The House of Sundering Flames: chapter one
Here’s an excerpt of my upcoming book The House of Sundering Flames, forthcoming from Gollancz on July 27th.
Come visit a Gothic devastated Paris, where the Seine runs black with debris and the monuments are ruins. When an explosion disturbs the balance of forces, old enemies and estranged friends will have to make a choice: stand together, or burn alone…Preorder
THE BURNING HOUSE
Thuan’s day had been utterly routine: petitions from House Hawthorn members; unpleasant political maneuvering; a brief, barbed lunch with his husband and co-head of House Asmodeus, in which they compared notes about an upcoming dinner with envoys of other Houses. Nothing surprising or insurmountable.
He was out in the gardens, halfway between his office’s open French windows and the river. The lawn, pockmarked with debris and ash, sloped down to what had been the quays by the river Seine and which was now a roiling mass of gray, iridescent water. He’d made the mistake of sitting on the grass, which meant the trousers of his swallowtail suit were completely damp, and with rather interesting oily stains.
His other mistake, of course, had been to use his one hour of leisure in the day to be nice to overwhelmed parents.
“Unka Thuan, Unka Thuan! She’s stolen my doll!”
Ai Nhi had drawn herself up to the full and rather limited height of a five-year-old and pointed an accusatory finger at Thuan’s niece Camille. Her shape wavered between human and dragon, with the shadow of antlers above her pigtails, outlined in the bluish light of khi water.
“Give it back, or I’ll tell Auntie Ly!”
Camille’s only answer was laughter, waving the doll around in one hand and the moldy blanket she dragged everywhere in the other.
Thuan stopped. He stared at the Seine, at the vast expanse of water beneath which hid the troubled dragon kingdom where he’d been born. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on what. He grabbed the doll from Camille.
“No stealing,” he said, firmly.
Camille wailed. He ignored her, and put the doll back in Ai Nhi’s hands.
The khi currents of water, faint lines of blue light, seemed undisturbed. They curled, lazily, along the wide paths of pockmarked gravel, around the wide trees whose trunks were flecked with fungus, and stopped at the water’s edge. Nothing wrong. Still nothing he could put his finger on. And yet …
He forced a smile he didn’t feel. “Yes?”
Ai Nhi’s aunt, Vinh Ly, was in Thuan’s retinue, part of the dragon court who had come with him to Hawthorn. Both of Ai Nhi’s parents had died when she was still a baby, and Vinh Ly, often overwhelmed, let Thuan take care of Ai Nhi on her behalf.
Ai Nhi and Camille were both looking at him. In that uncanny way children had, they stood side by side as if nothing had ever been wrong between them.
“What are you looking at?”
Thuan shrugged. “The water. The city.”
“The other Houses?” Ai Nhi asked. “Auntie Ly said they were … ag-gres-sive.”
The way she detached the syllables, she clearly didn’t know what the word meant.
Thuan sighed. “She means they want to attack us.” Before Ai Nhi could look worried, he said, “You don’t have to worry about it. Asmodeus and I have the situation well in hand.”
Or rather, House Hawthorn was keeping its head down, and hoping the other Houses in Paris would believe them too uninteresting and too uninvolved to bother attacking. A tricky balance to strike: too weak, and other Houses would swoop in like vultures; too strong, and they would ally to take Hawthorn down. And, of course, Hawthorn itself wasn’t currently in the best of states. Thuan had only recently started to rule alongside Asmodeus, and the House was still adjusting to the merging of Thuan’s dragon magic with the Fallen magic of Asmodeus, which it had always relied upon for its own defense. Dependents were busy rebuilding wards, and the Fallen in the House—the former angels, living sources of magic—were working overtime to repair buildings and cast protective spells. Hawthorn was in no shape to get involved in anything.
Again, that tingling in the air—something wasn’t as it should have been, but before Thuan could start weaving khi currents, someone spoke.
“My lord. I hadn’t expected to find you here.”
It was phrased like a reproach. Thuan turned, his heart sinking.
Iaris smiled. Her face was smooth, ageless—nothing close to her real and considerable age, but then Iaris was one of Asmodeus’s favorites, and her closeness to Fallen magic had stretched and slowed down the passing of time for her body. She’d been with Asmodeus from the beginning, in the Court of Birth, before the coup that had made him the head of the House, and was now the chief doctor in Hawthorn’s hospital. She was virtually untouchable, at least by Thuan, and they both knew it.
