Tavia Syn made a living on magic and it was rarely the legal kind.
That sort of thing was far too weak and the only way to sell it was to give the illusion of power through sleight of hand and good old-fashioned bullshit. It had been that way ever since the war—not that Tavia had been alive to remember those days—and so most of the time she got by on the markets using the bare minimum of magic and the bare maximum of trickery.
Her love elixirs were usually the first to go, so Tavia made a point to line them up in front of the trick bags. It transformed her flat-pack stall into a mosaic of color, ranging from soft pink—watered down for lust—to burnt red. Which was also watered-down, because magic wasn’t cheap and Tavia didn’t fancy selling obsession. Besides, with a little dye in the mix, nobody was any wiser.
When it came to magic, all that really mattered was timing. And showmanship. Perhaps a mark was a mark and money was money, but there was a difference in how you got that mark and took their money. Style was everything.
And if there was one thing Tavia had in spades, then it was style.
“Gather around,” Tavia said, and then, a little louder and a lot more theatrical, “What you will see here is magic made into miracle.”
The crowds swarmed by the dozen.
It was like that on market days. People came in packs with a jingle in their step and, it was worth noting, their pockets. They stopped in the middle of the cobblestone to eye the wares or play spectator to whatever the buskers were selling. That was the legal side of Tavia’s work. Which her underboss—otherwise known as Wesley Thornton Walcott, otherwise known as a complete jackass—kept going because he liked to dip a toe in clean water every now and again.
If for nothing else than to wash away the blood.
“Straight from the holy realm of Wrenyal, taken from the hands of a seer.” Tavia moved a fortune orb fluidly between her hands. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the power of foresight.”
She blew discreetly on the wick of a nearby spice paste candle and a flame burst into being. It was the perfect backdrop for any stories about Wrenyal, whose magic was said to be a gift from the Indescribable God itself.
Which was utter nonsense, of course, but nonsense was Tavia’s greatest commodity.
In the magic markets, the best way to find a mark was to create one, and there was no better way to do that than to woo them with false magic.
Tavia moved the fortune orb carefully from one hand to another as though it were delicate and sacred, and not something she’d cooked up on a whim with her bastard of an underboss, under the influence of far too many reverie charms. Though, in fairness to Wesley, that was before he became the underboss and so before he actually became a bastard.
“I suppose you have proof your magic is legit?” a skeptical man in the crowd asked.
He eyed her with distrust, which was a look Tavia had not only grown used to, but almost relished in. After all, with so much trick magic mastered, sometimes her greatest challenge came from convincing the inconvincible, taking the feeble magic the law allowed and turning it into something great. Something miraculous, if the light hit her hands just right.
Perhaps Tavia wasn’t a Crafter, creating new magic out of thin air, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t create something. A sense of awe and wonder for her audience.
“It’d be my pleasure to give you a demonstration,” Tavia said, tipping her hat to the man.
He looked at her dubiously, his smile both a challenge and a somewhat hopeful invitation to prove him wrong.
An invitation she was more than willing to accept, because though Tavia might not have liked working for a king of criminals, she did very much like magic.
Back when she was just another street kid, trying to learn the busking ropes, Tavia didn’t think she would ever get the hang of it. Magic seemed like nonsense, a fairy tale within a story she couldn’t understand. But time passed—days and weeks and months—until finally, Tavia realized that magic was not at all like fairy tales.
It was like math.
It was like the intricate clapping games she played with the other kids to fend off hunger. It seemed complex at first, but all it took was knowing the rhythm, understanding the formula.
After that, the rest came quick.
After that, it was kind of fun.
Now, Tavia was a natural. The best busker in all of Creije. This city was both her prison and her playground. And if it was a show this man wanted, then she was more than happy to give him one.
Her routine was flawless.
Tavia knew this because she had done it a hundred times. First, she danced her hand over the orb, using her smallest finger to flip the trick switch that made it glow just that bit brighter. Then she prepared for the levitation, readying the wind device stowed up her sleeve.
