With thanks to Stephanie Burgis, Fran Wilde and Kate Elliott
It was a large, magnificent room with intricate patterns of ivy branches on the tiles, and a large mirror above a marble fireplace, the mantlepiece crammed with curios from delicate silver bowls to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain figures: a clear statement of casual power, to leave so many riches where everyone could grab them.
Or rather, it would have been, if the porcelain hadn’t been cut-rate—the same bad quality the Chinese had foisted on the Indochinese court in Annam—the mirror tarnished, with mould growing in one corner, spread down far enough that it blurred features, and the tiling cracked and chipped in numerous places—repaired, but not well enough that Thuan couldn’t feel the imperfections under his feet, each one of them a little spike in the khi currents of magic around the room.
Not that Thuan was likely to be much impressed by the mansions of Fallen angels, no matter how much of Paris they might claim to rule. He snorted disdainfully, an expression cut short when Kim Cuc elbowed him in the ribs. “Behave,” she said.
“You’re not my mother.” She was his ex-lover, as a matter of fact; and older than him, and never let him forget that.
“Next best thing,” Kim Cuc said, cheerfully. “I can always elbow further down, if you insist.”
Thuan bit down the angry retort. The third person in the room—a dusky-skinned, young girl of Maghrebi descent, who’d introduced herself as Leila—was looking at them with fear in her eyes. “We’re serious,” he said, composing his face again. “We’re not going to ruin your chances to enter House Hawthorn, promise.”
They were a team: that was what they’d been told, as the House dependents separated the crowd before the House in small groups; that their performance would be viewed as a whole, and their chance to enter the House weighed accordingly. Though no rules had been given, and nothing more said, either, as dependents led them to this room and locked them in. At least he was still with Kim Cuc, or he’d have been hopelessly lost.
For people like Leila—for the Houseless, the desperate—it was their one chance to escape the streets, to receive food and shelter and the other tangible benefits of a House’s protection.
For Thuan and Kim Cuc, though… the problem was rather different. Their fate, too, would be rather different, if anyone found out who they really were. No House in Paris liked spies, and Hawthorn was not known for its leniency.
“You’re relatives?” Leila asked.
“In a manner of speaking.” Kim Cuc was cheerful again, which meant she was about to reproach him once more. “He’s the disagreeable one. We work in the factories.” They’d agreed on this as the most plausible cover story: they had altered their human shapes, slightly, to make their hands thinner and more scarred. They didn’t need to fake the gaunt faces and brittle hair: in the days after the war that had devastated the city, magical pollution affected everyone.
“The factories. The ones behind the stations?”
Kim Cuc nodded. She looked at her lap, thoughtfully. “Yes. Only decent jobs there are, for Annamites in this city.”
“That’s—” Leila started. The House factories by the ruined train stations employed a host of seamstresses and embroiderers, turning them blind and crooked-handed in a short span. “People don’t last long in there.”
Kim Cuc looked at her lap as if embarrassed. “It sucks the life out of you, but it pays well. Well, decent considering it’s not for House dependents.” She fingered her bracelet. It and its matching twin on the other side looked like cheap, gilded stuff, the kind of wedding gifts the Annamite community gave each other, but they were infused with a wealth of Fallen magic. If found out and pressed, she’d say they were savings for an upcoming operation—not an uncommon thing in devastated Paris, where the air corroded lungs and caused strange fungi to bloom within bones and muscle. “What about you?”
Leila’s face froze as she exhaled. “Gang,” she said, shortly. “The Deep Underground Dreamers, before they got beaten by the Red Mambas.”
“Ah,” Kim Cuc said. “And the Red Mambas didn’t want you?”
Leila’s gaze was answer enough: haunted and taut, and more adult than it should have been. Beneath her hemp shirt and patched-up skirt, her body was thin, and no doubt bruised. Thuan felt obscurely ashamed. He and Kim Cuc were only playing at being Houseless. The dragon kingdom under the waters of the Seine might be weakened, its harvests twisted out of shape by Fallen magic, but they still had enough to eat and drink, and beds to sleep in they didn’t need to fight or trade favours for. “Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” Leila said. And, when the silence got too awkward, “So what are we supposed to do?”
“Damned if I know.” Thuan got up, and picked up one of the figurines from the mantlepiece. It was a shepherdess with a rather improbable waistline, carrying a small and perfectly fashioned lamb in her arms. One of her eyes was slightly larger than the other, an odd effect that most mortals wouldn’t have picked up on.
There is one day of the year when House Hawthorn takes in the Houseless, and trains them as servants or potential dependents. One of you needs to get in.
Hawthorn was the kingdom’s closest and most uncomfortable neighbour, and they were getting more and more pressing. Till recently, they had shown no interest in the Seine or its underwater cities. But now they were encroaching on dragon territory, and no one at the imperial court had any idea of why or what the stakes were.
We need an agent in the House.
Kim Cuc was fascinated by Fallen magic and by the Houses. Thuan—a dragon, but a minor son of a minor branch of the imperial family—just happened to be the definition of convenient and expendable.
He’d have cursed, if he hadn’t been absolutely sure that Kim Cuc would elbow him again. Or worse, continue the small talk with Leila, picking up on all of Thuan’s imperfections as if he weren’t there. Trust her to share secrets with someone who wasn’t even a dragon, or a relative.
The door opened. Thuan, startled, put the shepherdess back on the mantlepiece, and straightened up, feeling for all the world as though he’d been caught stealing dumplings from the kitchens by one of his aunts.
The newcomer was a Fallen, with a round, plump face, and the same slight radiance to her skin as all former angels, a reminder of the magic swirling through them. She turned to look at all of them in turn, her brown eyes lingering longer on Thuan, as if she knew exactly what he’d been doing when he entered the room. “My name is Sare,” she said. “I’m the alchemist of the House, and in charge of these tests.”
The one in charge of making all their magical artefacts, and turning Fallen corpses into magic for dependents. She definitely reminded Thuan of Third or Fourth Aunt, except that his aunts wouldn’t kill him for stealing or snooping where he wasn’t meant to—no, they’d come up with something far worse.
Sare waited for them to introduce themselves, which they did, awkwardly and in a growing silence. Leila’s eyes were wide. Kim Cuc, by the looks of her, was unimpressed and trying not to show it.
“So you want to enter Hawthorn,” Sare said. She didn’t wait, this time. “Let me tell you a little about how it works. I’ll pick a few people from everyone who showed up today: the ones who show the most resourcefulness. The House will take you in, feed you, clothe you and teach you. If not…” She shrugged. “The streets are full of the Houseless. Any questions?”
“Dividing us into teams…” Thuan said, slowly.
“Because a House stands together,” Sare said. The look she gave him could have frozen lava. “Intrigues are allowed, but nothing that threatens our unity. Am I clear?”
She wasn’t, but Thuan nodded all the same.
“What are we supposed to do?” Kim Cuc asked.
“To start with?” Sare gestured, gracefully, towards the large table in the centre of the room. “You’ll find supplies in the cupboard on the right, and other materials in the room on the left. You have an hour to come up with something that impresses me.”
“Something—?” Thuan asked.
Sare shook her head. “Resourcefulness. I look forward to seeing what you make.”
He shouldn’t have, but he raised his gaze to meet hers. Brown eyes, with light roiling throughout the irises, flecks of luminescence that looked like scattered stars. “I’m sure you won’t be disappointed,” he said.
