into a tent before Gen frowned and added, “Looks like you’re not the only one.”

Parrish followed his gaze and saw a man, his back to them, embracing a woman in the middle of the market. The man’s hands were wandering a bit too much, even for a celebration day, and the woman didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. She brought her hands to the man’s chest, as if to push away, but he responded by kissing her deeper. Gen and Parrish abandoned their post and made their way toward the couple. And then, abruptly, the woman stopped struggling. Her hands fell to her sides and her head lolled, and when the man released her a moment later, she swayed on her feet and slumped into a seat. The man, meanwhile, simply turned and walked away, half walking, half stumbling through the crowd.

Parrish and Gen both followed, closing the gap in a slow, steady way so as not to cause alarm. The man appeared and disappeared through the crowd before finally cutting between tents toward the riverbank. The guards picked up their pace and reached the gap right after the man vanished through.

“You there,” called Gen, taking the lead. He always did. “Stop.” The man heading for the Isle now slowed to a halt.

“Turn around,” ordered Gen when he was nearly to him, one hand on his sword.

The man did. Parrish’s eyes widened as they snagged on the stranger’s face. Two pools, shining and black as river stones at night, sat where eyes should be, the skin around them veined with black. When the man tugged his mouth into a smile, flecks drifted off like ash.

“Asan narana,” he said in a language that wasn’t Arnesian. He held out his hand, and Parrish recoiled when he saw that it was entirely black, the fingertips tapering into charred bone points.

“What in king’s name—” started Gen, but he didn’t have a chance to finish because the man smiled and thrust his blackened hand through the armor and into the guard’s chest.

“Dark heart,” he said, this time in Royal.

Parrish stood frozen with shock and horror as the man, or whatever he was, withdrew his hand, what was left of his fingers wet with blood. Gen crumpled to the ground, and Parrish’s shock shattered into motion. He charged forward,

drawing his royal short sword, and thrust the blade into the stomach of the black-eyed monster.

For an instant, the creature looked amused. And then Parrish’s sword began to glow as the spellwork on the enchanted blade took effect and severed the man from his magic. His eyes went wide, the black retreating from them, and from his veins, until he looked more or less like an ordinary man again (albeit a dying one). He drew in a rattling breath and gripped Parrish’s armor—he bore an X, the mark of cutthroats, on the back of his hand—and then he crumbled to ash around Parrish’s blade.

“Sanct,” he swore, staring at the mound of soot as it began to blow away.

And then, out of nowhere, pain blossomed in his back, white-hot, and he looked down to see the tip of a sword protruding from his chest. It slid out with a horrible, wet sound, and Parrish’s knees buckled as his attacker rounded him.

He took a shuddering breath, his lungs filling with blood, and looked up to see Gen looming over him, the blood-slicked blade hanging at his side.

“Why?” whispered Parrish.

Gen gazed down at him with two black eyes and a grim smile. “Asan harana,” he said. “Noble heart.”

And then he raised the sword above his head and swung it down.

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