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.
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.
Wallach’s jaw flexed. “Why are you here? I know it’s not for Safiya. You were as shocked by her capture as I, but I don’t think you are here by chance. You were leaving that caravan when I encountered you, yet you came here willingly.”
The words welled up against her lips. Did she dare tell him? Did she trust him? It was different, admitting her own ignorance of her magic, something she couldn’t hide from him. What could she tell him but the truth? How could she gain his confidence if she lied now? She needed his trust, the safety of Wallach’s domain if she were to have a chance.
“I came here for my brother,” said Azzy. “He was brought here by Snatchers.”
Wallach’s lip curled in distaste. “Yes, aside from your rather unusual companion Morglint, the Snatchers willfully ignore set laws when it comes to acquiring their merchandise. If the auctions weren’t so successful, the restrictions would be easier to enforce.” Wallach sighed as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What region were you taken from?”
Saliva filled her mouth. A chill pervaded through the overwhelming warmth, cooling the sweat on her skin until she shivered. This echoed the assumption his servant, Petyr, made. From what Azzy had gleaned, she thought those cast out from the Below regularly wound up in the city, but something about Wallach and his servants made her wonder. What was she missing? For the first time since their conversation began, the whispers fluttered, but their inaudible words failed to give her a direction or warning.
“We came from Haven. From Below.”
Wallach jerked as if she’d struck him. “That’s not possible.”
Her mouth filled with dust. Azzy licked her lips. “There were rumors, the Snatchers took those who were cast out by the Elders. I didn’t know it was true, that they were real, until we—I followed Armin into the Above.”
Wallach clasped his hands together. “It is an ill-kept secret the Snatchers often acquire the castouts among the territories, but not from the underground. Were you taken together?”
“He wasn’t in the same caravan you bought me from,” said Azzy. She stared at him. She didn’t need the aid of the whispers to deduce that her brother’s abduction wasn’t a fluke, or a random occurrence for the Snatchers. They took not one but three people in one go: her brother, her guardian, and the infected Bethel—ready with rope and chain, and leashed wolves in the shape of men to chase down those who fled. Azzy remembered those terrible whispers as she stood across from Windham, and heard the cries of those weeping ghosts, the ones he’d sold to fill his coin purse. Did Wallach honestly believe the Snatchers didn’t have a frequent supply of ‘goods’ from the Below? The idea unsettled her more than if he had lied about it.
“What happened?” His question pulled her from her tangled thoughts.
“I ran. And I lost the one who came with me,” said Azzy, unable to speak her guardian’s name. Her heart ached as she wondered what happened to him. Had he survived the journey with her brother? Had he lived past the moment she ran? When she glimpsed her brother through the crowded streets, she hadn’t seen her wayward guardian.
“You were alone?”
She nodded, trying to stifle the lingering pain of her loss. She couldn’t think of that, not now, not when she had to make it through this first hurdle. One task at a time, Azzy.
Wallach’s lips parted, an unconscious moment of shock that revealed the full seam of his mouth. “How did you survive?”
“I wasn’t alone for long,” she said. Moisture gathered on her lashes. “There were others who helped me get here, including Safiya.” She brushed a finger beneath her colorless eye, where her skin was dry despite the press of grief.
“When we met, I sensed the touch of other magics on you,” said Wallach. “Some almost familiar. She truly helped you?”
“Yes.” For a price, though at the glimpse of longing in Wallach’s eye Azzy kept the witch’s mercenary side to herself.
He rubbed his thumb along his bottom lip, a markedly nervous gesture. “What is it like, your Haven?”
“It’s a dying city,” said Azzy. “Probably a dead city now.”
The color drained from Wallach’s face. “What?”
“There was never enough food, never enough medicine, and the Rot, the Rot festered at its core.” Azzy’s fingers curled at the surge of memory. What she left in Haven was bad, and nothing compared to Caletum, which invaded her nightmares, but his reaction surprised her as if he expected a different answer.
Wallach surged to his feet. “I’m afraid I must send you off for the night. Cherise will escort you back to your room.”
The abrupt ending of their conversation left a note of unease between them.
“I’m sorry,” she said, the words inadequate for what she needed to convey. “I didn’t want to lie. I will help however I can.”