Something creaked in the corridor outside the room, and Sare looked away for a moment, startled. When she came back to Thuan, something had changed in her gaze, a barely perceptible thing, but Thuan was observant.
“Cocky,” Sare said. “I’m not too sure I like that, Thuan. But we’ll see, won’t we?”
And then she was gone, and it was just the three of them, staring at each other.
Kim Cuc was the first to move, towards the cupboard Sare had shown them. She opened it, and stared at its contents. Thuan heard her suck in a deep breath. “Well, that should be interesting.”
Thuan wasn’t sure what he’d expected—some kind of dark and twisted secrets, weapons or knives or something, but of course that was nothing more than fancies born of nightmares. Inside the cupboard were metal bowls and plates, and a series of little packets of powder.
“Is that—” Leila asked.
“Yes,” Kim Cuc said. “Flour, sugar and salt.” Her face was carefully composed again, mostly so she didn’t laugh. She looked, again, at the table in the centre of the room, a fragile contraption with the curved legs characteristic of the Louis XV style, except that they’d been broken once already, and that the white marble surface was soot-encrusted. “I’m assuming we should make our best effort not to break that.”
Servants. Kitchen hands. Of course.
Leila pushed open the door of the other room, came back. “There’s a sink and a small stove in there.” Her face was closed again, pinched and colourless. “I can’t cook. We never saw all of this, outside—” On the streets of Paris, flour was grit-filled and grey, butter thin and watered-down, and sugar never seen. As tests went, it was actually quite a good one: how would you handle cooking with so much more wealth than you’d ever seen in your life?
Clever, Thuan thought, and then he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to admire the House that was his enemy.
Kim Cuc was gazing at him, levelly. “You’re in luck,” she said to Leila. “Because I can’t cook either. But Thuan was paying way too much attention to old recipes, back when he was trying to seduce the family cook.”
“It did work,” Thuan said, stung. Not for long, true. It had soured when Thuan was called to the innermost chambers of the court, and last he’d heard, the cook had found himself another lover. He’d have been bitter if he could have afforded to, but that wasn’t the way to survive in the intrigues of the imperial court.
“It always works,” Kim Cuc said. “Until it doesn’t.” She stopped, then, as if aware she was on the cusp of going too far.
“You said you weren’t keeping score,” Thuan said.
Kim Cuc shrugged. “Do you want me to?”
“No.” They’d parted on good terms and she wasn’t jealous or regretful, but she did have way too much fun teasing him.
“Fine,” Kim Cuc said. “What can we do in one hour?”
Thuan knelt, to stare at the contents of the cupboard. “An hour is short. Most recipes will want more than that. And…” The supplies were haphazard, bits and scraps scavenged from the kitchens, he assumed. He had to come up with something that wasn’t missing an ingredient, and that could be significantly sped up by three people working on it at the same time. And that was a little more impressive than buttered toast.
“Chocolate éclairs,” he said, finally. “Leila and I on the dough, Kim Cuc on the cream. We’ll sort out the chocolate icing while the dough cools down.” Time was going to be tight and the recipe wasn’t exactly the easiest one he had, but the cake—pâte à choux filled with melted pastry cream and iced with chocolate—was an impressive sight, and probably a better thing than the other teams would come up with. Assuming, of course, that everyone had been assigned a cooking challenge, which might not be the case.
The downside was that, unless they were very fast, they’d leave the place a mess. One hour definitely didn’t include time for clean-up. Better, however, to be ambitious and fail, rather than come back with a pristine room and nothing achieved.
But, all the while, as he directed Leila to beat eggs and sugar together—as he attempted to prevent Kim Cuc from commenting on his strings of previous lovers and their performances as she boiled butter and water together—he remembered Sare’s eyes, the way she’d moved when the floor in the corridor creaked.
It had been fear and worry in her gaze, something far beyond the annoyance of having to deal with the Houseless in the course of a routine exam she must have been used to supervising every year. And, for a moment, as she’d turned, the magic within her had surged, layer after layer of protective spells coming to life in Thuan’s second sight, spells far too complex and sturdy to be wasted on the likes of them.
“Something is wrong,” he said, to Kim Cuc, in Viet. They couldn’t keep that conversation up for long, or Leila would get suspicious.
Kim Cuc’s eyes narrowed. “I know. The khi currents in the wing are weird. I’ve noticed it when we stepped in.”
“They should be almost spent,” Kim Cuc said. “Devastated like the rest of Paris. But they’re like a nest of hornets. Something’s got them stirred up.”
“Someone. Someone is casting a spell, and it’s a large one.” Her voice was thoughtful. “Keep an eye out, will you?” Fortunately, questions in Viet sounded like any other sentence to foreigners, marked only by a keyword that was no different from the usual singsong rhythm.
“Of course.” Whatever it was, they were locked in a room somewhere near the epicentre of it.
Great. What ancestor had he offended lately, to get such a string of bad luck?
Thuan was down to making an improvised piping bag with baking parchment when Kim Cuc said, sharply, “Younger uncle.”
“Is anything wrong—” he started, and then stopped, because the khi currents had shifted. Water had given way to an odd mixture of water and wood, something with sharp undertones Thuan had never felt before.
The key turned in the lock again: it was Sare, her smooth, perfect face expressionless, but with the light of magic roiling beneath her skin, so strongly it deepened the shadows around the room. “Out,” she said. Her voice was terse and unfriendly.
Leila, startled, looked up with her hands full of congealed chocolate. Kim Cuc merely flowed into a defensive stance, gathering the rare strands of khi water in the room to herself. Thuan just waited, not sure of what was happening. Except that the ground beneath his feet felt… prickly, as if a thousand spikes had erupted from it and he was walking on a carpet of broken glass. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Enough,” Sare said. She looked at Thuan and Kim Cuc for a moment, her gaze suspicious—surely she couldn’t have found out what they were, surely dragon magic was as alien to Fallen as the sky was to fish? But then she shook her head, as if a bothersome thought had intruded. “We’re evacuating the wing, and you’re coming with us.”
“Caring about the Houseless?” Kim Cuc’s voice was mildly sarcastic, the remark Thuan had clamped down on as being too provocative.
“Corpses are a mess to clean.” Sare’s gaze was still hard. “I see both of you are equally cocky. Don’t give me a hard time, please.”
Kim Cuc grabbed him, as they came out. “It’s over the entire wing,” she said, in Viet.
“Not the House?”
She shook her head. “Don’t think so.” Her hands moved, smoothly, teasing out a pattern of khi water out of the troubled atmosphere. “This smooths out the khi currents. Got it?”
Thuan’s talent for magic was indifferent, but his memory for details was excellent. “Yes.”
“Good. Now hold on tight. This could get messy.”
In the corridor, a crowd of other Houseless mingled, waiting in a hubbub of whispers, until Sare clapped her hands together and silence spread like a thrown cloth. “We’re going into the gardens. Follow the dependents—the grey-and-silver uniforms. And don’t dawdle.”
And still no mention of whatever was causing the evacuation—no one who’d dared ask, either. Thuan fell in line behind two gaunt men in white bourgerons and blue aprons, Leila and Kim Cuc following a little behind. His neighbour was one of the House’s dependents, a middle-aged woman with a lean, harsh face who didn’t seem inclined to make conversation. She held a magical artefact in her clenched hand, but by the faint translucency of her skin she’d already inhaled its contents. Bad enough for everyone to be prepared for magic, then.
