The leader of House Hawthorn’s Court of Birth lived in a part of the House that Samariel had never been to: a wing of dusty, disused corridors where the wainscoting had rotted away and the wallpaper’s elegant asphodels were obscured by elongated smudges of grey fungus. The door was small and crooked. Samariel would have thought it the entrance to a garret, but it opened into a wide, airy space with barely a trace of mould or spells gone awry. A makeshift antechamber held two Louis XV armchairs with plump, curved mahogany legs, and behind it was the shape of a four-poster bed that had seen better days, its silk canopy patched so many times the patterns on it had all but disappeared under the seams of repairs.
Samariel stood, uncertainly, on the blue and red Persian carpet, breathing in an odd smell: a mixture of distant humidity and the sweet, sharp tang of some flower he couldn’t quite recognise.
“Come in, come in,” a voice said, from the bathroom. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Samariel pulled one of the chairs to him and sat down. The door creaked open and a Fallen walked in, buttoning up the collar of his ruffled shirt. His dark grey swallowtail jacket hung tantalisingly open. It was the same one Samariel wore, the uniform of the House, except he’d have given years of his life to know how to wear it so gracefully, so effortlessly. The Fallen had the smooth, ageless face of former angels, with a faint lambent light beneath his skin that made it appear paler than it really was: magic, the same that sloshed within Samariel, though much, much stronger.
“My name is Asmodeus,” the Fallen said, sitting in the other chair. “As you already know, I take it.”
He had dark hair with a touch of white at his temples, grey eyes that shaded to green as the sunlight shone, and square horn-rimmed glasses—an affectation, since like Samariel, like all Fallen, he had perfect eyesight. His hands, resting lightly on the armrests, had the long fingers of—a pianist, Samariel would have said, but they were so thin and pointed that they looked almost insectile.
“I—” Samariel cursed himself for a fool and said, “Thérèse suggested I see you.”
Asmodeus’s gaze rested on him, light, sarcastic. “Did she now. What would this be about?”
Samariel wasn’t Court of Birth, only a minor member of the Court of Strength, tasked with making the House look good at official functions, but he had heard all kinds of stories about Asmodeus. How he spent entirely too much time in the cells in the company of the Court of Persuasion, instead of doing his duty within the birthing rooms; how a steady stream of lovers walked into this room and came back bruised and cut and haunted, unwilling to discuss the night, or completely unharmed, with a glazed, blissful expression on their faces, even more unwilling to talk at all.
All in all, not the person he would have turned to for help, and especially not with... this kind of embarrassing problem.
He withdrew a small charcoal sketch of a bunch of grapes from his jacket pocket and set it on the left armrest of the chair. “This is going to sound idiotic,” he said.
Asmodeus reached for the sketch, weighed it carefully in the palm of his hand. His voice, when he spoke again, was grave. “Eglantine Bressacq.”
“You forget. I’m the leader of the Court of Birth.”
And technically in charge of the birth and education of the House’s children, but there were so many of them, in these days after the war: all the mortals seemingly pregnant at once, desperate to make up for lost time, a stream of births that seemed never to stop, well into autumn and winter, and then year after year until the hospital was glutted with the laughter and tears of the young; and some of the babies died, for even magic couldn’t keep them alive, in the absence of the medicines they’d all taken for granted before the war, but still...
Samariel took in a deep, trembling breath. Asmodeus was watching him, with that distant, amused curiosity, the sketch lightly resting in the palm of his hand. That smell came again, orange blossom, with something else, something tangier and more acidic. Lemon; lime?
“Eglantine takes private drawing lessons with me,” he said at last. “Charcoal, mainly. She’s very good at it, considering.” Considering she was ten years old. He stopped then. Well, he’d gone this far, he might as well plunge all the way in. It couldn’t be worse than the alternative, facing Thérèse again and telling her he’d turned tail like a coward. “She didn’t come yesterday.”
“Didn’t she? Children are fickle, aren’t they.”
Samariel shook his head. “She’s never missed a lesson. She even wanted to come when she had chickenpox.” Thérèse had been outraged, worried that she’d pass it on to Samariel, but he was Fallen, and mortal diseases, no matter how contagious, stood little chance of affecting him. “And I asked around. Thérèse hasn’t seen her since yesterday morning, and neither has anyone else.”
Asmodeus’s face had gone oddly still. He said nothing, merely waited.
“There’s a Fallen, in the Court of Birth,” Samariel said. “Locheren.”
“I’m familiar with her.”
“She was last seen with Eglantine.”
“And not since?”
“Yes,” Samariel said. Asmodeus was still watching him, with a burning intensity. Any moment now, he was going to smile or say something in that light careless tone, and Samariel didn’t have the fortitude for it.
“You know,” Samariel said, half-rising, “this was a bad idea. I’ll not bother you any further. I’ll ask Lord Uphir.” Uphir was head of the House; Eglantine, an orphan whose parents had been day labourers, wasn’t a full dependent, but she was still his responsibility.
Magic swirled, in the air, gently pushed his body back down in the armchair. “Uphir won’t care.” Asmodeus’s smile was wolfish.
“Because she’s not a dependent?”
“Because he’s a fool.” Asmodeus’s voice was level. How could he—how could he speak what amounted to sedition against the House? Samariel raised a hand to his mouth, and felt again the same light touch of magic on it, slowing it down. Asmodeus went on, as coolly as if nothing had happened, “Too many children in the House, and Uphir thinks of them as mouths to feed. As burdens.” He straightened the lapels of his swallowtail jacket, almost absent-mindedly. “There’s only one question worth asking.”
“Which is—” Samariel’s breath came fast, unsteady. The grey-green eyes held him. The lips, thin and red, parted on sharp white teeth, like a predator’s.
“Uphir doesn’t care one jot. The question is, why do you?”
Of all the things he hadn’t expected. He opened his mouth to speak, found no words in the scorched desert of his thoughts. Fallen didn’t have childhoods. They grew up fast, because they had to. Because they were given magic, because they were precious alive or dead, and because they had to learn the meaning of power lest they become consumed—literally, sometimes—by those in search of it. “I—” He stopped, fumbling for words. He saw Eglantine so often he’d grown used to thinking of her as the daughter he’d never have, and she in turn, orphaned young, considered him more father than teacher. Samariel was Fallen: ageless, changeless, sterile. No children of his own blood for him; no chance of catching a resemblance to himself in wide, wonder-filled faces as they discovered the world.
But shared blood, in the end, mattered so little when it came to children.
He thought of Eglantine’s scrunched face as she tried to draw all the seeds of a split pomegranate; of the time she’d tried to rearrange the tablecloth and all the fruit had come tumbling down; and how, kneeling to pick up bruised, scented apples, they’d both struggled not to laugh. “Childhood is such a small, precious time for mortals,” he said, finally. “Such a fragile thing.”
Silence. The warmth of magic. No, not of magic. It was that of Asmodeus’s hand, resting just next to him with the sketch within it. He ought to move. He ought to, but he daren’t.
