Free stories: In Morningstar’s Shadow

I originally made this set of stories available as a preorder reward for The House of Shattered Wings. Now you can read them for free!

The Dominion of the Fallen Reading Order (Novels Only)

Book 1. The House of Shattered Wings | Book 2. The House of Binding Thorns

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Or read below. Direct access to individual stories:

1. The Face of Heaven (House Silverspires, Ile de la Cité, 1917, during the Great Houses War)
2. Paid Debts (Houseless areas near Galeries Lafayette, 1925)
3. What Has to Be Done (House Silverspires, Ile de la Cité, 1958)

Liked this? Want more? You will (of course) find out more about the Great War, House Silverspires, House Hawthorn, Morningstar, Philippe, Emmanuelle, Selene, and many other characters in the full novel, The House of Shattered Wings, out now from Roc (US), and Gollancz (UK/Commonwealth).

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Cover art: Tade Thompson. Cover layout: Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein. Ebook layout: er, that’d be me I’m afraid, no one else to blame 🙂

 

IN MORNINGSTAR’S SHADOW
By Aliette de Bodard

 

1. The Face of Heaven (House Silverspires, Ile de la Cité 1917, during the Great Houses War)

If one was dedicated, and silent, and watchful, one could learn to see angels again.

Elisabeth had remained in her small attic for more than three years–sitting under the wooden rafters with the dust of things that were no longer used; stretching down to lie at night between two towering heaps of boxes, enclosed and reassured by their solidity. Footmen brought her meals and took them away; and sometimes dependents of the House came, to make small talk, though most got uncomfortable and left, running out of words as if some spring within them had been exhausted. They seldom came back a second time. Elizabeth didn’t mind.

Out there was nothing. Out there was death and dust; the distant sound of battle, the turmoil of spells hurled between dwindling armies; the war that was tearing Paris apart, pulling down buildings, covering everything in ash and dust until the sun was a distant memory. Out there was–no, Elisabeth would not think of the bones and decaying flesh–not of sightless eyes in the gravel of the Jardins du Luxembourg–of lifeless flesh, cooling down past any ability to heal–

She would not. She rose and went to the telescope, pulling open the window. It was night, and the sound of the fighting was distant; receding from Ile de la Cité–towards Solférino or Samothrace, more minor Houses in the hierarchy of the city. Morningstar would have said she was safe; that she was in his House; in Silverspires, the oldest one, the most powerful; and that the war wouldn’t touch her. Elisabeth–who had stood on the gravel with her hands bloodied and torn, and watched her old life vanish– knew it was a lie.

Above her, the sky was dark–no moon, no stars anymore, the pall of spell-residue drowning out everything. Once, there had been an astronomer–the previous owner of the telescope, the angel-watcher, old Arsène. He’d died in one of the earlier skirmishes, and never been replaced; for who would look to the skies to find newborn Fallen, at a time when nothing could be seen?

Elisabeth knew otherwise. Kneeling by the telescope, she unwrapped the small mother-of-pearl box she’d brought with her–feeling the heat of power trembling in the air: a Fallen’s nail-clipping set in amber and sealed within the box, a source of magic for any witch strong enough to use it. Elisabeth wasn’t a good witch; but one didn’t need to be very good.

Power slid down into her stomach like burning honey–thick and turgid and scorching her insides like a thousand fires, leaving a trail of pain down her throat as if she’d swallowed the sun. She stood, for a moment–sated and brittle, and feeling as though the least of her gestures would irretrievably shatter the world–and then bent down again, to look through the eyepiece.

Everything shone, now–the sky a mass of moving lights that might have been moons, that might have been stars–and above the rooftops of the House was the shadow of buildings, blurred vertical shapes that seemed to go on and on forever–and a sound, a music that was so beautiful it tore her heart into bloody shreds–were they here, too, Marie-Aimée and Françoise, in the City of Heaven–in that endless dance of lights, that beautiful and terrible music–were they at peace, without pain?

If Elisabeth closed her eyes, she would see her children again–Marie-Aimée running towards her younger sister, in the instant before the spell shattered her legs–Françoise screaming, a thin and reedy and almost unreal, a fraction of a second before she was engulfed–before Elisabeth ran, her hands plunging into the maelstrom, trying to grasp something, anything–a hand, a finger-bone, a mote of dust–the spell, flaying her skin as it expanded–and then contracted again, leaving only two small, pathetic bodies in a puddle of blood–and Elisabeth, shaking, trying to voice something, anything that wouldn’t be a scream towards Heaven…

She watched the lights now; tried to discern a pattern to their rhythms; something that would unlock their secrets; that would tell her when one would fall towards Earth–that fiery descent when an angel became a Fallen: still ageless, still immortal and effortlessly graceful; but forever exiled, their wings torn away, their magic turning dark and angry and bitter.

But, caught within the intricate, heartbreaking beauty of their dance–as always–she forgot to think; and merely stood there, open-mouthed–remembering Marie-Aimée and her gap-toothed smile, Françoise and her painstakingly mended doll, the one she’d called “Lion” because it had once a mane of golden hair–heedless of the other children’s mockeries that the name wasn’t a girl’s one–the doll was gone now, but she wouldn’t think about that–think, instead, on Françoise’s hunger for books, on Marie-Aimée’s obstinate climbing of sofas and chairs as if to flee from an oncoming flood–happier days, shot through with that music, the sound of hundreds, of thousands of voices raised in song–of such pure, incandescent happiness that she almost couldn’t bear it–where was justice, where was fairness, in a world where Elisabeth could reach such beauty, and yet her children were forever gone?

