Delilah Bard—always a thief, recently a magician, and one day, hopefully, a pirate—was running as fast as she could.
Hold on, Kell, she thought as she sprinted through the streets of Red London, still clutching the shard of stone that had once been part of Astrid Dane’s mouth. A token stolen in another life, when magic and the idea of multiple worlds were new to her. When she had only just discovered that people could be possessed, or bound like rope, or turned to stone.
Fireworks thundered in the distance, met by cheers and chants and music, all the sounds of a city celebrating the end of the Essen Tasch, the tournament of magic. A city oblivious to the horror happening at its heart. And back at the palace, the prince of Arnes—Rhy—was dying, which meant that somewhere, a world away, so was Kell.
Kell. The name rang through her with all the force of an order, a plea.
Lila reached the road she was looking for and staggered to a stop, knife already out, blade pressing to the flesh of her hand. Her heart pounded as she turned her back on the chaos and pressed her bleeding palm—and the stone still curled within it—to the nearest wall.
Twice before Lila had made this journey, but always as a passenger.
Always using Kell’s magic.
Never her own.
And never alone.
But there was no time to think, no time to be afraid, and certainly no time to wait.
Chest heaving and pulse high, Lila swallowed and said the words, as boldly as she could. Words that belonged only on the lips of a blood magician. An Antari. Like Holland. Like Kell.
The magic sang up her arm, and through her chest, and then the city lurched around her, gravity twisting as the world gave way.
Lila thought it would be easy or, at least, simple.
Something you either survived, or did not.
She was wrong.
A world away, Holland was drowning.
He fought to the surface of his own mind, only to be forced back down into the dark water by a will as strong as iron. He fought, and clawed, and gasped for air, strength leaching out with every violent thrash, every desperate struggle. It was worse than dying, because dying gave way to death, and this did not.
There was no light. No air. No strength. It had all been taken, severed, leaving only darkness and, somewhere beyond the crush, a voice shouting his name.
Too far away.
Holland’s grip faltered, slipped, and he was sinking again.
All he had ever wanted was to bring the magic back—to see his world spared from its slow, inexorable death—a death caused first by the fear of another London, and then by the fear of his own.
All Holland wanted was to see his world restored.
He knew the legends—the dreams—of a magician powerful enough to do it. Strong enough to breathe air back into its starved lungs, to quicken its dying heart.
For as long as Holland could remember, that was all he’d wanted.
And for as long as Holland could remember, he had wanted the magician to be him.
Even before the darkness bloomed across his eye, branding him with the mark of power, he’d wanted it to be him. He’d stood on the banks of the Sijlt as a child, skating stones across the frozen surface, imagining that he would be the one to crack the ice. Stood in the Silver Wood as a grown man, praying for the strength to protect his home. He’d never wanted to be king, though in the stories the magician always was. He didn’t want to rule the world. He only wanted to save it.
Athos Dane had called this arrogance, that first night, when Holland was dragged, bleeding and half conscious, into the new king’s chambers. Arrogance and pride, he’d chided, as he carved his curse into Holland’s skin.
Things to be broken.
And Athos had. He’d broken Holland one bone, one day, one order at a time. Until all Holland wanted, more than the ability to save his world, more than the strength to bring the magic back, more than anything, was for it to end.
It was cowardice, he knew, but cowardice came so much easier than hope.
And in that moment by the bridge, when Holland lowered his guard and let the spoiled princeling Kell drive the metal bar through his chest, the first thing he felt—the first and last and only thing he felt—was relief.
That it was finally over.
Only it wasn’t.
It is a hard thing, to kill an Antari.
When Holland woke, lying in a dead garden, in a dead city, in a dead world, the first thing he felt then was pain. The second thing was freedom. Athos Dane’s hold was gone, and Holland was alive—broken, but alive.
Trapped in a wounded body in a world with no door at the mercy of another king. But this time, he had a choice.
A chance to set things right.
He’d stood, half dead, before the onyx throne, and spoken to the king carved in stone, and traded freedom for a chance to save his London, to see it bloom again. Holland made the deal, paid with his own body and soul. And with the shadow king’s power, he had finally brought the magic back, seen his world bloom into color, his people’s hope revived, his city restored.
He’d done everything he could, given up everything he had, to keep it safe.
But it still was not enough.
Not for the shadow king, who always wanted more, who grew stronger every day and craved chaos, magic in its truest form, power without control.
Holland was losing hold of the monster in his skin.
And so he’d done the only thing he could.
He’d offered Osaron another vessel.
“Very well …” said the king, the demon, the god. “But if they cannot be persuaded, I will keep your body as my own.”
And Holland agreed—how could he not?
Anything for London.
And Kell—spoiled, childish, headstrong Kell, broken and powerless and snared by that damned collar—had still refused.
Of course he had refused.
The shadow king had smiled then, with Holland’s own mouth, and he had fought, with everything he could summon, but a deal was a deal and the deal was done and he felt Osaron surge up—that single, violent motion—and Holland was shoved down, into the dark depths of his own mind, forced under by the current of the shadow king’s will.
Helpless, trapped within a body, within a deal, unable to do anything but watch, and feel, and drown.
Kell’s voice cracked as he strained his broken body against the frame, the way Holland had once, when Athos Dane first bound him. Broke him. The cage leached away most of Kell’s power; the collar around his throat cut off the rest. There was a terror in Kell’s eyes, a desperation that surprised him.
“Holland, you bastard, fight back!”
He tried, but his body was no longer his, and his mind, his tired mind, was sinking down, down—
Give in, said the shadow king.
“Show me you’re not weak!” Kell’s voice pushed through. “Prove you’re not still a slave to someone else’s will!”
You cannot fight me.
“Did you really come all the way back to lose like this?”
I’ve already won.
Holland hated Kell, and in that moment, the hatred was almost enough to drive him up, but even if he wanted to rise to the other Antari’s bait, Osaron was unyielding.
Holland heard his own voice, then, but of course it wasn’t his. A twisted imitation by the monster wearing his skin. In Holland’s hand, a crimson coin, a token to another London, Kell’s London, and Kell was swearing and throwing himself against his bonds until his chest heaved and his wrists were bloody.
It was all useless.
Once again he was a prisoner in his own body. Kell’s voice echoed through the dark.
You’ve just traded one master for another.
They were moving now, Osaron guiding Holland’s body. The door closed behind them, but Kell’s screams still hurled themselves against the wood, shattering into broken syllables and strangled cries.
Ojka stood in the hall, sharpening her knives. She looked up, revealing the crescent scar on one cheek, and her two-toned eyes, one yellow, the other black. An Antari forged by their hands—by their mercy.
“Your Majesty,” she said, straightening.
Holland tried to rise up, tried to force his voice across their—his—lips, but when speech came, the words were Osaron’s.
“Guard the door. Let no one pass.”
A flicker of a smile across the red slash of Ojka’s mouth. “As you wish.”
The palace passed in a blur, and then they were outside, passing the statues of the Dane twins at the base of the stairs, moving swiftly beneath a bruised sky through a garden now flanked by trees instead of bodies.
What would become of it, without Osaron, without him? Would the city continue to flourish? Or would it collapse, like a body stripped of life?
Please, he begged silently. This world needs me.
“There is no point,” said Osaron aloud, and Holland felt sick to be the thought in their head instead of the word. “It is already dead,” continued the king. “We will start over. We will find a world worthy of our strength.”
