Grim Lovelies – Megan Shepherd

FROM THE FRONT-TURRET WINDOW of Mada Vittora’s Paris townhouse, Anouk couldn’t see the fountain at the far end of Rue des Amants. She could see, however, the hopeful souls who made their way down the sidewalk, tourists and Parisians alike, some with their noses in guidebooks and others who knew the route by heart, in search of the granted wishes that, according to an obscure fifteenth-century legend (and more recently made famous in a movie from the summer before), they’d receive in exchange for touching a lucky part of the fountain. What lucky part, Anouk wasn’t sure. No one would tell her exactly what it was a statue of. No books in the house made reference to the legend, and Mada Vittora wouldn’t allow a computer or television inside. Perhaps the fountain was a statue of a bubbling mermaid, or a prancing horse or a little peeing boy; maybe wishers were supposed to touch a special hoof or rub a lucky fin or a lucky . boy part. Anouk could hardly go outside and look for herself. Mada Vittora strictly forbade her to leave. Her whole life—twelve months and eight days, though she looked closer to seventeen years old—she’d never set as much as her big toe beyond the front door. A couple made their way down the sidewalk opposite the townhouse, and Anouk settled into the window seat, cradling her chin in her hands, and watched. Tourists, doubtless. Americans.

Their toowhite sneakers gave them away. They were holding hands, which made Anouk smile, but their faces were anxious. It was a look she saw too often. Wishers focused on the one thing they wanted so badly that they took this detour into the outskirts of the Sixteenth Arrondissement, to an area of Paris that had no other draw, no famous patisseries or cafés or landmarks except for the obscure fountain, in hopes that by some chance, the legend was real. Anouk knew the fountain’s magic was only a story, but sometimes, secretly, she wasn’t so certain. It was the wishers’ faces. Always strained on the way to the fountain but lighter on the return, as though the simple act of wishing had given them part of what they so desperately needed. She’d seen Mada Vittora create incredible things, floating cakes and poison earrings and mirrors that showed far-off places, but she’d never once conjured a look of joy on anyone’s face. She watched the Americans disappear beyond the window, pressing against the glass until she couldn’t see them anymore, and then she sighed. A Greek god? Yes, maybe the statue was of a Greek god. Now the view beyond the turret window was the same as always: The row of matching townhouses across the street. The line of parked cars, most of them black and expensive.

The sad little tree in the front garden that no one ever remembered to water. A sleek car slid into the empty space in front of the townhouse, and Anouk sat up. Mada Vittora was back. Anouk quickly checked her hair, her nails, the floors for any rogue specks of dust she might have missed. The driver’s-side door opened and Beau appeared, tall and good-looking, in his black suit with his chauffeur’s hat shading his eyes, and strode around to the back. He paused to stifle a yawn before opening the rear door. Mada Vittora climbed out, glaring up at the sun through thick sunglasses. She wore the fox-fur coat that had been delivered last week from Galeries Lafayette. As soon as it came, she’d ripped open the package and clapped her hands together and told Anouk that she simply must try it on, just for fun, and they had giggled together as she had curled Anouk’s hair and rubbed blush into her cheeks and paraded her around the house in tottering high heels and the coat. My pretty girl, Mada Vittora had said, looking over Anouk’s shoulder in the mirror.

My pretty little beastie. Anouk jumped up to open the front door. Two more figures slid out of the car’s back seat, catching her eye, and her good mood soured. Both of them were tall, one with hair the color of sunlight that matched his mother’s, the other with hair a dirty shade of charcoal. What were Viggo and Hunter Black doing in the city? Mada Vittora had sent them to handle business in London just last Tuesday. Surely they hadn’t arranged everything so soon. Anouk stepped back silently as Mada Vittora swept up the front steps. “We’re going to have company, my sweet.” Mada Vittora ran her nails down Anouk’s cheek as she breezed into the foyer, tossing her coat on the entry table. The fox fur smelled of leather and perfume.