Tavia swooped her free hand up and down in dramatic movements, and then, quicker than a blink, she brought her wrists together. The wind coin propelled under the orb, nestling perfectly, unseen as it ascended into the air.
The crowd pointed and chuckled while Tavia motioned theatrically, letting the orb drop and rise back up. Turning it in circles and swooping it from side to side.
Mechanics, far more impressive than the weak fortune magic inside.
“Tell us our future!” someone called.
“Make a prediction!” another said.
Whatever the customer wants, she thought, reaching into her pocket with fast fingers to grab a proficiency charm. She squeezed the small marble of not-so-legal magic artfully in her hands, careful not to be seen by the crowds or any lingering guards, and let its power soak into her skin. She rested her palms atop the orb, wiping the magic from her to the device.
It glowed bright green and the crowd jumped back, thrilled.
In Tavia’s hands the orb muddled, and the intricate mechanisms she and Wesley threw together started to whistle. There were riddles hard-coded into it, and though Tavia couldn’t remember how many—it seemed like a lifetime ago when she and Wesley crafted cons as a team—she knew them by heart. She would recognize them anywhere: the silly proverbs and vague predictions about the day ahead. All things that Wesley found obnoxiously funny.
Only Tavia didn’t recognize the riddle this time. The words were tiny and jumbled and a sinking feeling crawled inside her when she tried to decipher them, so awful that she lost the will to speak the riddle out loud. But in moments the charm had gone from her and into the air, and the breeze blew by in a gentle hum, shaping itself into a croon.
And then, just like that, the wind began to sing.
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.
When midnight rings on a child’s betrayal,
your every success is doomed to fail.
Panicked, Tavia dropped the orb and the wind shattered.
She didn’t know what in the fire-gates that was, but it was definitely not something she and Wesley had planted. No matter how many reverie charms they’d been under, no matter how powerful and infinite they might have felt with empty vials by their hands and the glow of moonlight on their faces, even they wouldn’t have concocted something so peculiar.
Riddles were like jokes, in that someone had to be in on them in order for it to be funny.
And Tavia wasn’t laughing.
But the crowd was overjoyed, none the wiser to the oddity. They broke into a frenzy, pulling coin from their pockets and shoving it under Tavia’s nose like they were asking her to smell their worth.
Tavia swallowed, pushing away the strange feeling in her chest that the magic had left behind. The taste in her mouth, bitter as clovers.
Whatever that riddle was didn’t matter. It was all underhand nonsense anyway, and Tavia wouldn’t have been surprised if Wesley had planted something into the orb without her knowing. He specialized in secrets, and there was nothing Wesley liked more than going behind people’s backs. All that truly mattered was that the show was a success.
Tavia checked her timepiece and sighed.
It was fast approaching the hour when the air shifted and zealots spat out onto the streets, in search of buskers with magic black enough to soot their skin.
In other words, it was time for Tavia to head to the Crook.
Time for her to really get to work.
* * *
THE CROOK was so named because, like most of the city, it was full of crooked things. The most crooked of which was Wesley Thornton Walcott, who was both Tavia’s underboss and the closest thing Creije had to a gangster.
He’d single-handedly turned the Crook into the most profitable enterprise in the realm, both over the table and under it. Sitting on the riverbank beside the bridge that separated the two halves of the city—the tourists from the poor—the old clock tower had been converted into a fight club that served as the hub of Creije, where anyone interested in a lawless eye gathered. Thanks to Wesley, its reach was beyond compare.
Tavia eyed the tail of customers that stretched from the doors and into the folds of the city, hugging her jacket tighter as the wind grew in strength. The icy ends of her black hair sparked by the point of her chin as she looked up to the skies in wonder.
It was winter in Creije, and though that meant the days were short and the nights were long, with any darkness came the Everglow. A web of color that pulled across the sky like a curtain. Flares of pink and green lighting up the dark, so that every night for the latter half of the year, even the locals leaned out their windows to watch the sky explode. There was magic in the air, among the stars and on the fingertips of anyone who walked the streets.