“And what is most fragile is most beautiful, isn’t it? In that one moment before it’s forever broken.” Asmodeus withdrew his hand, leaving only the sketch, the paper crumpled, showing the first flecks of mould. He buttoned, slowly and deliberately, his jacket, all the way up to the ruffled shirt collar, fluffing it in one smooth gesture. Samariel could only watch, unexpectedly entranced, aware all the while that it was like watching a snake, in the moment before it decided you were prey.
“Let’s go,” Asmodeus said, rising.
Samariel stared at him. “I don’t understand.”
Asmodeus’s smile was quick and wounding, like a stab to the heart. “You came here for my help, didn’t you? Let’s go and find that missing child.”
The Great War of the Houses had torn Paris apart, and the city still hadn’t recovered. Streets and buildings had vanished; ruins dotted the landscape; entire areas had become polluted with the residue of spells, the river Seine running black with ashes and fragments of magic, dark and eager to seize passersby from bridges and quays.
The Halles, once the belly of Paris, the marketplace where all the produce of the countryside flowed, was no exception. The huge glass pavilions were charred ruins, with no trace of the chaotic stalls that had sold everything from chunks of beef to Roquefort and Comté cheeses, and some of the more distant alleyways were covered in grey, aggressive fungus that ate clothes and flesh indiscriminately. They’d been neatly cordoned off, but people—the Houseless, the desperate—still foraged in them, hoping to find magical artefacts or remnants of spells they could sell for a price.
Instead, a different market had sprung up. Grimy, thin, starved workers in patched bourgerons and aprons waited at each corner, the slight differences in their clothes denoting which work they were offering, from fixing roofs to gardening, to less savoury occupations.
Asmodeus strode through the crowd as if he owned it, heedless of the startled gazes that turned to follow him. It was just the two of them, no bodyguards, the black car they’d come in parked well away from the marketplace, and they stuck out like sore thumbs in their Hawthorn uniforms.
One of the workers sidled closer to Asmodeus, altogether too casually. Asmodeus made a fist with one gloved hand as magic flowed through the air. A crunching sound, as loud as a gunshot, and the man reeled back, nursing five bleeding dislocated fingers.
Samariel, struggling to keep up, had never felt so exposed. The Court of Strength, which he belonged to, was the part of Hawthorn that provided soldiers, bodyguards, and escorts. Among the Houses, Hawthorn was unique in its organisation into smaller Courts, each of which fought fiercely for its prerogatives and its members’ well-being.
As a member of the Court of Strength, Samariel had left Hawthorn before, on official delegations, on errands, but always as part of a crowd; always with others, a reassuring presence and a reminder that, if things turned ugly, he could count on them for support. Here, every other starved worker seemed to be weighing him up as if deciding how much he would be worth, carved into small chunks of magical flesh and sold on the black market, or taken by force and bartered to another House for God knew what purpose. “I don’t understand why we’re here.”
Asmodeus slowed down a fraction, to draw level with him. “If there is any place in Paris to offer up a House’s child, it will be here.” His gaze swept the pavilion they were in; he pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Seamstresses. They’ll want small hands, for lace and embroidery.”
“You assume Locheren will sell her,” Samariel said.
His gaze was dark, amused. “Yes.”
“I don’t even know why Locheren took her.”
“I don’t, either,” Asmodeus said. “A House’s child goes for quite a high price on the market. This is the most likely place, and selling her the most likely option.”
Coolly weighing and discarding the worst scenarios, with scarcely a trace of pity. Samariel just wasn’t capable of that. The only thing that came to him was the truth. “I wouldn’t want to be in your head.”
Asmodeus smiled and didn’t answer.
The seamstresses were under the broken dome that had once housed the commodity exchange. The row of arcades that surrounded the broken marble floor was still intact, and a huddled group of women and girls were waiting there, leaning against the pillars. One of them—an old, weathered woman with a cataract in one eye, wrapped in a red shawl with intricate embroidery fit for a head of House—detached herself from the group as Asmodeus walked closer.
“Asmodeus.” She didn’t sound altogether happy. Then again, few people were happy to see him.
“Mathilde.” He bowed to her, as deeply as to a queen in her own country.
“You seldom come here,” she said. She gestured to the other end of the exchange, where a group of younger men and women—whose attitude left little doubt as to their profession—waited. “Are you sure you want a seamstress?”
Asmodeus smiled, pointing to the elaborate ruffle on his shirt collar. “I might have torn some cloth.”
“You might have.” Mathilde pursed her lips. “And we both know you didn’t.”
“This is Samariel,” Asmodeus said. “We’re looking for a girl.”
Mathilde laughed, pointing again to the group of prostitutes on the other side. “Said you were in the wrong place.”
Asmodeus’s face closed for a moment, became jewel-hard, the face he must show to the disloyal in the House’s prison cells. “They’re my next port of call.”
“Asmodeus,” Samariel said, horrified.
Asmodeus didn’t even look at him. “You didn’t come to me so I could give you pleasant lies. There are many uses for children in this city.”
“I don’t know what Locheren would and wouldn’t do, anymore,” Asmodeus said sharply. “Had you asked me, I wouldn’t have said she would steal a child from the House and run away.”
Focus. Focus. Samariel said, slowly, to Mathilde, “Her name is Eglantine. She’s ten years old... a meter twenty-five, thirty? Not very tall, with swarthy skin and short black hair.” He withdrew the sketch he’d made of her, showed it to Mathilde.
“And she’s Hawthorn’s.” Mathilde looked expectantly at Asmodeus, for a while.
Of course. “You don’t have much time to waste, and even less for pointless enquiries that don’t lead to a job, I would guess.” Samariel rummaged in his jacket pocket, locating three silver coins, a currency that was seldom of use in the House. He took them out, held them to her.
Mathilde watched them for a while. “The child...”
“Yes?” Asmodeus raised an eyebrow.
“What will you do with her?”
“Crisis of conscience? How most unlike you.”
Samariel had no time for Asmodeus’s games. “We’ll bring her home,” he said. “To Hawthorn. Where she belongs.”
Mathilde shook her head. “You sound like a decent sort,” she said to Samariel. “You shouldn’t be with him.” Her gnarled hand closed on the three coins, held them.
“I’m flattered,” Asmodeus said, drily.
“We have no time,” Samariel said. “Please.”
“I haven’t seen her.” Mathilde looked at Asmodeus again, and at Samariel. “But...”
She’d seen something. Something she didn’t want to talk about, because she was afraid. “We can protect you,” Samariel said.
“Or make your life a misery, if necessary.”
Mathilde snorted. “Unlikely. The days of Houses levelling entire districts are past, Asmodeus.” She sighed and called to one of the other seamstresses, a girl who had to be scarcely more than fifteen or sixteen years old, stick-thin and gaunt. The girl stood, staring at Asmodeus and Samariel with only the barest hint of fear in her gaze.
“This is Laure,” Mathilde said. “Show those gentlemen what you showed me, dearie.”
