Prepare yourself, book nerds, because your new favorite fantasy is almost here! On September 3rd, Serpent & Dove officially hits shelves and the witchiest book this side of the shelf will finally be in hand! October 3rd is shaking. If you’re reading this after that, well, the good news is you can head to your local bookstore right now to pick up a copy. Could we be any more excited?!
Serpent & Dove is an epic fantasy (emphasis on the epic) that features an enemies-to-lovers romance and is set in a brutal, French-inspired world. It’s about a witch and a witch hunter who are forced to wed. And yes, the story that follows is as deliciously wicked as you’re hoping it will be. We’ve got romance, a ton of action, a snarky but strong heroine, an intricate magic system, a love interest with his walls built up, and, honestly, more twists and turns than we can count. Basically, it’s everything we’ve ever wanted. Because we can’t wait, we’re giving you the first three chapters of Serpent & Dove now! Scroll down below and start reading.
Serpent & Dove: Part I
Un malheur ne vient jamais seul.
There’s something haunting about a body touched by magic. Most people first noticed the smell: not the rot of decay, but a cloying sweetness in their noses, a sharp taste on their tongues. Rare individuals also sensed a tingle in the air. A lingering aura on the corpse’s skin. As if the magic itself was still present somehow, watching and waiting.
Of course, those stupid enough to talk about such things ended up on the stake.
Thirteen bodies had been found throughout Belterra over the past year—more than double the amount of years prior. Though the Church did its best to conceal the mysterious circumstances of each death, all had been buried in closed caskets.
“There he is.” Coco motioned to a man in the corner. Though candlelight bathed half of his face in shadow, there was no mistaking the gold brocade on his coat or the heavy insignia around his neck. He sat rigid in his chair, clearly uncomfortable, as a scantily-clad woman draped herself across his plump midsection. I couldn’t help but grin.
Only Madame Labelle would leave an aristocrat such as Pierre Tremblay waiting in the bowels of a brothel.
“Come on.” Coco motioned toward a table in the opposite corner. “Babette should be here soon.”
“What sort of pompous ass wears brocade while mourning?” I asked.
Coco glanced at Tremblay over her shoulder and smirked. “The sort of pompous ass with money.”
His daughter, Filippa, had been the seventh body found.
After her disappearance in the dead of night, the aristocracy had been shaken when she’d reappeared—throat slashed—at the edge of L’Eau Mélancolique. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Rumors had crawled through the kingdom about her silver hair and wrinkled skin, her cloudy eyes and gnarled fingers. At twenty-four, she’d been transformed into a hag. Tremblay’s peers simply couldn’t understand it. She’d had no known enemies, no vendettas against her to warrant such violence.
But while Filippa might’ve had no enemies, her pompous ass of a father had accumulated plenty while trafficking magical objects.
His daughter’s death had been a warning: one did not exploit the witches without consequence.
“Bonjour, messieurs.” A honey-haired courtesan approached us, batting her lashes hopefully. I cackled at the brazen way she eyed Coco. Even disguised as a man, Coco was striking. Though scars marred the rich brown skin of her hands—she covered them with gloves—her face remained smooth, and her black eyes sparkled even in the semidarkness. “Can I tempt you to join me?”
“Sorry, darling.” Adopting my smarmiest voice, I patted the courtesan’s hand the way I’d seen other men do. “But we’re spoken for this morning. Mademoiselle Babette will be joining us shortly.”
She pouted for only a second before moving on to our neighbor, who eagerly accepted her invitation.
“Do you think he has it on him?” Coco scrutinized Tremblay from the top of his bald head to the bottom of his polished shoes, lingering on his unadorned fingers. “Babette could’ve been lying. This could be a trap.”
“Babette might be a liar, but she isn’t stupid. She won’t sell us out before we pay her.” I watched the other courtesans with morbid fascination. With cinched waists and overflowing bosoms, they danced lithely amongst the patrons as if their corsets weren’t slowly suffocating them.
To be fair, however, many of them weren’t wearing corsets. Or anything at all.
“You’re right.” Coco dug our coin pouch from her coat and threw it on the table. “It’ll be after.”
“Ah, mon amour, you wound me.” Babette materialized beside us, grinning and flicking the brim of my hat. Unlike her peers, she swathed as much of her pale skin as possible with crimson silk. Thick, white makeup covered the rest—and her scars. They snaked up her arms and chest in a similar pattern to Coco’s. “And for ten more golden couronnes, I would never dream of betraying you.”
“Good morning, Babette.” Chuckling, I propped a foot on the table and leaned back on my chair’s hind legs. “You know, it’s uncanny the way you always appear within seconds of our money. Can you smell it?” I turned to Coco, whose lips twitched in an effort not to grin. “It’s like she can smell it.”
“Bonjour, Louise.” Babette kissed my cheek before leaning toward Coco and lowering her voice. “Cosette, you look ravishing, as usual.”
Coco rolled her eyes. “You’re late.”
“My apologies.” Babette inclined her head with a saccharine smile. “But I did not recognize you. I will never understand why such beautiful women insist on masquerading as men—”
“Unaccompanied women attract too much attention. You know that.” I drummed my fingers against the tabletop with practiced ease, forcing a grin. “Any one of us could be a witch.”
“Bah!” She winked conspiratorially. “Only a fool would mistake two as charming as you for such wretched, violent creatures.”
“Of course.” I nodded, tugging my hat even lower. While Coco’s and Babette’s scars revealed their true natures, Dames Blanches could move through society virtually undetected. The russet-skinned woman on top of Tremblay could be one. Or the honey-haired courtesan who’d just disappeared up the stairs. “But the flames come first with the Church. Questions second. It’s a dangerous time to be female.”
“Not here.” Babette spread her arms wide, lips curling upward. “Here, we are safe. Here, we are cherished. My mistress’s offer still stands—”
“Your mistress would burn you—and us—if she knew the truth.” I returned my attention to Tremblay, whose obvious wealth had attracted two more courtesans. He politely rebuffed their attempts to undo his trousers. “We’re here for him.”
Coco upended our coin pouch on the table. “Ten golden couronnes, as promised.”
Babette sniffed and lifted her nose in the air. “Hmm . . . I seem to remember twenty.”
“What?” My chair plummeted back to the ground with a bang. The patrons nearest us blinked in our direction, but I ignored them. “We agreed on ten.”
“That was before you hurt my feelings.”
“Damn it, Babette.” Coco snatched our coin away before Babette could touch it. “Do you know how long it takes us to save that kind of money?”
I struggled to keep my voice even. “We don’t even know if Tremblay has the ring.”