They reached the garden wall and Osaron drew a dagger from the sheath at their waist. The bite of steel on flesh was nothing, as if Holland had been cut off from his very senses, buried too deep to feel anything but Osaron’s grip. But as the shadow king’s fingers streaked through the blood and lifted Kell’s coin to the wall, Holland struggled up one last time.
He couldn’t win back his body—not yet—not all of it—but perhaps he didn’t need everything.
One hand. Five fingers.
He threw every ounce of strength, every shred of will, into that one limb, and halfway to the wall, it stopped, hovering in the air.
Blood trickled down his wrist. Holland knew the words to break a body, to turn it to ice, or ash, or stone.
All he had to do was guide his hand to his own chest.
All he had to do was shape the magic—
Holland could feel the annoyance ripple through Osaron. Annoyance, but not rage, as if this last stand, this great protest, was nothing but an itch.
Holland kept fighting, even managed to guide his hand an inch, two.
Let go, Holland, warned the creature in his head.
Holland forced the last of his will into his hand, dragging it another inch.
It did not have to be this way.
Osaron’s will hit him like a wall. His body didn’t move, but his mind slammed backward, pinned beneath a crushing pain. Not the pain he’d felt a hundred times, the kind he’d learned to exist beyond, outside, the kind he might escape. This pain was rooted in his very core. It lit him up, sudden and bright, every nerve burning with such searing heat that he screamed and screamed and screamed inside his head, until the darkness finally—mercifully—closed over him, forcing him under and down.
And this time, Holland didn’t try to surface.
This time, he let himself drown.
Kell kept throwing himself against the metal cage long after the door slammed shut and the bolt slid home. His voice still echoed against the pale stone walls. He had screamed himself hoarse. But still, no one came. Fear pounded through him, but what scared Kell most was the loosening in his chest—the unhinging of a vital link, the spreading sense of loss.
He could hardly feel his brother’s pulse.
Could hardly feel anything but the pain in his wrists and a horrible numbing cold. He twisted against the metal frame, fighting the restraints, but they held fast. Spell work was scrawled down the sides of the contraption, and despite the quantity of Kell’s blood smeared on the steel, there was the collar circling his throat, cutting off everything he needed. Everything he had. Everything he was. The collar cast a shadow over his mind, an icy film over his thoughts, cold dread and sorrow and, through it all, an absence of hope. Of strength. Give up, it whispered through his blood. You have nothing. You are nothing. Powerless.
He’d never been powerless.
He didn’t know how to be powerless.
Panic rose in place of magic.
He had to get out.
Out of this cage.
Out of this collar.
Out of this world.
Rhy had carved a word into his own skin to bring Kell home, and he’d turned around and left again. Abandoned the prince, the crown, the city. Followed a woman in white through a door in the world because she told him he was needed, told him he could help, told him it was his fault, that he had to make it right.
Kell’s heart faltered in his chest.
No—not his heart. Rhy’s. A life bound to his with magic he no longer had. The panic flared again, a breath of heat against the numbing cold, and Kell clung to it, pushing back against the collar’s hollow dread. He straightened in the frame, clenched his teeth and pulled against his cuffs until he felt the crack of bone inside his wrist, the tear of flesh. Blood fell in thick red drops to the stone floor, vibrant but useless. He bit back a scream as metal dragged over—and into—skin. Pain knifed up his arm, but he kept pulling, metal scraping muscle and then bone before his right hand finally came free.
Kell slumped back with a gasp and tried to wrap his bloody, limp fingers around the collar, but the moment they touched the metal, a horrible pins-and-needles cold seared up his arm, swam in his head.
“As Steno,” he pleaded. Break.
No power rose to meet the word.
Kell let out a sob and sagged against the frame. The room tilted and tunneled, and he felt his mind sliding toward darkness, but he forced his body to stay upright, forced himself to swallow the bile rising in his throat. He curled his skinned and splintered hand around his still-trapped arm, and began to pull.
It was minutes—but it felt like hours, years—before Kell finally tore himself free.
He stumbled forward out of the frame, and swayed on his feet. The metal cuffs had cut deep into his wrists—too deep—and the pale stone beneath his feet was slick with red.
Is this yours? whispered a voice.
A memory of Rhy’s young face twisted in horror at the sight of Kell’s ruined forearms, the blood streaked across the prince’s chest. Is this all yours?
Now the collar dripped red as Kell frantically pulled on the metal. His fingers ached with cold as he found the clasp and clawed at it, but still it held. His focus blurred. He slipped in his own blood and went down, catching himself with broken hands. Kell cried out, curling in on himself even as he screamed at his body to rise.
He had to get up.
He had to get back to Red London.
He had to stop Holland—stop Osaron.
He had to save Rhy.
He had to, he had to, he had to—but in that moment, all Kell could do was lie on the cold marble, warmth spreading in a thin red pool around him.
The prince collapsed back against the bed, soaked through with sweat, choking on the metal taste of blood. Voices rose and fell around him, the room a blur of shadows, shards of light. A scream tore through his head, but his own jaw locked in pain. Pain that was and wasn’t his.
Rhy doubled over, coughing up blood and bile.
He tried to rise—he had to get up, had to find his brother—but hands surged from the darkness, fought him, held him down against silk sheets, fingers digging into shoulders and wrists and knees, and the pain was there again, vicious and jagged, peeling back flesh, dragging its nails over bone. Rhy tried to remember. Kell—arrested. His cell—empty. Searching the sun-dappled orchard. Calling his brother’s name. Then, out of nowhere, pain, sliding between his ribs, just as it had that night, a horrible, severing thing, and he couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t let go,” said a voice.
“Stay with me.”
* * *
Rhy learned early the difference between want and need.
Being the son and heir—the only heir—of the Maresh family, the light of Arnes, the future of the empire, meant that he had never (as a nursery minder once informed him, before being removed from the royal service) experienced true need. Clothes, horses, instruments, fineries—all he had to do was ask for a thing, and it was given.
And yet, the young prince wanted—deeply—a thing that could not be fetched. He wanted what coursed in the blood of so many low-born boys and girls. What came so easily to his father, to his mother, to Kell.
Rhy wanted magic.
Wanted it with a fire that rivaled any need.
His royal father had a gift for metals, and his mother an easy touch with water, but magic wasn’t like black hair or brown eyes or elevated birth—it didn’t follow the rules of lineage, wasn’t passed down from parent to child. It chose its own course.
And already at the age of nine, it was beginning to look as though magic hadn’t chosen him at all.
But Rhy Maresh refused to believe that he’d been passed over entirely; it had to be there, somewhere within him, that flame of power waiting for a well-timed breath, a poker’s nudge. After all, he was a prince. And if magic would not come to him, he’d go to it.
It was that logic that had brought him here, to the stone floor of the Sanctuary’s drafty old library, shivering as the cold leached through the embroidered silk of his pant legs (designed for the palace, where it was always warm).
Whenenever Rhy complained about the chill in the Sanctuary, old Tieren would crinkle his brow.
Magic makes its own warmth, he’d say, which was well and good if you were a magician, but then, Rhy wasn’t.
This time he hadn’t complained. Hadn’t even told the head priest he was here.
The young prince crouched in an alcove at the back of the library, hidden behind a statue and a long wooden table, and spread the stolen parchment on the floor.
