Once, there were four worlds, nestled like pages in a book, each pulsing with fantastical power and connected by a single city: London…
Prepare for tangled schemes and perilous adventures with friends old and new as author V.E. Schwab begins a brand new fantasy series set in the dazzling world of Shades of Magic. The Fragile Threads of Power publishes September 26th with Tor Books. Read chapter three below, or head back to the beginning with the first chapter… and check back here for chapter four in two weeks!
Once, there were four worlds, nestled like pages in a book, each pulsing with fantastical power and connected by a single city: London. Until the magic grew too fast and forced the worlds to seal the doors between them in a desperate gamble to protect their own. The few magicians who could still open the doors grew more rare as time passed and now, only three Antari are known in recent memory—Kell Maresh of Red London, Delilah Bard of Grey London, and Holland Vosijk, of White London.
But barely a glimpse of them have been seen in the last seven years—and a new Antari named Kosika has appeared in White London, taking the throne in Holland’s absence. The young queen is willing to feed her city with blood, including her own—but her growing religious fervor has the potential to drown it instead.
And back in Red London, King Rhy Maresh is threatened by a rising rebellion, one determined to correct the balance of power by razing the throne entirely.
These two royals from very different empires now face very similar struggles: how to keep their crowns—and their own heads.
Amidst this tapestry of old friends and new enemies, a girl with an unusual magical ability comes into possession of a device that could change the fate of all four worlds.
Her name is Tes, and she’s the only one who can bring them together—or unravel it all.
Alucard Emery was used to turning heads.
He liked to think it was his dashing looks—the sun-kissed hair, the storm-blue eyes, the warm brown skin—or perhaps his impeccable taste—he’d always had a flair for well-trimmed clothes and the occasional gem, though the sapphire no longer winked above his brow. Then, of course, it might be his reputation. A noble by birth, a privateer by trade, once captain of the infamous Night Spire, reigning victor of the final Essen Tasch (they hadn’t held another tournament since Vesk used the last to assassinate the queen), survivor of the Tide, and consort to the king.
Each on its own would have made him interesting.
Together, they made him infamous.
And yet, that night, as he ambled through the Silken Thread, no heads turned, no gazes lingered. The pleasure garden smelled of burnt sugar and fresh lilies, a perfume that wafted through the halls and drifted up the stairs, curling like smoke around the guests. It was a stately establishment, close enough to the Isle that the river’s red light tinted the windows on the southern side, and named for the white ribbons the hosts wore around their wrists to mark them from the patrons. And like all upscale brothels, its tenants were skilled in the art of unnoticing. The hosts could be counted on for their discretion, and if any patrons knew him, as they surely did, they had the good taste not to stare, or worse, to make a sce—
He flinched at the volume of the voice, the brazenness of being called by name, turned to find a young man ambling toward him, already well into his cups. A single blue thread curled through the air around the youth, though only Alucard could see it. He was dressed in fine silk, the collar open to reveal a trail of smooth, tan skin. His golden hair was rumpled, and his eyes were black. Not edge to edge, like Kell’s, but perfect drops of ink that pooled in the center of the white, and swallowed up the pupils, so he couldn’t tell if they were shrunk to pinpricks, or blown wide with pleasure.
Alucard searched his memory until it produced a name. Oren.
“Master Rosec,” he said, as cordially as he could muster, since Oren was the son of a noble house.
“You remember!” Oren clapped him on the shoulder as if they were old friends. In truth, the Rosecs had long kept their residence up north, and the two had met only once, five years before, at the royal wedding. At the time, Alucard had thought the boy a spoiled brat. Now, he was certain. Oh, there was no doubt that Oren Rosec was handsome. But the effect was tarnished by the fact the young man clearly knew it, and carried himself with an arrogance that eroded his looks and left Alucard with only the impression of a very punchable face.
“I’m surprised to see a Rosec so far south,” he said. “How is London suiting you?”
“Wonderfully,” said Oren with a sloppy grin and an insufferable wink. “I find myself quite at home.”
“And your sister?” asked Alucard, glancing around in hopes of finding his host, and with her, an escape.
“Oh, Hanara?” Oren waved his hand. “She stayed with the estate. She was the oldest, after all.”
Alucard’s attention snagged on that word. Was. But before he could ask, Oren leaned in, far too close, and said, far too loud, “But I am surprised to see you here, Master Emery, and not at the king’s side.”