“What do you want?” Thuan asked.
“A word,” Iaris said. She didn’t sit down on the lawn, forcing Thuan to get up, dirty trousers and all—obviously. “This is unseemly.”
Thuan raised an eyebrow. “Unseemly?”
Iaris’s face did not move. “You know exactly what I mean.”
Thuan snatched Camille up before she could go wandering off near the water, and bobbed her up and down, carrying her on one hip. Ancestors, she was heavy. Ai Nhi had turned into a dragon: a serpentine shape with the antlers of a deer that curled up around Thuan’s legs, making a deep rumbling noise of contentment. The cold touch of her scales through the fabric of his trousers was comforting.
“You’re his consort,” Iaris said, dryly. “Head of the House.”
She made it all sound like an insult. She thought Asmodeus had embarrassed himself when he’d married Thuan, and even more when Thuan had started to rule in his own name. Never mind, of course, that Thuan had to seize power from Asmodeus to do it, at a moment when Asmodeus had been on the brink of death. In Iaris’s mind, the perfect House would still be under the sole control of her own master.
“That’s an accurate description of my position,” Thuan said, deadpan.
Iaris ignored him. “You’re not a childminder. The Court of Birth—”
“Isn’t these children’s family.”
Iaris opened her mouth. She was going to ask if Thuan was family, but realized that this would cast aspersions on Asmodeus—who might have been a disaster at childcare but definitely considered Camille his niece.
“I don’t know where he is,” Thuan said. “We’re not each other’s minders, either. The last time I saw him was at lunch.”
Iaris exhaled. “You don’t understand.”
He did. The House was changing, and Iaris didn’t like it—she clung to what she’d always known like a lifeline. She wanted a head of House who was dark and frightful, a monster to defend them against the other monsters of Paris: all the things that Asmodeus effortlessly was, but that Thuan would never agree to become.
But understanding didn’t mean he had to indulge her.
“Down down, Unka,” Camille said.
Thuan reluctantly let go of her, but kept a wary eye on what she was doing. She was crouching on the grass, watching a bit of dark earth with fascination.
He said, to Iaris, “Was that all?”
Her lips thinned. She started to move back towards the House, but turned, slightly, towards him.
“You’ll never be accepted if you don’t make an effort to fit in.”
Ah, the old classics. Thuan exhaled. He let his dragon shape half-shimmer into existence around him: the antlers, the scales on the back of his hands, his fingers thinning and sharpening into claws.
“I take care of this House,” he said. “That’s all that really matters. You want me to make myself smaller in the vain hope that the dependents will forget who I really am. We both know that’s not going to happen.”
“Certainly not in these circumstances,” Iaris said, coldly.
She glanced at the children, and then at the other side of the riverbank, where empty factory buildings stood against the sideline. House Harrier. One of the Houses sharing a border with Hawthorn: the Grenelle bridge, where House dependents stared at each other across the checkpoints.
“Our neighbors have seen us in disarray, my lord. The faster they realize that we’re united, the fewer attacks they’ll try.”
“Harrier isn’t attacking us,” Thuan said, mildly.
Harrier was classist, separating human and Fallen and insisting on the innate superiority of Fallen. Lord Guy and his wife Andrea had cut Thuan dead at every event they’d attended. If nothing else, it had been entertaining to watch Asmodeus getting increasingly cutting and sarcastic in return.
Iaris’s face didn’t move. Camille was wandering off again: Thuan raised a barrier of khi water across her path and she bumped into it, poked at the blue light with pudgy fingers, curiously.
“Harrier is too busy at the moment,” Iaris said. “But make no mistake—when they see an opportunity they’ll take it. And they’re not the only ones. House Mansart and Fontenoy are emboldened by Harrier’s own internal troubles.” She ticked them off on her fingers, items on a list of issues Thuan had no doubt she carefully maintained. “House Lazarus won’t act directly but they’ll push other Houses to do so. House Shellac have always been felt they ought to be larger and more important.”
She listed half a dozen other Houses Thuan could barely keep track of. Which was the point, of course: to show him his own ignorance and obliviousness.
