In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the aftermath of a Great War between arcane powers. The Grand Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes and rubble and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those that survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.
Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.
Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation—or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires falls, so may the city itself.
The House creeped Philippe out.
It was a big, sprawling place—not a single edifice, as he had assumed, but a series of buildings joined by a maze of corridors and courtyards, stretching across the entire Ile de la Cité. Most of it was derelict: the western part of the island seemed to be entirely deserted, with not even the lowest in Silverspires’ hierarchy daring to venture there, though it was not so much fear as a disinclination to go into empty rooms where every piece of furniture was covered in soot or dust or both.
His first communal dinner had been a nightmare. He had sat at one of numerous trestle tables in the great hall, surrounded by what seemed to be the entire House: hundreds of people pressed together in a suffocating mass—turning, from time to time, to stare at him, the only Viet in the room, and then turning back to their discussion of subjects and House concerns that seemed utterly alien to him.
He had fled then, back to the safety of his room, and begged until Emmanuelle agreed to let him dine alone. But even that didn’t make him feel better.
It had been weeks since that first dinner; and he hadn’t stayed that long in a House since the fall of House Draken—in fact, he’d rather have swum in a river at monsoon time than go anywhere near the fastnesses of the Fallen. And to do so while under a spell of imprisonment…
His only comfort was Isabelle. He never thought he’d say that of a Fallen, but she was fresh and young and naive—pulling warm bread from the oven and tearing into it with relish, while the cook, Laure, frowned affectionately at her—skipping stones in the courtyard with the children—and keeping a stash of biscuits and tea in the drawer of her room, which she shared with him around a card or a dice game—she was a terrible gambler, but then so was he, so it all balanced out.
Those were the bright spots—the few, desperately few. In between, there was the House.
Philippe had a continuous feeling of ants crawling on his skin; an itch that never went away, that woke him up at night; an elusive, ghostly pain somewhere near his heart and liver, as if his organs had been subtly changed while he’d been unconscious. Perhaps it was the House; perhaps it was the spell; but he couldn’t seem to be rid of either, much to his annoyance. He’d been on a French leash sixty years before, in the war: taken from his home in Thu Dau Mot and conveyed to foreign shores under duress; abandoned in Paris to fend for himself when, against all odds, he’d survived the war. Never again, he’d sworn, but fate made fools of all men, it seemed.
Isabelle found him in Laure’s kitchens, kneading dough. Laure, who had little time for anyone, had taken pity on him and allowed him a table corner—there was something infinitely relaxing about feeling the dough coming together between his fingers; the stretching and turning and pulling until it all came together smooth and silky, effortlessly detaching from his fingers. When he was done, Laure would find something else for him to do: chopping up meat or vegetables or keeping an eye on soup stock. He wasn’t sure she ever served what he’d touched—though she did present him with his baked loaf of bread every morning—but it was a way to pass time.
“Still here?” Isabelle asked.
Philippe shrugged. “As good a place as any.”
Isabelle slid in next to him, dislodging a kitchen boy—who smiled at her, though she didn’t acknowledge him. “Want help?”
He held out the dough to her. She took it on both hands, and started kneading in turn. “No, not like this. Here.” He moved, placed her hands, showed her how to do one stretch and one fold. “You turn, and then you do it again.”
Isabelle frowned. Her hands moved, slowly, carefully.
“Feeling it take shape yet?”
“No. I feel dough sticking to everything. You make it sound much simpler than it is.”
“Of course.” He’d learned back in Annam, baking rice cakes he’d later steam in bamboo baskets—the dough, made with a mix of wheat flour and rice flour, had been sticky and translucent—but the kneading was the same. “Try again. You did volunteer.”
Isabelle smiled, but didn’t speak. For a while there was nothing but her hands, folding and stretching and turning, again and again. Philippe watched the dough. “Almost,” he said. “See how it’s coming loose?”
“Mmm,” Isabelle said. “Emmanuelle’s been teaching me more about the history of the House. It’s the oldest one in Paris.”
And they’d never let her forget it. “You’re done,” Philippe said, taking the dough from her.
“How do I know?”
He took a piece of dough the size of a ball; stretched it, gently, until they could both see daylight through it. “It holds,” he said. He divided it in half and carefully shaped his half into a round, laying it in the floured basket by his side. “Try it.” And, to answer her, “The oldest House. That’s good. Old is safe.”
Isabelle shivered. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Philippe shrugged. “It’s… not my world.”
“No.” Isabelle paused, gently prodded at her piece of dough—which refused to tighten up into a ball. “I don’t even know what it’s like, where you come from.”
He started to say, “Different,” another platitude, and then changed his mind. “It functions on different rules. We… don’t have Fallen in Annam. Didn’t use to.”
“But they’re there now.”