Babette merely shrugged and extended her palm. “It is not my fault you insist on cutting purses in the street like common criminals. You would earn thrice that sum in a single night here at the Bellerose, but you are too proud.”
Coco took a deep breath, hands curling into fists on the table. “Look, we’re sorry we offended your delicate sensibilities, but we agreed on ten. We can’t afford—”
“I can hear the coin in your pocket, Cosette.”
I stared at Babette incredulously. “You are a goddamned hound.”
Her eyes flashed. “Come now, I invite you here at my own personal risk to eavesdrop on my mistress’s business with Monsieur Tremblay, yet you insult me like I’m a—”
At that precise moment, however, a tall, middle-aged woman glided down the staircase. A deep emerald gown accentuated her flaming hair and hourglass figure. Tremblay lurched to his feet at her appearance, and the courtesans around us—including Babette—swept into deep curtsies.
It was rather odd, watching naked women curtsy.
Grasping Tremblay’s arms with a wide smile, Madame Labelle kissed both his cheeks and murmured something I couldn’t hear. Panic spiked through me as she looped her arm through his and led him back across the room toward the stairs.
Babette watched us out of the corner of her eye. “Decide quickly, mes amours. My mistress is a busy woman. Her business with Monsieur Tremblay will not take long.”
I glared at her, resisting the urge to wrap my hands around her pretty neck and squeeze. “Can you at least tell us what your mistress is buying? She must’ve told you something. Is it the ring? Does Tremblay have it?”
She grinned like a cat with cream. “Perhaps… for another ten couronnes.”
Coco and I shared a black look. If Babette wasn’t careful, she’d soon learn just how wretched and violent we could be.
◆ ◆ ◆
The Bellerose boasted twelve luxury parlors for its courtesans to entertain guests, but Babette led us to none of these. Instead, she opened an unmarked thirteenth door at the end of the corridor and ushered us inside.
“Welcome, mes amours, to the eyes and ears of the Bellerose.”
Blinking, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of this new, narrower corridor. Twelve windows—rectangular, large, and spaced at regular intervals along one wall—let in a subtle glow of light. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized they weren’t windows at all, but portraits.
I traced a finger down the nose of the one nearest me: a beautiful woman with luscious curves and an alluring smile. “Who are they?”
“Famed courtesans of years past.” Babette paused to admire the woman with a wistful expression. “My portrait will replace hers someday.”
Frowning, I leaned closer to inspect the woman in question. Her image was mirrored, somehow, her colors muted, as if this were the back of the painting. And . . . holy hell.
Two golden latches covered her eyes.
“Are those peepholes?” Coco asked incredulously, moving closer. “What kind of macabre freak show is this, Babette?”
“Shhh!” Babette lifted a hasty finger to her lips. “The eyes and ears, remember? Ears. You must whisper in this place.”
I didn’t want to imagine the purpose of such an architectural feature. I did, however, want to imagine a very long bath when I returned home to the theater. There would be scrubbing. Vigorous scrubbing. I could only pray my eyeballs survived it.
Before I could voice my disgust, two shadows moved in my periphery. I whirled, hand flying to the knife in my boot, before the shadows took shape. I stilled as two horribly familiar, horribly unpleasant men leered at me.
Andre and Grue.
I glowered at Babette, knife still clenched in my fist. “What are they doing here?”
At the sound of my voice, Andre leaned forward, blinking slowly in the darkness. “Is that…?”
Grue searched my face, skipping over my mustache and lingering on my dark brows and turquoise eyes, freckled nose and suntanned skin. An evil smile split his face. His front tooth was chipped. And yellow. “Hello, Lou Lou.”
Ignoring him, I glared pointedly at Babette. “This wasn’t part of the deal.”
“Oh, relax, Louise. They’re working.” She flung herself into one of the wooden chairs they’d just vacated. “My mistress hired them as security.”
“Security?” Coco scoffed, reaching into her coat for her own knife. Andre bared his teeth. “Since when is voyeurism considered security?”
“If ever we feel uncomfortable with a client, all we do is knock twice, and these lovely gentlemen intervene.” Babette pointed lazily toward the portraits with her foot, revealing a pale, scarred ankle. “They are doors, mon amour. Immediate access.”
Madame Labelle was an idiot. It was the only explanation for such . . . well, idiocy.
Two of the stupidest thieves I’d ever known, Andre and Grue infringed constantly on our territory in East End. Wherever we went, they followed—usually two steps behind—and wherever they went, the constabulary inevitably did too. Big and ugly and loud, the two lacked the subtlety and skill necessary to thrive in East End. And the brains.
I dreaded to think what they would do with immediate access to anything. Especially sex and violence. And those were perhaps the least of the vices happening within these brothel walls, if this business transaction served as any example.
“Do not worry.” As if reading my thoughts, Babette cast the two a small smile. “My mistress will kill them if they leak information. Isn’t that right, messieurs?”
Their grins vanished, and I finally noted the discoloration around their eyes. Bruises. I still didn’t lower my knife. “And what keeps them from leaking information to your mistress?”
“Well . . .” Babette rose to her feet, sweeping past us to a portrait down the corridor. She lifted a hand to the small golden button next to it. “I suppose that depends on what you’re willing to give them.”
“How about I give all of you a knife in the—”
“Ah, ah, ah!” Babette pressed the button as I advanced, knife raised, and the golden latches over the courtesan’s eyes flipped open. Madame Labelle’s and Tremblay’s muffled voices filled the corridor.
“Think carefully, mon amour,” Babette whispered. “Your precious ring could be in the very next room. Come, see for yourself.” She stepped aside, finger still pressing the button, allowing me to stand in front of the portrait.
Muttering a curse, I stood on my tiptoes to see through the courtesan’s eyes.
Tremblay wore a path through the plush floral carpet of the parlor. He looked paler here in this pastel room—where the morning sun bathed everything in soft, golden light—and sweat beaded along his forehead. Licking his lips nervously, he glanced back at Madame Labelle, who watched him from a chaise longue by the door. Even sitting, she exuded regal grace, neck straight and hands clasped.
“Do calm yourself, Monsieur Tremblay. I assure you I will obtain the necessary funds within the week. A fortnight at most.”
He shook his head curtly. “Too long.”
“One might argue it is not nearly long enough for your asking price. Only the king could afford such an astronomical sum, and he has no use for magic rings.”
Heart lurching to my throat, I pulled away to look at Coco. She scowled and dug in her coat for more couronnes. Andre and Grue pocketed them with gleeful smirks.
Promising myself I would skin them alive after I stole the ring, I returned my attention to the parlor.