Ancestors, he was getting so tired of this. Life was harsh and short in a city still in ruins after the Great Houses War sixty years ago, and even within the relative safety of a House, all they could seem to think of was how to hurt each other, like crabs in a bucket.
“Was that all?” he asked, again. He made his voice much colder.
Iaris grimaced, but said nothing else. She headed back into the House with ill grace, leaving Thuan to disentangle Ai Nhi from his legs.
The little dragon girl stared, thoughtfully, at the retreating figure of Iaris.
“She’s not nice,” she said, with a gravity that seemed completely out of proportion.
Thuan couldn’t help laughing.
“No,” he said. “But you still have to be nice to her.”
“Unka!” Ai Nhi said, scandalized.
“Do we need to have the talk about politeness again?”
He stopped, then. The odd tension in the air was not only still there, but now unbearably strong. He hadn’t noticed because he was too busy trying to assert himself and face Iaris down, but …
The entire world seemed to be drawing a breath. The khi water around Ai Nhi and Camille stiffened, and flowed away—and so did every other khi element in the air.
Thuan turned towards the river. He had no choice, because the flow of khi elements was drawing him as a fisherman’s hook, a ceaseless tug in the hollow of his chest—not straight ahead, towards the muddy mire of the flooded gardens, or the dragon kingdom that had once been his home, but towards the left, past the ruined Eiffel Tower. A plume of flame and smoke rose over the horizon: the flames pink and yellow, darkening into billowing clouds. A dull sound like a gunshot, and then another one—each burst changing the sky, briefly, to a bright green that slowly washed into trembling, dusty light.
From the heart of House Harrier. Neither wood nor stone burned that way. And the explosions—too far away for now to send shock waves they’d feel, but they would only be the start.
He’d not fought in the Great Houses War. Sixty years ago he’d been young and sheltered, a minor and spoiled prince of the Dragon Kingdom more interested in sleeping with a succession of lovers than in the dreadfully boring business of the court—but he’d heard the stories of the fall of House Hell’s Toll, and how the armory’s fire had painted the sky green and pink. He was seeing no ordinary fire; and he had perhaps three minutes before the largest and final explosion.
The windows were too close. The House was too close—everything would become cutting shards and wounding debris when the shock wave hit.
He shifted into his dragon shape, as easily as slipping on the tailored clothes Asmodeus kept pressing on him. He scooped up both children, ignoring their protestations—the wriggling, screaming Camille, Ai Nhi saying she was all grown-up and too old to be carried, trying to grab her doll from Camille on Thuan’s other side—and started flying towards his office. The pressure in the air was becoming unbearable; that dreadful, unnerving calm before the storm, slowly spinning itself together. The plume of smoke from the burning House Harrier now cast a long shadow across the lawn, the trembling, billowing finger of some malevolent deity lightly resting on a wound. There was no khi water left in the air at all—Thuan felt he was swimming upriver through tar, caught in sticky air that only slowed him down. The river wavered in front of him, patches of oily sheen distorting into vague, unrecognizable shapes. An illusory safety: the dragon kingdom would not help him, would not shelter him, would not save him.
He was perhaps halfway to the closest building when the explosion hit. A booming sound was the only harbinger of what had happened—followed, a fraction of a second later, by a wind that tore the grass from the lawn, as sharp as knives against the skin of his hands. He threw himself to the ground, raising desperate wards to protect the children, just as everything was torn apart in a maelstrom of sounds and flying debris which hit, again and again, the wards he’d raised. Thuan curled over the children, feeling the dull bounce of the broken objects which got through against the scales of his dragon shape, just as the House’s sense of danger rose to a screaming crescendo in his mind. He had to do something to protect his people, he had to do it now …
Silence spread over the House. Thuan pulled himself up, cautiously. The large oak tree by the side of the lawn had lost a few branches, but seemed otherwise unharmed. The French windows of his office—which he’d left open—had been torn off their hinges. Every pane of glass on the entire wing had shattered inwards. There was a distant smell of fire—something burning in the kitchens? The air was the purplish hue of recent bruises, and everything smelled too sharp, too crisp. The khi currents that normally saturated the House were all but gone.