She came to with a start. Night had well and truly fallen; the House lay silent; and the power within her had sunk low, like embers in a fireplace–everything was oddly distorted; oddly plain; oddly commonplace: tatters of an overcrowded life, the distant sound of the war’s thunder. She looked through the telescope, and saw nothing but darkness spread across the sky; and no light or stars that she could follow.

Footsteps on the stairs: her evening meal, no doubt–coming late as always, after the House’s increasingly threadbare feasts were over, and the kitchens could send her warmed leftovers. She didn’t feel hungry–and not ill either; just full, as if the angel magic had been what she’d fed on. But it would have been churlish to refuse the meal. “Over here,” she said, when the footsteps faltered–they’d sent her one of the new boys again, to do the jobs no one wanted. “At the back.”

The footsteps stopped; but even before they did she knew that something was wrong.

There was light–not the quiet radiance of sunlight underwater; but that of a wildfire, casting shadows like monsters on the walls; and a growing pressure in the air, a sense of something huge and fearful–a desire to throw herself on the ground, to kneel and beg for mercy–or to stand up, to be seized and forever reshaped by the magic churning in the air; groomed and honed to be a beloved treasure, a beloved weapon–to be taken, just as Marie-Aimée and Françoise had been taken….

Shivering, nauseous, Elisabeth caught herself halfway to the floor, and turned her collapse into a formal bow. “My lord,” she whispered.

In front of her, Morningstar smiled. “Elisabeth. I wondered how you were faring, up here with only the birds for company.” He was tall, impossibly so–fair-haired, his hair so pale it seemed as though he was crowned with light–and at his back were the two serrated wings that he always wore in the House: the metal weapons, forged especially for him, that acted as a reminder that he was first, and strongest among all the Fallen in Paris.

“My lord,” she said, stubbornly. “It’s kind of you to come here.” He was head of House Silverspires; he must have had dozens, hundreds of more important things to do, even late at night.

Morningstar smiled again; and she fought the urge to smile in return; to let a flood of unadulterated joy take her until she could barely think or move on her own volition. First Fallen–the oldest; the most thoughtlessly, carelessly powerful. “They tell me you still watch the skies.”

“My lord.”

“No one has been able to predict a Fall in years.” Morningstar’s voice was soft. “New Fallen are born and die in the darkness before we can even reach them.”

Newborn Fallen–so close to the City they’d been exiled from, so close to the presence of God–radiated a power that would scorch everything. They were also incapable of using such a power; young and naive and bewildered, infants in a place which had no place for helplessness–which was why Houses fought to be able to reach them, to save them before they were lost either to death; or worse, to other Houses.

“I can see them,” Elisabeth said, at last. If she kept her gaze fixed on the floor; if she didn’t move, didn’t breathe, it wouldn’t be so bad. “Dancing in the night.”

“The angels?” Morningstar’s voice was soft, tinged with the barest hint of bitterness. It was said that, alone of all Fallen, he remembered the City of Heaven; remembered what had brought him down to Earth–the source of his undiminished power, they said; though it might simply be that he was beyond most Fallen as a Fallen was beyond mortals.

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. He moved past her, to stand before the telescope; bent, the wings scraping the boxes, leaving deep gouges in the dust-covered wood. “Just darkness,” he said.

“You need–” Elisabeth spread her hands, unsure of how to explain. “Magic. And patience. ” He had magic–so much it was all she could do to breathe; to move in his presence. “You need to see,” she said, at last.

“Will you show me?”

At first, Elisabeth wasn’t sure what he was asking; and then she saw the outstretched hand, in which power swirled like a storm; the same spells that had taken Marie-Aimée, that had taken Françoise. “I can’t–” she started, shivering; but did she have a choice, really? He was head of her House; and though Silverspires stood by its own, he could still take her apart if he so chose.

Morningstar laughed; something low and primal that seemed to vibrate in her ribs–wrapping itself around her like a blazing fist around her heart. “So afraid of power? If you don’t seize hold of what life gives you, you’ll remain all your life in your attic.”

There were worse things, she wanted to say, but the words shrivelled in her throat; were pushed down by the sound of his laughter–even Marie-Aimée and Françoise seemed so far away, their faces pale and featureless compared to the fire pressing against her. “Come,” Morningstar said; and, reaching out, she took his hand, and let him draw her closer to the telescope.

There was…. light; fire; pain. The world shrunk–became Morningstar’s face; the chilling blue of his eyes, which was the blue of the Heavens in summer, in a season Paris didn’t, couldn’t remember in the endless years of the war–became the shadow of wings, sharp and cutting, the essence of blades–everything was sharp, with a smell she couldn’t place, a sour thing that reminded her of churches left unopened for too long, mould and incense and the remnants of dust. There was a high-pitched, keening sound; and she realised it was coming out of her own lungs, that she was struggling to remain upright, to gather muscles that seemed to have been turned to jelly…

“Ride it,” Morningstar whispered; and his voice tore at her ears like knives. “Ride it!”

She couldn’t–she couldn’t–it was his hand, pulling her down, his fingers as sharp as claws; his arms, encircling her, guiding her until she was looking through the eyepiece–until the blue, and the wings, and the smell of incense, faded–and she was looking, once more, at the heartbreaking lights of the sky. Except that–except that they still pulled at her, with a longing that was bitter, almost angry–a deep-seated, inexorable knowledge that, for her, there would be no return. Was this what Morningstar felt about Heaven? Was this his knowledge–his own fall from grace, the irrevocable loss of faith that had hurled him downwards?

