The king nodded. “Go on,” he commanded, affecting a stately countenance that warred with his fragile form and his faltering voice. “Go on.”
Kell swallowed. “‘Greetings to his majesty, King George III,’” he read, “‘from a neighboring throne.’”
The queen did not refer to it as the red throne, or send greetings fromRed London (even though the city was in fact quite crimson, thanks to the rich, pervasive light of the river), because she did not think of it that way. To her, and to everyone else who inhabited only one London, there was little need to differentiate among them. When the rulers of one conversed with those of another, they simply called them others, or neighbors, or on occasion (and particularly in regard to White London) less flattering terms.
Only those few who could move among the Londons needed a way to keep them straight. And so Kell—inspired by the lost city known to all as Black London—had given each remaining capital a color.
Grey for the magic-less city.
Red, for the healthy empire.
White, for the starving world.
In truth, the cities themselves bore little resemblance to one another (and the countries around and beyond bore even less). The fact they were all called London was its own mystery, though the prevailing theory was that one of the cities had taken the name long ago, before the doors were all sealed and the only things allowed through were letters between kings and queens. As to which city had first laid claim to the name, none could agree.
“‘We hope to learn that you are well,’” continued the queen’s letter, “‘and that the season is as fair in your city as it is in ours.’”
Kell paused. There was nothing more, save a signature. King George wrung his hands.
“Is that all it says?” he asked.
Kell hesitated. “No,” he said, folding the letter. “That’s only the beginning.”
He cleared his throat and began to pace as he pulled his thoughts together and put them into the queen’s voice. “Thank you for asking after our family, she says. The King and I are well. Prince Rhy, on the other hand, continues to impress and infuriate in equal measure, but has at least gone the month without breaking his neck or taking an unsuitable bride. Thanks be to Kell alone for keeping him from doing either, or both.”
Kell had every intention of letting the queen linger on his own merits, but just then the clock on the wall chimed five, and Kell swore under his breath. He was running late.
“Until my next letter,” he finished hurriedly, “stay happy and stay well. With fondness. Her Highness Emira, Queen of Arnes.” Kell waited for the king to say something, but his blind eyes had a steady, faraway look, and Kell feared he had lost him. He set the folded note on the tea tray and was halfway to the wall when the king spoke up.
“I don’t have a letter for her,” he murmured.
“That’s all right,” said Kell softly. The king hadn’t been able to write one for years. Some months he tried, dragging the quill haphazardly across the parchment, and some months he insisted on having Kell transcribe, but most months he simply told Kell the message and Kell promised to remember.
“You see, I didn’t have the time,” added the king, trying to salvage a vestige of his dignity. Kell let him have it.
“I understand,” he said. “I’ll give the royal family your regards.”
Kell turned again to go, and again the old king called out to stop him.
“Wait, wait,” he said. “Come back.”
Kell paused. His eyes went to the clock. Late, and getting later. He pictured the Prince Regent sitting at his table in St. James, gripping his chair and quietly stewing. The thought made Kell smile, so he turned back toward the king as the latter pulled something from his robe with fumbling fingers.
It was a coin.
“It’s fading,” said the king, cupping the metal in his weathered hands as if it were precious and fragile. “I can’t feel the magic anymore. Can’t smell it.”
“A coin is a coin, Your Majesty.”
“Not so and you know it,” grumbled the old king. “Turn out your pockets.”
Kell sighed. “You’ll get me in trouble.”
“Come, come,” said the king. “Our little secret.”
Kell dug his hand into his pocket. The first time he had visited the king of England, he’d given him a coin as proof of who he was and where he came from. The story of the other Londons was entrusted to the crown and handed down heir to heir, but it had been years since a traveler had come. King George had taken one look at the sliver of a boy and squinted and held out his meaty hand, and Kell had set the coin in his palm. It was a simple lin, much like a grey shilling, only marked with a red star instead of a royal face. The king closed his fist over the coin and brought it to his nose, inhaling its scent. And then he’d smiled, and tucked the coin into his coat, and welcomed Kell inside.
From that day on, every time Kell paid his visit, the king would insist the magic had worn off the coin, and make him trade it for another, one new and pocket-warm. Every time Kell would say it was forbidden (it was, expressly), and every time the king would insist that it could be their little secret, and Kell would sigh and fetch a fresh bit of metal from his coat.
Now he plucked the old lin out of the king’s palm and replaced it with a new one, folding George’s gnarled fingers gently over it.
“Yes, yes,” cooed the ailing king to the coin in his palm.
“Take care,” said Kell as he turned to go.
“Yes, yes,” said the king, his focus fading until he was lost to the world, and to his guest.
Curtains gathered in the corner of the room, and Kell pulled the heavy material aside to reveal a mark on the patterned wallpaper. A simple circle, bisected by a line, drawn in blood a month ago. On another wall in another room in another palace, the same mark stood. They were as handles on opposite sides of the same door.
Kell’s blood, when paired with the token, allowed him to move between the worlds. He needn’t specify a place because wherever he was, that’s where he’d be. But to make a door within a world, both sides had to be marked by the same exact symbol. Close wasn’t close enough. Kell had learned that the hard way.
The symbol on the wall was still clear from his last visit, the edges only slightly smeared, but it didn’t matter. It had to be redone.