He caught movement on his right, out of the corner of his eye, on the edges of the riverbank that were perpetually shrouded in mist: small, agile shapes coming to crowd on the lawn, invisible to anyone else but him. The children. Not the ones he was currently minding, but the others, the House in physical shape: skeletal branches of hawthorn shaped into the vague shape of children. His flesh crawled—every time he’d seen the children he or his friends had been in grave danger—but they seemed not to pay him any attention. Their faces were turned, unerringly, to the plume of smoke rising beyond the river.
Harrier. House Harrier. Their closest neighbor, aflame and reeling from the explosion; and they would have it even worse than Hawthorn, since they had been at the center of the blast.
What would happen now?
Ai Nhi stared, open-mouthed, at the devastation. Even Camille, for once, seemed to be at a loss.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, with a confidence he didn’t feel. He threw another glance at the children of thorns, but they still hadn’t moved. That was not good, but he had so many other things to worry about first. “Come on, let’s see what’s happened.”
He flew rather than walked over the lawn, and dived head first into his office. Or rather, what was left of it. His bookshelves had toppled—torn fragments of books lay everywhere—and the papers he’d left on his desk were probably hopelessly mangled by now. The desk itself was more or less where he’d left it, though its leather was scored in multiple places by gashes. Broken glass and splinters of wood and metal covered every surface. If anyone had been by a window when it had shattered …
Asmodeus. Thuan reached out in his mind, where the dependents of the House were arrayed like candle flames—so many of them guttering, on the verge of failing—and a familiar, sarcastic presence, though diminished and far away.
Still alive. Asmodeus was still alive; but of course the House couldn’t tell Thuan anything useful, beyond indications of immediate danger—and there were so many ways to die that weren’t immediate or merciful.
“Down! Down!” Camille said. Thuan tightened his grip on her.
“There’s glass, little fish,” he said, firmly.
And, ignoring her disappointed wails, he flew further into the wing, trying not to dwell on the fear that tightened his insides like a fist of ice.
Inside the House, it was chaos. Stunned dependents wandered, calling for their loved ones; distant clatters of debris as people freed themselves. The smoke he’d smelled earlier was coming from the kitchen, where Koia and a few others were frantically emptying magical artifacts of their stored power to attempt to snuff out the flames that had spilled out from the ovens and hearths. Koia nodded at Thuan as he stood at the door: she had it under control, or hoped to.
“Have you seen Lord Asmodeus?” Thuan asked, as he’d asked every other dependent on his way there.
Koia gave a tight-lipped shake of her head. “Sorry, my lord. He doesn’t come into the kitchens that often.”
Almost never, unless it was to frighten the kitchen hands. Thuan sighed, and pressed down his nascent worries. There was a lot of business to take care of. Other people whose safety he had to ensure. And Asmodeus would be fine. He was too smart and too resourceful to be otherwise. Thuan tamped down the little voice that kept insisting that smartness and resourcefulness meant little in such situations.
“Find me someone you can spare,” he said. “There was a fire across the Seine, and I want to know where it’s coming from.”
“My lord …”
Koia gave him an appraising look; but Thuan was in full dragon form, and disinclined to argue with people who still thought Asmodeus was the center of the universe insofar as the House was concerned.
He pressed himself closer to her, so she could see the full width of his maw, and the glistening fangs of a predator in a mouth large enough to gobble up half of her in one go.
“Of course, my lord.”
It was Berith, Asmodeus’s Fall-sister. She strode through the din as though nothing was wrong: silver-haired and tall, infused with the glow of Fallen magic—though it was flickering and weak—and her eyes circled with deep gray. Berith had taken grave wounds during the Great Houses War sixty years ago, and not even the protection of the House could heal her.
“Mamma!” Camille wriggled out of Thuan’s grasp and ran, screaming, towards Berith, hugging the Fallen’s legs with a wide smile on her face. “Mamma mamma mamma.”
Berith gave Thuan an apologetic smile.
“Come on, child,” she said to Ai Nhi in perfect Viet. Ai Nhi shook her head, and continued to cling to Thuan.
“Don’t worry,” Thuan said.