“I–” Elisabeth struggled to speak, but he still held her.

“Show me.”

And, on the edge of the lights, one flickered and darkened; and its flight slowed down, no longer as effortlessly graceful–a surge of something then, within her, a mixture of satisfaction and sadness; and a sorrow so great it finally broke her, and she was on her knees with tears running down her cheeks; and then darkness rose, and swallowed her whole, just as that one light started to bank downwards…

When she came to, Elisabeth was lying on the floor. Morningstar lounged, like a sated cat, against one of the boxes–his wings had torn a hole through it, and she could see mothballed clothes, fine silk with elaborate patterns, cut through by the blades. “What–happened?” she whispered, shivering; trying to summon something, anything; a remnant of dignity–an image that wouldn’t be that lone light, detaching itself from the primal dance and inexorably growing closer to them. “Was it–”

“Real?” Morningstar shrugged. “As real as it ever will be, for your kind.” His voice was low; bitter. “You cannot comprehend what we lost.”

No, she didn’t–but he couldn’t comprehend what she had lost, either. Fallen were immortal, ageless; and sterile.  She slowly pulled herself upright. Her skin felt cold; as if ice had coalesced on it for days on end; and even hugging herself didn’t improve anything. “There is going to be a Fall,” she said.

“In three days,” Morningstar said. “July 17th. Around nine, or ten in the evening. I don’t know where exactly; somewhere in the Southwest. Probably near the House of Hawthorn.”

“We–we have to help.”

“Of course. That was the point, wasn’t it?” He smiled, but there was no amusement in that smile. His eyes had changed; they’d been hard before, but there was a sheen in them–a crack in the brilliant sapphire, a brittleness she hadn’t seen. What had happened?

They could–they could tell where the Fallen would be born. They could find them–help them–even in the middle of the war. “It changes everything.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” Morningstar said. He rose, dragging his wings behind him. “I will not do this again, I think. My apologies.”

He–he hadn’t seen what she had seen, Elisabeth knew, with cold, growing certainty. Of course Heaven wasn’t an endless dance of lights; wasn’t such a simplistic, easily understood thing. Of course… Of course she couldn’t know, couldn’t possibly have his memories; or whatever he had left from his Fall.

“I–I’m sorry,” she said; feeling small, and foolish.

“Don’t be.” Morningstar’s voice was almost gentle. “It turns out, after all, that there are some things better left alone.” He bowed to her, gravely; and moved towards the stairways leading out of the attic, the wings at his back catching the light like honed blades. “That some prices are too high to pay. Good night, Elisabeth.”

After he left, Elisabeth remained, for a while, staring at the telescope; seeing again the endless dance; her own illusion of Heaven–one that didn’t hold Marie-Aimée or Françoise, or any of the people lost in the war–again and again, that light flickering, that lone descent.

She would find a way to do it again–with one of Morningstar’s nail-clippings; with his trapped breath; with another, more willing Fallen, or whatever it took to summon the magic again.

Because she had to help newborn Fallen; because the House needed them for its own survival. And because, one day, she would see what Morningstar had seen; would gaze upon the City of Heaven, and all her cares and sorrows would be lifted from her until it would feel as though she, too, were flying among the stars, in a world where neither death nor war held sway.

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2. Paid Debts (Houseless areas near Galeries Lafayette, 1925)

Imadan wasn’t a fool, ordinarily. He knew the rules and the strictures of post-war Paris; he knew all the dangers that should be avoided. Never approach the Seine, never linger on a bridge or bend over a parapet–avoid the ruined areas like The Halles or The Grands Magasins, where the accumulation of spells had turned mindless and deadly–and, above all, never ever be caught alone, after dark, in the streets.

How did the proverb go, again? Fallen beyond a House’s walls, stripped bones when night’s blade falls.

And yet… and yet, here he was, a long way from the safety of House Silverspires–watching the dust-covered sky turn dark red with sunset, and wondering how he had come there.

It had been a simple errand; a run to House Hawthorn in the Southwest; a pleasant welcome by Lord Uphir’s dependents and his contact there, Iaris; and a meal that had gone on far too long into the afternoon–until Imadan was faced with a choice between spending the night in another House, or return to Silverspires and pray that he was back before sunset. There was no real choice: Hawhtorn was enemy territory. Even though he was a dependent of Silverspires, and his murder would have required an accounting–there were ways and means to damage someone without killing; or to cast spells that would compel obedience. No, Imadan wasn’t willing to take that risk; except that he didn’t know what they’d put in the wine or in the meat, because he couldn’t seem to find his way back; and had simply stumbled, drunk, until it all wore off and he stood in the midst of a street he barely recognised.

It was a small one, behind the ruined Galeries Lafayette–the remnants of the department’s store dome shone with the last of the light, and everything seemed silent, utterly deserted.

Imadan wasn’t fooled. He called up magic–held up, just a scrap of it, a fraction strong enough to see the silhouettes in the growing darkness; and the glint of reflected starlight on the blades.

There was nothing much about nightfall; no lessening of his magic, or granting of powers to the Houseless–merely deserted streets without witnesses or hope of help; and of course, the cover of darkness under which to move. Imadan held on to his spell; and moved slowly, smoothly. The Grands Magasins were north of Silverspires and Ile de la Cité; and the Houseless had little to no magic: magical practitioners with any talent only had to approach a House to become a dependent. Close by was House Lazarus, but, if it was a choice between Lazarus and the Houseless gangs he would take his chances with the gangs, any day. Better be killed and taken apart for the magic in his flesh and bones, than captured alive and used against his House.