Anouk smoothed its wrinkles and hung it in the hall closet. “Tomorrow night. A dinner party, and dancing too. You’ll have to air out the ballroom. It still smells of sulfur.” “Who’s coming?” “The Royals.” A secretive smile played at the witch’s lips, and no wonder. The Shadow Royals were the elite rulers of the magical realm that, within French borders, was called the Haute—and they had never dined at the Rue des Amants townhouse. It had only ever hosted the occasional Goblin tea party, the guests with their dusty top hats and garish makeup, even on the men. (Especially on the men.

) Goblins might look perfectly human, save the almost imperceptible point of their ears, but they were just as likely to gnaw on the table as on Anouk’s fruit tarts. She’d need to order better wine. “How many?” she asked. “Six all together,” Mada Vittora said, unpinning her hat. “Now, be a dear and fetch us some tea and a drop of whiskey for Hunter Black—poor thing, he’s had a devil of a day. We’ll take it in the salon. And here. Put this away. Carefully.” She handed Anouk her bag, parting with it as though lending a treasured book.

Today it was a black Hermès purse, ostrich leather soft as a newborn’s skin, gleaming gold hardware. Yesterday the same bag had been a crystal-studded clutch. The day before that, a crocodile Gadino. The witch’s oubliette: Mercurial and magically vast, it held the deepest of secrets. Viggo strode into the hall next, tossing his hat to Anouk without a glance, but Hunter Black paused long enough to look her up and down with those dark eyes that always made her anxious. “You’ve never worn that necklace before,” he said. Anouk’s hand flew to her throat, to the small token tucked just beneath the collar of her dress. Leave it to Hunter Black to spot the peek of gold that no one else had. Guiltily, she fished out the charm and worried it between her fingers: an old franc coin, worthless now, with a hole punched in it. She’d strung it on a chain.

“It’s . it’s from Luc,” she stammered. “I mean, I found it in his room. He wouldn’t mind me taking it.” And he wouldn’t. She knew that if Luc had been there and seen her show even the slightest interest in it, he would have tossed it to her with a wink. She’d found it that morning, caught in the crack between two floorboards when she’d gone to his attic to fetch a vial of vervain. His rooms had felt suspended in time without him. The lingering smell of summer on his garden shears, the still-rumpled sheets on his bed, the desiccated herbs tied up in the rafters, English thyme and rosemary and rue, awaiting his hand at the mortar and pestle. It had been a week since he’d disappeared.

She toyed with the franc coin, working her worries into the etchings. It still smelled of thyme; of him. Hunter Black’s gaze went to Mada Vittora in the hall. “She wouldn’t mind either,” Anouk said quickly. She tucked the necklace back under her dress collar and cleared her throat. “I’ll hang up your coat, if you like.” She set down the oubliette and held out her hands. Hunter Black gave a gruff sort of cough and sauntered off behind Viggo. She let her waiting hands drop. That had gotten rid of him, at least.

It could be ninety degrees outside, and still he wouldn’t remove the coat unless someone forced it off him at knifepoint. The three of them disappeared into the salon, discussing business and gossiping and speculating over tomorrow’s party. She brought them drinks and listened to their glasses clinking as she returned to the foyer. “Hello, cabbage.” Wet lips brushed Anouk’s cheek, and she jumped. She whirled on Beau. The driver’s hat was askew on his head, a boyish grin on his face. She smacked him on the arm and then made a show of smearing away his kiss with the back of her hand. “You’re awful, Beau.” She picked up the oubliette and turned to the closet.

Carefully, reverently, she stepped onto the stool, stowed the oubliette on the top shelf, and then climbed down and dusted off her hands. She lowered her voice. “What are they doing here?” She jerked her chin in Hunter Black and Viggo’s direction. Beau let out a long sigh as he tugged off his driving gloves. “Things went sour in London, I take it. The Trafalgar Witch didn’t want to agree to the new terms. Sent them packing as soon as they arrived. Viggo’s in a mood.” “Viggo’s always in a mood.” “Mada Vittora said something in the car about more pressing matters here.