Alucard smiled thinly. “Last I checked, I am not tethered to the crown. And thus, free to amuse myself.”
Oren laughed. “I don’t blame you,” he said, fingers tightening on Alucard’s arm. “After all, these days the king’s bed must be so crowded.”
Alucard clenched his teeth, and wondered what he might have said next if Oren had not suddenly seen a host he fancied across the room.
“If you’ll excuse me,” said the younger noble, already propelling himself forward.
“Happily,” muttered Alucard, glad to see him go.
Just then, a ribboned hand settled on his shoulder, and Alucard turned to find a woman in a white dress, though the words did little justice to the woman or the dress. She was exquisite, long-limbed and pale, her ash-blond hair swept up atop her head, held in place with a dozen long silver pins, their handles sculpted into thornlike tips. The dress was a single length of white silk bound around her body like a ribbon round a parcel, cinching here and there until every vital curve was drawn in sharp detail.
Most knew her as the White Rose.
Few also knew her as the owner of the Silken Thread, its proprietor as well as its most desired host.
Alucard knew her as Ciara.
“Master Emery,” she purred, smooth as the silk itself. “It has been too long.”
The air around her warmed a little as she spoke, and he knew it was only her magic—could see the yellow threads of it dancing just over her skin—and yet he flushed and felt himself lean in toward her, like a flower to the sun.
“It has,” he said, taking her hand, and pressing the knuckles to his lips. “And yet, somehow, I doubt your bed is ever cold.”
She shrugged. “All bodies warm, but few have truly burned my sheets.”
Alucard stifled a laugh as she led him through the salon to the bar, whose marble surface curled like a single piece of ribbon through the room. She tapped one perfect nail on the counter and soon two short crystal glasses appeared, their contents amber. They each took up the glass—the brothel’s way of sealing a deal between a patron and their chosen host.
“Vas ir,” she said in Arnesian.
“Glad’och,” he replied in Veskan.
A shadow crossed Ciara’s face—the briefest cloud—before she tapped his drink with her own and downed the contents. Alucard followed. The liquor tasted of sunlight and sugar, but he knew it was strong enough to make an unsuspecting patron feel as if they’d gone to bed on land, and woken up at sea. Thankfully his years captaining the Spire had given him steady legs and a very high tolerance for spirits.
He took the empty glasses in one hand, and let her lead him with the other, up the stairs, and down a corridor, and into a room that smelled less like the brothel’s careful perfume and more like the woods at night. Wild.
By the time the door closed, and locked, she was already guiding him up against the wall, pressing playful kisses to his collar.
“Ciara,” he said gently, and then, when she did not withdraw, more firmly. “Ciara.”
Her lips drew into a perfect pout. “You really are no fun,” she said, rapping her nails against his chest. “Does the king alone still hold your heart?”
Alucard smiled. “He does.”
“What a waste,” she said, retreating. As she did, she pulled the end of the white silk that wrapped around her, and it unraveled, and fell away. She stood there, naked, the full length of her body shining like moonlight, but his eyes were drawn less to her curves, and more to her scars. Silver traced the hollow of her throat, the curves of her breasts, the crooks of her elbows, the insides of her wrists. A relic of the Tide that fell on London seven years before. The cursed magic that spilled the Isle’s banks.
Few people knew that the magic had a name, and it was Osaron.
Osaron, the destroyer of Black London.
Osaron, the darkness that believed itself a god.
Osaron, who corrupted everything and everyone he touched.
Most who survived did so by succumbing to his will. Those who fought largely perished, burned alive by the fever raging in their veins. The few who did not fall, who fought the magic and the fever and lived, they alone were marked by the battle, their veins scorched silver in the curse’s wake.
Alucard handed Ciara a lush white robe, his gaze flicking briefly to his own hand, and the molten silver mottling his wrist.
He shed his rich blue coat and cast it over a chair, unbuttoning the clasp at his throat, the closest he would come to undressing. They left the bed untouched, as they always did, and turned instead to the small table that held the Rasch board.
It was already laid, pieces huddled on the six-sided board, black gathered on one side, white on the other. Three taller figures— priest, king, and queen—surrounded by twelve soldiers. Ciara’s board had been a gift from a generous patron who happened to prefer her insight to her body, and the pieces were carved from marble instead of wood, ribbons of gold ore running through the stone.
“May I?” he asked, nodding to the bottle on the sill.
“This night is costing you a fortune. You might as well enjoy it.”
