Chapter no 56

A Darker Shade of Magic

Red London took shape around Kell, heavy with night. It smelled of earth and fire, of blooming flowers and spiced tea, and underneath it all, of home. Kell had never been so happy to be back. But his heart sank when he realized that his arms were empty.

Lila wasn’t with him. She hadn’t made it back.

Kell swallowed and looked down at the token in his bloody hand. And then he threw it as hard as he could. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

And then he heard a voice. Her voice.

“Never thought I’d be so happy to smell the flowers.”

Kell blinked and spun to see Lila standing there. Alive, and in one piece. “It’s not possible,” he said.

The edge of her mouth quirked up. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

Kell threw his arms around her. And for a second, only a second, she didn’t pull away, didn’t threaten to stab him. For a second, and only a second, she hugged him back.

“What are you?” he asked, amazed. Lila only shrugged. “Stubborn.”

They stood there a moment, leaning on each other, one keeping the other on their feet, though neither was sure which needed more supporting. Both knew only that they were happy to be here, to be alive.

And then he heard the sounds of boots and swords, and saw the flares of light.

“I think we’re being attacked,” whispered Lila into the collar of his coat.

Kell lifted his head from her shoulder to see a dozen members of the guard surrounding them, blades drawn. Through their helmets, their eyes looked at him with fear and rage. He could feel Lila tense against him, feel her itching to reach for a pistol or a knife.

“Don’t fight,” he whispered as he slid his arms slowly from her back. He took her hand and turned toward his family’s men. “We surrender.”

* * *

The guards forced Kell and Lila to their knees before the king and queen, and held them there despite Lila’s muttered oaths. Their wrists were bound in metal behind them, the way Kell’s had been earlier that night in Rhy’s chambers. Had it really been only hours? They weighed on Kell like years.

“Leave us,” ordered King Maxim.

“Sir,” protested one of the royal guard, shooting a glance at Kell. “It is not safe to—”

“I said get out,” he boomed.

The guard withdrew, leaving only Kell and Lila on their knees in the emptied ballroom, the king and queen looming over them. King Maxim’s eyes were feverish, his skin blotching with anger. At his side, Queen Emira looked deathly pale.

“What have you done?” demanded the king.

Kell cringed, but he told them the truth. Of Astrid’s possession charm, and the Dane twins’ plan, but also of the stone, and of the way he came by it (and of its preceding habit). He told them of its discovery, and of trying to return it to the only place it would be safe. And the king and queen listened, less with disbelief than with horror, the king growing redder and the queen growing paler with every explanation.

“The stone is gone now,” finished Kell. “And the magic with it.”

The king slammed his fist against a banister. “The Danes will pay for what they’ve—”

“The Danes are dead,” said Kell. “I killed them myself.” Lila cleared her throat.

Kell rolled his eyes. “With Lila’s help.”

The king seemed to notice Lila for the first time. “Who are you? What madness have you added to these plots?”

“My name is Delilah Bard,” she shot back. “We met, just earlier this evening. When I was trying to save your city, and you were standing there, all blank-eyed under some kind of spell.”

“Lila,” snapped Kell in horror.

“I’m half the reason your city is still standing.”

Our city?” questioned the queen. “You’re not from here, then?”

Kell tensed. Lila opened her mouth, but before she could answer, he said, “No. She’s from afar.”

The king’s brow furrowed. “How far afar?”

And before Kell could answer, Lila threw her shoulders back. “My ship docked a few days ago,” she announced. “I came to London because I heard

that your son’s festivities were not to be missed, and because I had business with a merchant named Calla in the market on the river. Kell and I have crossed paths once or twice before, and when it was clear that he needed help, I gave it.” Kell stared at Lila. She gave him a single raised a brow and added, “He promised me a reward, of course.”

The king and queen stared at Lila, too, as if trying to decide which piece of her story sounded least plausible (it was either the fact that she owned a ship, or the fact that a foreigner spoke such flawless English), but at last the queen’s composure faltered.

“Where is our son?” she pleaded. The way she said it, as if they had only one, made Kell flinch.

“Is Rhy alive?” demanded the king.

“Thanks to Kell,” cut in Lila. “We’ve spent the last day trying to save your kingdom, and you don’t even—”

“He’s alive,” said Kell, cutting her off. “And he will live,” he added, holding the king’s gaze. “As long as I do.” There was a faint challenge in the line.

“What do you mean?”

“Sir,” said Kell, breaking the gaze. “I did only what I had to do. If I could have given him my life, I would have. Instead, I could only share it.” He twisted in his bonds, the edge of the scar visible under his collar. The queen drew in a breath. The king’s face darkened.

“Where is he, Kell?” asked the king, his voice softening.

Kell’s shoulders loosened, the weight sliding from them. “Release us,” he said. “And I will bring him home.”

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