He had to move south–towards Opéra Garnier and the distant House of Samothrace, veering left to turn towards Ile de la Cité–close to one hour of walking, past the ruins of Palais-Royal and the Louvre; of les Halles and Hôtel de Ville–an almost unheard-of feat.

Watch over me, he thought. He didn’t believe in God; or, more accurately, in God’s mercy, especially applied to Fallen; but he was going to need all the luck in the world to survive the night.

As he moved along rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, crossing Boulevard Haussmann, he saw the first shadows–running with the ease of those who had to fight for every scrap of food–he used a burst of magic to lend some strength to his tired muscles, and to start going faster. For a while, there was nothing but the sound of his own breath; and the shadows, easily keeping up with him–getting closer and closer, a pack of hounds harrying a wounded deer.

Running running–ahead, the dark mass of the Opéra, shimmering with the spells that had turned its walls black–and a few lights in small hovels, people shutting windows on his passage–of course, they wouldn’t be willing to take risks for him, the House-bound, the intruder… What a fool he’d been, to let Hawthorn distract him; perhaps Iaris’s hospitality had even been deliberate, meant to make him dawdle–Lord Uphir played a long, ruthless game, as befitted any head of House. One fewer dependent for Silverspires, a murder that couldn’t be traced to them, couldn’t require formal reparations…

The patter of feet on all side–people, pulling themselves from the darkness, thin silhouettes with dark, shining eyes, the Houseless, the angry–too many of them for him to take on. Nevertheless… he sent a spell towards the nearest silhouette: its clothes burst into flames, and it screamed, a thin, wailing sound like the cry of a dying child. Imadan had no pity; it was him or them. He simply released spells as he ran; people stumbled and fell and screamed, and the acrid smell of charred flesh filled the night.

Still they were after him.

Too many. Too many, and they were not deterred by the sight of their comrades dying. That was…  not good. He was winding down–he’d never been among the strongest in the House, and the race and the use of spells were exhausting him; every muscle protesting in agony.

It would be worse if they caught him.

On and on and on; running running, the breath burning in his lungs, his calves seizing up with cramps; casting spells that now did nothing more than make them stumble and curse. On and on and on–there had to be some shelter, some safety he could reach–something, anything…

There was someone, waiting for him on the plaza before the Opéra, a lonely silhouette, their arms crossed on their chest–a sight so incongruous that Imadan almost stopped, but he wasn’t such a fool–he pushed on.

Or tried to.

Something caught him at ankle level, and sent him sprawling on the debris-strewn ground–struggling to rise–struggling to breathe against air that seemed to have turned to tar. Footsteps, getting closer and closer; and Imadan was on his knees, and then pulling himself upright, just as a punch sent him sprawling again, with the sharp taste of blood in his mouth.

“Not looking so fine now, are we?”

His tormentor was an Annamite youth–a colonial who couldn’t have been more than twenty, thirty years old, his skin glistening with sweat, his eyes lit up with an odd fire–not borrowed magic, but something else, something darker, deeper, something Imadan could almost name….

The others were gathering too–turning from faceless shadows into thin, malnourished youths with the smiles of predators. “Kill him, Philippe,” a dark-haired girl said.

Imadan pulled himself upright. The flow of blood had stopped; the pain in his cheek sinking to a bearable whisper. “You have no idea what you’re doing,” he said.

Philippe’s face pulled into an inscrutable smile, like that of an Asian idol in a temple; but he said nothing.

Anger, Imadan realised. That was the fire in Philippe’s eyes, an anger so strong it seemed to burn within him–he wasn’t saying anything because he wanted no part of this, but because anger had choked all words within him. He would kill Imadan without blinking–what was he waiting for? Orders from his leader?

Imadan tested the magic within him–the distant connection to the House in Silverspires; to the broken throne of Morningstar in Notre-Dame; and the even more distant one, to a City in Heaven he had no memory of–it was a hard stone within him, with no trace of warmth; a dying ember. He was weak, and trembling; and could barely summon enough strength to stand; his legs felt light under him, fragile bones, built for flight and held together by magic. But he had to–

Had to do something, or they would carve him where he stood.

The other youth, the girl who’d already spoken, said, “We’re not stupid. Angel breath and angel flesh; and angel essence, and all that can be taken–” it sounded like a children’s litany, whispered over and over–except that it was his breath, his flesh they’d take–his body they’d cut apart for magic–and there was nothing for people like him, only a promise of Heaven so faint it might as well be a mirage.

“The House can reward you–” Imadan said–because he had to try, because he was at their mercy and had no other choice.

The girl cuffed him–sending him, again, to the ground. “We know the value of your rewards, you sterile bastard. Get him,” she said, to two of the other youths–her hands came up with a serrated knife, its blade gleaming in the dim light, and the youths moved.

Now. Or never.

As they pulled in towards him, Imadan gathered magic; all he had within him, every ounce of power he could scrounge–from taxed muscles to burning lungs, from aching, fragile bones to quivering fingers–and sent it all upwards, in one brilliant flash of radiance that tore at the night sky like fingers of lightning–sent them reeling, screaming at the pain in their eyes. Then, bunching his legs under him, Imadan started running–his lungs were cold now, feeling drained of air; and he was slow, so slow–pushing the blinded youths out of his way; and the slack, slight shape of the boy Philippe down to the ground with savage joy–and onwards, towards the distant safety of rue de l’Opéra.