Rhy had been born with light fingers—but of course, being royal, he almost never had to use them. People were always willing to offer things freely, indeed leaping at the ready to deliver, from a cloak on a chilly day to a frosted cake from the kitchens.
But Rhy hadn’t asked for the scroll; he’d lifted it from Tieren’s desk, one of a dozen tied with the thin white ribbon that marked a priest’s spell. None of them were all that fancy or elaborate, much to Rhy’s chagrin. Instead they focused on utility.
Spells to keep the food from spoiling.
Spells to protect the orchard trees from frost.
Spells to keep a fire burning without oil.
And Rhy would try every single one until he found a spell that he could do. A spell that would speak to the magic surely sleeping in his veins. A spell that could wake it up.
A breeze whipped through the Sanctuary as he dug a handful of red lin from his pocket and weighted the parchment to the floor. On its surface, in the head priest’s steady hand, was a map—not like the one in his father’s war room that showed the whole kingdom. No, this was a map of a spell, a diagram of magic.
Across the top of the scroll were three words in the common tongue.
Is Anos Vol, read Rhy.
The Eternal Flame.
Beneath those words was a pair of concentric circles, linked by delicate lines and dotted with small symbols, the condensed shorthand favored by the spell-makers of London. Rhy squinted, trying to make sense of the scrawl. He had a knack for languages, picking up the airy cadence of the Faroan tongue, the choppy waves made by each Veskan syllable, the hills and valleys of Arnes’s own border dialects—but the words on the parchment seemed to shift and blur before his eyes, sliding in and out of focus.
He chewed his lip (it was a bad habit, one his mother was always warning him to break because it wasn’t princely), then planted his hands on either side of the paper, fingertips brushing the outer circle, and began the spell.
He focused his eyes on the center of the page as he read, sounding out each word, the fragments clumsy and broken on his tongue. His pulse rose in his ears, the beat at odds with the natural rhythm of the magic. But Rhy held the spell together, pinned it down with sheer force of will, and as he neared the end a tingling of heat started in his hands; he could feel it trickling through his palms, into his fingers, brushing the circle’s edge, and then …
He said the spell once, twice, three more times, but the heat in his hands was already fading, dissolving into an ordinary prickle of numbness. Dejected, he let the words trail off, taking the last of his focus with them.
The prince sagged back onto the cold stones. “Sanct,” he muttered, even though he knew it was bad form to swear, and worse to do it here.
“What are you doing?”
Rhy looked up and saw his brother standing at the mouth of the alcove, a red cloak around his narrow shoulders. Even at ten and three quarters, Kell’s face had the set of a serious man, down to the furrow between his brows. Kell’s red hair glinted even in the grey morning light, and his eyes—one blue, the other black as night—made people look down, away. Rhy didn’t understand why, but he always made a point of looking his brother in the face, to show Kell it didn’t matter. Eyes were eyes.
Kell wasn’t really his brother, of course. Even a passing look would mark them as different. Kell was a mixture, like different kinds of clay twined together; he had the fair skin of a Veskan, the lanky body of a Faroan, and the copper hair found only on the northern edge of Arnes. And then, of course, there were his eyes. One natural, if not particularly Arnesian, and the other Antari, marked by magic itself as aven. Blessed.
Rhy, on the other hand, with his warm brown skin, his black hair and amber eyes, was all London, all Maresh, all royal.
Kell took in the prince’s high color, and then the parchment spread out before him. He knelt across from Rhy, the fabric of his cloak pooling on the stones around him. “Where did you get this?” he asked, a prickle of displeasure in his voice.
“From Tieren,” said Rhy. His brother shot him a skeptical look, and Rhy amended, “From Tieren’s study.”
Kell skimmed the spell and frowned. “An eternal flame?”
Rhy absently plucked one of the lin from the floor and shrugged. “First thing I grabbed.” He tried to sound as if he didn’t care about the stupid spell, but his throat was tight, his eyes burning. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, skipping the coin across the ground as if it were a pebble on water. “I can’t make it work.”
Kell shifted his weight, lips moving silently as he read over the priest’s scrawl. He held his hands above the paper, palms cupped as if cradling a flame that wasn’t even there yet, and began to recite the spell. When Rhy had tried, the words had fallen out like rocks, but on Kell’s lips, they were poetry, smooth and sibilant.
The air around them warmed instantly, steam rising from the penned lines on the scroll before the ink drew in and up into a bead of oil, and lit.
The flame hovered in the air between Kell’s hands, brilliant and white.
He made it look so easy, and Rhy felt a flash of anger toward his brother, hot as a spark—but just as brief.
It wasn’t Kell’s fault Rhy couldn’t do magic. Rhy started to rise when Kell caught his cuff. He guided Rhy’s hands to either side of the spell, pulling the prince into the fold of his magic. Warmth tickled Rhy’s palms, and he was torn between delight at the power and knowledge that it wasn’t his.
“It isn’t right,” he murmured. “I’m the crown prince, the heir of Maxim Maresh. I should be able to light a blasted candle.”
Kell chewed his lip—Mother never chided him for the habit—and then said, “There are different kinds of power.”
“I would rather have magic than a crown,” sulked Rhy.
Kell studied the small white flame between them. “A crown is a sort of magic, if you think about it. A magician rules an element. A king rules an empire.”
“Only if the king is strong enough.”
Kell looked up, then. “You’re going to be a good king, if you don’t get yourself killed first.”
Rhy blew out a breath, shuddering the flame. “How do you know?”
At that, Kell smiled. It was a rare thing, and Rhy wanted to hold fast to it—he was the only one who could make his brother smile, and he wore it like a badge—but then Kell said, “Magic,” and Rhy wanted to slug him instead.
“You’re an arse,” he muttered, trying to pull away, but his brother’s fingers tightened.
“Don’t let go.”
“Get off,” said Rhy, first playfully, but then, as the fire grew brighter and hotter between his palms, he repeated in earnest, “Stop. You’re hurting me.”
Heat licked his fingers, a white-hot pain lancing through his hands and up his arms.
“Stop,” he pleaded. “Kell, stop.” But when Rhy looked up from the glowing fire to his brother’s face, it wasn’t a face at all. Nothing but a pool of darkness. Rhy gasped, tried to scramble away, but his brother was no longer flesh and blood but stone, hands carved into cuffs around Rhy’s wrists.
This wasn’t right, he thought, it had to be a dream—a nightmare—but the heat of the fire and the crushing pressure on his wrists were both so real, worsening with every heartbeat, every breath.
The flame between them went long and thin, sharpening into a blade of light, its tip pointed first at the ceiling, and then, slowly, horribly, at Rhy. He fought, and screamed, but it did nothing to stop the knife as it blazed and buried itself in his chest.
Make it stop.
It carved its way across his ribs, lit his bones, tore through his heart. Rhy tried to scream, and retched smoke. His chest was a ragged wound of light.
Kell’s voice came, not from the statue, but from somewhere else. Somewhere far away and fading. Don’t let go.
But it hurt. It hurt so much.
Rhy was burning from the inside out.
* * *
For a moment, the black gave way to streaks of color, a ceiling of billowing fabric, a familiar face hovering at the edge of his tear-blurred sight, stormy eyes wide with worry.
“Luc?” rasped Rhy.
“I’m here,” answered Alucard. “I’m here. Stay with me.”
