The Gilded Wolves (The Gilded Wolves, #1)(11)

“You don’t want me,” she said softly.

Tears stung her eyes. When she blinked, she saw the path to her expulsion. One year into schooling, her classmates had changed. Once, her skill awed them. Now, it offended them. Then the rumors started. No one seemed to care at first that she was Jewish. But that changed. Rumors sprang up that Jews could steal anything.

Even someone else’s Forging affinity.

It was completely false, and so she ignored it. She should have been more careful, but that was the problem with happiness. It blinds.

For a while, Zofia was happy. And then, one afternoon, the other students’ whispers got the better of her. That day, she broke down in the laboratory. There were too many sounds. Too much laughing. Too much brightness escaping through the curtain. She’d forgotten her parents’ lesson to count backward until she felt calm. Whispers grew from that episode. Crazy Jew. A month later, ten students locked themselves in the lab with her. Again came the sounds, smells, laughing. The other students didn’t grab her. They knew the barest touch—like a feather trailed down skin—hurt her more. Calm slipped out of reach no matter how many times she counted backward, or begged to be let go, or asked what she had done wrong.

In the end, it was such a small movement.

Someone had kicked her to the ground. Another person’s elbow clashed into a vial on a table. The vial splattered into a puddle, which pooled out and touched the tips of her outstretched fingers. She had been holding a piece of flint in her hand when fury flickered in her mind. Fire. That little thought—that snippet of will, just as the professors had taught her—traveled from her fingertips to the puddle, igniting the broken vial until it bloomed into a towering inferno.

Seven students were injured in the explosion.

For her crime, she was arrested on grounds of arson and insanity, and taken to prison. She would have died there if not for Séverin. Séverin found her, freed her, and did the unthinkable: He gave her a job. A way to earn back what she’d lost. A way out.

Zofia rubbed her finger across the oath tattoo on her right knuckle. Luckily, it was only temporary or her mother would have been appalled. She could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo. The tattoo was a contract between her and Séverin, the ink Forged so that if one of them broke the agreement, nightmares would plague them. That Séverin had used this tattoo—a sign of equals—instead of some of the cruder contracts was something she would never forget.

Zofia turned on her heel and left rue Bonaparte behind. Perhaps the marble entrance could not recognize when a student had been expelled, for it did not move, but stayed in its place until she disappeared around a corner.

* * *

IN L’EDEN, ZOFIA made her way to the stargazing room. Séverin had called for a meeting once he and Enrique got back from their latest acquisition, which she knew was just a fancy word for “theft.”

Zofia never took the grand lobby’s main staircase. She didn’t want to see all the fancy people dressed up and laughing and dancing. Plus, it was too noisy. Instead, she took the servants’ entryway, which was how she ran into Séverin. He grinned despite appearing thoroughly disheveled. Zofia noticed how tenderly he held his wrist.

“You’re covered in blood.”

Séverin glanced down at his clothes. “Surprisingly, it hasn’t escaped my attention.”

“Are you dying?”

“No more than usual or expected.”

Zofia frowned.

“I’m well enough. Don’t worry.”

She reached for the door handle. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”

“Thank you, Zofia,” said Séverin with a small smile. “I will join you soon. There’s something I’d like to show everyone through a mnemo bug.”

On Séverin’s shoulder, a Forged silver beetle scuttled under his lapel. Mnemo bugs recorded images and sound, allowing projection-like holograms should the wearer choose. Which meant she had to be prepared for an unexpected burst of light. Séverin knew she didn’t like those. They jolted her thoughts. Nodding, Zofia left him in the hall and walked into the room.

The stargazing room calmed Zofia. It was wide and spacious, with a glass-domed vault that let in the starlight. All along the walls were orreries and telescopes, cabinets full of polished crystal, and shelves lined with fading books and manuscripts. In the middle of the room was the low coffee table that bore the scuff marks and dents of a hundred schemes that came to life on its wooden surface. A semicircle of chairs surrounded it. Zofia made her way to her seat. It was a tall metal stool with a ragged pillowcase. Zofia preferred to balance upright because she didn’t like things touching her back. In a green, velvet chaise across from her sprawled Laila, who absentmindedly traced the rim of her teacup with one finger. In a plushy armchair crowded with pillows sat Enrique, who had a large book on his lap and was reading intently. Of the two chairs left, one was Tristan’s—which was less of a chair and more of a cushion because he didn’t like heights—and one was Séverin’s, a black-cherry armchair Zofia had custom-Forged so that an unfamiliar touch caused it to sprout blades.

Tristan barged into the room, his hands outstretched.

“Look! I thought Goliath was dying, but he’s fine. He just molted!”

Enrique screamed. Laila scuttled backward on her chaise. Zofia leaned forward, inspecting the enormous tarantula in Tristan’s hands. Mathematicians didn’t frighten her, and spiders—and bees—were just that. A spider’s web was composed of numerous radii, a logarithmic spiral, and the light-diffusing properties of their webs and silk were fascinating.

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