Chapter no 39

A Darker Shade of Magic

The palace rose like a second sun over the Isle as the day’s light sank low behind it, haloing its edges with gold. Lila made her way toward the glowing structure, weaving through the crowded market—it had become a rather raucous festival as the day and drink wore on—her mind spinning over the matter of how to get into the palace once she’d reached it. The stone pulsed in her pocket, luring her with its easy answer, but she’d made a decision not to use the magic again, not unless she had no other choice. It took too much, and did so with the quiet cunning of a thief. No, if there were another way in, she’d find it.

And then, as the palace neared and the front steps came into sight, Lila saw her opportunity.

The main doors were flung open, silky blue carpet spilling like night water down the stairs, and on them ascended a steady stream of partygoers. They appeared to be attending a ball.

Not just a ball, she realized, watching the river of guests. A masquerade.

Every man and woman wore a disguise. Some masks were simple stained leather, some far more ornate, adorned by horns or feathers or jewels, some fell only across the eyes, and others revealed nothing at all. Lila broke into a wicked grin. She wouldn’t need to be a member of society to get in. She need never show her face.

But there was another thing that every guest appeared to have: an invitation. That, she feared, would be harder to obtain. But just then, as if by a stroke of luck, or providence, Lila heard the high sweet sound of laughter, and turned to see three girls no older than she being helped out of a carriage, their dresses full and their smiles wide as they chattered and chirped and settled themselves on the street. Lila recognized them instantly from the morning parade, the girls who had been swooning over Rhy and the “black-eyed prince,” whom Lila now knew to be Kell. The girls who had been practicing their English. Of course. Because English was the language of the royals, and those who mingled with them. Lila’s smiled widened. Perhaps Kell was right:

in any other setting, her accent would cause her to stand out. But here, here it would help her blend in, help her belong.

One of the girls—the one who’d prided herself on her English—produced a gold-trimmed invitation, and the three pored over it for several moments before she tucked it beneath her arm. Lila approached.

“Excuse me,” she said, bringing a hand to rest at the girl’s elbow. “What time does the masquerade begin?”

The girl didn’t seem to remember her. She gave Lila a slow appraising look

—the kind that made her want to free a few teeth from the girl’s head—before smiling tightly. “It’s starting now.”

Lila parroted the smile. “Of course,” she said as the girl pulled free, oblivious to the fact she was now short an invitation.

The girls set off toward the palace steps, and Lila considered her prize. She ran a thumb over the paper’s gilded edges and ornate Arnesian script. Her eyes drifted up again, taking in the procession to the palace doors, but she didn’t join it. The men and women ascending the stairs practically glittered in their jewel-tone gowns and dark, elegant suits. Lush cloaks spilled over their shoulders and threads of precious metal shone in their hair. Lila looked down at herself, her threadbare cloak and worn brown boots, and felt shabbier than ever. She tugged her own mask—nothing but a crumpled strip of black fabric

—from her pocket. Even with an invitation and a healthy grasp of the English language, she’d never be let in, not looking like this.

She shoved the mask back in her cloak pocket and looked around at the market stalls that stood nearby. Farther down the booths were filled with food and drink, but here, at the edge nearest the palace, the stalls sold other wares. Charms, yes, but also canes and shoes and other fineries. Fabric and light spilled out of the mouth of the nearest tent, and Lila straightened and stepped inside.

A hundred faces greeted her from the far wall, the surface of which was covered in masks. From the austere to the intricate, the beautiful to the grotesque, the faces squinted and scowled and welcomed her in turn. Lila crossed to them and reached out to free one from its hook. A black half-mask with two horns spiraling up from the temples.

“A tes fera, kes ile?”

Lila jumped, and saw a woman standing at her side. She was small and round, with half a dozen braids coiled like snakes around her head, a mask nested in them like a hairpin.

“I’m sorry,” said Lila slowly. “I don’t speak Arnesian.”

The woman only smiled and laced her hands in front of her broad stomach. “Ah, but your English is superb.”

Lila sighed with relief. “As is yours,” she said.

The woman blushed. It was obviously a point of pride. “I am a servant of the ball,” she replied. “It is only fitting.” She then gestured to the mask in Lila’s hands. “A little dark, don’t you think?”

Lila looked the mask in the eyes. “No,” she said. “I think it’s perfect.”

And then Lila turned the mask over and saw a string of numbers that must have been the price. It wasn’t written in shillings or pounds, but Lila was sure that, regardless of the kind of coin, she couldn’t afford it. Reluctantly, she returned the mask to its hook.

“Why set it back, if it is perfect?” pressed the woman.

Lila sighed. She would have stolen it had the merchant not been standing there. “I don’t have any money,” she said, thrusting a hand into her pocket. She felt the silver of the watch and swallowed. “But I do have this. …” She pulled the timepiece from her pocket and held it out, hoping the woman wouldn’t notice the blood (she’d tried to wipe most of it off).

But the woman only shook her head. “An, an,” she said, folding Lila’s fingers back over the watch. “I cannot take your payment. No matter its shape.”