The lord sighed through his nose. “Self-preservation is a difficult path to navigate in our world, Azzy. You are safe here. Rest, and we will discuss this further in the morning.”
Azzy searched his face, trying to glean the truth of his assurances. Frustration pricked at the silence in her head. “Thank you.”
She found Cherise waiting for her at the dining table with a steaming cup beside her.
“Before I lead you to your bed for the night, drink this,” said the woman of smoke. “I promise it’s not poison.”
“It would be a waste of Wallach’s coin to poison me now,” said Azzy, though she hesitated to take a sip. The dark, fragrant liquid had another unfamiliar scent.
“The tea will help you sleep,” said Cherise, “I added a touch of honey.”
The warm liquid held a touch of bitterness under the cloying sweetness that coated her mouth, at odds with the floral scent that wafted from the cup. She decided she liked it more than the wine served at dinner.
“I promised Morglint I would visit tonight,” said Azzy.
“The garden will be there tomorrow,” said Cherise, her voice gentle. “You look ready to drop.”
Did she? She’d pushed and pushed herself for so long, she wondered if she now recognized her own physical limits. Azzy glanced down. The liquid in her cup shivered with the fine tremor in her hands. When was the last time she slept free of fear and pain? When had she given her body the chance to rest without straining it to the breaking point? Until she woke in Morglint’s tent, her journey was one long endless run, her lungs burning for a breath she never drew. She could feel the toll on her body, the bone-deep ache in each step, but she dreaded lying down in a bed with nothing but her ghosts for company.
“I just want to say goodnight,” she said.
“We can do that.”
Azzy ignored her shaking hands and sipped the tea. The lamps in this room flickered with natural flame, a few of the bracketed candles extinguished so that Cherise was a looming, wavering shade beside her.
“Why is this room so dark?”
“Hmm, Petyr’s uncomfortable with the electricity,” said Cherise. “Says it makes his teeth itch.”
Cherise straightened in her chair. “But that’s—what region are you from?”
“I’m done with my tea,” said Azzy. She presented the empty cup, unwilling to enter another conversation concerning her origins. There had to be plenty of people in this city from Below, not just forced here by the Snatchers. The Foragers must have come here, or others. Wallach’s incredulity unsettled her.
Cherise tried to wait her out, but years of dealing with Elder Prast perfected her stone-faced expression.
“Very well. Let’s say goodnight to your friend,”
Azzy hesitated. “I could find the way on my own.” She was pushing an unspoken boundary here. Despite Wallach’s evident kindness, she was not only a stranger in this household, but also a newly acquired servant, bound by rules she wasn’t familiar with yet.
“I am certain you can, but you will not until you’ve proven trustworthy,” said Cherise. Azzy appreciated the blunt words, and the woman’s concern appeared genuine.
Azzy regretted her insistence on bidding Morglint goodnight as she trudged after Cherise. The woman of smoke glided forward as Azzy struggled to force one foot in front of the other, her legs leaden weights as exhaustion hammered at her with sudden ferocity. She leaned against the wall to catch her breath and found herself nodding off, barely able to keep her eyes open until the sensation of cool smoke drifted across her flush face.
“I didn’t expect it to hit you so hard,” said Cherise. “You’ve strained yourself more than I thought. I will apologize to the Snatcher for you.”
“He’s not a Snatcher,” insisted Azzy, her voice muddled in her own ears. “He’s a healer. He’s good.”
Cherise pressed a hand to her forehead, her touch an icy balm against Azzy’s fevered skin. “An unusual acquisition indeed.”
Azzy tumbled forward into a solid fog. A sigh stirred the fine filaments of her hair. “You’re too thin, little one,” murmured Cherise. “Far too light.” She floated on the edge of sensation in a shroud of smoke, barely aware as Cherise settled her into bed. She’d worried that sleep wouldn’t come, plagued by her ghosts, but they waited for her in her dreams.
* * *
She walked through the empty streets of Caletum, leaving a trail of footprints through the dust in her wake. The silence wrapped around her, thick and cloying. It itched against her skin, while the crawling sensation of unseen eyes pricked at her senses. The silence was absolute but for the harsh beat of her heart drumming in her ears.
