Following the events of The Beautiful, Sébastien Saint Germain is now cursed and forever changed. The treaty between the Fallen and the Brotherhood has been broken, and war between the immortals seems imminent. The price of loving Celine was costly.
But Celine has also paid a high price for loving Bastien. Still recovering from injuries sustained during a night she can't quite remember, her dreams are troubled. And she doesn't know she has inadvertently set into motion a chain of events that could lead to her demise and unveil a truth about herself she's not ready to learn.
Forces hiding in the shadows have been patiently waiting for this moment. And just as Bastien and Celine begin to uncover the danger around them, they learn their love could tear them apart.
The Damned, Renée's latest installment in The Beautiful series is just as decadent, thrilling, and mysterious as her last, as she continues her most potent fantasy series yet.
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First there is nothing. Only silence. A sea of oblivion.
Then flashes of memory take shape. Snippets of sound. The laughter of a loved one, the popping of wood sap in a fireplace, the smell of butter melting across fresh bread.
An image emerges from the chaos, sharpening with each second. A crying young woman—her eyes like emeralds, her hair like spilled ink—leans over him, clutching his bloodstained hand, pleading with him in muffled tones.
Who am I? he wonders.
Dark amusement winds through him.
He is nothing. No one. Nobody.
The scent of blood suffuses his nostrils, intoxicatingly sweet. Like lechosa from a fruit stand in San Juan, its juice dripping down his shirtsleeves.
He becomes hunger. Not a kind of hunger he’s ever known before, but an all-consuming void. A dull ache around his dead heart, a blast of bloodlust searing through his veins. It knifes through his stomach like the talons on a bird of prey. Rage builds in his chest. The desire to seek and destroy. To consume life. Let it fill the emptiness within him. Where there was once a sea of oblivion, there is now a canvas painted red, the color dripping like rain at his feet, setting his world aflame.
My city. My family. My love.
Who am I?
From the fires of his fury, a name emerges.
Bastien. My name is Sébastien Saint Germain.
I lie still, my body weightless. Immobile. It feels like I’m locked in a pitch-black room, unable to speak, choking on the smoke of my own folly.
My uncle did this to me once when I was nine. My closest friend, Michael, and I had stolen a box of cigars hand-rolled by an elderly lady from Havana who worked on the corner of Burgundy and Saint Louis. When Uncle Nico caught us smoking them in the alley behind Jacques’, he sent Michael home, his voice deathly quiet. Filled with foreboding.
Then my uncle locked me in a hall closet with the box of cigars and a tin of matches. He told me I could not leave until I finished every single one of them.
That was the last time I ever smoked a cigar.
It took me weeks to forgive Uncle Nico. Years to stomach the smell of burning tobacco anywhere in my vicinity. Half a lifetime to understand why he’d felt the need to teach that particular lesson.
I try to swallow this ghost of bile. I fail.
I know what Nicodemus has done. Though the memory is still unclear—fogged by the weakness of my dying body—I know he has made me into one of them. I am now a vampire, like my uncle before me. Like my mother before me, who faced the final death willingly, her lips stained red and a lifeless body in her arms.
I am a soulless son of Death, cursed to drink the blood of the living until the end of time.
It sounds ridiculous even to me, a boy raised on the truth of monsters. Like a joke told by an unfunny aunt with a penchant for melodrama. A woman who cuts herself on her diamond bracelet and wails as drops of blood trickle onto her silken skirts.
Like that, I am hunger once more. With each pang, I become less human. Less of what I once was and more of what I will forever be. A demon of want, who simply craves more, never to be sated.
White-hot rage chases behind the bloodlust, igniting like a trail of saltpeter from a powder keg. I understand why Uncle Nico did this, though it will take many lifetimes for me to forgive him. Only the direst of circumstances would drive him to turn the last living member of his mortal family—the lone heir to the Saint Germain fortune—into a demon of the Otherworld.
His line has died with me, my human life reaching an all-too-sudden end. This choice must be one of last resort. A voice resonates in my mind. A feminine voice, its echoes tremulous.
Please. Save him. What can I say that will make you save him? Do we have a deal?
When I realize who it is, what she must have done, I howl a silent howl, the sound ringing in the hollows of my lost soul. I cannot think about that now.
My failure will not let me.
It is enough to know that I, Sébastien Saint Germain, eighteen-year-old son of a beggar and a thief, have been turned into a member of the Fallen. A race of blood drinkers banished from their rightful place in the Otherworld by their own greed. Creatures of the night embroiled in a centuries-long war with their archenemy, a brotherhood of werewolves.
I try to speak but fail, my throat tight, my eyelids sealed shut. After all, Death is a powerful foe to vanquish.
Fine silk rustles by my ear, a scented breeze coiling through the air. Neroli oil and rose water. The unmistakable perfume of Odette Valmont, one of my dearest friends. For almost ten years, she was a protector in life. Now she is a sister in blood. A vampire, sired by the same maker.
My right thumb twitches in response to her nearness. Still I cannot speak or move freely. Still I am locked in a darkened room, with nothing but a box of cigars and a tin of matches, dread coursing through my veins, hunger tingling on my tongue.
A sigh escapes Odette’s lips. “He’s beginning to wake.” She pauses, pity seeping into her voice. “He’ll be furious.”
As usual, Odette is not wrong. But there is comfort in my fury. Freedom in knowing I may soon seek release from my rage.
“And well he should be,” my uncle says. “This is the most selfish thing I’ve ever done. If he manages to survive the change, he will come to hate me . . . just as Nigel did.”
