The House of Binding Thorns

As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the great Houses of Paris, ruled by Fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Phillippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic might be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater dragon kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear….

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.

Book two in the Dominion of the Fallen saga, Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns is available April 4th from Ace Books!

 

 

CHAPTER ONE
Death over Fear

In the House of Hawthorn, all the days blurred and merged into one another, like teardrops sliding down a pane of glass. Madeleine couldn’t tell when she’d last slept, when she’d last eaten—though everything tasted of ashes and grit, as if the debris from the streets had been mixed with the fine food served on porcelain plates—couldn’t tell when she had last woken, tossing and turning and screaming, reaching for a safety that wasn’t there anymore.

And she couldn’t tell, exactly, when she had last had angel essence, but she didn’t need to. It was an emptiness within her, a feeling that someone had torn out a chunk of her heart and hadn’t bothered to kill her afterward. It was… the presence in her mind like a tree of thorns, the inescapable knowledge that he was with her no matter what she did—that he had found her, dragged her there, that he would never let her go.

Asmodeus.

Madeleine stared at her hands, and found them shaking.

“You have to do better,” Iaris said. Her smooth, ageless face was creased in a frown; the white of her doctor’s coat in sharp contrast to the olive tones of her skin.

The door was, as always, locked, the windows barred, with only a pale, sickly light coming through. At least this time Madeleine wasn’t strapped in the chair, but Iaris would do it again if she thought it was useful.

Everything seemed unbearably real, unbearably sharp: the red flowers on the wallpaper, the embroidered trees and birds on the bedcover, and the faint smell wafting from Iaris, bergamot and orange blossom and some exotic wood.

His scent.

Her hands were shaking again.

In front of Iaris, on the mahogany desk that stood between them, was a container filled with a fine light-colored dust: angel essence. Madeleine had hardly paid attention to it during the first part of the interview, but now she could barely see anything else—could feel the power, trapped and roiling in that small space—could almost taste it, the warmth of a storm sliding into her belly, the magic that would fill her to bursting, that would make her feel safe again.…

“Lord Asmodeus retrieved you from House Silverspires,” Iaris was saying. “Twice.” Her frown was disapproving again. “It wasn’t so you could waste your life away.”

Madeleine tried to speak, found only ashes on her tongue. She tried again, dragged words from some unbearably faraway place. “I didn’t ask to come with him.”

Asmodeus had linked Madeleine back to the House—without her consent, of course; he’d never stop for anything so trivial as that. He’d taken her back, made her his possession again, and imprisoned her here, to mold her to his wishes. To make her his tool, his weapon, and there was no place in his grand plans for an addiction to essence.

Iaris’s face didn’t move. “What you want is irrelevant. You’re here. You’re a dependent of Hawthorn. Not an angel essence junkie.” She was human; Madeleine was sure. In spite of her name, in spite of the smooth skin of her face and hands: she didn’t have the light, effortless way of moving of Fallen, their innate elegance, sliding through the fabric of the world like sharpened blades. But somewhere in her youth, she’d been too close to a Fallen, too long, and some of their agelessness had rubbed off on her, creating that odd, unsettling effect.

Madeleine didn’t remember Iaris. But then, she’d paid so little attention to other people before she’d run away from the House.

“You will clean up,” Iaris said. “Otherwise you’re so much useless chaff, Madeleine. And no one in this House has time for the useless.”

“I know,” she said. She could imagine they did not, that Asmodeus had little time for anyone who did not do as he wished. She didn’t need the threat, didn’t need to feel the fear again: the threat-laden conversation they’d had shortly after he’d dragged her back, the touch of his hand on the scars of her calves, the knife resting, oddly still, against the skin of the back of her hand, drawing just enough blood.…

“Now, there is no substitute for angel essence,” Iaris was saying. “We’ve weaned you off the drug. Whether you get strong again, whether you eat, whether you sleep, whether you relapse, is all up to you.”