No, not the large streets. He was winded, and tired; and he felt as though they’d beaten him to a bloody pulp even though they’d barely touched him. But they would run faster than him, when their vision came back in a few minutes. He needed…

He needed to hide.

Ahead was a smaller street, branching off from the crossroads–the sidewalk’s stones bulging, here and there, with the remnants of God knew what spells. He forced himself forward–expecting, at any moment, to hear the sound of pursuit, the screams of rage and the calls for revenge. So far, nothing, but he didn’t have long left.

Something, there had to be something. But there were only buildings with barred windows, and lit rooms all closed and locked against him–doors that wouldn’t open, glimpses of faces turned away from him, nothing that would save him. He needed–he needed–

Ahead of him, like salvation, the square light of a half-open door; and the pinched face of a woman staring back at him. “Please,” Imadan said, abandoning dignity and caution; and all but collapsing against the door.

The woman stared at Imadan: a youth with short-cropped hair, already hardened and appearing older than she was. “Why?”

“I’ll repay you,” Imadan whispered. He could hear the footsteps, already; could imagine them, spreading to cover the area–it wouldn’t take them long to find him, to drag him back to the killing grounds before the Opéra–to utterly extinguish him in fear and pain.. “Please,” he whispered.

The woman looked at him–her eyes hard; and didn’t move. “Never mind,” Imadan said. “I’ll just–” He’d go away, find some other place to make a last, pathetic stand; to scream the last of his defiance at them.

Footsteps, distant, and growing ever closer. “He’s gone that way!”

“Oh, Hell,” the woman swore; and shifted, so that the door opened. “Come in, you damned fool.”

Already damned, Imadan thought, but he barely had the strength to move anymore; could feel nothing but a trembling in his limbs that wouldn’t go away, the lightness of his bones, as if they’d snap at any moment–the woman pulled at him, all but throwing him inside; and, in a fraction of a second as the noises of footsteps became unbearably close, locked and bolted the door.

“Géraldine,” a man’s voice said, behind Imadan–who still stood, rooted, where Géraldine had left him–unable to do anything but watch.

“Not now,” Géraldine said, curtly. She laid her head against the door, and listened for a while. The sound of booted feet echoed in the room.

“He can’t have gone that far!” A woman’s voice; probably the girl who had led the gang.

“He was desperate. Probably found a last reserve of strength.”

In the house, Géraldine took a small box from a side drawer, and inhaled its contents–the rich, sickening smell of angel-essence filled the room, even as Géraldine’s skin shifted and changed–nothing huge; a subtle altering of texture and gloss, so that it seemed to be reflecting all the light in the room. Géraldine laid her hand on the door; and closed her eyes, muttering words Imadan couldn’t hear.

“Perhaps he’s gone on further. What if you’re wrong?”

“Have I been wrong before?”

“No.” A silence; then, “and if you ever are, I’ll tear your heart out, Philippe.”

“Of course,” Philippe’s voice was sarcastic. “How silly of me.”

Another voice, accompanied by hacking coughs. “Can’t find him. Maybe he found refuge in one of the hovels?”

Géraldine’s voice rose and fell–curiously slow, curiously soothing. Imadan couldn’t make out the words, but it made him want to curl up and sleep; to let go of whatever had propelled him this far–to…

A hand, on his arm; he wanted to jerk back, to say that no one touched a House dependent against their will; but it was merely a small, grinning man with the same kind of pinched, harsh face as Géraldine. “Don’t listen, wing-breath. She’ll blow the brains right out of your head, if you let her.” She–

Something was running, on his cheeks: Imadan raised his hand to his face, and found it wet with blood.

On the other side of the door, there was a deeper, longer silence; then Philippe’s voice: “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” the girl’s voice said, testily. “Just a little tired, that’s all. Let’s go further out.”

“As you wish.”

Géraldine remained kneeling against the door until the last footsteps had died away; and then stood, breathing deeply–composing herself. One look at Imadan, and a frown. “You look like Hell. I thought House dependents would be… swankier.”

Imadan fought an urge to laugh, or to collapse on the floor. “Are you–”

“It’s nothing,” Géraldine said, curtly “Angel-magic always comes with a price.”

The heady rush of power; that feeling she could be anything, anyone–something tempting enough, even if you were a Fallen; how much more, if you were a mortal? “I’m sorry,” Imadan said, and he was surprised to find that he meant it. Half a day ago, he wouldn’t have given Géraldine the time of day.

“It’s nothing,” Géraldine said. “Sit down. Let’s see to those bruises. You have a nasty set of them.”

“I heal fast,” Imadan said; but he let her take him by the hand, and lead him to a wooden chair; while the small man fussed around a cot. She put a drink of some kind in his hand–an alcohol that smelled as though it was going to render him blind, and gave him a chunk of bread in his other hand. He stared at them, stupidly; unable to collect his thoughts. He’d almost died. He’d–

“You can stay here for the night,” Géraldine said. “Should be easier to walk home in the morning. ”

He must have dozed off; for when he woke up the man was asleep , and Géraldine was sitting in a chair, the baby nursing at her breast. Her bright, burning eyes held him.

“Thank you,” he said at last. “You didn’t have to–”

“No.” Her voice was low, mocking. “I didn’t. I guess we’re all fools sometimes.” She didn’t move, but her gaze racked him. “You were right about healing.”

His innate magic had already started knitting his flesh back together; and the fatigue had sunk to a dull ache within him–he should have slept, but he couldn’t find a way to relax. His bones felt solid once more; the fragility slowly receding. “Have you never seen a Fallen?” he asked, at last.