“They were,” Philippe said. Who knew what was happening in Annam and the other colonies, after the war? Had the Fallen’s arrogant, brash magic finally faltered? Had the Jade Emperor finally decided to end the court’s isolation and interfere in the affairs of mortals once more? “And the Fallen carried their magic with them. It’s…” He paused then, wondering how much he would reveal to her. No more, he guessed, than what Selene would find in books. “The Fallen were powerful,” he said at last. “More powerful than any magical beings we might have had. It was… not pretty.” The guardian spirits of the villages had been slaughtered; the dragons, the spirits of the rain, had withdrawn to the depths of the sea, to the safety of their coral and nacre palaces; the mountain spirits had retreated to their most isolated peaks, licking their wounds; and the Jade Emperor had sealed the court, forbidding Immortals to approach mortals.
And Philippe, of course, had had no refuge.
“Emmanuelle said it was because Fallen magic was innately stronger. That it had been our destiny to conquer.” Isabelle shrugged. “She didn’t sound convinced.”
She might not be, but there were plenty of others who would. Philippe said nothing. He stared at the dough, trying to ignore the memories; the powerlessness he’d felt then, watching the Fallen come and take anything they wanted—and destroy what was of no use to them. “I didn’t come here by choice,” he said at last. “And it’s not choice that keeps me here, either. I don’t know how much you’ll believe, of what they teach you. But—if you can, remember that.”
Isabelle looked at him, uncannily serious for once. “I didn’t come here by choice, either,” she said, dropping her piece of dough into another basket. “And I’ll try to remember.”
She meant it—he could tell from the sense of stubbornness he got from their link—and yet she probably wouldn’t remember. He was guessing that even Selene had started out this young, this earnest, this naive—and look at what she was now.
“Yes?” He peered at the dough, drew a cloth over both baskets. It was the kitchens’ slack hour. The kitchen boys and girls had scattered, some of them playing cards in a corner, some of them listening to Laure telling a fairy tale about a Fallen who was unable to pay the price for summoning a manticore—the kitchen staff was rapt, listening to Laure’s elaborate descriptions of blood, gore, and disembowelment as if their lives hung on it. Isabelle and he were alone around the large table, surrounded only by the preparations for this night’s dinner.
“You’re not mortal, are you?”
He’d had some inkling she was going to ask an awkward question—it was the only reason he didn’t drop the cloth. His first instinct was to lie, to deny as he’d denied Selene. She was Fallen; he couldn’t trust her.
But then again… he felt her presence at the back of his mind; her curiosity, tinged by no afterthought of greed or thirst for knowledge she could use against him.
Such a child, and the thought was like a fist of ice closing around his heart. “I was mortal once,” he said, exhaling. Now he was… not Immortal anymore, and not mortal, either; he hadn’t aged since being thrown out of the Jade Emperor’s court—some remnant of what he’d achieved still clinging to him, as did the magic he’d mastered. It probably didn’t make any difference. Selene knew, or suspected, that he was no young man. “Before I ascended.”
“There are others like you?”
“In Paris?” There were other former Immortals in Annam—it wasn’t as though the Jade Emperor had been particularly tolerant or compassionate. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.” During the war, he’d caught glimpses of other creatures from French books, sphinxes and golems and chimeras—made with magic, his sergeant had said, curtly and in a tone of voice that discouraged further questions—and he’d fought colonials who weren’t Fallen or witches, and yet moved a little too fast, a little too smoothly out of the path of danger.
There were others; from other countries, other magics that weren’t Fallen. But he would have known, or suspected, had he crossed another former Immortal from Annam—it was something in the way they moved, in the way they held themselves, the imprint of the Jade Emperor’s Court that persisted long after they’d been cast out. “You don’t have to worry about an invasion of us, if that’s the question.”
Isabelle snorted. “Very funny.” She pushed the baskets aside. “We’re done, aren’t we?”
“I guess?” They both had lessons with Emmanuelle—and not Choérine and the children, because they were too old. But their next lesson wasn’t for a few hours yet. “You can come back later and ask Laure about the ovens, if you want the bread.”
Isabelle shrugged. “Maybe. Let’s explore the House.”
“I—” The last thing he wanted was to get more of this feeling of ants on his skin. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Are you frightened?” Isabelle’s smile was mischievous, irresistible. “Come on.”
And he followed, because he’d promised.
The House was huge, and most of it was deserted, or ruined. Like most buildings in Paris, it was covered with soot, the blackened streaks characteristic of spell residue. Once, it must have sheltered thousands—a natural refuge, an island only connected to the rest of the city by seven bridges, but now it lay empty and dark, and the river that had once been its first line of defence had turned wild, become a power that snapped and killed anything that came near its shores.
“Come on,” Isabelle said, pushing a small stone door in an unremarkable corridor; and Philippe, with a sigh, followed.
To stop, awestruck, at what lay inside.