“I always do,” he said, pouring them each a second glass of the golden liquor. He lifted his, dragging an old saying up from memory. “Och ans, is farr—”
“Don’t,” she snapped, as if the sound offended her.
Alucard hesitated. He knew he lacked the king’s fluency. He spoke Arnesian and High Royal, what Lila Bard called English, and could recite a handful of sayings in other tongues, enough to manage niceties at court. But his Veskan was stilted and gruff, learned from a sailor on his ship. That said, he didn’t think it was the accent that bothered Ciara.
“You know,” he said, “it is not a bad thing, to be from more than one place.”
“It is,” she countered, “when those places are at war.”
Alucard raised a brow. “I didn’t know we were,” he said, taking his seat. “Do you know something I don’t?”
“I’d wager I know many things.” She poured herself into the opposite chair as if she too were liquid. “But we both know that Arnes and Vesk are wolves snapping at each other’s throats. It’s only a matter of time before one of them draws blood.”
But of course, one of them already had.
Seven years ago, two of Vesk’s heirs had arrived at the palace, ostensibly to celebrate the Essen Tasch and solidify the bonds between empires. But they’d come with their own plans—to cripple the crown, and seed the ground for war. They’d succeeded, in part, slaughtering Rhy’s mother, Emira. They would have succeeded in killing Rhy too, if such a thing were still possible. The only thing that kept Arnes from declaring outright war was the more immediate danger of Osaron’s attack and then, in its wake, the Veskans’ disavowal of the offending son and daughter.
They’d gone so far as to offer up their youngest heir, Hok, as penance, but Rhy had seen too much blood in too short a time, had lost his mother to another prince’s ambition and his father to the darkness at the palace doors, had watched the Tide sweep through his capital, and been forced to fight against the darkness that ended an entire world. In a matter of days, he had been orphaned and crowned, left to pick up the pieces of London. And if he sought retribution, it wouldn’t be with the life of a child.
And so what should have been the first trumpets of war had been allowed to quiet once again back into the whispers of strategy.
Still, seven years later, tensions remained high, the veil of diplomacy shroud-thin, and Alucard didn’t blame Ciara for downplaying her heritage when she made her livelihood in the shadow of the royal palace. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before war came to London, in one form or another.
They drained their glasses, and took their seats, and the game began.
Alucard moved three of his soldiers, a bold opening.
Unlike Sanct, there was no way to cheat in Rasch. It was pure strategy. When a player swept a piece from the other side, they could take it off the board, or turn it into one of theirs, depending on the endgame. Some played to eviscerate their enemies. Others to make them allies. As long as one of the prime three pieces was still standing, there was a chance to win.
“Anesh,” he said as he waited for her to make her move. “Have you had any interesting guests?”
Ciara considered. “All of my guests are interesting.” She moved her priest to the back of the board, where it would be safe. “They sometimes talk in their sleep.”
“Do they?” asked Alucard, waiving his turn.
When it came to Rasch, she was far better than him, so he rarely bothered trying to win, preferring instead to find new ways to vex his opponent.
“There are rumors,” Ciara went on, having finished her next move, “of a pirate fleet off the coast of Hal. One almost as big as the Rebel Army.”
“Funny,” said Alucard, “my spies say it is only four ships, and they cannot seem to settle on a course of sail, let alone a captain.” He pushed a soldier forward. “And in Vesk?”
“The crown prince has not been seen at court in weeks. Some think he is at sea. Others, that he has docked somewhere in Arnes, and travels southward in disguise to save his youngest brother, Hok.”
Alucard drew the soldier back again. “Save him from what? Stiff beds and long-winded metaphors?” Rhy had placed the Veskan heir in the hands of the priests at the London Sanctuary, and all reports were that he was proving a bright and exceedingly polite pupil.
As Ciara considered her move, he sat back, rubbing absently at one wrist.
It was a habit born years before the Tide, when the worst scar he wore came from the iron he’d been forced into as a prisoner, the metal heated until it burned a cuff into his skin. A painful reminder of a life he’d left behind. Now the darkened band was little more than a backdrop to the molten silver running up his arms, tracing his collar, his throat, his temples.
Most, like Ciara, saw the silver as a badge of honor, a sign of strength, but for a long time, he’d hated the marks. They hadn’t been a reminder of his might, only a testament to his weakness.