“And—and if I were to tell you I have another buyer in place?” Tremblay asked.
“I would call you a liar, Monsieur Tremblay. You could hardly continue boasting possession of your wares after what happened to your daughter.”
Tremblay whirled to face her. “Do not speak of my daughter.”
Smoothing her skirts, Madame Labelle ignored him completely. “Indeed, I’m rather surprised you’re still in the magical black market at all. You do have another daughter, don’t you?” When he didn’t answer, her smile grew small and cruel. Triumphant. “The witches are vicious. If they learn you possess the ring, their wrath on your remaining family will be . . . unpleasant.”
Face purpling, he took a step toward her. “I do not appreciate your implication.”
“Then appreciate my threat, monsieur. Do not cross me, or it will be the last thing you ever do.”
Smothering a snort, I glanced again at Coco, who now shook with silent laughter. Babette glared at us. Magical rings aside, this conversation might’ve been worth forty couronnes. Even the theater paled in comparison to these melodramatics.
“Now, tell me,” Madame Labelle purred, “do you have another buyer?”
“Putain.” He glared at her for several long seconds before grudgingly shaking his head. “No, I do not have another buyer. I’ve spent months renouncing all ties with my former contacts—purging all inventory—yet this ring . . .” He swallowed hard, and the heat in his expression flickered out. “I fear to speak of it to anyone, lest the demons discover I have it.”
“You were unwise to tout any of their items.”
Tremblay didn’t answer. His eyes remained distant, haunted, as if he were seeing something we couldn’t. My throat constricted inexplicably. Oblivious to his torment, Madame Labelle continued ruthlessly. “If you hadn’t, perhaps dear Filippa would still be with us—”
His head snapped up at his daughter’s name, and his eyes—no longer haunted—glinted with fierce purpose. “I will see the demons burn for what they did to her.”
“How foolish of you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I make it my business to know the business of my enemies, monsieur.” She rose gracefully to her feet, and he stumbled back a half step. “As they are now also your enemies, I must offer a piece of advice: ’tis dangerous to meddle in the affairs of witches. Forget your vengeance. Forget everything you’ve learned about this world of shadows and magic. You are wildly outmatched and woefully inadequate in the face of these women. Death is the kindest of their torments—a gift bestowed only to those who have earned it. One would think you’d have learned that with dear Filippa.”
His mouth twisted, and he straightened to his full height, spluttering angrily. Madame Labelle still loomed over him by several inches. “Y-You cross the line.”
Madame Labelle didn’t shrink away from him. Instead, she ran a hand down the bodice of her gown, utterly unfazed, and withdrew a fan from the folds of her skirt. A knife peeked out from its spine.
“I see the pleasantries are over. Right, then. Let us get down to business.” Spreading the device in a single flourish, she fanned it between them. Tremblay eyed the knife point warily and conceded a step. “If you wish me to relieve you of the ring, I will do so here and now—for five thousand gold couronnes less than your asking price.”
An odd choking noise escaped his throat. “You’re mad—”
“If not,” she continued, voice hardening, “you will leave this place with a noose around your daughter’s neck. Her name is Célie, yes? La Dame des Sorcières will delight in draining her youth, in drinking the glow from her skin, the gleam from her hair. She will be unrecognizable by the time the witches finish with her. Empty. Broken. Just like Filippa.”
“You—you—” Tremblay’s eyes bulged, and a vein appeared on his shiny forehead. “Fille de pute! You cannot do this to me. You cannot—”
“Come now, monsieur, I do not have all day. The prince has returned from Amandine, and I do not want to miss the festi-
His chin jutted obstinately. “I—I do not have it with me.”
Damn it. Disappointment crashed through me, bitter and sharp. Coco muttered a curse.
“I do not believe you.” Striding to the window across the room, Madame Labelle peered down. “Ah, Monsieur Tremblay, how could a gentleman such as yourself leave your daughter to wait outside a brothel? Such easy prey.”
Sweating profusely now, Tremblay hastened to turn out his pockets. “I swear I don’t have it! Look, look!” I pressed my face closer as he shoved the contents of his pockets toward her: an embroidered hand cloth, a silver pocket watch, and a fistful of copper couronnes. But no ring. “Please, leave my daughter alone! She is not involved in this!”
He made such a pitiful sight that I might’ve felt sorry for him—if he hadn’t just dashed all my plans. As it were, however, the sight of his trembling limbs and ashen face filled me with vindictive pleasure.
Madame Labelle seemed to share my sentiment. She sighed theatrically, dropping her hand from the window, and—
curiously—turned to look directly at the portrait I stood behind. Tumbling backward, I landed squarely on my ass and bit back a curse.
“What is it?” Coco whispered, crouching beside me. Babette released the button with a frown.
“Shhhh!” I waved my hands wildly, motioning toward the
parlor. I think—I mouthed the words, not daring to speak—she saw me.
Coco’s eyes flew open in alarm.
We all froze as her voice drifted closer, muted but audible through the thin wall. “Pray tell me, monsieur . . . where is it, then?”
Holy hell. Coco and I locked eyes incredulously. Though I didn’t dare return to the portrait, I pressed closer to the wall, breath hot and uncomfortable against my own face. Answer her, I pleaded silently. Tell us.
Miraculously, Tremblay obliged, his vehement reply more dulcet than the sweetest of music. “It’s locked away in my townhouse, you salope ignorante—”
“That will do, Monsieur Tremblay.” As their parlor door clicked open, I could almost see her smile. It matched my own. “I hope for your daughter’s sake you aren’t lying. I will arrive at your townhouse at dawn with your coin. Do not keep me waiting.”
Sitting in the crowded patisserie, Bas lifted a spoonful of chocolat chaud to his lips, careful not to spill a drop on his lace cravat. I resisted the urge to flick a bit of mine at him. For what we had planned, we needed him in a good mood.
No one could swindle an aristocrat like Bas could.
“It’s like this,” I said, pointing my spoon at him, “you can pocket everything else in Tremblay’s vault as payment, but the ring is ours.”
He leaned forward, dark eyes settling on my lips. When I irritably brushed the chocolat from my mustache, he grinned. “Ah, yes. A magic ring. I have to admit I’m surprised you’re interested in such an object. I thought you’d renounced all magic?”
“The ring is different.”
His eyes found my lips once more. “Of course it is.”
“Bas.” I snapped my fingers in front of his face pointedly. “Focus, please. This is important.”