He tried to speak, but his heart slammed against his ribs as if trying to break through.
It redoubled, then faltered.
“Have they found Kell?” said a voice.
“Get away from me,” ordered another.
Rhy’s vision blurred.
The room wavered, the voices dulled, the pain giving way to something worse, the white-hot agony of the invisible knife dissolving into cold as his body fought and failed and fought and failed and failed and—
No, he pleaded, but he could feel the threads breaking one by one inside him until there was nothing left to hold him up.
Until Alucard’s face vanished, and the room fell away.
Until the darkness wrapped its heavy arms around Rhy, and buried him.
Alucard Emery wasn’t used to feeling powerless.
Mere hours earlier, he’d won the Essen Tasch and been named the strongest magician in the three empires. But now, sitting by Rhy’s bed, he had no idea what to do. How to help. How to save him.
The magician watched as the prince curled in on himself, deathly pale against the tangled sheets, watched as Rhy cried out in pain, attacked by something even Alucard couldn’t see, couldn’t fight. And he would have—would have gone to the end of the world to keep Rhy safe. But whatever was killing him, it wasn’t here.
“What is happening?” he’d asked a dozen times. “What can I do?”
But no one answered, so he was left piecing together the queen’s pleas and the king’s orders, Lila’s urgent words and the echoes of the royal guards’ searching voices, all of them calling for Kell.
Alucard sat forward, clutching the prince’s hand, and watched the threads of magic around Rhy’s body fray, threatening to snap.
Others looked at the world and saw light and shadow and color, but Alucard Emery had always been able to see more. Had always been able to see the warp and weft of power, the pattern of magic. Not just the aura of a spell, the residue of an enchantment, but the tint of true magic circling a person, pulsing through their veins. Everyone could see the Isle’s red light, but Alucard saw the entire world in streaks of vivid color. Natural wells of magic glowed crimson. Elemental magicians were cloaked in green and blue. Curses stained purple. Strong spells burned gold. And Antari? They alone shone with a dark but iridescent light—not one color, but every color folded together, natural and unnatural, shimmering threads that wrapped like silk around them, dancing over their skin.
Alucard now watched those same threads fray and break around the prince’s coiled form.
It wasn’t right—Rhy’s own meager magic had always been a dark green (he’d told the prince once, only to watch his features crinkle in distaste—Rhy had never liked the color).
But the moment he’d set eyes on Rhy again, after three years away, Alucard had known the prince was different. Changed. It wasn’t the set of his jaw, the breadth of his shoulders, or the new shadows beneath his eyes. It was the magic bound to him. Power lived and breathed, was meant to move in the current of a person’s life. But this new magic around Rhy lay still, threads wrapped tight as rope around the prince’s body.
And each and every one of them shone like oil on water. Molten color and light.
That night, in Rhy’s chamber, when Alucard slid the tunic aside to kiss the prince’s shoulder, he’d seen the place where the silvery threads knitted into Rhy’s skin, woven straight into the scarred circles over his heart. He didn’t have to ask who’d made the spell—only one Antari came to mind—but Alucard couldn’t see how Kell had done it. Normally he could pick apart a piece of magic by looking at its threads, but the strands of the spell had no beginning, no end. The threads of Kell’s magic plunged into Rhy’s heart, and were lost—no, not lost, buried—the spellwork stiff, unshakeable.
And now, somehow, it was crumbling.
The threads snapped one by one under an invisible strain, every broken cord eliciting a sob, a shuddering breath from the half-conscious prince. Every fraying tether—
That’s what it was, he realized. Not just a spell, but a kind of link.
He didn’t know why the prince’s life was bound to the Antari’s. Didn’t want to imagine—though he now saw the scar between Rhy’s trembling ribs, as wide as a dagger’s edge, and the understanding reached him anyway, and he felt sick and helpless—but the link was breaking, and Alucard did the only thing he could.
He held the prince’s hand, and tried to pour his own power into the fraying threads, as if the storm-blue light of his magic could fuse with Kell’s iridescence instead of wicking uselessly away. He prayed to every power in the world, to every saint and every priest and every blessed figure—the ones he believed in and the ones he didn’t—for strength. And when they didn’t answer, he spoke to Rhy instead. He didn’t tell him to hold on, didn’t tell him to be strong.
Instead, he spoke of the past. Their past.
“Do you remember, the night before I left?” He fought to keep the fear from his voice. “You never answered my question.”
Alucard closed his eyes, in part so he could picture the memory, and in part because he couldn’t bear to watch the prince in so much pain.
It had been summer, and they’d been lying in bed, bodies tangled and warm. He’d drawn a hand along Rhy’s perfect skin, and when the prince had preened, he’d said, “One day you will be old and wrinkled, and I will still love you.”
“I’ll never be old,” said the prince with the certainty mustered only by the young and healthy and terribly naive.
“So you plan to die young, then?” he’d teased, and Rhy had given an elegant shrug.
“Or live forever.”
The prince had swept a dark curl from his eyes. “Dying is so mundane.”
“And how, exactly,” said Alucard, propping himself on one elbow, “do you plan to live forever?”
Rhy had pulled him down, then, and ended their conversation with a kiss.
Now he shuddered on the bed, a sob escaping through clenched teeth. His black curls were matted to his face. The queen called for a cloth, called for the head priest, called for Kell. Alucard clutched his lover’s hand.
“I’m sorry I left. I’m sorry. But I’m here now, so you can’t die,” he said, his voice finally breaking. “Don’t you see how rude that would be, when I’ve come so far?”
The prince’s hand tightened as his body seized.
Rhy’s chest hitched up and down in a last, violent shudder.
And then he stilled.
And for a moment, Alucard was relieved, because Rhy was finally resting, finally asleep. For a moment, everything was all right. For a moment—
Then it shattered.
Someone was screaming.
The priests were pushing forward.
The guards were pulling him back.
Alucard stared down at the prince.
He didn’t understand.
He couldn’t understand.
And then Rhy’s hand slipped from his, and fell back to the bed.
The last silver threads were losing their hold, sliding off his skin like sheets in summer.
And then he was screaming.
Alucard didn’t remember anything after that.
For a single horrifying moment, Lila ceased to exist.
She felt herself unravel, breaking apart into a million threads, each one stretching, fraying, threatening to snap as she stepped out of the world, out of life—and into nothing. And then, just as suddenly, she was staggering forward onto her hands and knees in the street.
She let out a short, involuntary cry as she landed, limbs shaking, head ringing like a bell.
The ground beneath her palms—and there was ground, so that at least was a good sign—was rough and cold. The air was quiet. No fireworks. No music. Lila dragged herself back to her feet, blood dripping from her fingers, her nose. She wiped it away, red dots speckling the stone as she drew her knife and shifted her stance, putting her back to the icy wall. She remembered the last time she’d been here, in this London, the hungry eyes of men and women starved for power.
A splash of color caught her eye, and she looked up.
The sky overhead was streaked with sunset—pink and purple and burnished gold. Only, White London didn’t have color, not like this, and for a terrible second, she thought she’d crossed into yet another city, another world, had trapped herself even farther from home—wherever that was now.
But no, Lila recognized the road beneath her boots, the castle rising to gothic points against the setting sun. It was the same city, and yet entirely changed. It had only been four months since she’d set foot here, four months since she and Kell had faced the Dane twins. Then it had been a world of ice and ash and cold white stone. And now … now a man walked past her on the street, and he was smiling. Not the rictus grin of the starving, but the private smile of the content, the blessed.