Laure foraged in her torn shirt and withdrew a piece of paper, which she handed to Samariel.
The sketch was rough, clearly not drawn from life, and not by someone who knew its subject well. But the face was unmistakable. “Where did you get this?”
Laure took a step back. He sounded too intense. Too annoyed, and it wasn’t even with her.
“It’s fine,” Samariel said, taking a deep breath. “Sorry. I’m worried.”
“I can see that,” Mathilde said, drily. Beside her, Asmodeus was silent, for which Samariel was thankful.
“They wore House uniforms,” Laure said. “But in blue and black.”
“House Harrier,” Mathilde said, unnecessarily. Samariel knew all the colours of all the Houses that still mattered in Paris. “They’ve been around, same as you. Asking for a girl that they say belongs to them. I have it on good authority they tried most of the professions in the market. Without success.”
It made no sense. Why would House Harrier be looking for her? If Locheren had tried to sell her to them, they wouldn’t need to scour the market for her. And if she hadn’t, why not? Samariel looked at Asmodeus, who looked back levelly. “I don’t understand.”
“Not yet,” Asmodeus said, with a touch of annoyance. “But it’ll make sense.”
Samariel took the paper, rubbing it between his fingers. “Do you know House Harrier’s envoys?” he asked Asmodeus. He was the leader of a Court, after all; must have attended most of the formal banquets and negotiations Samariel gladly skipped.
“Some of them.” Asmodeus’s face was set again, as if something or someone were profoundly frustrating him. God have mercy on whoever that was.
Samariel took out one of his spare charcoals, the one he’d used to sketch Eglantine in the car, and turned the paper over. “Can you describe them?” he asked Laure.
There were two envoys, but Asmodeus only recognised one of them from Laure’s description: a Fallen with a shaved head and elaborate markings curling around her cheeks and ears; not tattoos, for it wasn’t possible to mark skin that kept healing itself, but henna markings.
“Darrias,” he said, curtly. “House Harrier’s... hound, you might call her. Pleasant, if relentless.” He thanked Mathilde and Laure, gravely, courteously, and the two of them walked away, back to the distant safety of the car.
“Mathilde knew you,” Samariel said, finally. “How?” The House had seamstresses, and he should have had no need to come to Les Halles for much of anything.
Asmodeus’s face was smooth, expressionless. “We go back a while, when I was still on the streets. Informants are always useful.”
Samariel stared at him. “You were on the streets?”
“You were not, I take it.” Asmodeus’s gaze mocked him, the colour of ashes, of a city gone up in flames and cinders.
There was a saying: a Fallen beyond a House’s walls, shall be stripped to bones when night’s blade falls. Most Fallen were found by Houses within their first few hours of life or never found at all, only in bits and pieces of magical flesh on the black market. Houses were a newborn Fallen’s salvation; there weren’t nearly enough Fallen to cast large spells, but a House—an alliance of Fallen and human magicians—could be made near inviolable through skill and sheer strength of numbers.
Mathilde was sixty, seventy? Samariel couldn’t remember when Asmodeus had come into House Hawthorn, but surely he was older than that? Samariel himself... “Me? Nothing much to tell.” He could feel himself colouring, his pale face going beetroot-red. “I don’t remember much after my Fall.” He didn’t remember anything from before either, but of course no Fallen did, save perhaps Lucifer Morningstar himself. All he had were confused memories of traceries of light slowly shifting as he flew, and voices, raised in song that was beautiful and heartbreaking and terrible. “I woke up in a bed in Hawthorn’s hospital.”
“One of the favoured ones.” Asmodeus smiled. “Never out of the House much, never among the Houseless.”
Samariel looked away, obscurely embarrassed. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” The smell of Asmodeus’s perfume—orange blossom and citruses—saturated the air between them.
“Don’t.” Asmodeus grasped his shoulder for a fraction of a second, a shock that travelled up Samariel’s chest until he could scarcely breathe. “We all play the hands we’re given. There’s no shame in that.”
And the Houseless—the poor, the destitute, the hungry—what kind of hand were they given, and was any of it fair? Samariel shook his head, trying not to stare at the marketplace around them. “Nor much comfort,” he said at last. If it was this much of a shock for him, how much worse for Eglantine, who had never been outside Hawthorn, never seen Paris or its casual cruelties?
“You worry about the child,” Asmodeus said. “Eglantine.”
‘Worrying’ didn’t describe the way fear made it hard to breathe. “Why wouldn’t I?” And then he remembered that Asmodeus, in all likelihood, didn’t. Thought him naive and well-meaning, and unbearably callow; a child himself, fit only to be indulged, carefully watched over lest he break something.
It shouldn’t have twisted quite so much in his stomach, this lack of regard.
Asmodeus was silent, for a while. He said, finally, “You mean well. But caring will destroy you.”
“Perhaps I’d rather be destroyed,” Samariel said. “What’s the alternative? Thinking of everyone as a burden, as Lord Uphir does—”
“Let’s not speak of Uphir here,” Asmodeus said. His eyes were aglow with light, with the flames of the Hell the more radical priests said Fallen belonged to, a dancing wash of red like a tide of radiant blood.
Sedition, again. How had he kept his post as leader of one of Hawthorn’s Courts, if his disregard for Lord Uphir was this strong? “You can’t criticise Lord Uphir,” Samariel said, slowly. “If I told anyone in the House...”
“Would you?” Asmodeus’s gaze held him, transfixed him like a thrown spear. He found his breath had gone missing again, his lungs burning with some of the same fire as Asmodeus’s eyes.
“I—” he struggled to speak. “No. But not everyone will be so generous.”
“Indeed not.” They were back at the car. Asmodeus was holding open the door for him to climb on the driver’s side—another odd thing about him. Samariel had expected to drive, because he was the one of least rank, but not to be treated with that cautious, barbed respect.
Not that it was a pleasant experience, all things considered.
“You know Darrias,” Samariel said, at last. “Can you find her?”
“With certainty? No. But if she’s out on a mission for Harrier, there are only a few places she might be.”
Those places were cafés and bars, it turned out; nothing like the endless scattering of tables on terraces and chequered red-and-white tablecloths from before the war but small, darkened rooms where the representatives of Houses stopped for cups of stewed dark and bitter herbs that tasted marginally like coffee, or for stale and rotten leaves of tea preserved like treasures.
In the third such place they tried, they found Darrias and her escort, sitting at a table by a boarded window, staring into the depths of their beer glasses.
“What now?” Asmodeus asked. “Do you want to follow her?”
Samariel glanced around the bar. The counter was chock-full of grimy, dusty bottles, and the smell of stale magic filled the room. The other patrons barely glanced at them; two Fallen in House uniforms were nothing unusual, out there. Apart from the two with Darrias—both mortals, a man and a woman who both looked as though they could choke the life out of Samariel as well as Asmodeus—there was no sign of Locheren, or of Eglantine, or of anyone remotely in the right age range. “No,” he said. “I want to know what’s going on.”