Nigel. The name alone rekindles my ire. Nigel Fitzroy, the reason for my untimely demise. He—along with Odette and four other members of my uncle’s vampire progeny— safeguarded me from Nicodemus Saint Germain’s enemies, chief among them those of the Brotherhood. For years Nigel bided his time. Cultivated his plan for revenge on the vampire who snatched him from his home and made him a demon of the night. Under the guise of loyalty, Nigel put into motion a series of events intended to destroy the thing Nicodemus prized most: his living legacy.
I’ve been betrayed before, just as I have betrayed others. It is the way of things when you live among capricious immortals and the many illusionists who hover nearby like flies. Only two years ago, my favorite pastime involved fleecing the Crescent City’s most notorious warlocks of their ill-gotten gains. The worst among their ilk were always so certain that a mere mortal could never best them. It gave me great pleasure to prove them wrong.
But I have never betrayed my family. And I had never been betrayed by a vampire sworn to protect me. Someone I loved as a brother. Memories waver through my mind. Images of laughter and a decade of loyalty. I want to shout and curse. Rail to the heavens, like a demon possessed.
Alas, I know how well God listens to the prayers of the damned.
“I’ll summon the others,” Odette murmurs. “When he wakes, he should see us all united.”
“Leave them be,” Nicodemus replies, “for we are not yet out of the woods.” For the first time, I sense a hint of distress in his words, there and gone in an instant. “More than a third of my immortal children did not survive the transformation. Many were lost in the first year to the foolishness of immortal youth. This . . . may not work.”
“It will work,” Odette says without hesitation.
“Sébastien could succumb to madness, as his mother did,” Nicodemus says. “In her quest to be unmade, Philomène destroyed everything in her path, until there was nothing to be done but put an end to the terror.”
“That is not Bastien’s fate.”
“Don’t be foolish. It very well could be.”
Odette’s response is cool. “A risk you were willing to take.”
“But a risk nonetheless. It was why I refused his sister when she asked me years ago to turn her.” He exhales. “In the end, we lost her to the fire all the same.”
“We will not lose Bastien as we lost Émilie. Nor will he succumb to Philomène’s fate.”
“You speak with such surety, little oracle.” He pauses. “Has your second sight granted you this sense of conviction?”
“No. Years ago, I promised Bastien I would not look into his future. I have not forsaken my word. But I believe in my heart that hope will prevail. It . . . simply must.”
Despite her seemingly unshakable faith, Odette’s worry is a palpable thing. I wish I could reach for her hand. Offer her words of reassurance. But still I am locked within myself, my anger overtaking all else. It turns to ash on my tongue, until all I am left with is want. The need to be loved. To be sated. But most of all, the desire to destroy.
Nicodemus says nothing for a time. “We shall see. His wrath will be great, of that there can be no doubt. Sébastien never wanted to become one of us. He bore witness to the cost of the change at an early age.”
My uncle knows me well. His world took my family from me. I think of my parents, who died years ago, trying to keep me safe. I think of my sister, who perished trying to protect me. I think of Celine, the girl I loved in life, who will not remember me.
I have never betrayed anyone I love.
But never is a long time, when you have eternity to consider.
“He may also be grateful,” Odette says. “One day.”
My uncle does not reply.
Odette Valmont leaned into the wind. Let it buffet her brunette curls about her face and whip her coattails into a frenzy. She reveled in the feeling of weightlessness as she stared down at Jackson Square, her right hand wrapped around the cool metal spire, her left boot dangling in the evening air.
“Ah, it’s just you and me again, n’est-ce pas?” she joked to the metal crucifix mounted above her.
The figure of Christ stared down at Odette in thoughtful silence.
Odette sighed. “Don’t fret, mon Sauveur. You know I hold your counsel in the highest esteem. It is not every day that a creature such as myself is fortunate enough to count you among her dearest friends.” She grinned.
Perhaps it was blasphemous for a demon of the night to address the Savior of mankind in such a familiar fashion. But Odette was in need of guidance, now more than ever.
“I’d like to think you hear my prayers,” she continued. “After all, when I was alive, I made it a point to attend Mass regularly.” She tilted her ear toward the cross. “What was that?” Laughter bubbled from her pale throat. “Mais oui, bien sûr! I knew it. You embraced the sinner. Of course you would welcome me with open arms.” Affection warmed her gaze. “It is why we will always be friends, until the bitter end.” She paused as if she were listening to a reply intended for her ears alone. “You’re too kind,” she said. “And I would never fault you for the sins of the men who have turned your pure words and generous deeds into instruments of power and control.” Once more, Odette whirled around the spire. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” she sang, her eyes squeezed shut, a gust of wind rushing toward her face.
Odette took in the world of the Vieux Carré far below, her attention catching on the cameo pinned beneath her throat, the creamy ivory surrounded by a halo of bloodred rubies. Her fétiche, which served two purposes, much like the two sides of her life. It worked as a talisman to protect her from the light of the sun while also serving as an ever-present reminder of her past.
The sight of it sobered her. Along with the slew of remembrances gathering in its wake.
New Orleans’ high society believed Odette Valmont to be the carefree sort of jeune fille who thrived in the company of others. A young lady whose greatest joy was standing center stage in a roomful of people, their gazes rapt.
“But who wouldn’t adore the attention?” Odette asked. “Am I to be faulted even for this most human of emotions? After all, beauty such as ours is meant to be admired!” It was one of the things that made vampires such dangerous predators: their beauté inégalée, as she liked to call it. With this unparalleled beauty, they drew their victims into a lasting embrace.
