He found them in the courtyard, taking a late tea under the cloudless night and the fall canopy of trees.
The king and queen were sitting at a table, while Rhy was stretched on a sofa, rambling on again about his birthday and the slew of festivities intended to surround it.
“It’s called a birthday,” chided King Maxim—a towering man with broad shoulders and bright eyes and a black beard—without looking up from a stack of papers he was reading. “Not a birthdays and certainly not a birthweek.”
“Twenty years!” countered Rhy, waving his empty teacup. “Twenty! A few days of celebration hardly seems excessive.” His amber eyes glittered mischievously. “And besides, half of them are for the people, anyway. Who am I to deny them?”
“And the other half?” asked Queen Emira, her long dark hair threaded with gold ribbon and gathered in a heavy braid behind her.
Rhy flashed his winning smile. “You’re the one determined to find me a match, Mother.”
“Yes,” she said, absently straightening the teaware, “but I’d rather not turn the palace into a brothel to do it.”
“Not a brothel!” said Rhy, running his fingers through his rich black hair and upsetting the circle of gold that rested there. “Merely an efficient way of assessing the many necessary attributes of—Ah, Kell! Kell will support my thinking.”
“I think it’s a horrible idea,” said Kell, striding toward them. “Traitor!” said Rhy with mock affront.
“But,” he added, approaching the table, “he’ll do it anyway. You might as well throw the party here at the palace, where we can all keep him out of trouble. Or at least minimize it.”
Rhy beamed. “Sound logic, sound logic,” he said, mimicking his father’s deep voice.
The king set aside the paper he was holding and considered Kell. “How was your trip?”
“Longer than I would have liked,” said Kell, sorting through his coats and pockets until he found the Prince Regent’s letter.
“We were beginning to worry,” said Queen Emira.
“The king was not well and the prince was worse,” said Kell, offering the note. King Maxim took it and set it aside, unread.
“Sit,” urged the queen. “You look pale.” “Are you well?” asked the king.
“Quite, sir,” said Kell, sinking gratefully into a chair at the table. “Only tired.” The queen reached out and brought her hand to Kell’s cheek. Her complexion was darker than his—the royal family bore a rich tan that, when paired with their honey eyes and black hair, made them look like polished wood. With fair skin and reddish hair, Kell felt perpetually out of place. The queen brushed a handful of copper strands off his forehead. She always went looking for the truth in his right eye, as if it were a scrying board, something to be gazed into, seen past. But what she saw, she never shared. Kell took her hand and kissed it. “I’m fine, Your Majesty.” She gave him a weary look, and he corrected himself. “Mother.”
A servant appeared bearing tea, sweet and laced with mint, and Kell took a long drink and let his family talk, his mind wandering in the comfort of their noise.
When he could barely keep his eyes open, he excused himself. Rhy pushed up from the sofa with him. Kell wasn’t surprised. He had felt the prince’s gaze on him since he’d first taken his seat. Now, as the two bid their parents good night, Rhy trailed Kell into the hall, fiddling with the circle of gold nested in his black curls.
“What did I miss?” asked Kell.
“Not much,” said Rhy. “Holland paid a visit. He only just left.”
Kell frowned. Red London and White kept in much closer contact than Red and Grey, but their communication still held a kind of routine. Holland was off schedule by nearly a week.
“What have you come back with tonight?” asked Rhy. “A headache,” said Kell, rubbing his eyes.
“You know what I mean,” countered the prince. “What did you bring through that door?”
“Nothing but a few lins.” Kell spread his arms wide. “Search me if you like,” he added with a smirk. Rhy had never been able to figure out Kell’s coat and its many sides, and Kell was already turning back down the hall, considering the matter done, when Rhy surprised him by reaching not for his pockets but for his shoulders, and pushing him back against the wall. Hard. A
nearby painting of the king and queen shuddered, but did not fall. The guards dotting the hall looked up but did not move from their posts.
Kell was a year older than Rhy but built like an afternoon shadow, tall and slim, while Rhy was built like a statue, and nearly as strong.
“Do not lie,” warned Rhy. “Not to me.”
Kell’s mouth became a hard line. Rhy had caught him, two years before. Not caught in the act, of course, but snagged him in another, more devious way. Trust. The two had been drinking on one of the palace’s many balconies one summer night, the glow of the Isle beneath them and the stretch of sky above, and the truth had stumbled out. Kell had told his brother about the deals he struck in Grey London, and in White, and even on occasion in Red, about the various things he’d smuggled, and Rhy had stared at him, and listened, and when he spoke, it wasn’t to lecture Kell on all the ways it was wrong, or illegal. It was to ask why.
“I don’t know,” said Kell, and it had been the truth.
Rhy had sat up, eyes bleary from drink. “Have we not provided?” he’d asked, visibly upset. “Is there anything you want for?”
“No,” Kell had answered, and that had been a truth and a lie at the same time.