Madeleine wanted to relapse. She wanted, so badly, to reach out for the container with the essence—to lose herself in it, to forget where she was, why she was there. And yes, it would gnaw away at her lungs again, would kill her centimeter by slow centimeter, fill her breath with blood, but it was still better than whatever awaited her inside the House. Still better than belonging to Asmodeus.

It took all she had to hold herself still. Because they would never give her that container. Because it was a test, as everything else had been; something Iaris could write in her report, a little chart of how well behaved Madeleine was, day after day. Of how close she was to being normal, functional, if either of those words still had a definition that made sense.

“You have to learn,” Iaris said, softly, “what makes you reach for essence. You have to recognize what kindles your need.”

“I don’t need to learn,” Madeleine said, wearily. “I know.”

Iaris raised an eyebrow. At last, she put down the paper she was holding, and looked at Madeleine as if seeing her for the first time. “Let’s say you do know. Most addicts don’t. They just want their next fix, the next rush of power, caring little what it costs. But, assuming you do, Madeleine, knowing is not enough.”

Madeleine—aware, all the while, of the link to the House in the back of her mind, of Asmodeus’s presence chafing against the least of her thoughts—said, softly, “I don’t want to be cured.”

“You would prefer to kill yourself slowly?”

She’d wanted to die. She wanted to say this, but the words wouldn’t leave her throat. A death of her own choosing; a slow slide into oblivion, to a place where fear, and where old memories, didn’t matter.

Iaris said, almost gently, “You’re the House’s now. And things have changed in the past twenty years.”

They had. Another head of House, the purges almost a distant memory; the floors pristine waxed parquet, every trace of blood expunged, all the dead forgotten. But not Elphon.

She didn’t need to close her eyes to hear his screams; to see, again, the spray of blood as the swords slid home into his chest, and to see him again, walking behind Asmodeus as if nothing had happened. As if he had not died, and risen again through a magic Madeleine couldn’t claim to understand.

“You’re safe here,” Iaris’s voice said, floating to her out of the darkness. “The House takes care of its own, Madeleine.”

Iaris didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. She hadn’t stood in the drawing room watching Frédéric and Zoé and Elphon and all the other gardeners be cut down. She wasn’t the one who had crawled through the streets of Paris, the cobblestones slick with her own blood, every movement awakening fresh pain in her calves, in her broken ribs, every agonizing gesture underlined with the same fear that he would find her, that his thugs would finish what they had started.

Twenty years. She’d escaped, had gained twenty years of freedom away from Hawthorn, but twenty years were as nothing to a Fallen. Of course Asmodeus had come for her, taken her back to the House.

“You’re safe here.”

She wasn’t. She had never been. Here was everything she had been running away from, and she was back again, locked in a room and awaiting the pleasure of the Fallen who had made her life a living hell. There was no safety anywhere.

The smell of angel essence was unbearable now; the familiar promise of power. She reached for it without realizing she did so, feeling the warmth of it in her hand, the weight of the container. It didn’t make any false promises, didn’t tell any lies, would merely slide into her lungs with the ease of long habit, and the power of Fallen magic would fill her from end to end, banishing the darkness—

“Madeleine!”

Hands, trying to pry hers from the essence. She batted them away, struggled to raise the container to her mouth all the same. A trickle of power like honey down her throat—a sense of rising relief as it took hold—and then pain flaring up in her fingers and her palm, and she was on her knees, nursing a hand and wrist that felt torn apart, the warmth in her belly receding, ebbing away to leave only the sharp, sickening presence of the House in her mind.

She was hauled to her feet, roughly. Iaris stood, holding the container, angry.

“I told him this was a waste of time,” Iaris said. She clenched her hand, grimaced as if something hurt. Had Madeleine harmed her? She couldn’t remember what had happened in the tussle for the essence. “Once a junkie, always a junkie. No one has ever shaken an essence addiction.”