He shook himself and resumed his human form, which made it easier to fit into the space below the ceiling. Ai Nhi remained on him—no longer riding on his back, but now balanced on his shoulders. He was obscurely glad someone was there to take care of Camille. Ai Nhi was five, old enough to have a modicum of self-preservation, but Camille just barreled through life as though fires and large bodies of water would somehow make way for her imperious will.
“She’s fine.” Berith’s face was closed. “She was with the seamstresses, embroidering some tablecloths.”
Some undercurrents there: Françoise was Berith’s partner, and thus related to the head of the House whether she liked it or not—and both Berith and Asmodeus thought it unseemly for her to concern herself with base servants’ work.
A worry for another time.
“Auntie Berith, Auntie Berith, there was a big boom!” Ai Nhi said.
Berith smiled, brightly and with a tension even the little dragon had to see.
“I’m sure there was. It happens sometimes in old Houses, child.”
“Mmm.” Ai Nhi didn’t sound convinced.
In the silence that followed, Thuan said, “No one has seen Asmodeus.”
Berith lifted Camille to her face, up and up until the toddler squealed with laughter—with no hint of the strain it must have been to her dying magic. Then she lowered her, and balanced the small body on her hips.
“I haven’t, either,” she said. “You should go and see Iaris.”
Thuan sighed. He’d delayed going to the hospital because he didn’t want to know how bad it was. But he was head of the House—one of two people everyone depended on for protection—and he couldn’t afford some illusions.
“I will. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
Aside from the obvious fact of an explosion. These had been commonplace during the war, but that was over: though buried spells went off from time to time, nothing should have had that large an impact.
Berith shook her head.
“Doesn’t matter,” Thuan said.
They were going to find out eventually; and he had an inkling they wouldn’t like it, not one bit.
They were halfway to the hospital wing when the messenger caught up with them. It was one of Iaris’s underlings, out of breath.
“My lord …”
“Steady,” Thuan said.
“You have to come now.” The messenger paused. “The cells … Lord Asmodeus …”
Thuan’s blood went cold.
“Take her,” he said to Berith, lowering Ai Nhi down.
But Thuan was already up and running—rising, shedding his human form and flying above his startled dependents. He flowed through the labyrinth of the West Wing, corridors of cracked wainscoting streaming past, adroitly ducking so that his antlers didn’t get tangled in broken chandeliers, deftly avoiding the crossroads leading to the rooms of the various leaders of Hawthorn’s Courts, into another, even narrower complex of guardrooms and servants’ quarters, where his body twisted to weave around the crowd of people rushing towards the exit.
When he reached the entrance to the cells, he found a pile of rubble blocking the staircase; and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, drawing a circle on the floor, pausing from time to time to shake an errant strand of graying hair from her eyes. Thuan landed among startled dependents, and—with difficulty—kept his mouth shut while Madeleine finished drawing her spell.
Fallen magic still wasn’t his specialty: all he could judge was the size and complexity of the spell. As he watched, Madeleine emptied another artifact of its stored magic, and it joined the piles of discarded ones on the floor. They didn’t have that many left, and they’d gone through a great number of them already—Thuan bit back the thought, which was useless. They needed to get to Asmodeus. The cells. Obviously. Asmodeus had never been part of the Court of Persuasion, but he still haunted the cells as if they were his second home—satisfying his cravings for others’ pain by interrogating the dissidents imprisoned within the House.
“It’s just rubble,” one of the dependents said to Thuan—Mia, a no-nonsense Fallen with long flowing hair and a swallowtail jacket speckled with shining silver threads. “The cells should be intact, my lord.”
Should be. Might be. Thuan knew better than to put faith in such statements.
Ancestors, keep him safe.
A scratching sound.
Thuan’s head snapped up; so did Madeleine’s. The pile of debris that blocked the entrance to the cells was moving—shifting upwards, as if something buried within was ponderously lifting itself free. It stopped for a moment, fell back down, and then slowly pushed itself up again. Thuan’s throat felt constricted. He hadn’t even been aware he was holding his breath.
The pile of rubble spun—became, for a brief moment, a pillar of metal and wooden shards—and then burst apart, showering everyone with debris. Mia and Madeleine threw themselves to the floor. Thuan shielded his eyes. The debris fell well away from him, as if an invisible hand was holding it off.