For months, every time he caught the glint of silver, he saw was his little sister, Anisa, hollowed out in death, felt his own body collapsing to his cabin floor, remembered the fever, burning his worst memories into his mind as Osaron turned his whole spirit from a fire to a candle flame. And Alucard knew that his life would have been snuffed out if Rhy Maresh hadn’t found him there, dying on the floor of his ship. If Rhy hadn’t lain down beside him on the sweat-stained board, and tangled his hands through his, and refused to let go.
For months, every time he crossed a mirror, he’d stop and stare, unable to look at himself. Unable to look away.
It was only a matter of time before Rhy caught him staring.
“You know,” said the king, “I’ve heard humility is an attractive trait.”
Alucard had managed a smile, and parried, with a shadow of his usual charm. “I know,” he’d said, “but it’s hard when you’re this striking.” And Rhy must have heard the sadness in his voice, because he’d draped himself over Alucard, and pressed a kiss into the silver-creased hollow of his throat.
“Your scars are my favorite part of you,” said the king, running a finger from the molten lines all the way to the brands at his wrists. “I love them all. Do you know why?”
“Because you were jealous of my looks?” he quipped.
For once, Rhy didn’t laugh. He brought his hand to Alucard’s cheek, and turned his gaze away from the mirror. “Because they brought you back to me.”
“Your move,” said Ciara. Alucard forced his attention back to the board.
“What of Faro?” he asked, moving the same soldier. “They claim to be our ally.”
“Ambassadors have silver tongues. You and I both know that Faro wants a war with Vesk.”
“They do not stand to win.”
“They might, if Arnes goes to battle with them first.”
Alucard sacrificed his pieces one by one as she spoke.
“You’re not even trying,” she hissed, but he was. Just not trying to win.
Sadly, Ciara could not seem to play for pretense, cutting a swathe through his pieces. In three more moves, it was done. She flicked her fingers, and a tiny gust of air swept through, tipping over the last of his pieces.
“Again?” she asked, and he nodded.
As she reset the board, he refilled their glasses.
“Well then?” he said. “What about the Hand?”
At the mention of the rebels, Ciara leaned back in her chair. “You pay me to listen for valid threats. The Hand are nothing but a petty nuisance.”
“So are moths,” he said. “Until they eat your finest coat.”
Ciara drew out a pipe and lit it with her fingers. A thin tendril of blue-grey smoke curled around her. “The crown is truly worried, then?”
“The crown is watchful. Especially when a group roams the city, calling for its head.”
Ciara hummed, running a finger around her glass. “Well, either its members are very chaste, or very good at holding their tongues. As far as I know, I’ve never had one in my bed.”
“Is it true they all bear the mark somewhere on their skin?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Then I’m quite sure,” she said with a small, wicked grin. Alucard rose, suddenly restless. It had been several years since the first appearance of the Hand, and at the time, the sect had seemed merely an annoyance, a pebble in the kingdom’s shoe. But over the course of the past year, they’d grown into something more. There was no obvious leader, no mouthpiece, no face to the movement, nothing but a symbol, and a message: magic was failing, and it was Rhy Maresh’s fault.
It was ridiculous. Unfounded. A battle cry for the discontent, an excuse to cause chaos and call it change. But there were people—bitter, angry, powerless people—who were beginning to listen.
Alucard stretched, and went to the windowsill. The Silken Thread sat on the northern bank of the city. Beyond the glass, he could see the crimson glow of the Isle, and the vaulting palace, doubled gold against the river’s surface in the dark.
He didn’t hear Ciara stand, but he saw her in the glass, felt her arms drape lazily around him.
“I should go,” he said, weariness leaking into his voice.
“So soon?” she asked. “We haven’t finished playing.”
“You’ve already won.”
“Perhaps. But still, I wouldn’t want anyone to doubt your… capacity.”
He turned in her embrace. “Is it my reputation you’re worried about, or your own?”
She laughed, and he plucked the pipe from her fingers, and inhaled, letting the heady smoke coil in his chest. Then he leaned in and kissed her lightly, sighing the smoke into her lungs.
“Goodnight, Ciara,” he said, smiling against her lips.
Her eyelids fluttered, and drifted open. “Tease,” she said, blowing out the word in a puff of smoke.
Alucard only laughed, and slipped past her, shrugging on his coat.
He stepped out into the dark and started down the street.
Only the roads nearest the river were lined with pubs and gaming halls and inns. Beyond those, the northern bank gave way to pleasure gardens and galleries, and then to walled estates with well-groomed land, where most of the city’s nobles made their homes.