Tavia approached the doors to Wesley’s club.
She didn’t like coming to the Crook on Sundays, because that was when Karam Talwar tended door, and she was the kind of person nobody saw in broad daylight.
Karam was from Wrenyal, in the five-river city of Granka, which drew missionaries from across the realms, learning magic like it was a holy calling rather than a skill. But there was nothing holy in her. Karam’s fists were perpetually sliced across the knuckles and there was a permanent bruise under her left eye.
When Karam saw Tavia she grunted, which seemed to be more of a greeting than something to be taken personally.
“Karam,” Tavia said, trying to ignore the aroma of peppermint that lingered on the girl’s clothes—a common salve used by fighters. “Living well, I see.”
In a heavy Grankan accent, she said, “Why are you here?”
Always the charmer.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?” Tavia asked.
Karam shot her a look that was a little too murderous.
She always seemed so deadly, from the stark hair long enough to slash at her elbows, to the thick eyebrows that hooded large golden irises. Her clothes were richly embroidered in a contrast of midnight and moonlight that grazed her ankles, and Tavia wasn’t entirely sure how she managed to fight rowdy customers in such an outfit, but fighting was what Karam did best.
That and glaring.
Karam moved to let Tavia through. “Just so you know, you ruin your face when you talk,” she said.
“Flatterer,” Tavia shot back, and then winked, because Karam may have been a killer with no social skills, but she was also quite pretty.
Tavia stepped through the doors of the Crook and though she was in no mood to smell cheap tricks and even cheaper liquor, the tower was in full swing, all flashing lights and magic she could practically taste. The music moved like a virus through the air, across the fighters and into the flurry of patrons who placed their bets on a winner.
Tavia walked past the fighters and the entertainers who flung themselves across the room in aerial silk, taking care not to get kicked in the face. She pulled back a curtain at the far end and pressed her hand against the indiscreet slab of black glass, allowing her palm—her identity and her desires—to be read.
Once the glass was satisfied, a doorway slid open, and on the other side stood Tavia’s underboss, a pack of four-leaf clovers in hand.
Wesley Thornton Walcott was only nineteen, but he had a name that made most people think he came out of his muma wearing a suit and suspenders. Tavia knew that wasn’t true, but she did know that he wore a three-piece on every even day and a bow tie on all the odd ones.
She wasn’t too sure how he worked out which days were which—the streets of Creije always seemed so odd to her—but Wesley had assigned them such attributes and got away with it, because getting away with things was what Wesley did best.
“Tavia,” he said, and smiled in a way that was half dimples and all sadist. “Come on, the fight’s just getting started.”
He brushed past her and headed for the fighting ring.
Reluctantly, Tavia followed.
A path cleared for Wesley, as if by habit, and when he approached a small set of sofas cordoned off by gold chains, half a dozen buskers surrounded the area, keeping everyone else at a distance.
Perhaps, so they couldn’t hear what Wesley would tell Tavia.
Perhaps, because they knew Wesley just didn’t like people very much.
The crowd cheered, waving their betting tickets at the fighters, and Wesley watched them with a face far too youthful for someone who had killed his way to the top. His black-brown hair was immaculately styled and his skin was deep and dark. A pair of mirrored sunglasses perched on the hilltop hitch of his nose.
“Sit down,” Wesley said.
Tavia didn’t, but she did take a moment to relish in the joy of what an utter jackass Wesley looked in those glasses.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived, because once Wesley noticed the smug grin on her face—which he should have been used to by now, since she learned it from him—he slipped the glasses off to reveal the graveyard dirt of his eyes.
“I just came to pick up some extra magic,” Tavia said. “Make it quick if you want to talk. My time is your money.”
Wesley popped a four-leaf clover into his mouth, a habit he’d picked up when they were kids.
“I want to talk about the new elixir from the Kingpin,” Wesley said. “You’ve had it for a couple of weeks now and I don’t have a report of any sales.”
