City of Spells – Alexandra Christo

VEA AKINTOLA DIDN’T WANT to die, but people hardly ever got a choice in that. Death was a monster in a world of magic, and unlike other monsters, it didn’t lurk in the shadows or hide where you never thought to check. It stood out in the open, where you could always see it. It let you know that it was there, that it was waiting, and that it would come for you. Vea cradled Malik in her arms and let his tiny fingers wrap around hers. He held on to her like she was a secret he wanted to keep for himself. “It’s time,” her mother said. Vea nodded. Her mother was always prompt, even when it came to killing her. “Are you ready?” Vea’s mother asked, swooping her hair into a long graying braid that trailed down the staves on her arms. Her curls flicked at the ends, refusing to be properly tamed, escaping wherever possible. Vea’s mother had a magic in her that was hard to pinpoint. It was in every part of her, from her white eyes to the scars that looked like puzzles across her familiar face. She looked gentle and harsh, brave and fearful, and very much like a mother, in that she stared at Vea like she’d better get a move on, lest she be late to her own funeral. “I’m ready,” Vea said, at the same time that Malik said, “Here we goooooo.

” “Will there be magic?” he asked. Malik was only five and so often didn’t understand what was going on. “Lots and lots,” Vea said, tickling his stomach until his laughter carried into the wind. She didn’t tell him that afterward the magic would disappear and he would be left empty. Hollow, but safe. She focused on the safe part and chose not to think too much about what it might be like for him to grow up not knowing anything about all the little parts of himself and why they ticked and tocked the way that they did. Vea’s mother opened the door to the tree house and they stepped inside. Vea caught sight of her eldest daughter, Saxony, in the forest, and clutched on to Malik tighter, as if hugging him would be the same as hugging her. She hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye. Not even to her husband, Bastian, who she loved dearly and who loved her back just as much— maybe twice as much—and so definitely couldn’t be trusted to kill her.

Vea’s mother was different. Mothers could do things nobody else could, like predict the future, or tell truths from lies, or find all manner of lost things even in the places that everybody had surely already looked. It was their job to do the impossible and the unthinkable. For instance, Vea’s mother would kill her so that the realms would be safe. And Vea would let her so that Malik would be safe. Vea placed her son onto the small table in the center of the room, while her mother drew symbols on the floor and hummed an old song. “Don’t you know anything less sad?” Vea asked. “Sing happy birthday to Malik or something. You sound like you’re at a funeral.” Her mother shot her a look, like she wanted to say, This is a funeral, but what she actually said was, “We’ve already sung that to him and he’ll be spoiled if we do it twice.

” “It’s not like he’ll remember,” Vea said. “Then there’s definitely no point in doing it,” her mother said back. Alongside the predictions and the lie detection and the finding of lost things, mothers were also very good at having the last word. The dead never got the last word. They never got to say much at all, only the words others put in their mouth for years after they were buried. The dead left their legacy to the living and the living often changed it entirely. “It’s going to hurt,” her mother said, and for the first time her voice broke. Vea stroked Malik’s hair from his face. Whatever pain she felt would be worth it. It was the only way to stop all the evil in the world from snatching at her son.

So many predictions, and in each of them his magic would bring only war and death. It was her job to make sure that never happened. To save him from himself. “I love you,” her mother said. Vea swallowed. She kept looking at Malik. “I love you,” he said, parroting his amja. “I love you and Daddy and Saxony and Zekia and magic.” He said Saxony like Safony and magic like magik!! Vea kissed him on the head and took in a deep breath to steady herself and take in his scent one last time. Like grass and river salt.

“I love you to the shadow moon,” she said. Malik’s deep brown eyes blinked up at her and his staves shone like starlight over his dark skin. She felt a pang in her heart, deep in the center, knowing that he’d never be able to use the gifts the Many Gods had given him. He’d never become Liege and never lead their Kin into a world of wonder. She was going to steal it all from him. His future and his past. And the secret of why would live deep inside of him, in a place so hidden that even he wouldn’t be able to find it. Vea looked to her mother. “Start the spell.” Her mother nodded and began humming again, though this time the words were a curse and they floated through the air and into Vea’s ears like a fire stick.

They burned and scratched, and when Malik started crying—which he never, ever did, even when he broke his toe or chipped his tooth chasing Saxony around the Uncharted Forest—she knew that the curse was reaching into his heart and clawing out all of those ticks and tocks. He screamed. The world turned to dark and smoke. There was a loud bang and the windows of the tree house burst like tears and Vea’s mother was thrown into the forest. The fire was black, like shadows. They burned against Vea’s skin and she couldn’t move to run. She stared at Malik, who cried, but remained untouched by the flames of his own magic. Vea tried to tell him that she loved him one last time, but she couldn’t. So instead she watched as he cried, as he blinked up at her with those dark eyes, and then finally disappeared. Only once he was gone could Vea close her eyes.

