We’re excited to share an excerpt from Samantha Shannon’s The Mask Falling, the fourth novel set in the world of Scion—available January 26th from Bloomsbury.
Dreamwalker Paige Mahoney has eluded death again. Snatched from the jaws of captivity and consigned to a safe house in the Scion Citadel of Paris, she finds herself caught between those factions that seek Scion’s downfall and those who would kill to protect the Rephaim’s puppet empire.
The mysterious Domino Program has plans for Paige, but she has ambitions of her own in this new citadel. With Arcturus Mesarthim—her former enemy—at her side, she embarks on an adventure that will lead her from the catacombs of Paris to the glittering hallways of Versailles. Her risks promise high reward: the Parisian underworld could yield the means to escalate her rebellion to outright war.
As Scion widens its bounds and the free world trembles in its shadow, Paige must fight her own memories after her ordeal at the hands of Scion. Meanwhile, she strives to understand her bond with Arcturus, which grows stronger by the day. But there are those who know the revolution began with them—and could end with them…
Chapter 3: Gloomy Coffee
It was a short walk to the Porte Nord. Two pickpockets trailed me for a while, but when I turned and gave them a level stare, they melted away.
Carven faces stared down at me from the triumphal arch, which honoured the French soldiers who had fallen at the Battle of the Iron Gates during the Balkan Incursion. Idling across the street was a car with dabs of azure paint above its wheels. I climbed in, gave the address, and we were off. The cabbie smoked like damp kindling and paid me little mind.
Dull pain throbbed in my temple. Twice I snapped out of a drowse. The car rattled back over the river and into the south of the citadel, where it braked outside the shell of a church. I paid the cabbie and waded through a snowbank, towards a coffeehouse on the corner.
La Mère des Douleurs didn’t look as if it hid any secrets. The awnings over its outdoor tables were heavy with snow, its façade peacock blue, and bay windows flanked its door, each square pane laced with frost. The menu promised hot spiced mecks and Lyonnaise-style cuisine.
Inside, I scraped mud and snow from my boots. Customers lounged on wicker chairs, eating and talking. I checked my lenses were still in place as a waitron approached me.
‘Bonjour,’ she said.
‘Bonjour.’ Hoping I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself, I went for it: ‘Je voudrais un café sombre, s’il vous plaît.’
She didn’t miss a beat: ‘Très bon choix, Madelle.’
I followed her to the back of the building, past tables and framed photographs, and she took a key from her apron. She led me through a concealed door and down a winding flight of steps.
We descended into a tunnel, which resonated with chamber music and the beehive hum of a hundred conversations. It seemed many Parisians had a taste for gloomy coffee.
The waitron led me past a statue of a veiled woman, who held her own heart. Candles glimmered at her feet. An amaurotic was on his knees before her, hands clasped, head bowed. Dim impressions came to me: fragrant smoke, voices raised to a vaulted ceiling. Tendrils of a memory.
The coffeehouse was a warren of cosy spaces, lit by tapers and cluttered with tables. A peppery fug of tobacco and regal hung in the air. The vast majority of these patrons were voyant. I was getting closer.
In the largest chamber, where a quartet of whisperers played baroque violins, several alcoves served as private booths, cut off from the rest of the coffeehouse by red velvet curtains. I took the last vacant one and slipped into an upholstered seat. The waitron set down a glass of hot blood mecks and a basket of bread before she closed the curtains. I removed my gloves and read the menu, which boasted such delicacies as cassoulet au cimetière and tarte ténébreuse.
My eyelids were heavy. Now I had stopped moving, all my aches had crept back in. I kept my coat on and burrowed into it.
Arcturus soon joined me in my alcove. The curtains fell together in his wake, muffling the clamour again.
‘This place is so … you.’ I took a slice of bread. ‘How on earth do you know your way into a secret coffeehouse?’
‘You sound surprised,’ Arcturus said. ‘I have been a revolutionary for a very long time.’
‘Oh, yes. Such a rebel, with your organ-playing and gramophones and good manners.’
‘Are you mocking me, Paige Mahoney?’
‘Fondly.’ I smiled into my glass. ‘Seriously, how did you find this place?’
‘After France pledged to Scion, this crypt was used first for clandestine religious services. Later, artists and musicians discovered it, too,’ he said. ‘Nine years ago, Nashira sent Alsafi to find a seditious painter, and his investigation led him here. He told me about it.’
‘Did he turn the painter over?’
‘Yes, though he did not betray the crypt. Alsafi did only what he believed was necessary to keep his place beside the blood-sovereign.’
Alsafi had made ruthless choices. He had sacrificed others to maintain his cover, but given his own life to save mine.
I tamped down the memory. ‘Why are we here?’
‘Two reasons,’ Arcturus said. ‘The first: since this is a crypt, it may connect to the carrières, or serve as a meeting place for those who know their way in. Perhaps you can find a link to Mélusine.’
‘The thought had occurred.’ I stole a glance between the curtains. ‘And the second?’
‘To give you an opportunity to rest.’
That made me look back at him sharply. ‘I’ve rested for three weeks,’ I said. ‘We need to start looking for Mélusine now if we’re going to make it back to the safe house by dusk.’