Azzy stopped in the space between two buildings, their doors carelessly left open, rocking on soundless hinges. Through the shadowed crevice, she could see the ledge where the city of Caletum ended, as if sheared off by a giant blade. And in the pit, it waited.
I see you. The voice crept into her mind, an insidious whisper that wound through her skull in a serpentine fashion, seeking a way into her deepest self. You are a flame in the dark. Come to me.
Azzy dug her nails into her palms until they bit through her flesh, bloody crescents that wept red drops into the dust. Drip. Drip. Drip.
The dust wicked the blood as it fell, a growing stain that drew her eye as it began to spread in deliberate threads, an unclear image. She had to see.
The silence buckled beneath the rustle of wings.
Azzy’s head snapped up, her concentration broken as she searched for the source of the invasive sound. A name rose and caught against her closed her lips, afraid and unwilling to whisper it where the listening presence of the pit could hear.
We hear him, sweet flame. We listen. We yearn.
Azzy shuddered as the voice slid through her mind. A figure moved in the corner of her vision. She turned to see him, only for him to move out of sight once more. Her heart stuttered as a feather drifted through the dust at her feet, caught in the web of drying blood. She tracked the figure without turning her head, watching as he entered one of the empty houses.
The city began to unravel around her, the stone crumbling away with sudden deafening sound as she rushed for the doorway he had gone through. The presence of the pit leeched away as she walked through the opening, the air woolly and resistant as she pushed through before it burst into brilliant light.
Her surroundings were an unfamiliar grandeur, a labyrinthine opulence that made her certain she stood in the dwelling of a lord of Avergard. She caught the figure as he turned a corner, where the familiar flash of his jawline wrapped her chest in a vise. His magnificent wings dragged on the floor where they wept a trail of feathers that withered and faded seconds later. She longed to chase after him, though her legs were wooden and stilted, each step increasingly difficult. She ignored her surroundings, focused on his back as he led her through the house, even as the shadows began to writhe at the edges of her vision.
He ducked through another doorway. Azzy followed after him; the air shifted again. Her breath clouded the air as a stinging cold nipped at her face and bare feet. This room was an icy tomb. Her steps slowed as she entered after him, drinking in the details, committing them to memory. The floor and walls were oddly grooved, the texture distracting as she peered down at the uneven lines. Azzy crouched down, tracing her fingers through the grooves as if the room were carved out by a thousand scraping hands. She followed the tracks to their end, a hole in the center of the floor.
He stood at its edge. Azzy rose, reaching for him.
She opened her mouth in a silent scream. Warmth trickled from her nose, the taste of blood invading her mouth as the whispers surged in her skull. A riot of warnings banged against the cage of her flesh and bone.
We listen. We yearn.
Azzy dropped her hand, forcing herself to the edge. She needed to see. The icy air seized in her chest as she looked down into the gaping maw. It blasted her with the foul, chill breath of the Below. She swore she could hear the distant scrape of claws on stone.
There was a gasp at her back. Azzy spun and saw a woman gaping at her from the doorway. They stared at one another, locked in mutual shock until the woman’s face began to split down the middle. The grisly seam parted to reveal a pulsing mass of flesh. In the center of that red, wet mass, an eye flashed open. Azzy fell back a step, and her foot found nothingness.
Her body tilted, unbalanced. A scream caught in her throat as she fell. The world rocked around her as deep within the pit, and a hungry howl rose to meet her.
* * *
Azzy’s back slammed into the unyielding floorboards. She lay there, tangled in her blankets, as she gasped for breath. The chill lingered in the cold sweat coating her back and face, shivering through her bones, while the skin beneath her nose was tacky with drying blood.
The floorboards quivered beneath her body, the tremor slowly coming to a halt, but for the aftershocks. Her head ached with the echo of screams. Azzy waited for the world to settle and dug the feather out of her sleeve. Pieces of it were stuck together from her perspiration, but it was real. She wondered why it hadn’t faded like the others. Or was that a trick of the dream.
“Was it a dream?” she whispered. She turned her head.
The Maven watched her from the doorway. Through her fractured gaze, Azzy could see another face, terrible and monstrous, lurking beneath the woman’s human mask. The whispers remained silent and still, a null space in her mind, as the Maven left without a word.