Here? Of course not. Fallen never leave their Houses, or they don’t last long. As you should know.”

If he’d been smarter, or more awake, when he’d gone to the House of Hawthorn… his cheek barely hurt now, but he could still remember the taste of blood in his mouth; could still remember the fear tightening in his chest and the gleam of light on knife blades…. Outside, the night was quiet; but the gangs were still out there–distant calls and jeers echoed, in a direction he couldn’t pinpoint.

The baby made a contented noise, and shifted, nestling deeper against Géraldine’s flesh. “Which one are you?” she asked.

For a moment he couldn’t see what she meant; and then he remembered she’d never seen a Fallen; didn’t know the significance of the red and silver he wore. “Silverspires.”

“The oldest. Must be nice.”

He thought of the House; of the sprawling, ruined buildings; of the garages where Baptiste kept a fleet of cars always clean and in good repair, in spite of the soot that seemed to get everywhere; of evenings playing dice on the cobbles of the courtyard, and of the smell of fine wines and freshly baked bread, so unlike the rough alcohol and dry chunk he held in his hand. “I guess so,” he said. “A long way from here.”

Géraldine’s smile was bitter. “Of course.”

“I–” he said, feeling obscurely embarrassed. “I won’t forget.”

“Of course you will.” Géraldine shifted the baby from one breast to the other; and Imadan had to look away for decency’s sake. “It doesn’t matter.”

It should, he wanted to say, but her gaze was hard, and he didn’t have the courage to gainsay her.

He was up with the dawn; feeling rested, magic running within him like a rising tide; his movements fast, and graceful, and effortless–he could walk home now, to Silverspires; could keep the world at bay if needed be.

The hovel was silent and grey. Géraldine slept in the chair she’d been sitting in, the baby still wedged in her arms, a look of utter contentment on their face. In the rising light, he could see the child’s ribs, and the wrinkles on Géraldine’s face; the missing teeth in her mouth; the nails, trimmed short not out of choice but because they kept breaking. As Imadan moved, she shifted–and for a moment he saw her framed in the lit doorway at night; and remembered fear flooding through him; remembering muscles straining to fail, his bones on the edge of shattering, an instant before collapse…

No. No.

The chair he was sitting in was battered, one of its legs shaking under him as he rose; and there was little furniture. The house was cold, and small, and suffocating.

Imadan moved to the dresser, where he found the container Géraldine had used the night before. He exhaled, carefully, into it, and sealed his breath inside with a clumsy spell–he was no alchemist, but it would hold for long enough for her to use it, or sell it. Then, gently, carefully, he kissed the hand of the sleeping woman–breathing his magic into her lungs, into her bones, until her skin gleamed once more with reflected light, and the wrinkles had all but been smoothed out. Like the container, it wouldn’t last–not for long, but it would be long enough for her to do small spells, which would she could trade for coin or food, or whatever currency held sway among the Houseless.

At the door, he turned, one last time, to look at the hovel–at the slumped, sleeping woman and the man curled up on the bed, the hearth with only the ashes of wood in it, the empty table with the dry, sterile smell of stale bread, and the faint after-odour of mould and rotting wood.

Not his world. Never his world.

She had been right. He would forget, because he had to–because this was not him, this would never be him–this crushing, debilitating misery he couldn’t bear to think on, the memories of being hunted like an animal through ruined streets; of pain and fear, and his magic deserting him. His debt to her was paid; that would be the end of it.

“Time to move on,” he whispered; and stepped out, into streets flooded with light–to walk back to the comforting safety of his House.

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3. What Has to Be Done (House Silverspires, Ile de la Cité, 1958)

Emmanuelle woke up, still woozy with sleep; and then felt it.

It was… a yawning emptiness within her, a terrifying absence she hadn’t been aware of–like missing an arm or a limb, or her own heart within her chest.

“Selene?”

Her lover was already awake, sitting at the end of the four-poster bed. “Did you–”

“Yes,” Selene said. She shook her head; her short bob of auburn hair moved in the light of the lamps. In her gaze was the same tightness; the same fear that now filled Emmanuelle.

“The House is gone,” Emmanuelle said.

“Don’t be silly,” Selene said. She pointed at the faded wallpaper of the room, with its large peonies and birds of paradise. “We’re still here. We’re still alive.”

“But–” Emmanuelle said.

A knock, at the door. “Selene? Emmanuelle?”

It was Choérine, the old Fallen who was in charge of Silverspires’ school for the children; and behind her, Irène, who worked with Emmanuelle in the archives; Oksana, the steward of the House; and Father Methodius. Their faces were grave; Emmanuelle had never seen the four of them together.

“You’ve heard?” Oksana asked.

“Felt it.” Selene’s face was hard; revealing nothing of what she felt. But of course she was Morningstar’s apprentice–and in addition to magic he had passed on some of his harshness to her. “What happened? Did the wards fail?”

“We don’t know,” Choérine said.

“He’s gone.” Irène’s face was pale. “Completely gone. We’ve searched the grounds; sent messages–”

Morningstar. Emmanuelle’s heart sank in her chest. That was the emptiness within her; the gap that nothing could fill: the link to the House, flapping in the wind like a loose sail without the presence of a head of House to hold it all together. “He can’t be,” she said. “Did he–?”

Selene closed her eyes, for a fraction of a second. When she opened them again her gaze was as hard as jewels. “You searched his room.”

“Yes.”

“Did he leave his sword? His wings?” Morningstar slept without his wings; taking off the metal armature; laying away their wicked, serrated edges in a corner of the room. But he seldom walked without them when awake.