Asmodeus shrugged, a gesture that eloquently said that it was Samariel’s—flawed—choice.
Darrias looked up as Samariel pulled up a chair. Her two mortals started to rise. She gestured, and they sat back down again, glowering at Samariel. The smell that rose from the beer glasses was the loamy, choking one of mildew. “House Hawthorn,” she said. Her voice was low-pitched, not unfriendly. “What a surprise.”
By her tone, it wasn’t.
A scraping of wood on broken stone as Asmodeus pulled another chair, folding his tall, lean frame into it. “Hello, Darrias.”
“Ah.” Darrias’s gaze sharpened. “Now this is unexpected. Have you decided to officially renege on your obligation?”
Asmodeus was silent for a fraction of a second longer than necessary. “Not that I know of. But then again, I’m not the one who incurred it.”
“The entire House incurred it.” Darrias’s voice was malicious.
What was going on? It was like sitting in at the table for a card game where people played by utterly unfamiliar rules, unfazed, calling out names and numbers so fast they could barely be followed.
“I see,” Samariel said, with an assurance he didn’t feel.
By his side, Asmodeus pulled on the cuffs of his shirt, sharply, so that they descended straight out of his jacket’s sleeves. “My apologies. I misjudged. Céline Morcerf’s death, was it?” His voice was light, conversational.
Still making no sense, and the name, which Samariel had never heard before, didn’t help.
“You already know that it was.” Beneath the intricate henna markings, Darrias’s face was hard. “So now Hawthorn scrabbles to save face. I hadn’t thought you’d be involved, honestly.”
“The actions of a rogue dependent can hardly be laid at our door,” Asmodeus said.
“Your dependent, your mess.” Darrias laughed, curtly. “But I’m feeling generous. We can help each other out. I’ll grant you this: you’re efficient. Always have been. Two groups searching could make a difference. I have no desire to be here longer than I have to. Lord Guy is in a hurry.”
Asmodeus’s face was expressionless. His hands rested lightly on the table, utterly still, faint light playing under his skin until the taut bones showed through. “I see.”
“I knew you would. Harrier always gets its due, Asmodeus.” She drained her beer glass in one gulp, and rose. “You know where to send word.”
“Likewise,” Asmodeus said.
After she and her escort were gone, Samariel looked at Asmodeus. “Are you going to explain any of that?”
Asmodeus withdrew his hands from the table. It was lightly scorched where his fingers had rested on it: ten depressions in the wood, faintly smelling of brimstone. “Reparations,” he said. “They offered Eglantine as reparations.”
“Uphir. To Harrier.”
Samariel took in a deep, shaking breath. “She’s just a child. You don’t send children!” Not her. Not her.
There were few laws between the Houses, and little love lost. But if a death or other bodily hurt to a House’s dependent could be traced to another one, then that House would have to compensate the other for the loss. The old way: eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
Blood for blood.
“I told you.” Asmodeus’s face was odd, in the dim light, no longer sharp or cutting, his eyes deeply shadowed, almost bruised. “Uphir thinks of children as a burden.”
“And he didn’t tell you?”
“By now, you should have understood that Uphir doesn’t bear much love for me. The Court of Birth is my punishment. Something he deems me utterly unsuited for. I would have found out about Eglantine eventually. Later, or possibly after the fact.”
“But Locheren found out?” It was the only thing that made sense. And rather than let Eglantine be bargained away, she was trying to save her.
Asmodeus didn’t answer.
Samariel took a deep, shaking breath. Reparations for a murder. A life for a life. “What is House Harrier going to do with her?”
“What do you think?” Asmodeus’s smile was unpleasant. “I told you—there are many uses for children.”
Samariel found his own hands had clenched into fists. “This is—” Unacceptable. Monstrous cruelty; beyond even all of the casual cruelties Samariel had seen in the House, in the city.
A soft, barely perceptible touch of magic on his lips, a warning. “Careful. You’re this close to sedition.”
“You’re the one who doesn’t care.”
“But you do.” Asmodeus lowered his hand, and the touch of magic faded. But the memory of it remained; a trembling, oddly intoxicating imprint. “Think on what you want, will you?”
“You condone this?”
“I’m House, Asmodeus. Whatever Lord Uphir does is for our own good. For our survival.” He had to believe this. He had to, otherwise he would go mad.
“That would seem to be the case.” Asmodeus’s voice was toneless.
“So we help Darrias track down Locheren.” And stand by as House Harrier took Eglantine.
“Do you see any other choice?”
There wasn’t one. If they didn’t honour the House’s bargain, the reparations Uphir and Harrier had agreed on, it would be the end of the fragile peace House Hawthorn had enjoyed so far. The quiet, complex balance of powers that had taken hold of the city after the Great War rested on the understanding that all Houses would do their duty by each other. Any House that refused to compensate another for its loss would face the wrath of all the others. Harrier would declare war on them for failing their obligations, and the other Houses would join its call. Hawthorn would be utterly destroyed.
Damn him. Damn what they were reduced to, after the war. No, of course he didn’t see any other choice. Of course. “I’d rather sit this one out,” Samariel said, and it was small and pathetic.
He expected Asmodeus to laugh, to tell him how soft he was, how utterly unsuited to the business of Houses. But Asmodeus’s face was serious. “That’s always a possibility. We can pretend to keep looking, and fail. Darrias will think she’s got the better of me, but it’s nothing I won’t survive.”
Samariel wasn’t sure why Asmodeus was indulging him, but why look gift horses in the mouth?
“You mean well,” Asmodeus said. “But there’s no good solution to this, let me assure you.”
“Locheren meant well.”
“And still betrayed the House. You don’t select which orders you prefer, when they’re given. How do you think we’ve survived this long? Not with everyone making their own moral judgments.” He looked past Samariel, at the dark entrance of the café, and shook his head. “Sitting out, I’m afraid, is now no longer an option.”
“What?” Samariel asked, startled.
He turned and saw what Asmodeus had seen: the slight, hunched shape of Laure the seamstress, nervously making her way towards them with a paper in her clenched fist.
She bowed to Asmodeus and to him, so nervously it seemed like she would shatter any moment. “It’s all right,” Samariel said.
Asmodeus merely plucked the paper from her unresisting hands, with only the barest of greetings. “From Mathilde, I take it?”
Laure was shivering, not looking them in the eye. “She said I’d find you in the cafés. She said you’d pay.”
“Always,” Asmodeus said. “Whatever the nature of the debt.” It ought to have been a reassurance, but it sounded like a threat. He unfolded the paper, laid it flat on the table. It revealed a single line.
Salon du Glacier of the Opera Garnier, tonight at nine. House Shellac.
Shellac was one of the newer, smaller Houses, in the Southeast of Paris, holding the Gobelins Manufactory. They’d survived the war but were teetering on the edge of destruction.