Only once he was gone did the flames swallow her whole. 1 Tavia TAVIA STROKED HER KNIFE, waiting. The moon was like a beam, casting far too much light on the uneven streets, forcing the shadows to retreat and leaving little space for anyone who might want to hide. And these days, people needed all the hiding places they could get. The street was empty, save for Tavia, and too quiet for it to be anything other than purposeful. She pulled up her hood. This was the place. Tavia knew a lie when she heard one—after all, she’d worked for the infamous Wesley Thornton Walcott, who was probably the best liar out there—and that skittish little Rishiyat busker hadn’t been lying when Tavia held a mirror doll to the skies and scraped her knife against its carved face. He hadn’t been lying when that same cut appeared across his own cheek and when his eyes widened as Tavia moved the knife to the doll’s neck. And he certainly hadn’t been lying when she punched him in the face.

This was the spot. Tavia wiped at her forehead. The winds of Rishiya were too warm for her taste. She missed the biting edge of Creijen winter. Rishiya was a garden of buildings, with flowers falling from rooftops and vines curling around windows. The streets were filled with crisp leaves and smooth tree roots that coiled across the city and around the narrow rivers that hosted modest floating railways, the banks of which were amassed in purple holly and wildflowers. And the ivy towns—where she had stolen her share of wallets while tightening her plan earlier that day—were bright and beautiful in a way that made Tavia feel just how rough her edges were. But she wasn’t in Creije anymore and she could never go back. The Kingpin had seen to that. Tavia checked her timepiece as the busker approached.

He was tall and stocky, with a wide jaw and dark eyes. His face matched the description, and the way he walked toward her, untouchable, and so similarly to the way Tavia knew she had walked the streets of Creije, told her this was her guy. Nolan Kane. Tavia smiled as he got closer. Exactly two hours after sundown, just like her source had promised. Rishiya’s best busker was prompt—he liked routine. What a moron. Keep them guessing. Don’t do what’s expected. Never let yourself get predictable.

Wesley had taught her the most important lesson a busker could know: how to be invisible. “If you’re not looking for me, then you should be,” Nolan said, all bright teeth and smarmy eyebrows. “I’m about to give you a wild night.” Definitely not invisible. “So what’s your poison?” “My poison,” Tavia repeated, as though she was pondering it. “I’m a little particular. What have you got?” “Anything,” Nolan said. “Everything.” “That’s a big promise to make.” Nolan took off his backpack and held it up like a trophy.

“There’s not a single piece of magic in all of Rishiya that I ain’t got tucked away. Any charm or trick you want, for the right price.” “So much magic in such a little bag,” Tavia said. “You sure seem confident.” “Ever heard of a relativity charm?” Nolan asked. He tapped his backpack twice. “This baby can hold three times what it should.” Moron. Moron. Moron.

“You have any time magic in there?” “Sure do. Looking to undo the last few days?” Nolan asked. Which was silly, because you could barely rewind a few minutes with the best time charms out there. Tavia didn’t want to erase the past: She wanted to disrupt it. Time will be carried in strange hands, across the realms and through stranger lands. What is done will be undone, a battle lost is a battle won. That was the prediction she had heard from the fortune orb Wesley helped her create, and though Tavia didn’t care much for prophecy, she could hardly ignore it. After all, the time barrels they had built to freeze the Kingpin’s army had jolted something inside the old man, too. Impossibly, it had hurt him. They had made him run, and even if Tavia didn’t put much stock in prophecy, she sure as shit put stock in people running away.

Whether Karam or the others agreed with her, it didn’t matter. Tavia knew what she was doing and she knew what they needed. “I’ve got a memory serum,” Nolan said. “Want to erase days or years? I’ve got it all. Whether it’s you who wants to forget, or if you’ve got someone else’s mind to play with.” Tavia pretended to look bored at the thought and let her eyes scan the streets as if she was looking for another busker. Give up the goods, Nolan, she thought. You know you want to. “Or maybe you know someone who misses the glory years,” Nolan said, inching closer to her, desperate not to lose a sale. Tavia understood that urge better than most.

“I’ve got something that can make people young as we are, younger even. Turn back their body clock for a whole day. And it can be all yours,” Nolan said. Tavia offered him a coy smile. “All mine?” she asked. “By the gods?” “As long as you have money to spend,” Nolan said. “You do have money to spend, don’t you? I ain’t got patience for time wasters.” Tavia reached into her pocket. She had money all right. And though it wasn’t hers—a technicality at best—she was ready to spend it.

Just not on this guy and his magic. Tavia pulled out her gun. “Great sales pitch,” she said. “I think you’ve inspired me to take the lot as a contribution to our war effort.” Nolan’s face shifted, eyes narrowing as Tavia gripped the bone gun tighter, taking aim. Wesley’s gun still felt odd in her hand, more delicate than she was used to and shaped in a way that didn’t quite fit her grasp. Maybe it had been made for him or, even if it hadn’t, it had carved itself around him, taking the shape Wesley wanted and molding itself to whatever he needed. Wesley had that kind of effect. “You’re one of the people trying to go against the Kingpin,” Nolan said. His mouth twisted into a sneer.