But not long after the appreciative sighs faded, Odette would don her favorite pair of buckskin trousers. She would climb the back of the cathedral under cover of night, her fingers and toes sure as they clawed their way up the center of the edifice to the tallest of the three spires, the dark gift coursing through her veins. Once she reached the tower’s apex, she would glory in the silence of solitude.
In the splendor of being alone, under the watchful eyes of her Savior.
It always struck her as odd, how people believed exciting things were bound to happen at parties with loud music, raucous laughter, and flowing champagne. This surety was what drew them to such events in the first place. Odette thought the most exciting space was the one within her own mind. Her imagination was usually much better than real life. With a few notable exceptions, of course.
Like her first real kiss. The taste of spun sugar on Marie’s soft lips; Odette’s mortal heart racing in her chest. The way their hands trembled. The way their breaths quickened.
She turned toward the young man on the cross. The Son of God.
“Is my love a sin?” she asked him without flinching, as she had on countless other occasions. Again he gave her the same response. Odette nodded with satisfaction and repeated the mantra. “Your message was one of love. And hatred should never prevail over love.”
Once more, her memories wavered at the edges of her mind. She recalled her first brush with death, the day her father was led to the guillotine, jeers accompanying each of his steps. How he still wore his powdered wig, even when the blade fell. The slick sound of his blood splashing across the stones, which brought to mind her first kill, the night after welcoming her maker with open arms. The thrill of holding such godlike power in her grasp.
Odette’s fingers turned white around the metal spire. Contrary to popular opinion, she was no longer angry. Not at the bloodthirsty men and women who’d left her a shivering orphan. Not at her parents for being unable to fight back. Not at Nicodemus for stealing Odette away from the dregs of her former life. Not at Marie, who had broken Odette’s heart in the way of so many first loves.
“Because of everything that happened, I’ve learned to love myself more,” she said. “And is that not the best gift any trial in life can give you? The power to love yourself today better than you did the day before.”
Odette angled her chin into a violet sky spangled with stars. The clouds above shifted like feathers of mist in a passing breeze. Nigel used to say the skies over New Orleans were filled with the smoke of the city’s misdeeds. The lapses in judgment so often celebrated by the Vieux Carré’s well-heeled tourists, who helped make New Orleans one of the wealthiest cities in the entire country, despite the recent War Between the States. Whenever Nigel would sit down to share his most salacious bit of weekly gossip, his Cockney accent would deepen with prurience.
Something clenched around Odette’s dead heart.
This time, she hesitated before glancing toward the metal cross in her periphery.
“I know I have no business thinking of Nigel Fitzroy with anything resembling warmth,” she whispered. “He betrayed us.” She swallowed. “He betrayed me.” Incredulity flared across her face. “To think this happened only one day ago. That the rising and setting of a single moon has changed all our lives in such an irrevocable fashion.” In that single night, Odette had lost a brother she’d loved for a decade to a bone-chilling kind of treachery. This loss was keenly felt, though she dared not mourn it in the open. To do so would be une erreur fatale, especially in Nicodemus’ presence. The loss of a traitor was no one’s loss at all.
And yet . . .
She’d cried in her room this morning. She’d drawn the velvet curtains around her four-poster bed and let blood-tinged tears stain her ivory silk pillows. No one had seen hide nor hair of Boone all day. Jae arrived not long after sundown, his black hair wet, his expression somber. Upon returning to Jacques’, Hortense took to playing Bach cello suites at inhuman speed on her Stradivarius, while her sister, Madeleine, wrote in a leather-bound journal nearby. In short, every member of La Cour des Lions mourned in their own way.
On the surface, it had been business as usual. They exchanged stilted pleasantries. Acted as if nothing were amiss, none of them wishing to give voice to their anguish or breathe life into the worst of Nigel’s offenses, the proof of which was soon to follow.
Nigel’s worst offense?
The loss of Sébastien’s soul. The unmaking of his humanity. Nigel might have betrayed them, but he had killed Bastien. He’d torn out his throat in front of the only girl Bastien had ever loved.
Odette shivered, despite the fact that she hadn’t felt truly cold in decades. She let her vision glaze as it spanned across the square toward the glittering waters of the Mississippi. Past the twinkling ships along the horizon.
“Should I tell them about my role in this sordid tale?” she asked.
The figure on the cross remained contemplative. Silent.
“You would probably say honesty is the best policy.” Odette tucked a sable curl behind an ear. “But I would rather swallow a handful of nails than face Nicodemus’ wrath. And it was an honest mistake, so that should count for something, non?”
Again her Savior remained frustratingly quiet.
A mere hour before Bastien’s death, Odette had allowed him to strike out on his own, knowing full well that a killer nipped at their heels. She’d gone so far as to distract her immortal brethren so they would not waylay him in his task to find Celine, whose safety had been threatened moments prior.
Should she confess her role?
What would Nicodemus do to her once he found out?
The last vampire who dared to cross Nicodemus Saint Germain had had his fangs torn from his mouth.
Odette swallowed. Not necessarily a fate worse than death, but then again not exactly one to inspire honesty. It wasn’t that she feared pain. Even the idea of the final death did not frighten her. She’d born witness to the rise and fall of empires. Danced with a dauphin beneath the light of a full moon.
Hers was a story worthy of being told.
“It’s just . . . well, I like the way I look, damn it all!” She liked her smart nose and her impish smile. Missing fangs were sure to mar the effect. “I suppose at least I will not starve,” she mused. “That is the gift of family, among other things.”
If gluttony and vanity made her evil, then tant pis. She’d been called worse things by worse creatures.
Odette reeled around the metal spire, the crucifix at its top creaking with the shift in weight. Gas lamps danced in the shadows below. Her vampiric senses flooded with the scent of a New Orleans spring evening. Sweet blossoms, sharp iron, sultry wind. The beating of hearts. The whicker of horses, the striking of hooves against pavers.