She never knew there was so much green in the world. Lord Wallach’s estate was what Azzy imagined a true Haven would look like, a pocket of paradise in the middle of the city. The high walls were obscured by living trellises of flowering vines that created the illusion of endless space. Azzy sat with her knees tucked up against her chest, surrounded by a circle of flowers the same shade as fresh-spilt blood, the dark hearts reminiscent of the yawning pit from her dreams. She stroked the velvety petals, lost in thought as Morglint bustled in a patch of herbs. Green stained his skin to the elbows. He hummed an unfamiliar song as he worked. The melody soothed the shivering creature huddled inside her skin, but it was unable to banish the lingering specters from her nightmares.
Morglint plunked down his basket and settled beside her, his large hands nimbly plucking the unwanted rough bits of his harvest. She rested her head on her knees, content to watch him work, but her friend had other ideas.
“She just left?” He watched her as his hands kept moving, concern creasing his face. “Are you sure you weren’t still dreaming?”
“I was awake. And you felt the shaking too,” said Azzy. She sought him out once she trusted her legs to hold her weight. Her friend had the same idea, wandering the dark halls looking for her room while the rest of the household slept despite the tremors.
“I did,” Morglint admitted. His jaw worked. “Who was this again?”
Azzy frowned. “The Maven. She sat next to you at dinner.”
He shrugged. “Honestly, little one, I was so hungry and relieved to see you, I could have been sitting next to Wallach himself and not noticed.”
Her frown deepened. It wasn’t that Morglint dismissed what she saw, but it was as if he didn’t believe her, either. Or at least the part about the Maven. She could feel his attention slide back to his meticulous work. Azzy had trouble believing it herself; each time she tried to recall the Maven’s true face, the memory grew hazier each time. Frustration pinched at her, and worse, inside, the silence remained. “Morglint, I think something’s wrong with me,” she said.
He caught her hand as she pinched the flowers around her too hard, shredding the petal with her fingernails. “Easy, poppies are spiteful, little one,” he said. “Why do you think there is something wrong with you?”
She shook her head and rose to her feet, pacing the stone path that cut through the garden. “I don’t know,” she said. Her fingers twisted and twined with the hem of her shirt, expressing the writhing, raw nerve that spiraled inside her. “It’s just—ever since we got here—it’s too quiet in my head.”
Azzy reached up, rubbing her temples as she spoke. In the absence of the whispers, the sounds of the world filtered in too loud—too much. The distant bustle of the crowded streets with their mix of shouts and shrieks—of both fear and delight—all of it mingling with the rustling vegetation, Morglint’s movements, and the sound of her feet slapping over stone. The cacophony of sounds blended and bled into one another, overwhelming her until two large hands settled on her shoulders. Azzy looked up into Morglint’s uneven gaze.
“Breathe,” he said, his voice gentle.
She inhaled, suddenly aware of her burning lungs. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she gasped out.
Morglint released her, rubbing a hand over his jaw. “I’ve never seen anything like your magic, little one, but from what you told me, it’s the reason you’ve survived.”
“Except it’s gone,” she said. “And it isn’t.” She clenched her hands into fists as she remembered the burst of warning from her dream. “I never had to think about it or force it, but now I can’t find it.”
She fought to maintain a steady breath through the panic that beat in her veins. “I’ve spent years denying it, Morglint. I never called it magic. I don’t even know what magic is supposed to be,” she said. Not when magic was synonymous with being tainted in the world Below, something to be hidden and reviled. Pain flared through her sore palms. She’d woken to find scabbed crescents from her fingernails, where fear had carved its mark in her skin. She wondered what would have happened if the fall hadn’t woken her. What waited for her at the bottom of the pit?
“There’s something else,” said Azzy. She hadn’t told Morglint about the dream, only her eerie encounter with the Maven after. It was a private, surreal experience, one she wasn’t sure she could successfully put into words, especially when what she had seen left her equal parts terrified and confused. The gaps in her knowledge aside, she knew that pit was real, in the deep instinctual part of her brain ruled by the quivering animal that hid from the predators of the dark. “I saw my brother. In my dream.”
Her friend met her gaze and looked away. “When you were feverish and hovering at death’s door in my tent, you called his name. You muttered…constantly.” He glanced down at her. “I think you do more than see him.”