He still felt, under him, the spikes. They were moving, slowly weaving a pattern like snakes as he stepped over them, pushing upwards to trap his ankles. Their hold easily snapped as he stepped away, but it kept getting stronger and stronger. How far away were the gardens, how much time did they have? And what would happen, if he faltered and stopped? Something was trying to invade this part of the House, was trying to find a weakness, but he couldn’t see anything or anyone.
He glanced behind him. A small, skeleton-thin girl in a torn hempen dress had stumbled, and one of the dependents, cursing under her breath, was trying to help the girl up. Magic surged through her chest and arms, a light that threw the girl’s cheekbones into sharp relief. “Get up,” the dependent said, and the girl stumbled on.
So he wasn’t the only one, then. And it wasn’t only people with magic, Fallen or dragon who were feeling this.
Something moved, at the back. For a moment Thuan thought it was a child who’d gotten left behind, but it was too small and agile, and its joints didn’t seem to flex in the right way. Its eyes glittered in the growing shadows. And then, as swiftly as it had appeared, it vanished.
A child. The shape of a child. And—Thuan’s memory was unfortunately excellent on details like this—not something made of flesh and muscles and bones, but a construct of parquet wood, prickling with the thorns of brambles.
Of hawthorns, he thought, suddenly chilled.
When he turned to look again, the shadows had lengthened, and there were more of them, trailing the group, here one moment and gone the next, flickering in and out of existence like lights wavering in the wind. He scanned the crowd. Most Houseless appeared oblivious; but, here and there, people stared with growing fear. The House dependents didn’t appear to see the children of thorns at all.
That wasn’t good.
But, as they moved forward—always driven, always following the elusive light of Sare’s magic, following a corridor that twisted and turned and seemed to have no end—Thuan couldn’t help looking back again. Every time he looked, the children of thorns were more solid, more sharply defined. And not flickering in and out of existence, but more and more there.
The shadows at their back lengthened, until the light of the dependents’ magic seemed the only safety in the entire world. And the spikes—the branches, weren’t they?—grabbed his ankles and slowed him down, and more and more people stumbled, and they weren’t making good enough time, they were going to slow down and fall…
Someone grabbed Thuan’s hand. And it was definitely not human, or Fallen, or dragon—a dry, prickling touch like kindling wood. Thuan fought the urge to grab his hand away. “What are you?” he asked, and—where its breath should have been coming from—there was only the loud creak of floorboards.
It whispered something that might have been a name, that might have been a curse, but didn’t let go. “Stay,” it whispered. “Or the House will fail you as it failed its children.”
Thuan’s feet felt as though he was stuck to the parquet floor. With his free hand he called up khi water—it came slowly, agonisingly slowly—and wove it into the pattern Kim Cuc had shown him, throwing it over the spikes like a blanket. The currents smoothed themselves out. He lifted his feet, trying to stamp some circulation back into them, but he couldn’t get rid of the hand in his.
“Enough,” Sare said. She turned, ahead of them, to face the group. Light streamed from her face, from her arms beneath the grey and silver dress she wore—a radiance that grew steadily blinding, a faint suggestion of wings at her back, a halo around her fair hair.
By Thuan’s side, there was a sharp, wounded sound like wood snapping, and the hand withdrew from his as if scalded. He didn’t wait to see if it would come back, and neither did his companions. They ran, slowly at first and then picking up speed—not looking back, one should never look back—leaving the darkness behind and heading for the end of the corridor, door after door passing them, dust-encrusted rooms, rotten panelling, broken sofas and torn carpets and burnt wallpaper—and finally emerged, gasping and struggling to breathe, in the grey light of the gardens.
They stared at each other. Leila was dishevelled and pale, breathing heavily. Thuan was still trying to shake the weird feeling from his hand. When he raised it to the light he saw a dozen pinpricks, already closing. He’d never been so happy for dragons’ healing powers.
Sare stood on the steps of the wing, eyes shaded to look at the rest of the House. “Just this wing,” she said, half to herself. She gestured to one of the dependents. “Get a message to Lord Asmodeus.”
“He said—” the dependent started, with fear in her voice.
“I know what he said,” Sare said. She sounded annoyed. “He’s grieving and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But this is an emergency.” She breathed in, a little more calmly. “No, you’re right. Iaris. Get Iaris. She’ll sort this mess out.”
Thuan showed no sign he’d understood what was going on. From his briefings he knew that Iaris was the House’s chief doctor, and Asmodeus’s right hand, seconding him in his work of ruling the House.
Sare turned back to Thuan and the others, huddled on the steps, struggling to catch their breath. “We’ll find you some food until this gets sorted out.”
Of course. They weren’t going to be allowed to leave, were they? Just in case one of them turned out to be responsible for whatever had happened.
Leila withdrew something from her pocket: it was soggy and broken in half, and left trails of chocolate in her hand. “They’d have tasted great,” she said, forlornly.
“We can always do them later,” Thuan said. And then he stopped, as his brain finally caught up with him. “Where’s Kim Cuc?”
She. She wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen her since the hand had grabbed him in the corridor. A fist of ice was squeezing his innards into mush. Where. Where was she?
He moved, half-running across the steps, gently shoving people out of his way—a gaunt girl with the round belly of starvation, an older man from the factories, his clothes slick and stained from machine oil—no Kim Cuc, no other Annamite, not anywhere. “Older aunt!”
She wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere. She… he stopped at last, staring at the Houseless on the steps, at the grey, overcast sky, so unlike the rippling blue one of the dragon kingdom under the Seine. Gone. Stuck inside. With the children of thorns and the floorboards and whatever else was going on inside.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sare, towering over him, with the remnants of the magic she’d used to extricate them from the wing, a dark, suffocating presence far too close for comfort. Within him, the khi water rose, itching for a fight, for anything to take his mind off the reality. But he couldn’t. Even if he’d been the most powerful among the dragon kingdom, he couldn’t take on a Fallen within her House.
“My friend,” Thuan said.
Sare was quick on the uptake. Her gaze moved, scanned the crowd. “Not here. All right. Is anyone else missing?” she called out.
It should have been chaos, but fear of what Sare would do kept them all in check. At length, after some hurried, whispered talks among themselves, the other Houseless established that, if anyone had gone missing, it was someone who’d come alone, and whom they hadn’t noticed.
Thuan looked at the wing they’d just come out of. The doors were a classic: a lower half of faded wooden panels, once a shade of purple but now just flaking off to reveal pale, mouldy wood underneath, and broken window panes on the top half.
But, around the handles… faint and translucent, and barely visible in the autumn light, was the imprint of thorn branches. Thuan sucked in a deep, burning breath. “What’s going on?” he asked Sare.
Her face was hard. He thought she’d brush him off, put him in his place with the other Houseless, but he must have caught her at an unguarded moment. “I don’t know. This wing has been odd since Lord Asmodeus came home from House Silverspires. Since…” she stopped herself, then.
Grieving. Thuan thought back to his mission briefing. Asmodeus’s long-time lover, Samariel, had died in House Silverspires. He wouldn’t have thought the head of House Hawthorn was the type to mourn, but clearly he’d been wrong. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then chose his words a little more carefully. “They say he lost his lover, in House Silverspires.”
“Yes.” Sare was still in that oddly contemplative mood.
“Does this have anything to do with it?”
Sare’s face closed. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” She looked at him; seeing him, not as a Houseless, not as a candidate to join the House, but as a person—a scrutiny he might not be able to afford, no matter how good his disguise was. “Cocky and curious. Who are you, Thuan?”