Dark beauty, all around her. Ripe for the taking.
A mournful sigh flew past Odette’s lips. She never should have permitted Bastien to go, even if Celine’s life did hang in the balance. Odette had known better. Where blood flowed, murder followed. She’d simply allowed sentiment to get the better of her.
For years Odette had eschewed the use of her special gift, one unusual among immortals. The ability to foresee glimpses of another being’s future, with nothing more than the touch of her skin to theirs. She avoided it because she often saw flashes of misfortune in those rash enough to indulge their curiosity.
Just as she’d seen when Celine Rousseau asked her to look the day they first met.
History had taught Odette that informing a person of their impending doom did not exactly endear them to her. Often the individual in question would demand how they might avoid their fate. No matter how hard Odette tried to explain that her gift didn’t work like that—that she was not, in fact, a worker of miracles—they would continue pressing her to the point of exasperation. Twice she’d been accosted. Threatened with bodily harm, a knife flashed before her face, a revolver pointed at her chest.
A bitter smile curled up one side of her face. The fools in question had met with fates befitting their folly. Jae, La Cour des Lions’ resident assassin, had helped her. He stalked those men through the darkness. Terrorized them for hours. Made sure their last moments were soaked in fear.
“They never suspected it was me who orchestrated their deaths,” she murmured.
Of course, knowing whether something unfortunate was going to happen was all well and good in theory. But what if that knowledge pertained to someone Odette loved? Bien sûr, she could push a friend out of the way if a carriage with a spooked horse was careening toward them. But it was rarely that simple.
For this and many other reasons, Odette lied when asked about what she’d seen in Celine’s future. Celine would indeed be the tamer of beasts, as Odette divulged. But Odette would never forget the muffled words that followed after, whispered in her ear like a wicked secret:
One must die so the other may live.
Putain de merde. Another ridiculous prophecy, the kind Odette hated for most of her immortal life. They were all unforgivably vague. Why couldn’t they just say what they meant? This connard will be killing this connard at this specific time and place. Here is how you might spare them this fate. Allons-y! Would that be too much to ask?
To whom did this prophecy refer? Celine and Bastien? Or Celine and someone else entirely? It was impossible to be certain. So, in Odette’s opinion, they were all better off not knowing.
But Odette’s opinion had changed last night. Even if it caused her pain, she would help those dear to her avoid disaster.
Her brow lined with determination, Odette looked to her silent guardian and made a promise. “I will set things right,” she swore. “Not for Bastien alone. But forme.”
Failure of any kind had never sat well with her.
Odette wrapped her fingers tighter around the metal spire at the cathedral’s apex. “C’est assez,” she said. It was time for her to do as she’d been bidden. To sate her hunger before Bastien woke in truth, for Nicodemus would need all his children at full strength when that time came.
She could only guess what kind of newborn vampire Bastien would be. He’d been difficult as a boy, prone to outbursts in temper. Likely to resolve disagreements with his fists rather than with words. This tendency had caused his expulsion from the military academy at West Point, a position Nicodemus had labored for years to make possible. After all, the son of a quadroon and a Taíno did not sport the necessary pedigree for such a lofty institution.
If Bastien survived the change, Nicodemus believed he would be the strongest of his children, simply for the fact that they shared blood in both their lives, mortal and immortal. Blood sharing was like the flipping of a coin. On some occasions, a brilliant and powerful immortal would rise from its ashes.
A murderous madman like Vlad Țepeș. Or Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who had bathed in the blood of her victims. Or Kato Danzo, who’d terrorized the skies on giant wings resembling those of a bat.
Odette wanted to believe none of this spoke to what might become of Bastien’s character. Would he be bookish like Madeleine? Hedonistic like Hortense? Morose like Jae or playfully malicious like Boone?
“Assez,” she announced to the night sky.
Odette let her attention drift across Jackson Square, her eyes flitting over the many through streets nearby, searching for a lone figure embarking on a solitary stroll. Her gaze locked on someone traveling past a flickering gas lamp along Rue de Chartres.
Without hesitation, Odette bid her Savior farewell before letting go of the spire. She shut her eyes as she fell, relishing the rush of cool air and the wind whistling in her ears. Just as she was about to strike the pavers, her body curled on itself, tucking into a roll. She hit the ground with a muffled thud, her shoulder taking the brunt of the force, allowing her to spin to standing in the next breath. Straightening, she glanced about before thrusting her hands in the pockets of her buckskin trousers. She hummed as she sauntered down the dark lane known to locals as Pirates Alley. The words of “La Marseillaise” graced the night sky, the clip of her booted heels echoing through the darkness.
“Allons! Enfants de la Patrie,” Odette sang softly.
She glided past the iron bars along which the famed pirate Jean Lafitte had been known to sell his ill-gotten gains in the earlier part of the century. Dark stained glass glinted in her periphery. Inside the church, Odette swore she could see the ghost of Père Antoine swinging his thurible, the smoke hazing about him. Or perhaps it was an apparition of the monk who’d resided beneath its cavernous roof a hundred years ago, often heard chanting the Kyrie on stormy evenings.
“Le jour de gloire est arrivé,” she continued singing.
The stories of this haunted alleyway nestled in the heart of the Vieux Carré had always fascinated Odette. Much like the countless tales about this shining land known as America, they often cloaked the darkest parts of its history. In the case of New Orleans, they masked hundreds of years as a port city in the slave trade. The untold deaths of those who had lived and breathed and loved along this strategic crescent of land long before the conquistadors had sailed through its harbor to stake their flags in the ground and declare it their own.
