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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Skin Curse by Kristin Jacques

The Children of the Gate wait for the call to Rise.

Azzy Brimvine knows her brother is in the vast city of Avergard. She must find him, but time is not on their side.

In the House of Seven Smiles, Azzy struggles to understand the constraints and limits of her power. She finds the whispering voices that guided her for so long, suddenly silent. The enigmatic Lord Wallach is both a frustrating ally and a dangerous mystery, and a strange entity lurks among the household servants. The haven Azzy sought may not be as safe as she thought... but is anywhere truly safe in the Above?

The city of Avergard is full of monsters and secrets, and a dark history festers at its root. A yawning pit nestles in the house of a scheming lord, who will use Armin's dangerous gifts to raise history, and raze the city to the ground. As Azzy finds herself and her brother pulled into these machinations, she must navigate the politics and society of Avergard's brutal ruling class to save her family and friends before the Gate consumes them all.

Take a peek into Azzy's next adventure with this exclusive sneak peek into the first two chapters of Skin Curse, by Kristin Jacques, out THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12th!

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Azzy was safe. Through the thick glass of her bedroom window lay a city of monsters, both hidden and seen. The streetlights flickered, sparks in the haze of twilight as the denizens of Avergard choked the throughways, far from where she stood in observation.

It was a bewildering sensation, one she struggled to accept as she twirled the feather between her fingers. She wasn’t fleeing from creatures of the Above or Below. She’d survived the Snatcher’s caravan. Ensconced behind the walls of Lord Wallach’s estate, she was beyond the reach of those elegant, hungry-eyed monsters.

Azzy pinched the feather between her fingers so tightly her bones whined, her mouth pressed into a hard line as the image replayed through her mind. The boy with wings, the vacant storm-shrouded eyes so achingly familiar and so very empty of recognition. She sucked in a breath, broken by a withheld sob. She was here. She made it to the city, and everything she’d lost to reach this place left the taste of ash in her mouth.

What had she gained but an insurmountable set of tasks? A tremor ran through her limbs, and Azzy wondered if it would ever stop when she heard the soft trod of footsteps approaching down the hall. She looked up as her doorway filled with a figure swathed in a swirling contrast of white smoke and shadows, curling around the feminine curves of her body like living cloth even as it obscured her face.

“Hello, Azzy, will you come down to dinner?” Her voice emerged as the smoke receded around her lustrous dark eyes. They seemed to glow through the wreath of smoke.

Azzy tucked the feather into her frayed sleeves, wishing to keep it close to her skin, comforted by the contact. A sanctuary it may be, separated from the city by glass and stone, but her brother was out there somewhere. And who knew what other secrets these foreign streets held. The whispers plucked at her mind, delicate notes that made the barest ripples across her thoughts as she rose to follow the woman of smoke. She hesitated, listening, but the inaudible voices that had carried her so far continued to slip away, receding beneath the surface of her thoughts with each beat of her pulse like retreating waves in a surf. It left the world around her muted, and apprehension settled heavy on her shoulders.

“Please, you need to eat. A stiff breeze could tip you over,” said the woman, misinterpreting her hesitation.

Azzy offered a tentative smile. “My apologies. I’m simply tired.”

“You’ll be given plenty of time to rest this eve,” said the woman. “Now, come; the others are waiting to meet you before we dine.”

“Oh, they don’t have to—” Azzy began, but the woman of smoke took her hands, the contact solid, the woman’s skin cool as silk.

“It’s tradition for all new additions to the household,” she said, her voice warm. “Normally, we would have fed you immediately, but there was the other one to settle, and you looked so lost we wanted to give you a moment of privacy.”

Azzy stared into the woman’s dark gaze, at a loss for words. The gentle burr of the whispers shifted, an internal crackle as the lens of her altered eye pierced the haze, revealing the remarkable features of the woman beneath. Her features were rounded and delicate, but for a wide scar that scrawled over the bridge of her nose. One end tugged at her full lips while the other marred the slanted arc of her brow, her beauty shone despite the mark, but for the ghost of sadness and shame stamped in her expression. Azzy’s grip unconsciously tightened on the woman’s hands as the smoke billowed forward, obscuring her features once more. She strained to recall the woman’s name from the rapid introduction they’d received upon arrival.

“Cherise, yes?”