“What do you mean?”
“In the market row, there are specialty shops where some of the healers dream share. There are extracts and tonics that let them explore a patient’s subconscious mind. It looked a little like that, yet not the same.” Morglint sighed. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
“We have the same problem,” said Azzy.
“You’ve lived under threat for most of your life. It’s no wonder your magic has gone quiet. You’ve only used it while in danger.” Morglint leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. “But here, you’ve been given a moment of true respite. It’s a shock to the system. You might just need to adjust, little one. You have time to properly rest and recover here.”
The poppies brushed against her ankles. She remembered the cold, serpentine whisper, calling to her from the trench in Caletum. We yearn.
Time was not a commodity here.
Smoke billowed through the garden door. It curled off the woman in dark black plumes that telegraphed her sour mood. Azzy flinched. Disappearing from her room before dawn probably had not curried any points in her favor when the head servant had kept such a close eye on her since her arrival. Cherise was still feeling her out as the newest addition of the household.
“There you are.” Cherise drew closer. Her dark eyes darted between the two of them until she appeared satisfied they weren’t conspiring in secret. “Breakfast will be served within ten minutes.” A ripple of movement carried through the smoke as if Cherise had smoothed her concealed skirts. “Azure, Lord Wallach has requested I assess your skillset and assign you to a household task. You’ll be accompanying me to the market later.”
The prospect of stepping foot outside the walls of the estate so soon was as thrilling as it was terrifying. Her pulse jumped with anticipation. This was her chance to get a more comprehensive scope of the city without Wallach’s overwhelming presence, and to test Morglint’s theory. He wasn’t wrong; her life had been a series of swords poised over her neck, the looming threats of the Rot, of exile, of starvation. She followed Morglint to the servants’ dining room where a much more modest fare of bread and various jellies and spreads were laid out for them. The other servants were there, though the Maven was absent, much to her relief. There was an accompanying bowl of fruits, some of which she’d never seen fresh. She chose an apple because she recognized it, startled by the sweet, crisp flesh beneath the waxy skin.
If those who dwelled Below knew the bounty of the Above, she wondered, would they risk the wilds and monsters rather than huddle in their stone dens?
Azzy finished her meal fast, observing the others as they ate. Cherise maintained her shroud of smoke as she ate, the movements of her mouth hidden so that her food seemed to vanish from her plate. Azzy wondered if the head servant had control over its appearance, as it currently existed as a light gray haze, the lines of her body vague but semi-visible. Her auditor didn’t keep her waiting long, leading Azzy out the door as the ninth hour chimed from the ornate standing clock in Lord Wallach’s front hall.
A long stretch of gravel road fed from the house to the main, stone-paved street. The front green possessed the same well-maintained growth and scattered pathways as the interior garden, soaking the air in a fragrant floral perfume that masked the reek and refuse of the surrounding city. A true sanctuary, one Azzy was hesitant to leave so soon, but she needed to carve out a niche for herself in this house, in this city, if she hoped to save her family.
“What happened this morning?” Cherise’s voice dragged her from her anxious thoughts.
“A nightmare,” said Azzy. It was a simple truth and explained why she sought out Morglint. “I woke up to the ground shaking.”
“I’m surprised you felt that,” said Cherise, stretching her body. “The others slept through it.”
“Except for the Maven,” said Azzy.
“What was that?” Cherise held open the front gate as Azzy stepped into the living stream of the city street. She forgot the woman’s question as her senses were assaulted by the alluring mix of foul and fair. Raw, butchered animals spun from strings of thick twine, while women fluttered from stall to stall in elaborate, brightly colored dresses, collecting hunks of bloody meat in neat brown parcel packages. The muck strewn alleys, choked with waste, were offset by displays of uncut jewels that flashed in the sun. There were tables full of intricate hand-crafted wares where the merchants bellowed and shouted over one another to get the attention of passing patrons. The hint of putrefaction lingered beneath the mouth-watering scents of spit roasted meat and sweet sticky treats. Azzy absorbed it all, her wide eyes still watering from the glare of the searing morning sun. It was far too much after a lifetime of grimy street lanterns and dark tunnels in rock. She hugged herself, trying to contain her heart as it pounded against her ribs, like a fist that knocked on the back of her bones. Azzy longed to flee back to the confines of her room and bury her head beneath the blankets until the world stopped being so bright and loud.