Madeleine hung, limp, between the orderlies that held her. She tried to remember what it had felt like, to be free of fear, to soar, even for the briefest of moments. But everything smelled of citruses and bergamot, and all she could feel was the nausea, rising to swallow her whole, and there was nothing to bring up but bile, its taste drowning the distant fire of angel essence.

“This experiment is terminated,” Iaris said, with grim satisfaction. “He’ll have to find some other use for you.”

No. She knew, all too well, what only other use Asmodeus could have for her; what only other use there was, for the weak, for the useless, the disobedient. No no no. She tried to speak, to get words out from the emptiness in her. But nothing came.

They strapped her to the bed before they left, tightening everything so much she could hardly breathe. Iaris’s petty satisfaction, for it wasn’t as if the room, with its furniture bolted to the floor, held anything that Madeleine could have used to hurt herself.

As Madeleine lay staring at the ceiling, braced against the sound of footsteps in the corridor, closing her eyes and trying not to think what might happen now, everything seemed to blur and recede into some faraway land. The flowers on the wallpaper became featureless shapes, the dim light from the window darkened into night, and the ghosts of the past rose to watch her with their empty eyes.

The gardeners: Elphon, with his hands covering the wound in his chest; Frédéric and Pierrette, their homespun shirts drenched with blood. Oris, her shy apprentice in Silverspires, with his arms marred by snakebites.

And the last one, who had not belonged to Hawthorn, who would never belong there.

Isabelle.

On the Fallen’s chest were the two bloody holes that had killed her, but her eyes were the same—that brittle innocence that had gone too soon, that bright and feverish gaze of one not meant for this world.

Madeleine. Her voice was the keening of the wind, and she swayed and faded, as if a mere breath would have been enough to dispel her.

She didn’t say anything else, but she didn’t need to. She’d come back so that Madeleine could live, could save House Silverspires; to give her hope, a thing so small and so fragile it was doomed to be crushed.

Madeleine.

“I can’t,” Madeleine whispered to the emptiness of the room, and turned her face away from the blurred vision, praying to a God she only distantly believed in to forget her, too.

She must have slept—must have slid, unaware, into the yawning darkness—but she couldn’t tell when the ghosts became dreams, or if they had been real at all. When she woke up, struggling to take deep breaths, the straps digging into her skin, her arms and legs deadened, day had crept into the room again, and it was empty.

Faint birdsong came from outside: Hawthorn’s famed gardens, almost intact despite the war that had devastated Paris. The quiet gurgle of a fountain in the background—a statement of power that, in an age of polluted rivers and corrosive air, the House could afford to waste running water on an ornament—and, farther out, the giggles of children racing after each other in another, alien world.

Were children truly happy, in the House? Asmodeus was Fallen: he would never father anything on anyone, would never care for anything or anyone. She’d been happy as a child; but that had been in Uphir’s time; before the coup that had raised Asmodeus to be head of House. Before the fear.

There was no warning, no footsteps or creaking of the waxed parquet. But the door opened.

She knew it was him before she saw him, when the smell of bergamot and orange blossom wafted into the room. She would have fled, if she could do more than futilely struggle against the tightened straps.

He was light on his feet. She heard his footsteps only when he neared the bed—a brief touch that made her want to scream, and the straps were undone, one by one—her lungs burning as they filled up with the air they’d been denied. She pulled herself up, trying to massage some feeling into arms and legs that had long gone dead, and he sat on the side of the four-poster bed, close enough to touch.

“Madeleine.” He smiled, showing the sharp teeth of predators. “Take your time.”

His face was smooth, ageless like that of all Fallen, his gray eyes shining with magic, his movements effortlessly graceful. He had square horn-rimmed glasses, his particular affectation: like all former angels, he had perfect eyesight. His hands were fine, elegant, with the long fingers of a pianist, though he played no instrument beyond the ecstasy and pain of others.

“Asmodeus.” His name tasted like ashes in Madeleine’s mouth. And, because in spite of everything, she still clung to what life she had, she added: “My lord.”