Once, upon arriving in Cesarine, I’d thought Bas quite handsome. Handsome enough to court. Certainly handsome enough to kiss. From across the cramped table, I eyed the dark line of his jaw. There was still a small scar there—just below his ear, hiding in the shadow of his facial hair—where I’d bitten him during one of our more passionate nights.
I sighed ruefully at the memory. He had the most beautiful amber skin. And such a tight little ass.
He chuckled as if reading my mind. “All right, Louey, I shall attempt to marshal my thoughts—as long as you do the same.” Stirring his chocolat, he sat back with a smirk. “So . . . you wish to rob an aristocrat, and you have, of course, come to the master for guidance.”
I scoffed but bit my tongue. As the third cousin twice removed of a baron, Bas held the peculiar position of being part of the aristocracy, while also not being part of it. His relative’s wealth allowed him to dress in the finest fashions and attend the fanciest parties, yet the aristocrats couldn’t bother to remember his name. A useful slight, as he often attended said parties to relieve them of their valuables.
“A wise decision,” he continued, “as twits such as Tremblay utilize layers upon layers of security: gates and locks and guards and dogs, just to name a few. Probably more after what happened to his daughter. The witches stole her during the dead of night, didn’t they? He’ll have increased his protections.”
Filippa was becoming a real pain in my ass.
Scowling, I glanced toward the patisserie’s window. All manner
of pastries perched there on glorious display: iced cakes and sugar loaves and chocolat tartlets, as well as macarons and fruit danishes of every color. Raspberry eclairs and an apple tarte tatin completed the display.
Out of all this decadence, however, the enormous sticky buns—with their cinnamon and sweet cream—made my mouth truly water.
As if on cue, Coco threw herself into the empty seat beside us. She thrust a plate of sticky buns toward me. “Here.”
I could’ve kissed her. “You’re a goddess. You know that, right?”
“Obviously. Just don’t expect me to hold your hair back when you’re puking later—oh, and you owe me a silver couronne.”
“Like hell. That’s my money too—”
“Yes, but you can weasel a sticky bun out of Pan anytime. The couronne is a service fee.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the short, plump man behind the counter: Johannes Pan, pastry extraordinaire and halfwit. More important, however, he was the close personal friend and confidant of Mademoiselle Lucida Bretton.
I was Mademoiselle Lucida Bretton. With a blond wig.
Sometimes I didn’t want to wear the suit—and I’d quickly discovered Pan had a soft spot for the gentler sex. Most days I only had to bat my lashes. Others I had to get slightly more . . . creative. I shot Bas a covert look. Little did he know, he’d committed all sorts of heinous acts to poor Mademoiselle Bretton over the past two years.
Pan couldn’t handle a woman’s tears.
“I’m dressed as a man today.” I tucked into the first bun, shoving half of it into my mouth without decorum. “’esides, ’e prffers”—I swallowed hard, eyes watering—“blondes.”
Heat radiated from Bas’s dark gaze as he watched me. “Then the gentleman has poor taste.”
“Ick.” Coco gagged, rolling her eyes. “Give it a rest, will you? Pining doesn’t suit you.”
“That suit doesn’t suit you—”
Leaving them to bicker, I returned my attention to the buns. Though Coco had procured enough to feed five people, I accepted the challenge. Three buns in, however, the two had turned even my appetite. I pushed my plate away roughly.
“We don’t have the luxury of time, Bas,” I interrupted, just as Coco looked likely to leap across the table at him. “The ring will be gone by morning, so it has to be tonight. Will you help us or not?”
He frowned at my tone. “Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. You don’t need an invisibility ring for safety. You know I can protect you.”
Pfft. Empty promises. Perhaps that was why I’d stopped loving him.
Bas was many things—charming, cunning, ruthless—but he wasn’t a protector. No, he was far too worried about more important things, like saving his own skin at the first sign of trouble. I didn’t hold it against him. He was a man, after all, and his kissing had more than made up for it.
Coco glared at him. “As we’ve told you—several times—it grants the user more than invisibility.”
“Ah, mon amie, I must confess I wasn’t listening.”
When he grinned, blowing her a kiss across the table, her hands curled into fists. “Bordel! I swear, one of these days I’m going to—”
I intervened before she could slash open a vein. “It renders the user immune to enchantment. Sort of like the Chasseurs’ Balisardas.” My gaze flicked to Bas. “Surely you understand how useful that might prove to me.”
His grin vanished. Slowly, he reached up to touch my cravat, fingers tracing where it hid my scar. Chills erupted down my spine. “But she hasn’t found you. You’re still safe.”
He stared at me for a long moment, hand still raised to my throat. Finally, he sighed. “And you’re willing to do whatever it takes to procure this ring?”
I swallowed hard, threading my fingers through his, and nodded. He dropped our clasped hands to the table. “Very well, then. I shall help you.” He glanced out the window, and I followed his gaze. More and more people had gathered for the prince’s parade. Though most laughed and chatted with palpable excitement, unease festered just beneath the surface—in the tightness of their mouths and the sharp, quick movements of their eyes. “Tonight,” he continued, “the king has scheduled a ball to welcome his son home from Amandine. The entire aristocracy has been invited—including Monsieur Tremblay.”
“Convenient,” Coco murmured.
We all tensed simultaneously at a commotion up the street, eyes locking on the men who emerged through the crowd. Clad in coats of royal blue, they marched in rows of three—each thump, thump, thump of their boots perfectly synchronized—with silver daggers held over their hearts. Constables flanked them on either side, shouting and marshaling pedestrians to sidewalks.
Sworn to the Church as huntsmen, Chasseurs protected the kingdom of Belterra from the occult—namely, the Dames Blanches, or the deadly witches who haunted Belterra’s small-minded prejudices. Muted anger pounded through my veins as I watched the Chasseurs march closer. As if we were the interlopers. As if this land hadn’t once belonged to us.
Not your fight. Lifting my chin, I mentally shook myself. The ancient feud between the Church and witches didn’t affect me anymore—not since I’d left the world of witchcraft behind.
“You shouldn’t be out here, Lou.” Coco’s eyes followed the Chasseurs as they lined the street, preventing anyone from approaching the royal family. The parade would soon start. “We should reconvene in the theater. A crowd this size is dangerous. It’s bound to attract trouble.”
“I’m disguised.” Struggling to speak around the sticky bun in my mouth, I swallowed thickly. “No one will recognize me.”
“Andre and Grue did.”
“Only because of my voice—”
“I won’t be reconvening anywhere until after the parade.” Dropping my hand, Bas stood and patted his waistcoat with a salacious grin. “A crowd this size is a glorious cesspool of money, and I plan on drowning in it. If you’ll excuse me.”