A seething darkness. Shadows shifting, lengthening behind all the glimmering beauty.
Odette repeated the next line of the song twice, her voice clear as a bell. “L’étenard sanglant est levé!” She rounded the corner and hastened her steps, veering in the direction of the lone figure two blocks ahead in the distance.
When the woman heard the sound of Odette’s steady footfalls behind her, she paused. Canted her head, the silver at her temples flashing in the light of a flickering flame. Then she stood straight, her elegant bonnet tipping up to the sky as if she were offering a prayer to God in heaven.
The silliness of mortals, Odette thought. Your God will not help you now.
It wasn’t that she found the notion of God silly. She counted Christ among her closest confidants. Besides that, hope was a powerful force.
Just not as powerful as Odette Valmont. Not for this woman. Not in this moment.
She waited until the woman continued walking. Then Odette moved into position behind her. Many vampires would prolong the hunt until the last possible second to allow the terror to mount in their victim. To make them wait until they were panting, tripping over their feet, begging for reprieve. Boone enjoyed doing this. But Boone was a hunter by trade. And Odette had never been that kind of immortal.
Instead she took a final glance around to make sure they were alone. Before the woman could blink, Odette blurred forward and grabbed her from behind, covering the woman’s lips with one hand and yanking her into a narrow alleyway with the other.
Odette tilted the woman’s chin back so she could meet her gaze. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispered, allowing the dark gift to weave through her words and imbue them with soothing magic. The woman’s panicked eyes softened at the edges. “I promise you won’t remember a thing,” Odette crooned, steadying her in an embrace.
“Who—who are you?” the woman breathed.
“Who are you?”
The woman’s eyelashes fluttered as if she were on the cusp of falling asleep. “Francine,” she said. “Francine Hofstadter.”
“Bonsoir, Madame Hofstadter.” Odette shifted her hand from beside Francine’s mouth so she might cup her jaw. She paused to study her warm brown eyes. “You remind me of my mother, beautiful Francine.”
“What is her name?”
A thin smile twisted Odette’s lips. “Louise d’Armagnac.”
“Such a lovely name,” Francine drawled. “So lovely . . . just like you.”
“She was a duchess.”
“Are you a duchess?”
“Perhaps I might have been.” Odette stroked an index finger along Francine’s chin. “But my mother likely would have objected. She would never have relinquished the title, not without a fight. You might say she . . . lost her head for it.”
“I’m—sorry,” Francine said, her body going lax in Odette’s arms. “It sounds like she didn’t love you as a mother should.”
“Oh, she did. Of that I am quite certain.” Amusement rounded Odette’s tones. “She just loved herself more. For that, I have no objections. My mother is a hero to me. Until the bitter end, she remained true.”
“But how could she love herself more, when she has a daughter like you? That’s not right.” Francine mirrored Odette’s gesture, bringing her right hand to frame Odette’s face. “I wish I had a daughter. I could have loved her. I could have loved you.” She marveled, her eyes twinkling like pools of water. “Perhaps . . . I do love you.”
“Who doesn’t, ma chérie?” Odette wove Francine’s fingers through hers. Brought their joined palms toward her lips. “I love you, too,” she whispered into Francine’s warm, vanilla- scented skin.
Before Francine could blink, Odette sank her teeth into the delicate flesh along Francine’s wrist. A gasp punctured the night air, but Francine did not struggle. Her limbs went languorous. Dangerously soft. Odette breathed through her nose as she took in another hot draft of blood. Her eyes flashed closed. Images wavered through her mind. Francine’s memories. Her entire life story, colored by countless remembrances, which—Odette knew—could be unreliable, even among the most earnest of mortals.
People tended to recall things not as they were but as they wished them to be.
A memory of a birthday celebration when Francine had been a young girl, praline icing smeared across her lips. The death of a beloved grandmother, Francine following the funeral carriage down a wide lane in the Garden District, a lace parasol filtering the hot light of the sun. A wedding to a boy she’d believed to be her one true love. Years later, another man who’d dashed that belief to smithereens.
Between these vignettes, Odette saw glimpses of a possible future. Of a son who visited each year at Christmas, along with his wife who wished to be anywhere else. Of a distant husband who died clutching his chest, and of twilight years spent in regret.
It broke what remained of Odette’s heart. This life that once held such promise.
No matter. This woman’s fate was not her concern.
Through it all, Francine remained the heroine of her own story. It was as it should be. At the very least, every mortal should be the hero of that particular tale.
But the best heroes possessed flaws. And the best mortals never forgot that fact.
She drank deeply, letting Francine fall back in her embrace, like a lover overcome with emotion.
Unlike Odette’s second sight, this ability to glimpse behind the curtain of a victim’s life was one shared among all blood drinkers in possession of the dark gift. As such, Odette never drank from men. It was too intimate for her, the action of entering the mind of her prey. Once, when she’d been a newborn vampire herself, she’d thought to drink from a man who killed others for sport. She’d thought it fitting, to let him meet his match in her.
But the man’s memories were violent. He had delighted in the horrors he committed. The images flickering through Odette’s mind had knotted in her throat, choking her, burning her from the inside out.
That night, she’d sworn never to enter a man’s mind again.
Men were the worst kind of heroes. Riddled with flaws they refused to see.
The instant Odette felt Francine’s heartbeat begin to slow, she pulled back. It would not do to drown in Francine’s death. Many a vampire had lost their minds in that slip of darkness between worlds.