I don’t think she was referring to just the dinner party.” “Great,” Anouk muttered. “The last time we had pressing matters, more than one body was found in the Seine. At least Hunter Black wears dark clothes. Viggo’s shirts are impossible. Don’t they understand how hard it is to get blood out of white linen?” “Laundry might not be the first thing on his mind, cabbage.” He tweaked the strap of her apron with his thumb, using the silly little nickname that always drove her mad. “But maybe it should be on yours.” She looked down to find streaks of dust across the apron’s front. “Impossible—this is a fresh apron!” She wiped at the stain uselessly while Beau chuckled.

Dust, dirt, crumbs . it was her job to clean the house from top to bottom, but even for a maid, she managed to collect a shocking amount of grime in the shortest span of time. She untied the apron’s bow at the back of her waist, fighting with the ruffles and ribbons. She pulled the apron over her head and balled it up against her plain gray dress. “What about Luc? Did they say anything about him in the car?” Beau’s expression darkened. He shook his head. “Nothing.” “It’s been a full week. People don’t just vanish.” Beau clutched his gloves in one hand and rested the other on her shoulder.

“Let me worry about him, okay? I’ll figure it out.” Anouk’s fingers twisted in the apron’s straps. Movement outside the window caught her eye. Another couple strolling down the lane, arm in arm. Parisians, by the look of them. Her hand went to the franc coin at her collar. “I’d throw a coin in the fountain if I could. Wish him back.” Beau kneaded her shoulder. “You know wishes made in the fountain won’t come true,” he said softly.

“It isn’t real magic, not like Mada Vittora’s. It’s just a silly thing they believe in the Pretty World. Daydreams and fantasies to keep themselves entertained.” Anouk didn’t answer, sliding the smooth franc between her fingers. Outside, the sad wilted tree dropped a leaf. The rosebushes along the street were dying too, without Luc there to care for them. From some upper room, the smell of English thyme drifted down. “Anouk.” Hunter Black had returned to the hallway, his dark hair falling in his eyes. He didn’t bother to brush it away.

He never did. “Mada Vittora wants a word.” Beau’s hand fell off her shoulder. His look said he wouldn’t want to be her. “I’ll see you after dinner. I’ve got to wash the car anyway.” “Give the tree some water while you’re out there? And the roses?” “Sure.” Hunter Black inclined his head ever so slightly toward the salon, where Mada Vittora waited, but then he cleared his throat and motioned to her dress. He knew as well as she did that the Mada insisted Anouk always be in full uniform with one of the ruffled aprons. Hair pulled back in a matching ribbon too.

Anouk stuffed the soiled apron in the hall closet and went to the kitchen for a fresh one. She looped it around her neck and started to pull her hair back in a black ribbon as she followed Hunter Black to the salon. Mada Vittora’s husky laugh mixed with the notes of clinking ice. “. business, I suppose. They’ll want to discuss new territory lines, and I’ll be damned if I let that decrepit Lavender Witch gain any toeholds in Paris. This city is mine.” “I assume the lord and lady are coming to dinner, and that girl, the one who plays at being a countess. Who’s the fourth?” Viggo’s voice lowered. “Prince Rennar?” A shiver caught Anouk at the prince’s name.

