A g ather­ing of shad ows

The much- an­tic­i­pated se­quel to the ac­claimed A Darker Shade of Magic, a tale of blood ma­gi­cians, fear­less cut­purses, ra­pa­cious pi­rates and mul­ti­ple Lon­dons…

SFX - - First Read - By V. E. Sch­wab To find out what hap­pens next, pick up A Gath­er­ing of Shad­ows, out now from Ti­tan Books ( RRP £ 7.99). Ebook also avail­able. www. ti­tan­books. com

Delilah Bard had a way of find­ing trou­ble. She’d al­ways thought it was bet­ter than let­ting trou­ble find her, but float­ing in the ocean in a two- per­son skiff with no oars, no view of land, and no real re­sources save the ropes bind­ing her wrists, she was be­gin­ning to re­con­sider.

The night was moon­less over­head, the sea and sky mir­ror­ing the starry dark­ness to ev­ery side; only the rip­ple of wa­ter be­neath the rock­ing boat marked the dif­fer­ence be­tween up and down. That in­fi­nite re­flec­tion usu­ally made Lila feel like she was perched at the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Tonight, adrift, it made her want to scream. In­stead, she squinted at the twin­kle of lights in the dis­tance, the red­dish hue alone set­ting the craft’s lanterns apart from the starlight. And she watched as the ship – her ship – moved slowly but de­cid­edly away.

Panic crawled its way up her throat, but she held her ground.

I am Delilah Bard, she thought, as the ropes cut into her skin. I am a thief and a pirate and a trav­eler. I have set foot in three dif­fer­ent worlds, and lived. I have shed the blood of roy­als and held magic in my hands. And a ship full of men can­not do what I can. I don’t need any of you. I am one of a damned kind. Feel­ing suit­ably em­pow­ered, she set her back to the ship, and gazed out at the sprawl­ing night ahead.

It could be worse, she rea­soned, just be­fore she felt cold wa­ter lick­ing her boots and looked down to see that there was a hole in the boat. Not a large hole by any stretch, but the size was lit­tle com­fort; a small hole could sink a boat just as ef­fec­tively, if not as fast.

Lila groaned and looked down at the coarse rope cinched tight around her hands, dou­bly grate­ful that the bas­tards had left her legs free, even if she was trapped in an abom­inable dress. A full- skirted, flimsy green con­trap­tion with too much gos­samer and a waist so tight she could hardly breathe and why in god’s name must women do this to them­selves?

The wa­ter inched higher in the skiff, and Lila forced her­self to fo­cus. She drew what lit­tle breath her out­fit would al­low and took stock of her mea­ger, quickly damp­en­ing in­ven­tory: a sin­gle cask of ale ( a part­ing gift), three knives ( all con­cealed), half a dozen flares ( be­queathed by the men who’d set her adrift), the afore­men­tioned dress ( damn it to hell), and the con­tents of that dress’s skirts and pock­ets ( nec­es­sary, if she was to pre­vail).

Lila took up one of the flares. Each was sup­posed to last a quar­ter of an hour, and the dif­fer­ent col­ors had their own code on the open wa­ter: yel­low for a sink­ing ship, green for ill­ness aboard, white for un­named dis­tress, and red for pi­rates.

She had one of each, and her fin­gers danced over their ends as she con­sid­ered her op­tions. She eyed the ris­ing wa­ter and set­tled on the yel­low flare, tak­ing it up and strik­ing it against the side of the lit­tle boat.

Light burst forth, sud­den and blind­ing. Lila spent half a minute curs­ing and blink­ing back tears at the bright­ness as she an­gled the flare up and away from her face. And then she be­gan to count. Just as her eyes

Delilah Bard, last seen tak­ing ship for the ad­ven­ture she’d al­ways dreamed of in the world of Red Lon­don, has found her­self in a tricky sit­u­a­tion…

She counted the min­utes as they ticked by, scour­ing the night be­yond for signs of life

were fi­nally ad­just­ing, the flare fal­tered, flick­ered, and went out. She scanned the hori­zon for a ship but saw none, and the wa­ter in the boat con­tin­ued its slow but steady rise up the calf of her boot. She took up a se­cond flare – white for dis­tress – and struck it on the wood. She counted the min­utes as they ticked by, scour­ing the night be­yond the boat for signs of life.

“Come on,” she whis­pered. “Come on, come on, come on…” The words were lost be­neath the hiss of the flare as it died, plung­ing her back into dark­ness. Lila grit­ted her teeth. Judg­ing by the level of the wa­ter in the lit­tle boat, she had only a quar­ter of an hour – one flare’s worth of time – be­fore she was well and truly in dan­ger of sink­ing.