“Respect? How charmingly adequate.” He smiled again, as if he knew exactly how respectful she was. And why would he not? She’d never been a good liar. “Iaris came to see me. She was… angry.”

Madeleine didn’t dare speak.

“Mostly because you hurt her pride, I suspect,” Asmodeus said. He patted the bed by his side, as if he expected her to sit there, but she didn’t move, and he didn’t make any comment. “And because—let’s be honest—she never believed you would come through.”

“And you did?” She couldn’t hold back the words. They were unwise, especially said to someone used to unthinking obedience.

“Mortals can be surprising, more so than Fallen. You strive against so much in your brief lifetimes. I try not to make hasty judgments.”

She stared at her hands again. They were steady, though everything within her was screaming that she should run.

As if she’d ever get far.

“Iaris is right in one respect, though,” Asmodeus said. “There is little we can do with you at the moment.” He stretched the fingers of his right hand, one by one, as if considering a particularly troublesome problem.

Her. She was the problem. He would take her into the cells, and finish what he had started long ago, break her as he’d broken those who rose against him. He would—

“You never left, Madeleine, did you? Always crawling away from the wreck of the House, never leaving the shadow of the past.” He reached out, and laid a hand on her ribs, the ribs his thugs had broken, twenty years ago—fingernails, as sharp as knives, resting on her chest, above her madly beating heart. “You live and breathe fear, and there is no room for anything else.”

“How—” She took in a deep, shuddering breath.

“You forget. Fear is a weapon, and I’m… intimately familiar with its use.” Asmodeus’s tone was sharp, amused. “So I’m going to offer you a choice.

“Look at me. How much do you fear me, Madeleine?”

She looked up into his eyes, because he would make her look up if she didn’t. His gaze was gray, mild, uninterested, but there was fire in its depths, the flames that had engulfed him when he’d Fallen from Heaven, the heart of a monster who cared only about inflicting pain on others.

He’d come into her room one evening, blowing the acrid smell of orange blossom into her face—magic, his magic, pinning her to the chair in which she sat—the knife glinting in his hands as he’d explained, smiling all the while, the consequences if she tried to escape the House again… the cold touch of the blade on her arm, flaring into sharp pain as it parted her flesh… a deeper, harrowing pain as his spell slowly, excruciatingly squeezed her damaged lungs, a searing fire that made her convulse, except she couldn’t move against his restraints, couldn’t even draw breath to cry out.…

Her hands shook, her palms greasy, sweaty. She struggled to voice something that wouldn’t be a scream. “You know.”

“Do I?” He was silent, for a while. “We should have had this conversation earlier, but never mind. Things were a little hectic. I stand by my own, Madeleine. It’s how the House works. It’s the only way it can work. If you swear and keep fealty to me, if you do your best not to relapse, then I will protect you no matter what happens. All that fear—I will bring it to other people instead. Those who seek to harm you.”

It didn’t help. She tried to say something, to convey that being under his protection was as frightening as being hunted by him; but then she thought better of it. It would not change anything if she spoke up, and she’d never been one for pointless, suicidal bravery. “You said I had a choice.”

“Indeed,” Asmodeus said. He straightened his glasses on his nose. His gaze rested, for a while, beyond her. “You’re my dependent, but you feel no loyalty to me. Quite the contrary. And I, in turn, have little use for you, as things are. If you choose to remain broken beyond anyone’s capacity to heal, if you show no goodwill and pledge no loyalty”—he shrugged—“then I will release you.”

The way in which he said it made it clear she wasn’t going to walk out of Hawthorn, not on her own two feet. “How—”

“It matters to you?” His voice was sharp. “Surely death is its own goal, and its own reward. I will choose the manner of it. You might as well be of some use, after all, even if it’s only for a few hours of my own enjoyment.”

Death. The release she’d sought, all those years. But on his terms. “That’s unfair,” she said, before she could think. “No one chooses death over fear. No one—”

“No one? Be honest, Madeleine.”

