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Chapter no 8

A Darker Shade of Magic

The Sea King wasn’t nearly as impressive as the name suggested.

The ship leaned heavily against the dock, its paint stripped by salt, its wooden hull half rotted in some places, and fully rotted in others. The whole thing seemed to be sinking very, very slowly into the Thames.

The only thing keeping the boat up appeared to be the dock itself, the state of which wasn’t much better, and Lila wondered if one day the side of the ship and the boards of the dock would simply rot together or crumble away into the murky bay.

Powell claimed that the Sea King was as sturdy as ever. Still fit for the high seas, he swore. Lila thought it was hardly fit for the sway of the London port’s swells.

She put a boot up on the ramp, and the boards groaned underfoot, the sound rippling back until it seemed like the whole boat was protesting her arrival. A protest she ignored as she climbed aboard, loosening the cloak’s knot at her throat.

Lila’s body ached for sleep, but she carried out her nightly ritual, crossing the dock to the ship’s bow and curling her fingers around the wheel. The cold wood against her palms, the gentle roll of the deck beneath her feet, it all felt right. Lila Bard knew in her bones that she was meant to be a pirate. All she needed was a working ship. And once she had one … A breeze caught up her coat, and for a moment she saw herself far from the London port, far from any land, plowing forward across the high seas. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the feel of the sea breeze rushing through her threadbare sleeves. The beat of the ocean against the ship’s sides. The thrill of freedom—true freedom

—and adventure. She tipped her chin up as an imaginary spray of salty water tickled her chin. She drew a deep breath and smiled at the taste of the sea air. By the time she opened her eyes, she was surprised to find the Sea King just as it had been. Docked and dead.

Lila pushed off the rail and made her way across the deck, and for the first time all night, as her boots echoed on the wood, she felt something like safe. She knew it wasn’t safe, knew nowhere in the city was, not a plush carriage in

Mayfair and certainly not a half-rotten ship on the dodgy end of the docks, but it felt a little something like it. Familiar … was that it? Or maybe simply hidden. That was as close to safe as it got. No eyes watched her cross the deck. None saw her descend the steep set of steps that ran into the ship’s bones and bowels. None followed her through the dank little hall, or into the cabin at the end.

The knot at her throat finally came loose, and Lila pulled the cloak from her shoulders and tossed it onto a cot that hugged one of the cabin walls. It fell fluttering to the bed, soon followed by the top hat, which spilled its disguise like jewels onto the dark fabric. A small coal stove sat in the corner, the embers barely enough to warm the room. Lila stirred them up and used the stick to light a couple of tallow candles scattered around the cabin. She then tugged off her gloves and lobbed them onto the cot with the rest. Finally, she slid off her belt, freeing holster and dagger both from the leather strap. They weren’t her only weapons, of course, but they were the only ones she bothered to take off. The knife was nothing special, just wickedly sharp—she tossed it onto the bed with the rest of the discarded things—but the pistol was a gem, a flintlock revolver that had fallen out of a wealthy dead man’s hand and into hers the year before. Caster—for all good weapons deserved a name

—was a beauty of a gun, and she slipped him gently, almost reverently, into

the drawer of her desk.

The thrill of the night had gone cold with the walk to the docks, excitement burned to ash, and Lila found herself slouching into a chair. It protested as much as everything else on the ship, groaning roundly as she kicked her boots up onto the desk, the worn wooden surface of which was piled with maps, most rolled, but one spread and pinned in place by stones or stolen trinkets. It was her favorite one, that map, because none of the places on it were labeled. Surely, someone knew what kind of map it was, and where it led, but Lila didn’t. To her, it was a map to anywhere.

A large slab of mirror sat propped on the desk, leaning back against the hull wall, its edges fogged and silvering. Lila found her gaze in the glass and cringed a little. She ran her fingers through her hair. It was ragged and dark and scraped against her jaw.

Lila was nineteen.

Nineteen, and every one of the years felt carved into her. She poked at the skin under her eyes, tugged at her cheeks, ran a finger along her lips. It had been a long time since anyone had called her pretty.

Not that Lila wanted to be pretty. Pretty wouldn’t serve her well. And lord knew she didn’t envy the ladies with their cinched corsets and abundant

skirts, their falsetto laughs and the ridiculous way they used them. The way they swooned and leaned on men, feigning weakness to savor their strength.

Why anyone would ever pretend to be weak was beyond her.

Lila tried to picture herself as one of the ladies she’d stolen from that night

—so easy to get tangled up in all that fabric, so easy to stumble and be caught

—and smiled. How many ladies had flirted with her? Swooned and leaned and pretended to marvel at her strength?

She felt the weight of the night’s take in her pocket. Enough.

It served them right, for playing weak. Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to swoon at every top hat and take hold of every offered hand.