“Are you not loved?” whispered Rhy. “Are you not welcomed as family?” “But I’m not family, Rhy,” Kell had said. “I’m not truly a Maresh, for all
that the king and queen have offered me that name. I feel more like a possession than a prince.”
At that, Rhy had punched him in the face.
For a week after, Kell had two black eyes instead of one, and he’d never spoken like that again, but the damage was done. He’d hoped Rhy would prove too drunk to remember the conversation, but he’d remembered everything. He hadn’t told the king or queen, and Kell supposed he owed Rhy that, but now, every time he traveled, he had to endure Rhy’s questioning and with it, the reminder that what he was doing was foolish and wrong.
Rhy let go of Kell’s shoulders. “Why do you insist on keeping up these pursuits?”
“They amuse me,” said Kell, brushing himself off.
Rhy shook his head. “Look, I’ve turned a blind eye to your childish rebellion for quite a while now, but those doors were shut for a reason,” he warned. “Transference is treason.”
“They’re only trinkets,” said Kell, continuing down the hall. “There’s no real danger in it.”
“There’s plenty,” said Rhy, matching his stride. “Like the danger that awaits you if our parents ever learn—”
“Would you tell them?” asked Kell.
Rhy sighed. Kell watched him try to answer several ways before he finally said, “There is nothing I would not give you.”
Kell’s chest ached. “I know.”
“You are my brother. My closest friend.” “I know.”
“Then put an end to this foolishness, before I do.”
Kell managed a small, tired smile. “Careful, Rhy,” he said. “You’re beginning to sound like a king.”
Rhy’s mouth quirked. “One day I will be. And I need you there beside me.”
Kell smiled back. “Believe me. There’s no place I’d rather be.” It was the truth.
Rhy patted his shoulder and went to bed. Kell shoved his hands into his pockets and watched him go. The people of London—and of the country beyond—loved their prince. And why shouldn’t they? He was young and handsome and kind. Perhaps he played the part of rake too often and too well, but behind the charismatic smile and the flirtatious air was a sharp mind and a good intent, the desire to make everyone around him happy. He had little gift for magic—and even less focus for it—but what he lacked in power he more than made up for in charm. Besides, if Kell had learned anything from his trips to White London, it was that magic made rulers worse, not better.
He continued down the hall to his own rooms, where a dark set of oak doors led onto a sprawling chamber. The Isle’s red glow poured through the open doors of a private balcony, tapestry billowed and dipped in fabric clouds from the high ceiling, and a luxurious canopied bed, filled with feather and lined with silk, stood waiting. Beckoning. It took all of Kell’s will not to collapse into it. Instead, he crossed through the chamber and into a second smaller room lined with books—a variety of tomes on magic, including what little he could find on Antari and their blood commands, the majority destroyed out of fear in the Black London purge—and closed the door behind him. He snapped his fingers absently and a candle perching on the edge of a shelf sparked to life. In its light he could make out a series of marks on the back of the door. An inverted triangle, a set of lines, a circle—simple marks, easy enough to re-create, but specific enough to differentiate. Doors to different places in Red London. His eyes went to the one in the middle. It was made up of two crossed lines. X marks the spot, he thought to himself, pressing his fingers to the most recent cut on his arm—the blood still wet— then tracing the mark.
“As Tascen,” he said tiredly.
The wall gave way beneath his touch, and his private library became a cramped little room, the lush quiet of his royal chambers replaced by the din of the tavern below and the city beyond, much nearer than it had been a mere moment before.
Is Kir Ayes—the Ruby Fields—was the name that swung above the tavern’s door. The place was run by an old woman named Fauna; she had the body of a gran, the mouth of a sailor, and the temper of a drunk. Kell had cut a deal with her when he was young (she was still old then, always old), and the room at the top of the stairs became his.
The room itself was rough and worn and several strides too small, but it belonged entirely to him. Spellwork—and not strictly legal at that—marked the window and the door, so that no one else could find the room, or perceive that it was there. At first glance, the chamber looked fairly empty, but a closer inspection would reveal that the space under the cot and the drawers in the dresser were filled with boxes and in those boxes were treasures from every London.
Kell supposed that he was a Collector, too.
The only items on display were a book of poems, a glass ball filled with black sand, and a set of maps. The poems were by a man named Blake, and had been given to Kell by a Collector in Grey London the year before, the spine already worn to nothing. The glass ball was a trinket from White London, said to show one’s dreams in the sands, but Kell had yet to try it.
The maps were a reminder.
The three canvases were tacked side by side, the sole decoration on the walls. From a distance, they could have passed for the same map—the same outline of the same island country—but up close, only the word London could be found on all three. Grey London. Red London. White London. The map on the left was of Great Britain, from the English Channel up through the tips of Scotland, every facet rendered in detail. By contrast, the map on the right held almost none. Makt, the country called itself, the capital city held by the ruthless Dane twins, but the territory beyond was in constant flux. The map in the middle Kell knew best, for it was home. Arnes. The country’s name was written in elegant script down the length of the island, though in truth, the land on which London stood was only the tip of the royal empire.