This was wrong.
Four months, and in that time she’d learned to sense magic, its presence if not its intent. She couldn’t see it, not the way Alucard did, but with every breath she took, she tasted power on the air as if it were sugar, sweet and strong enough that it was cloying. The night air shimmered with it.
What the hell was going on?
And where was Kell?
Lila knew where she was, or at least where she’d chosen to pass through, and so she followed the high wall around a corner to the castle gates. They stood open, winter ivy winding through the iron. Lila dragged to a stop a second time. The stone forest—once a garden filled with bodies—was gone, replaced by an actual stretch of trees, and by guards in polished armor flanking the castle steps, all of them alert.
Kell had to be inside. A tether ran between them, thin as thread, but strangely strong, and Lila didn’t know if it was made by their magic or something else, but it drew her toward the castle like a weight. She tried not to think about what it meant, how much farther she would have to go, how many people she’d have to fight, to find him.
Wasn’t there a locator spell?
Lila wracked her mind for the words. As Travars had carried her between worlds, and As Tascen, that was the way to move between different places in the same world, but what if she wanted to find a person, not a place?
She cursed herself for not knowing, never asking. Kell had told her once, of finding Rhy after he’d been taken as a boy. What had he used? She dragged her memory—something Rhy had made. A wooden horse? Another image sprang to mind, of the kerchief—her kerchief—clenched in Kell’s hand when he first found her at the Stone’s Throw. But Lila didn’t have anything of his. No tokens. No trinkets.
Panic welled, and she fought it down.
So she didn’t have a charm to guide her. People were more than what they owned, and surely objects weren’t the only things that held a mark. They were made of pieces, words … memories.
And Lila had those.
She pressed her still-bloody hand to the castle gate, the cold iron biting at the shallow wound as she squeezed her eyes shut, and summoned Kell. First with the memory of the night they’d met, in the alley when she’d robbed him, and then later, when he’d walked through her wall. A stranger tied to her bed, the taste of magic, the promise of freedom, the fear of being left behind. Hand in hand through one world, and then another, pressed together as they hid from Holland, faced down sly Fletcher, fought the not-Rhy. The horror at the palace and the battle in White London, Kell’s blood-streaked body wrapped around hers in the rubble of the stone forest. The broken pieces of their lives cast apart. And then, returned. A game played behind masks. A new embrace. His hand burning on her waist as they danced, his mouth burning against hers as they kissed, bodies clashing like swords on the palace balcony. The terrifying heat, and then, too soon, the cold. Her collapse in the arena. His anger hurled like a weapon before he turned away. Before she let him go.
But she was here to take him back.
Lila steeled herself again, jaw clenched against the expectation of the pain to come.
She held the memories in her mind, pressed them to the wall as if they were a token, and said the words.
“As Tascen Kell.”
Against her hand, the gate shuddered and the world fell away as Lila staggered through, out of the street and into the pale polished chamber of a castle hallway.
Torches burned in sconces along the walls, footsteps sounded in the distance, and Lila allowed herself the briefest moment of satisfaction, maybe even relief, before realizing Kell wasn’t here. Her head was pounding, a curse halfway to her lips when, beyond a door to her left, she heard a muffled scream.
Lila’s blood went cold.
Kell. She reached for the door’s handle, but as her fingers closed around it, she caught the low whistle of metal singing through air. She cut to the side as a knife buried itself in the wood where Lila had been a moment before. A black cord drew a path from the hilt back through the air, and she turned, following the line to a woman in a pale cloak. A scar traced the other woman’s cheekbone, but that was the only ordinary thing about her. Darkness filled one eye and spilled over like wax, running down her cheek and up her temple, tracing the line of her jaw and vanishing into hair so red—redder than Kell’s coat, redder even than the river in Arnes—it seemed to singe the air. A color too bright for this world. Or, at least, too bright for the world it had been. But Lila felt the wrongness here, and it was more than vivid colors and ruined eyes.
This woman reminded her not of Kell, or even of Holland, but of the stolen black stone from months ago. That strange pull, a heavy beat.
With a flick of the wrist, a second knife appeared in the stranger’s left hand, hilt tethered to the cord’s other end. A swift tug, and the first knife freed itself from the wood and went flying back into the fingers of her right. Graceful as a bird gliding into formation.
Lila was almost impressed. “Who are you supposed to be?” she asked.
“I am the messenger,” said the woman, even though Lila knew a trained killer when she saw one. “And you?”
Lila drew two of her own knives. “I am the thief.”
“You cannot go in.”
Lila put her back to the door, Kell’s power like a dying pulse against her spine. Hold on, she thought desperately and then aloud, “Try and stop me.”
“What is your name?” asked the woman.
“What’s it to you?”
She smiled, then, a murderous grin. “My king will want to know who I’ve—”
But Lila didn’t wait for her to finish.
Her first knife flew through the air, and as the woman’s hand moved to deflect it, Lila struck with the second. She was halfway to meeting flesh when the corded blade came at her and she had to dodge, diving out of the way. She spun, ready to slash again, only to find herself parrying another scorpion strike. The cord between the knives was elastic, and the woman wielded the blades the way Jinnar did wind, Alucard water, or Kisimyr earth, the weapons wrapped in will so that when they flew, they had both the force of momentum and the elegance of magic.
And on top of it all, the woman moved with a disturbing grace, the fluid gestures of a dancer.
A dancer with two very sharp blades.
Lila ducked, the first blade biting through the air beside her face. Several strands of dark hair floated to the floor. The weapons blurred with speed, drawing her attention in different directions. It was all Lila could do to dodge the glinting bits of silver.
She’d been in her fair share of knife fights. Had started most of them herself. She knew the trick was to find the guard and get behind it, to force a moment of defense, an opening for attack, but this wasn’t hand-to-hand combat.
How was she supposed to fight a woman whose knives didn’t even stay in her hands?
The answer, of course, was simple: the same way she fought anyone else.
Quick and dirty.
After all, the point wasn’t to look good. It was to stay alive.
The woman’s blades lashed out like vipers, striking forward with sudden, terrifying speed. But there was a weakness: they couldn’t change course. Once a blade flew, it flew straight. And that was why a knife in the hand was better than one thrown.
Lila feinted right, and when the first blade came, she darted the other way. The second followed, charting another path, and Lila dodged again, carving a third line while the blades were both trapped in their routes.
“Got you,” she snarled, lunging for the woman.
And then, to her horror, the blades changed course. They veered midair, and plunged, Lila taking frantic flight as both weapons buried themselves in the floor where she’d been crouched a second earlier.
Of course. A metal worker.
Blood ran down Lila’s arm and dripped from her fingers. She’d been fast, but not quite fast enough.
Another flick of a wrist, and the knives flew back into the other woman’s hands. “Names are important,” she said, twirling the cord. “Mine is Ojka, and I have orders to keep you out.”
Beyond the doors, Kell let out a scream of frustration, a sob of pain.
“My name is Lila Bard,” she answered, drawing her favorite knife, “and I don’t give a damn.”
Ojka smiled, and attacked.
When the next strike came, Lila aimed not at flesh, or blade, but the cord between. Her knife’s edge came down on the stretched fabric and bit in—
But Ojka was too fast. The metal barely grazed the cord before it snapped back toward the fighter’s fingers.