When the cloud of dust dispersed, Asmodeus stood on what had been the first steps of the stairs. He wore his usual gray-and-silver swallowtail jacket, except that it was covered with dust. He had a body slung across his shoulder: someone with long hair Thuan couldn’t recognize, whose head and back hung limply on Asmodeus’s broad chest. Blood stained his white gloves, and he had multiple wounds on both cheeks. He stood, unblinking, unmoving, watching them all through horn-rimmed glasses, gray-green eyes the color of a stormy sea.
Thuan took one, two steps forwards. “Asmodeus …”
He didn’t move. He just stood, staring at Thuan. The smell of bergamot and citrus hung in the air: a threat, a promise. At length he shook himself; moved away from the staircase in long, graceful steps, his face still frozen in that odd expression.
“Here,” he said, laying the body down on the edge of Madeleine’s circle: an Annamite woman whose bare arms had been sliced open, blood staining her tunic until it had turned the color of rust. “Get her to hospital.”
But Asmodeus was already swaying. Thuan flowed upwards, catching him on the back of his dragon shape before he could hit the floor.
“Stubborn fool,” he said, not bothering to hide his worry, his anger—not to mention utter exhaustion from switching shapes three times in the same day. “Let’s get youto hospital first.”
In Emmanuelle’s dreams, the world was fire. Angels rose on wings of flame towards a distant, unattainable City: a concoction of mother-of-pearl buildings, enameled domes and white, eye-searing streets in which featureless shapes flowed past each other. At the top of the highest tower was the light of a burning sun—it couldn’t be watched, couldn’t be held within her field of vision without hurting her eyes or burning her face. She reached out towards it—towards Him—and everything fell apart, the flames becoming the jagged shards of a vast, unknowable puzzle raining down on her.
She woke up, and everything hurt. She lay on her back for a while, staring at a sky that wasn’t gray—that wasn’t even the cornflower blue of Lucifer Morningstar’s eyes, or of the heavens as they had been, before the war, before the pall of pollution. It was an odd shade of purple, shading into indigo. As she watched, sounds intruded: distant clatters, and a rumble, like stones collapsing atop each other. It was hot—too hot.
She needed to get up.
She was lying on gravel in the ruins of a garden: the center of a classic little square with wrought-iron railings and impeccable rows of trees that still peppered the south of Paris. Except that the railings that separated the garden from the surrounding streets were bent, and the trees charred, leafless stumps, and she lay in the middle of a flat nothingness of churned earth and fragments of stone. The doors and windows of all the buildings around the square had caved in. It was not the usual gentle decay she was used to seeing in post-war Paris, more like the result of an explosion.
What had happened?
Emmanuelle managed to pull herself upright on trembling legs. Just as she did, a wave of nausea racked her from head to toe, and she was on her knees again, vomiting on to the cobblestones, and heaving again and again and bringing up nothing but nauseating bile, her entire being wrung as if by a careless giant.
Where was she?
She didn’t remember coming here, or …
House Harrier. She was in House Harrier, as an official envoy of House Silverspires. She … Presentation. She and Morningstar had been attending the First Presentation of the child-magicians—the first one Guy had hosted since his accession as head of the House. A historic occurrence, Emmanuelle’s partner Selene had said, in a tone that suggested she didn’t trust Guy one bit. Then again, with Silverspires diminished and struggling to survive, they couldn’t really afford to get into an internecine fight with Harrier. Selene was head of the House, and Emmanuelle was all too aware of the political currents.
Emmanuelle pulled herself upright—she was shaking, shivering, and …
Something was wrong. She raised a hand to her forehead—an absurd idea, she couldn’t take her own temperature. Her hand spasmed—she tried to hold it still, but it seized up on its own.
Where was he? They were supposed to look out for each other. He’d promised her …
From far away, other familiar sounds: people fighting—and getting closer and closer to her.
Away. She needed to get away. Working everything else out could happen later.
She stumbled away, and all but tripped over a corpse. Someone she didn’t know, in House Harrier’s blue and black uniform, eyes staring upwards at that odd, bruised-purple sky. They looked odd, but she couldn’t place how or why. Didn’t matter. She couldn’t afford to tarry.
The earth under her shook: she almost fell, caught herself in time. Everything seemed like it was happening in slow motion. She walked towards the ruined railings, towards the nearest street, or what remained of it.