The head servant bowed her head, a smile conveyed through her gaze. “Well done. I’m certain you shall adjust quickly here.” She didn’t release Azzy’s hands as she gently tugged her from the room, tucking one hand beneath her arm as she led her charge down the second story of Wallach’s vast home.

The house was dazzling, a sumptuous visual feast a world away from packed dirt and roughly chiseled stone. Azzy drank in the pristine white marble columns. The main wall boasted a tile mosaic of exquisite detail: a frothy, animate sea, backlit by a wild storm that framed a woman rising from a massive shell, her ethereal body scantly covered by ribbons of vibrant blue-green tiles. Azzy realized they had to be individual shards of turquoise. Hints of real gems shimmered in the figure’s red hair, so very reminiscent of her mother’s that Azzy’s gaze snared on the mural as they walked. She could have stopped and stared at it for hours if Cherise’s insistent tug hadn’t pulled her along. Polished wood floorboards slid beneath her bare feet, broken by plush floor coverings softer than the thickest moss, in shades of color and intricate design far beyond anything that graced the grandest homes in the Heap. Elder Prast would choke on his own spit at the mere glimpse of so much splendor. If there was anyone in the Heap left. The thought burst the small vindictive swell that rose as she took in the overwhelming opulence, a reminder of the cost, the precarious position in which she’d left the Heap.

“Here we are. Told you I’d ferret her out.”

She stiffened as Cherise pulled her into a very different space from the outer grand rooms. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer lamplit room. A handful of people stood around a rough-hewn wooden table like any she’d find in the Heap, with half a dozen place settings of quality but plain plates and utensils.

Azzy’s gaze was immediately drawn to the man across from her, his slate gray vest and pants offset by his crisp white shirt, rolled up to the elbows. He could have been the age of her missing guardian, but it was difficult to determine due to his dark brown skin, cracked and curling like ancient tree bark. As Cherise spoke, her words appeared in luminous handwritten script on his bared arms before they dispersed and soaked into his skin like water into parched dirt. The close-cropped hair on his jaw and head reminded her of the thread moss she once gathered for Brixby’s supplies, pale in color, with a faint green hue. His eyes were the same color as his skin, alight with warmth and curiosity as he looked her over.

Beside him stood a man who couldn’t have been much older than Azzy herself, his servant’s garb rumpled but clean except for his frayed, stained gloves. His nervous gaze never settled, bouncing from surface to surface, never once looking directly at her. Azzy found she could not look at him either as he began to blur and fade if she stared at him for more than a few seconds. She couldn’t form a concrete mental picture of his appearance beyond a pale, anxious face surrounded by unruly dark hair.

Unsettled, she shifted her gaze away and found Morglint’s familiar lopsided face at the far end of the table. The knot of nerves loosed at the sight of him, finally allowing the taut pull of her muscles to ease. She almost missed the final occupant at the table, her appearance startling for its normalcy. The young woman hovered in Morglint’s shadow, the drab color of her dress and hair blended with the dim recesses of the room.

Cherise brought her to an empty chair and hovered nearby within a plume of smoke. “My dears, may I introduce our lord’s latest acquisition, Azure Brimvine.”

“Hello,” Azzy bowed her head, uncertain of the formalities. The feather quill lightly scratched against her skin, an anchor that kept her present as the others nodded and murmured greetings as Cherise introduced them in turn. These introductions were vital, to people she hoped would be her allies here as she sought out her family.

“Lennon is our lord’s manservant and personal butler.” Cherise gestured to the older gentleman with tree bark skin. “Petyr takes care of household affairs and parlays with the House of Lords.” The blurred young man with stained gloves snapped into sudden sharp focus as he held Azzy’s gaze for a long, tense moment. The room rocked and spun, and the faint scent of decay teased her senses, but Petyr’s intensity failed to stir her internal whispers. The effect snapped off as his gaze darted away, leaving her faintly dizzy.

“I’m the Maven,” said the woman in Morglint’s shadow, with a voice that slid over Azzy’s skin-like snake scales. There was a hard smile on the woman’s face and a keen interest in her gaze that belied her mundane appearance. Winking at Azzy, the Maven sat down, though the others remained standing. Curiosity pricked at Azzy, but Cherise continued as if the other woman hadn’t spoken.

“And our new gardener and apothecary, you already know.”

