A Gathering of Shadows(Shades of Magic #2)

A Gathering of Shadows(Shades of Magic #2)

V.E. Schwab





I


THE ARNESIAN SEA


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. l 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—a device like a firework that, when struck against any surface, produced a stream of colored light. Not a burst, but a steady beam strong enough to cut the darkness like a knife. Each flare 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 with both hands and striking it against the side of the little boat.

Light burst forth, sudden and blinding. It split the world in two, the violent gold-white of the flare and the dense black nothing around it. 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 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, shielding her eyes. 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, careful not to rock the tiny, sinking craft.

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.

A few of the other men said less pleasant things, and Lila tensed, glad that their accents were too full of mud and ocean spray for her to understand all the words, even if she gleaned their meaning.

“What are you doing down there?” asked one of them, his skin so dark his edges smudged into the night.

Her Arnesian was still far from solid, but four months at sea surrounded by people who spoke no English had certainly improved it.

“Sensan,” answered Lila—sinking—which earned a laugh from the gathering crew. But they seemed in no hurry to haul her up. Lila held her hands aloft so they could see the rope. “I could use some help,” she said slowly, the wording practiced.

“Can see that,” said the man.

“Who throws away a pretty thing?” chimed in another.

“Maybe she’s all used up.”

“Nah.”

“Hey, girl! You got all your bits and pieces?”

“Better let us see!”

“What’s with all the shouting?” boomed a voice, and a moment later a rail-thin man with deep-set eyes and receding black hair came into sight at the side of the ship. The others shied away in deference as he took hold of the wooden rail and looked down at Lila. His eyes raked over her, the dress, the rope, the cask, the boat.

The captain, she wagered.

“You seem to be in trouble,” he called down. He didn’t raise his voice, but it carried nonetheless, his Arnesian accent clipped but clear.

“How perceptive,” Lila called back before she could stop herself. The insolence was a gamble, but no matter where she was, the one thing she knew was how to read a mark. And sure enough, the thin man smiled.

“My ship’s been taken,” she continued, “and my new one won’t last long, and as you can see—”

He cut her off. “Might be easier to talk if you come up here?”

previous 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ..87 next