The quill of her hidden feather lightly scratched against her forearm as she clutched her elbows. Azzy closed her eyes, focusing on the sensation. She could not run. She had to do this.
An arm settled around her shoulders, cool smoke curling against her cheek. “It’s a tad overwhelming at first,” said Cherise. “Do you need a moment to adjust?”
“I’m fine,” said Azzy. And she was. The feather wasn’t merely a reminder of why she was here, it was a connection to Armin, somewhere in this city, as concrete as the string she once wrapped around his finger. She would find him.
The corners of Cherise’s eyes crinkled in the smoke. “Excellent control of your senses,” said the head servant. “Now, let’s see what you can see.”
She propelled them forward into the thick of Market Row, the main thoroughfare that Morglint told her stretched the entire length of the city, chock-full of merchants and traders with every ware in existence. He had insisted one could find anything among the sprawl of stalls and booths, for a price. Tucked beyond the stalls were established shops, a clear path to their doors no matter how crowded the area as if it were an unspoken rule of the market. Her curiosity burned to explore those hidden interiors, wondering if she could find one of the healers who read dreams that Morglint told her about, but there was no chance of that now.
Azzy didn’t know what Wallach told his head servant about her, but as she strolled over the stone streets in the fresh boots Cherise fitted her with, she began to pick up on the undercurrents of the churning crowds. Women hovered at the edges, posed at alley mouths, their sinuous bodies clad in threadbare silk and worn velvet. They watched the passing stream of people with hungry eyes, while their skirts billowed in odd places, the mark of their transformation concealed by voluminous layers of fabric.
Children darted through the mass, slipping dirty fingers into pockets and purses, grinning with too-sharp teeth. One strayed close to Cherise, blinking up at the woman with two sets of eyelids as her wreath of smoke thickened into a contained, impenetrable black mass, a clear warning. The street urchin concluded the head servant too difficult a mark, wandering over to a woman in a violet silk gown. Azzy watched as the child dipped a hand into the folds of her skirts, only to jerk back with a squeal and bloody fingers. The woman in violet grinned as her skirts writhed, a hint of extra appendages peeking out from beneath the hem.
Azzy moved forward, intent on intercepting the child before they came to further harm. Cherise caught her by the arm and yanked her close as the other woman’s gaze slid over her. The woman in violet tilted her head, scenting the air with a frown as the head servant steered Azzy away from her.
“Wallach was right. You’re far too empathetic,” murmured Cherise.
“But the child—” Azzy whispered.
“Will be fine,” said Cherise, her tone patient but stern. “If you want to survive here, don’t draw attention to yourself, ever.” The head servant glanced back to make sure they weren’t followed, her grip too tight on Azzy’s upper arms for a mere word of warning.
“Did you draw attention?”
“Far too much of it,” said Cherise. “Come, the kitchen spices need to be restocked, and I need to see if you have a knack for haggling.”
“I don’t,” Azzy said. She pressed a hand to the hidden feather to distract herself from the sharp pang of loss. Brixby was the one who had the skill for bartering. Her chest was too tight. She wiped away the tears that gathered in the corner of her eye. Between the search for her brother and her separation from Kai, she hadn’t processed the loss of her guardian. If he had survived the journey to the city, she didn’t even know where to begin looking for him.
Azzy startled as Cherise’s cool fingers carefully brushed a stray tear from her cheek. “We’ve all lost someone to the cruelties of this world, even my lord. The pain will ease in time,” she said.
Contrary to her own warning of empathy, it was clear Lord Wallach’s head servant cared for her charges. Azzy kept close to the lady of smoke as they entered a pungent corner of the open market. Herbs hung in drying bundles, while ground spices sat out in piles atop wax-sealed cloth where customers scooped portions into pouches and glass bottles.
“Wait here,” said Cherise, smoothing a hand down Azzy’s arm. “I’ll talk to the seller, see if we can cut a deal on the salt.”
Azzy wandered closer to the piles of various spices, teased by a dozen scents she’d never experienced, wondering what flavor each created as she read the handwritten labels, rolling the unfamiliar words over her tongue.