Morglint’s smile banished the final snag of uncertainty. She looked him over as they finally sat, relieved her friend appeared far more relaxed than when they first arrived. The former Snatcher looked ready to bolt when Cherise took them in hand. They’d dropped off Morglint first in what appeared to be a hastily cleared out storage room, still half stacked with crates and thrown down pallets large enough to accommodate his frame. The space was dusty and dingy, but Morglint’s eyes fell on the workbench and rack above it, built for the drying and storing of plants.

The other appealing feature of the room was the door, an ornate construction of iron curlicues and fluted rods. Cherise presented the Snatcher with an equally elaborate key. Azzy stayed to watch her friend open the door to reveal a glimpse of the Eden beyond, his expression of delight enough to let Cherise pull her away.

As the others set covered platters on the table, Azzy curled her fingers around Morglint’s wrist.

“Are you—settling in?” She watched his features, relieved by the peace in his countenance.

“Oh, little one, the garden is wondrous. You come visit after dinner,” said Morglint. The excitement in his eyes convinced Azzy she’d made the right decision, urging Wallach to take in the former Snatcher, that he would have a better life here and her choice wasn’t borne of the simple selfish desire not to be alone.

Azzy nodded. “I will, I promise.”

Lennon and Cherise removed the coverings with a flourish. Steam billowed across the table, carrying the scent of unknown spices that made Azzy’s mouth water. The contents were unrecognizable, an array of ingredients sauced and diced, but she allowed Cherise to fill her plate with a hearty portion of everything. Eager as she was, the flavor and texture still caught her off-guard, soft and savory, with more than a hint of salt and black flakes that made her tongue tingle. She ate half of the serving before her stomach clenched, unused to the intake of so much food.

“Slow down, dear, there’s plenty to eat,” said Cherise as she poured a dark red liquid into Azzy’s cup.

“I believe I’m full,” said Azzy as she sipped the tangy substance. It had to be wine, though unlike any she’d tasted in her life—certainly better than anything traded from the Foragers. Caught up in the flavor, she nearly missed the glance between the head servant and Lennon.

“Would you like to bring some up to your room, in case you are hungry later?” the manservant asked, his low, rich baritone a pleasant rumble.

“No, I’ll be fine until the morning,” said Azzy.

Petyr’s gaze fell on her like a physical weight. He had glanced at her throughout their meal with mounting consternation. Now, his gloved hand tightened on his fork as he gave her his full focus. “She doesn’t taste like the city. She must have been brought in from the outside.”

“Petyr!” Cherise set her cup down hard enough to slosh wine onto the tabletop.

“I can’t place her. It unsettles me.” The dark slash of Petyr’s brow raised as he studied Azzy. “Her coloring is off for the swamps, and she looks too delicate to hail from the North.”

“I—” Azzy stopped, bewildered. There were other settlements in the Above? Other regions? Why hadn’t they guessed she was from Below? The whispers pulsed. Azzy looked up to find the Maven watching her as she lazily moved the food around her plate without eating it. The scrape and squeal of the fork tines across the porcelain surface filled the sudden silence, a drawn-out winch of sound that broke with a snap.

The three main servants stood so fast their plates bucked.

“My lord,” said Cherise, bowing her head.

“At ease,” said Lord Wallach. His presence pressed against Azzy’s back. He radiated heat with the intensity of a blacksmith’s forge. “Azure, have you finished eating?”

“Yes, sir—” She flinched as Cherise gave a sharp shake of her head. “Yes, my lord.”

“Join me in the study then,” said Wallach. She knew by the cold rush of air he’d left before her answer. The others were all watching her now with varying degrees of worry and curiosity.

Azzy didn’t understand their expressions until Cherise shuffled her seat closer and leaned in, her silk-smooth voice low as she spoke. “Do you wish me to accompany you?”

She frowned, uncertain of the motives behind such an offer. “If you could show me to the study, I’d be grateful.”

Cherise’s dark eyes flashed, her expression obscured and inscrutable. “It takes time, adjusting to a place like this, to someone like our lord. Are you certain you don’t want someone there to act as a buffer?”

“I’ll be fine,” said Azzy. She wondered if perhaps she should take the offer, but she knew Wallach wouldn’t hurt her. That was the only certainty she had as the two of them rose from the table. She nodded to Morglint, intent on finding him after, before scurrying after the head servant.