Tavia’s spine tingled at the thought of the strange magic vials, still untouched at the very bottom of her backpack. The so-called happiness elixir twisted her gut inexplicably whenever she caught sight of it and that was saying something, considering the kind of magic she usually sold without issue. And so Tavia had simply stopped looking at it altogether, leaving the elixir to the depths of her backpack, piled under so many other vials of potent magic.
“I’m working on my sales pitch,” Tavia said, though she knew that didn’t sound convincing.
Wesley was hard to sway at the best of times, even when Tavia attempted charm, and most definitely when she lied through her teeth.
“You know how important this is,” Wesley said. “We’re already the magical mecca of Uskhanya, but if we make this a success, then we can put the other realms on the ropes too. I went out on a limb giving your name as the best busker to bring it to market. Don’t make me regret it. This could earn us both a lot of money.”
Tavia laughed and not just because Wesley already had too much money for his own good.
Everyone in Creije wanted to get rich or kill someone trying. The more money someone had, the more money they wanted. Round and round until all that was left were guys like Wesley Thornton Walcott, standing in his three-piece suit with a briefcase full of magic.
But Tavia didn’t want to get rich.
Street kids became buskers because they needed to survive, and survival was what Tavia had always been most interested in. Getting rich was just one possible side effect.
“I’m flattered my face came to mind when you thought of the word con,” Tavia said.
“I must’ve forgotten the part where I said it was a scam.”
Tavia could barely stop herself from rolling her eyes. “I’m not a child, Wesley. I know there’s no such thing as new magic. The Crafters are all gone. The War of Ages saw to that. If you’re going to feed me a story, at least make it a good one.”
Wesley only shrugged, which was the closest thing he ever gave to an answer. “Then let’s just call it something old that’s been repackaged,” he said. “Either way, it’s in your best interest to pass it on.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because it’ll cut your life debt short and give you enough money to leave Creije for good.”
Like every busker in Uskhanya, she owed a life debt to the Kingpin. He saved kids from the streets and in exchange they gave him their childhood, because children made the best crooks, lulling anyone into anything.
Sweet faces with deadly magic.
It was only when a busker turned eighteen, became an adult, and aged out of their childhood debt, that they were given two choices: leave and never come back, or take everything they’d learned and use it to become a career criminal, swell in coin.
Most buskers went for option two, but Tavia was counting the time until it was over.
Just seven more months to go.
She’d already spent six years under the Kingpin’s thumb, forced to do his dirty work as payment for not starving to death. Forced to jump when she was told and ruin lives on the whim of a power-crazed crook. Never free to do the magic she wanted, when she wanted. Trapped in the city her muma died in, unable to leave and explore the charms the rest of the realms surely held.
As far as Tavia was concerned, she was little more than a captive of the Kingpin’s command.
“That’s not funny,” she said. “You don’t just wipe out a life debt to Dante Ashwood.”
The crowd hissed as one of the fighters fell to their knees.
“It’s not a joke,” Wesley said, though even he didn’t sound sure. “The Kingpin’s consort just told me there’d be a day less on your debt for every vial you sell. Make sure you give it to the good kind of customer though, will you? The people who can afford to keep buying when we officially bring it to market.”
“So not the good kind,” Tavia said. “The wealthy kind.”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
Tavia resisted the urge to glare.
There were plenty of wealthy folk in Creije, but these days most of them were also wide-eyed romantics, or tourists who wandered from the floating railways with thirsty hearts and idealism ripe on their tongues. Creije was a place for dreamers and Tavia stole enough from people that she thought she ought to draw the line at dreams.
Though if she were to say that to Wesley, he’d laugh and tell her that a mark was a mark and could never be something so complicated as innocent. Even so, Tavia had decided that the best way to survive after Creije—which was an important distinction to surviving in Creije—was to cling to any morality she could salvage.
“People have been bottling happiness for decades,” Tavia said. “You haven’t told me what’s so great about this version.”
Copyright © 2019 by Alexandra Christo
Map copyright © 2019 by Patrick Knowles