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Authors: V.E. Schwab

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fantasy

A Darker Shade of Magic (7 page)

BOOK: A Darker Shade of Magic
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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.

III
GREY THIEF
I

Lila Bard lived by a simple rule: if a thing was worth having, it was worth taking.

She held the silver pocket watch up to the faint glow of the streetlamp, admiring the metal’s polished shine, wondering what the engraved initials—
L.L.E.
—on the back might stand for. She’d nicked the watch off a gentleman, a clumsy collision on a too-crowded curb that had led to a swift apology, a hand on the shoulder to distract from a hand on the coat. Lila’s fingers weren’t just fast; they were light. A tip of the top hat and a pleasant good night, and she was the proud new owner of a timepiece, and he was on his way and none the wiser.

She didn’t care about the object itself, but she cared a great deal for what it bought her: freedom. A poor excuse for it, to be sure, but better than a prison or a poorhouse. She ran a gloved thumb over the crystal watch face.

“Do you have the time?” asked a man at her shoulder.

Lila’s eyes flicked up. It was a constable.

Her hand went to the brim of her top hat—stolen from a dozing chauffeur the week before—and she hoped the gesture passed for a greeting and not a nervous slip, an attempt to hide her face.

“Half past nine,” she murmured deeply, tucking the watch into the vest pocket under her cloak, careful not to let the constable catch sight of the various weapons glittering beneath it. Lila was tall and thin, with a boyish frame that helped her pass for a young man, but only from a distance. Too close an inspection, and the illusion would crumble.

Lila knew she should turn and go while she could, but when the constable searched for something to light his pipe and came up empty, she found herself fetching up a sliver of wood from the street. She put one boot up on the base of the lamppost and stepped lithely up to light the stick in the flame. Lantern light glanced off her jawline, lips, cheekbones, the edges of her face exposed beneath the top hat. A delicious thrill ran through her chest, spurned on by the closeness of danger, and Lila wondered, not for the first time, if something was wrong with her. Barron used to say so, but Barron was a bore.

Looking for trouble
, he’d say.
You’re gonna look till you find it.

Trouble is the looker
, she’d answer.
It keeps looking till it finds you. Might as well find it first.

Why do you want to die?

I don’t
, she’d say.
I just want to live.

She stepped down from the lamppost, her face plunging back into her hat’s shadow as she handed the constable the burning sliver of wood. He offered a muttered thanks and lit the pipe, gave a few puffs, and seemed about to go, but then he paused. Lila’s heart gave a nervous flutter as he considered her again, this time more carefully. “You ought to be mindful, sir,” he said at last. “Out alone at night. Likely to get your pocket picked.”

“Robbers?” asked Lila, struggling to keep her voice low. “Surely not in Eaton.”

“Aye.” The constable nodded and pulled a folded sheet of paper from his coat. Lila reached out and took it, even though she knew at first glance what it was. A
WANTED
poster. She stared down at a sketch that was little more than a shadowy outline wearing a mask—a haphazard swatch of fabric over the eyes—and a broad brim hat. “Been picking pockets, even robbed a few gentlemen and a lady outright. Expect that mess, of course, but not ’round here. A right audacious crook, this one.”

Lila fought back a smile. It was true. Nicking spare change in South Bank was one thing, stealing silver and gold from the carriage-bound in Mayfair quite another, but thieves were fools to stay in slums. The poor kept up their guards. The rich strutted around, assuming they’d be safe, so long as they stayed in the good parts of town. But Lila knew there were no good parts. Only smart parts and stupid parts, and she was quick enough to know which one to play.

She handed back the paper and tipped the stolen top hat to the constable. “I’ll mind my pockets, then.”

“Do,” urged the constable. “Not like it used to be. Nothing is …” He ambled away, sucking on his pipe and muttering about the way the world was falling apart or some such—Lila couldn’t hear the rest over the thudding pulse in her ears.

The moment he was out of sight, Lila sighed and slumped back against the lamppost, dizzy with relief. She dragged the top hat from her head and considered the mask and the broad brim cap stuffed inside. She smiled to herself. And then she put the hat back on, pushed off the post, and made her way to the docks, whistling as she walked.

II

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.

BOOK: A Darker Shade of Magic
9.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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