A hallway stretched before them, lit by lamps that fluttered and buzzed as they passed, far brighter than any torchlight. The light hurt Azzy’s eyes if she looked directly at them. Plush carpeting absorbed the weight of her steps, turning her into a wraith haunting the lord’s hall. She trailed her fingertips along the cream-white walls, a physical reminder the house around her was real. This was real. Cherise paused outside a deep reddish-brown wooden door that matched the color and polish of the floor.

“I’ll be in the servants’ dining quarters if you need anything,” Cherise said. She drifted away, and Azzy suddenly wished she hadn’t been so quick to brush off the offer of company. The knowledge of safety didn’t lessen the imposing presence of Wallach; a great, terrible presence, one the whispering voices in her mind acknowledged when they first met in the woods, but her desperation and fear had muted the intensity. She swore she could sense him beyond the barrier of the door, wondering if the closed walls of the house magnified the potency of his presence.

Azzy was stalling. She knew what he would ask of her—what he had to ask of her. The truth of it sat bitter in her mouth. I lied to enter this house. Had it been a full lie? Was it a lie when she meant every word? She wanted to help the Witch of the Wood, but she wanted many things, and she had little idea of how to achieve them.

The door swung open. Azzy startled, her gaze locked with Wallach’s as he frowned down at her. She was close enough to follow the long seam of his mouth, partially concealed by facial hair. She wondered what purpose it served, irritated when she realized she waited for the whispers in her head to provide the answer, and worried when they didn’t.

“What were you waiting for?”

Azzy focused on his words. There would be time to mull over the consistently inconsistent muttering in her head later. “I was thinking.”

Wallach leaned back against the door frame, crossing his arms. The movement pulled the suit jacket he wore tight against the breadth of his shoulders. “What were you thinking of?”

Azzy fidgeted, tapping the feather in her sleeve against her forearm, the physical reminder of her purpose here enough to make her press on, though she couldn’t look the lord of Avergard in the eye. Instead, she stared at the jeweled pin on the lapel of his jacket. “I know that I can’t answer your question.“

Wallach went utterly still, but his presence coiled around him, a trap set to spring. “What question would that be?” His tone was deceptively light.

“How I will help you save the witch.” Azzy braced herself as all that pent-up energy that surrounded Wallach coalesced, a physical tension of a blade to the neck, poised to dig in.

The whispers kicked up at the sour hint of fear. He wouldn’t hurt her. Wallach sucked in a breath and the tension popped, the void of so much energy enough to make her stagger. He caught her and steered her inside, setting her down in the receiving chair that faced his desk. Wallach’s steps were slow as he circled around, bracing himself on the desk through great gusting breaths as he fought for control. He composed himself faster than she expected, settling across from her in a winged high-back chair that rose like a shadow behind him.

“This foresight, is this how your magic works?” He rested his steepled hands against his chin.

“I don’t—” The denial died on her lips. She’d denied the presence of magic for so long, it came as second-nature, but she had to have something, even if her understanding of it was paltry at best. She knew it was more than gut instincts and luck. That she’d convinced herself the whispers were a benign effect for so long was her own willful ignorance. The truth was worse. “I don’t know.” Her voice wavered. It hurt to draw breath, the vise of shame and embarrassment a crushing stone on her chest as she spoke. “I don’t know how it works. I…I didn’t think it was magic. I don’t know how to use it.”

“But you knew who I was,” said Wallach, tapping his gloved fingers against his bottom lip. “You called me by name. By title.”

“Yes, and no,” said Azzy. “I knew…pieces, an incomplete story. I can’t—” She pressed her lips tight, biting the insides of her cheeks until she tasted blood in her mouth. “There’s nothing now.” The whispers remained silent, gave her nothing as Wallach watched her.

“Azure,” he said, but the stone grew ever larger until she couldn’t breathe. “Azzy!”

She choked out the words. “I’m sorry.”

“You were so confident when you approached me. You took my hand without fear. What happened between then and now?”

“I’m not afraid of you,” she said. Her words rang true. She didn’t fear Wallach, but she was in a panic, unable to explain the stifling weight that bore down on her.

“You’re afraid of something,” said Wallach.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Azzy. There it was: the core of her dilemma. She’d made it this far with a single goal in mind—to reach her brother—but that focus had changed, shifted, with each loss.