He tipped his hat and wove through the patisserie tables away from us. Coco leapt to her feet. “That bastard will renege as soon as he’s out of sight. Probably turn us in to the constabulary—or worse, the Chasseurs. I don’t know why you trust him.”
It remained a point of contention in our friendship that I’d revealed my true identity to Bas. My true name. Never mind that it’d happened after a night of too much whiskey and kissing. Shredding the last bun in an effort to avoid Coco’s gaze, I tried not to regret my decision.
Regret changed nothing. I had no choice but to trust him now. We were linked irrevocably.
She sighed in resignation. “I’ll follow him. You get out of here. Meet us at the theater in an hour?”
“It’s a date.”
◆ ◆ ◆
I left the patisserie only minutes after Coco and Bas. Though dozens of girls huddled outside in near hysterics at the prospect of seeing the prince, it was a man who blocked the doorway.
Truly enormous, he towered over me by head and shoulders, his broad back and powerful arms straining against the brown wool of his coat. He too faced the street, but it didn’t look as if he was watching the parade. He held his shoulders stiffly, feet planted as if preparing for a fight.
I cleared my throat and poked the man in the back. He didn’t move. I poked him again. He shifted slightly, but still not enough for me to squeeze through.
Right. Rolling my eyes, I threw my shoulder into his side and attempted to wedge myself between his girth and the doorjamb. It seemed he felt that contact, because he finally turned—and clubbed me square in the nose with his elbow.
“Shit!” Clutching my nose, I stumbled back and landed on my backside for the second time that morning. Treacherous tears sprang to my eyes. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
He extended a swift hand. “My apologies, monsieur. I didn’t see you.”
“Clearly.” I ignored his hand and hauled myself to my feet. Brushing off my pants, I made to shove past him, but he once again blocked my path. His shabby coat flapped open at the movement, revealing a bandolier strapped across his chest. Knives of every shape and size glinted down at me, but it was the knife sheathed against his heart that made my own drop like a stone. Gleaming and silver, it was adorned with a large sapphire that glittered ominously on its hilt.
I ducked my head. Shit.
Inhaling deeply, I forced myself to remain calm. He presented no danger to me in my current disguise. I’d done nothing wrong. I smelled of cinnamon, not magic. Besides—didn’t all men share some sort of unspoken camaraderie? A mutual understanding of their own collective importance?
“Are you injured, monsieur?”
Right. Today, I was a man. I could do this.
I forced myself to look up.
Beyond his obscene height, the first things I noticed were the brass buttons on his coat—they matched the copper and gold of his hair, which shone in the sun like a beacon. Combined with his straight nose and full mouth, it made him unexpectedly handsome for a Chasseur. Irritatingly handsome. I couldn’t help but stare. Thick lashes framed eyes the precise color of the sea.
Eyes that currently regarded me with unabashed shock.
Shit. My hand shot to my mustache, which dangled off my face from the fall.
Well, it’d been a valiant effort. And while men might be proud, women knew when to get the hell out of a bad situation.
“I’m fine.” I ducked my head quickly and tried to move past him, eager now to put as much distance as possible between us. Though I’d still done nothing wrong, there was no sense in poking fate. Sometimes she poked back. “Just watch where you’re going next time.”
He didn’t move. “You’re a woman.”
“Well spotted.” Again, I tried to shove past him—this time with a bit more force than necessary—but he caught my elbow.
“Why are you dressed like a man?”
“Have you ever worn a corset?” I spun around to face him, reattaching my mustache with as much dignity as I could muster. “I doubt you’d ask such a question if you had. Trousers are infinitely more freeing.”
He stared at me as if I’d sprouted an arm from my forehead. I glared back at him, and he shook his head slightly as if to clear it. “I—my apologies, mademoiselle.”
People were watching us now. I tugged fruitlessly at my arm, the beginnings of panic fluttering in my stomach. “Let me go—”
His grip only tightened. “Have I offended you somehow?”
Losing my patience completely, I jerked away from him with all my might. “You broke my ass bone!”
Perhaps it was my vulgarity that shocked him, but he released me like I’d bitten him, eyeing me with a distaste bordering on revulsion. “I’ve never heard a lady speak so in my entire life.”
Ah. Chasseurs were holy men. He probably thought me the devil.
He wouldn’t have been wrong.
I offered him a catlike smile as I inched away, batting my lashes in my best impression of Babette. When he made no move to stop me, the tension in my chest eased. “You’re hanging out with the wrong ladies, Chass.”
“Are you a courtesan, then?”
I would’ve bristled had I not known several perfectly respectable courtesans—Babette not necessarily among them. Damn extortionist. Instead, I sighed dramatically. “Alas, no, and hearts all over Cesarine are breaking for it.”
His jaw tightened. “What’s your name?”
A wave of raucous cheers spared me from answering. The royal family had finally rounded the corner to our street. The Chasseur turned for only a second, but it was all I needed. Slipping behind a group of particularly enthusiastic young girls—they shrieked the prince’s name at a pitch only dogs should’ve heard—I disappeared before he turned back around.
Elbows jostled me from all sides, however, and I soon realized I was simply too small—too short, too slight—to fight my way through the crowd. At least without poking someone with my knife. Returning a few elbows with my own, I searched for higher ground to wait out the procession. Somewhere out of sight.
With a jump, I caught the windowsill of an old sandstone building, shimmied my way up the drainpipe, and pulled myself onto the roof. Settling my elbows on the balustrade, I surveyed the street below. Golden flags with the royal family’s crest fluttered from each doorway, and vendors hawked food at every corner. Despite the mouthwatering smells of their frites and sausages and cheese croissants, the city still reeked of fish. Fish and smoke. I wrinkled my nose. One of the pleasures of living on a dreary gray peninsula.
Cesarine embodied gray. Dingy gray houses sat stacked atop one another like sardines in a tin, and crumbling streets wound past dirty gray markets and even dirtier gray harbors. An ever-present cloud of chimney smoke encompassed everything.
It was suffocating, the gray. Lifeless. Dull.
Still, there were worse things in life than dull. And there were worse kinds of smoke than chimney.
The cheers reached a climax as the Lyon family passed beneath my building.
King Auguste waved from his gilt carriage, golden curls blowing in the late-autumn wind. His son, Beauregard, sat beside him. The two couldn’t have looked more different. Where the former was light of eyes and complexion, the latter’s hooded eyes, tawny skin, and black hair favored his mother. But their smiles—both were nearly identical in charm.
Too charming, in my opinion. Arrogance exuded from their very pores.