It had been a church, once. You could still see the columns and the beginning of the vaulted ceiling, a first row of arches gracefully bending toward each other; and the remnants of wooden benches, burned where they had stood. The stained-glass windows were broken, or absent; but the gaze was still drawn, unerringly, down the nave and to the altar at the other end—or where the altar would have been, if it hadn’t been turned to rubble long ago, and the only things remaining were the wrecks of three statues—the central one was least damaged, and had probably been a Virgin Mary carrying the corpse of Jesus.
No, not a church. A cathedral, like the pink-hued edifice the French had built in Saigon. It was… like a knife blade slowly drawn across his heart: he could almost have been back home, except that it was the wrong architecture, the wrong atmosphere, the wrong setting. He could still feel the fervor of its builders, of its worshippers, swirling in the air: a bare shadow of what it had once been, but so potent, so strong, so huge.
“Notre-Dame,” Philippe whispered.
Isabelle hadn’t moved; her eyes were on the sky, and on the smattering of stars visible against the dark background of the night. “It’s… like the City,” she whispered. “So much… intensity.”
“Faith,” Philippe said, though her faith wasn’t his, and would never be his. “That’s what built this up.”
The khi elements there were quiescent—almost too weak for him to pick them out, though.…
There was—a flash of something familiar: the magical equivalent of the smell of jasmine rice, a touch of something on the nape of his neck that brought him, instantly, back to the banks of the Red River, staring at the swollen mass of the river at monsoon time—breathing in the wet smell of rain and churned mud. Had some other Annamite been there?
No, it was impossible. Merely nostalgia—he was going mad, cooped up inside this House, inside this city, that was all. He needed a way out, before he lost himself.
Isabelle slowly moved, picking her way through the ruins of the benches. Throughout, her gaze remained staring upward. Was she praying; did she even remember how to pray—or perhaps it was like breathing, something that took hold of you when you had no other choice, when you were lost and cut off from your god?
She stopped long before the altar, in the raised space before it, which, like the rest, was covered in debris: the black-and-white lozenge tiles riven from end to end until their pattern had altogether gone. There was a chair left there; a stone one, battered and cracked, that nevertheless exuded a quiet power, something different from the remnants of fervor Philippe could taste in the air.
“He sat there,” Isabelle said, in the silence, her voice echoing under the broken vault. “Morningstar.”
“Emmanuelle told you this?”
“I don’t need to be told. Can’t you feel it?”
And he could; there was no point denying it. Not when the urge to abase himself was so strong he barely dared to move; afraid that anything he did would be the beginning of a bow.
“The oldest of us,” Isabelle said. Hesitantly she reached out, touched the chair with her three-fingered hand; and withdrew as if burned. “He must have known…”
“The answers to your questions?” Philippe shook his head. “He would have been wise, yes, versed in everything. But if he had no memories of before his Fall…”
“You’re not Fallen,” Isabelle said, turning back to him. “How come you know all this?”
“I’ve traveled. And kept my ears open.” He crept closer to the chair. It was like approaching an ancestral altar, the air thick with reverence and the coiled, deep power of old age; and the itching, of course, getting worse and worse, as if the ants had suddenly decided to become stinging wasps. “Oldest and most powerful among you, wasn’t he?”
“When he was there,” Isabelle said. “Now he’s dead, for all they know.”
Or merely gone; how to tell, without a body, without any messages? Not that it mattered much to him. Morningstar probably wouldn’t have much to say to him—though it was hard to ignore the voice in his mind that whispered that age should be respected, that the oldest Fallen in existence had to be wise, had to be knowledgeable, as his grandparents had once been—in a time so far away that even the bamboo bindings of its books had rotted through.
There was something… He paused before the throne, though every instinct he had was telling him to step back, to let the magic cool down to levels he could bear. But within the pinpricks of pain, there was… a note that shouldn’t have been there, a wrong tone in a poem, a slip of the paintbrush in a painstakingly calligraphied text.
He shook his head. “Not now, Isabelle.” The wrongness was coming from the throne, but not close to him. His fingers, fumbling, lingered along the delicate carvings, descended to the chair itself, the place Morningstar had been (and the power on his skin was worse, like a winter wind, like a crucible where swords were born)—probed into niches and hollows, but it wasn’t that, either. Where—?
It was below the throne, in the slight hollow between the four squat feet that carried it—once glued to it, but now it came easily undone under his touch. It was all wrong, anger and bitterness emanating from it like the howls of the souls in the Hell of Hunger.
“It hurts.” Isabelle’s voice was a thin thread of sound.
“It’s meant to hurt,” Philippe said, recovering his voice from where it seemed to have fled. In his hand, it looked like a heavy object wrapped in paper; carefully, he spread the paper flat on the ground, tipping out its contents. The paper was thin parchment, translucent and covered with spiky black handwriting; and the same feeling of darkness, of hatred, arose from it. The language wasn’t French, or Viet, or anything he could read.