Lila’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand—”

“I saw you this morning. In the market.” Lila’s thoughts turned back to the scene, to her almost being arrested for stealing. But the woman wasn’t speaking of the theft. “You and Master Kell, you are … friends, yes?”

“Of a sort,” said Lila, blushing when that drew a secretive smile from the woman. “No,” she amended, “No, I don’t mean …” But the woman simply patted her hand.

“Ise av eran,” she said lightly. “It’s not my place to”—she paused, searching for a word—“pry. But Master Kell is aven—blessed—a jewel in our city’s crown. And if you are his, or he is yours, my shop is yours as well.”

Lila cringed. She hated charity. Even when people thought they were giving something freely, it always came with a chain, a weight that set everything off-balance. Lila would rather steal a thing outright than be indebted to kindness. But she needed the clothes.

The woman seemed to read the hesitation in her eyes. “You are not from here, so you do not know. Arnesians pay their debts in many ways. Not all of them with coin. I need nothing from you now, so you will pay me back another time, and in your own way. Yes?”

Lila hesitated. And then bells began to ring in the palace, loud enough to echo through her, and she nodded. “Very well,” she said.

The merchant smiled. “Ir chas,” she said. “Now, let us find you something fitting.”

* * *

“Hmm.” The merchant woman—who called herself Calla—chewed her lip. “Are you certain you wouldn’t prefer something with a corset? Or a train?”

Calla had tried to lead Lila to a rack of dresses, but her eyes had gone straight to the men’s coats. Glorious things, with strong shoulders and high collars and gleaming buttons.

“No,” said Lila, lifting one from the rack. “This is exactly what I want.”

The merchant looked at her with strange fascination, but little—or, at the very least, well-concealed—judgment, and said, “Anesh. If you’re set on that direction, I will find you some boots.”

A few minutes later, Lila found herself in a curtained corner of the tent, holding the nicest clothes she’d ever touched, let alone owned. Borrowed, she corrected herself. Borrowed until paid for.

Lila pulled the artifacts from her various pockets—the black stone, the white rook, the bloodstained silver watch, the invitation—and set them on the floor before tugging off her boots and shrugging out of her old worn cloak. Calla had given her a new black tunic—it fit so well that she wondered if there was some kind of tailoring spell on it—and a pair of close-fitting pants that still hung a little loosely on her bony frame. She’d insisted on keeping her belt, and Calla had the decency not to gawk at the number of weapons threaded through it as she handed her the boots.

Every pirate needed a good pair of boots, and these were gorgeous things, sculpted out of black leather and lined with something softer than loose cotton, and Lila let out a rare gleeful sound as she pulled them on. And then there was the coat. It was an absolute dream, high-collared and lovely and black—true black, velvety and rich—with a fitted waist and a built-in half-cloak that gathered at glassy red clasps on either side of her throat and spilled over her shoulders and down her back. Lila ran her fingers admiringly over the glossy jet-black buttons that cascaded down its front. She’d never been one for baubles and fineries, never wanted anything more than salt air and a solid boat and an empty map, but now that she was standing in a foreign stall in a faraway land, clothed in rich fabrics, she was beginning to see the appeal. At last, she lifted up the waiting mask. So many of the faces that hung around the stall were lovely, delicate things made of feather and lace and garnished with glass. But this one was beautiful in a different way, an opposite way. It reminded Lila less of dresses and finery, and more of sharpened knives and ships on the seas at night. It looked dangerous. She

brought it to rest against her face and smiled.

There was a silver-tinted looking glass propped in the corner, and she admired her reflection in it. She looked little like the shadow of a thief on the WANTED posters back home, and nothing like the scrawny girl hoarding coppers to escape a dingy life. Her polished boots glistened from knee to toe, lengthening her legs. Her coat broadened her shoulders and hugged her waist. And her mask tapered down her cheeks, the black horns curling up over her head in a way that was at once elegant and monstrous. She gave herself a long, appraising look, the way the girl had in the street, but there was nothing to scoff at now.

Delilah Bard looked like a king.

No, she thought, straightening. She looked like a conqueror.

“Lila?” came the merchant woman’s voice beyond the curtain. She pronounced the name as though it were full of e’s. “Does it fit?” Lila slid the trinkets into the new silk-lined pockets of her coat and emerged. The heels of her boots clicked proudly on the stone ground—and yet, she had tested the tread and knew that if she moved on the balls of her feet, the steps would be silent—and Calla smiled, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, even as she tsked.

“Mas aven,” she said. “You look more ready to storm a city than seduce a man.”

“Kell will love it,” assured Lila, and the way she said his name, infusing it with a subtle softness, an intimacy, made the merchant woman ruffle cheerfully. And then the bells chimed again through the city, and Lila swore to herself. “I must go,” she said. “Thank you again.”

“You’ll pay me back,” said Calla simply. Lila nodded. “I will.”

She was to the mouth of the tent when the merchant woman added, “Look after him.”

Lila smiled grimly and tugged up the collar of her coat. “I will,” she said again before vanishing into the street.

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