A Darker Shade Of Magic

Step into a thrilling uni­verse of dar­ing adventure, blood ma­gi­cians, fear­less cut­purses and mul­ti­ple Lon­dons…

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Promotion - By V. E. Sch­wab

Kell is a blood ma­gi­cian, who car­ries let­ters be­tween the mon­archs of the four par­al­lel Lon­dons. He has trav­elled to Grey Lon­don to visit the mad king Ge­orge III…

The king held out a gnarled hand. “My let­ter,” he said, and for an in­stant Kell saw a glim­mer of Ge­orge as he once was. Re­gal. Kell pat­ted the pock­ets of his coat, dig­ging through its folds un­til he found the en­ve­lope. When he pressed it into the king ’s hand, the lat­ter fon­dled it and ca­ressed the wax seal – the red throne’s em­blem, a chal­ice with a ris­ing sun – then brought the pa­per to his nose and in­haled. “Roses,” he said wist­fully. He meant the magic. Kell never no­ticed the faint aro­matic scent of Red Lon­don cling­ing to his clothes, but when­ever he trav­eled, some­one in­vari­ably told him that he smelled like freshly cut flow­ers. Some said tulips. Oth­ers stargaz­ers. Chrysan­the­mums. Pe­onies. To the king of Eng­land, it was al­ways roses. Kell was glad to know it was a pleas­ant scent, even if he couldn’t smell it. He could smell Grey Lon­don ( smoke) and White Lon­don ( blood), but to him, Red Lon­don sim­ply smelled like home. “Open it for me,” in­structed the king. “But don’t mar the seal.” Kell did as he was told, and with­drew the con­tents. For once, he was grate­ful the king could no longer see, so he could not know how brief the let­ter was. Three short lines. A cour­tesy paid to an ail­ing fig­ure­head, but noth­ing more. “It’s from my queen,” ex­plained Kell. The king nod­ded. “Go on,” he com­manded, af­fect­ing a stately coun­te­nance that warred with his frag­ile form and his fal­ter­ing voice. “Go on.”

Kell swal­lowed. “‘ Greet­ings to his majesty, King Ge­orge III,’ ” he read, “‘ from a neigh­bor­ing throne.’ ”

The queen did not re­fer to it as the red throne, or send greet­ings from Red Lon­don ( even though the city was in fact quite crim­son, thanks to the rich, per­va­sive light of the river), be­cause she did not think of it that way. To her, and to ev­ery­one else who in­hab­ited only one Lon­don, there was lit­tle need to dif­fer­en­ti­ate among them. When the rulers of one con­versed with those of an­other, they sim­ply called them oth­ers, or neigh­bors, or on oc­ca­sion ( and par­tic­u­larly in re­gard to White Lon­don) less flat­ter­ing terms.

Only those few who could move among the Lon­dons needed a way to keep them straight. And so Kell – in­spired by the lost city known to all as Black Lon­don – had given each re­main­ing cap­i­tal a color. Grey for the magic- less city. Red, for the healthy em­pire. White, for the starv­ing world. In truth, the cities them­selves bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to one an­other ( and the coun­tries around and be­yond bore even less). The fact they were all called Lon­don was its own mys­tery, though the pre­vail­ing the­ory was that one of the cities had taken the name long ago, be­fore the doors were all sealed and the only things al­lowed through were let­ters be­tween kings and queens. As to which city had first laid claim to the name, none could agree.

“‘ We hope to learn that you are well,’ ” con­tin­ued the queen’s let­ter, “‘ and that the sea­son is as fair in your city as it is in ours.’ ”

Kell paused. There was noth­ing more, save a sig­na­ture. King Ge­orge wrung his hands. “Is that all it says?” he asked. Kell hes­i­tated. “No,” he said, fold­ing the let­ter. “That’s only the be­gin­ning.”

He cleared his throat and be­gan to pace as he pulled his thoughts to­gether and put them into the queen’s voice. “Thank

you for ask­ing af­ter our fam­ily, she says. The King and I are well. Prince Rhy, on the other hand, con­tin­ues to im­press and in­fu­ri­ate in equal mea­sure, but has at least gone the month with­out break­ing his neck or tak­ing an un­suit­able bride. Thanks be to Kell alone for keep­ing him from do­ing ei­ther, or both.”

Kell had ev­ery in­ten­tion of let­ting the queen linger on his own mer­its, but just then the clock on the wall chimed five, and Kell swore un­der his breath. He was run­ning late.

“Un­til my next let­ter,” he fin­ished hur­riedly, “stay happy and stay well. With fond­ness. Her High­ness Emira, Queen of Arnes. I don’t have a let­ter for her,” he mur­mured.