Odette licked her lips, the motions languid. Then she pressed her thumb to the puncture wounds along Francine’s wrist, waiting for the flow of blood to stanch. “As soon as we part,” she said, “you will forget what happened tonight. I will never haunt your dreams. You will return home and spend tomorrow resting, for a critter has bitten you and made you feel a bit piqued. Ask your family to prepare steak and spinach for you.” With care, Odette folded the cuff of Francine’s sleeve over the wounds. “When you walk these streets alone at night, walk with your head high, even if you believe death might be around the corner.” Her grin was like the curved edge of a blade. “It is the only way to live, lovely Francine.”
Francine nodded. “You are an angel, dear.” Tears welled in her eyes. “And I could never forget you.”
“I am no angel. Angels bore me. Give me a better devil any day.”
“You are an angel,” Francine insisted. “The most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.” When Odette released her, Francine gripped Odette’s arm tightly, refusing to let go. Tears slid down her cheeks, confusion etching lines across her brow. “Please,” she said, “take me with you.”
“Where I go, you cannot follow.”
“I can if you take me with you. If you make me an angel like you.”
Odette tilted her head, the musings of the beautiful creature she was now warring with the beliefs of the mortal girl she’d once been. In her hands, she held the power to give life. To take it.
To savor it. Slowly.
Francine smiled at Odette, her gaze tremulous, her fingers still twined in Odette’s shirtsleeves. “Please, angel. Please. Don’t leave me alone in the dark.”
“I told you already, ma chérie.” With her free hand, Odette caressed the side of Francine’s face. “I am no angel.” With that, she snapped Francine’s neck. Felt the brittle bones break between her inhumanly strong fingers. Let Francine’s body slide in an inglorious heap, lifeless, to the cracked pavers at her feet.
She stood that way for a time. Waited to see if Francine’s God would smite her down. After all, Odette deserved it. She could justify her actions however she wanted. She could say she’d spared Francine the disappointment of a sad future. She could say it was a kindness. Some type of twisted mercy.
But who was she to offer mercy to anyone?
Odette waited, staring up at the moon, wincing away from the long shadow cast by the cross high above. No hail of fire and brimstone rained down around her. Everything was as it had always been. Life and death in a single breath.
“I’m sorry, ma chérie,” Odette whispered. “You deserved better.” She stared at her feet, letting regret roll down her spine toward her toes, to vanish between the cracks in the pavestones. What she’d done—this life that she’d stolen—it was wrong. Odette knew it.
It was just . . . sometimes she was tired of trying so hard to be good.
With a sigh, Odette began strolling away, her hands in her pockets.
“Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras,” she sang, the tune tinged with sweet sadness. “Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes.” The echo of “La Marseillaise” filtered above, mingling with the smoke of Odette’s endless misdeeds.
As a boy, I often dreamed about being a hero, like the ones from my favorite stories. D’Artagnan joining the musketeers, fearless in the face of danger. King Leonidas and his brave three hundred, standing firm against impossible odds. Odysseus on an epic journey, battling mythological monsters and saving maidens fair.
Then I learned that I lived among the monsters. And that such stories were often written not by the heroes themselves, but by those left standing to tell the tale. Perhaps there wasn’t much to recommend a character like d’Artagnan. After all, wasn’t he only ever lucky?
Luck is not a skill. Uncle Nico said this to me time and again, when I lamented being drilled in my studies in warfare, in marksmanship, in riding, in all the talents expected of a so-called gentleman.
Maybe I should have revered Athos, a paragon of mystery. Or Aramis, a lover of life. Or Milady de Winter, the shrewdest of spies.
In the end, the monsters did possess the better stories.
My eyes open with a start. Dust motes hover in the air above me, spinning about in the amber glow of a single candle. I watch them dance for a moment, studying each of their shapes as if they were stars in an infinite sky.
The infinite captivates us because it allows us to believe all things are possible. That true love can last beyond time.
Celine said that to me the night I first realized I had true feelings for her. It was no longer as simple as being drawn to her beauty, pulled like a tide toward the shore. It had become more than that. A comfort. An understanding. Some kind of magic.
I watched her dance a quadrille in the middle of a carnival parade. It did not take long for the melody to win her over, as music so often does. She missed many of the steps and did not care. The sight caught me unawares. It was not just because of how she looked. It was how she made the people around her feel. Her smile lightened those of her partners. Caused the men and women who reeled about her to laugh with abandon.
For a breath, I lost all sense of time and place. It was just her, a lone candle in a darkened room. But behind that beguiling smile I saw something more. A world of secrets, concealed behind a pair of haunted green eyes.
As a boy with secrets of my own, an ache unfurled in my chest. I knew at that moment how much I wished to share our truths. No matter that they both might be riddled with monsters. A week later, the word love teased at the edges of my mind. I disregarded it. Considered myself too world-weary to fall prey to the foolishness of young love.
I was wrong. Disastrously so.
But it doesn’t matter anymore. For ours is not a love story.
The ache around my dead heart spreads into my throat.
I sense Toussaint before I see him. My entire body tenses as if coiling to spring. The giant Burmese python slithers over the tabletop, winding from my feet toward my head. I watch him move from where my family has laid me out on the table, like a body in an Irish wake. His tongue flicks the air in front of him, his yellow eyes narrowed, uncertain. He pauses on my chest, his head hovering above my sternum. I stare up at him. He glowers down at me.
Two predators appraising each other, deciding whether to strike.
After a beat, Toussaint sighs with resignation. Then he glides over my shoulder, the rest of his long body trailing behind him, his scales glistening over the bloodstained silk of my ivory waistcoat. I’ve always thought snakes to be prescient. The kind of all-knowing creature that thrives in the space between worlds.