‘Half an hour to eat and warm yourself.’ He held my gaze. ‘Tell me you do not feel drained. Tell me this day has not taken its toll on you, and we will leave.’
I drew in a breath to lie to him. As if to mock me, pain sliced into my chest, so deep I had to set my jaw against it.
‘I hate this,’ I said. ‘This weakness.’ My exhalation made the candle flicker. ‘I used to be able to run all night. Fight off thugs twice my size. Now this.’ I wrapped my hands around my glass. ‘Our mutual friend might not have killed me, but she’s left me essentially useless.’
‘You believe all those she has tortured are rendered useless, then.’
That made me look up.
‘Sorry.’ I reached across to touch his wrist. ‘I didn’t mean that. Of course you’re not.’
‘Tell yourself the same.’ The candle made shadows feather over his face. ‘There are always other ways to fight.’
Perhaps it was the low pitch of his voice. Perhaps it was the warmth of him beneath my fingertips, a reminder of when his arms had drawn me close. Perhaps it was the red drapes that concealed us.
His eyes darkened, and I was sure we were recalling the same night. I let go of his wrist.
All right,’ I conceded. ‘I’ll eat one of these morbid-sounding meals. And then we’re going to find Mélusine. Agreed?’
While I drank my hot mecks, I thought of how I had instinctively reached for him. Only two weeks ago, I had been racked by fear that I would never share that casual intimacy with another person again. While Suhail Chertan tortured me, he had told me over and over that I was repulsive. Then the Vigiles had taken their turn to beat and waterboard me.
For over a week after the escape, I had shied away from Arcturus, afraid that Suhail had been right – afraid of any touch at all, because for too long, every touch had caused me pain. The fact that I could reach for him now, without thinking, was a small victory.
A different waitron came to take my order. ‘Your French is excellent,’ Arcturus said, once we were on our own again. ‘You speak as if you were born to it.’
‘Thanks. I started learning it in Ireland, but I was lucky to have a very good teacher in London, too,’ I said. ‘She thought my speaking Irish was an asset. I was conversationally fluent in French by the time I left school, and I’ve worked on it ever since.’
After a pause, he said, ‘Did something happen to her?’
He was getting better at reading my expressions. I looked down.
‘After we left Ireland,’ I said, ‘I begged my father to keep speaking Gaeilge with me at home so I wouldn’t lose it. He refused. I’d hold long conversations with myself in secret, but I was only eight when we left Ireland. There were words I didn’t know. Madelle Alard somehow got hold of a dictionary so I could keep teaching myself.’ The candle flickered. ‘She was hanged for sedition about two years ago. I suppose she helped one too many outcasts.’
‘I am sorry.’
I nodded, trying not to remember the day I had walked past the Lychgate and seen her.
The waitron came back with a silver tray. She placed my food in front of me – served in a burial urn, no less – and shut the drapes behind her.
‘They’re committed to their theme down here.’ A casserole of sausage, white beans and mutton was baked into the urn. I dug in. ‘Enough about me. Tell me how you get around citadels so fast without anyone seeing you.’
‘I am surprised that interests you,’ Arcturus said. ‘You have been able to evade Scion for months.’
‘Tell me anyway.’ I blew lightly on my forkful. ‘Now I’ve got the chance, I’m going to ask you everything I can.’
‘Rephaim are not wholly corporeal,’ he said, as I ate. ‘Our sarx allows us to circumvent some laws of the human world. Cameras see little more than a shadow when I pass.’
‘I knew there was something.’
‘I do not wish to seem opaque to you, Paige. You may ask me whatever questions you wish.’
‘Will you answer?’
‘When I can.’ Once I had eaten some more, he spoke again. ‘How do you mean to find Mélusine?’
‘I know the underworld.’
‘Paris is not London.’
‘No,’ I agreed. ‘Which is interesting, because Scion tries hard to regulate its citadels. The blue streetlamps, the cohorts, the white cabs and buses.’ I scraped up some more of the casserole. ‘I suppose you can never tell a city what shape to take. Still, Scion has done us a favour by attempting to standardise the unstandardisable. The underworlds will have similarities, because they were created as safe places in citadels designed to give us no safe place. They’re the gaps between the bones. Similar bones, similar gaps – which means I should be able to navigate them.’
Arcturus looked at me, long enough that it made me more aware than usual of the way I was sitting, the fall of my hair, the space between us. Not for the first time, I wished I could hear his thoughts.
‘I am glad to be with you in this particular citadel,’ he told me. ‘No matter its shape.’
‘And I think you are enjoying being my mentor.’
‘I would never be so petty.’
‘Fine. It does give me a little satisfaction.’
‘I daresay you have earned it.’
I polished off the sauce with some more bread. As I did, I kept one eye on the customers through the sliver between the curtains.
For a while, nothing caught my attention. Then a medium passed a group of soothsayers, and I watched a note pass from one hand to another. The medium crossed the chamber and was gone. Not long after, having skimmed the note and finished his cup of saloop, the soothsayer picked up his coat and left in the same direction.
‘I may have just found that link.’ I shifted out of my seat. ‘Meet me at the church. Twenty minutes.’
Excerpted from The Mask Falling, copyright © 2021 by Samantha Shannon.