Samariel was naive and callow, but not that naive. “The only protection against a House is another one. Locheren is going to give Eglantine to Shellac, because they’ll protect her against Harrier. And Shellac will take her in to spite Harrier. Of course “
Asmodeus smiled. He pressed something Samariel couldn’t see in Laure’s hand, raised the back of her hand to his lips and kissed it, as courteously if she’d been a House lady. “A token,” he said, lightly. “Tell Mathilde I owe her, and I won’t forget.”
Laure coloured. “My lord—” she started, and then fell silent as magic swirled in the air, the same trick Asmodeus had used on Samariel.
“I’m no head of House.” Asmodeus sounded... regretful. “No need for that. Now run along. I know where to find you.” Again that gentle tone, halfway to a threat.
After she was gone, Samariel went on, stubbornly, “Why Shellac? They won’t be able to stand against Harrier—”
“Only a small House would be brash enough to think they could,” Asmodeus said. “And who knows. They might get away with it. Everyone is recovering from the war, and not every House will be keen to start a new one.”
It had been a dispute between Houses that had opened the war: a conclave that had turned sour, degenerating into the murder of dependents, then the protracted negotiations for reparations that had never come; a slow, inexorable spiral of destruction that had finally engulfed them all. “House Harrier isn’t that careful,” Samariel said.
“I don’t know about Harrier. I’m not intimate with Guy.” Asmodeus folded the paper, carefully, and handed it to Samariel.
His long fingers lingered on Samariel’s palm, dancing along its lines for a fraction of a second longer than necessary. Samariel felt the warmth of magic trembling between them, climbing up his arm all the way into his chest. He withdrew his hand, carefully, and still felt as though he was irreparably breaking something. The words he wanted to say seemed to have shrivelled in his mouth, choked by orange blossom and citruses.
He said, finally, “Hawthorn won’t let it pass.” When Lord Uphir found out Locheren had tried to thwart him, Samariel wouldn’t want to be in Locheren’s shoes. Or anywhere he could be considered an accomplice to her defiance. And yet.
“Of course not.” Asmodeus smiled, wide, dazzling. His gaze behind the horn-rimmed glasses sparkled, taking Samariel’s breath away once more. “Good. You’re learning. Now what will you do?”
Samariel looked down, at his own hands, at the faint light that played between his fingers, the magic that made it unsafe for him to be anywhere outside House Hawthorn’s protection.
What was one child, one life, weighed against the entire House?
The answer surged out of him like water through a burst dam, fast and incontrollable.
Everything, if the child was Eglantine.
“And what will you do?” he asked Asmodeus.
Asmodeus was silent for a while. “That rather depends on what you do, doesn’t it.”
“Does it.” He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “I don’t even understand why you’re still here.”
“Don’t you?” Asmodeus’s gaze held him. Samariel felt, again, the touch of magic on his lips, trembling on his skin. He opened his mouth to speak, but Asmodeus saved him the trouble. “You asked for my help. That’s rare enough that I notice when it happens. And you care about your own. It’s... endearing.” His smile was almost unguarded, almost carefree, an unusual expression that seemed to transfigure him.
Caring about his own, in a way Lord Uphir never had. Dancing, once again, on the edge of sedition. “Locheren cares, too.”
Asmodeus shook his head. “I can’t help Locheren anymore, I’m afraid. Not after she tried to single-handedly start a war with Harrier without my knowledge. But you—”
You’re not past hope. You might still grow up. Into the kind of person who would, without a second thought, hand over a child in the name of survival. He remembered the war—families on the streets, there one moment then only boneless skin and muscles as the battle-spells hit, slowly crumpling on burst cobblestones. He remembered crouching behind a broken window in a devastated bakery, listening to the low gurgling moans of the dying as their lungs turned to liquid and their bodies emptied themselves of blood through every orifice. All of that—all the spells the Houses had been carefully sitting on since the armistice—visited upon Hawthorn until not a single person in the House was left alive.
He couldn’t let that happen, no matter how much the cost made him ill to his stomach.
Samariel swallowed, trying to ignore his nausea. “Nine. At the Opera Garnier. I think we should be there.”
“And send word to Darrias?”
“No. If we’re really going to let Hawthorn hand a child over to Harrier, I want to be there. I want Lord Uphir to be there. It should happen in Hawthorn. In broad daylight, and not in the darkness, like thieves.”
“Will you can sleep better at night, seeing Eglantine’s face as you betray her?” Asmodeus’s voice was light, mocking.
Samariel’s hands clenched into fists. “So that none of us let others do our dirty work.”
“Doing the right thing. You’re so proper it hurts.”
“I’d rather be proper than deadened to the cost of what we’re doing.” Samariel had a vague, desperate hope that things would be better, back in Hawthorn; that Darrias would prove to have been mistaken about Eglantine being offered as reparations, though he couldn’t believe that lie for long; that he could plead with Lord Uphir for other reparations—for another child to be offered, if it came to that, though the thought made him feel small and ashamed of himself.
But at least he wasn’t Asmodeus.
Asmodeus watched him, as he might an insect which had learnt to speak. At length, he took off his glasses and wiped them clean with a handkerchief from his lapel pocket, slowly, carefully. “I’ll have to notify Darrias, regardless. Or we’ll have our war with Harrier, as sure as the sun rises.” He raised a hand to forestall Samariel’s objections. “I’ll tell her ten o’clock. You have one hour, to do whatever you feel should be done.”
“One hour is fine,” Samariel said, biting back angrier words.
The Opera Garnier had weathered the war, in a fashion. The building was still intact, with only blackened broken windows bearing witness to the devastation within. Inside, the great stairs, splitting in two from a central landing, were covered in rubble, the elegant lamps all smashed, and the statues half-melted by spells. The coloured marbles that had once been the pride and distinguishing feature of Garnier’s masterpiece had been denatured by spells, leeched to a sickly pale grey or broken into meaningless fragments.
Samariel had been there once, before the war—a memory of men and women in elegant clothes, the floral notes of perfume, the glitter of chandelier lights on pearl necklaces, white gloves that seemed to catch fire in the profusion of radiance; and the distant, plaintive sound of chords from within, where the orchestra was fine-tuning their instruments before the sharp, fragile brilliance of the evening started.
There was none of that left, now. Just a faint, unpleasant smell of magic gone awry, and the drier one of burnt dust. The ornate paintings on the ceiling were cracked, their mythological characters broken into incoherent, monstrous pieces.
“That way,” Samariel said.
Asmodeus paused on the landing, looking around him with curiosity.
“You’ve never been here?”
“Not since the war, no,” Asmodeus said. He gestured at Samariel to join him, his lean thin shoulder muscles shifting alluringly beneath the fabric of his swallowtail jacket. Samariel thought it was going to be some grand pronouncement on the ruins they stood in the midst of, but instead Asmodeus showed him the knife in his hand. “You’re going to need this.”
“Magic doesn’t always solve everything. What did you mean to do, if things turned bad with House Shellac?”
“I don’t know!” Samariel said, and remembered to keep his voice down to a whisper. He was already on edge enough as it was.