Lila tipped her head back against the back of the chair. She could hear Powell in his quarters, acting out his own nightly routine of drinking and cursing and muttering stories to the bowed walls of the rotting ship. Stories of lands he’d never visited. Maidens he’d never wooed. Treasures he’d never plundered. He was a liar and a drunkard and a fool—she’d seen him be all three on any given night in the Barren Tide—but he had an extra cabin and she had need of one, and they had reached an agreement. She lost a cut of every night’s take to his hospitality, and in return he forgot that he was renting the room to a wanted criminal, let alone a girl.

Powell rambled on within his room. He carried on for hours, but Lila was so used to the noise that soon it faded in with the other groans and moans and murmurings of the old Sea King.

Her head had just started to slump when someone knocked on her door three times. Well, someone knocked twice, but was clearly too drunk to finish the third, dragging their hand down the wood. Lila’s boots slid from the desk and landed heavily on the floor.

“What is it?” she called, getting to her feet as the door swung open. Powell stood there, swaying from drink and the gentle rock of the boat.

“Liiiila,” he sang her name. “Liiiiilaaaaaa.” “What?”

A bottle sloshed in one hand. He held out the other, palm up. “My cut.” Lila shoved her hand into her pocket and came out with a handful of coins.

Most of them were faded, but a few bits of silver glinted in the mix, and she picked them out and dropped them into Powell’s palm. He closed his fist and jingled the money.

“It’s not enough,” he said as she returned the coppers to her pocket. She felt the silver watch in her vest, warm against her ribs, but didn’t pull it out. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe she’d taken a liking to the timepiece after all. Or

maybe she was afraid that if she started offering such pricey goods, Powell would come to expect them.

“Slow night,” she said, crossing her arms. “I’ll make up the difference tomorrow.”

“You’re trouble,” slurred Powell.

“Indeed,” she said, flashing a grin. Her tone was sweet but her teeth were sharp.

“Maybe more trouble than you’re worth,” he slurred. “Certainly more than you’re worth tonight.”

“I’ll get you the rest tomorrow,” she said, hands slipping back to her side. “You’re drunk. Go to bed.” She started to turn away, but Powell caught her elbow.

“I’ll take it tonight,” he said with a sneer. “I said I don’t—”

The bottle tumbled from Powell’s other hand as he forced her back into the desk, pinning her with his hips.

“Doesn’t have to be coin,” he whispered, dragging his eyes down her shirtfront. “Must be a girl’s body under there somewhere.” His hands began to roam, and Lila drove her knee into his stomach and sent him staggering backward.

“Shouldn’t a done that,” growled Powell, face red. His fingers fumbled with his buckle. Lila didn’t wait. She went for the pistol in the drawer, but Powell’s head snapped up and he lunged and caught her wrist, dragging her toward him. He threw her bodily back onto the cot, and she landed on the hat and the gloves and the cloak and the discarded knife.

Lila scrambled for the dagger as Powell charged forward. He grabbed her knee as her fingers wrapped around the leather sheath. He jerked her toward him as she drew the blade free, and when he caught her other hand with his, she used his grip to pull herself to her feet and drive the knife into his gut.

And just like that, all the struggle went out of the cramped little room.

Powell stared down at the blade jutting out of his front, eyes wide with surprise, and for a moment it looked like he might carry on despite it, but Lila knew how to use a knife, knew where to cut to hurt and where to cut to kill.

Powell’s grip on her tightened. And then it went slack. He swayed and frowned, and then his knees buckled.

“Shouldn’t a done that,” she echoed, pulling the knife free before he could collapse forward onto it.

Powell’s body hit the floor and stayed there. Lila stared down at it a moment, marveling at the stillness, the quiet broken only by her pulse and the hush of the water against the hull of the ship. She toed the man with her boot.

Dead.

Dead … and making a mess.

Blood was spreading across the boards, filling in the cracks and dripping through to lower parts of the ship. Lila needed to do something. Now.

She crouched, wiped her blade on Powell’s shirt, and recovered the silver from his pocket. And then she stepped over his body, retrieved the revolver from its drawer, and got dressed. When the belt was back around her waist and the cloak around her shoulders, she took up the bottle of whiskey from the floor. It hadn’t broken when it fell. Lila pulled the cork free with her teeth and emptied the contents onto Powell, even though there was probably enough alcohol in his blood to burn without it.

She took up a candle and was about to touch it to the floor when she remembered the map. The one to anywhere. She freed it from the desk and tucked it under her cloak, and then, with a last look around the room, she set fire to the dead man and the boat.

Lila stood on the dock and watched the Sea King burn.

She stared up at it, face warmed by the fire that danced on her chin and cheeks the way the lamp light had before the constable. It’s a shame, she thought. She’d rather liked the rotting ship. But it wasn’t hers. No, hers would be much better.

The Sea King groaned as the flames gnawed its skin and then its bones, and Lila watched the dead ship begin to sink. She stayed until she could hear the far-off cries and the sound of boots, too late, of course, but coming all the same.

And then she sighed and went in search of another place to spend the night.

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