“No,” growled Lila, catching the material with her bare hand. Surprise flashed across Ojka’s face, and Lila let out a small, triumphant sound, right before pain lanced up her leg as a third blade—short and viciously sharp—buried itself in her calf.
Lila gasped, staggered.
Blood speckled the pale floor as Lila pulled the knife free and straightened.
Beyond that door, Kell screamed.
Beyond this world, Rhy died.
Lila didn’t have time for this.
She dragged her knives together and they sparked, caught fire. The air seared around her, and this time when Ojka threw her blade, the burning edges of Lila’s own met the length of cord, and the fire caught. It wicked along the tether, and Ojka hissed as she pulled herself back. Halfway to her hand, the cord snapped, and the knife faltered, missing its return to her fingers. A dancer, off cue. The assassin’s face burned with anger as she closed the distance to her opponent, now armed with only a single blade.
Despite that, Ojka still moved with the terrifying grace of a predator, and Lila was so focused on the knife in the woman’s hand that she forgot the room was filled with other weapons for a magician to use.
Lila dodged a flash of metal and tried to leap back, but a low stool caught her behind the knees and she stumbled, balance lost. The fire in her hands went out, and the red-haired woman was on her before she hit the floor, blade already arcing down toward her chest.
Lila’s arms came up to block the knife as it slashed down, their hilts crashing together in the air above her face. A wicked smile flashed across Ojka’s lips as the weapon in her hand suddenly extended, metal thinning into a spike of steel that drove toward Lila’s eyes—
Her head snapped sideways as metal struck glass and the sound of a sharp crack reverberated through her skull. The knife, having skidded off her false eye, made a deep scratch across the marble floor. A droplet of blood ran down her cheek where the blade had sliced skin, a single crimson tear.
Lila blinked, dismayed.
The bitch had tried to drive a knife through her eye.
Fortunately, she’d picked the wrong one.
Ojka stared down, caught in an instant of confusion.
And an instant was all Lila needed.
Her own knife, still raised, now slashed sideways, drawing a crimson smile across the woman’s throat.
Ojka’s mouth opened and closed in a mimicry of the parted skin at her neck as blood spilled down her front. She fell to the floor beside Lila, fingers wrapped around the wound, but it was wide and deep—a killing blow.
The woman twitched and stilled, and Lila shuffled backward out of the spreading pool of blood, pain still singing through her wounded calf, her ringing head.
She got to her feet, cupping one hand against her shattered eye.
Her lost second blade jutted from a sconce, and she pried it free, trailing a line of blood in her wake as she stumbled over to the door. It had gone quiet beyond. She tried the handle, but found it locked.
There was probably a spell, but Lila didn’t know it, and she was too tired to summon air or wood or anything else, so instead she simply summoned the last of her strength and kicked the door in.
Kell stared up at the ceiling, the world so far above, and getting farther with every breath.
And then he heard a voice—Lila’s voice—and it was like a hook, wrenching him back to the surface.
He gasped and tried to sit up. Failed. Tried again. Pain shuddered through him as he got to one knee. Somewhere far away, he heard the crack of a boot on wood. A lock breaking. He made it to his feet as the door swung open, and there she was, a shadow traced in light, and then his vision slid away and she became a blur, rushing toward him.
Kell managed a halting step forward before his boots slipped in the pool of blood, and shock and pain plunged him briefly into black. He felt his legs buckling, then warm arms snaking around his waist as he fell.
“I’ve got you,” said Lila, sinking with him to the floor. His head slumped against her shoulder, and he whispered hoarsely into her coat, trying to form the words. When she didn’t seem to understand, he dragged his bloody, broken hands and numbed fingers once more around the collar at his throat.
“Take it … off,” choked Kell.
Lila’s gaze—was there something wrong with her eyes?—flicked over the metal for an instant before she wrapped both hands around the collar’s edge. She hissed when her fingers met the metal, but didn’t let go, grimacing as she cast her hands around until she found the clasp at the base of Kell’s neck. It came free, and she hurled the collar across the room.
Air rushed back into Kell’s lungs, heat pouring though his veins. For an instant, every nerve in his body sang, first with pain and then power as the magic returned in an electric surge. He gasped and doubled over, chest heaving and tears running down his face as the world around him pulsed and rippled and threatened to catch fire. Even Lila must have felt it, leaping back out of the way as Kell’s power surfaced, settled, every stolen drop reclaimed.
But something was still missing.
No, thought Kell. Please, no. The echo. The second pulse. He looked down at his ruined hands, wrists still dripping blood and magic, and none of it mattered. He tore at his chest, tunic ripping over the seal, which was still there, but beneath the scars and the spellwork, only one heart beat. Only one—
“Rhy—” he said, the word a sob. A plea. “I can’t … he’s …”
Lila grabbed him by the shoulders. “Look at me,” she said. “Your brother was still alive when I left. Have a little faith.” Her words were hollow, and his own fear ricocheted inside them, filling the space. “Besides,” she added, “you can’t help him from here.”
She looked around the room at the metal frame, cuffs slick with red, at the table beside it, littered with tools, at the metal collar lying on the floor before her attention returned to him. There was something wrong with her eyes—one was its usual brown, but the other was full of cracks.
“Your eye—” he started, but Lila waved her hand.
“Not now.” She rose. “Come on, we have to go.”
But Kell knew he was in no shape to go anywhere. His hands were broken and bruised, blood still running in ropes from his wrists. His head spun every time he moved, and when she tried to help him up, he only made it halfway to his feet before his body swayed and buckled again. He let out a strangled gasp of frustration.
“This isn’t a good look on you,” she said, pressing her fingers to a gash above her ankle. “Hold still, I’m going to patch you up.”
Kell’s eyes widened. “Wait,” he said, twitching back from her touch.
Lila’s mouth quirked. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Too bad,” she said, pressing her bloody hand against his shoulder. “What’s the word, Kell?”
The room rocked as he shook his head. “Lila, I don’t—”
“What’s the fucking word?”
He swallowed and answered shakily. “Hasari. As Hasari.”
“All right,” she said, tightening her grip. “Ready?” And then, before he could answer, she cast the spell. “As Hasari.”
Kell’s eyes fluttered in relief, exhaustion, pain.
Lila frowned. “Did I do it ri—”
Light exploded between them, the force of the magic hurling them in opposite directions, like shrapnel from a blast.
Kell’s back hit the floor, and Lila’s thudded against the nearest wall.
He lay there, gasping, so dazed that for a second he couldn’t tell if it had actually worked. But then he flexed his fingers and felt the wreckage of his hands and wrists knitting back together, skin smooth and warm beneath the trails of blood, felt the air move freely in his lungs, the emptiness filled, the broken made whole. When he sat up, the room didn’t spin. His pulse pounded in his ears, but his blood was back inside his veins.
Lila was slumped at the base of the wall, rubbing the back of her head with a low groan.
“Fucking magic,” she muttered as he knelt beside her. At the sight of him intact, she flashed a triumphant smirk.
“Told you it would wor—”
Kell cut her off, taking her face in his stained hands and kissing her once, deeply, desperately. A kiss laced with blood and panic, pain and fear and relief. He didn’t ask her how she’d found him. Didn’t berate her for doing it, only said, “You are mad.”