Asmodeus smiled. “So take it. I have another one.”
Of course he did.
The Salon du Glacier was where they’d sold refreshments and ice creams, a long, long time ago. To get there, they crossed broken marble floors, raising clouds of dust—going around the faded splendour of the amphitheatre into what had once been a large corridor but was now nothing more than debris creaking and snapping underfoot. Something crunched under Samariel’s shoes: a translucid ivory fan, the painted fragments shining with heartbreaking vividness in the dim light.
Was he here to save Eglantine, or to hand her over to Harrier? The thought of war was unbearable. Everything would be gone: the flowers that had bloomed in once-ruined gardens, the smell of fruit and freshly baked bread that had replaced gunpowder and the sweet sickening one of magic, the laughter of children that had finally overwhelmed the screams of the dying in his dreams.
But the price of that peace was the life of a child. The child he’d seen grow up from chubby toddler to young girl, from awkward scribbles with wax crayons to detailed drawings of flowers and fruit in charcoal; who would run towards him along the corridor to his room, with that unbearably fragile smile on her face lighting up her entire being.
How could he choose?
Voices, echoing under faded ceilings. They crept closer, Samariel all but forgetting to breathe when he recognised Locheren’s measured tones. Asmodeus moved lithely, as elegant as a cat stalking prey. Samariel felt slow and clumsy by comparison. But Asmodeus stopped at the entrance to the Salon. Of course. He’d already made it clear that he wouldn’t intervene.
The Salon was a rotunda with a host of openings equally spaced around its circle; little concealment to be found, though subtlety had never been Samariel’s style.
He flattened himself against the closest wall and bent, quickly, to have a look inside.
The room had survived almost intact, the parquet floor smooth and shining like lacquer, the busts on plinths merely singed. Even the chandelier still hung in the centre of the rotunda, its facets catching the few scraps of light and magnifying them tenfold.
Locheren was in the rotunda, talking to a woman in the white and yellow of House Shellac, while a male Fallen in the same colours leant casually against the wall about a meter away from them, looking bored.
By the Fallen bodyguard’s side was Eglantine. Samariel’s breath caught in his throat, but she looked unharmed, if pale and scared, wearing a dress in the dark grey and silver colours of Hawthorn. They were formal adult clothes that sat uneasily on her, unlike the simple, large skirts she preferred to wear.
She wouldn’t need any of that, in Harrier. The thought sat like a stone in his throat. Was he doing the right thing? He couldn’t tell anymore.
“I need to know you’ll take good care of her,” Locheren was saying.
By Samariel’s side, Asmodeus was watching the Salon, a lean, amused presence Samariel could feel even without looking. His right hand held, loosely, a knife identical to the one he’d offered to Samariel. He looked as though he was going to throw it at any moment.
As if that would make things better.
They just needed to get Eglantine out of here. Locheren—of course the Court of Persuasion would want Locheren, to punish her for her betrayal, but Samariel couldn’t care less about their desires. Samariel closed his eyes and sent a faint, faded tendril of magic into the room, an almost imperceptible touch on Eglantine’s cheek, coming from the corridor he and Asmodeus were waiting in.
Eglantine frowned, looked up. But not in the right direction. Curses. Samariel sent the touch again. It had to be faint, or the bodyguard would pick up on it, and then they’d be in real trouble. It was three against two, but with Asmodeus mostly tagging along out of what seemed like amused curiosity...
At last—at long, long last, what felt like an eternity—Eglantine looked in his direction. Her eyes widened, and a half-smile transformed her entire face. Her mouth opened on his name. He shook his head, raised his finger to his mouth, and shifted. The magic shifted with him, drawing her toward him, a gentle invitation for her to walk to where they stood. We’re here to help, he wanted to mouth, but the lie wouldn’t get past his throat. He didn’t know what he’d do once he reached her.
Eglantine’s face set. She threw a glance at the bodyguard, who was busy watching Locheren and the Shellac representative haggle, and slowly, ever slowly, started to creep towards them. Samariel’s held breath was burning his lungs.
“She’ll be House,” the Shellac representative was saying. “I have the authority to make her a dependent here and now. Surely that should be guarantee enough?”
“Houses harm their own.” Locheren’s face was hard.
“What promises can I make that you would believe?”
“Swear binding oaths. The old way.”
By Samariel’s side, Asmodeus watched the room, his grey-green gaze amused, but made no move.
Eglantine was halfway through the small space that separated them, almost close enough to touch...
“Lady Calyce didn’t empower me to do that, I’m afraid. But we wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to discard her.”
Another few centimetres that felt like an eternity. Samariel reached out, his hand connecting with Eglantine’s; drew her to him, heedless of the weight he had to pull, tensed, ready to run, all the way back to the waiting car, to the impossible, illusory safety of Hawthorn, never thinking of war or of the future.
“You came,” she whispered.
“Of course, little bird. Always.”
Magic roiled, around them. It was coming not from the Salon but from behind them. “I see you’ve found our missing child,” a voice said.
“You said—” Samariel said, turning to Asmodeus, still holding Eglantine, stubbornly refusing to let go.
Asmodeus shook his head. “Not me.” His face was hard.
“Credit me with a little intelligence,” Darrias said, walking through the splinters of the corridor’s parquet floor, the hem of her loose trousers raising a cloud of dust. Her escort split: the man watching Asmodeus and Samariel, the woman making for the Salon. The thin lines of carvings came loose from the walls, reaching out and imprisoning both Locheren and the Shellac woman in unbreakable coils before they could move. They reached for the Fallen bodyguard as well, but he was already moving away from the wall, magic shimmering between the palms of his hands, running towards where Samariel and Eglantine stood.
Asmodeus shifted. Samariel barely saw him move. The Fallen bodyguard reeled back, a knife blade deep in his chest; took one, two faltering steps backwards, coughing out blood, and fell to one knee on the parquet.
Darrias continued, as if nothing had happened. “As I was saying, Asmodeus is good at lying. You—” she said, smiling, to Samariel, “are less so. Your eyes betray you.”
Locheren’s round face was taut with fear. She looked from Asmodeus to Samariel, to the House Harrier representatives.
“You have some nerve,” Darrias said to the Shellac woman. “Stealing from Harrier.”
“Playing the game,” the woman said. Her voice was low, musical, with the accents of the well-educated. “Worth a try.”
Darrias watched her, for a while. “It’ll cost you. Not as much as it’ll cost everyone else, though.” She turned, to Samariel. “The child.”
A single child, for peace. For safety. For the sake of the House, and everyone in it. So that the horrors of the war would not be visited upon them; would remain dreams and memories growing fainter and fainter with every passing year. And yet. And yet, it was Eglantine.
How could he pay that price? He ached to protect her, even knowing he shouldn’t.
Eglantine pressed herself against Samariel. “Samariel. Please.”
“No,” Samariel said. Again, it was gut reflex.
“Do you want a war with Harrier? And all the other Houses as well?”