Three very different Londons, in three very different countries, and Kell was one of the only living souls to have seen them all. The great irony, he supposed, was that he had never seen the worlds beyond the cities. Bound to the service of his king and crown, and constantly kept within reach, he had never been more than a day’s journey from one London or another.
Fatigue ate at Kell’s body as he stretched and shrugged off his coat. He dug through the pockets until he found the Collector’s parcel, which he set carefully on the bed, gingerly undoing the wrapping to reveal the tiny silver music box inside. The room’s lanterns grew brighter as he held up the trinket to the light, admiring it. The ache in his arm drew him back, and he set the music box aside and turned his attention to the dresser.
A basin of water and a set of jars waited there, and Kell rolled up the sleeve of his black tunic and set to work on his forearm. He moved with expert hands, and in minutes he’d rinsed the skin and applied a salve. There was a blood command for healing—As Hasari—but it wasn’t meant for Antari to use on themselves, especially not for minor wounds, as it took more energy than it afforded health. As it was, the cuts on his arm were already beginning to mend. Antari healed quickly, thanks to the amount of magic in their veins, and by morning the shallow marks would be gone, the skin smooth. He was about to pull down his sleeve when the small shiny scar captured his attention. It always did. Just below the crook of his elbow, the lines were so blurred that the symbol was almost unreadable.
Kell had lived in the palace since he was five. He first noticed the mark when he was twelve. He had spent weeks searching for the rune in the palace libraries. Memory.
He ran his thumb over the scar. Contrary to its name, the symbol wasn’t meant to help one remember. It was meant to make one forget.
Forget a moment. A day. A life. But magic that bound a person’s body or mind was not only forbidden—it was a capital offense. Those accused and convicted were stripped of their power, a fate some found worse than death in a world ruled by magic. And yet, Kell bore the mark of such a spell. Worse, he suspected that the king and queen themselves had sanctioned it.
The initials on his knife. There were so many things he didn’t understand— would never understand—about the weapon, its monogram, and the life that went with it. (Were the letters English? Or Arnesian? The letters could be found in both alphabets. What did the L stand for? Or even the K, for that matter? He knew nothing of the letters that had formed his name—K.L. had become Kay-Ell and Kay-Ell had become Kell.) He was only a child when he was brought to the palace. Had the knife always been his? Or had it been his father’s? A token, something to take with him, something to help him remember who he’d been? Who had he been? The absence of memory ate at him. He often caught himself staring at the center map on the wall, wondering where he’d come from. Who he’d come from.
Whoever they were, they hadn’t been Antari. Magic might live in the blood, but not in the bloodline. It wasn’t passed from parent to child. It chose its own way. Chose its shape. The strong sometimes gave birth to the weak, or the other way around. Fire wielders were often born from water mages, earth movers from healers. Power could not be cultivated like a crop, distilled through generations. If it could, Antari would be sewn and reaped. They were ideal vessels, capable of controlling any element, of drawing any spell, of using their own blood to command the world around them. They were tools, and in the wrong hands, weapons. Perhaps the lack of inheritance was nature’s way of balancing the scales, of maintaining order.
In truth, none knew what led to the birth of an Antari. Some believed that it was random, a lucky throw of dice. Others claimed that Antari were divine, destined for greatness. Some scholars, like Tieren, believed that Antari were the result of transference between the worlds, magic of different kinds intertwining, and that that was why they were dying out. But no matter the theory on how they came to be, most believed that Antari were sacred. Chosen by magic or blessed by it, perhaps. But certainly marked by it.
Kell brought his fingers absently to his right eye.
Whatever one chose to believe, the fact remained that Antari had grown even more rare, and therefore more precious. Their talent had always made them something to be coveted, but now their scarcity made them something to be gathered and guarded and kept. Possessed. And whether or not Rhy wanted to admit it, Kell belonged to the royal collection.
He took up the silver music box, winding the tiny metal crank.
A valuable trinket, he thought, but a trinket all the same. The song started, tickling his palm like a bird, but he didn’t set down the box. Instead, he held it tight, the notes whispering out as he fell back onto the stiff cot and considered the small beautiful contraption.
How had he ended up on this shelf? What had happened when his eye turned black? Was he born that way and hidden, or did the mark of magic manifest? Five years. Five years he’d been someone else’s son. Had they been sad to let him go? Or had they gratefully offered him up to the crown?
The king and queen refused to tell him of his past, and he’d learned to stop voicing his questions, but fatigue wore away his walls, and let them through.
What life had he forgotten?
Kell’s hand fell away from his face as he chided himself. How much could a child of five really have to remember? Whoever he’d been before he was brought to the palace, that person didn’t matter anymore.
That person didn’t exist.
The music box’s song faltered and came to a stop, and Kell rewound it again, and closed his eyes, letting the Grey London melody and the Red London air drag him down to sleep.