The only thing that came out of him was the truth. “I’m the one whose friend is stuck inside the wing. Assuming she’s even there anymore.” Assuming she was even alive anymore. Assuming…
“Don’t do anything you’ll regret later.” Sare gestured to the other Houseless, who’d fanned out on the steps. Someone had found a deck of cards, and a raucous game of tarot had started, cheered on by half the crowd, though the atmosphere was still subdued. “Now go wait, will you? Iaris has got a lot of experience at cleaning messes.” She looked as though she’d roll her eyes upwards, but stopped just short of actual disrespect. “You’ll be just fine.”
It was gently phrased, but it was an order. Thuan walked back to the group, and found Leila a little way from the doors, leaning on the railing. The éclair had vanished. He guessed she’d eaten it. Good on her, this wasn’t a time to waste food.
“Thuan. Did she—”
Thuan shook his head. “They don’t know what’s happening.” And neither did he. He eased, cautiously, into his second sight, trying to see what was happening with the khi currents. Wood and water, curling around the door; but weakened, just an after-effect of what was happening within the wing. And those same little spikes everywhere, like a field of thistles underfoot, but nothing that made sense.
“I’m sorry,” Leila said.
“It’s all right,” Thuan said. It wasn’t. He should have paid more attention to Kim Cuc, but of course he’d assumed she’d take care of herself, because it was what Kim Cuc always did. He squeezed her hand, briefly. “Why don’t you watch the tarot game?”
Leila made a face. “Not interested.” She slid down the railing, her eyes on Sare. “I’d rather know what they will do.”
“The House?” Thuan shrugged. He didn’t expect much from the House. They weren’t its dependents, and Sare had hardly seemed heartbroken to lose someone.
A tall, auburn-haired magician with an elegant dress in the House’s colours had arrived. She was huddled in conversation with Sare, a frown on her wrinkled face, fingering a filigreed pendant around her neck as if debating whether she should inhale the magic contained within. Leila watched them, fascinated.
Thuan turned his gaze, instead, on the wing they’d just come out of.
Kim Cuc would have joked about his inability to see further. She’d have teased him, infuriating as always, and told him to keep his head down, to not make waves. Better to remain hidden and safe, as the kingdom was hidden from Fallen.
Except, of course, that the kingdom wasn’t safe anymore, and that Houses Silverspires and Hawthorn had both encroached on its territory. Except that, like the Houses, they were ruined and decaying, and so desperate they had no choice but to send Thuan and Kim Cuc on a dangerous mission to infiltrate a House.
Stay safe. Stay hidden. As if that’d ever worked.
He crept closer to the handles. Sare was still in conversation with the magician, who was tracing a circle in the dust-choked earth of the gardens, while Sare was interjecting suggestions that the magician didn’t appear to approve of. Leila had crept closer to them, her gaze still full of that enraptured fascination.
Thuan’s hand closed, gently, on the left handle. The spikes of khi wood shifted, lay parallel to his fingers. His palm prickled, where the hand had held him, but nothing bled again, more like the memory of a wound than a real one.
He looked, again, at the steps. The Houseless were engrossed in the tarot game or in their own private thoughts, and Sare was still arguing with the magician. He could imagine what Kim Cuc would have said if she’d seen him. She’d have known exactly what he was thinking, and would have told him, in so many words, exactly how foolish it all was.
But, then again, if their situations were reversed, she’d still charge in.
Thuan turned the handle, slowly. Greased, it barely creaked as he pushed the door open and slipped, invisible and forgotten, into the wing they’d just evacuated.
Inside, it was dark. Not merely the gloom of dust-encrusted rooms, but shadows, lengthening as he walked, and his own footsteps, echoing in the silence. Doors opened, on either side, on splendid and desolate rooms, with fungus spreading on chairs upholstered with red velvet, and a pervading smell of humidity, as if everything hadn’t been aired properly after a rainy day.
And, as he walked, he became aware he wasn’t alone.
It was only one presence at first, but soon there were dozens of them, easily keeping pace with him: the same lanky, dislocated shapes of children made of thorns, their eyes glittering like gems in the darkness. They didn’t speak. They didn’t need to. It was creepy enough. Thuan could feel the spikes beneath his feet, dormant. Of course, he wasn’t trying to escape the wing. He was headed back into it.
He didn’t even want to think of all the sarcastic words Kim Cuc was going to come up with, after this one.
“Where is she?” he asked, aloud.
They seemed… made of khi wood and khi water, of old things and memories, cobbled together by someone with only a rudimentary idea of what was human. The khi currents didn’t pool around their feet, but went straight through them, as if they were extensions of the floor, and the only noise they made as they walked was the creaking of wood. “You’re not human,” he said, slowly, carefully, and again, there was no answer. It was a stupid thing to say, in any case. Sare wasn’t human, and neither was Thuan, and they were vastly different beings.
What there was, instead, was a bright, blinding light, coming from behind him. And loud footsteps, from someone brash enough to think discretion didn’t matter. The children scattered—no, not quite, they merely stepped back into the shadows, flowing back into them like smaller pools of ink rejoining a bigger one. Thuan mentally added that to his growing list of worries. Though so far, they didn’t seem aggressive. It was going to be rather different when they tried to leave.
“I told you not to do anything you’d regret,” a familiar voice said, behind Thuan.
Sare was alone, but, with so much magic flowing through her, she didn’t need to be accompanied. A pendant swung over the collar of her dress, shining in Thuan’s vision: an alchemical container she’d emptied for its preserved power. As she moved, the faint outline of wings followed her—an inverted afterimage, all that would remain after staring too long at blinding radiance.
He was in the middle of a wing invaded by magic, unsure of whether he’d ever be able to escape it, looking for Kim Cuc and with no leads whatsoever. He no longer had any room for fear of Sare. He didn’t even have room to worry about whether she’d choose him for Hawthorn. “Regret. You mean rescuing my friend? I think I won’t regret that on my deathbed.”
“That’s assuming you get a deathbed and not a violent death.” Sare shook her head, as if amused by the antics of a child. The sort of thing that might be borne by mortals, who were younger than she was and in awe of her. But Thuan was immortal and over three hundred years old, and running out of patience, fast.
“I thought you were waiting for Iaris,” Thuan said.
“I was,” Sare shrugged. “She might be a while, though. She’s currently entertaining the envoys of another House, and she needs to extricate herself gracefully.”
“Why are you here?”
“Curiosity. Also…” she shook her head. “We take turns administering the tests, every year. And because this year I’m the one in charge, I am responsible for whatever you get up to.”
“You don’t care about the Houseless.” Thuan was annoyed. Normally he wouldn’t have let the words get past his lips.
“No, but I do take my responsibilities seriously. And Iaris wouldn’t see it kindly if I were to lose two of you, not to mention an entire wing of the House.”
“Albane? She’s preparing a spell, don’t worry. Now, you seemed to know where you were going.”
“No,” Thuan said. “They knew.”
“Who?” Sare turned, to look at the corridor. There was nothing but motes of dust in the dim light.
So she still couldn’t see them. And Thuan could. Which wasn’t good. A heartbeat, perhaps less, passed, and then Sare said, with a frown, “You’re not a magician.”
“No,” Thuan said, with perfect honesty. He had no need of angel breath or other adjuncts to perform magic, and he drew on khi water, a power Sare couldn’t see and wouldn’t be able to make sense of. But it wasn’t the khi currents that made him able to see the children, because the Houseless had also seen them.
But the House dependents hadn’t. Because of their magic?