“Haven’t you heard? Dante Ashwood is fixing to tear down anyone who gets in the way of his new realm. Doyen Schulze can’t stop him. You’re on the wrong side and you don’t have what it takes to win.” “We’ll see about that,” she said. “Now hand over your backpack while I’m being nice enough to let you live.” Nolan laughed and stepped forward so the gun was pressed right to his chest. “How about you run along while I’m being nice enough to let you live,” he said. “You don’t have the stones to kill me. I can see it in your eyes.” He wasn’t exactly wrong.

Shooting people wasn’t Tavia’s style, and killing a busker on the streets to steal his magic seemed excessive. She’d hoped the gun would scare him into submission, since she wasn’t sure she could take him on in a fight. Tavia had always been better with magic than her fists, but the last thing she wanted was to waste good magic trying to rob him. They needed all the charms they could get these days. “So that’s a no to being robbed at gunpoint, then?” she asked. “Fair enough. I’ll admit it was a bit much. Luckily, I have a Plan B.” Tavia took a step back—because she was not about to let this amateur snatch her weapon—and reached into her pocket with her free hand, keeping her eyes on Nolan to make sure he didn’t try anything. Tavia was still as alert and quick as Wesley had taught her to be.

She may have spent the last week in a forest, but she wasn’t rusty enough to let her guard down. “A Plan B,” Nolan repeated. “To shooting me?” “A girl has to have her options,” she said. She squeezed the charm in her fingers, letting the magic wash over her with a familiar warmth. At first, it felt like it was pulling at her insides, tugging the skin from her bones and the nails from her fingertips. Her hands shook, her joints locked, and Tavia’s eyes flickered until all she could see was pure, blinding white. When the realms finally shifted back into color, Tavia was not alone. She was surrounded by six more versions of herself. All the Tavias stood with their black hair carving across their chins, gray eyes daring as they pulled knives from their pockets and guns from their belts and ran fingers over brightly polished knuckle dusters. They circled Nolan with that same slow smile.

Tavia could feel them each at the corners of her mind, taking a small piece of her for themselves. She didn’t need to think about what she wanted them to do because they were already inside her mind, predicting her actions and readying to do what she needed. Duplicate charms were a real party and just the latest in a line of new magic the Crafters in their camp had created. Tavia could get used to the power amp. “Guess you’re outnumbered now,” Tavia said. “And maybe I couldn’t take you alone in a fight, but I bet the seven of us could kick the crap out of you no problem.” Nolan’s eyes were wide, his voice breathy with disbelief. “What in the name of the Many Gods is this?” “Magic,” Tavia said. And with enough force to make even Karam crack a smile, she hit Nolan square across the jaw. He went down in an instant, his backpack dropping onto the ground beside him.

“You’re going to pay for that,” he said, clutching his jaw. “My underboss taught me how to—” “Let me tell you about my underboss,” Tavia said. She knelt down beside him and her many selves smiled onward in encouragement. “His name was Wesley Thornton Walcott, and do you want to know what he taught me?” Nolan flinched. It was enough of an answer. Wesley’s name was legend in the realm and synonymous with awful things Tavia preferred not to think about. She snatched Nolan’s backpack from the ground and stood. “This is the part where I thank you for your donation to our war effort,” Tavia said, tapping the backpack just like Nolan had. “All the tricks and charms of Rishiya. All the magic I could ever hope for.

What a steal.” “Laugh all you want for now,” Nolan said. “But when the Kingpin tears apart your city and burns everyone in it, I’ll be there. I’ll be by his side with the loyal buskers, and not even your big bad underboss will be able to stop the fire-gates from raining down on you and everyone you love.” Tavia swallowed. She didn’t want his words to hit close to home, but they did. Dante Ashwood was already attacking districts within Creije and ripping apart everything about the city that Tavia had fallen in love with. It was her home. Wesley’s home. And right now she was powerless to save it.

Without her ruthless underboss to lead the buskers, Tavia was the only one left to fill the shoes of leadership among the crooks they had gathered, and yet she couldn’t even put a bullet in a guy like Nolan. Wesley wouldn’t have hesitated. He wouldn’t have stopped to chat and trade blows. “Save your breath,” Tavia said, trying to paint on her old smile. “You’re going to need it for the long walk back to your underboss. I doubt he’ll be happy that you got boosted on your own territory. Looks like you’re in for a heap of trouble from dear old Casim.” She hitched the backpack onto her shoulder and turned from Nolan, her many selves following the action in a perfect reflection. Only, there were now a dozen Rishiyat buskers standing in front of her, armed to the teeth with magic and guns. And not a one of them looked happy to see her.

“You need a hand, Nolan?” one of them asked. From behind Tavia, the busker’s laugh echoed. “Now who’s outnumbered?” Nolan said. And then his friends charged at her.

.

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