Then some­thing snaked along the skiff ’s wooden side. Some­thing with teeth.

If there is a god, she thought, a ce­les­tial body, a heav­enly power, or any­one above – or below – who might just like to see me live an­other day, for pity’s or en­ter­tain­ment’s sake, now would be a good time to in­ter­cede.

And with that, she took up the red flare – the one for pi­rates – and struck it, bathing the night around her in an eerie crim­son light. It re­minded her for an in­stant of the Isle River back in Lon­don. Not her Lon­don – if the dreary place had ever been hers – or the ter­ri­fy­ingly pale Lon­don re­spon­si­ble for Athos and Astrid and Hol­land, but his Lon­don. Kell’s Lon­don.

He flashed up in her vi­sion like a flare, auburn hair and that con­stant fur­row be­tween his eyes: one blue, one black. An­tari. Magic boy. Prince.

Lila stared straight into the flare’s red light un­til it burned the im­age out. She had more press­ing con­cerns right now. The wa­ter was ris­ing. The flare was dy­ing. Shad­ows were slith­er­ing against the boat.

Just as the red light of the pirate’s flare be­gan to peter out, she saw it.

It be­gan as noth­ing – a ten­dril of mist on the sur­face of the sea – but soon the fog drew it­self into the phan­tom of a ship. The pol­ished black hull and shin­ing black sails re­flected the night to ev­ery side, the lanterns aboard small and col­or­less enough to pass for starlight. Only when it drew close enough for the flare’s dy­ing red light to dance across the re­flec­tive sur­faces did the ship come into fo­cus. And by then, it was nearly on top of her.

By the flare’s sput­ter­ing glow, Lila could make out the ship’s name, streaked in shim­mer­ing paint along the hull. Is Ranes Gast. The Cop­per Thief. Lila’s eyes widened in amaze­ment and re­lief. She smiled a small, pri­vate smile, and then buried the look be­neath some­thing more fit­ting – an ex­pres­sion some­where be­tween grate­ful and be­seech­ing, with a dash of wary hope.

The flare gut­tered and went out, but the ship was be­side her now, close enough for her to see the faces of the men lean­ing over the rail.

“Tosa!” she called in Ar­ne­sian, get­ting to her feet.

Help. Vul­ner­a­bil­ity had never come nat­u­rally, but she did her best to imitate it as the men looked down at her, hud­dled there in her lit­tle wa­ter­logged boat with her bound wrists and her soggy green dress. She felt ridicu­lous.

“Kers la?” asked one, more to the oth­ers than to her. What is this? “A gift?” said an­other. “You’d have to share,” mut­tered a third. “What are you do­ing down there?” asked one of them.

“Sen­san,” an­swered Lila – sink­ing – which earned a laugh from the gath­er­ing crew.

A rope was flung over the side. She took hold and used it to guide her craft against the ship’s side, where a lad­der had been low­ered; but be­fore she could hoist her­self up, two men came down and landed in the boat be­side her, caus­ing it to sink con­sid­er­ably faster. Nei­ther of them seemed both­ered. One pro­ceeded to haul up the cask of ale, and the other, much to Lila’s dis­may, be­gan to haul up her. He threw her over his shoul­der, and it took ev­ery ounce of her con­trol – which had never been plen­ti­ful – not to bury a knife in his back, es­pe­cially when his hands be­gan to wan­der up her skirt.

Lila dug her nails into her palms, and by the time the man fi­nally set her down on the ship’s deck be­side the wait­ing cask (“Heav­ier than she looks,” he mut­tered, “and only half as soft…”) she’d made eight small cres­cents in her skin.

“Bas­tard,” growled Lila in English un­der her breath. He gave her a wink and mur­mured some­thing about be­ing soft where it mat­tered, and Lila silently vowed to kill him. Slowly.

And then she straight­ened and found her­self stand­ing in a cir­cle of sailors. No, not sailors, of course. Pi­rates.

Vic­to­ria Sch­wab is the best­selling au­thor of Vi­cious and A Darker Shade of Magic, de­scribed as “a clas­sic work of fan­tasy” by Deborah Hark­ness. It was one of Water­stones’ Best Fan­tasy Books of 2015 and The Guardian’s Best Sci­ence Fic­tion nov­els. She suf­fers from a wicked case of wan­der­lust, made worse by the fact that wan­der­ing is a good way to stir up sto­ries.

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