The sound of fighting was getting closer—a growing thunder, the sound of metal on metal, the sharp crack of rifles, screams, words all jumbling together into meaninglessness.
Why? What had happened? They … weren’t at war anymore. Peace had been gained at such a cost; and they’d enjoyed it for decades. It made no sense.
Onwards. She had to hide.
She reached the street, and looked left and right. The buildings gaped at her like the maws of Hell, all similarly empty husks filled with ruined darkness. No shelter. And further on were only more buildings with burned, shattered facades, and further still the unbroken dome of the Great Interior, the secluded area where Guy kept the most powerful of his trained magicians—a panicked thought in her mind, a memory of beating wings in a darkened corridor. No shelter there, either, she knew it with absolute certainty. The battle was getting closer. She couldn’t hide. She had to run.
She did, past the ghosts of buildings in the devastated streets. Her hands seized—and her legs, too, at odd moments, sending her sprawling to the ground. She’d pick herself up, breathing heavily and fighting the blurring vision that threatened to take over her entire world. The sounds came closer and closer, resolved into voices—into grunts and threats and prayers as people hacked and shot at each other.
“You’ll pay for this!”
“You can’t win!”
She couldn’t run anymore. There was nowhere to hide, but she had to.
She was in another ruined garden, her feet on cold churned earth. Ahead of her was a building: something in a pseudo-Greek or Roman style, except that it had one good wall and three ruined ones, and half a floor, and the railings of its little garden had bent inwards, the tree by its front porch burned and shriveled. Emmanuelle reached what was left of the door, peered inside. Bodies, with blood streaming out of their eyes, limbs hanging at loose angles.
Beggars couldn’t be choosers.
She sat against the one wall that still held—praying that it would hold, that the world would stop shaking. And, belatedly, she saw what was wrong: the light. Shadows had played across the corpses on the elaborate tiling of the floor, as she’d looked in. A soft, sloshing light had danced over the ruined walls, moving as she’d moved her head.
It was her.
She was emitting the light. She raised a hand, stared at it. Her arms and legs were covered in wounds: the debris must have shredded her when the explosion had happened, but that was normal. What wasn’t normal was that her dark skin was translucent, its color still true, but she could see muscles shifting, contracting uncontrollably, sending her arm down again in a spasm. She wasn’t simply burning with fever; she was burning, full stop, her body eating itself like a candle.
Ablaze, in the middle of what looked like a pitched fight, in a House that was her enemy and with no idea of what had happened.
She needed to hide her radiance: her clothes were keeping most of it contained, but her face, her hands and every patch of exposed skin shone like a torch set ablaze. The walls weren’t going to keep that contained, so she needed to cover those parts as well. If there’d been a tarpaulin or a sheet she could crawl under—no, nothing like that left in the rubble.
But she had cloth on her.
Emmanuelle looked down. She was wearing an elaborate silk dress embroidered with flowers and trees, and a discreet patch with House Silverspires’ insignia, Morningstar’s sword against the towers of Notre-Dame. Ceremonial clothes. Petticoats. Layers and layers of thick cloth she could unwrap to hide under.
It took her three tries to undress. Her fingers had become fat, listless sticks, and the spasms that racked her didn’t help.
Screams, much closer this time. The battle was so close—on the other side of the wall—and she couldn’t afford to look if she wanted to remain unseen.
She tore her petticoats, and wrapped her hands, face and chest in them. They were a thick opaque cotton—hopefully enough to mask the light she was shedding. Then she leaned back against the wall, the words of a prayer running over and over in her head.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come …
Selene would say He wasn’t there—that He’d never been there, that this was where they were all damned. Father Javier would smile, a little sadly, trying to hide that he’d lost his faith a long time ago. Emmanuelle knew it was all untrue; that God was everywhere and in everything, and—in spite of everything, in spite of her Fall—was still listening to His wayward children.
Our Father …
Metal on metal and a confusion of footsteps—a din that hurt her ears, too close to be processed. They had to be just outside the walls. She had to be silent. She had to be unseen.
Our Father …
Silence, outside. A dying man, begging for mercy, and a gurgling, choking sound that was all too obvious. Emmanuelle’s hands tightened on her torn petticoats. Her leg spasmed across the tiled floor, sending a small pile of broken wood from the shutters clattering to the ground.