At least my oracular pet seems to have accepted this unfortunate turn of fate.
I sit up, my motions blurred. Inhumanly fast. It would have been disconcerting were I unaccustomed to seeing immortals move about in such a fashion. The next instant, I douse the lone candle between my fingertips, longing to feel the fire singe my skin.
I feel nothing. Not even a whisper of pain. Nor do I need time to acclimate to the darkness. Without the light—through layers of shadow—I see every detail of my surroundings, down to the gold foiling on the wallpaper and the sixteen sparkling rubies in Odette’s cameo brooch. Each strand in my uncle’s black hair and all forty-eight brass rivets in the gleaming wooden table beneath me.
Revulsion grips me as the truth settles on my shoulders like a leaden thing. I am no longer of the living. I am a demon cursed to the shadows. There is nothing I can do to alter this twist of fortune. No prayer to chant. No quest to take. No bargain to strike.
I suppose this has always been my fate.
My uncle clears his throat and steps forward.
The sight of the seven otherworldly creatures gathered in a circle around me should be alarming—to mortals and immortals alike—but I keep a cool head, taking measure of my immortal brethren with the gaze of a vampire for the first time.
Odette Valmont, with her brown hair and sable eyes, watches me closely, her expression guarded. She is dressed in the garments of a gentleman, her silk cravat loose about her pale throat, her fétiche dangling from it. At first blush, she appears to be a girl of no more than twenty with a face to charm the devil.
But looks are deceiving by design.
Wrath threads through my veins, my cool-headedness lost to the winds. If Odette possessed any knowledge of my fate and kept it from me, there will be hell to pay. She’s done this once before, in some misguided attempt to steer me down the path she deemed correct, as if she were judge, jury, and executioner.
Before I lash out at Odette, I look through her, willing myself numb.
Shin Jaehyuk, Nicodemus’ foremost assassin, lingers in a fall of darkness at Odette’s back. The second vampire Nicodemus ever turned, Jae ruled the night in the heyday of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. A master of weapons and sleight of hand, this vampire—with his penchant for blades of all shapes and sizes—frightened me the most as a child. The way he loomed ever present, his pallid skin marred by countless scars, from a story told to me in pieces.
“Welcome to forever, my brother,” another voice intones with its characteristic Carolina drawl. Boone Ravenel leans his left shoulder against the damask wallpaper as he sends me an insouciant grin, his features tan, his expression the portrait of charm. But beneath his angelic mien skulks a fiend with a shark’s sense of smell and a hawk’s eye for tracking. Fifty years ago, Odette dubbed him the Hellhound, for a variety of reasons. As with many such things, the name stuck.
To Nicodemus’ immediate right stands Madeleine de Morny, her eyes and skin the color of dark teak and her expression culled from quartz. The first of my uncle’s undead children to be turned, Madeleine is also the vampire Nicodemus consults before any other. Over the last hundred years, she’s become his equal in many things, though I would never dare to say so in my uncle’s presence. Alas, I know very little about Madeleine’s past along the Côte d’Ivoire, beyond the fact that she begged Nicodemus to turn her younger sister, Hortense, in exchange for her eternal loyalty. And that her greatest passion in life—aside from her family—is to lose herself in the pages of a good book.
Hortense de Morny lounges on a chaise of tufted velvet, toying with the ends of her long, thick hair, groomed like the mane of a lion. Amusement ripples across her face, a wicked sparkle in her russet eyes. She wears a gown of translucent tulle dyed the exact color of her dark skin. Of all Nicodemus’ undead children, Hortense relishes immortality the most. A lover of the arts, her favorite pastimes include an evening in Nicodemus’ box seats at the French Opera House—scandalizing the lily-white members of New Orleans society with her presence—followed by a sampling of the city’s finest musicians. She favors the violinists the most. Their song is like spun sucre, she likes to simper.
One immortal among them remains outside the circle. Though it is not readily apparent—for his hazel eyes possess a similar inhuman luster, his brown skin the same subtle sheen—Arjun Desai is not a vampire. He came to New Orleans last year at Jae’s behest. Trained as a barrister under the auspices of the British Crown, Arjun was denied access to the profession’s hallowed halls as a result of his heritage. Born nineteen years ago in Maharashtra, a state in the East Indies, Arjun is an ethereal, the son of a mortal man and a fey huntress of the Sylvan Vale. Another being straddling the line between worlds. His arrival to the Crescent City solved two problems: that my uncle’s interest in New Orleans’ hotelier industry necessitated a lawyer with a particular set of skills and that the Fallen was forbidden from bringing any more vampires into the city, following their treaty with the Brotherhood a decade ago. In less than a year, Arjun has established himself as a proper member of La Cour des Lions.
There they all stand, from all parts of the world and all walks of life. Each of them a lion in their own right. Two of my blood brothers, three of my blood sisters, and one half fey.
Gangly Nigel Fitzroy, the vampire responsible for my death, remains glaringly absent from this twisted tableau.
Rage riots through me. I swallow as it burns through my veins, my teeth gritted in my skull. Everything around me sharpens. Becomes clearer, like a point of light in a haze of darkness.
It is not an unwelcome feeling. I want to lose myself to it. To abandon all sense of logic, caring about nothing but destruction. There is purity in such a sentiment. Reason in its simplicity.
I roll back my shoulders and take in an unnecessary breath. When I gaze about the space once more, my sight fixes on my uncle, his golden eyes shining through the shadows like those of a panther.
Nicodemus studies me, his face hewn from marble. A single devilish whorl of black hair grazes his forehead. “Sébastien,” he says. “Do you know who I am?” He analyzes me as he would one of the many winged specimens in his collection. Like a butterfly with iridescent stripes, a long metal pin stabbed through its abdomen.
