The Everlasting Rose (The Belles, #2)(5)

The avenue boards don’t even shimmer at this time of the morning, my lonely presence not strong enough to animate them. Orléans’s most famous singer stares back at me with bright eyes and a frozen grin and rich light brown skin like hazelnut butter. The shops wear CLOSED signs and burned-out night-lanterns float over their doors like stormy, ominous clouds. In a few hours, these avenues will bloat with bodies.

I hook a right down the street that ends with a perfume shop. A trio of eccentric-pink flowers glows in the front windows. Almost there.

“Lost, dearie?” a voice hisses.

I whip around. Red eyes flash at me from beneath a hood. The Gris woman bares her teeth, yellowed and crooked and meant to be a smile, but it looks more like a threat.

“No,” I say, steadying my voice.

The woman’s shriveled gray skin catches the moonlight. “Any leas to spare?”

“Sorry, I don’t have anything.”

“You look like you have spintria. I’ll take that, too.”

I wish I did have something for her. I used to have a pocket full of beauty tokens and possess enough bags of spintria to easily fill a thousand safes. But her words are a surprise. We were told many of the Gris choose to remain that way, the madness pushing them to the edge, erasing any desires to pull themselves up and earn enough spintria to join regular society.

“I have nothing,” I say, rushing ahead, but she follows, muttering nonsense. Fear crawls over my skin. I remember the first Gris woman I ever saw. My sisters and I had just turned thirteen, and the older girls were practicing using their arcana in the lesson rooms. Hana and I sneaked into the Aura chambers and hid beneath the treatment tables when women as gray as a thunderstruck sky were marched in. We pressed our faces against lace tableskirts as the women were laid over us, their screams quelled with mouth bandages. The tussling melody of their fighting bodies was stamped out with thick leather straps pinning them down as vial after vial of Belle elixir was administered in an attempt to calm them.

“Only spiders come out this early,” she says.

“Leave me alone,” I whisper hard.

“Out past curfew,” she screeches and wags a crooked finger at me.

“Go away.” I try to dodge past her. Panic races through my veins like it’s replaced the arcana.

She slaps me and knocks my mask askew.

I scramble to fix it and swallow the cry of shock and pain clawing its way up my throat.

“I know you. I’ve seen you before.”

The heavy stomp of soldiers’ boots echoes in the morning quiet.

She grabs my wrist, digging hooked fingernails into my skin. “You’re the one they’re looking for.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My heart speeds up.

Her throaty chuckle becomes a wheeze. “Who are you fooling?” She points her other finger at me as I jerk away. “Not me, that’s who.” Her eyes narrow. “Guards! Guards!” she shouts. “I shall be rewarded. The newsies told us we could change our stars if we made sure to pay attention for the fugitives. I didn’t believe them. They tell so many lies. But now, it’s true.”

Sweat pours down my back despite the chilly air. I shove her, but her grip tightens. We crash into a window box of cold-season flowers. The arcana almost hiss beneath my skin. An instinctual reminder. I tug at the fibers of the holly plant, forcing them to grow like hair. The roots burst through the wooden sides of the box and tumble along the cobblestoned street. They coil around the woman’s arms and legs, yanking her away from me. Her red glare burns into me and she screams.

I force the leaves to grow and cover her mouth, silencing her protests. She thrashes until she clobbers her head against the wall and loses consciousness.

My heart plummets. What have I done?

I touch her face. Cold. Clammy.

The noise of the soldiers grows louder. They run in our direction.

She wouldn’t stop, I tell myself.

I had to.

Is she dead?

The sound of my pulse thrums in my ears. I dart left off the Imperial Mile and run the rest of the way down the avenue. Only a single shop boasts a morning-lantern over its glass windows—a signal that it is open for business. Glittering rose-colored lanterns bear apothecary symbols—a snake curled around a mortar and pestle. The wind bats them like balloons.

Nerves flutter like tiny wings inside my chest. Maybe it’s from being recognized. Maybe it’s from using the arcana. Maybe it’s from interacting with a Gris person up close for the first time. Maybe it’s from hurting someone.

I gaze through a gold-trimmed window. Three apothecary bulbs sway and glow in shades of ocean blue and emerald green. Spiderwebs climb over them and glisten in the light. Day-lanterns cruise about the store. The walls are alive with color and hold endless shelves of glass containers that twinkle like bottled stars. A beautiful sign hangs above the doorway, and in cursive lettering announces: CLAIBORNE’S APOTHECARY.

I glance behind me at the now empty street before ducking inside. The scent of a crackling fire and medicinal pastilles meets my nose. The large room has three stories of mahogany cabinets separated by curled iron balconies and sets of spiraled staircases. Bottles wear handwritten labels and lea prices. I recognize many by sight—foxglove, belladonna, poppy, bay laurel. Others contain blue-glass poison bottles, bei powder, wafers, metal instruments—saws, scissors, knives, lancets—and patent medicines boasting cures for fever, lumps, and other illnesses.

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