Awareness prickled at the nape of her neck. Azzy looked up to find a boy watching her from the far end of the stall. His golden-brown eyes were too large for his face. It gave him the appearance of innocence, enhanced by the dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose. The effect was ruined by the feral gleam in his eyes, bordering on violence. Her gaze dropped to the familiar ugly collar that gouged the tender skin of his neck. The sight of it filled her with loathing while serving as a reminder of what she’d lost. She caught his gaze again and went still, his pupils blown wide the longer he stared at her until the black nearly eclipsed his iris. He lifted his hand and pointed. She followed the direction of his gesture—the enshrouded figure of Cherise.
The smoke around Cherise was soot black, streaked with even darker inky patches that pulsed, in a visualization of her fear. The head servant backed away from the spice booth, her usual grace absent as she stumbled and scuttled, seemingly unaware of the dead-end alley at her back. A figure peeled off from the crowd, following her with unhurried steps. A predator in a well-tailored, dark blue suit, he flowed forward, his movements punctuated by the silver-tipped cane that cracked like thunder each time it struck the stones. None of the other patrons paid any attention to the two, either oblivious or consciously turning a blind eye to a lord of Avergard stalking his prey.
Cherise backed further into the narrow alley between a tannery and butcher. Azzy stood there, paralyzed by uncertainty. She could almost see the power wafting off of him, not as potent as Lord Wallach’s, but daunting. A flicker appeared at the corner of her vision, tantalizingly out of sight, but when she shook her head she could see how it flared off him, eager golden flames that trailed from him in shimmering ribbons of heat. Cherise backed against a wall, her smoky cover evaporating as he bore down on her, revealing the frightened lines of her scarred face. He reached for her with a gloved hand, fingers curled like leather-clad talons.
The whispers stirred, muting the sounds and sights of the market as her vision tunneled on the advancing lord. Her altered eye pulsed, her vision suddenly alight as the lord’s magic shifted into tangible threads of fire. Azzy rushed forward as pieces of information filtered into her mind, her anger mounting as she drew up beside them. He had pinned Cherise there, snared by fear and magic, with a familiarity that spoke to the scars on her beautiful face. The smile he wore was all cold cruelty as his magic wound around her throat like a noose. Azzy sucked in a breath. Through the lens of her altered eye, Azzy could see the snare of his magic, the fibrous texture encased in a harsh luminescence, writhing like a tangible living creature of fire and thread. She could see the connective tissues of his magic; the whispers intensified as she dug her fingers into the weave and tore it wide open.
The lord stumbled away with a hoarse shout, too stunned at first to react before anger twisted his face into a monstrous visage. “What did you do to me, you vile—”
The boy suddenly appeared, shoving his slim body in front of the lord to snarl up at his face.
“That’s enough, Howl,” he spat, but the boy crouched in front of Azzy and hissed. She saw the lord’s leg cock back and yanked the boy, Howl, out of range of the kick. She held him tight against her chest. His small body was ablaze with heat; he hissed and snapped his teeth at the lord, whose face purpled with rage as he bore down on them.
“I believe that is quite enough, Lord Brusker,” said Wallach. Azzy stiffened. Where had Wallach even come from? But if Azzy was startled by his appearance, Lord Brusker looked downright horrified.
“Lord Wallach,” he said, his voice far too high to be sincere. “I didn’t realize she was one of yours.” Brusker only acknowledged Azzy as he spoke, careful to keep his gaze away from Cherise.
Wallach clasped his gloved hands in front of him. “Is that so? Then, I must inform you they are all of my house,” he said pointedly.
Brusker reared back, his gaze darting nervously to the crowd. “But the boy—”
“Is fitting compensation for the harassment of my servants,” said Wallach. “Unless you’d like to settle this slight in the House of Lords?”
Brusker went pale and vigorously shook his head. “No, you are quite right. Please accept my apologies.” He gave Wallach a final bow, shooting a glare at Azzy before he disappeared into the milling market crowd.