She could, indeed, endure pain, could endure many things if oblivion was the end of the path. But he would be the one who killed her in the end. He would bring her everything she had run away from; make every single fear, every nightmare, she’d ever had come true in the hours—stretched forever—before he finally deigned to grant her death.

It was no choice, and he knew it. It was the fear of what he might do, over the sick certainty of what he would definitely do.

Asmodeus rose, straightening the lapels of his dark gray swallowtail jacket. “You may think on it. I’ll have food brought to you, should you see fit to eat.” Faint disapproval in his tone; that was new. Or perhaps she’d just never noticed it.

“Wait,” Madeleine said.

He stopped, halfway to the door. “Yes?”

“If”—she swallowed, trying to banish the taste of soured citrus in her throat—“if I choose loyalty—will I get out of this room?”

His smile was boyish, almost free of any sense of threat. Almost. “The House is busy. If you so choose, of course you will get out. In fact…” He paused, as if pondering whether to say more. “I will have work for you.”

She said, because she had to, “You don’t even know if I will keep my word.”

Asmodeus turned to look at her, his head cocked sideways like a bird of prey. “You’re a terrible liar, and an entirely too principled person. Of course you will keep your word. And if you don’t”—he shrugged, again—“there is always the other option.” He must have known, then, what she was going to answer. It was obvious. But then, as he had said, she was transparent; an open book that he, and others, had always read with ease.

“I—” It was no choice. There was no choice. And, in the end, she clung, so dearly, to the little she had. Angel essence was one thing, its heady rush making everything bearable, obscuring the inevitable ending. But to knowingly, willingly, walk into Hawthorn’s cells with him… “I will pledge my loyalty to you.”

After they were done, Asmodeus went out of the room for a brief moment, and came back with the people who must have been waiting in the corridor for Madeleine’s answer.

One of the two bodyguards behind him carried a tray of food that she set on the table, and then both of them withdrew, which left the other two people who had come in with Asmodeus.

One was a mortal woman, with some of that same smoothness to her face that Iaris had, except her exposure to Fallen magic must have been less, because her dark hair had sprinkles of gray, and her hands showed the first spots of age. She appeared a little younger than Madeleine, but must have been older in reality.

The other one Madeleine already knew. Or had known, once. Elphon had been her friend in the gardens of Hawthorn, and had died the night Asmodeus seized power from Uphir. And, somehow, he had been raised from the dead by Asmodeus, and now walked the earth as if nothing were amiss, oblivious to his past life and the connection between them. His loyalty to Asmodeus was absolute.

Her new minders, no doubt: she had no doubt she wouldn’t leave this room without supervision.

Asmodeus gestured for the others to sit. They did, one in each upholstered chair, leaving Madeleine at the end of the four-poster bed. Elphon handed her the tray, which she balanced on her knees. The aroma of the food wafted up to her: some kind of vegetable soup.

“Eat,” Asmodeus said.

She didn’t feel hungry. She took Iaris’s medicine before the soup, the white pill a day that kept her cough from returning, even though nothing would ever heal her wasted lungs, or give her more than a few years longer. The soup was scalding hot, and it made little difference. It was bland, much as if it had been boiled for too long.

They all waited for her to finish, in silence. When she stole a glance upward, she saw that neither Elphon nor the woman looked particularly at ease.

“You know Elphon,” Asmodeus said. He wasn’t sitting; he was lounging against the wall by the door, with the sated air of predators he affected at nearly all times. Fallen were rarely harmless, but no one who saw him would ever underestimate what he was capable of. “And this is Clothilde. She’s one of the House’s magicians, and a member of the Court of Birth.”

The intricate hierarchies of Hawthorn had never meant much to Madeleine. She set her spoon by the side of the empty bowl, and waited for the rest.

“I have a project,” Asmodeus said. “Outside the House. One which requires a delegation.”

Another House, then. She grimaced. “I don’t understand why you’d send me.”

“Not for diplomacy. We both know how abysmal you are at that,” Asmodeus said. “That will be Clothilde and Elphon’s work. You’re part of this as… let’s say I need your skills. And your knowledge.”