She managed a small, exhausted smile. “You’re welcome.”
He helped her to her feet and retrieved his coat, which sat crumpled on the table where Holland—Osaron—had dropped it.
Again Lila scanned the room. “What happened, Kell? Who did this to you?”
He saw the name land like a fist, imagined the images filling her mind, the same ones that had filled his when he found himself face-to-face with the new White London king and saw not a stranger at all, but a familiar foe. The Antari with the two-toned eyes, one emerald, the other black. The magician bound to serve the Dane twins. The one he’d slain and pushed into the abyss between worlds.
But Kell knew that Lila had another image in her mind: of the man who’d killed Barron and thrown the bloodstained watch at her feet as a taunt.
“Holland’s dead,” she said icily.
Kell shook his head. “No. He survived. He came back. He’s—”
Shouts sounded beyond the door.
Footsteps pounding on stone.
“Dammit,” snarled Lila, gaze flicking to the hall. “We really have to go.”
Kell spun toward the door, but she was a step ahead, a Red London lin in one bloody hand as she reached for his and brought her other down on the table.
“As—” she started.
Kell’s eyes went wide. “Wait, you can’t just—”
The guards burst in as the room dissolved, the floor gave way, and they were falling.
Down through one London and into another.
Kell braced himself, but the ground never caught them. It wasn’t there. The castle became the night, the walls and floor replaced by nothing but cold air, the red light of the river and the bustling streets and the steepled roofs reaching for them as they fell.
* * *
There were rules when it came to making doors.
The first—and, in Kell’s opinion, most important—was that you could either move between two places in the same world, or two worlds in the same place.
The same exact place.
Which was why it was so important to make sure that your feet were on the ground, and not on, say, the floor of a castle chamber two stories up, because chances were there would be no castle floor a world away.
Kell had tried to tell Lila this, but it was too late. The blood was already on her hand, the token already in her palm, and before he could get the words out, before he could say more than “don’t,” they were falling.
They plunged down through the floor, through the world, and through several feet of winter night, before hitting the slanted roof of a building. The tiles were half frozen, and they skidded down another few feet before finally catching themselves against the drain. Or rather—Kell caught himself. The metal beneath Lila’s boots buckled sharply, and she would have tumbled over the side if he hadn’t grabbed her wrist and hauled her back up onto the shingles beside him.
For a long moment, neither spoke, only lay back against the angled roof, huffing unsteady plumes of breath into the night.
“In the future,” said Kell finally, “do make sure you’re standing on the street.”
Lila exhaled a shaky cloud. “Noted.”
The cold roof burned against his flushed skin, but Kell didn’t move, not right away. He couldn’t—couldn’t think, couldn’t feel, couldn’t bring himself to do anything but look up and focus on the stars. Delicate dots of light against a blue-black sky—his sky—lined with clouds, their edges tinged red from the river, everything so normal, untouched, oblivious, and suddenly he wanted to scream because even though Lila had healed his body, he still felt broken and terrified and hollow and all he wanted to do was close his eyes and sink again, to find that dark and silent place beneath the surface of the world, the place where Rhy—Rhy—Rhy—
He forced himself to sit up.
He had to find Osaron.
“Kell,” started Lila, but he was already pushing himself forward off the roof, dropping to the street below. He could have summoned the wind to ease the fall, but he didn’t, barely felt the pain lancing up his shins when he landed on the stones. A moment later he heard the soft whoosh of a second body, and Lila landed in a crouch beside him.
“Kell,” she said again, but he was already crossing to the nearest wall, digging his knife from his coat pocket and carving a fresh line in his newly healed skin.
“Dammit, Kell—” She caught his sleeve, and there he was again, staring into those brown eyes—one whole, the other shattered. How could he have known? How could he have not?
“What do you mean, Holland’s back?”
“He—” Something splintered inside him, and Kell was back in the courtyard with the red-haired woman—Ojka—following her through a door in the world, into a London that made no sense, a London that should have been broken but wasn’t, a London with too much color—and there stood the new king, young and healthy, but unmistakable. Holland. Then, before Kell could process the Antari’s presence—the horrible cold of the spelled collar, the stunning pain of being torn away from himself, away from everything, the metal cage cutting into his wrists. And the look on Holland’s face as it became someone else’s, the jagged sound of Kell’s own voice pleading as the second heart failed within his chest and the demon turned away and—
Kell recoiled suddenly. He was back in the street, blood dripping from his fingers, and Lila was inches from his face, and he couldn’t tell if she’d kissed him or struck him, only knew his head was ringing and something deep inside him was screaming still.
“It’s him,” he said, hoarsely, “but it’s not. It’s—” He shook his head. “I don’t know, Lila. Somehow Holland made it to Black London, and something got inside. It’s like Vitari but worse. And it’s … wearing him.”
“So the real Holland is dead?” asked Lila as he drew a sigil on the stones.
“No,” said Kell, taking her hand. “He’s still in there somewhere. And now they’re here.”
Kell pressed his bloody palm flat to the wall, and this time when he said the spells, the magic rose effortlessly, mercifully, to his touch.
Emira refused to leave Rhy’s side.
Not when his screams gave way to hitching sobs.
Not when his fevered skin went pale, his features slack.
Not when his breathing stopped and his pulse failed.
Not when the room went still, and not when it exploded into chaos, and the furniture shook, and the windows cracked, and the guards had to force Alucard Emery from the bed, and Maxim and Tieren tried to draw her hands away from his body, because they didn’t understand.
A queen could leave her throne.
But a mother never leaves her son.
“Kell will not let him die,” she said in the quiet.
“Kell will not let him die,” she said in the noise.
“Kell will not let him die,” she said, over and over to herself when they stopped listening.
The room was a storm, but she sat perfectly still beside her son.
Emira Maresh, who saw the cracks in beautiful things, and moved through life afraid of making more. Emira Nasaro, who hadn’t wanted to be queen, hadn’t wanted to be responsible for legions of people, their sorrows, their follies. Who’d never wanted to bring a child into this dangerous world, who now refused to believe that her strong and beautiful boy … her heart …
“He is dead,” said the priest.
“He is dead,” said the king.
“He is dead,” said every voice but hers, because they didn’t understand that if Rhy was dead, then so was Kell, and that wouldn’t happen, that couldn’t happen.
Her son wasn’t moving. Wasn’t breathing. His skin, so newly cool, had taken on a horrible grey pallor, his body skeletal and sunken, as if he’d been gone for weeks, months, instead of minutes. His shirt lay open, revealing the seal against his chest, the ribs so wrongly visible beneath his once-brown skin.
Her eyes blurred with tears, but she wouldn’t let them fall, because crying would mean grieving and she wouldn’t grieve her son because he was not dead.
“Emira,” pleaded the king as she bowed her head over Rhy’s too-still chest.
“Please,” she whispered, and the word wasn’t for fate, or magic, the saints or the priests or the Isle. It was for Kell. “Please.”
When she dragged her eyes up, she could almost see a glint of silver in the air—a thread of light—but with every passing second, the body on the bed bore less resemblance to her son.
Her fingers moved to brush the hair from Rhy’s eyes, and she fought back a shudder at the brittle locks, the papery skin. He was falling apart before her eyes, the silence punctuated only by the dry crack of settling bones, the sound like embers in a dying fire.