Wallach sighed through his nose. “I feel the market has grown tiresome today, ladies. Why don’t you head home?” Cherise murmured agreement. Azzy still didn’t know how Wallach arrived so quickly until she saw Petyr hovering nearby. The young man nodded at some unseen cue from Wallach. Azzy gaped as he peeled off his stained gloves with a grimace, revealing the raw torn skin of his hands. She saw the reason for his wounds as his fingers twisted through unseen seams and ripped a hole in the air. Wallach ducked through the tear as Petyr slid his gloves back on. The air sealed itself as the young man followed his master.
Azzy turned back to Cherise, the boy still clutched in her arms. She released him, wondering if he would run away now that his master had abandoned him, but he remained, hovering by her side. Cherise gaped at her as fresh smoke rose off her skin.
“What are you?”
Azzy winced. “Did he hurt you?” She left the words ‘this time’ unspoken.
“You broke his magic,” Cherise breathed, sagging back against the wall. “Snapped it like kindling.”
Azzy swallowed around the pinch in her throat. “I didn’t—I don’t know…” Her voice drained to a whisper. She didn’t know what to say, unsettled by her own actions. In the moment, the solution had appeared so simple, clean, and absolute. Her fingers were numb where she touched his magic, the skin faintly pink as if burned.
“I’ve never seen that kind of magic before,” said Cherise.
Unease dug icy claws into Azzy’s shoulders, leaving her chilled in the shadows of the alley. The city was brimming with men and women twisted by hundreds of variations of magic. She couldn’t be such an oddity. “Who was he?”
Cherise licked her lips, still visible through the fresh vent of smoke. “Lord Brusker. You shouldn’t have done that, Azure. He’ll be gunning for you now. As you saw, not even Lord Wallach’s reputation will protect you.” The grim line of her mouth spoke volumes.
“Why wasn’t he punished?”
The lady of smoke stiffened at the question, poised to snap and retreat to lick her wounds in her personal shroud. Instead, the smoke remained a light haze as she traced the scar that slashed her face, the bitterness shifting into a deep sadness that hurt to observe.
“He was,” said Cherise. “He paid a fine to the madame of the carnal house. But she had no use for damaged goods, and I declined her generous offer to be sold to one of the less discerning houses.” The smoke coalesced, obscuring her once more. “Wallach found me wandering the gutters along the Way of Heavenly Delights.”
Morglint had mentioned the name in passing during their journey to Lord Wallach’s estate. “What is that?”
“The pleasure district of Avergard,” said Cherise, her words bitten off as if she spat them from her mouth. “Carnal houses, gambling dens, fighting pits; every foul fetish and devious delight under the sun resides there. It’s where the lords of Avergard come to play, and the law has little presence. The Snatchers take those who fail to sell at auction to its Flesh Markets.”
Azzy shivered at the description. The Heap had no carnal houses, though there were plenty who bartered their bodies for whatever goods they could secure. Azzy truly couldn’t imagine the misery wrought by an entire district built for such exchanges.
“Count your blessings that our Lord found you first,” said Cherise. “That place chews through beautiful, bright, young things. Nothing but nightmares are found there.”
Cherise could have been a wraith of her own past, a ghost of smoke and scars, marred by cruel hands and crueler masters, but she’d been given sanctuary in Wallach’s house, same as Azzy.
She offered the woman a hand. “Come on, let’s go home.” The word fell flat in her mouth, but it was enough for now.
“He did say to return, didn’t he?” Cherise sighed. “Bother him, he’s too bloody high handed.” She jerked back as she realized the boy had waited patiently nearby through their whole conversation. “Who’s this?”
“Brusker called him Howl,” said Azzy. “I think Wallach claimed him as recompense.”
Cherise raised a brow as Howl leaned against Azzy’s arm. “I think he claimed you as well.” The head servant blew out a breath, her features harder and harder to discern as the smoke shaded around her. “There’s nothing for it. Let’s get some food in him.” She offered her arm. Azzy wondered if she should offer her own to the boy, but he stuck to her like a burr as they moved.
Cherise kept a grip on her arm as they retreated toward the shelter of Wallach’s estate. The gates where in sight when a tug in the pit of her stomach demanded her attention. Azzy’s unfocused gaze shifted to one of the many branching avenues that peeled off the main row.
“What’s down there?”
The lady of smoke shuddered. “I told you. Nightmares.”