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Age of the Rose, 996
The golden bell above my doorframe bobs twice.
I roll my shoulders against the needling ache that settles at the base of my neck whenever that damn thing sounds. After nearly a decade of hearing it, I’ve come to despise the bell’s shrill, tinny clang almost as much as the message it carries: A patron is coming. When it was first installed, my bell gleamed like those the Graces use in their parlors. But now, seeing as the servants conveniently forget to polish it, a mottled green tarnish clings to the thing like a scaly skin. Fitting, I think, that I should have the ugliest bell in Lavender House when I am by far the ugliest creature living inside it.
Alyce. My own name on my patron schedule glares up at me when I glance at the next appointment. Beneath it: The Dark Grace.
Grace, indeed. If I were truly a Grace, I’d be receiving my patrons in a sunny parlor with silk-upholstered chairs and trays of spongy, cream-frosted tea cakes. Instead, I’m banished to a converted storage annex attached to Lavender House’s kitchen. It’s yet another reason Cook hates me. The space was once a larder and now Cook complains every chance she gets that there isn’t enough storage space in the cellar. I catch her grumbling curses at me when she thinks I’m out of earshot, as if this insufferable chamber is some kind of prize. There are no windows. A dank chill seeps through the rotting mortar, even in the summer heat. And the wretched hearth—hastily added once I opened my practice—clogs more often than not, filling my Lair with a perpetual smoky scent and smearing soot on every surface.
It’s more a dragon’s lair out of a story than a parlor in a Grace house. Rose dubbed it such soon after she arrived: the Lair, where the Dark Grace dwells. I hate the place so much that I didn’t even fight her.
Callow ruffles as the bell jangles a second time, as annoyed as I am at the intrusion. I offer my kestrel a few meat trimmings snuck from beneath Cook’s nose.
“What do you think this one wants?” Callow shakes out her white-speckled wings in a decidedly irritated fashion and nudges my hand with her head. And I suppose there’s no point putting it off any longer. “Enter!”
The chamber door squeals and I can tell immediately from the footsteps that it isn’t one of my regulars. They’re anxious. Hesitant. A startle away from turning and bolting.
I wish they would turn and bolt.
Whispering apologies to Callow, I fix her hood over her head. She’s easier to handle this way, especially around strangers. I’d found the kestrel as a chick some years ago, half-dead and starving on the sea cliffs outside Briar’s main gates. Though I’m no healing Grace, I was able to nurse her back to health with what tinctures I could concoct. She’s never taken to anyone else. Not that I blame her. Mistress Lavender said it would have been kinder to kill the bird, and one of the servants mistook her for a rat and nearly bludgeoned her to death. The maid was lucky I didn’t return the favor.
The nervous patron hovers in my doorway, hood close around her face despite the oppressive, salt-soaked heat of late summer. The firelight flits over her features, sharpening her cheekbones. Hollowing her eye sockets. Definitely not a regular. She looks like she thinks I’m going to roast her over a spit. As if my pathetic hearth is large enough to manage that. Would that it could.
“Your Grace.” The edges of her brocade cloak tremble as she scrapes a curtsy.
“What brings you here?” I stroke Callow’s snowy breast with one finger, affecting the cool, detached manner people expect from the Dark Grace. I don’t ask her name. Within these walls, she doesn’t have one. Patrons do not come to my Lair seeking beauty or charm or wit as they would in a Grace’s parlor. They come for revenge. For cruelty. Services provided at a steep price, and that price includes anonymity.
“I . . . I have a . . . cat.” She stumbles. Flushes at her own threadbare deception.
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. My patrons always spare less than half a thought to crafting a decent backstory. Briar’s Grace Laws prevent the use of their magic for ill will, which should directly prohibit my line of work. But I am the only Grace of my kind. And all I do is prepare the elixirs. Once the vials leave my hands, it’s up to the patrons to dispose of them as they please. And as long as I don’t know I’m party to an attack on another citizen, I cannot be held liable for my patrons’ actions. Besides that, my elixirs cost three times the average rate of those of a Grace. And if I stopped working, the Crown wouldn’t get its cut.
“A cat.” I school my features into the neutral expression I’ve perfected over the years.
“Yes, a cat.” She fiddles with the buttons at her sleeves. “A cat too pretty for its own good. She’s getting too much attention from the other . . . cats.”
Dragon’s teeth, she’s even worse than the others. And I once had a man tell me his own rose garden smelled too nice and was attracting bees.
“And you wish to . . .”
“I don’t want to harm the cat,” the woman says automatically. “I just want . . .”
“To give her a few warts?” A standard ugliness elixir.
Her gaze brightens in the gloom. How predictable. New patrons are always so grateful when I offer suggestions. I think it makes them feel less the villain. Like they didn’t come here specifically to do harm to someone they’ve convinced themselves deserves it.
The patron nods and I motion for her to sit at a worn wooden table near the hearth as I start assembling ingredients for the elixir. Swamp water. A dash of powdered nightshade. And, for the warts, I cart over the short, boxy cage that houses my toad, Prince Markham.
The woman stammers, flinching as I plop His Highness on the table in front of her. He lets out a belchy croak.
Only the crackle of the flames and the grind of the pestle break the silence as I work. I’m grateful. Sometimes my patrons try to plump up their lies, offering needless explanations and sugarcoated stories. Hoping I’ll nod along. Make it easier on their consciences. I never do. They deserve whatever guilt festers in their guts.
But this woman only chews the inside of her cheek, glancing at the door every few moments as if she’s worried she’ll be discovered. She needn’t be. Every aspect of my craft is steeped in secrecy. Patrons book their appointments with me using a shrouded alcove around the side of the house, built specifically for the purpose. There’s a little screen secured into the wall, where patrons or their servants can murmur their needs to our house manager, Delphine. She even takes the payments through a slot and allows aliases on the bookings, a practice forbidden to the other Graces. If Delphine guesses who the patrons are, she’s paid well enough to keep her mouth shut.
My current patron, who calls herself Mistress Briar—how original—seems to have forgotten about the great care Lavender House has taken to protect her identity. Despite the Lair’s cold, sweat beads on her upper lip and she dabs it away with a lace handkerchief. She jumps every time Callow moves on her perch. Ignoring her restlessness, I hold a long needle over a candle flame, and then with a quiet apology, I pierce one of Prince Markham’s warts. He gurgles in protest as a few drops of his blood, so dark they’re almost black, fall into the waiting vial. I add it to the rest of the mixture.
Now for the most important piece. With a small scalpel, I press down on my finger. A line of green blood—the source of my power—wells. I count to three, inhaling the faint scent of woodsmoke and loam that is my magic, as it dribbles onto the other enhancements. Immediately, the mixture hisses. I stir it with a long spoon until a cloud of black smoke erupts from the mortar. My patron covers her slender, highborn nose and coughs.
“For your cat.” I raise an eyebrow, pouring the elixir into a vial and sliding it across the table. “The more you use, the more warts she’ll get.”
She nods and pockets it, not daring to say another word, not even deigning to thank me.
As the door snicks closed behind her, I curse the familiar sickening feeling that settles like hot coals inside me. I should be used to these requests by now. I can’t even count the number of ugliness elixirs I’ve produced over the years. And I’m bound by the Grace Laws to satisfy my patrons’ needs.
But the woman’s abrupt dismissal still stings, as does every other slight I’ve endured since I began working in Lavender House. My patrons pay good coin for my services, but not one of them would willingly meet my eye if they passed me on the street. I am reviled and despised for the very reasons I’m sought out. A figure of dark, evil magic. A member of a race all but stamped out. A Vila.