“No,” Father Methodius said. He was mortal, and old–unlike Emmanuelle and Selene, who were both Fallen–and he looked immensely tired. Emmanuelle wanted to hug him, and to ask him how he was; to comfort him as he comforted others in their hours of need. But it wasn’t the moment.

“I asked the servants,” Oksana said, her thin, fair face twisted with worry. “He packed a small bag, and left. The last they saw of him, he was walking towards the Petit-Pont.”

Towards the city, then; south, to Jardins du Luxembourg, and perhaps the ruins of Hell’s Toll, one of the three Houses that had disappeared during the Great Houses war.  “When was that?” Selene’s voice was still quiet–how could she–how could she keep her calm, when all Emmanuelle could feel was the hollow of Morningstar’s absence?

Emmanuelle hadn’t liked Morningstar; hadn’t worshipped or even respected him, as Selene did–she had, in fact, walked away from him and his games, discarded the old fashioned name he had given her–Indigo, a mockery of her dark skin colour, a reminder she looked different from the other Fallen. But, no matter how she felt about Morningstar, he had been there. He had always been there. He had founded the House; and it was his power that kept it together; that kept them safe; that made them the effortless leaders of the dominance games played in post-war Paris. Without him–

Without him, what would they do?

With a start, she realised the conversation was ending. Selene was frowning–she was worried, but not showing any of it to others. Oksana looked fearful; and Father Methodius just tired. Emmanuelle sidled closer to him, drawing her night robe around her–not that anyone had had any words over impropriety, it wasn’t that kind of moment, and wasn’t even that kind of House. “Are you all right?” she asked.

Father Methodius shook his head. “I’ll be fine,” he said. He laughed, bitterly. “If you had told me, a week ago, that I would be praying for his return…” He and Morningstar didn’t like each other: Morningstar had no faith, and no patience for it.

“I know what you mean,” Emmanuelle said.

“I wish I could say we’ll get over this,” Father Methodius said. “But…”

But their founder and head of House was gone; the presence around which everything revolved. Emmanuelle raised her gaze: Oksana, Choérine and Irène had moved away from Selene, looking at her expectantly–because she was Morningstar’s apprentice, because they all thought she would know what to do. In Selene’s eyes Emmanuelle read nothing but fear, and uncertainty–the same knot within her, the same tottering on the edge of the abyss.

“Are you sure about sending the messengers?” Oksana asked. “To tell the other Houses…”

“They already know,” Selene said. She shook her head. “Better to tell them we have this in hand, than risk their assuming weakness. Are there any other questions?”

They looked at her; and shook their heads, slowly and reluctantly. Selene waited until they had all cleared the door, including Father Methodius, before she closed it, and sat on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands. Emmanuelle sat behind her, wrapping her arms around her chest. “It’ll be fine,” she whispered. “Truly.”

“You don’t believe that,” Selene said.

“No,” Emmanuelle said. “But I believe in you.” And in God, though who knew if God would grant selfish prayers for survival–but there were hundreds of dependents in the House, dozens of young children and infant Fallen: was their protection not a worthy cause to pray for?

Selene laughed, curtly. “Join the queue.” And then, in a lower voice. “Sorry. It’s just–” She took a deep, trembling breath.

“Do you think he will come back?” Emmanuelle asked. It was his House, his pride; what he had founded and guided through the centuries. He couldn’t–he just couldn’t leave them like this.

“I don’t know,” Selene said, with a sigh. She leant against Emmanuelle’s chest, her grey eyes looking upwards. “He might… Oh, God, who knows. He might have grown bored with the House. He might have decided to teach us a lesson. He–”

“He’s a hard person,” Emmanuelle said–she wouldn’t lie to Selene, though she didn’t know how to give something that would comfort her–and how would she, when she herself felt shaken to her core?

Selene snorted. “A hard person to love? Of course. I–” she closed her eyes again. “I don’t know what to do.”

Emmanuelle was silent, for a while. “I don’t, either,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen–” To the House. To them–to Selene, who together with Oris was now the only remaining living apprentice of Morningstar. It would change things, whatever happened. It would stretch and pull; and break, and sunder. “I don’t know where we’ll go.”

Selene didn’t open her eyes, but her face stretched into a tired smile. “We’re going nowhere. You worry too much, Emmanuelle.”

As if Selene didn’t.

“We should get out of this room,” Emmanuelle said. Otherwise Selene would just fret and mope; and get more and more depressed–and Emmanuelle would, too, in all probability. “Why don’t we go see the wards? Unless you already sent someone to do that?” The wards were what kept them safe; what prevented other Houses from encroaching on their territory in the endless tussle for dominance that was everyday life in Paris. They were Silverspires’ boundaries–the extent to which its dependents were protected–but they were also Morningstar’s work; and who knew if spells survived the leavetaking of their maker?

Emmanuelle thought, sourly, that she wouldn’t have put it past Morningstar to ensure that nothing of the House would survive him. It was uncharitable, and uncalled for; but who knew what he had planned for? In his mind, he was ageless, immortal, and he would forever be there to guide the destiny of the House–except, of course, that everything always came to an end.

“Choérine was going to talk to Alcestis,” Selene said, with a sigh.

“Alcestis is competent,” Emmanuelle said. “But he’s not Morningstar’s apprentice.” She laid her hands, gently, on Selene’s temples; and started massaging.

“As if that meant anything.”

“It does, and you know it.”

“The latest passing fad, and we all know it. He’d have discarded me, in a few years’ time.”

