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Chapter no 4

A Darker Shade of Magic

“Sanct!” announced Gen, throwing a card down onto the pile, faceup. On its front, a hooded figure with a bowed head held up a rune like a chalice, and in his chair, Gen grinned triumphantly.

Parrish grimaced and threw his remaining cards facedown on the table. He could accuse Gen of cheating, but there was no point. Parrish himself had been cheating for the better part of an hour and still hadn’t won a single hand. He grumbled as he shoved his coins across the narrow table to the other guard’s towering pile. Gen gathered up the winnings and began to shuffle the deck. “Shall we go again?” he asked.

“I’ll pass,” answered Parrish, shoving to his feet. A cloak—heavy panels of red and gold fanning like rays of sun—spilled over his armored shoulders as he stood, the layered metal plates of his chest piece and leg guards clanking as they slid into place.

“Ir chas era,” said Gen, sliding from Royal into Arnesian. The common tongue.

“I’m not bitter,” grumbled Parrish back. “I’m broke.” “Come on,” goaded Gen. “Third time’s the charm.”

“I have to piss,” said Parrish, readjusting his short sword. “Then go piss.”

Parrish hesitated, surveying the hall for signs of trouble. The hall was devoid of trouble—or any other forms of activity—but full of pretty things: royal portraits, trophies, tables (like the one they’d been playing on), and, at the hall’s end, a pair of ornate doors. Made of cherrywood, the doors were carved with the royal emblem of Arnes, the chalice and rising sun, the grooves filled with melted gold, and above the emblem, the threads of metallic light traced an across the polished wood.

The doors led to Prince Rhy’s private chambers, and Gen and Parrish, as part of Prince Rhy’s private guard, had been stationed outside of them.

Parrish was fond of the prince. He was spoiled, of course, but so was every royal—or so Parrish assumed, having served only the one—but he was also good-natured and exceedingly lenient when it came to his guard (hell, he’d

given Parrish the deck of cards himself, beautiful, gilded-edge things) and sometimes, after a night of drinking, would shed his Royal and its pretentions and converse with them in the common tongue (his Arnesian was flawless). If anything, Rhy seemed to feel guilty for the persistent presence of the guards, as if surely they had something better to do with their time than stand outside his door and be vigilant (and in truth, most nights it was more a matter of discretion than vigilance).

The best nights were the ones when Prince Rhy and Master Kell set out into the city, and he and Gen were allowed to follow at a distance or relieved of their duties entirely and allowed to stay for company rather than protection (everyone knew that Kell could keep the prince safer than any of his guard). But Kell was still away—a fact that had put the ever-restless Rhy in a mood— and so the prince had withdrawn early to his chambers, and Parrish and Gen had taken up their watch, and Gen had robbed Parrish of most of his pocket money.

Parrish scooped up his helmet from the table, and went to relieve himself; the sound of Gen counting his coins followed him out. Parrish took his time, feeling he was owed as much after losing so many lin, and when he finally ambled back to the prince’s hall, he was distressed to find it empty. Gen was nowhere to be seen. Parrish frowned; leniency went only so far. Gambling was one thing, but if the prince’s chambers were caught unguarded, their captain would be furious.

The cards were still on the table, and Parrish began to clean them up when he heard a male voice in the prince’s chamber and stopped. It was not a strange thing to hear, in and of itself—Rhy was prone to entertaining and made little secret of his varied tastes, and it was hardly Parrish’s place to question his proclivities.

But Parrish recognized the voice at once; it did not belong to one of Rhy’s pursuits. The words were English, but accented, the edges rougher than an Arnesian tongue.

It was a voice like a shadow in the woods at night. Quiet and dark and cold. And it belonged to Holland. The Antari from afar.

Parrish paled a little. He worshipped Master Kell—a fact Gen gave him grief for daily—but Holland terrified him. He didn’t know if it was the evenness in the man’s tone or his strangely faded appearance or his haunted eyes—one black, of course, the other a milky green. Or perhaps it was the way he seemed to be made more of water and stone than flesh and blood and soul. Whatever it was, the foreign Antari had always given Parrish the shivers.

Some of the guards called him Hollow behind his back, but Parrish never dared.

“What?” Gen would tease. “Not like he can hear you through the wall between worlds.”

“You don’t know,” Parrish would whisper back. “Maybe he can.”

And now Holland was in Rhy’s room. Was he supposed to be there? Who had let him in?

Where was Gen? wondered Parrish as he took up his spot in front of the door. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but there was a narrow gap between the left side of the door and the right, and when he turned his head slightly, the conversation reached him through the crack.

“Pardon my intrusion,” came Holland’s voice, steady and low.

“It’s none at all,” answered Rhy casually. “But what business brings you to me instead of to my father?”

“I have been to your father for business already,” said Holland. “I come to you for something else.”

Parrish’s cheeks reddened at the seductiveness in Holland’s tone. Perhaps it would be better to abandon his post than listen in, but he held his ground, and heard Rhy slump back onto a cushioned seat.

“And what’s that?” asked the prince, mirroring the flirtation. “It is nearly your birthday, is it not?”

“It is nearly,” answered Rhy. “You should attend the celebrations, if your king and queen will spare you.”

“They will not, I fear,” replied Holland. “But my king and queen are the reason I’ve come. They’ve bid me deliver a gift.”

Parrish could hear Rhy hesitate. “Holland,” he said, the sound of cushions shifting as he sat forward, “you know the laws. I cannot take—”

“I know the laws, young prince,” soothed Holland. “As to the gift, I picked it out here, in your own city, on my masters’ behalf.”

There was a long pause, followed by the sound of Rhy standing. “Very well,” he said.

Parrish heard the shuffle of a parcel being passed and opened. “What is it for?” asked the prince after another stretch of quiet.

Holland made a sound, something between a smile and a laugh, neither of which Parrish had borne witness to before. “For strength,” he said.

Rhy began to say something else, but at the same instant, a set of clocks went off through the palace, marking the hour and masking whatever else was said between the Antari and the prince. The bells were still echoing through the hall when the door opened and Holland stepped out, his two-toned eyes landing instantly on Parrish.

Holland guided the door shut and considered the royal guard with a resigned sigh. He ran a hand through his charcoal hair.

“Send away one guard,” he said, half to himself, “and another takes his place.”

Before Parrish could think of a response, the Antari dug a coin from his pocket and flicked it into the air toward him.

“I wasn’t here,” said Holland as the coin rose and fell. And by the time it hit Parrish’s palm, he was alone in the hall, staring down at the disk, wondering how it got there, and certain he was forgetting something. He clutched the coin as if he could catch the slipping memory, and hold on.

But it was already gone.

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