Alchemy, her former work? But Hawthorn had an alchemist, Sare, who would be more intimately familiar with the peculiarities and intricacies of making elixirs and charged containers from Hawthorn’s live Fallen, or the remnants of its dead ones. It had to be about House Silverspires—her former House, the one that had cast her out. But that made no sense, either: Silverspires had been Hawthorn’s enemy, but the events of four months ago had left them bloodless and in ruins, barely capable of being a power in postwar Paris, much less a threat.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“I need alchemy,” Asmodeus said. “Among other things.”

“Sare—”

“Sare is House alchemist. She has other work. And what I expect is rather basic: nothing that requires her expertise or skill. I’m sending a delegation of magicians, and I need someone to recharge their artifacts when the magic runs out.”

Rather basic. Madeleine forced herself not to flinch at the casual dismissal: he was entirely right. Filling containers with angel magic was something she could have done in her sleep. “You said there were other things.”

“Yes,” Asmodeus said. His hand moved, gracefully, as if he were sketching something in the air; and, in answer, an image gradually coalesced out between him and her.

It was the face of an Annamite woman: mostly human, and mostly resembling the old-fashioned pictures of the imperial court Madeleine had seen in the library of House Silverspires—thinned eyebrows over harsh eyes, a crown of black cloth with golden figures and beaded tassels, worn tight over the head, except that patches of the skin of her face had worn off, revealing the iridescence of scales, and that the nubs of deerlike antlers protruded through the crown.

It wasn’t a face that Madeleine would ever forget, no matter how much essence she got high on.

“Ngoc Bich,” she whispered.

“You are familiar with her, then. And yes: my affairs,” Asmodeus said, slowly, softly, “are with the kingdom under the Seine.”

The Annamite kingdom. The dragon kingdom.

“How do you know—?” Madeleine asked, and then fell silent. The dragon kingdom—the underwater power that lurked under the Seine, lashing out and killing Fallen and humans alike—was reclusive, its existence a secret. Isabelle had known, but Isabelle had a link to Philippe, who in turn was Annamite, and presumably better informed about a territory held by Annamite creatures.

“How do I know it even exists?” Asmodeus shrugged, an expansive gesture that seemed, for a moment, to drag ghostly black wings into existence. “We have long had an agreement with them, even in Uphir’s day. And the time for their secrecy is ending. That means they are vulnerable.”

Clothilde nodded. Her gaze, throughout, had not left Asmodeus. “You have Ghislaine down there already.”

“As an envoy, yes. To smooth things out,” Asmodeus said. “To gain allies and support, and win them around to the possibilities we’re offering. But we have to make a formal offer, and that can’t come from her.”

Clothilde didn’t look surprised. She’d probably been briefed ahead of time, unlike Madeleine. And she had at least a vague idea what was going on. “The terms haven’t changed,” she said: a question, a confirmation.

“No,” Asmodeus said. “I see no reason for them to change. But you’ll take Madeleine with you. She’s been there before.”

Madeleine had been there exactly once, with Isabelle, in a past that might as well be another lifetime: when Isabelle was still alive, when House Silverspires was still under threat and not a field of ruins. “And I’m not going to be told what this is about?” Madeleine said, more sharply than she’d intended, before she remembered whom she was speaking to.

Asmodeus raised an eyebrow, but appeared more amused than angry, as if watching a fish out of water thrash on land. “House Hawthorn will offer a formal alliance to the dragon kingdom. One sealed in the traditional manner. It has all gone somewhat out of fashion, but my perception was that Princess Ngoc Bich and her officials were still fairly traditional.”

A formal alliance. Madeleine stared at him. He couldn’t mean. He couldn’t possibly mean—

And, when she did not speak, he did it for her. “Clothilde is carrying an offer of marriage to the kingdom. My marriage.”

Excerpted from The House of Binding Thorns, copyright © 2017 by Aliette de Bodard

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