Rumor was he hardly ever left Castle Ides, the imposing Champs-Élysées mansion from which he governed the Haute, and when he did, it was only to raze some entire country to the ground and then banish its memory from the history books. No one knew exactly how long the Shadow Royals had been working their magic through the world, but Anouk had found references to ancient civilizations—Egyptians and Aztecs and Romans—that contained allusions to peculiarly powerful men and women. “Rennar?” Mada Vittora’s cheeks were already flushed from whiskey. “No, he wouldn’t deign to come. It’ll be one of the others, some lesser Royal. A duke, probably.” Now the Royals’ kingdoms roughly followed political borders, and the various Royal families tended to keep to themselves except for the odd marriage to strengthen alliances and business dealings for trade purposes. They relied on witches to oversee their industries: food and wines, luxury goods, and, above all, the jewelry that Mada Vittora—the Diamond Witch—kept enchanted. Behind Anouk, Hunter Black cleared his throat. She jumped.

“Was there something I could do for you, Mada?” “Ah, my dear. Yes.” She set down her lipstick-stained glass as a grin sliced between her pretty cheeks. Although four hundred years old, she didn’t look a day over forty-five. Sunshine-kissed hair in silken waves to her shoulders. Skin pulled painfully tight over sharp cheekbones. A fortune in plastic surgery, some might have said. Anouk knew better. All it took was a weekly bath of lavendersage tonic mixed with two thimblefuls of Viggo’s blood. On the sofa behind his mother, Viggo wore a similar conspiratorial grin until Mada Vittora stood.

The moment her back was turned to him, the smile melted off his face. He took a long, hungry draft of whiskey. “I have a surprise for you, my pretty girl.” Anouk’s hands froze on her hair bow. Half done, one snaking end of the ribbon falling to her shoulder. “Is it about tomorrow’s party?” She couldn’t keep the hopeful note from her voice. Anouk was never allowed to attend the parties. None of the beasties were, not even Hunter Black, who usually stalked the shadows of the foyer the whole time, scowling at everyone except Viggo. Parties were for the worthiest members of the Haute, not beasties—mangy animals that had been whispered into the shape of human boys and girls and given brooms with which to serve. Anouk would stay in the kitchen with Beau, licking spoonfuls of strawberry icing from the mixing bowl, or tiptoe to the stairs to peek between the banisters at the beautiful dancing people.

“No, my sweet. Not about the party.” Anouk tried not to let her disappointment show. She cocked her head, a question on her lips. Then what? Mada Vittora placed an icy hand on either side of Anouk’s face. Her smile stretched wide. “Tonight, my darling, you go outside.” Outside? Into the Pretty World, where the Pretties strolled hand in hand with the sun on their faces amid cars and mailboxes and traffic signals, walking down the tree-lined block and then the block after that and the one after that? Outside? “Do you mean it?” Anouk gasped. “Oh yes. But first, you’ll need a good pair of shoes.

” Chapter 2 MADA VITTORA’S CLOSET WAS the stuff of dreams. Anouk knew every inch of it; she had laundered every dress, starched every collar, dusted each pair of shoes. Thousands of them. Golden heels, red leather pumps, satin slippers with little blue bows. “You’ll want a sturdy pair,” Mada Vittora said. “Flats. I could swear I had some Chanel loafers in here . ” The witch was currently waist-deep in the closet, rooting around like a pig hunting for truffles, her disembodied voice floating back to Anouk, who sat on the bed with her hands clutched in her lap, fingers squeezed together, the pinch of pain assuring her this wasn’t a dream. She tucked in her chin in an attempt to hide her smile. “I’ve never worn shoes before.

” “Nonsense,” Mada Vittora said from the closet. “Just last week you tried on the Bergdorf heels, remember?” “I mean real ones. Not just for dress-up.” She wiggled her bare toes. The witch extracted herself from the forest of fur coats. “Here. These will do.” Her hair was mussed, her cheeks flushed, and Anouk was struck by how beautiful she was even when rumpled. She held up a pair of stiff oxfords. Anouk reached for them, but Mada Vittora shook her head girlishly.