Auguste’s wife scowled behind them. I didn’t blame her. I would’ve scowled too if my husband had more lovers than fingers and toes—not that I ever planned to have a husband. I’d be damned before chaining myself to anyone in marriage.
I’d just turned away, already bored, when something shifted in the street below. It was a subtle thing, almost as if the wind had changed direction mid-course. A nearly imperceptible hum reverberated from the cobblestones, and every sound of the crowd—every smell and taste and touch—faded into the ether. The world stilled. I scrambled backward, away from the roof’s edge, as the hair on my neck stood up. I knew what came next. I recognized the faint brush of energy against my skin, the familiar thrumming in my ears.
Then came the screams.
Wicked Are the Ways of Women
The smell always followed the witches. Sweet and herbal, yet sharp—too sharp. Like the incense the Archbishop burned during Mass, but more acrid. Though years had passed since I’d taken my holy orders, I’d never acclimated to it. Even now—with just a hint of it on the breeze—it burned all the way down my throat. Choking me. Taunting me.
I loathed the smell of magic.
Sliding the Balisarda knife from its place by my heart, I scanned the revelers around us. Jean Luc shot me a wary glance. “Trouble?”
“Can’t you smell it?” I murmured back. “It’s faint, but it’s there. They’ve already started.”
He pulled his own Balisarda from the bandolier across his chest. His nostrils flared. “I’ll alert the others.”
He slipped through the crowd without another word. Though he also wore no uniform, the crowd still parted for him like the Red Sea for Moses. Probably the sapphire on his knife. Whispers followed him as he went, and some of the more astute revelers looked back at me. Their eyes widened. Realization sparked.
We’d suspected this attack. With each passing day, the witches grew more restless—which was why half my brethren lined the street in uniform, and the other half—the half dressed like me—hid in plain sight within the crowd. Waiting. Watching.
A middle-aged man stepped toward me. He held a little girl’s hand. Same eye color. Similar bone structure. Daughter.
“Are we in danger here, sir?” More turned at his question. Brows furrowed. Eyes darted. The man’s daughter winced, wrinkling her nose and dropping her flag. It hung in midair a second too long before fluttering to the ground.
“My head hurts, Papa,” she whispered.
“Hush, child.” He glanced down at the knife in my hand, and the tight muscles around his eyes relaxed. “This man is a Chasseur. He’ll keep us safe. Isn’t that right, sir?”
Unlike his daughter, he hadn’t yet smelled the magic. But he would. Soon.
“You need to vacate the area immediately.” My voice came out sharper than I’d intended. The little girl winced again, and her father wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The Archbishop’s words reared in my head. Soothe them, Reid. You must instill calm and confidence as well as protect. I shook my head and tried again. “Please, monsieur, return home. Salt your doors and windows. Don’t step out again until—”
A piercing scream cut through the rest of my words.
“GO!” I thrust the man and his daughter into the patisserie behind us. He’d barely stumbled through the door before others raced to follow, heedless of anyone standing in their way. Bodies collided in every direction. The screams around us multiplied, and unnatural laughter echoed from everywhere at once. I tucked my knife close to my side and barreled through the panicked revelers, tripping over an elderly woman.
“Careful.” I gritted my teeth, catching her frail shoulders before she fell to her death. Milky eyes blinked up at me, and a slow, peculiar smile touched her withered lips.
“God bless you, young man,” she croaked. Then she turned with unnatural grace and disappeared into the horde of people rushing past. It took several seconds for me to register the cloying, charred odor she left in her wake. My heart dropped like a stone.
“Reid!” Jean Luc stood in the royal family’s carriage. Dozens of my brethren surrounded it, sapphires flashing as they drove frenzied citizens back. I started forward—but the throng before me shifted, and I finally saw them.
They glided up the street with serene smiles, hair billowing in a nonexistent wind. Three of them. Laughing as bodies fell around them with the simplest flicks of their fingers.
Though I prayed their victims weren’t dead, I often wondered whether death was the kinder fate. The less fortunate woke without memories of their second child, or perhaps with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Last month, a child had been found without its eyes. Another man had lost his ability to sleep. Yet another spent the rest of his days pining after a woman no one else could see.
Each case different. Each more disturbing than the last.
“REID!” Jean Luc waved his arms, but I ignored him. Unease rapped just beyond conscious thought as I watched the witches advance on the royal family. Slowly, leisurely, despite the battalion of Chasseurs sprinting toward them. Bodies rose like marionettes, forming a human shield around the witches. I watched in horror as a man lunged forward and impaled himself on the Balisarda of one of my brothers. The witches cackled and continued contorting their fingers in unnatural ways. With each twitch, a helpless body rose. Puppeteers.
It didn’t make sense. The witches operated in secrecy. They attacked from the shadows. Such conspicuousness on their part—such showmanship—was surely foolish. Unless . . .
Unless we’d lost sight of the bigger picture.
I charged toward the sandstone buildings to my right for a perch to see over the crowd. Gripping the wall with shaking fingers, I forced my limbs to climb. Each pitted stone loomed higher and higher than the last—blurry now. Spinning. My chest tightened. Blood pounded in my ears. Don’t look down. Keep looking up—
A familiar mustachioed face appeared over the roof’s edge. Blue-green eyes. Freckled nose. The girl from the patisserie.
“Shit,” she said. Then she ducked out of sight.
I concentrated on the spot where she’d disappeared. My body moved with renewed purpose. Within seconds, I hauled myself over the ledge, but she was already leaping to the next rooftop. She clutched her hat with one hand and raised her middle finger with the other. I scowled. The little heathen wasn’t my concern, despite her blatant disrespect.
I turned to peer below, clutching the ledge for support when the world tilted and spun.
People poured into the shops lining the streets. Too many. Far too many. The shopkeepers struggled to maintain order as those nearest the doors were trampled. The patisserie owner had succeeded in barricading his own door. Those left outside shrieked and pounded on the windows as the witches moved closer.
I scanned the crowd for anything we’d missed. More than twenty bodies circled the air around the witches now—some unconscious, heads lolling, and others painfully awake. One man hung spread-eagled, as if shackled to an imaginary cross. Smoke billowed from his mouth, which opened and closed in silent screams. Another woman’s clothes and hair floated around her as if she were underwater, and she clawed helplessly at the air. Face turning blue. Drowning.
With each new horror, more Chasseurs rushed forward.
I could see the fierce urge to protect on their faces even from a distance. But in their haste to aid the helpless, they’d forgotten our true mission: the royal family. Only four men now surrounded the carriage. Two Chasseurs. Two royal guards. Jean Luc held the queen’s hand as the king bellowed orders—to us, to his guard, to anyone who would listen—but the tumultuous noise swallowed every word.