No no no.
“Should we look for survivors?” A sharp, no-nonsense female voice.
Another silence. Emmanuelle held her breath, willing her limbs still.
“There are none.”
“They’re just buried under debris.”
“Not if they were inside. They’ll have died. Shock wave shaking their brains inside the head cavity. Or flung against walls. Take your pick.”
“I thought I heard a noise.”
Please please please.
Emmanuelle gave up on subtlety, and threw herself to the ground, drawing her petticoats over her like a shroud.
Footsteps: a vague shadow, blurred through the cotton cloth.
Please please let them pass me by. Let them turn away.
“You’re right. It’s just corpses.” A sigh of disgust. “Let’s go before they come back.”
Silence, again. Emmanuelle didn’t dare move, not until she was sure they’d well and truly gone. It was almost restful, lying on the cool floor.
Her mind wandered, the prayer no longer first and foremost in her thoughts. How had she come there? Morningstar. She’d come with Morningstar, at Selene’s behest. They’d gone to their rooms, and then—
And then there was nothing. Time skipped and blurred. Morningstar at her door, cocking his head the way he did when he was about to ask an embarrassing question. He had a burning sword in his hands, and Darrias, House Hawthorn’s envoy, was behind him.
“Emmanuelle, what’s wrong?”
There was a sound in the background, a hiss that gradually grew, as if hundreds of strips of cloth were fluttering in the wind at the same time—except it made Emmanuelle’s heart freeze, and fear tighten around her guts. She had to run, she needed to run now.
None of that was possible. It wasn’t real. The sword—the two-handed monstrosity that had been Morningstar’s weapon of predilection—had been lost for twenty years. And the face of Darrias, standing behind Morningstar, kept changing, becoming that of a Harrier menial, that of a Hawthorn dragon, that of the Houseless boy with the broken arm Emmanuelle had helped home a week ago, when she’d met him on her usual runs through the city.
Her mind kept shying away from the immediate past—scrabbling, trying to fill the gap with random, incoherent images. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. It didn’t really make anything better. The images went away, but the sound didn’t—merging with that of her madly beating heart, that she couldn’t calm no matter how she tried.
Calm down. Calm down.
She could do this.
At length she pulled herself up once again. The sound of battle was distant again, and the rumbles of collapsing buildings had stopped. Safety. She had to get to safety—wherever that was. Out of the House, if she could; though she couldn’t see the great wrought-iron gates she’d entered through, and if it had reached the stage of pitched battles in the House the gates would be one of the worst places to be.
She clung, for a moment, to the threshold of the ruined building, staring at the shape of devastation all around her. The landscape bent and blurred—nightmarish shapes, created by the light that was burning her up.
What had happened, and how was she going to deal with any of the fallout?
The great magical Houses of Paris – headed by Fallen angels and magicians – were, however temporarily, at peace with each other. Until House Harrier was levelled by a powerful explosion. Now that peace has become chaos, tearing apart old alliances and setting off a race in which each House hoards magic and resources to protect itself against another such blast.
Thuan, the Dragon head of the divided House Hawthorn, is still consolidating his power when war comes to his doorstep. Aurore – exiled from and almost beaten to death by House Harrier – sees her moment to seek power in order to protect her family, even if she must venture back to her destroyed former home to get it. And Emmanuelle finds herself alone in the middle of it all, driven to protect others, trying to piece together what has happened, and hoping – eventually – to make sense of it all.
None of them know what destroyed House Harrier, though . . . and when they do uncover that fiery, destructive magic then divided Houses, old enemies and estranged friends will all have to make a decision: stand together, or burn alone . . .
The Dominion of the Fallen Reading Order (Novels Only)
The Dominion of the Fallen Reading Order (Complete)
0.2. “Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship” | 0.5. “In Morningstar’s Shadow” | 0.6. “Against the Encroaching Darkness” | 0.7. “The Death of Aiguillon” | 0.8 “Court of Birth, Court of Strength” | 0.9. “The House, in Winter” | Book 1. The House of Shattered Wings | 1.5. “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” | Book 2. The House of Binding Thorns | Book 3.The House of Sundering Flames
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