Sare’s gaze held him, for a while. She couldn’t see through him. She couldn’t even begin to guess what he was. He was in human shape, with not a hint of scales showing on his dark skin, not a hint of antlers on his head or pearl beneath his chin.
At last, after what felt like an eternity, Sare asked, “What did you see?”
“Thorns,” Thuan said. “Beings of thorns.”
“Thorns don’t—” Sare started, then stopped. “You mean trees that moved.”
“No,” Thuan said. “Children. They were children. They said… they said the House would fail me as it had failed its children.”
Sare said nothing. Thuan considered asking her whether it meant anything to her, decided against it. He would gain nothing, and only make her suspicious. “Let’s have a look,” she said, carefully.
Room after room, deserted reception rooms with conversation chairs draped in mouldy coverings, closed pianos that looked as though they wouldn’t even play a note, and harps with strings as fragile as spun silk, rooms with moth-eaten four-poster beds, bathrooms with cracked tiles and yellowed tubs…
As they turned into the servants’ part of the wing—narrower rooms with shabbier sloped ceilings, all with that air of decayed grandeur—Thuan spoke up. “What’s this wing?” he asked.
Sare’s eyes narrowed. “You mean why here?”
Her gaze held him, for a while. Beneath him, he could feel the spikes, quiescent. Waiting. Like the children, in the shadows, the ones he couldn’t see.
“I don’t know,” Sare said. “It’s the water wing—the one with the spring and the pump room—but it’s not the only one.”
The spring. He could feel it, distantly—khi water, far, far underground, all reserved for the House’s use, a trove of power that would never be his. But Sare was right: there were other springs, too, that he could feel on the edges of his thoughts, other currents of khi water being funnelled into the House.
“Then that can’t be it.”
Sare’s gaze was hard. “You want everything to make sense, don’t you.”
Thuan fingered dust on a marble table, followed it down the curve of verdigried legs. “I want to understand.”
“Then this is what I want to understand,” Sare said, closing the door behind her. “How come only your friend vanished, Thuan? What made her so special?”
She was clever. But then, he’d expected nothing less of her. She hadn’t gotten where she was—head of the alchemy laboratory, in charge of Hawthorn’s vast troves of stored magic—by being a fool.
“I don’t know,” he said, thoughtfully. It couldn’t be that she was a dragon, or Thuan would have vanished, too. He wasn’t stronger than she was. “They tried to hold us all.”
“Yes,” Sare said. “But they gave up when we proved no easy prey. Except they did snatch your friend, who presumably fought back, same as everyone. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re the only Annamites.”
“Yes,” Thuan said, startled. This wasn’t where he’d wanted the conversation to go. The immediate threat of the thorn children had receded, but Sare’s grilling almost made him regret the creepy escort. “But not the only colonials. And I didn’t vanish.”
“No,” Sare said. “But perhaps you’re stronger than her.”
Thuan snorted. “No. If anything, I’m weaker than she is.” He hesitated, then said, “She’s been the one always looking out for me.”
“Like a mother?” Sare’s gaze was sharp.
Children of thorns. No. Thuan shook his head. “She wasn’t the only motherly figure in that crowd, was she? That’s a rather facile explanation.”
“That children want mothers? It seems to me rather natural,” Sare said, with the ease of someone who’d never actually have any children. All Fallen were sterile.
Mothers, perhaps not. He thought, again, of the bracelets on Kim Cuc’s arms, of the wealth of Fallen magic stored there, something most Houseless would never see. In Paris, the Houses had hoarded nearly all the magic, and the rare artefacts went on the black market for a fortune. But no, that couldn’t be it. Otherwise Sare and the other dependents would have been the first to vanish. “Why children? They can’t possibly be the only dependents the House has failed.”
He thought Sare was going to berate him, but instead she walked a little further down the corridor, and stared at the darkness in front of her. “You’re here, aren’t you?” she called, magic streaming out of her like light. “I can feel you.”
Again, that odd feeling in his feet, as if the floor itself were twisting and disgorging something; and two children, stepping out of the darkness to gaze levelly back at her. Their arms were branches woven together, their hands three-fingered, and their bodies merely frames on which hung flowers the colour of rot. And, in the gauntness of their faces, they had no eyes, just pinpoints of light.
“Stay,” the one on the left said.
“Where is she?” Sare asked. The light that came out of her was subdued, but Thuan could still feel the power; could still feel it pushing against the children, compelling them to answer.
She might as well have been pushing on thin air.
“Where we all go,” the rightmost one said. “Into darkness, into earth.”
Thuan opened his mouth to ask why they’d taken her, and then closed it, because it wasn’t what mattered.
“Show me,” Sare said.
A slow ponderous nod from both of them, perfectly synchronised, and two hands extending towards her.
But she was already moving—before Thuan could grab her away, or even finish his warning—extending both arms to clasp them.
There was a sound like cloth ripping, and then only shadows, extending to cover the corridor where Sare had been.
Thuan gave up, and used all the colourful curses Second Aunt forbade him to utter in her presence. It seemed more than appropriate.
He didn’t know how long he remained there, staring at the darkness, which stubbornly refused to coalesce again into anything meaningful. But, gradually, some order swam out of the morass of his thoughts, a sense that he had to do something rather than succumb to despair. He was—no matter how utterly laughably inappropriate this might seem—their best chance at a rescue.
Where we all go.
Into darkness, into earth.
Sare was right: there were other wings with a spring, and a water room. But this was also the wing where the House received the Houseless. Which meant the expendable one. And—if he was to hazard a guess—the one least protected by the wards.
And Asmodeus, the head of the House and its major protector, was shut in his rooms, grieving and not paying attention to what was going on within the House. An opening, for something that had lain in wait for years? An attempt to seize a weak and unprotected part of the House, or to weaken Hawthorn?
Demons take them all. He didn’t want to help the House, didn’t want to involve himself in its politics. But, if he didn’t, Kim Cuc wouldn’t come back.
Thuan closed his eyes, and sought out the spring again. It was muzzled, bound by layer after layer of Fallen magic—wards that would singe him, if he so much as thought of touching them. It flowed, steadily, into the House, giving it everything it had, the diseased, polluted waters of the Parisian underground, sewage no one would have thought of drinking before the war and its devastation.
The House will fail you as it failed its children.
The only thing Thuan wanted the House to do for him was to forget he existed, and not look too closely. He hardly expected any protection, or wanted to pledge it any allegiance. Not that Second Aunt would let him, mind you. She’d carve out chunks of his hide before she allowed this to happen.
A comforting thought: there were things scarier than unknown children of thorns with shadowy agendas.
Thuan walked downwards, towards the spring.
There were two children waiting for him outside the corrugated doors of the water room. They didn’t appear, or fade: they were just there, like guards standing at attention. By their size, the human children they were mimicking couldn’t have been more than five or six.
“What are you?” he asked, again.
He hadn’t expected an answer, but they both bowed to him, perfectly synchronised. “The Court,” they said.
“The Court.” Thuan’s voice was flat.
“The Court of Birth.”
Thuan was abysmal at a number of things, but his memory for details was excellent, and he’d been briefed on the history of the House before being sent there. Before he became head of the House, Asmodeus had been leader of the Court of Birth.
Children. The Court of Birth was in charge of the education of children and young Fallen. In charge of their protection. “There is a Court of Birth,” he said, slowly. “In the House.” Not here, in this deserted wing filled with thorns and shadows.
There was no answer. Thuan grabbed the doors, and pushed.