At their back, insignificant in every way, crept the hag.
The reality of the situation punched through me, stealing my breath. The witches, the curses—they were all a performance. A distraction.
Not pausing to think, to acknowledge the terrifying distance to the ground, I grabbed the drainpipe and vaulted over the roof’s edge. The tin screeched and buckled under my weight. Halfway down, it separated from the sandstone completely. I leapt—heart lodged firmly in my throat—and braced for impact. Jarring pain radiated up my legs as I hit the ground, but I didn’t stop.
“Jean Luc! Behind you!”
He spun to look at me, eyes landing on the hag the same second mine did. Understanding dawned. “Get down!” He tackled the king to the carriage floor. The remaining Chasseurs dashed around the carriage at his shout.
The hag glanced over her hunched shoulder at me, the same peculiar grin spreading across her face. She flicked her wrist, and the cloying smell around us intensified. A blast of air shot from her fingertips, but the magic couldn’t touch us. Not with our Balisardas. Each had been forged with a molten drop of Saint Constantin’s original holy relic, rendering us immune to the witches’ magic. I felt the sickly-sweet air rush past, but it did nothing to deter me. Nothing to deter my brethren.
The guards and citizens nearest us weren’t so lucky. They flew backward, smashing into the carriage and the shops lining the street. The hag’s eyes flared with triumph when one of my brethren abandoned his post to help them. She moved swiftly—far too swiftly to be natural—toward the carriage door. Prince Beauregard’s incredulous face appeared above it at the commotion. She snarled at him, mouth twisting. I tackled her to the ground before she could lift her hands.
She fought with the strength of a woman half her age—of a man half her age—kicking and biting and hitting every inch of me she could reach. But I was too heavy. I smothered her with my body, wrenched her hands above her head far enough to dislocate her shoulders. Pressed my knife to her throat.
She stilled as I lowered my mouth to her ear. The blade bit deeper. “May God have mercy on your soul.”
She laughed then—a great, cackling laugh that shook her entire body. I frowned, leaning back—and froze. The woman beneath me was no longer a hag. I watched in horror as her ancient face melted into smooth, porcelain skin. As her brittle hair flowed thick and raven down her shoulders.
She stared up at me through hooded eyes, lips parting as she lifted her face to my own. I couldn’t think—couldn’t move, didn’t know if I even wanted to—but somehow managed to jerk away before her lips brushed mine.
And that’s when I felt it.
The firm, rounded shape of her belly pressed into my
Every thought emptied from my head. I leapt backward—away from her, away from the thing—and scrambled to my feet. The screams in the distance faltered. The bodies on the ground stirred. The woman slowly stood.
Now clothed in deep bloodred, she placed a hand on her swollen womb and smiled.
Her emerald eyes flicked to the royal family, who crouched low in their carriage, pale and wide-eyed. Watching. “We will reclaim our homeland, Majesties,” she crooned. “Time and time again, we have warned you. You did not heed our words. Soon, we will dance atop your ashes as you have our ancestors’.”
Her eyes met mine. Porcelain skin sagged once more, and raven hair withered back to thin wisps of silver. No longer the beautiful, pregnant woman. Again the hag. She winked at me. The gesture was chilling on her haggard face. “We must do this again soon, handsome.”
I couldn’t speak. Never before had I seen such black magic—such desecration of the human body. But witches weren’t human. They were vipers. Demons incarnate. And I had almost—
Her toothless grin widened as if she could read my mind. Before I could move—before I could unsheathe my blade and send her back to Hell where she belonged—she turned on her heel and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
But not before blowing me a kiss.
◆ ◆ ◆
Thick green carpet muffled my footsteps in the Archbishop’s study hours later. Ornate wood paneling covered the windowless walls of the room. A fireplace cast flickering light on the papers strewn across his desk. Already seated behind it, the Archbishop gestured for me to sit in one of the wooden chairs opposite him.
I sat. Forced myself to meet his gaze. Ignored the burning humiliation in my gut.
Though the king and his family had escaped the parade unscathed, many others had not. Two had died—one girl at her brother’s hand and the other at her own. Dozens more bore no visible injury but were currently strapped to beds two floors above. Screaming. Speaking in tongues. Staring at the ceiling without blinking. Vacant. The priests did what they could for them, but most would be transported to the asylum within a fortnight. There was only so much human medicine could do for those inflicted with witchcraft.
The Archbishop surveyed me over steepled fingers. Steely eyes. Harsh mouth. Silver streaks at his temples. “You did well today, Reid.”
I frowned, shifting in my seat. “Sir?”
He smiled grimly and leaned forward. “If not for you, the casualties would have been much greater. King Auguste is indebted to you. He sings your praises.” He gestured to a crisp envelope on his desk. “Indeed, he plans to hold a ball in your honor.”
My shame burned hotter. Through sheer willpower, I managed to unclench my fists. I deserved no one’s praise—not the king’s, and especially not my patriarch’s. I had failed them today. Broken the first rule of my brethren: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
I had suffered four.
Worse—I’d actually—I’d wanted to—
I shuddered in my chair, unable to finish the thought. “I cannot accept, sir.”
“And why not?” He arched a dark brow, leaning back once more. I shrank under his scrutiny. “You alone remembered your mission. You alone recognized the hag for what it was.”
He waved an impatient hand. “Your humbleness is noted, Reid, but you mustn’t assume false modesty. You saved lives today.”
“I— Sir, I—” Choking on the words, I stared resolutely at my hands. They fisted in my lap once more.
As always, the Archbishop understood without explanation. “Ah . . . yes.” His voice grew soft. I looked up to find him watching me with an inscrutable expression. “Jean Luc told me about your unfortunate encounter.”
Though the words were mild, I heard the disappointment behind them. Shame reared and crashed within me once more. I ducked my head. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what came over me.”
He heaved a great sigh. “Fret not, son. Wicked are the ways of women—and especially a witch. Their guile knows no bounds.”
“Forgive me, sir, but I’ve never seen such magic before. The witch—it was a hag, but it . . . changed.” I stared down at my fists again. Determined to get the words out. “It changed into a beautiful woman.” I took a deep breath and looked up, jaw clenched. “A beautiful woman with child.”
His lip curled. “The Mother.”
He rose to his feet, clasping his hands behind him, and began to pace. “Have you forgotten the sacrilegious teachings of the witches, Reid?”
I shook my head curtly, ears burning, and remembered the stern deacons of my childhood. The sparse classroom by the sanctuary. The faded Bible in my hands.