It had been a fair and sun-warm day, but now, as he left the Silken Thread, the night hovered on a knife’s edge between cool and cold. Winter was on its way. Alucard had always been partial to the winter months, with their hearth fires and spiced wines and endless parties meant to rage against the chill and lack of light.
But tonight, he found the sudden cold disconcerting.
As he walked, he turned over Ciara’s words, wearing them smooth.
The rumors of Faro and Vesk were disturbing, but not unexpected. It was the lack of intel on the rebels he found maddening. He had been counting on the White Rose’s intelligence, her capacity to gather threads of gossip and spin them into more. She was a popular and beautiful host, with the kind of liquid grace that loosened tongues. It wasn’t only the patrons who spoke to her. The other hosts did, too, carrying her secrets and confidences the way a blackbird carried offerings, unable to tell the difference between crystal and glass.
A cold rain started to fall. Alucard turned one hand palm up, the air over his head arcing into a canopy, sheltering him from the downpour. It would be a bad look, he reasoned, the victor of the final Essen Tasch, trudging through London like a sodden cat. Around him, people rushed through the bad weather, heads down as they hurried for the nearest awning.
It didn’t take Alucard long to realize he was being followed.
They were good, he’d give them that. They blended into the surrounding night, and if he were anyone else, he wouldn’t have seen them at all, but as his eyes scanned the lamp-stained air and rain-slicked streets, the world reduced to gold and grey, their magic shone like firelight, tracing their edges in crimson and emerald and blue.
A thrill ran through him; not panic, exactly, but something more akin to glee. Part of him thrilled, the same part that had first been drawn to Lila Bard, the part that led him to compete in, and win, the world’s greatest tournament of magic. The part of him that was always a little eager for a fight.
But then one of the shadows moved, and he caught the faintest gleam of gold beneath their cloak, and his hopes died with it. They were not thieves, or killers, or rebels.
These particular shadows belonged to the palace. The res in cal, they were called. The crown’s crows.
Alucard rolled his eyes, and wiggled his fingers in a wave, and the shadows reluctantly slunk back, folding deeper into the night, no doubt carrying word of his exploits back to the palace.
He walked on, slowing only when he reached a crossing he knew all too well. To his left, the palace bridge, and at its center, the soner rast, as the palace was called, the beating heart, rising above the Isle.
To his right, the road that led up to the abandoned Emery estate.
It should have been easy enough, to turn away. But it wasn’t. There was a tug behind his ribs, like an anchor at the end of a rope. The saying came to him, then, the one he’d tried to summon in Ciara’s room.
Och ans, is farr, ins ol’ach, regh narr.
There was no easy way to translate Veskan. It was the kind of language where every word could mean a dozen things, depending on their order and their context. It’s why he’d never managed more than a frail grasp on a handful of phrases. But this one he’d held on to. This one Alucard understood.
A head gets lost, but a heart knows home.
If he turned up that road, Alucard knew what he’d find.
He closed his eyes, imagined walking through the open gate, climbing the steps, and pushing open the door, imagined Anisa throwing her arms around his neck, imagined his father, not a shadow in the doorway but a proud hand on his shoulder, his brother Berras standing by the fire, holding out a glass, saying it was about time he found his way back. Alucard stood there, imagining a life that was not, and had never been, and would never be.
The house had been a ruin in the wake of his battle with Berras, his brother poisoned by Osaron’s power. The whole thing should have been torn down—that’s what he thought every time his feet carried him there, to the open gate, every time he saw the cracked façade, the sagging walls. It should have been erased. It was another scar, only this one he didn’t need to live with. Alucard knew that all he had to do was ask, and Rhy would see it razed.
But he couldn’t bring himself to give the order. It had not just been his brother’s home, his father’s. It had been his mother’s once, his sister’s, his own. And on some level, he wanted to believe it could be his again. He must have said as much to Rhy one night, after too many drinks, because the next time he’d made the weary trek to the Emery estate, he’d found it standing proud, the house repaired in loving detail, every stone and pillar and pane of glass in its place.
Alucard knew, as soon as he saw it, that he’d made a terrible mistake. He hated it. Hated the way the house sat, stately but sleeping, the doors locked and the windows dark.
It was a monument. It was a crypt.
There was nothing waiting for him but the dead.
Alucard blew out a breath, and turned left, toward the bridge.
And the palace.
Excerpted from The Fragile Threads of Power, copyright © 2023 by V.E. Schwab.