He didn’t know what he’d expected. It was a low room with several rusted pumps, their steady hum a background to his own breath. The air was saturated with humidity, the tiles on the walls broken in numerous places—repaired so many times they looked like jigsaws, with yellowed grouting running at odd angles through the painted windmills and horse-drawn carts.
In a corner of the room, Sare was fighting children of thorns—small, agile shapes who dodged, effortlessly, the spells she threw at them. The pipes lit up with magic, showing, at intervals, the flow of water going upwards through the pumps.
And, in the centre of the room…
Thuan walked faster, his heart in his throat.
It was an empty octagonal basin of water, the khi currents within it all but extinguished, except where Kim Cuc was. She wasn’t looking at him, but kneeling, her hands flat on old, cracked mosaics. The khi water within her, the currents running in her veins and major organs, was slowly spreading to cover the entire surface of the mosaics. Her green bracelets were fused to the floor, the light from them spreading across the mosaics. She—
She was taking root in the basin.
This wasn’t good.
“Big sis—” Thuan started. He didn’t get to finish his sentence, because someone else spoke up first.
“So you’re her friend.”
Thuan turned around, sharply, hands full of khi water—or rather, they would have been, if all the water within the room hadn’t been either extinguished or claimed. There was nothing in his palms but a faint, pathetic tug, as if he held a dog on a distant leash.
The being of thorn who stood in front of him was tall; taller than Thuan, and rake-thin. When it bowed, the gesture wasn’t like that of the others, smooth and synchronised and in no way human. This was elegant and slow, with a hint of mockery, as if the being couldn’t quite disguise amusement. It reminded Thuan of…
In fact, it reminded Thuan of nothing so much as Sare’s demeanour. “You don’t have wings,” he said—a stab in the dark, but given where he was it could hardly get worse.
“No.” The being straightened from its bow, stared at Thuan. The face wasn’t just branches arranged to have eyes and nose. This was someone’s face, carefully sculpted in wood and thorns: plump cheeks, and a round shape, someone who must have been pleasantly baby-faced and young, except that now not a single muscle moved as it spoke, and the eyes were nothing but pits of darkness, like the orbits of a skull. “We don’t keep them, when we Fall. As you well know.”
“I don’t know,” Thuan said. He pulled on khi water, and found barely anything that would answer him. Not good at all. “You were alive once, weren’t you?”
The being cocked his head, watching him like a curiosity. “You ask the wrong questions,” it said, at last.
“Fine,” Thuan said, exhaling. “Then why are we here? Because the House failed you?”
He thought the other was going to make him some mocking answer about following his friend in harm’s way, but it merely shook its head. “The House didn’t fail me.”
“You make no sense.” Thuan said.
The being was still watching him. It made no move to seize or stop him. “She was willing.”
Thuan took in a deep, burning breath. Willing to do what, and what questions had it asked, before binding Kim Cuc to the basin’s floor? Words had power here, which was good, because they seemed to be all he had to bargain with.
He hesitated—every instinct he had telling him not to do such a stupid thing—but then turned his back on the being, to look at the basin. Kim Cuc’s eyes were closed, her breathing slow, even. “Big sis. Big sis.”
He wanted to shake her, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. She’d put her hands in the basin, on the mosaics, and it had seized her. She didn’t need Thuan caught in the spell, either.
She shouldn’t have needed Thuan at all, demons take her. She should have been in charge; fighting, like Sare, trying to figure out the riddle that had Thuan stumped.
“We asked her to help,” the being said, behind him. He’d still made no move to take Thuan. And though Sare was fighting, she wasn’t harmed, either.
Magic. Fallen magic. That was why they seemed summarily uninterested in Thuan, or in any of the other Houseless: Thuan’s magic was invisible to them. But they hadn’t taken Sare, or the other House dependents. He’d thought it was something dark, something the House couldn’t keep at bay, but…
But when Sare had pushed against the children of thorns, Thuan had seen nothing, in the khi currents.
And none of the House dependents had seen them, or been threatened by them.
He breathed in, slowly. It was as if they were part of the House, weren’t they. Ghosts or spirits or constructs that hadn’t been made by any magicians. And they hadn’t taken Sare or the other House dependents, because theirs was a power already bound to the House. As Kim Cuc wasn’t.
“You’re the House,” he said.
“A small part of it.” Its smile would have been dazzling, if it hadn’t been made of branches and twigs.
“Willing. You asked her if she wanted to be part of the House,” Thuan said, slowly. “That’s why she’s here.”
The voice that answered him was mocking. “Was there any need to ask? She was there, taking the tests.”
In order to enter the House, not to become subsumed within its foundations. But he doubted the being would know, or care about the difference. “She’s not House,” he said, carefully. A glance upwards: Sare had dispatched one of the two children, but it was already reforming.
What did he have, to bargain with? Not the kingdom: even if he’d been willing to expose and sell it, it’d have no value to a House of Fallen and magicians. Not his magic, for the same reasons. Sare, possibly, but how did you bargain with something the other already owned? “You don’t need her,” he said, slowly.
“In ordinary circumstances, no.”
“Because Asmodeus is grieving for Samariel? All grief passes, in time.”
“The grief of Fallen?” The being’s voice was mocking again. “That could last an eternity.” Thuan found a word—a name—on the tip of his tongue, forced himself not to utter it. The being wasn’t Samariel any more than any of the children of thorns had been flesh and bones, or real children. They were all just masks the House wore as a convenience. “And meanwhile, our protections weaken.”
“He’s head of the House,” Thuan said. “He won’t leave you undefended.”
It was going nowhere. He couldn’t negotiate from a position of weakness, and he couldn’t share his only strengths for fear of being caught out. “If you start taking people, they’ll tear the wing apart stone by stone.”
“Would they? They’re Houseless,” the being said. “Not likely to be much missed, in the scheme of things.”
Spoken as only a House-bound could.
“What you take, they could give freely.”
A low, rumbling noise mingling with that from the pumps. Thuan realised it was laughter. “No one ever gives freely. There’s always an expectation of being paid, in one currency or another.”
“You’re…” Thuan fought a rising sense of frustration. “You’re the House. All you do is take!” He pointed to Sare, flowing in and out of combat with unearthly grace, her pale skin lit up with the radiance of magic, the white shape of bones delineated under her taut skin. “Do you think she’d be as useful, if you shut her in the foundations of the wing?”
A silence, then, “One day, when she’s spent almost all the magic she was given when she Fell, that might be her only use.” A low, amused chuckle. “But this isn’t how dependents are rewarded.”
He’d had lessons of diplomacy in the dragon kingdom. He should have paid more attention to them, instead of trying to come up with plans to impress his cousins. He… he’d always thought Kim Cuc would be there, and of course she was the one in need of rescue, and he couldn’t come up with a single idea that would make sense. He couldn’t fight off a House, or even a part of a House, all by himself—and especially not with both hands tied down, and no access to his magic lest he reveal himself.
He was looking at it from the wrong way around. Because fighting or threatening wasn’t what he needed to do, if he wanted to use his magic. He needed… a distraction.
Which meant Sare.
He didn’t trust Sare. He couldn’t even be sure she was going to follow his lead: for all he knew, she’d be happy to leave Kim Cuc there forever, if it was for the good of the House.
But she’d come back for both of them, and it was the only chance he’d get. “You don’t want Kim Cuc,” Thuan said, slowly. There wasn’t much khi water in the room, but he could gather it to him, slowly and methodically. He could fashion it into razor-thin blades, held within his palms. “You want Asmodeus.”