“Don’t be a fool,” Asmodeus said. It wasn’t clear if he was talking to Samariel or Darrias, or both. He leant against the wall outside the Salon, his black shoes resting, lightly, on fragments of broken glass.
“As I said”—Darrias said, shaking her head—“I’m in a hurry. Give me the child. I’ll take her to Harrier, and that’ll be the end of this business. There is, after all, no way you’ll be blamed for the actions of a rogue dependent.” That last clearly addressed to Asmodeus, and deeply sarcastic.
“Samariel,” Eglantine whispered.
“Ssh,” he said. He still held her, refused to let go. There had to be something, anything, they could do. “Everything will be fine, little bird.” Lies. What could he do, that Locheren hadn’t already tried?
“Everything is seldom fine,” Asmodeus said.
“I—” Samariel shook his head. He’d said they could go to Harrier, that he could plead with Lord Uphir—except that now, standing in the darkness in the ruins of the opera house, he saw how utterly ridiculous, how utterly naive that had been, his belief that he could make things better. Reparations. House business. How could he ever have believed that he would make a difference?
He’d never forgive himself if he let go of her. But there was no other choice.
“Reparations,” he said, aloud. “Blood for blood. It doesn’t have to be a child, does it?” He shifted, slightly. “A House Fallen would do.”
Asmodeus opened his mouth, closed it. Darrias watched Samariel, intently. “You’d offer yourself?”
The world seemed to have become unbearably light, unbearably sharp, the glint of the chandelier’s crystals like wounds, the shards of the parquet floor digging into his skin. But really, what other choice was there?
“No,” Samariel said. “I’m not a child. I’m not a mortal. It’s false equivalences. If I came back with you to Harrier, forever”—a deep, trembling breath; he wasn’t going to think on what would happen there, on what prices they could exact from him— “you’d get more than you are owed. Reparations are a trade, and an equal one.” He kept his voice level, but it cost him.
Asmodeus’s gaze rested on him; his face was... oddly misshapen, in the dim light. Shock, Samariel realised. It was shock.
“If you came with us? To spare a mortal child?” Darrias’s smile was predatory. “Oh, Samariel. You’re such a fool.”
“Indeed,” Asmodeus said, dryly.
“A small price for sleeping well at night,” Samariel snapped. “Now will you think on it?”
Eglantine tugged at him. “Samariel—”
At length, Darrias nodded. “Come back with us for a day and a night,” she said. “That should serve. We can, after all, always find uses for Fallen from other Houses.”
The same way they’d find uses for children? No. He didn’t want to think about that. Reparations involved blood, and pain; or worse, being used against his own House, secrets and spells and magic torn out of him piece by piece, in the little time they’d have...
“Samariel,” Eglantine said. “Please. Don’t—”
A day and a night. “And I’ll walk out of Harrier, when this is over.”
“Yes,” Darrias said. “You have my word.” Her smile was malicious. “Though I cannot promise you will be whole and unharmed.”
“Of course not,” Samariel said. “Do we have a bargain, then? To let Eglantine free?”
“If that’s the way you want it.” Darrias shrugged. She gestured, and her escort flowed back to her. “I have no objections.”
Eglantine said, “I can go, Samariel.”
He knelt, stared into her face. “Be honest, little bird. You can’t. You know you wouldn’t survive.”
Her eyes were wide, bruised, fearful. “It’s my duty to the House.”
“The House,” Samariel said, savagely, “doesn’t owe you this.”
“Neither does it to you!”
“Perhaps not. But someone has to volunteer.” Samariel straightened her dress. “Just go home, will you? And wait for me to come back. I shouldn’t be long.” He forced himself to smile.
Eglantine’s lips were trembling. “You won’t come back.”
“Of course I’ll come back.” He kissed her forehead, trying to think of drawing lessons and the sanctuary of his rooms in Hawthorn, with only the scratching of charcoal on paper. “You heard Darrias.” What position or capacity he’d be in by then, though... He withdrew his arms from around her shoulders, pushed her gently towards Asmodeus. “You can get her home,” he said.
Asmodeus detached himself from the wall he’d been leaning on—the smell of orange blossom and citruses filling Samariel’s nostrils, a memory he’d take with him into Harrier and cling to like a lifeline. Asmodeus walked towards Samariel; his hand went up, into Samariel’s golden curls. “You’re learning,” he said, sharply, as he’d said to Samariel in the café. “Not always the lessons we’d expect, it seems.”
Samariel opened his mouth to speak, found no words.
Asmodeus withdrew but made no move to take Eglantine, who in turn didn’t budge. “A word with you,” he said, to Darrias.
Darrias raised an eyebrow. “Now?”
Asmodeus didn’t move. Magic was flowing to him, the shadow of great, dark wings at his back, a black and terrible splendour that must have been awful to behold in the Heavens he’d Fallen from. The dark grey of his swallowtail jacket took in the light of the Salon—the glints from the parquet and chandelier—and reflected nothing. “Now,” he said.
“If you think to prevent us from taking our due...” Darrias started.
“I’m no fool,” Asmodeus said. “Now will you come?”
They walked under the rotunda to stand at the opposite end, where blackened, soot-stained windows hid the vista of devastated streets. Asmodeus spoke in a low, even tone; Darrias listened. Samariel couldn’t hear anything except the music of their voices. It seemed to go on forever.
On the one hand, every moment they spent talking was a moment’s reprieve. On the other, he’d made his choice. He needed to leave with Darrias before he realised what he’d done, and turned tail and ran from the room.
Eglantine’s hand rested in his, pressed, lightly, against his magic-charged flesh. She didn’t speak. Which was just as well, because he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to reply.
At length, Asmodeus and Darrias parted and walked back to where Samariel and Eglantine waited. Darrias’s marked face was unreadable. She looked, for a while, from Samariel to Asmodeus, and back again. Then she made a wide, dismissive gesture with her left hand. “Go.”
“I’m sorry?” Samariel must have misheard.
“Go. Before I change my mind.”
“They’ve been paid.” Darrias looked... not unhappy but thoughtful, as if still digesting something unpleasant. Her two mortals were freeing the Shellac woman from her bonds. Darrias turned, for a fraction of a second, to look at the woman. “You can go too, but don’t think this marks the end of Harrier’s business with Shellac.”
The woman didn’t need to be told twice. She picked up the stricken Fallen—who was still on one knee, struggling to breathe—propped him up on her shoulder, and together they made their slow, tottering way out of the opera house.
“You heard Darrias.” Asmodeus had the knife in his hand once again. He must have retrieved it from the Fallen bodyguard’s chest as he’d passed him on his way back. “Go to the car and wait there. We’ll be with you in a moment.” He held out his hand to Samariel, pulled him close; and, as he did so, whispered in Samariel’s ear, so low no one else could have heard it, “Get Eglantine out of earshot.”
Samariel looked from Asmodeus to Locheren, who was still pinned by the carvings that Darrias’s escort had used to imprison her in the Salon and watching Asmodeus with wide, fearful eyes.
