Philippe was at Grandmother Olympe’s, with the other aunts and the children. It was almost the Mid-Autumn festival, and he’d been roped into helping Colette build a lantern. Aunt Ha’s daughter was three, and didn’t have the fine motor control necessary to put it together without crushing the delicate wooden ribs. He’d cheated, and used a hint of khi fire and khi water to create an am duong pattern in the air. Each teardrop half of the circular sign hung wreathed in colored light, and it was slowly rotating, much to Colette’s entrancement.
He’d wanted to use the khi elements to put the lantern together, too, but Grandmother Olympe had put her foot down, darkly muttering something about proper striving. Slowly, carefully, he threaded the silk paper over the last of the ribs. He’d chosen the classic five-star shape, but hadn’t realized how complicated it was. But he wasn’t about to lose face in front of Grandmother Olympe—who’d make some low-voiced and pointed comments about Immortals not knowing everything, hoping to draw him into an argument about their respective ages. She’d never quite forgiven him for continuing to call her “Grandmother” when he was, in fact, much older than her; over a thousand years old and ageless, by virtue of the ascension that had brought him into the court of the Jade Emperor. She’d chosen to ignore that he’d later been thrown out of it—though at least she wasn’t worshipping him. He had a temple in those days, a small room in a basement with an altar and people leaving offerings. “Awkward” didn’t even begin to cover how he felt about it.
His fingers slipped, sending a small wooden dowel clattering to the floor, and he picked it up with hands that seemed to be on fire. Demons take him, it was a children’s lantern—it shouldn’t be that complicated…
A distant noise like thunder. Philippe looked up, startled, a split second before the floor shook and cracks spread through the walls of the apartment.
Aunt Ha was already there, picking up her daughter before Philippe could even think of moving. She gave him a dark look, as if he was somehow responsible for whatever was happening, but Aunt Thuy was already bending at the window, followed by most of the others.
“There’s smoke in the sky,” Aunt Thuy said.
A faint, sickly smell in the air—a familiar one, wasn’t it? Not fire, which happened now and again in devastated Paris; not the smoke of the pyres on which House Hawthorn burned the Houseless they slayed, calling it justice. But something older and much more dangerous… Abruptly, he was back sixty years ago, his hands splintered with the wood of his spear, pushing forward as the company he was part of entered the kitchens of House Draken, moments before it fell and the shock of its extinction sent them all reeling…
Grandmother Olympe was shaking him, her hands smearing grit-speckled mooncake dough on his face, a cold and startling touch, like that of a drowning man.
“I’m fine,” he said, but he couldn’t quite keep his voice from shaking. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know.” Olympe’s dark, wrinkled face was emotionless.
Philippe walked to the window—it was open in the warm weather, which meant he could see through it instead of squinting through cracked, opaque glass patched in multiple places. A plume of smoke rose from beyond the roofs of la Goutte d’Or neighborhood, its billowing darkness shot through with colored lights as if from fractured jewels. The air was saturated with that sweet, sickly smell—that of battle spells he hadn’t witnessed cast in more than sixty years, since the war had ended.
“Look look, Lippe, lightie lightie,” Colette said, trying to bend over the windowsill to catch the smoke, but Aunt Ha held her fast.
“Something is burning,” Aunt Ha said. “Something big.”
“House fights,” Philippe said, with a lightness he didn’t feel. “None of our business.”
He looked at the khi currents in the small, crowded kitchen space. They were bent out of shape, slowly draining towards the source of the smoke. Not just any House fight, but a spectacular one. What was in that direction? Hell’s Toll, Solférino, Harrier? Not that it mattered.
Grandmother Olympe was silent for a while; he could see her weighing possible consequences for the little Annamite community she was all but queen of.
“You can’t fight them,” Philippe said.
Ancestors knew he wanted to; but it was a doomed, impossible struggle.
“No,” Grandmother Olympe said, at length. “You’re right. It’s none of our business. And it’s not like knowing would change anything for us.” She brought both hands together. “Come on, everyone. We have lanterns and mooncakes to finish for tomorrow.”
The aunts came back from the window, and Philippe went back to his discarded lantern. But he could still feel the tension and worry in the air—the way the conversations were now terse and taut, that Aunt Ha kept glancing at Colette, wondering how much of that she’d understood. And, when he walked out of the apartment after his lantern was finished, the smoke was still rising above the buildings, now purple rather than black, the sky around it puckered and bruised, and the khi currents all bent out of shape, slowly gathering in a huge maelstrom that spun in the sky like a huge, ponderous serpent.
Sixty years. It had been sixty years since the Great Houses War. He hadn’t been there at the start, obviously—only brought in, like the aunts’ ancestors, when it had been going badly, when they had needed to drain their colonies of blood and silver in order to survive. But—he glanced, again, at the plume of smoke, stubbornly refusing to go away—he imagined it would have started much like this, once upon a time.