A silence. “You’re Houseless. You can’t possibly promise me anything that involves him.”
No, and neither would Thuan ever consider getting involved with the head of House Hawthorn. The last thing he needed was attention from that quarter. But it didn’t matter, because all he needed to do was lie smoothly enough.
“I’m not House. But she is.” He pointed to Sare but finished his gesture with a wide flourish, which enabled him to throw the blades of khi water in his hands towards Kim Cuc’s wrists. They connected with an audible crunch.
Water was stillness and decay and death. Thuan breathed in, slowly, moving his fingers as though he were playing the zither, weaving the pattern Kim Cuc had shown him earlier. The blades slowly moved in response, digging into the green stone, their edges turning it to dust, a thin, spreading line across its surface—so agonisingly slowly it was all he could do to breathe. “Ask her,” he said.
A silence, broken only by the slurping sound of the pumps. Then the being moving as gracefully as water flowing down, and the two children facing Sare vanished. She turned to Thuan, snarling, her face no longer in the semblance of anything human; and then saw the being of thorns, and sucked in a deep, audible breath.
Her mouth opened, closed. “It’s a bit of the House,” Thuan said, quickly. “Not…”
Sare’s face was unreadable again. “Is it?” She bowed, very low. “Tell me,” she said to Thuan.
Thuan gathered thoughts from where they’d fled, and put as many of them as he dared into words. “It wants Lord Asmodeus.”
Sare’s gaze moved to the basin, and then back to Thuan. “And, failing that, it will take the Houseless?” She showed no emotion. But then why would she have cared about Kim Cuc? Thuan waited for her to speak, to tell the being it was welcome to Kim Cuc and whatever else it saw fit to take. But Sare didn’t say anything.
“We need to be strong,” the being said. Thuan watched Kim Cuc’s bracelets; watched the thin line that was spreading across the stone, a widening crack. He would only get one chance to seize her and run, and he couldn’t even be sure that Sare would follow them. “Not distracted.”
“Distracted.” Sare’s face was hard again. “Grief is allowed.”
The being said nothing. Of course it wouldn’t understand.
Thuan shifted, moving closer to Kim Cuc, both arms outstretched to grab her.
“Lord Asmodeus isn’t available,” Sare said. “And we work on the principle that people are safe inside the House, regardless of whether they’re dependents or not.”
A hiss, from the being.
“Sare,” Thuan said.
She looked at him, startled, as if she’d forgotten he was there, or that he would speak.
The bracelets split with an audible crunch. Thuan reached out, lightning fast; grabbed Kim Cuc and pulled—she came light and unbearably fragile, a doll he could have snapped with a careless gesture—threw her over his shoulder, and ran.
He didn’t look back.
The spikes under his feet tensed, but didn’t surge—behind him, a blinding light, that filled the pump room until he could hardly see. He ran for the open doors, and the maze of corridors leading back to safety.
He’d expected to have to fight the children at the entrance, but they’d vanished in the wash of light. He could still see their silhouettes in the midst of the radiance, shock-still. Stunned, but recovering. He didn’t have much time.
Which way had he come? The corridors all looked alike, all with that same faded flower wallpaper, and the stains of blackened mould spreading from the carvings on the ceiling. The light behind him was dying down, the spikes at his feet quiescent. Waiting.
“You’re fast,” Sare commented, as she caught up to him.
“You—” Thuan was breathing hard. He’d slowed down to see where he was going. He expected, at any time, to see the spikes reforming, children of thorns waiting for them in the darkness.
“I hit him hard.” Sare sounded cheerful. “It was easier, knowing what I was dealing with.”
“You—” Thuan found a breath, finally. “You didn’t have to do this.” It was the House. It was the wards that kept all their dependents safe. She only had to look the other way.
Sare raised an eyebrow. “As I said, I’m responsible for the safety of the Houseless during those tests. And there are some choices that I won’t make. We’re not monsters, Thuan.”
Thuan clamped his mouth on the obvious response. “The Court of Birth,” he said, instead.
“This way,” Sare said, pointing to a corridor that seemed like the others, cracked parquet and faded wallpaper with an alignment of the same doors, all painted with stylised flowers. And, in the growing silence, “Children died, because Lord Uphir wouldn’t protect them. Before Lord Asmodeus took the House from him. It remembers.”
And Asmodeus protected children? Thuan didn’t voice this question, either, but Sare answered it regardless.
“The House keeps faith with its own. Lord Asmodeus understands this,” Sare said.
“Fine,” Thuan said. He wasn’t about to argue with her. “Any plans?”
“Yes.” For someone who’d been through Hell and back, Sare was still inordinately cheerful. “My turn. Be ready to run. It’s straight ahead, and left at the first intersection, the one with the two chairs and the pedestal table with the Chinese vase.”
“I don’t understand—” Thuan started, but she was looking past him, at what was coming up.
He turned, slightly—Kim Cuc a growing dead weight on his shoulder—and saw the maw of darkness, rising from the bottom of the wing—flowing like ink, like polluted oil, glittering with the shadows of thorns.
They couldn’t possibly outrun this.
By his side, Sare was leaning against a wall—the light coming out of her pale and weakened, the artefact around her neck open, with no hint of magic left within. The shadows flowed around her, not touching her—House, she was still House, and it didn’t care for her, didn’t want to hurt her, just in case she turned out to be useful one day. Under Thuan, the floor seemed to have become broken glass. And, as the shadows came forward and extinguished the light, they pooled—becoming the shape of children, the shape of a Fallen.
They didn’t speak, anymore: just a thin thread of sound that might have been the creaks of floorboards, the trickle of water. Stay. Stay.
Thuan backed away, until he stood in the centre of the corridor, with threads of magic stretching, trying to bind him to the floor, to make him part of the House as they’d tried to do with Kim Cuc. He could barely hold on to his human shape. Any moment now, he was going to lose it, and Sare was going to see antlers sprouting from his temples, scales scattered across his cheeks.
“I told you.” Sare’s voice was conversational, her face utterly emotionless, as if she was merely shepherding Houseless through tests. “We guaranteed their safety. It’s not an idle promise.”
The being that looked like Samariel was stretching past her already, making for Thuan. Sare was leaning against the wall, winded and exhausted; but her gaze found Thuan’s, held it.
Be ready to run.
There was no blinding light, no rising magic. Instead, the floor under Thuan changed—as if someone had smoothed out the broken glass, stroked raised spines until they lay flat again. The threads under his feet snapped.
The darkness would follow him, but he couldn’t do anything about that. His lungs were burning, his legs trembling. Kim Cuc wasn’t heavy, but he couldn’t keep carrying her forever. She kept sliding off his shoulder, head lolling against his chest.
Turn left at the next intersection. Two chairs, a pedestal table with one of those horrible Chinese porcelain vases on it. He almost tripped over one of the chairs, had to force himself to change course, calves burning.
On either side of him, the wallpapers were turning black again, the painted flowers and birds merging with the growing shadows, and he could see the shape of children, pooling from the panelling like ink, thorns and branches and a House he couldn’t fight, a power that was slowly choking the dragon kingdom.
Demons take them. Demons take them. He couldn’t possibly—
At the end of the corridor was the door to the garden, so close, so impossibly far. Whatever Sare had done was nothing more than a sop, a few moments’ safety gained. He was never going to make it. He was going to freeze there, within sight of the exit…
He’d started to shoulder off Kim Cuc’s weight, ready to stand over her and defend her—when the magic hit.