Morningtsar took apprentices as other people took pets or hobbies: teaching them baubles, and growing gradually dissatisfied with them, until he finally discarded them. They’d argued, more than once, about that; Emmanuelle trying to convince Selene to leave before she was damaged beyond repair–but now there was Selene, admitting it as bald as daylight; and that scared Emmanuelle more than anything; as if being away from Morningstar had lifted a veil cast over her world.

And, in turn, had cast a dark, unmovable veil over Emmanuelle’s, a fear deep within her that nothing would ever fill the void within her–as Father Methodius had said, who could have foretold they’d ever pray for Morningstar’s return? “You’re here,” Emmanuelle said, slowly. “Here and now. I don’t know what he would have done. But it’s beside the point, isn’t it?”

Selene sighed. “You’re right. Let’s go see the wards.”

They dressed first: Emmanuelle in a simple white cotton dress that threw her skin into sharp contrast; and Selene in her usual mens’ tailcoat–Emmanuelle helped her straighten the cravat at the throat, gently adjusting the golden pin that held it together.

As they walked through the House, they saw it in disarray: everyone had woken up with the same feeling of emptiness and loss. Children wandered, listless, through the corridors; parents screamed at each other–and crowds were milling in every available space from disused reception rooms to courtyard, and even within the ruins of Notre-Dame, pointing to Morningstar’s broken throne and speaking in low, worried tones.

Selene had cloaked herself in light invisibility, which prevented people from mobbing her–though everyone stared oddly at Emmanuelle; and Luc, one of the dependents who helped out in the archives, came to her and asked if she knew what was going on. Emmanuelle merely shook her head, unable to think of anything that would convince Luc.

No one seemed to have gone down into the cellars. She and Selene went through the East Wing, which was all but deserted: room after empty room with furniture covered in dust, and old-fashioned paintings that had started to crack with age–only silence around them, and the sound of their own footsteps. Emmanuelle drew a deep breath; called up the magic within her–a pitiful trickle, to hold against the abyss. It had to do. It would have to.

Selene was lost in thought; her sharp, round face almost relaxed. “Here,” she said, pointing to one of the wine cellars. “That one isn’t locked.” The tone in which she said implied this was a mistake.

The wards were part of House Silverspires much as veins and arteries were part of a body: they had been baked into the stones of the House, carved into its foundations–spread through the very air its dependents breathed. There was no single point an enemy could have destroyed; but there were places where they were closest–where one could stand close to a wall, or kneel by a cobblestone, and feel a surge of power come arcing through one’s body.

The wine cellar was dark, but Selene had brought a lantern, which she now laid on the ground. She frowned, staring at the wall between the racks of bottles. “I’m not sure–”

Emmanuelle laid her hand on the wall; felt the magic within her slowly, carefully aligning itself with the heartbeat of the House–the emptiness in her chest becoming the gaping hole within the building’s structure–her loathing and  yearning for Morningstar smoothed away, becoming the unquestioning, patient endurance of stone; the strength and resiliency of wood; the brittle harshness of fired clay. “Here,” she said, pointing to a patch of wall between two racks.

Selene put her hand against it–light seeped through it, her skin becoming paper-thin, as translucent as Chinese rice paper lanterns. Her face became expressionless; her gaze unfocused; and every one of her fingers lying perfectly flat, perfectly relaxed against the outline of the bricks.

Emmanuelle withdrew–there seemed to be little point in both of them doing this. And she knew, already, though she was not Morningstar’s student–she already knew what Selene would learn.

The building was empty, its heart torn out; but the wards still held. The wards still waited for their master.

Or for the one strong enough to seize and hold them.

At length, Selene shuddered, and looked at Emmanuelle. “You saw,” she said.

Emmanuelle shrugged. “Yes.”

Selene shook her head. She looked–not ageless, not preternaturally composed–but young again, bewildered and lost, as if she must have been just after her Fall; long before Emmanuelle met her. “I can’t,” she said, slowly, softly. “I just–”

Emmanuelle had known or suspected all along, of course. Of course she didn’t want Selene to become head of the House; didn’t want the distance and loneliness that came with power–she just wanted the two of them to have their lives, to enjoy each other’s company, each other’s love. She didn’t want to be the lover of the head of House Silverspires; with the deep-seated knowledge that this might well tear them apart. But… but she knew Selene too well.

“Here, now,” Emmanuelle whispered. “Who else, Selene?”

“I can’t,” Selene whispered, again–but she did not take her hand away from the wall.

She would argue and hem and doubt; and curse Emmanuelle; but in the end, she would do what she always did–she would take stock, coldly and analytically, and do what needed to be done. Because there was no one else. Because there was no one better suited. Because there had never been a choice.

Emmanuelle crossed the empty space between them; squeezed Selene’s hand in hers–her skin was sweat-drenched and warm, her heartbeat slowly heightening, just as her gaze hardened. “I’ll be there for you,” she said. “Always.”

“You’d better be,” Selene said, with a tight, nervous smile.

And Emmanuelle, too, did what had to be done–smiling through the yawning emptiness within her, the fear she wasn’t sure she would ever master; the worry that this would destroy them, just as it saved the House. “Of course. Everything will be fine, Selene,” she said–the words slipping out of her in a few easy, exhaled breaths–so easy and so smooth, they almost didn’t feel like a lie.

Liked this? Want more? You will (of course) find out more about the Great War, House Silverspires, House Hawthorn, Morningstar, Philippe, Emmanuelle, Selene, and many other characters in the full novel, The House of Shattered Wings, out now from Roc (US), and Gollancz (UK/Commonwealth).

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