Witches do not worship our Lord and Savior, nor do they acknowledge the holy trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They glorify another
trinity—an idolatrous trinity. The Triple Goddess.
Even if I hadn’t grown up in the Church, every Chasseur learned the witches’ evil ideology before taking his vows.
“Maiden, Mother, and Crone,” I murmured.
He nodded approvingly, and warm satisfaction spread through me. “An embodiment of femininity in the cycle of birth, life, and death . . . among other things. ’Tis blasphemous, of course.” He scoffed and shook his head. “As if God could be a woman.”
I frowned, avoiding his eyes. “Of course, sir.”
“The witches believe their queen, La Dame des Sorcières, has been blessed by the goddess. They believe she—it—can shift into the forms of the trinity at will.” He paused, mouth tightening as he looked at me. “Today, I believe you encountered La Dame des Sorcières herself.”
I gaped at him. “Morgane le Blanc?”
He nodded curtly. “The very same.”
“It explains the temptation. Your inability to control your basest nature. La Dame des Sorcières is incredibly powerful, Reid, particularly in that form. The witches claim the Mother represents fertility, fulfillment, and . . . sexuality.” His face twisted in disgust, as if the word left a bitter taste in his mouth. “A lesser man than you would have succumbed.”
But I wanted to. My face burned hot enough to cause physical pain as silence descended between us. Footsteps sounded, and the Archbishop’s hand came down on my shoulder. “Cast this from your mind, lest the creature poison your thoughts and corrupt your spirit.”
I swallowed hard and forced myself to look at him. “I will not fail you again, sir.”
“I know.” No hesitation. No uncertainty. Relief swelled in my chest. “This life we have chosen—the life of self-restraint, of temperance—it is not without difficulties.” He squeezed my shoulder. “We are human. From the dawn of time, this has been men’s plight—to be tempted by women. Even within the perfection of the Garden of Eden, Eve seduced Adam into sin.”
When I said nothing, he released my shoulder and sighed. Weary, now. “Take this matter to the Lord, Reid. Confess, and He will absolve you. And if . . . in time . . . you cannot overcome this affliction, perhaps we should procure you a wife.”
His words struck my pride—my honor—like a blow. Anger coursed through me. Hard. Fast. Sickening. Only a handful of my brethren had taken wives since the king had commissioned our holy order, and most had eventually forsaken their positions and left the Church.
Still . . . there had once been a time I’d considered it. Yearned for it, even. But no longer.
“That won’t be necessary, sir.”
As if sensing my thoughts, the Archbishop continued warily. “I needn’t remind you of your previous transgressions, Reid. You know very well the Church cannot force any man to vow
celibacy—not even a Chasseur. As Peter said, ‘If they cannot control themselves, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.’ If it is your wish to marry, neither your brothers nor I can stop you.” He paused, watching me closely. “Perhaps the young Mademoiselle Tremblay will still have you?”
Célie’s face flared briefly in my mind at his words. Delicate. Beautiful. Her green eyes filled with tears. They’d soaked the black fabric of her mourning gown.
You cannot give me your heart, Reid. I cannot have it on my conscience.
Those monsters who murdered Pip are still out there. They must be punished. I will not distract you from your purpose. If you must give away your heart, give it to your brotherhood. Please, please, forget me.
I could never forget you.
I shoved the memory away before it consumed me.
No. I would never marry. After the death of her sister, Célie had made that very clear.
“‘But I say therefore to the unmarried and widows,’” I finished, my voice low and even, “‘it is good for them if they abide even as I.’” I stared intently at my fists in my lap, still mourning a future—a family—I’d never see. “Please, sir . . . do not think I would ever risk my future within the Chasseurs by entering into matrimony. I wish nothing more than to please God . . . and you.”
I glanced up at him then, and he offered me a grim smile. “Your devotion to the Lord pleases me. Now, fetch my carriage. I’m due at the castle for the prince’s ball. Folly, if you ask me, but Auguste does spoil his son—”
A tentative knock on the door halted the rest of his words. His smile vanished at the sound, and he nodded once, dismissing me. I stood as he strode around his desk. “Come in.”
A young, gangly initiate entered. Ansel. Sixteen. Orphaned as a baby, like me. I’d known him only briefly throughout childhood, though we’d both been raised in the Church. He’d been too young to keep company with me and Jean Luc.
He bowed, his right fist covering his heart. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Your Eminence.” His throat bobbed as he extended a letter. “But you have a correspondence. A woman just came to the door. She believes a witch will be in West End tonight, sir, near Brindelle Park.”
I froze. That was where Célie lived.
“A woman?” The Archbishop frowned and leaned forward, taking the letter. The seal had been pressed into the shape of a rose. He reached into his robes for a thin knife to open it. “Who?”
“I don’t know, Your Eminence.” Pink tinged Ansel’s cheeks. “She had bright red hair and was very”—he coughed and stared at his boots—“very beautiful.”
The Archbishop’s frown deepened as he flicked open the envelope. “It does not do to dwell on earthly beauty, Ansel,” he chided, turning his attention to the letter. “I expect to see you at confession tomor—” His eyes widened at whatever he read there.
I stepped closer. “Sir?”
He ignored me, eyes still fixed on the page. I took another step toward him, and his head snapped up. He blinked rapidly. “I—” He shook his head and cleared his throat, turning his gaze back to the letter.
“Sir?” I repeated.
At the sound of my voice, he lurched to the fireplace and hurled the letter into the flames. “I am fine,” he snapped, clasping his hands behind his back. They trembled. “Do not worry yourself.”
But I did worry. I knew the Archbishop better than anyone—and he didn’t shake. I stared into the fireplace, where the letter disintegrated into black ash. My hands curled into fists. If a witch had targeted Célie like Filippa, I would rip it limb from limb. It would beg for the flames before I finished with it.
As if sensing my gaze, the Archbishop turned to look at me. “Assemble a team, Captain Diggory.” His voice was steadier now. Steelier. His gaze flicked back to the fireplace, and his expression hardened. “Though I sincerely doubt the validity of this woman’s claim, we must uphold our vows. Search the area. Report back immediately.”
I placed a fist over my heart, bowed, and moved toward the door, but his hand snaked out and caught my arm. It no longer trembled. “If a witch is indeed in West End, bring it back alive.”
Nodding, I bowed once more. Resolute. A witch didn’t need all its limbs to continue living. It didn’t even need its head. Until burned, witches could reanimate. I’d break none of the Archbishop’s rules. And if bringing back a witch alive would ease the Archbishop’s sudden distress, I would bring back three. For him. For Célie. For me.
“Consider it done.”