Court of Birth. Of course. Locheren was Court of Birth, and therefore his responsibility.
I can’t help Locheren anymore, I’m afraid.
Asmodeus’s voice, when he spoke, was again a whisper. “Yes. I could leave it to the Court of Persuasion. But I can assure you I’ll be infinitely more merciful to Locheren than Uphir or the House will.” The knife glinted in the palm of his hand. Darrias hadn’t moved, either. Was she going to watch, or to participate?
Samariel didn’t want to know. He’d thought he’d feel sick or repulsed, but instead part of him—the harsh, unyielding part that had refused to let go of Eglantine, that had preferred to suffer than give her up—understood that there was a price. That there were always consequences for defying the House, for doing the right thing, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. “I see,” he said, slowly. And, to Eglantine, who was looking, wide-eyed, at both of them—who had to understand at least some of this, “he’s right, little bird. Let’s go.”
Neither of them looked back, as they left.
Samariel wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Some kind of reproach from Uphir, some kind of official calling to order. But, after they returned to Hawthorn—Samariel carrying a sleepy Eglantine in his arms, and Asmodeus carrying the bloodied, broken shape of Locheren—after they had parted, with scarcely a word said between them, life seemed to swing back to normal, as if the entire thing had been nothing more than a nightmare.
Eglantine wouldn’t talk about what had happened with Locheren, though Thérèse told Samariel in private that she woke up at night screaming and couldn’t be comforted.
Prices to pay. He daren’t tell Thérèse, or Eglantine, that it was the best thing that could have happened, given the other risks. He was too afraid it was going to make him sound callous.
About three days after they came back, Samariel was teaching Eglantine to paint chrysanthemum flowers—ignoring her complaints that flowers were much harder than fruit, and that it wasn’t fair—when someone knocked at the door.
He looked up from his sketch, startled.
Asmodeus stood in the doorway. He wore the uniform of the House, though the collar of his shirt was slightly open, revealing the smudges of bruises at his throat. “Asmodeus,” Samariel said, suddenly feeling ill at ease. “I hadn’t thought—”
Asmodeus’s smile was dark, unamused. “—that I’d bother coming?” Eglantine was standing away from her easel, bowing deeply to him. “Child.” His gaze swept her, up and down. “I see Samariel got you a knife.”
Samariel coloured. He’d asked her what would help and had sat very still, waiting for her answer, despairing there would ever be one—until she’d spoken in a low voice, asking if she could learn to defend herself, in a tone that suggested she expected him to laugh it away. He hadn’t laughed. He’d asked around and come back with a sharp, double-edged damascened blade, its handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl and perfectly sized for small hands—as well as a matching sheath. Eglantine had tucked it in the front pocket of her shirt and not parted with it since. “Just a little something—”
“To keep the nightmares at bay?” Asmodeus’s voice was grave. He knelt by Eglantine, watching her. His hand brushed her hair. Samariel felt, once more, magic coiled in the air, trembling on her skin. Eglantine’s eyes were wide... with awe, with fear? “A lesson, from the Court of Birth,” Asmodeus said, mildly. “Nightmares never really leave, but their hold over you will fade. In time. Do you understand?”
Eglantine said nothing, but at length she nodded, carefully, slowly. Asmodeus rose, to look at Samariel. Who cleared his throat, feeling obscurely embarrassed.
“Eglantine, would you mind...”
Eglantine, startled, looked at him. “No, of course. I’ll be back later.”
“You’d better,” Samariel said. “Don’t think you’re getting out of sketching decent chrysanthemums.”
A quick, fleeting smile, like the sun peeking from behind clouds, and then she was gone.
“She’ll be all right,” Asmodeus said, watching her run. “Children are more resilient than you give them credit for.”
“How would you know?” Samariel said, and stopped. “You do care, don’t you.”
“Of course.” Asmodeus’s smile was wide, mocking. He pulled one of the green plush chairs to him and sat in it. Or rather, lounged, like a predator taking his ease. “They all belong to me. And I take that seriously, when I’m allowed to.”
Samariel pointed to the bruises at Asmodeus’s throat. “Who—”
“I had a word. With Uphir.” Asmodeus shrugged. “Nothing that need concern you.”
“Except that I am concerned, aren’t I?” Samariel couldn’t keep the sharpness out of his voice. “What did you tell Darrias? How did you convince her to back away?”
Asmodeus watched him, for a while. “I didn’t.”
“I made her a promise. A debt, to be claimed when she so chose.”
“And your word is worth that much?” But of course he was head of a Court, worth more than a minor Fallen like Samariel.
“One day,” Asmodeus said, carefully opening the collar of his shirt further, showing more pliant, ivory-pale skin glowing with magic, “one day, my word will be worth more than Uphir’s.”
Samariel found his heart in his throat again. He’d taken three steps towards the chair before he realised what he was doing—breathing in orange blossoms, citruses, a strong, pungent mixture that seemed to make the entire world wobble and contract. “Sedition,” he said, flatly, but there was no conviction in his words. “Why, Asmodeus?”
He’d expected Asmodeus to laugh, to tell him that he knew why, but instead there was only the creak of the chair shifting. And, looking up, he found Asmodeus standing millimetres away from him, close enough to touch. Close enough to kiss. “Tell me you don’t know why,” Asmodeus whispered. “And I’ll walk out these doors and never come back.”
The air was trembling with unbearable warmth, his entire being tingling with something Samariel could barely name. “You change lovers like you change shirts.”
“Do I?” A finger, running down Samariel’s nose and lips, sending a thrill of desire in his bones. “How fortunate I’ve been wearing this shirt for three days, then.”
“Asmodeus—” He bent, breathing in the sharpness of Asmodeus’s perfume– lips on lips, magic roiling in the air between them, a wave of pleasure rising through his entire body.
They pulled away, stared at each other. Samariel’s breath was back; marginally, his lungs still feeling afire. He reached out, undid one, two buttons on Asmodeus’s shirt, revealing the broad shape of his torso. Samariel laid a hand on Asmodeus’s skin, feeling muscles tightening and Asmodeus’s breath, coming in fast and deep under his touch. He pushed. There was hardly any resistance. Asmodeus folded backwards, his head coming to rest against the back of the armchair, his body spread out below Samariel: enticing, arousing.
Asmodeus’s gaze—grey-green, the colour of a rising storm—held him. “You know where this leads,” he said, and there was no trace of amusement in his voice.
By now, you should have understood that Uphir doesn’t bear much love for me.
A fall away from favour, Uphir’s disinterest in him turning to outright hostility. And on their part... Sedition. Rebellion. Uphir’s undoing, if they could find a way. An end to the casual use, the casual discarding, of children and dependents; all of the bloody, difficult work in the future, thoughts that would press down like leaden weights if he allowed them.
But he wasn’t that much of a fool.
“Ssh,” Samariel said. And, bending down, kissed Asmodeus deeply, drowning himself in the heady smell of citruses and orange blossom, and in the intoxication of the present.