Again the rage spikes in my chest. “Were you truly concerned I would not remember you, Monsieur le Comte?” I expect my voice to sound gruff from disuse, but the dark magic rounds its tones, making a rich melody of it.
No trace of relief flashes through Nicodemus’ features, despite the proof that my mind survived the change. “It was a distinct possibility. You were dangerously close to death when I began turning you.” He pauses. “And it is always a gamble to mix mortal blood with that of an immortal ancestor, as you well know.”
I do. I blink back the memory of my mother, who was consumed by madness. Poisoned by grief. Obsessed with the desire to be unmade and return to her mortal form. I say nothing in response. Those remembrances serve no purpose now, except to goad my anger.
“How do you feel?” Nicodemus takes a step forward. Everything about him—from his slicked hair to his shining shoes—epitomizes the look of a gentleman. The kind of gentleman I aspired to be from boyhood. But there is an odd hesitancy in his question.
My uncle is not one to waver.
It puzzles me. Unwilling to show him any sign of my own confusion, I say the first thing that comes to mind. “I feel powerful.”
I expect my brothers and sisters to laugh at the triteness of my reply.
“Are you not . . . angry?” Odette’s voice is gentle. “I know this is not what you—”
“No,” I lie without even considering it. “I am not angry.”
Madeleine blurs toward me, then stops short as if catching herself, her palms held in a placating manner. “Do you have any questions? Anything you need? Il y a des moments où—”
“I believe I understand the general gist of things, Madeleine.” I suppress another wave of wrath, bitter amusement quick to take its place. “Drink blood and live forever.” I grin at my immortal family, then straighten my stained cuffs.
“Stop it,” Jae says, the two syllables cracking through the darkness like warning shots.
Madeleine glares at Jae, attempting to silence him with nothing but a glance.
He is unmoved. Unapologetic. “Be angry,” he grits out. “Be sad. Be anything but this.”
I quirk a brow at him.
“Afraid,” Jae clarifies. “You are so afraid, I could cut your fear with a knife. Slice it to ribbons.” With his chin, he gestures toward Odette. “She can wear them in her hair.”
I swallow, struggling to hold fast to my smile. Weighing whether or not to attack Jae.
He is quick to respond to my unspoken challenge. Like a ghoul, Jae glides forward, his greatcoat swirling around him. He draws two blades from hidden sheaths in his jacket. Twirls them once, daring me to answer his silent threat.
I stand straight, my hands curling into fists, the fire purifying me from the inside.
He’ll win. Of that there is no doubt. But I won’t tuck tail and run. I’ll come at him until he’s forced to cut me down. Maybe if he cuts me deep enough, I will find what remains of my humanity. Or maybe I will simply succumb to another one of my uncle’s lessons: destroy or be destroyed.
Afraid? Jae thinks I’m afraid? Let him see what fear truly is.
Just before I make good on these promises, my uncle claps his hands like a judge with a gavel, demanding order. It almost makes me laugh, for Le Comte de Saint Germain is anything but the proper gentleman he wishes the mortal world to see.
Nicodemus is renowned in all circles of the Otherworld, as much for his wealth and influence as for his brutality. He was there at the beginning, when vampires and werewolves resided in castles carved from ice, deep in a forest of perpetual night. When blood drinkers and shapeshifters lived among their fey brethren, like the gods atop Mount Olympus, toying with humans for nothing but sport. He cavorted with the nymphs, the goblins, the ogres, the phoukas, and the sprites far apart from the mortal world, in a place of endless winter known as the Sylvan Wyld. Nicodemus still remembers a time when they did not hide their elven nature, but instead basked in it. Until—in their quest for power—the vampires allied with the werewolves and made a great error in judgment: they attempted to trade their most precious commodity with humans.
Nicodemus is one of the few remaining vampires to witness the events of the Banishment, the time in which vampires and werewolves were exiled from the Wyld’s Winter Court for these transgressions. Forced to cede their holdings to the Summer Court of the Sylvan Vale.
“Jae,” Nicodemus says, his tone weary, “that’s enough.”
Jae restores his blades with two quick flicks of his wrists. It rankles me how quickly he obeys, his affect cool, as if he were about to remark on the weather. My uncle looks to me, expecting me to behave in kind.
“Bastien,” he says. “You will do as your maker commands, in this and in all things.” Though his tone brooks no reproach, I sense another test. Another round in the proverbial ring.
I was small as a child. More comfortable around books and music than I was around people. In an attempt to teach me to stand tall in a crowded room, my uncle paid for me to train with New Orleans’ best pugilist. Despite my protests, I learned to box. To feint. To dodge. To take hits and dole them out in equal measure.
I have not entered a ring in years, but my uncle has traded figurative jabs with me since I was a boy. If I obey without hesitation, I am a sheep, like Jae. A creature meant only to serve. If I resist, I am a child throwing a tantrum. A wriggling worm who knows nothing of respect.
The terms of this battle change like the seasons, without warning.
It is an impossible fight. One I usually lose.
Perhaps it is because only moments ago Jae accused me of being afraid. Perhaps it is because I don’t give a damn about the consequences. Perhaps I only wish to trade more jabs, until my opponent cries mea culpa, his blood staining my fists.
I laugh, the sound bounding into the coffered ceiling.
Something akin to approval glints in Nicodemus’ gaze. My uncle disdains any hint of weakness. At least I have not failed in that respect. My brothers and sisters exchange glances. Raise eyebrows. Bite back their retorts.
Before the strains of my laughter die down, I attack.