“All you hold dear will be shattered; all that you built will fall into dust; all that you gathered will be borne away by the storm.…” Isabelle’s voice was a whisper, but there was an echo, deep within: a hint of someone else speaking the words and imbuing them with the weight of cold iron.
“You understand it? How?”
“I don’t know,” Isabelle said, carefully. She laid her hand on the paper, following the curve of the words on the page. “I think it’s a Fallen thing. The language of the City, maybe.…”
“I thought that was meant to be love,” Philippe said, attempting to summon some remnant of sarcasm, though it was hard, with the cloud of anger and hatred hanging thick around them.
“The love that drowned the Earth underwater and caused Noah to build the ark?” Isabelle asked, her voice flat. “That sent us tumbling down to Earth?”
“I don’t have answers,” Philippe said dryly. “A priest would probably tell you about atonement and forgiveness, but that’s your religion, not mine.” Not quite true: the Buddha also preached forgiveness, but Philippe couldn’t forgive. Not those who had torn him from Annam.
“I don’t even know what your religion is,” Isabelle pointed out, carefully folding the paper. Philippe searched her face, but there was no hint of reproach or sarcasm, merely a statement of fact. Her calm was uncanny: how could she not feel the magic roiling in the air, the pressure against their lungs, the irrepressible urge to pick a weapon and—? No. He was stronger than that.
“What was inside?” Isabelle asked.
It was a black stone disk, polished until he could see his distorted reflection in it; and it shimmered with the same power that was all around them. “Angel breath,” he said. “Trapped in a stone mirror.” And before he could think, he had reached out and touched the cold, shining surface—Isabelle cried out a warning, and then everything went dark.
He was in the House, but not in its ruins. Rich paintings and tapestries hung in the corridors, and the cathedral was whole, the graceful Gothic ribs arching into the vault; majestic and overwhelming, as it had always meant to be. Someone sat in the throne: a Fallen with pale blond hair that seemed to catch all the light streaming through the stained-glass windows. Unlike all the Fallen Philippe had seen before, this one had wings—not his real ones, but a metal armature that supported sharp, golden feathers, spreading out behind him like a headdress. Across his lap was a double-handed sword, his hand loosely wrapped around his handle; the sense of coiled power was almost unbearable, a pressure to abase himself, to bow down to age and power.…
Morningstar. Lucifer. The Light Bringer, the Shining One, the First Fallen.
By his side were other Fallen, other humans. He caught a glimpse of Lady Selene, though her face was smoother, more childish than the one she’d shown to him. Younger, he thought; but the words seemed very far away, moving as if through tar through his mind. And other, younger faces: Emmanuelle the archivist; Aragon—who alone of everyone appeared unchanged, prim and unsmiling—two human warlocks holding breath-charged mirrors and watches; and a stern older woman wearing the mortar-and-pestle insignia of the alchemists, whose bag bulged with bottles of elixirs and boxes of charged artifacts.
And then Morningstar’s gaze, which had been trained on one of the stained-glass windows, turned; and fell on him.
The pale eyes transfixed him like a thrown spear—it wasn’t so much the power contained within, as the rising interest; the slow focusing of a monstrous magic exclusively on him; on who he was; on who he could become, given enough time in which to utterly reshape him; and who wouldn’t want to be reshaped by Morningstar, to be forged into one of his beloved weapons?
“Come here,” Morningstar said; and, like a puppet propelled by his maker, he walked up the stairs and stood in the shadow of the throne, shivering as the gaze unraveled him, picked apart his body until not even the bones remained.…
He was back in the ruined cathedral, and Isabelle was shaking him. His hand had left the mirror; hung, limp, bloodless, by his side.
He breathed in air—burning, painful air, but he had never been so glad for the irritation of the House on his skin. Everything seemed lighter, limned in starlight; and the oppressive anger and hatred seemed to have gone, as if the night wind had blown it away. What—What happened?
“Philippe?” Isabelle asked.
“I’m fine,” he said, the lie small and unconvincing to him. He could still feel the weight of Morningstar’s gaze; could still feel the magic turning, slowly focusing on him: the gaze of a gigantic cobra, annihilating his will, turning his own desires into dust.
And something else, too, something darker, quieter—that had lain biding its time away from the light, and that now stretched and turned, sniffing the air like a predator searching for prey.…
A summoning. Of what?
“I don’t know what happened. But it’s gone now. There is nothing to worry about.”
His gaze, roaming, found the stone mirror: the luster had gone from it, leaving only a bleak darkness. “It’s gone now,” he repeated; but he knew that, whatever had been contained within the mirror, it was within him now; and that whatever had been summoned with its magic was outside—within the House.
Excerpted from The House of Shattered Wings © Aliette de Bodard, 2015