“Let me. They have tricky laces.” She lowered herself to her knees and started to unlace the shoes. Anouk stared at the perfect part in the top of Mada Vittora’s hair. It was always the other way around: Anouk on her knees, hemming her mistress’s skirt or picking lint off her socks, while Mada Vittora towered over her, godlike. It felt topsy-turvy to have their roles reversed, like a bottle of tonic dropped upside down. “There now,” Mada Vittora said. “Snug, but they’ll do.” Anouk bit down on the inside of her cheek. There was a particular tenderness in the way Mada Vittora tied the shoes, teaching Anouk how to lace them with some funny phrase about a rabbit and a hole.

The strings of Anouk’s heart pulled tighter with each tug on the laces. Was this what it felt like to have a mother? Mada Vittora’s smile stretched over bone-white teeth. “Are you ready?” Anouk, afraid to speak, nodded. Mada Vittora took her hand. Not even Viggo and Hunter Black, standing in the hallway and snickering to themselves, could dampen her spirits. Nor the fact that the shoes pinched the sides of her feet. Or that she and Mada Vittora were headed the wrong way, not down the stairs to the ground floor but up toward the attic. Luc’s rooms? Wasn’t this the opposite direction of the front door? The shoes clunked awkwardly. As the two of them climbed the stairs, tendrils of drafty air came from beyond Luc’s door, carrying scents of thyme, speeding her heart all over. Mada Vittora walked straight to a ladder that led to a trapdoor to the roof.

“Up you go. Hurry, now, or they’ll get away.” She held out a burlap sack. “Wh . what will?” “The birds, my sweet. The birds.” Anouk stared through the open trapdoor in the ceiling, bewildered. It was a clear night; a few stars shone overhead. Fresh air howled down, fluttering the ribbon in her hair. Behind her, the sound of Viggo’s snickering grew.

Something slowly curdled in her stomach as she realized what was going on. No, no. Anouk spun on Viggo. “A joke.” The dry word scraped on her throat. “You aren’t letting me go outside at all.” He smirked, tossing a conspiratorial look to Hunter Black, though Hunter Black’s face remained as wooden as always. Anouk choked back the feeling of hot shame. She couldn’t cry. She wouldn’t.

Her hands tightened into fists. “Oh, my sweet girl, no!” Mada Vittora’s silky hands were on her shoulders, turning her around to face her. “A joke? Ah! How foolish of me. You thought I meant outside into the city. Oh, you silly creature.” Her soft hands stroked Anouk’s tawny hair. “You know that your work is here, in the house. I only meant that there are some crows outside, on the roof . Corpus crows, very rare . they pass through only once a year .

breast meat a delicacy for tomorrow’s dinner . Luc used to catch them, of course, but with him gone . oh, you poor, innocent thing. I’ve upset you.” Her hands drifted to the sagging ribbon around Anouk’s ponytail. She gently retied it into a tight bow. Innocent? Anouk had heard it before. The sweet one. The innocent one. Beau teased her mercilessly for it, and so did the other beasties when she saw them.

They thought that because their tasks took them out into the city—Cricket even lived in an apartment on her own—they were more worldly than she. And they were, that was the worst part. Anouk had never seen the things they spoke of—the Eiffel Tower and the patisseries and the bookstore with the sleeping cat—had never been to a bistro, had never been caught in a sudden rainstorm, never taken a shortcut through a graveyard. But innocent? No. They didn’t know the thoughts that sometimes wandered into her head late at night. Thoughts of stealing shoes, of sneaking out, of running away and never coming back. She grabbed the burlap sack and climbed the ladder. “Anouk,” Mada Vittora said. “Wait!” Anouk paused, hopeful. “Try to catch at least three,” the witch said.

With a burst of anger, Anouk slammed the trapdoor behind her. Birds! That was all the Mada wanted. Her face was hot. Her blood was coursing palpably. Viggo’s laughter still clapped against her ears as she paced on the roof. The shoes pinched her feet, clomp-clomp-clomping on the tiles. The wind chilled her as she stood on the roof, seven stories high. The lights of the city below were like a sea of stars, and . and she stopped.



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