The Gilded Wolves (The Gilded Wolves, #1)(5)

Distracted, Laila smoothed her hands across her dress.

A mistake.

She should never touch anything when her thoughts were too frenzied. That single unguarded moment had allowed the dress’s memories to knife into her thoughts: chrysanthemum petals clinging to the wet hem, brocade stretched over the carriage footstool, hands folded in prayer, and then—


Blood everywhere, the carriage overturned, bone snapping through the fabric—

Laila winced, snatching back her hand. But it was too late. The dress’s memories caught her and held tight. Laila squeezed her eyes shut, pinching her skin as hard as she could. The sharp pain felt like a red flame in her thoughts, and her consciousness wrapped around that pain as if it would lead her out of the dark. When the memories faded, she opened her eyes. Laila pulled down her sleeve, her hands shaking.

For a moment, Laila crouched on the floor, her arms around her knees. Séverin had called her ability “invaluable” before she told him why she could read the objects around her. After that, he was too startled, or perhaps too horrified, to say anything. Out of the whole group, only Séverin knew her touch could draw out an object’s secret history. Invaluable or not, this ability was not … normal.

She was not normal.

Laila gathered herself off the floor, her hands still shaking as she left the room.

In the servants’ stairway, Laila shucked off the housekeeper uniform and changed into her worn kitchen uniform. The hotel’s second kitchen was dedicated strictly to baking, and during the evening hours, it belonged to her. She wasn’t due on the Palais des Rêves stage until next week, which left her with nothing but free time for her second job.

In the narrow hallway, L’Eden’s waitstaff bustled past her. They carried chilled oysters on the half shell, quail eggs floating in bone marrow soup, steaming coq au vin that left the hall smelling like burgundy wine and buttery garlic. Without her trademark mask and headdress, not one of them recognized her as the cabaret star L’énigme. Here, she was simply another person, another worker.

Alone in the baking kitchen, Laila surveyed the marble counter strewn with culinary scales, paintbrushes, edible pearls in a glass dish, and—as of this afternoon—a croquembouche tower nearly two meters high. She had been up at dawn baking choux pastry balls, filling them with sweetened cream, and making sure that every sphere was the perfect coin-gold of dawn before rolling them in caramel and stacking them into a pyramid. All that was left was the decoration.

L’Eden had already won all manner of accolades for its fine dining—Séverin would accept nothing less—but it was the desserts that lit up the guests’ dreams. Laila’s desserts, though absent of Forging, were like edible magic. Her cakes took the shape of ballerinas with outstretched arms—their hair spun sugar and edible gold, their skin pale as cream and strewn with sweet pearl dust.

Guests called her creations “divine.” When she stepped into the kitchen, she felt like a deity surveying the slivers of a universe not yet made. She breathed easier in the kitchen. Sugar and flour and salt had no memory. Here, her touch was just that. A touch. A distance closed, an action brought to an end.

An hour later, she was putting the finishing touches on a cake when the door slammed open. Laila sighed, but she didn’t look up. She knew who it was.

Six months after Laila had started working for Séverin, she and Enrique had been playing cards in the stargazing room when Séverin walked in carrying a dirty, underfed Polish girl with eyes bluer than a candle’s heart. Séverin set her down on the couch, introduced her as his engineer, and that was that. Only later did Laila discover more about her. Arrested for arson and expelled from university, Zofia possessed a rare Forging affinity for all metals and a sharp mind for numbers.

When she first came to L’Eden, Zofia spoke only to Séverin and seemed utterly uncommunicative when anyone else approached her. One day, Laila noticed that when she brought desserts for meetings, Zofia only ate the pale sugar cookies, leaving all the colorfully decorated desserts untouched. So, the next day, Laila left a plate of them outside Zofia’s door. She did that for three weeks before she got busy one day in the kitchens and forgot. When she opened the door to air the room, she found Zofia holding out an empty plate and staring at her expectantly. That had been a year ago.

Now, without saying a word, Zofia grabbed a clean mixing bowl, filled it with water, and guzzled it on the spot. She dragged her arm across her mouth. Then she reached for a bowl of icing. Laila smacked her hand, lightly, with a rolling pin. Zofia glowered, then dipped an ink-stained finger into the icing anyway. A moment later, she began absentmindedly stacking the measuring cups according to size. Laila waited patiently. With Zofia, conversations were not initiated so much as caught at random and followed through until the other girl grew bored.

“I set some fires in the House Kore courier’s room.”

Laila dropped the paintbrush. “What? You were supposed to wake him up without being in the room!”

“I did? I set them off when I stepped outside. They’re tiny.” When met with Laila’s wide-eyed stare, Zofia abruptly changed the subject. Though, to her, it probably did not seem abrupt at all. “I don’t like crocodile musculature. Séverin wants a decoy of those Sphinx masks—”

“Can we go back to the fire—”

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