“That’s all right,” said Kell softly. The king hadn’t been able to write one for years. Some months he tried, drag­ging the quill hap­haz­ardly across the parch­ment, and some months he in­sisted on hav­ing Kell tran­scribe, but most months he sim­ply told Kell the mes­sage and Kell promised to re­mem­ber.

“You see, I didn’t have the time,” added the king, try­ing to sal­vage a ves­tige of his dig­nity. Kell let him have it.

“I un­der­stand,” he said. “I’ll give the royal fam­ily your re­gards.”

Kell turned again to go, and again the old king called out to stop him. “Wait, wait,” he said. “Come back.” Kell paused. His eyes went to the clock. Late, and get­ting later. He pic­tured the Prince Re­gent sit­ting at his ta­ble in St. James, grip­ping his chair and qui­etly stew­ing. The thought made Kell smile, so he turned back to­ward the king as the lat­ter pulled some­thing from his robe with fum­bling fin­gers. It was a coin. “It’s fad­ing,” said the king, cup­ping the metal in his weath­ered hands as if it were pre­cious and frag­ile. “I can’t feel the magic any­more. Can’t smell it.” “A coin is a coin, Your Majesty.” “Not so and you know it,” grum­bled the old king. “Turn out your pock­ets.” Kell sighed. “You’ll get me in trou­ble.” Kell dug his hand into his pocket. The first time he had vis­ited the king of Eng­land, he’d given him a coin as proof of who he was and where he came from. The story of the other Lon­dons was en­trusted to the crown and handed down heir to heir, but it had been years since a trav­eler had come. King Ge­orge had taken one look at the sliver of a boy and squinted and held out his meaty hand, and Kell had set the coin in his palm. It was a sim­ple lin, much like a grey shilling, only marked with a red star in­stead of a royal face. The king closed his fist over the coin and brought it to his nose, in­hal­ing its scent. And then he’d smiled, and tucked the coin into his coat, and wel­comed Kell in­side.

From that day on, ev­ery time Kell paid his visit, the king would in­sist the magic had worn off the coin, and make him trade it for an­other, one new and pocket- warm. Ev­ery time Kell would say it was for­bid­den ( it was, ex­pressly), and ev­ery time the king would in­sist that it could be their lit­tle se­cret, and Kell would sigh and fetch a fresh bit of metal from his coat.

Now he plucked the old lin out of the king ’s palm and re­placed it with a new one, fold­ing Ge­orge’s gnarled fin­gers gen­tly over it. “Take care,” said Kell as he turned to go. “Yes, yes,” said the king, his fo­cus fad­ing un­til he was lost to the world, and to his guest.

Cur­tains gath­ered in the cor­ner of the room, and Kell pulled the heavy ma­te­rial aside to re­veal a mark on the pat­terned wall­pa­per. A sim­ple cir­cle, bi­sected by a line, drawn in blood a month ago. On an­other wall in an­other room in an­other palace, the same mark stood. They were as han­dles on op­po­site sides of the same door.

Kell’s blood, when paired with the to­ken, al­lowed him to move be­tween the worlds. He needn’t spec­ify a place be­cause wher­ever he was, that’s where he’d be. But to make a door within a world, both sides had to be marked by the same ex­act sym­bol. Close wasn’t close enough. Kell had learned that the hard way.

The sym­bol on the wall was still clear from his last visit, the edges only slightly smeared, but it didn’t mat­ter. It had to be re­done.

He rolled up his sleeve and freed the knife he kept strapped to the in­side of his fore­arm. It was a lovely thing, that knife, a work of art, sil­ver from tip to hilt and mono­grammed with the let­ters K and L. The only relic from an­other life. A life he didn’t know. Or at least, didn’t re­mem­ber. Kell brought the blade to the back of his fore­arm. He’d al­ready carved one line to­day, for the door that brought him this far. Now he carved a sec­ond. His blood welled up and over, and he re­turned the knife to its sheath and touched his fin­gers to the cut and then to the wall, re­draw­ing the cir­cle and the line that ran through it. He cast a last glance back at the bab­bling king be­fore press­ing his palm flat to the mark on the wall. It hummed with magic. “As Tas­cen,” he said. Trans­fer. The pat­terned pa­per rip­pled and soft­ened and gave way un­der his touch, and Kell stepped for­ward and through.

To find out what hap­pens next, pick up A Darker Shade Of Magic, out now from Ti­tan Books ( RRP £ 7.99). Ebook also avail­able. www. ti­tan­books. com

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