She began to hum—not a song, or a prayer, but a spell, one she learned when she was just a girl. A spell she’d sung to Rhy a hundred times when he was young. A spell for sleep. For gentle dreams.
She was nearly to the end when the prince gasped.
One moment Alucard was being dragged from the prince’s room, and the next he was forgotten. He didn’t notice the sudden absence of weight on his arms. Didn’t notice anything but the glitter of luminescent threads and the sound of Rhy’s breath.
The prince’s gasp was soft, almost inaudible, but it rippled through the room, picked up by every body, every voice as the queen and the king and the guards inhaled in shock, in wonder, in relief.
Alucard braced himself in the doorway, his legs threatening to give.
He’d seen Rhy die.
Seen the last threads vanish into the prince’s chest, seen the prince go still, seen the impossible, immediate decay.
But now, as he watched, it was undone.
Before his eyes, the spell returned, a flame coaxed suddenly back from embers. No, from ash. The threads surged up like water over a broken levy before wrapping fierce, protective arms around Rhy’s body, and he breathed a second time, and a third, and between every inhale and exhale, the prince’s corpse returned to life.
Flesh grew taut over bone. Color flooded into hollow cheeks. As quickly as the prince had decayed, he now revived, all signs of pain and strain smoothed into a mask of calm. His black hair settled on his brow in perfect curls. His chest rose and fell with the gentle rhythm of deep sleep.
And as Rhy calmly slept, the room around him was plunged into a new kind of chaos. Alucard staggered forward. Voices spoke over one another, layered into meaningless sound. Some shouted and others whispered words of prayer, blessings for what they’d just seen, or protection from it.
Alucard was halfway to Rhy’s side when King Maxim’s voice cut through the noise.
“No one is to speak of this,” he said, his voice unsteady as he drew himself to full height. “The winner’s ball has started, and it must finish.”
“But, sir,” started a guard as Alucard reached Rhy’s bed.
“The prince has been ill,” the king cut in. “Nothing more.” His gaze landed hard on each of them. “There are too many allies in the palace tonight, too many potential enemies.”
Alucard did not care about the ball or the tournament or the people beyond this room. He only wanted to touch the prince’s hand. To feel the warmth of his skin and assure his own shaking fingers, his own aching heart, that it was not some horrible trick.
The room emptied around him, the king first, and then the guards and priests, until only the queen and Alucard stood, silently, staring at the prince’s sleeping form.
Alucard reached out, then, his hand closing over Rhy’s, and as he felt the pulse flutter in the prince’s wrist, he didn’t dwell on the impossibility of what he’d seen, didn’t wonder at what forbidden magic could be strong enough to bind life to the dead.
All that mattered—all that would ever matter—was this.
Rhy was alive.
Kell staggered out of the street and into his palace chamber, caught by the sudden light, the warmth, the impossible normalcy. As if a life hadn’t shattered, a world hadn’t broken. Gossamer billowed from the ceiling and a massive, curtained bed stood on a dais on one wall, the furniture dark wood, trimmed in gold, and overhead, he could hear the sounds of the winner’s ball on the roof.
How could it still be happening?
How could they not know?
Of course the king would have the winner’s ball go on as planned, Kell thought bitterly. Hide his own son’s situation from the prying eyes of Vesk and Faro.
“What do you mean Holland’s here?” demanded Lila. “Here as in London, or here as in here?” She trailed in his wake, but Kell was already to his chamber doors and through. Rhy’s room stood at the end of the hall, rosewood-and-gold doors shut fast.
The space between their rooms was littered with men and women, guards and vestra and priests. They turned sharply at the sight of Kell, bare-chested beneath his coat, hair plastered and skin streaked with blood. In their eyes he read the shock and horror, surprise and fear.
They moved, some toward him and others away, but all in his path, and Kell summoned a gust of wind, forcing them aside as he surged through the mass to the prince’s doors.
He didn’t want to go in.
He had to go in.
The screaming in his head was worsening with every step as Kell threw open the doors and skidded into the room, breathless.
The first thing he saw was the queen’s face, blanched with grief.
The second was his brother’s body, stretched out on the bed.
The third, and last, was the slow rise and fall of Rhy’s chest.
At that small, blessed movement, Kell’s own chest lurched.
The storm in his head, held so brittly at bay, now broke, the sudden violent flush of fear and grief and relief and hope giving way to jarring calm.
His body folded with relief; Rhy was alive. Kell simply hadn’t felt the faint return of Rhy’s heart through the raging and erratic pulse of his own. Even now, it was too soft to sense. But Rhy was alive. He was alive. He was alive.
Kell sank to his knees, but before they hit the floor, she was there—not Lila this time, but the queen. She didn’t stop him from falling, but sank gently with him. Her fingers clutched at his front, tightened in the folds of his coat, and Kell braced himself for the words, the blow. He had left. He had failed her son. He had nearly lost Rhy—again.
Instead, Emira Maresh bent her head against his bare and bloodstained chest, and cried.
Kell knelt there, frozen, before lifting his tired arms and wrapping them gingerly around the queen.
“I prayed,” she whispered, over and over and over as he helped her to her feet.
The king was there, then, in the doorway, breathless, as if he’d run the length of the palace, Tieren at his side. Maxim stormed forward, and again Kell braced himself for the attack, but the king said nothing, only folded Kell and Emira both into a silent hug.
It was not a gentle thing, that embrace. The king held on to Kell as if he were the only stone structure in a violent storm. Held so hard it hurt, but Kell didn’t pull away.
When at last Maxim withdrew, taking Emira with him, Kell went to his brother’s bed. To Rhy. Brought a hand to the prince’s chest just to feel the beat. And there it was, steady, impossible, and as his own heart finally began to slow, he felt Rhy’s again behind his ribs, nestled against his, an echo, still distant but growing nearer with every beat.
Kell’s brother did not look like a man close to death.
The color was high in Rhy’s cheeks, the hair curling against his brow a glossy black, rich, at odds with the mussed cushions and wrinkled sheets that spoke of suffering, of struggle. Kell ducked his head and pressed his lips to Rhy’s brow, willing him to wake and make some tease about damsels in distress, or spells and magic kisses. But the prince didn’t stir. His eyelids didn’t flutter. His pulse didn’t lift.
Kell squeezed his brother’s shoulder gently, but still the prince didn’t wake, and he would have shaken Rhy if Tieren hadn’t touched Kell’s wrist, guided his hand away.
“Be patient,” said the Aven Essen, gently.
Kell swallowed and turned back toward the room, suddenly aware of how quiet it was, despite the presence of the king and queen, the growing audience of priests and guards, including Tieren and Hastra, the latter now in common clothes. Lila hung back in the doorway, pale with exhaustion and relief. And in the corner stood Alucard Emery, whose reddened eyes had turned storm-dark irises to sunset blue.
Kell couldn’t bear to ask what had happened, what they’d seen. The whole room wore the pall of the haunted, the too-still features of the shocked. It was so quiet Kell could hear the music of the damned winner’s ball still trilling on overhead.
So quiet he could—finally—hear Rhy’s breathing, soft and steady.
And Kell so badly wished they could stay in this moment, wished he could lie down beside the prince and sleep and avoid the explanations, the accusations of failure and betrayal. But he could see the questions in their eyes as they looked from Lila to him, taking in his sudden return, his bloody state.
Kell swallowed and began to speak.