It came, not from behind him, but from the door. And it wasn’t harsh, blinding light, but something smoother and softer; the voices of children, laughing and teasing each other; an echo of a lullaby, sung over and over; a smell of fried onions and warm bread, and a hint of unfamiliar spices.
In front of Thuan, the being of thorns formed, stared at the light, empty eye-sockets shining in the darkness. Khi water pooled around its feet, circled its shape on the parquet. It didn’t move. It stood, entranced, as if listening, its head cocked.
Thuan would have run, but he had no energy left. Instead, he straightened out Kim Cuc on his shoulder, and hobbled towards the light.
An eternity of walking, with Kim Cuc growing heavier; and the spell—whatever it was—spreading around him, a warm embrace, a promise of small, ordinary things; of fire in the hearth, water and wine in crystal glasses, the smoothness of cotton sheets at the end of the day—never mind that the bed was mouldy and broken, the wine sour, the hearth cracked, it was still home.
But not his home. Never.
When Thuan stepped outside, the light blinded him for a moment. Then he saw the magician—Albane?—kneeling in the middle of a circle traced in the mud. Light streamed, highlighted the words she’d written, as fluid and as deliberate as a master’s calligraphy. Leila was kneeling by the side of the circle, both hands plunged deep into the earth, the light coming up to her wrists, making her swarthy skin seem pale and colourless.
Thuan kept walking—he wasn’t sure he could stop. His feet carried him down the stairs, by the side of the circle: Albane looked up at him and nodded once, grimly. Leila withdrew her hands from it and grabbed him. “Thuan!”
Thuan stopped, at a loss for words. He laid Kim Cuc on the grass, blinking once, twice, as he knelt by her side, looking for a pulse—feeling it, slow and strong. “Come on, come on,” he muttered.
“She’s alive,” Sare said.
She must have come out of the wing straight in his wake, but he hadn’t heard her. Everything felt… unbearably real, unbearably distant, and he couldn’t seem to process thoughts. Magic flowed from Sare into Kim Cuc. She convulsed, the bruises on her wrists becoming darker. “You—” Thuan said, struggling to speak.
Kim Cuc’s eyes opened. “Thuan? What—what happened?”
“It’s all right. You’re safe.” He could have wept.
“I would advise you not to bring Fallen magic into the House,” Sare said. Her face was smooth once again, emotionless. “Not unless you’re strong enough to use it.”
Thuan looked up. The wing was quiescent once again, the thorns a fading smear of darkness against the door handles. “Sare—”
She wasn’t listening to him: she’d moved, coming to meet an older woman with the same kind of smooth face, wearing a doctor’s white gown over the colours of the House. “Iaris.”
Iaris nodded. “Apologies for the delay. I needed to figure out how to keep this contained.”
“A slip-up,” Iaris said. “My mistake. We hadn’t checked the wards on this wing for a while. It won’t happen again. I’ve set magicians to reinforcing them. We can’t have the House seeking out magic to maintain itself.”
As if they’d care.
“I saw.” Sare closed her eyes. “I saw him. Samariel.”
Iaris’s face tightened. “Samariel is dead. You’d do well to remember this. And whatever you saw is dormant now. Contained, and it will remain so for centuries, God willing.”
“Let’s hope so,” Sare said.
“You all right?” Leila asked Thuan.
Thuan still held Kim Cuc’s hand. She’d fallen back into unconsciousness, looking older than she should, weak and vulnerable and fragile. Any time now, she was going to open her eyes, and make some flippant, sarcastic remark. Any time.
But she didn’t.
“I’m not sure,” he said, finally, to Leila. “I didn’t know you could use magic.”
“You learn things, in the gangs.” Leila squeezed his hand, briefly. “Besides… we’re a team.”
Thuan stifled a bitter laugh. “For the tests? I don’t think these turned out very well.”
“Oh, I don’t know. The éclairs tasted nice, even though they were a bit wet in the middle. I gave mine to Sare, before she entered the wing.”
“You—” Sare hadn’t mentioned this, but why would she? “What did she say?” He didn’t even know what it’d have tasted like, half-made and with the pastry filling falling out of it.
“Nothing,” Leila said. She shrugged. “I know it looked horrible, but we might as well not waste our work.” Her face grew serious again. “This isn’t about tests.”
He stared at her, for a while; thinking of the streets and how lonely they could be. “We are a team,” he said. “Thank you.” He couldn’t give her everything that he wanted, but friendship? The dragon kingdom would surely let him spare that.
Except, of course, that he wouldn’t be able to tell her the truth about who he was, or Kim Cuc would box his ears out. Some friend.
One problem at a time.
Beside them, Iaris and Sare were still talking. “The Court of Birth.” Iaris snorted. “As if that’d have impressed Lord Asmodeus.”
Sare didn’t answer. She was opening and closing the clasp of her pendant. “It might have. Dredging up the past.”
“We’re looking to the future,” Iaris said. “He has plans, believe me.” Her gaze rested, for a moment, on Thuan, moved away. “The mourning period is over.”
“I see.” Sare closed the pendant with an audible click. “Plans. That will be good.”
Plans. Thuan’s ears prickled. But neither Iaris nor Sare appeared ready to discuss further. Of course. Not in front of outsiders.
“Do you want to debrief them, or shall I?” Sare said.
“You can do it,” Iaris said. “Report to me afterwards, will you?”
“Yes,” Sare said. “I will.” Thuan held Kim Cuc’s hand, and said nothing. Sare hadn’t seen anything. He’d barely used any magic, and he’d smooth it over. He’d have been worried in other circumstances: but if she wanted him dead, he’d already be.
“And once the wing is shored up, we’ll have to reschedule the tests.” Iaris sounded annoyed.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Sare turned, briefly, to look at them. “I know exactly who passed.”
Iaris raised an eyebrow. “That’s… unusual.”
“You have objections?”
“None. It’s your own business, Sare.”
“My responsibility. Yes, I know.”
“So these three?”
Sare shook her head. “Two.”
Two. Leila and him. Thuan looked at Kim Cuc. “Sare—” he said.
“I told you,” Sare said. “Resourcefulness. And strength. I appreciate your loyalty to your friend, but—”
But, from Sare’s point of view, she’d been nothing but trouble.
He needed Kim Cuc. He couldn’t possibly take on the House by himself, couldn’t make it far without her support. He needed her jokes at his expense, her reminders of his failures in bed and elsewhere—and, more importantly, he needed to not be alone in Hawthorn. Leila, for all that he liked her, wasn’t from the kingdom, and could never fill that role.
He’d gone through this all, without her help—and now he’d have to do much, much more. The breath in his lungs burnt, as bitter as ashes and smoke. “I see,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Good,” Sare said, briskly. “Welcome to the House, Thuan.” She smiled mirthlessly. “I’m assigning you to the kitchens to start with. Your pastries were too soggy, but not that bad, considering. Never fear, you’ll have plenty of classes to learn better cooking skills.”
Thuan forced a smile he didn’t feel. He remembered darkness flowing to fill his entire world, that feeling he would never escape the corridors.
“I’m glad I passed,” he said, smoothly, slowly. He stared, in silence, at the looming shape of the House before him, at the fading imprint of thorns on the handles, and wondered how many secrets it still held—how many things waiting to bite and grasp, and never let go.
© 2017 by Aliette de Bodard. Originally published as an exclusive for The House of Binding Thorns preorders. Reprinted with permission of the author.