Camille rounded on her sister. “Our father wasn’t a nineteen-year-old wastrel!”

Alain lurched toward Camille, steadying himself on the table. Despite the cold, his face glistened with sweat. His eyes had a faraway look that raised the tiny hairs on her neck.

“Go sleep it off, Alain. I’ll clean up—comme d’habitude,” she added in an undertone. As always.

Before she could think, his knife was at her throat. She froze, sensing each throb of her pulse just under the skin.

“What are you doing, Alain? Put away the knife.”

Alain’s hand shook, and then—a bright line of pain. A trickle of blood curled into the hollow of her collarbone, hot and wet. All these weeks of threatening to hurt her, and now, drunk on who knows how many bottles of wine, he finally had. She wanted to rage and to weep at the injustice of it. But she did not flinch.

“You aren’t my master, Camille Durbonne,” Alain growled. “I’m a soldier, and I earn my keep.”

“Then go earn it. Show up for duty for once. Pay the rent.” She didn’t move. Everything in her was shouting at her to run, but she would never let him see her fear. Never. “I can’t keep on like this.”

“Oh, I’ll do my part. And in the meantime,” he said, so close that Camille was forced to inhale the sour stink of his breath, “do the only thing you’re good for. Go work la magie.” Dropping the knife, he stumbled toward the door and flung it open.

Furious and heartsick, she listened as his stumbling footsteps echoed down the stairs. Working magic would be easy now, thanks to him. The petty magic of la magie ordinaire took all the skill she’d honed under her mother’s supervision—and it took sorrow. Without sorrow, there was no transformation, no magic.

Tonight she would have plenty to spare.


That night, nightmares tore through Sophie’s sleep. They’d begun when she was sick with the pox. Sometimes in her dreams, she’d told Camille, she went back in time, six months, a year, to when their parents were alive, kind and happy. Other times they only seemed alive, for when Sophie embraced them, they crumbled to ash in her arms. Or it was three months ago, when they were dying of smallpox, and Sophie had to retch up whatever scrap of food she’d managed to eat in order to feed them. It was an endless horror of fear, guilt, and anguish.

Perched on the edge of Sophie’s bed, Camille watched as Sophie’s eyes seesawed under their bluish lids and tensed each time Sophie drew a shuddering breath. When she was close to waking, she gasped for air, like someone drowning.

Then she woke, her eyes pinched tight. “Please,” she begged. “My sleep medicine.”

Camille held the brown bottle of laudanum up against the candle flame. It was nearly empty. She spooned the last few mouthfuls between Sophie’s lips. It didn’t take long before the drug worked its drowsy lull. Her eyelids fluttering, Sophie sank back into the pillow. “In my dream, Maman had no fingers,” Sophie mumbled. “She had sold them all for food. Stay with me, Camille, so the dreams don’t come back.”

Holding Sophie’s thin hand, Camille tucked her knees up under her chemise and rested against the wall. Sophie’s coverlet rose and fell, rose and fell, as her breathing slowed, grew even. When the fire sank to embers, Camille pulled the blankets from Alain’s empty bed and tucked Sophie under them all. Her black cat curled himself against her stomach, his low-pitched purr thrumming in the air. “Ah, Fant?me,” Sophie breathed, letting go of Camille’s hand to clutch at his fur.

“That’s right. Sleep now, ma chèrie.” Camille smoothed Sophie’s sweat-dark hair off her forehead. Her hair would need washing in the morning. For that, they’d need more wood to heat the water. More wood, more money, more medicine, more magie.

She tentatively touched the place above her collarbone where Alain’s knife had cut her. It had already stopped bleeding. It could have been worse, she told herself as she fingered the wound. Sometimes she hoped he’d never come back. It would make Sophie sad, of course. Camille knew she should pity Alain, or have sympathy for him, since he’d tried, at least in the beginning, to feed and clothe them. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t work magic; Dieu, he had wanted to. But all that came after? How he seemed to take refuge in the gambling and the drinking? That wasn’t the brother she knew.

Perhaps her real brother was never coming back.

Alain had little money in his pockets but that wouldn’t stop him: soon he’d be shouting out his bets at the gaming rooms at the Palais-Royal, the grand Parisian palace belonging to the king’s cousin and notorious gambler, the duc d’Orléans, who’d opened his house to the public. There Alain would stake whatever he had to win whatever he could, drinking on credit until he could no longer sign his name. She knew how the story went. In a week or two the collector would be standing on their threshold, Madame Lamotte peering in behind him, the man jabbing a grimy bill in Camille’s face.

This was a certainty.

Leaving Sophie sleeping, Camille padded barefoot into the other room and paused at its far end, where a small door led to a room beneath the eaves. Slipping a key from its hiding place beneath a loose floorboard, she turned it in the lock. The little room was wallpapered with a faded pattern of cabbage roses. In the half-light, the flowers gawked at her like a crowd of faces. A few rolled-up old carpets, too worn to sell, lay in the gloom, and next to them, two wooden trunks. One of them looked as if it had been burned in a fire, its charred black surface greasy in the candlelight. Camille stepped past it, trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Though of course that was impossible. Because just to think of it was to hear Maman’s warning in her head—Do not touch the burned box, for it is more dangerous than you could ever imagine—and to feel a haunted breath along the back of her neck.

Gita Trelease's Books