Chapter no 41

A Darker Shade of Magic

Lila ascended the palace stairs, the half-cloak of her new coat billowing behind her. The shimmering midnight carpet rippled faintly with every upward step, as though it were truly water. Other guests climbed the stairs in pairs or small groups, but Lila did her best to mimic their lofty arrogance— shoulders back, head high—as she ascended alone. She might not be of money, but she’d stolen enough from those who were to copy their manners and their mannerisms.

At the top, she presented the invitation to a man in black and gold who bowed and stepped aside, allowing her into a foyer blanketed in flowers. More flowers than Lila had ever seen. Roses and lilies and peonies, daffodils and azaleas, and scores more she could not recognize by sight. Clusters of tiny white blossoms like snowflakes, and massive stems that resembled sunflowers if sunflowers were sky blue. The room filled with the fragrance of them all, and yet it did not overwhelm her. Perhaps she was simply getting used to it.

Music poured through a second, curtained doorway, and the mystery of what lay beyond drew Lila forward through the gallery of flowers. And then, just as she reached out to pull the curtain aside, a second servant appeared from the other side and barred her path. Lila tensed, worried that somehow her disguise and invitation were not enough, that she would be discovered as an impostor, an outsider. Her fingers twitched toward the knife under her coat.

And then the man smiled and said in stiff English, “I am presenting whom?”

“Excuse me?” asked Lila, keeping her voice low, gruff.

The attendant’s brow crinkled. “What title and name should I announce you under, sir?”

“Oh.” Relief swept over her, and her hand slid back to her side. A smile spread across her lips. “Captain Bard,” she said, “of the Sea King.” The attendant looked uncertain, but turned away and said the words without protest.

Her name echoed and was swallowed by the room before she’d even stepped inside.

When she did, her mouth fell open.

The vivid glamour of the world outside paled in comparison to the world within. It was a palace of vaulting glass and shimmering tapestry and, woven through it all like light, magic. The air was alive with it. Not the secret, seductive magic of the stone, but a loud, bright, encompassing thing. Kell had told Lila that magic was like an extra sense, layered on top of sight and smell and taste, and now she understood. It was everywhere. In everything. And it was intoxicating. She could not tell if the energy was coming from the hundreds of bodies in the room, or from the room itself, which certainly reflected it. Amplified it like sound in an echoing chamber.

And it was strangely—impossibly—familiar.

Beneath the magic, or perhaps because of it, the space itself was alive with color and light. She’d never set foot inside St. James, but it couldn’t possibly have compared to the splendor of this. Nothing in her London could. Her world felt truly grey by comparison, bleak and empty in a way that made Lila want to kiss the stone for freeing her from it, for bringing her here, to this glittering jewel of a place. Everywhere she looked, she saw wealth. Her fingers itched, and she resisted the urge to start picking pockets, reminding herself that the cargo in her own was too precious to risk being caught.

The curtained doorway led onto a landing, a set of stairs sloping down and away onto the hall’s polished floor, the stone itself lost beneath boots and twirling skirts.

At the base of the stairs stood the king and queen, greeting each of their guests. Standing there, dressed in gold, they looked unbearably elegant. Lila had never been so near to royalty—she didn’t count Kell—and knew she should slip away as soon as possible, but she couldn’t resist the urge to flaunt her disguise. And besides, it would be rude not to greet her hosts. Reckless, growled a voice in her head, but Lila only smiled and descended the stairs.

“Welcome, Captain,” said the king, his grip firm around Lila’s hand.

“Your Majesty,” she said, struggling to keep her voice from drifting up. She nodded her mask toward him, careful not to jab him with her horns.

“Welcome,” echoed the queen as Lila kissed her outstretched hand. But as she pulled away, the queen added, “We have not met before.”

“I am a friend of Kell’s,” said Lila as casually as possible, her gaze still on the floor.

“Ah,” said the queen. “Then welcome.”

“Actually,” Lila went on, “Your Highness, I am looking for him. Do you know where he might be?”

The queen considered her blankly and said, “He is not here.” Lila frowned, and the queen added, “But I am not worried.” Her tone was strangely steady, as if she were reciting a line that wasn’t hers. The bad feeling in Lila’s chest grew worse.

“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” said Lila, sliding her hand free of the queen’s. “Everything will be okay,” said the king, his voice similarly hollow. “It will,” added the queen.

Lila frowned. Something was wrong. She lifted her gaze, risking impertinence to look the queen in the eye, and saw there a subtle gleam. The same shimmer she’d seen in the eyes of the guard after he’d slit Fletcher’s throat. Some kind of spell. Had no one else noticed? Or had no one else been brazen enough to stare so baldly at the crown?

The next guest cleared his throat at Lila’s back, and she broke the queen’s gaze. “I’m sorry to have kept you,” she said quickly, shifting past the royal hosts and into the ballroom. She skirted the crowd of dancers and drinkers, looking for signs of the prince, but judging by the eagerness in the air, the way eyes constantly darted toward doors and sets of stairs, he’d yet to make an appearance.

She slipped away, through a pair of doors at the edge of the ballroom, and found herself in a corridor. It was empty, save for a guard and a young woman wrapped in a rather amorous embrace and too occupied to notice as Lila slid past and vanished through another set of doors. And then another. Navigating the streets of London had taught her a fair amount about the mazelike flow of places, the way wealth gathers in the heart and tapers to the corners. She moved from hall to hall, winding around the palace’s beating heart without straying too far. Everywhere she went, she found guests and guards and servants, but no sign of Kell or the prince or any break in the maze. Until, finally, she came upon a set of spiral stairs. They were elegant but narrow, clearly not meant for public use. She cast a last glance back in the direction of the ball and then ascended the steps.

The floor above was quiet in a private way, and she knew she must be getting close, not only because of that silence, but also because the stone in her pocket was beginning to hum. As if it could feel Kell near and wished to be nearer. Again, Lila tried not to be offended.

She found herself in a new set of halls, the first of which was empty, the second of which was not. Lila rounded the corner and caught her breath. She pressed herself back into a shadowed nook, narrowly missing the eyes of a guard. He was standing in front of a set of ornate doors, and he was not alone. In fact, while every other door in the hall stood unmanned, the one at the end was guarded by no fewer than three armed and armored men.

Lila swallowed and slid her newest knife from her belt. She hesitated. For the second time in as many days, she found herself one against three. It had yet to end well. Her grip tightened on the knife as she scrounged for a plan that wasn’t sure to end in a grave. The stone took up its murmuring rhythm again, and she was reluctantly about to draw it from her coat when she stopped and noticed something.

The hall was studded with doors, and while the farthest one was guarded, the nearest one stood ajar. It led onto a luxurious bedroom, and at the back of it, a balcony, curtains fluttering in the evening air.

Lila smiled and returned the knife to her belt. She had an idea.

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